Sajama, sacred mountain of Bolivia


In a corner of the Altiplano, due west of Oruro is the sacred mountain of volcan Sajama, highest peak in Bolivia and long revered by the ancient Uru peoples. A place of great natural beauty, it is a favourite with climbers and people who wish to explore this remote and mystical landscape.
The area which includes thermal springs and burial mounds known as chulpas is now a national park. The nearby village of Tomarapi has a modern hotel.

The park enjoys an annual average temperature of 10 °C (50 °F), with a low in winter of –30 °C (-22 °F) and a daytime high of 22 °C (71.6 °F). There is frost throughout the year and a rainy season in the summer. The rivers in the area belong to the inward flowing high plateau river system dominated by the Sajama, Tomarapi and Esquillani Rivers. Important volcanic cones, like Mount Sajama and the Payachatas are located in the park, together with several lagoons and high lying Andean marshes, where hardy and silicified grasses and a variety of rosette-shaped plants are to be found.


The Park can be easily reached by taking the new paved Patacamaya -Tambo Quemado highway that links up La Paz, Oruro with Arica, Chile. Other possible routes are: 1. La Paz - Patacamaya- Lagunas - Sajama. 2. Oruro - Toledo - Jankocala - Turco - Cosapa -Sajama. 3. La Paz - Corocoro - Calacoto - Charaña - Sepulturas - Sajama.

lake chungara
lake Chungara, by Sajama

Animal life Andean fauna is plentiful, particularly vicuñas (Vicugna vicugna), quirquinchos (Chaetophractus nationi), Andean cats or titi (Felis jacobita), pumas (Felis concolor), and large birds like the ostrich (Pterocnemia pennata) and the chocka (Fulica gigantea), together with a wide variety of small birds. This is an appropriate region for the implementation of conservation, endangered species recovery and vicuña management programs. Wildlife management constitutes an important alternative for improving the living conditions of local inhabitants. The area is an significant reservoir of genetic species, particularly those relating to alpaca breeding and selection.


Population The people populating the area belong to the Aymará culture and are among those who best conserve their traditional social organization, customs and mythical-religious beliefs, etc. Over 300 families are believed to live in the park’s area of influence and nearly 100 within its boundaries. Almost all of these dwellers make their living from animal husbandry, particularly alpaca breeding and fabric spinning and weaving.


Sajama - a UNESCO world heritage centre. The Sajama National Park includes geological natural wonders made up of flora, fauna, thermal springs and also cultural wonders such as polychromed chullpas (pre-hispanic burial buildings), cave paintings, pucaras and colonial architecture and art. The native population, proud of what they have, has always tried to preserve their way of life as well as the ambience that surrounds it.
The park is the first protected area in Bolivia. It was declared a natural reserve in 1939 because of its kheñua (Polilepis tarapacana) that grows on its hillsides and that constitute the highest forests in the world.
The region’s main inhabitants are Aymara Indians of Caranga origin, grouped in ayllus. The area is one of the ones that has best preserved the traditional indigenous social organizations, the customs and mythic-religious beliefs. During the 1980s, the citizens of the counties that make up the Park grouped together in an organization called “Jacchacarangas”, which means “Great Carangas”, with the purpose of strengthening the ayllus and improve the production activities.
The population’s main occupation is camelid herding and yarn spinning. Circular houses, traditional to the Aymara, can still be found today. Agriculture is much reduced due to the extreme climatic conditions: freezes and dry land are prevalent. The crops are limited to quinoa and luki potatoes.

sajama llamas

sajama chulpa

Archeology - Within the area are archeological and historical sites of great cultural value, like the Chullperios or necropolises, pictographs and pre-Columbian ruins. Colonial churches with noteworthy features are also to be found there.

lake chungara
the Payachatas, guardians of Sajama

Sajama National Park
Extracted from "Oruro Inmortal"; Volume two
Original text by Antonio Mario Molina Guzman
translated from the Spanish by J.M.Allen

