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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Betcha didn't know rabbits could have long tails?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 FromAtoB.org 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”.
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 activity...in case the endless towering volcanic cones didn't make it obvious enough.
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.
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'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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.