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  • Total days on the road: 586
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  • Miles Driven: 36821
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Bolivia's Southwest Circuit

Written by Jared on November 13, 2012

Mountains in southwestern Bolivia.

Start: October 26, Uyuni, Bolivia
Finish: October 29, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Highest Altitude Camped At: 15,600 Feet
Overnight Low: 22F
Flamingo Species Seen: 3
Colors of Lakes Photographed: Blue, Green, White and Red

There haven't been too many times on this trip where we've felt that we've been really out there. The Corcovado jungle in Costa Rica definitely rings a bell, maybe hiking the narrows in Zion National Park, or our recent overnight visit to the Uyuni Salt Flats.

One thing is certain, we've never had to carry gas on our roof to get where we've needed to go, and we've never spent more than 48 hours without our wheels touching asphalt. Maybe we've been doing it wrong, or maybe we just had our our biggest adventure yet.

There are no medical facilities or mechanics; no ready-made food or comfy hotels in this part of the world. Bolivia's southwest circuit is raw, unadulterated adventure at incredibly high elevations that a single traveler pays hundreds of dollars to experience. The three of us spent a total of $65 to enter the park, $50 on gas, $30 on food and $25 on alcohol. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: this is why we overland.

We're going to try something a bit different with this trip update and include as much information about the route, road conditions and preparations as possible. So if I'm rambling on about gasoline availability and you're looking at a picture of a fluffy bunny, don't be alarmed.

We weren't originally going to attempt to drive the Southwest Circuit, but after some deliberations and excellent advice from Pan-Am Notes' 2010 trip, and our friends at From A to B who did the drive days before us, we decided to give it a shot. If you are contemplating heading into Bolivia's wild frontier, check out Pan-Am Notes' article, and From A to B's new report, they include all of the GPS way points you will need.

Llamas and flamingos next to a river.

Unless you are in a hurry, it's best to explore the salt flats first and then return to Uyuni to stock up on gas and supplies. It's also worth it to get the undercarriage of your car washed clean from the salt. There is a great place on the south side of Uyuni that will clean the underside and the rest of your car for Bs50. S20 28.156 W66 49.172

There is gas in Uyuni, but nowhere else between there and San Pedro de Atacama. We drove 280 miles from Uyuni to San Pedro, but we took the shortest route. Others drove 300 miles by the westerly route, and up to 400 if you want to include the salt flat as well.

There is sometimes gas in San Cristobal, but it is unreliable. The last five overlanders we spoke to going north said there was no gas available in San Cristobal.

There are three gas stations in Uyuni. The one on the east side of town, on the main road when you come in from Potosi, will sell gas to foreigners. Tell them you want it “sin factura” and insist that yesterday you paid 5 Bolivianos per liter. That should get you the best deal. Count on your fuel efficiency dropping due to a combination of high elevation and gravel roads.

The dirt road leading into the park.

The road from Uyuni to Alota (via San Cristobal) is nicely graded dirt - we were going 60mph. South from Villa Alota to Villa Mar the road is still in good shape but there are some patches of sand, and there is a small river crossing just as you leave Villa Alota, less than 6” deep. Given the state of the rainy season, this may change. We were there at the end of the dry season.

From Villa Mar we turned off to the southwest to head towards Laguna Colorado. This road is a bit bumpier then the previous, and again there are some rough spots and places where high clearance makes things easier. We still averaged 30mph up to the lake. We made it from Uyuni to Laguna Colorado in about five and a half hours.

The roads in the park are mixed, mostly rough dirt and some very bad corrugation. There are lots of tracks and usually alternate routes around patches of deep sand and soft gravel. If you were careful, you could do this route without a high clearance 4x4. But expect lots of backing up and a lots of route finding. Deep sand is the biggest problem.

A canyon where we camped.

There is a park office on both sides of Laguna Colorado. The park entry fee is Bs150 per person, and the ticket is valid for four days. There is another office on the southern border a few kilometers before the Bolivian immigration. They will check your tickets, so don’t overstay your four days.

