A drive in the wilds of Bolivia
In May, 2010 we drove our vehicle from San Pedro de Atacama, Chile to Uyuni, Bolovia through some simply breathtaking country. We hope this guide/report will help others find and enjoy this spectacular drive.
The route we followed is part of a popular tour circuit for backpackers and other tourist. It typically originates in either Uyuni or San Pedro and takes in the great Salar de Uyuni, Laguna Colorado, Laguna Verde, and other sites like Arbol de Piedre, Desierto de Dali and the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve.
From what we could see on the ground, and have read (or more accurately have not read) on the websites of other vehicle based travelers these trails are only traveled by the Toyota Landcruisers of the tour companies each packed with 5-6 guests and a driver (a bit squeezy), or the occasional mining vehicle. We have read no accounts from travelers in their own vehicle on this route. If you find such an account can you let me know.
A last minute decision, and acclimatization
Like much of our time in South America the decision to take this particular route was a last minute thing. We had spent about a month gradually making our way north from the Mendoza area through Northern Argentina towards the Bolivian border with the intent of crossing into Bolivia at La Quiaca/Villazon and thereafter heading to Uyuni via Tupiza. We had been traveling and gaining altitude slowly in order to be acclimatized by the time we arrived in Uyuni at 4000+m. After a few days in Tilcara checking up on those Landcruiser tours and some time to examine the tour route on Google Earth we decided we would try to drive our own vehicle from San Pedro to Uyuni.
Click on the map to download a .kml file. Open this in Google Earth to get waypoints and a route from San Pedro to Uyuni. This is an approximation of the route we followed. I did not keep a GPS track for the actual route I had to reconstruct it later using Google Earth and unfortunately some Google's areal photos for this area are old and the roads have changed since Google's photos.
The Bolivian dry season
It is worth noting that we were there in late May early in the Bolivian dry season, which runs from April to October. Unfortunately we were also there at the beginning of winter and at 4000+m it can, and did, get cold. During the warmer wet season the Salar de Uyuni is often covered with water, the roads difficult and the skies cloudy.
Aduana and Chilean jeepers
At the end of our stay in Uyuni we meet a group of Chileans from the Coyhaique 4x4 club on holiday in their short wheel base Toyotas. They had missed that turn off to Bolivia custom, and were a little concerned as to what problems they would encounter trying to leave the country.
Interestingly we had met some of these guys when we caught the ferry across Fiordo Mitchell during our drive down the Carratera Austral in southern Chile. That was 4+ months ago, nearly 12,000 road miles for us and 2000 miles as the crow flies for them.
What a small world.
As we left Laguna Colorado we were beginning to think about fuel.
We had not yet used half our fuel, but since we had no idea how far we had to go and where we could refuel this was a concern that would grow throughout the day.
By the time we got to highway 701 we were more than a little concerned. After getting no fuel in San Christobel we started counting miles.
For reference between San pedro and Uyuni we traveled 280 miles and got some of the worst mileage of our trip. If you do this leg carry plenty of fuel.
To the Bolivian border
The morning of May 28th found us headed west on Chilean highway 27 out of San Pedro fueled up and armed with navigation aids that consisted of a pamphlet for one of those Landcruiser tours, some GPS waypoints that I had plucked from Google Earth, and a general (and very poor quality) map of Bolivia.
Even the first 30+ miles on the relatively tame black-top of highway 27 was spectacular.
Standing just north of the road and dominating the view ahead was Licancabur (a beautiful volcanic cone) at 5920m.
The road itself is also more than a mite impressive. Starting in San Pedro at 8000 ft it climbed to over 15,000 ft as it passed Licancabur and the turnoff to Bolivia. However unlike most mountain roads that climb 7000 ft in a short distance this stretch of road is not a series of switchbacks but is basically straight. Can you imagine a 30 mile stretch of straight road that climbs over 7000ft!!
It must be hell for the truckies. Along the road we counted over a dozen of those emergency stopping lanes that trucks use when their brakes fail.
As highway 27 passed Licancabur we were keeping a sharp eye open for the turn north to Bolivia. There was no signpost, simply a myriad of two wheel tracks where vehicles had picked their own spot to start north. I knew from my previous Google Earth research and the GPS waypoints that we were in the right place so we picked a track and followed it. About three miles on we approached a boom gate across the gravel track with a single hut standing beside it. We knew this was the right place because the building was surrounded by Landcruisers and a horde of young backpackers wrapped in blankets trying to stay warm. The air temperature was just below freezing and the wind was at least 20mph.
