South America Plus 2002-2004 travel blog

Eiffel Church, Arica, Chile

Parinacota Church

Sajama Bathing

Sajama Hot Springs

Sajama Sunset

Sajama from Lagunas


Vicunas at Chungara

Volcan Parinacota

Volcans Parinacota from Chungara

Copyright 2004

David Rich 1100 Words

V o l c a n s F a b u l o s o o f C h i l e a n d B o l i v i a

"No, sen~or. Volcans fabuloso no está exactamente que...." I was getting a lecture from a Chilean border guard on how the word "fabulous" in English isn't exactly the same as fabuloso in Chilean Spanish, but then Spanish is definitely not me as any halfway competent speaker of the language could tell from a half-hearted listen. But you likely catch the drift.

These volcanoes are covered by the world's highest forest consisting of the rarest of trees, the Kenua, similar in appearance to the red-barked manzanita, which grows up to 16,500 feet (5300 meters). There's much more on the border of Chile and Bolivia, not only fabulous but astounding and photogenic to boot.

The best direction to approach this gorgeous phenomenon is from Bolivia because from Bolivia you'll have already gotten acclimated to the 14,000- to 15,000-foot altiplano, the high plain that stretches from Lake Titicaca to the Chilean border. Otherwise, if you fly into Bolivia or drive up from sea level in Chile, Peru, or Brazil you'll likely end up in deep pain called Soroche, high altitude sickness, which, without a few days acclimatization, smacks me between the eyes at 4000 meters, 13,200 feet on the dot, like sharpened knitting needles through the top, middle, and back of my head. Though I grew up in Colorado, my hometown was only at 6200 feet and Colorado's highest peak is lower than the average height of the Chilean-Bolivian border.

Still the border is well below its 19,000- to 21,000- foot volcanoes, perfect cones shrouded in purest white glacial snows. For a hundred miles as you approach the border, you'll be mesmerized by Bolivia's highest peak. Stand alone Volcan Sajama bobs around the horizon as you speed ever closer, dodging the camelids on the Bolivian altiplano, llama, alpaca, guanaco, and the rarest of all, the vicuna. Only here and one small spot in Peru can you see vicuna lurking by the multi-hundreds, slender necks and delicate faces decorating the landscape ad infinitum.

At this altitude, you'll see green, mossy bogs fed by crystal clear streams in which stand herds of vicuna and lesser camelids grazing under the shadow of mighty Volcan Sajama, 21,500 feet or 6542 meters, the tip-top of Bolivia, which is tough to climb because glaciers spill symmetrically down every side.

I turned into the dirt road leading to the village of Sajama from where I could have tackled Bolivia's highest peak. I'd been told to check on climbing routes with Telmo Nina in the village.

"Si, sen~or. Tengo el libro," she said. She handed me the book with detailed descriptions of the many routes to the summit, but I had missed the season. You can hire a sleeping bag, gloves, hat, crampons, ice axe and rope in town, plus a mule for less than ten dollars a day. Or if you're the more esthetic type like me you can instead, as a viable alternative, buy a little less than a quart of beer for eighty-five cents and relax at four choice hostels and stock up on basic provisions for a few Bolivianos, the Bolivian currency which then exchanged at about seven to the dollar.

Three miles outside town bubbles aqua thermales, hot springs at 14,000 feet near the base of Volcan Sajama. As I donned my swimsuit underneath my towel, the ladies in their tiny bowler hats looked elsewhere and giggled while their male companions stood stoically looking at nothing. I gingerly slid into the burbling water and was amazed at the temperature, which was to say almost scalding. I energetically motioned my audience to follow suit and they did, though slowly. After a steaming soak, shared with giggling tiptoeing matrons, now topless, I averted my gaze, hauled myself out, and briskly dried off lest the breeze off Sajama's glaciers render me an icicle.

The next stop was to be Geyser Valley where the thermals reportedly spewed twenty feet high, described in detail by the ranger for Sajama National Park where I'd paid the two-dollar entry.

"Sure you can camp at the geysers all night long," he assured me, omitting the fact that the road is four-wheel drive only. My rickety van is two-wheel drive on its best behavior, but how was he to know that?

Not knowing any better, I started out with confidence, under the shadow of Sajama village's ancient stone church glowering over the River Sajama, which is much wider and deeper than an ancient Dodge van should be expected to fjord, and it didn't—at least not at first. It died with a gurgling, wet engine, waters parting only long enough to precipitously close over the engine block. I leapt out in mid-river and adjusted the carburetor. The van valiantly clambered out of the river, whereupon the situation deteriorated.

The "road" was six inches deep in dust and sand, daring the already exhausted Dodge to avoid the sinking sensation of instant oblivion. After two miles of choking dust and sandstorm generated by trying to drive fast enough to avoid sinking I turned back, geysers be damned, and for the second time the engine spluttered in mid-river, tailpipe below the surface of the Rio Sajama, soot spreading downstream as the engine spit and died. I jumped out in my running shoes to push the van out as my trusty traveling companion jammed the newly roaring engine into first gear, and the valiant van sideswiped me, leaping out of the river with gusto. The high chilly altiplano would eventually dry my running shoes to toast in twenty-four hours. I parked under the rosy sunset at the base of the volcano, not guessing for a moment that tomorrow would bring glories more sublime.

At sunrise I awoke to a hundred camelids tightly circled ten yards from the van, fascinated with what the heck the van might be, until they heard the first sound from inside at which they bolted like lightening. To the east rose Volcan Paricanota and its twin peak demarking the border between Chile and Bolivia, perfectly reflected in Laguna Chungara, which was crammed with brilliant flamingoes and not so brilliant Andean ducks, geese, and coots. Vicuna grazed in the shallows. Below the lake sat ancient Paricanota Village at 14,400 feet or 4400 meters, an old adobe church decorated with murals depicting figures in Hell, sort of like trying to fjord the River Sajama. The outside of the church was whitewashed and a brightly colored, yellow-headed woodpecker adorned the bell tower. The world was born again, brilliant, missed geysers and ignominious dunking in the Rio Sajama forgotten at the fabulous volcanoes on the border of Chile and Bolivia.

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