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Bolivia’s Southwest Circuit

November 7, 2012

The drive from Uyuni to the Chilean border has the reputation of being one of the best off road adventures in the world.  The drive takes you past beautiful high altitude lakes filled with flamingos, through upland deserts and by massive volcanoes. The altitude of the drive is between 4000m and 5000m and the nights are bitterly cold so it challenges diesel vehicles with its extreme conditions.

The most beautiful part of the drive is through the Reserva Eduardo Avaroa. We didn’t reach this area until our third day of driving though.

We started moving quickly down the unpaved (but surprisingly) good road which heads South from Uyuni – after around 160km and passing through the Valley of stones we turned off the main road and onto a rough track.

This area proved to be the hardest section of the journey as we passed Laguna Chullicani, our first view of flamingos, and continued on our way towards the Reserve. We were temporarily stopped by a water crossing with two choices.

The left hand side was a muddy swamp in about 6 inches of water and the right hand side was a deep water crossing (close to 1m) with narrow ledges to place your tyres and a drop-off to 1.5m in between.

We decided to go for the muddy side and spent 20 minutes or so dropping some stones in the mud to provide a better base. Low range, diff locks on and we powered on through.

After about 3 hours we’d covered 20km and broke through onto the more commonly trafficked part of the circuit as we drove around Laguna Hedionda. There are four flamingo lakes in a row and we decided to call it a day at the fourth lake, Laguna Honda, where we camped right on the shore.

This was to be our coldest night in Bolivia as the mercury dropped to -14c. This is the coldest we have had on our whole trip and we were pleasantly surprised that we were warm in bed all night. In the morning though we discovered that the condensation on the insides of the windows had frozen.

Day 2 of our adventure involved driving through the Desertio de Siloli where the whole of a valley bottom was the track but almost all of it was corrugated from the Landcruiser tours. The main track was the least comfortable path and we spent the whole day driving through sand away from it. The colours in the desert were stunning but a strong wind and cold temperatures kept us in the truck.

There were a few rough bits to negotiate linking different areas of the desert but nothing to strenuous.


We reached one of the major tourist attractions of the area – the Stone Tree. We weren’t really sure what all the fuss was about though !

Towards the end of the day we got to the borders of the Eduardo Avaroa Reserve and after paying our entrance fees we circled Laguna Colorado and found a nice place to camp on a ridge overlooking the laguna. The laguna was a deep red colour and occupied by three different species of flamingos.

The wind dropped in the night to give us a good nights sleep which was significantly warmer than the previous night.

In the morning we drove Southwards, first having to off road across some deep sand piles to get onto the road. Our diff locks came to rescue again. From Laguna Colorado we climbed to over 5000m to get to the Bolivian customs office. Its 80km from the border and hidden in a processing plant but necessary to hand over your vehicle import documents before leaving the country.

After Aduana we drove into a geyser field with bubbling mud pools. No Health & Safety here – we drove right up to an active geyser. Again though the freezing wind kept us from making our way too far from the truck.

The next stop on our tour was a small hot spring next to a partly dried salt lake. There were loads of landcruisers here but we stopped for lunch and by the time we’d finished they’d all gone. This allowed us to have a relaxing soak in blissful solitude. The water was bath warm and very relaxing. However there was a gale force wind blowing making the dash back from the hot pool to the truck somewhat testing !

The route from here drops back down to the low 4000m as you cross through another desert which contains the Dali rocks – randomly placed rocks which look slightly surreal. We kept going until we reached the twin lakes of Laguna Blanca and Laguna Verde where the massive Volcan Lincanbur towers overhead. We camped here for the night in a gale force wind which didn’t let up all night. It was only -10c this night – practically balmy, although the wind in the morning made it feel much colder when we went outside.

From here it is a short drive to the park office where you check out and then only another 5km to the border with Chile. Shortly after the border the road becomes Asphalt and its then a 40km downhill road (with no less than 14 runaway truck runoffs) to San Pedro de Atacama, where the warm sun is very gratefully received.

One Comment leave one →
  1. November 7, 2012 3:26 pm

    a high-altitude wonderland, thanks for sharing!

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