We had been dreaming about Bolivia’s Lagunas Route (also known as the Southwest Circuit) for, well, years. Except it was no longer mythical. It was time to actually start our engine and complete what would most likely be our longest offroad experience in South America. Crazy. Our generous friends Peter and Leonie (Amsterdam to Anywhere) sent us route details and .gpx tracks months prior, and we were finally at the start of those tracks.
We convoyed with George and Jenine (Traveling the Americas) and Chris and Mallary (Our Coordinates) for the duration of the 474km Western Route, departing from Uyuni, Bolivia and arriving in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. Yup, we crossed into Chile in the middle of the freaking mountains on a dirt road after five days of driving to get there.
After depleting our supply of water, food, and beer while out on the Salar (check our our post here) we definitely needed to stock up again in Uyuni. We spent the night at our favourite train cemetery before meandering into town. Showers for everyone! After we were scrubbed clean we visited a local power washing station to deal with Little Red’s salt-encrusted undercarriage. He growled out of the open-aired garage looking brand-spankingly shiny and smelling of the diesel concoction applied to his nether-regions.
One thing we knew for sure: we needed fuel and lots of it. Our range was strangely good in Bolivia despite the high altitude. We did purchase a couple of extra “jerry cans” (a.k.a random white plastic containers likely not made to carry fuel) but they were all we could find in the remote Bolivian towns. This was of course in addition to our trusty army-green 20 litre fuel can we brought with us all the way from the Great White North.
After being rejected by the attendants at the first gas station we tried, we rolled into the next one and it was like something out of a Nascar pit stop. “Let’s go, let’s go!” They motioned us towards the pump where 10 gallons worth of jerry cans were quickly filled, our tank was filled, and with a flurry of hands the total cost was calculated and cash exchanged. 2 minutes and 30 seconds later we hit the road. We weren’t going to win the Daytona 500 with that time, but we had the fuel we needed and the attendants didn’t lose their jobs. A win for everyone!
Fridge status: Full
Dry goods bin status: Full
Fuel status: 60 L stock tank, 38L auxiliary fuel tanks (should be good for at least 600km at elevation on bad roads)
Water status: 50L
Beer status: 12 Paceñas, 6 Brahmas
We aired down the tires and finally hit the (dirt) road at noon. The road to the last little town we would see, San Christobal, was fast. We cruised at 70km on the flat gravel road for a touch over an hour before reaching the town. We found a legitimate gas station here so all three trucks were topped off one last time.
We took the lead on the flat gravel roads once again, the 4Runner behind us and the Sportsmobile behind them. 20 minutes later we lost the Sportsmobile. We figured they were on a quick bathroom break… but after 10 minutes they still hadn’t shown up. Just in case, we pulled a u-turn and drove back about half a kilometer. We pulled up next to the Sportmobile, which was up on a jack with one completely shredded rear tire. George made quick work of the tire change. With no other option they continued through the remaining 350km of the route without a spare.
Just before dinnertime we arrived in a Rock Valley, found a little spot devoid of wind, and set up camp for our first night on the Southwest Circuit.
Almost immediately the road changed from flat gravel to steep rocky sections. We threw the truck into 4 lo and started an easy crawl up the first little hill. All of us wondered if the rest of the trip would be a crawl fest… a slow as molasses-in-the-middle-of-winter crawl fest. But, soon the road flattened to our old friend washboard (scratch that, not really a friend at all), and then to fast sand. Woo! We let the little 22RE 4 cylinder sing and made quick work of the sand before stopping for lunch at Laguna Chulluncani.
Ahh… the name “Lagunas Route” started to make sense as we arrived at the first of many lakes. But wait… flamingos? Apparently we drove from Vancouver to a place where flamingos live. At 4,000m of elevation. In Bolivia.