Immigration, customs and the Avaroa Fauna Reserve
Border formalities were straight forward. They process a lot of tourists here so know what to do.
However the immigration officer said something to me along the lines of necesita ....aduanas ..... ochenta kilometers .... del camino.... .
At the time the officers comment barely registered, but some miles later I started thinking about this and realized that he had told us we needed to go to the customs station (for import processing of the vehicle), that the customs station was some distance (a long distance - did he really say 80kms) down the road and was a significant detour to get to it.
A few more miles and we passed through another boom gate, the entry point to the Avaroa Reserve. I think the entry fee was $10.
For a while all the formalities were done and we could move on, and enjoy the roads and the scenery.
A spectacular turquoise lake, edged with a white salt crust mixed with ice and surrounded with the brown treeless, grassless surface of the antiplano. From the northern side Licancabur made a spectacular backdrop.
There were vehicle tracks everywhere around the lake but to the north they converge to pass between two small mountains. Beyond this small pass we were in the Valle de Dali. A surrealistic landscape of sand adorned with a scattering of wind craved rocks. Through this valley the trail traveled approximately north. The way was obvious even though there was a choice of which actual track to follow.
At the northern end of the valley we arrived at Termes de Polques. There were a number of Landcruisers parked, the drivers were hanging about talking and smoking, while their guests lounged in the warm waters of the Termes. We joined the young tourists in the water. It was warm enough to get in, but getting out into the cold air was a bit of a trial.
Not long after leaving the Termes the trail gradually swung left/west, passed an area of geysers and thermal activity called pleine luna de Sol de Manana before arriving at a junction.
The junction was a little hard to distinguish as it was dispersed over a wide area. One branch went north towards Laguna Colorado and was the way our journey would continue after our visit to the customs station. The other branch continued west and after 5km or so arrived at a small knot of buildings and a very basic football (soccer) field. We were a bit surprised by the soccer field. Our GPS was registering 5000m - thats 16,500ft. Who plays soccer at that altitude?
The place felt like we were on the moon, so desolate. Interestingly there seemed to be a small geothermal power station providing electricity for the establishment. Walking over to the buildings and knocking on a door was an effort - this was too high for us even with our acclimatization.
Eventually someone responds to our knocking and a man opened the door; he was still buttoning up his clothes. We guessed we woke him up. His office was tidy, with a lot of late model computer and communications equipment. He processed the paper work efficiently and we were on our way in under 30 minutes. Just amazing.
Only later did we realize that this customs office was over 45 miles from the immigration office.
Back at the junction we turned up the northern trail only to discover a big signpost stretching over the road. The writing was almost gone but it seemed to be telling us that we should go to the aduana. Glad we had done that.
We stopped for the night on the south eastern corner of Laguna Colorado, altitude 14,000 ft.
We spent some time photographing the local Vicunas and birds as well as the lake in the beautiful afternoon light. As evening turned into night the temperature dropped markedly and we were treated to a wonderful display of bright stars. Unfortunately the nights temperature was not conducive to a lengthy period of star gazing.
We were pleased to see the sun pop over the horizon and start the process of thawing out us and the Tiger (our camper). It was a cold night, the Tigers plumbing was frozen, the dish cloth on the sink was frozen, and over breakfast we were in our down jackets with the heater on. The trucks thermometer showed 2°F as we started the engine ready to get underway. I guess the minimum was a good deal lower than that.
We headed west along the southern shore of the lake then north along the western shore. At the north western corner of the lake we passed through a small settlement or outpost of some kind. There was a boom gate that was open and nobody tried to stop us.
North of the lake the trail crossed a modest mountain ridge linking Carcanis on the west with Juntacha on the east before dropping down into the southern end of desierto Siloli. The road over this range was very rough and gave us a sample of what lay ahead.
At the southern end of desierto Siloli was a famous rock formation called arbol de piedre. I had taken GPS co-ordinates for this tourist attraction from Google Earth and it was something we had intended to see. But at the time we concluded that we could not find it. It was only later when looking through our photos that we discovered that we had in fact driven right past it, and even photographed it.
We drove north through desierto de Siloli for what felt like miles following the general flow of vehicle tracks. At times there was a definite main track but for much of the way there were just old tire marks in the sand and gravel, that all generally headed in the same direction. The scenery was stunning. The valley floor over which the track passed was mainly sand and gravel or various hues of brown. The mountains that surround those valleys were multi-colored under the influence of minerals and evident thermal activity. There was no green vegetation anywhere.