Our campsite in the canyon.

We spent our first night camped in a dry canyon just off the main road leading south from Laguna Colorado. Most of this park is at very high altitude and the weather is freezing, below 0C at night, easily. On top of the frigid temperature there are very high winds that are not friendly, especially if you are sleeping in a tent. Plan your campsites to be in sheltered areas, and you’ll enjoy the park more.

A long-tailed rabbit.

Betcha didn't know rabbits could have long tails?

A vincuna standing on the side of the road.

This is a vicuña, a wild variety of llama that lives at high elevations. We've only ever seen them licking rocks in the middle of a desert. But they must be doing something right, a kilogram of their fur sells for $500 and the right to cultivate them has sparked bloody feuds in parts of Bolivia and Peru.

Flamingos in Laguna Colorado.

The highlight of a trip through the Southwest Circuit in Bolivia is undoubtedly the multi-colored lakes filled with flamingos. Lagunas Colorado (red), Verde (green) and Blanco (white) are the most distinguishable. However, dozens of other lakes exist, especially along the less-often traveled circuits near the Chilean border.

Flamingos in Laguna Colorado.

I like to think that Laguna Colorado gets its color from the blood of countless generations of flamingos (or maybe, slightly less morbily, from their feathers) but that's not the case. Algae gives it its color, which grows by feasting on the many types of minerals leeched from the surrounding mountains.

Two flamingos flying over Laguna Colorado.

In turn, flamingos feast on the algae almost nonstop. Three species exist in the park, all of which are easy to identify given enough time and a pair of binoculars or a telephoto lens.

Vincunas crossing the road.

There are several other routes through the park, roads run parallel to our course to the east and west, close to the border of Chile. From Uyuni you will inevitably drive southwest through San Cristobal and to the town of Villa Alota. At Villa Alota (S21 24.239 W67 35.872) you have a choice. Option 1, turn south to Villa Mar, and at Villa Mar turn southwest and arrive on the EAST side of Laguna Cristobal. This is the short and “good road” option. This is the route we drove. It took 5.5 hours to go from Uyuni to Laguna Colorado.

If you continue straight to Villa Alota, you will eventually hit the westerly road. It runs north/south very close to the Chilean border. This road is more scenic, but to quote a very helpful French couple we met in Lima, it is “muy muy muy muy muy muy muy MALO”. Think big rocks in the road and very deep sand. This is the road that PanAm Notes took and also the road that took about a week before us. There is also a significant river crossing on this route. But as I mentioned, this route does have more lakes and the famous “Piedra de Arbol”.

Bubbling mud pits.

A short drive south from Laguna Colorado is a smattering of bubbling mud pits and a couple small geysers. A testament to the volcanic origins of this area, and its continued case the endless towering volcanic cones didn't make it obvious enough.

A geyser erupting near our car.

The largest geyser was more like a steam vent than a proper water jet. The smell of rotten eggs was enough to convince us to pick a better place to stop for lunch.

The Bolivian custom's office at over 16,400 feet elevation.

From the geysers we continued south to the Bolivian aduana (customs) office, about 80km north of the border and in between Laguna Colorado and Laguna Chalviri at S22 26.454 W67 48.357. You need to stop here and turn in your vehicle permit. Don’t forget, they will send you back! The elevation at the front door is over 16,400 feet, making this the highest we've been on this trip.

If you have any inclination of altitude sickness, then pick up some tablets in town before you head out. It’s not fun to be puking at 5000m in high winds when it’s -15C outside.

Dali rocks.

Dali's Rocks is another natural attraction between Laguna Colorado and the Chilean border. It consists of a few dozen strangely-shaped rock formations in the middle of a sloping desert landscape. There are hot springs just north of Dali's Rocks, also a place where you can use the bathroom and drop off trash. It was crowded when we were there around lunch time, so we passed the hot springs by, but we've heard that if you wait until the tour groups leave in the afternoon you'll have the place to yourself.

Our campsite by a dali rock.