After a little scouting we found a Hidden Flamingo Lake. Camp was set up quickly (we were getting good at this as a group now) and an Asian-themed potluck was cooked. Then the beer and Casa Real (think Bolivian vodka) started flowing. But the party didn’t start until Chris pulled out the Classic iPod with late 90’s and early 2000’s music. Ginuwine, Snoop Dogg, and Notorious B.I.G. turned the night into a party. We have videos of some dancing to “No Diggity” that should never see the light of day.
The temperature dropped quickly (with the alcohol in the blood stream
not helping the situation) so we cranked up our 12V heating pad in the tent and crawled into our sleeping bags while the flamingos flapped and squawked in the chilly laguna.
So yeah, at when you’re at 4000m (13,123 ft) of elevation things get chilly. We woke up to a frozen water bottle in the tent to give you an idea of how cold. The flamingos were huddled together in the middle of the lake, looking adorable but more importantly, attempting to conserve body heat. Good thing the thin air also warmed up quickly! The boys made breakfast while Jenine led the girls through an hour plus yoga class by the flamingo filled lake. Where are we?
Reluctantly, we packed up camp and motored south starting at 10:30am. Before long the landscape was looking very Mars-like. This was deemed appropriate since we were listening to the audiobook, The Martian, during this drive through the barren landscape.
Eventually we hit more of the dreaded washboard for short sections. Vicuñas stayed clear of our convoy in the distance. We even saw a Southern Viscacha, otherwise known as a Bolivian Chinchilla.
This night’s camp was in the middle of a small canyon. For the 1000th time on this trip, “Where are we? This is awesome!” came out of our mouths.
5am WAKE UP CALL! Everyone rolled out of bed and directly into the trucks for an early drive to the Sol de Mañana geysers.
The 5:30 a.m. drive along washboard roads in the dust with the sun directly in my eyes didn’t make for the most enjoyable drive in the world, but it was worth it to hit to the geysers early.
We arrived at 6:30 a.m. and there happened to be another 10 Land Cruisers (tour operators) there at the same time. By 7:00 a.m. they were gone and we had the place to ourselves to make some coffee, breakfast, and to take photos.
So then it was time to head to a boric acid plant. What? Who doesn’t love a little boric acid on your off-road trip? Actually, that’s where the Bolivian aduana is and where we would have to get our vehicle import permits cancelled. Sure, the actual border and immigration was about 100 kilometres away, but for some reason customs is in this weird plant at 5032 metres (16,509 feet!) in the mountains. #becauseBolivia.
After a successful exit procedure we drove directly to the hot springs. Yup, check it out. Awesome hot springs with a great view. Unfortunately we didn’t capture the large group of fully clothed French tourists who arrived and proceeded to take pictures of us in our bathing suits in the pool. Weird. We’re looking forward to making an appearance in some random photo albums back in Europe.
I don’t think anybody wanted to get back to civilization so we found a spot on iOverlander called Dali’s Rocks and blasted out to the desert. We scrounged our remaining food and made the best American Thanksgiving you can make with Ratattouie, Vegan Mac and Cheese, and a Couscous salad. Once the wind picked up we holed up in the Sportmobile for a night of more music, cards, and a tea (with a generous splash of Casa Real for good measure).
The night at 4,400m meant we woke up to -5C and frozen water bottles… again. Brrrrr.
It was going to be weird re-introducing ourselves to civilization after 5 days spent in 3-vehicle gypsy convoy meandering through the middle of Bolivia.
We took in the last remaining lakes and continued to the border between Bolivia and Chile. About 2km from the border Chris and Mallary’s 4Runner stopped dead. It was running but wasn’t responding to the throttle. Luckily Richard poked his head under the hood and noticed that the intake tube (from the mass air flow sensor to the throttle body… yah truck jargon!) had cracked and become separated. Awesome. Anyways, we had the proper tools available (“proper tools” = duct tape) and were able to quickly temporarily fix the situation and continued to the border.
Best border crossing ever? Maybe. It definitely took some time to make it to this little shack in what seems like the middle of nowhere. Our paperwork in order, we hit the road once again, this time on the smoothest asphalt of all time. After descending 6,500 feet, we arrived in our first Chilean town, San Pedro de Atacama.