Follow the landcruisers
The northern end of desierto de Siloli was dominated by Volcan Ascotan (5473) and for much of the drive through Siloli we seemed to be heading directly towards it and the smaller mountains in front of it. As we neared the northern end of Siloli it became obvious that a decision was going to be needed as we could see vehicle tracks veering away from the mountains to both the right (east) and to the left (west). Closer still we could make out the buildings of the famous Hotel de Desierto sitting up against the southern flank of the Ascotan massif.
We were pretty sure we needed to go east around the mountains but unfortunately I had not followed the trail this far north during my Google Earth research so had no GPS waypoints. Our decision was finalized by a passing landcruiser carrying a group of backpackers - we followed them east. That epiphany turned into a rule that we used a number of times during the remainder of the day: when in doubt .. follow the Landcruisers
After our decision we followed the tracks north for many miles on the south eastern flanks of Ascotan. The trail was rough, progress was slow but steady and we had the good sense to avoid a few branching trails that turned east.
At a point due east of the summit of Ascotan we once again had to apply the principle of follow the landcruisers.
We were at the south end of what looked like a dry lake bed and the trail was very indistinct, with some vehicle tracks heading west around the edge of the lake bed and others straight across. To be honest I was nervous. I was concerned that the lake bed might be soft, and to add to this we were well past the half way point in our fuel. We did not have enough fuel to get seriously lost or stuck.
We stopped and made lunch. As we were cleaning up a group of landcruisers barreled by. We could not keep up with them but we followed their fresh tracks and dust across that lake bed, through a narrow valley on the other side and emerged on the shores of Laguna Honda. We parked there beside a group of tour vehicles, backpackers and a decent sized flock of flamingoes.
On highway 701
We did not know it at the time but our journey through the high desert on vague vehicle tracks was nearly over. We were only 10 kms from what the Bolivians term a main road, highway 701 which would eventually take us all the way to Uyuni. But the desert had not finished with us yet as those 10 km were unbelievably rough. Our vehicle bounced so much that at times it was difficult to hold onto the steering wheel, we were in 1st gear for much of that 10 km. Mind you this did not seem to slow down those landcruisers they simply raced passed us.
On the way to 701 we passed by Lagunas Chia Kkota, Canapa and Hedionda. We spent little time admiring these wonderful sites as concern about fuel was beginning to dominate my thoughts.
Once at 701 we were confused. According to our map there was NOT supposed to be a highway here. It was supposed to be many miles away near the railway line. I decided we would drive west along 701 to Ollague (the border town) in the hope of getting fuel and directions. This turned out to be a waste of time. At Ollague we were told that the way to Uyuni was back east along 701 the way we had come and the closest fuel was at San Christobel some 130km away.
Road 701 to San Christobel was an OK earth road, sometimes smooth sometimes rough. In San Christobel we camped in the parking lot of the only hotel and connected to electricity in their reception area. But got no fuel - the only station had no diesel.
From San Christobel to Uyuni the road was rough, in places very rough. Believe it or not we saw many local vehicles that simply decided not to drive on the road but instead drove through the scrub beside of the road. Even gravel trucks and buses did this.
In Uyuni we stayed at hotel Tonito, operated by an America/Bolivian couple. They had room for 1-2 vehicles to park inside their compound. Chris (the American) also runs a pizza restaurant (Minuteman Pizza) in the hotel. That was a welcome change of diet.
From Uyuni,as a day trip, we drove to salar de Uyuni and 50 miles into the middle of the salar to Isla Inca Huasi.
If you are anywhere near Uyuni this is a drive not to be missed. The experience of driving on the salar, no roads, simply navigate by GPS is amazing. Mind you for everything there is a price. In this case the 20 kms from Uyuni to the village of Colchani where one enters the salar. This is without a doubt the worst road I have ever driven.
We got fuel finally in Uyuni, but not without trouble. Only one of the towns 3 gas stations would sell to us. Chris told us that the other two were saving the fuel for those Landcruisers and other locals.
The days we spent driving from San Pedro, and on salar de Uyuni to Inca Huasi are among the best (we enjoyed the most) 3-4 days of our 19 month journey. We would like to make sure other travelers get the opportunity, or at least know about the possibility. Driving your own vehicle is much better than taking one of those Landcruiser tours.
Final note. We traveled from San Pedro way too fast. If we did it again we would try and take 7-8 days.