…And the energy bursts forth in the heights, opening a passage between two countries, defying the climate and the altitude in order to offer us its special ecosystem. These are the conditions of the National Park of Sajama, whose inhabitants, besides, are inheritors of an important historic tradition which has its origins in pre-Columbian times. In this essay we explain the characteristics of this region, one of the principal centres of development for Oruro in the future. The National Park of Sajama is an initiative in favour of nature conservation which must be exemplary for all of Bolivia

Volcan Sajama

IN the extreme northwest of the department of Oruro, is located the highest mountain of Bolivia. Andean mythology has awarded it the highest rank: "Mallku" . It is the geographic link to life in the region. The inhabitants, since ages lost in time, called it "Tata Sajama" (nanny Sajama), father protector. When one invokes its presence, protection or good will, one summons the volcanic energy of "Sajama Mallku".

The cosmographic importance for Man and the substantial role which it plays in the fragile and unique ecosystem formed in its surroundings as well as the magnificent scenic beauty of the mountain are the factors which give value to the National Sajama Park.

Its creation gave a final concrete protection to the most ancient woods situated at the highest altitude on the planet, composed of trees of Keñua (Polylepis tarapacana), forming woods of notable density on the skirts of the snowy peak and registering at around 17,060ft. (Rivera 1995) Besides the traditional uses such as firewood and timber, the danger as been accentuated with the appearance of the railway.

Location and geographic data

map showing Volcan Sajama

The park is located in the province of Sajama of the department of Oruro, to the east of the western mountains. Its limits are 68° 46¢ west longitude, and 18° 10¢ south latitude, a frontier zone which adjoins the Lauca National Park of Chile and is bounded by the department of La Paz to the north. It lacks legally defined boundaries. The area outlined in the proposal of the Supreme Decree, which is still proceeding, is of 120,000 hectares (300,000acres or 463 sq miles) approximately. It embraces subdivisions of Sajama, chiefly and to a lesser degree, Cosapa, Caripe, Lagunas and Curaguara de Carangas (Operating Plan).

The climate is dry, cold and windy, the average mean annual temperature is 10° C (in winter it can descend as far as -30° C) and during the day reach 22° C. The rainfall is estimated to reach 300mm (11.8² ) annually. (Suárez 1986). The area in all its extent is high plateau, a zone of the planet with very high solar radiation all year round.

The altitudinal variation is between 13,779ft and 21,463ft. The highest altitude corresponds to the height of the volcano Sajama, formed in the pleistocene and whose volcanic cone is seated upon a plain some 12 miles in diameter. The other snow covered peaks of the area surrounding Sajama, in the direction S-N are: Quisi Quisini (18,162ft), the Payachatas (two peaks), Parinacota (20,118ft) and Pomarape (20,413ft), Condoriri (18,904ft), Jiskha Condoriri (17,939ft) and Anallajchi (17,667ft).

The mountains are "surrounded by extensive sandy plains with scarce organic material and poor vegetative cover". On the edge of the rivers and other sources of water have formed "humid pockets with a rich composition of organic material, their soils are absorbent, of slimy texture and moderately acid". These pockets constitute the most important food source for the raising of cameloids.

Geologically, "the area belongs to the western mountains in the region characterised by the presence of volcanoes and plains which raise themselves in isolation in the middle of the Altiplano and mountain plateaux, formed by outpourings of lava, product of an intense igneous activity unleashed during the tertiary period (Miocene) and quaternary period (Pleistocene)…. The igneous surface of the Perez formation originated by volcanic extrusions, forms an extensive plain intensely eroded in part by the River Mauri and in part

by agents of water and wind, giving rise to formations known as "cities of stone". In general the countryside "is made up of extrusive rocks, lavas and pyroclastics, being representative of volcanic layering."

The water resources are made up of the lakes Huaña Kkota , Isla, Chiar Kkota, Inca Ingenio, along with others of lesser size and the rivers Mauri, Sajama, Sabaya, Tomarapi, Copasa, Esquillani and many others of smaller volume which disappear in the dry season. There are also geysers and thermal vents.

