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An Overlander’s Guide to Bolivia’s Southwest Circuit

November 9, 2012

An Overlander’s Guide to Bolivia’s Southwest Circuit

There are two main parts to the attractions of the Bolivian Southwest:

1)      Salar de Uyuni

2)      Reserva Eduardo Avaroa

The base for explorations of both these areas is the only town of any size in the region, Uyuni. Uyuni is definitely not much to look at and I wouldn’t recommend spending any longer than necessary here. The days are warm (hot in the sun) and the nights are cold – for us the town of Uyuni was colder than the Salar itself.

It is possible to urban boondock in Uyuni – one of the best places is outside the Tonito hotel (which houses the excellent Minuteman Pizza). This is in front of the army base with 24 hour security so a pretty good place. We also stayed in Hostal Marith which has a small (two overlanders at a pinch) secure parking area and hot showers. The Tonito hotel does have space in a secure lot for one vehicle although it is more expensive.

There is reliable fuel in Uyuni – we found the best petrol station was Servicentro at the South end of town. This is next door to a number of car washes where you can get salt from the Salar cleaned off if you return to Uyuni before taking on Reserva Eduardo Avaroa.

The car washes will also spray the underside of your vehicle with used oil before venturing onto the Salar and this will help protect your chassis from the salt on the Salar. This is highly recommended. The salt on the Salar will coat the underside of your vehicle in thick chunks so any protection has to be a good thing.

UYUNI GPS Co-ordinates

  • Parking for Train Cemetery                                          S20 28.633 W66 49.850
  • Truck Wash                                                                        S20 28.156 W66 49.172
  • Servicentro GC (Fuel)                                                      S20 28.185 W66 49.204
  • Hostal Marith                                                                     S20 27.941 W66 49.602
  • Tonito Hotel (Minuteman Pizza)                                   S20 27.912 W66 49.495

 

GPS Maps

The following maps for Garmin GPS have coverage of SW Bolivia:

Mapear v.9.8 Mapas Electronicos Argentinos – Provides a very basic map but not recommended for SW Bolivia. It is the map of choice for Chile and Argentina however. The Salar part of the route is not covered.

Viajeros Mapas 11.10 – This map is not routeable but has by far the best topo map of the South West circuit. This is the only map that had all the tracks that we used – including the track past Chillucani.

Bolrut 3.5 – This is a commercial product that is available on the internet as a download (Noeman.org is a good place to look). The map is ok for Bolivia and is routeable. This comes as a file for download direct to your GPS and cannot be loaded into Mapsource, without significant work.

OpenStreetMap – Is a good basic map and the best routeable map for the region.

Fuel

Fuel is available in Uyuni and San Pedro de Atacama. The fuel in San Pedro de Atacama is quite expensive and it is cheaper to fill up in Calama (this adds another 100km to the journey).

From Uyuni to San Pedro de Atacama via the Lagunas route we drove 300 miles (460km) – (363 miles to Calama (581km)). This was all at high altitude (4000m+) and mostly in sand or rocky tracks so our mileage was lower than normal (We usually average 11 miles per US Gallon and on this route we only made 9.2 miles per US Gallon) (in metric usually 4.6Km per litre and on this route 3.9km per litre).

This is the mileage if you return to Uyuni to refuel after visiting the Salar. If you don’t refuel in Uyuni but do return, a Salar trip adds around 130 miles (210km). If you were to just do a trip through the Salar and out it would add around 70 miles (110km). Of course any side trips or additional exploration of the Salar can significantly increase this.

There is a fuel station available in San Christobal, around 50 miles from Uyuni. However the availability of petrol or diesel at this station is patchy and it is best not to rely on it.

Large jerry cans are available for purchase in many of the shops in Uyuni.

Salar de Uyuni

The road to the Salar is one of the worst roads we have ever driven. It consists of hard, tight corrugations which shake you to bits at anything over about 5km/hour.  The good news is that there is a better parallel road under construction but it is of course anyone’s guess how long until this is finished.

Alongside this terrible road are some tracks which are smoother, although there are some deep sand patches on these other roads. We pulled a local car out of the sand in one place. However we would advise avoiding the main road and driving on one of the sandy tracks alongside.

 

The main entrance of the Salar, and nearest to Uyuni, is the Eastern entrance which is 5km from the very small town of Colchani. It is very important to get the entrance to the Salar right as the edges are often wet and are the weakest part of the Salar.