We chose Dali's Rocks as our second and last campsite in the park since it likely would offer us the most respite from the wind and sun. As tent campers, it's difficult to find secluded places to pitch a tent. There is no sheltering vegetation, and most of the landscape is flat or sloping hills of sand and rocks. Not a friendly place to pitch a tent at this elevation.

A view from our campsite at the Dali Rocks.

At 15,600 feet, this was the highest we've ever camped. It dropped below freezing at night, although not enough to freeze water bottles inside our tents. The wind was brutal until about 2am and then died down. In the morning it remained cold, but the skies were mostly clear and the scenery spectacular. Certainly one of the most amazing places I've ever pitched a tent.

Our car parked in front of Laguna Verde.

You can see most of the lakes in the park in one day, but it is advisable to camp for a few days to see them at different hours. The colors are much different in the morning than in the evening. Laguna Verde (above) and neighboring Laguna Blanca (below) are close to the southern end of the park and are just six miles from the border crossing into Chile.

Laguna Blanca.

The border crossing is a bit strange. You check out of Bolivia (make sure you've visited the aduana to the north first!) and don't hit Chile's immigration until you enter San Pedro de Atacama after a long and straight decent out of the mountains.

Signs at the Chile/Bolivia border.

If you're heading south, like us, the pavement starts shortly after crossing the border. Marvel at the numerous road signs, reacquaint yourself with things you've previously taken for granted like roads with painted lines, ample shoulders, and safety precautions such as runaway truck ramps.

If you're like us and are dreaming of supermarkets you'll have to hold on a bit longer. San Pedro only has small shops and one butcher, and they are all expensive. You'll have to wait until you hit a big city like Calama in Chile or Salta or Jujuy in Argentina.

Up Next: We spent three days in Chile and then head to Argentina where camping is abundant and the beef is delicious and cheap.


#6 Kobus 2013-08-16 17:08
Hi Laura,

The road conditions change rapidly, there are spots with soft sand and a few small river crossings.

There are a few steep inclines that might require 4x4 or low range depending on the road conditions. Again when we were the the roads were surprisingly good. But then again I compare all roads to Tanzania... and nothing beats the bad roads in that country.

There are alternatives to taking your own vehicle into the South West Circuit. You could take a tour from Uyuni or from San Pedro de Atecama.

That being said, it would make for one fantastic adventure in the Van. You could always see if you can drive in a convoy with other overlanders.

Slow and steady wins the race.
#5 Laura 2013-08-16 15:01
Hi, this area looks spectacular! we have been driving central and south america in a ford econoline van and were wondering if you think it is possible to pass this route without 4x4? the van has decent ground clearance, but we are worried about sand and steep inclines. Thanks for the website, so much useful info for other travellers!
#4 jessicam 2012-11-18 17:59
Hi Rob,
To answer your question briefly, yes, it gets old. But, the tent part isn't that cold. We are well equipped with good sleeping gear and don't have much trouble getting a good night sleep in freezing weather. The hard part is everything else we have no choice but to do outside the tent, cooking and doing dishes is especially brutal. We have no wind free place to light a stove or a sink with hot water to do our dishes in. But we manage this by limiting our nights in these situation and staying in hostels when we are sick of sleeping on the ground.

Yes, soon we are moving into lower elevations. Bolivia was our highest and coldest point. I expect things will get warmer before getting colder again in Patagonia.

Thanks for commenting!
#3 Rob 2012-11-14 22:22
Awesome post guys. Your landscape shots are just surreal.
Does it get challenging, after a while, with the cold evenings & even colder overnights, tent camping? Will your elevations be lower, and temperatures higher, as you move your way south? Would this even be possible in the South American winter? Take care out there!
#2 Kobus 2012-11-13 16:29
Ya, might want to change that out. Also Bonfire!
#1 James 2012-11-13 16:25
this place looks epic, i love the flamingo shot and the one of the Vicunas trying to dodge Kobus barreling down on them. thanks for the gas tips as well, I think I should swap out my jerrycan gas. It got filled in Mexico and has sat there ever since...

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