In the Sajama National Park there are also two ecoregions: "High Andes Region, specifically high Andean floor of moor and high mountain, characterised by dry and semi-arid moor, great high lakes, salt pans and high Andean sandbanks" (Rivera 1992). "The vegetation of the high Andean floor contains grasses such as Festuca dolichophylla, Stipa ichu, Calamagrostis spp, and plants such as Hipochoeris spp, Lachemilla spp, Pycnophyllum spp, Azorell spp., Aciachne pulvinata.. In pockets are found clusters of Distichia muscoides, Plan..lo tubulosa and Oxychloe andina" (Rivera 1995).

Flora and Fauna

Considering the characteristics such as the extreme fragility of the soil, the biological diversity which it possesses is relevant as it contains signs highly representative of the Altiplano flora and fauna Its genetic values are intrinsic, summed up in its tried and tested uses in food, medicine, rituals, clothing, housing etc.

Although there have been various investigative studies on the Altiplano, the studies specifically in the zone of Sajama are very rare and the theme constitutes a scientific priority to come face to face with the question of the extent of the area. Of the preliminary studies for the working plan, the following general data is extracted.

In flora, 88 species of which we note the Qeñua (Polylepis tarapacana), 3 varieties of Thola (Baccharis incarum, Parastrephia lepidophylla and Fabiana densa), Iruhuichi (festuca ortophylla), Sicuya (Stipaichu), Paco (Oxichloeandina) and Yareta (Azorella compacta).

In Fauna 108 species with the following distribution: fish 2 species, amphibians 3 species, reptiles 4 species, birds, 70 species, of which 24 are aquatic, native mammals 28 species.

The representative species of threatened fauna are the following: mammels: quirquincho (Chaetophractus nationi), zorro (Pseudalopex culpaeus), puma (Felis concolor), vicuña (Vicugna vicugna), tacuara or venado (Hippocamelus antisensis), vizcacha (Lagidium viscacia). Birds: suri (Pterocnemia pennata), cóndor (Vultur gryphus), colibri (Patagona gigas) and two species of flamencos (Bolborhynchus aurifrons), Phoenicopterus chilensis).


The zone of Sajama, according to the existing ethnographical information, was originally occupied by the Urus, after the imperial period of Tiwanaku in the XIIth century. In the period of the Aymara governors, it was occupied by the Carangas, who as well as other governors had access to the coast of the Pacific by a vertical control of the ecological floors. (Murra) Their dominion reached the valleys of Azapa, Lluta, Codpa, Timar, where they cultivated maize and coca (Hidalgo, Focacci 1986).

The study for the working plan of the National Park, quoting Cobo, says that during the reign of Tupac Inca Yupanqui, the conquest of the Collas and Pacajes territories took place via the zone of Sajama. "This Inca took the road to Collao behind the sierras of Vilcanota and came out at Chungari, taking the Colla army from behind". This quotation appears to be corroborated by Gilbert, with the hypothesis of a pact between the Carangas and the Inca, to permit the passage of this latter, along Caranga territory , for the purpose of conquering the Pacajes governors.

As silent witnesses to the intense social, ethnic and cultural interaction , in time and in space, in the Sajama zone there are left the archaeological sites which surround the volcano and all its area of influence: burial tombs, pottery, stone tools, inns, refuge caves, sanctuaries, ruins of circular and rectangular buildings, cave paintings, stone workshops; in total, a silent encyclopaedia which still remains to be investigated to know the inhabitant who set out the radial lines which still lead us to ancient ceremonial sites dedicated to the Huacas, at the end or beginning of each rectilinear street.

In the colonial period, the evangelisation of the province of Sajama was carried out by the Order of San Agustin, which established itself in Challacollo. A witness to its presence is the powerful and beautiful church of Curahura de Carangas, ( presently being restored), and those of smaller size in the villages of Sajama, Lagunas, Macaya and Tomarapi (recently restored by the Park administration). Besides, inside the protected area, are found 25 renaissance-style colonial chapels in various states of preservation.


The region has been the scene of important settlements of population which have crystalised the spirit of the actual inhabitant. The settlers in the Park preserved the pre-Columbian social organisation of the Ayllu, an institution which survived alongside those of the colonial period and the republic, with both traditional and communal authorities co-existing together.

The population living within the proposed limits of the National Park are understood to be, according to the management of the protected area, 1,942 peoples divided into 392 families. The predominant language is Aymara followed by Spanish.