There is a raised causeway that travels over the slushiest part of the Salar and then gives way to a maze of tracks over the next 200 metres bridging onto the Salar itself. Follow a clear track until on the solid salt and all should be good. We stopped at the end of the causeway, had lunch and watched a few vehicles enter and then followed a route that a full sized bus took.

Once on the Salar proper it’s a smooth ride, the only real danger are the holes in the salt – some are proper axle breakers – so keep an eye out and avoid these. It is very tempting to go full speed on the flat even surface but it is far better to keep a moderate speed and watch for problems in the surface.

There are very clear tracks made by the tyres of the landcruiser tours – these are very useful for navigation. If not using these its best to use GPS as there are no distinguishing marks on the salt and it can be very easy to veer off course.

Breaking Through – We have met two sets of Overlander’s who have managed to break through the salt and get stuck. This leads to probably the nastiest type of recovery you can imagine in Overlanding. Our advice is just don’t risk it.

The guys who broke through – 1 was a big truck like ours and the back axles broke through – the recovery was 4 days and involved the army helping. The other was in a Land Rover, having missed the exit ramp they were caught in the slush at the edge of the Salar – this recovery was only 2 days, managed by themselves with their winch (and half their belongings as anchors !)

There are a number of islands which make a good destination. Isla Incahausi is the most popular and is covered in cacti and is a great place to spend the night. There are toilets on the island, tables at the edge of the salt and even a restaurant. It was busy during the day but by sunset everyone else was gone and we were alone. There is a nice hike up the island which costs B30 per person.

Isla Pescada is about 20km further on from Incahausi and is not developed. It is a much quieter place to stay.

On both islands it is best to park several metres away from the shore as the salt can be weak at the island’s edge.

Salar GPS Co-ordinates

  • Eastern Entrance to Salar                                              S20 18.973 W66 58.853
  • Southern Entrances to Salar                                        S20 28.300 W67 45.500
  •                                                                                                 S20 35.100 W67 36.400
  • Northern Entrances to Salar                                        S19 53.934 W67 45.521
  •                                                                                                 S19 51.585 W67 46.056
  •                                                                                                 S19 54.500 W67 37.250
  • Salt Hotel                                                                             S20 19.828 W67 02.802
  • Isla Incahausi                                                                     S20 14.470 W67 37.655
  • Isla Pescada                                                                        S20 08.522 W67 48.609

Road Conditions on the Laguna Route

The first 100 miles (160km) of the route are on a dirt road which is very flat and smooth. We averaged around 65km/h on this stretch of the route.

The next 15 miles (25km) of the road becomes terrible as you drive towards Laguna Chillucani, easily the worst of the whole route. There are several rocky canyons to negotiate and narrow rocky roads. I would be very hesitant to do this part of the route without 4×4.

In this section there is a deep water crossing to negotiate. There are two sides to the crossing. One is shallow water with deep mud – the other is deep water (close to 1m) with a firm bottom. Take your choice.  It would be a bad place to be stuck as the landcruiser tours do not come this way and we saw no other vehicles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5km’s after the water crossing the track merges with the main track which the landcruiser tours take. The track does improve as you move past Laguna Hedionda although increased traffic means more corrugations.

From this point onwards there are many tracks all going in the same direction – all eventually merge back to the main path. In most cases the main track is heavily corrugated and it is best to drive along one of the lesser tracks. These lesser tracks may involve deeper sand or some tufty plants but will deliver a smoother ride.

After passing the 3 lakes – Hedionda, Chiar Kota and Honda – the tracks are along the bottom of a valley in sand.  Apart from a rocky gully or two the going is easy and after a while the valley widens out into a sandy valley called the Desertio de Siloli. This stretches to Laguna Colorado and the entrance to the park.

Once in the park the corrugations get worse and it is more difficult to drive off the main track due to ditches and large piles of sand at the side of the road. You also feel more guilty as it is National Park. The routes are also much more obvious in the Park.

The only seriously bad bit of road is the detour to the Geyser basin which is rough. The rest of the dirt tracks are fairly easy going – apart from the corrugations. We did find a grader in operation just South of Laguna Colorado which made the going much better !

The detour to the Laguna Verde overlook is also a bit rough but nothing to really worry about.