The main productive activity is the raising of cameloids (llamas and pacas).The economic income mainly come from the selling of wool fibres, meat and subproducts of meat on the hoof. The most important fairs are those of Tambo Quemado (every 15 days), Lauca (every 2 Fridays), Curaguara de Carangas (every 2 Saturdays) and Turco. The practice of agriculture is on a very small scale, chiefly quinua and papa luki (quinoa and potatoes), exclusively for self consumption.

One of the strategies for generating additional income is the seasonal migration which the men make towards La Paz, Oruro on a lesser scale and the valleys of the north of Chile in search of work in which they rent out their labour. Many families register double nationality where they have parental ties both side of the border, which guarantees them work on the coast during the months of May, June and July. It is notable the continuing

usage of the ancient pre-Columbian territory, in spite of the frontiers and using seasonal work which camouflages in the face of the modern world, the activities of the travelling Andeans.

Mangement and Administration

50 years after the creation of the first National Park, the State began to give effective attention to the protected areas in its care, after the promulgation of the Environmental Law of 1992 which allowed the creation of the National System of Protected Areas. However, we mustn’t forget to mention that in the interim, the Prefect of the Department and the ex-Corporation for Development in Oruro, set out a programme of infrastructure, reforestation, and cattle management.

The same year of 1992, an iniciative by the Institute of Ecology gave fruit in the form of the Prelinary Working Plan for the Sajama National Park. Afterwards with the aid of a consultation document they elaborated on the proposals of the Supreme Decree governing the limits and objectives of the Park. In 1993, the "Group for thought and action on the Environment" (GRAMA), a product of intense and pioneering work, elaborated the " Strategy for Implementation of the Sajama National Park".

The process of administrative consolidation accelerated itself with the construction of the international road from Patacamaya – Tambo Quemado. This road passes by Sajama and constitutes a gravitational factor of environmental impact on the zone, outside of the advantages which it presents in the regional and national economies as a corridor to the ocean.

Precisely because of the environmental implications detected in the study of the impact of this road, the Inter American Development Bank which financed the construction of the road in parallel gave tot he State the funds for the administration and fulfilment of the Operating Plan, with the object of forming a long term plan for the protection of the flora and fauna, archaeological sites and colonial buildings in the zone. At the same time it allocated budgets for the employment of a Director and basic staff as park guardians. The first Director of the area took over in October 1995.

The category of control proposed for Sajama is "National Park and Area Natural of Integrated Management", because it assumes the presence of human populations in its heartland and permits a variety of sustainable uses of the natural resourses including the traditional projects of agro-ecologic production, control of fauna, sustainable use of natural products and the development of productive activities and services, compatible with the objectives in creating the area, such as crafts and tourism. This category allows the blending of the development demands of the local population and the commercial objectives and maximum use of the sustainable resources.

As a consequence, the participation and involvement of the local population in the administration is of vital importance and is carried out by means of the Management Committee, in which participate representatives of the communities, traditional authorities, municipal and civic administrators etc; the Director of the Area presides, by means of votes, over the committee, This organisation finds itself in a period of consolidation, supported by the General Head of Biodiversity (Dirección General de Biodiversidad, DGB), with a programme of training specifically put in force by GRAMA.

In the short time of the administration of the National Park, it has achieved significant objectives. It has contracted seven young people from the regions of the Park, for the Official Body of Protection. They receive special training under the charge of DGB, with special emphasis on life-saving and rescue, high-mountain techniques, paramedics, first aid, as part of an integrated training which will qualify them to receive a university academic title. They make up a new and internationally recognised force.

As to the infrastructure, there is a central camp in the region of Sajama and control posts in strategic observation points. The restoration of the church of Tomarapi is a valued support for the protection of cultural values and colonial architecture.

The personnel is made up of a Director, a Head of Protection, seven park wardens, an administrator and a chauffeur. They are provided with basic equipment, specially

for high mountaineering. The jobs of patrolling and keeping watch are carried out with the assistance of four motorcycles, seven mountain bicycles and a double traction vehicle. They also have static and mobile communications.

The increasing tourist affluence has begun to define the profile which is innate to the area and influences a great part of the administrative priorities: planning how to handle the tourists.

Institutional Framework

The National Park of Sajama depends administratively on the Director general of Biodiversity which has as a mission the conservation and sustainable use of the biodiversity of Bolivia. It forms part of the Ministry of Sustainable Development and Planning. It is dependant on the National Secretariat of Natural Resources and Environment and the subsecretariat of Natural Resources along with the Director of Forestry Exploitation , Conservation of Basins and Conservation of Lands.

For operational considerations it has divided its activities into three units: Protected Areas, Wild Life and Genetic Resources. Also it has two co-ordinating bodies: Financial and Legal Administration.

The object of the management is to propose and develop policies and norms for the conservation and sustainable use of the diverse biology at national level and to watch over its application within the framework of sustainable development.

National System of Protected Areas in Bolivia

The Unit of Protected Areas is charged with the administration of the National Service of Protected Areas and takes charge of the organisation, consolidation and interpretation of the SNAP. This unit plans the workings of the protected areas, under the capacity of the National Body for Protection Policy of the areas, promotes environmental education amongst the local populations, regulates the exploitation of the natural resources so that these are used in a sustainable form and searches for productive and economic alternatives (such as eco-tourism) in order to better the standard of living for the peoples of the protected areas. It has organised its work into four co-ordinating groups: Planning, Information and Monitoring, training; and Promotion, Environmental Education and Tourism.

This unit promotes participative processes of conservation, by which it has established methodologies of co-ordination with the local populations and an institutional dialogue as much with governmental departments as with civic communities.

The State had legally declared 26 Protected Areas in Bolivian territory which constitute the SNAP, of which fourteen have their own administration and wardens. These fourteen areas cover a total area of 10,731,600 hectares (26,500,000 acres or 41,434 sq. miles) which corresponds to 9.76% of all Bolivian territory.


The Sajama National Park potentially constitutes a unique pole of development in one of the most deprived zones of the Department of Oruro. Being on the frontier and adjacent to the Lauca national Park of Chile, it converts the zone into a binational biological corridor, which permits it to guarantee a basic ecological space in order to assure the equilibrium and development of the species, helping to stabilise the biological processes.

The ethnocultural values of the society, rich in ancestral traditions and customs, provides it with a vigorously alive social element.

Its geographic location is privileged, given that it is equidistant from two international aeroports: La Paz and Arica. From either of the two cities, the distance to Sajama can be covered in four or five hours of travel by asphalt highways, an aspect which puts it as the National Park of easiest access in the country.

This represents an advantage which must be made use of without more delay, in order to promote and develop tourism, with the object of linking the area to Andean touristic circuits or to the Pacific coast – Andes –Yungas – Amazonia or vice versa.

Since the opening of the international highway, the tourist affluence from the exterior and interior has increased notably. This reality constitutes a dynamite force which has begun to give an external push to which the Sajama populations are not accustomed. The other marginal populations of the frontier, today find themselves in the centre of a giant and dazzling natural middle ground, confronted by the pressure which forces the demand for better and better services, which needs the thought and planning of strategic responses which satisfy each time a more demanding tourist market, whose benefits bring the sought after regional development, in conditions harmonic with the environment and without destructively altering the culture which, in itself, is an essential part of the values which attract the visitor.

The area contains everything that one could wish to see, enjoy and experience living in the Andes. The practice of sports, adventure activities, delight in recreation and nature, observation of species in danger of extinction, the possibility to submerse oneself in thermal waters, at more than 13,000ft of altitude; or the spiritual contact with the twinkling universe, as a polychromic symphony of dawn crowning the Payachatas and then of course, the opportunity to share with the Sajama inhabitants, whose stock comes from the builders of Tiwanaku, knowledge that since the beginning nature is beautiful, that harmony and balance is a philosophy and that all is part of a total totality: "Pacha" and the part of the cosmos which protects our lives is "Pacha Mama". The National Park of Sajama is Pacha Mama herself.

The original work, "Oruro Inmortal", in two volumes, contains many outstanding colour photographs and is published by ECCO Publicidad Integral, La Paz, Bolivia

sailing to the lost city of atlantis