Shortly after Migracion you hit asphalt for the long descent to San Pedro de Atacama. This is a 40km steep downhill which will really test your brakes. Go slow and in low gear or you’ll be getting your brake pads replaced sooner rather than later.

Weather

Get ready for the cold and the wind. Nights can be very cold – our worst was -14c but in June/July it can get down to lower than -20c. During the day the sun will be shining bringing some much needed warmth.

However on most of the route expect a strong biting wind, which does die at night, but during the day it lowers the temperature right down.  We saw cyclists on the route having to push as the wind was too strong for them to cycle through.

It was so cold at night that we had to park the Beast so that the sun in the morning would be on the engine. This enabled us to start without too much trouble. We also considered the wind and parked lengthwise to the wind to minimise the rocking in the night !

Camping on the Laguna Route

It is possible to camp virtually everywhere on the Laguna Route if you are happy to bush camp. The key requirements of a place for the night are getting out of the ever present gale force wind or at least orienting yourself so its manageable.

For those without campers and a tolerance for cold tent camping it is possible. There are numerous places to get out of the wind – at least to some degree. However you should expect any liquids to be frozen in the morning !

There are also a number of hostels where those on landcruisers stay – these are very basic and the toilet facilities are very poor.

Customs

We met two different overlanders who had missed customs and had to drive the 80km each way back to aduana after hitting migracion. This put both of them at the limit of their fuel reserves.  Don’t forget to stop off at customs – it makes their day as they are pretty lonely and don’t get much traffic !

San Pedro de Atacama

This small town with adobe buildings and dirt roads feels like civilization after a few days in Southwest Bolivia. However it doesn’t take long before the excessive prices and hordes of tourists become wearing.

To meet other overlanders, stay at the Los Perales Campground. However there is also a municipal car park in town which overlanders also stay in overnight. There are also numerous bushcamping sites around the town – perhaps most notably on the cliff overlooking Valle de la Luna.

Lagunas Route GPS Co-ordinates

  • San Christobal Fuel                                                           S21 09.420 W67 10.100
  • Turn off to Laguna Chillucani                                       S21 26.758 W67 50.701
  • (any track for 2-3km’s before this would be good)
  • River Crossing                                                                     S21 33.056 W67 54.771
  • Junction with Main Track                                              S21 33.687 W68 01.933
  • Arbol de Piedra                                                                   S22 03.106 W67 52.999
  • National Park Entrance Station (North)                   S22 10.279 W67 49.048
  • Turn for Customs (Southbound)                                  S22 24.958 W67 46.749
  • Turn for Customs (Northbound)                                  S22 25.488 W67 46.426
  • Hito Cajon – Customs                                                      S22 26.438 W67 48.346
  • Sol de Manana Geyser                                                     S22 26.126 W67 45.431
  • Hot Spring                                                                          S22 32.135 W67 38.967
  • Laguna Verde                                                                    S22 47.200 W67 49.213
  • National Park Entrance Station (South)                  S22 49.876 W67 46.735
  • Bolivian Migracion                                                          S22 49.876 W67 46.735
  • Back on the Asphalt                                                        S22 55.028 W67 47.802
  • Chile Immigration/Aduana                                         S22 54.662 W68 11.626
  • Fuel in San Pedro De Atacama                                    S22 54.802 W68 11.930
  • Los Perales Campground                                               S22 54.935 W68 12.028

This is one of the most amazing drives in the world and is to be thoroughly recommended. On 90% of the route help is not too far away in  the form of the Landcruiser tours. Prepare thoroughly for the conditions and it should be one of the best experiences of any overland trip in South America !

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 9, 2012 7:31 pm

    Wow Mark, thanks for the detailed writeup. We will have it handy on our trek

  2. November 10, 2012 6:45 pm

    Thanks for doing all the work Mark 🙂 Now I don’t have to. We’ll publish a trip update early next week, but our only additional info to add is that if you turn south at Villa Alota (roughly 100 miles form Uyuni via San Cristobal), and head toward Villa Mar, and then from Villa Mar you head southwest to the east side of Laguna Coloardo, you cut at least 20 miles off the trip, miss the deep river crossing, and the roads are in better condition. We went from Uyuni to Laguna Colorado on this route in 5.5 hours. You do miss some lakes and the arbol de piedra, but is is a much easier way to get straight to the national park.
    See ya in Mendoza!

  3. Nando permalink
    April 3, 2014 12:57 am

    Amazing report. Thank you from Brazil

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