Spurred on by the success and freedom of Salar de Uyuni we decided to travel the Southwest Circuit of Bolivia. At first i tried to convince Hyungim and Imo to come along with us, since I was afraid to go this way by myself.
Why? The Southwest circuit is an offroading route through the high mountains and lakes of the, well, the Southwest of Bolivia. The route takes you from either the town of Uyuni or the Salar to San Pedro de Atacama, a town in Chile. From the research it sounded like it was 275-300 miles, all unpaved and should take 2-3 days. From other blogs it was clear that you can do it in your own car, and if something happens there are people around to rescue you.
With our tanks filled up to the max and our fingers crossed with ventured out in to the wild. For the specifics of the route, including GPS tables, scroll to the bottom of the post.
The main attraction of this place are the multi colored lakes and the amazing landscapes.
Most of the time you are driving on very fine gravel, once in a while you hit washboard.
If you cannot handle the washboard anymore you can move over to a parallel lane, which is less rutted out .
Maybe it was the lack of oxygen at this altitude (above 15,000 feet) that accentuated the natural color spectrum of this place. The sky is a brilliant blue color, the road is dark brown, the mountains have a whole rainbow of colors from blue and violet to green and red.
Some of the lakes that you pass, its hard to call most of them lakes, more like large ponds. I’ve personally built ponds that were larger than most of the “lakes” we found here. Still, these lakes support some wild life. This is the first time that i have seen flamingos in South America and definitely the first time that i have seen them out in the wild.
Im glad that we have spend some time at altitude in Peru, La Paz and Uyuni, because this road take you high, very HIGH! Its kinda silly, back in California I had to hike to be at this altitude, but here you just drive up.
Pee break time, make sure you point in the right direction – the wind is merciless.
Miles upon miles of nothing but rocks, beautiful mountains (more like large hills) and shallow lakes.
Yes, this place is beautiful and definitely worth a visit. But after travelling through some many interesting places its hard to get the same kind of reaction from us. When we started in Mexico, we were pointing out every beautiful mountain, seaview and valley landscape. With time, the exclamations became less pronounced and quieter. And now we just watch the world pass us by in silence. It doesn’t mean that we are not enjoying it, we most definitely are. It’s just it takes something EXTRA special to draw out and exclamation of surprise.
Yes, this is the curse of travelling for so long – you get desensetized. Something that would have made us cry out in joy 4 months ago is now just a bleep on the map. We, the humans, adapt to everything whether it is good or bad. In our case, we adapted to the homeless lifestyle but also we adapated to seeing mesmerizing landscapes. The good with the bad.
Before leaving I was worried about getting lost, but the tracks are clearly worn in the rocks and sand. Just like the Salar you can drive anywhere you like, you know the direction that you have to go, but how you get there is completely up to you.
It does feel a bit surreal to be driving here. The first day we left later in the afternoon and were driving completely by ourselves. If you change the color scheme from yellow-brown to red-brown then you can yourself driving to rescue Matt Damon from his loneliness on Mars.
After half day of driving we came upon Arbol de Piedra (“Stone tree”), a rock that has eroded to look like a tree.
A lot more trees in progress just nearby.
I tried to remember how to climb, but almost immediately fell.
God, only a few months ago i was able to pull myself up without a problem. Now, just hanging there i feel like my arms are going to be torn out of their sockets.
The trip is great, except for weight gain and lack of exercise. Definitely can see that i have gain a few pounds.
And exercise? Some days, going to the bathroom is all the exercise that we get.
“HiiiiiiI!” Quickly got out of the car to look around and take a few selfies. It was very windy, i guess that makes sense when you think about the “tree”. When the sun is out, staying outside the car is manageable, but at night this would be very unpleasant.
The first part of the drive is in public lands, but right after the Arbol de Piedra you enter the “Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve”. At 150 boliviaons ($25) per person it is definitely not cheap.
At this point we encountered other people. Turns out these are the tour vehicles that left much earlier in the morning. As they drove away you could see the clouds of dust blowing all over the plain, just like something out of Dakar rally.
Everyone stopped at the park entrance and our Hodori felt right at home i assume, since he was surrounded only by Land Cruisers.
Here i have to apologize again for the quality of the photos. The night before we were using the camera to take the night sky picture and i turned up the ISO all the way up. And just like in Nicaragua, i forgot to put it back to AUTO, so all the photos are a bit grainy. My bad
Eitherway, right after the park entrance you see a large pink lake (“Laguna Colorada) with hundreds of flamingos.
“Wooaaah, dude, why is the lake pink?”
“Ooooh, ooooh, I know! Its because of the algae Dunaliella salina, that lives in these salty waters!”
Its actually also the reason why flamingos are pink. The algae gets its coloration from beta carotene, which gets dissolved in fats during flamingos digestion. The fats are then slowly deposited in newly growing feathers.
We visited towards the end of the dry season, so the lake was much smaller than we expected and slowly was turning into little salt flats. The wind is so strong that it creates “dust devils”, but here they are “salt devils”.
We got up on a hill to get a better view of the lake, only to see white and pink patches everywhere. I’m not sure how the lake was supposed to look, but this looks like shallow ponds that are quickly drying out. Still, nice to see the flamingos.
To get away from the ever-present wind we drove into a small canyon. There was not much cover there either, but you could find a curve in the rocks that would somewhat shield you.
Cooking was only possible behind this rock, as the wind kept blowing out the flame on the stove. Even this didn’t help much, i had to put the stove on the ground and make a fence all the way around it.
Ah, yes. This is our final cooking solution. Hyein looks like a little mushroom
Thanks to the protection of the canyon, the wind was manageable. But at night it got really, really cold, close or even below freezing. But most importantly it was dead silent. This is the quitest night of our lives, there are no animals to make any noises and no cars and people. And when the wind stops your ears hurt from the silence.
In the morning we drove to the Aduana (Customs), located way before the border and a few miles away from the main track, to cancel our vehicle import permit. We read that there is now a new Aduana office at the actual border, but not wanting to drive back and forth for a piece of paper in case that was wrong, we made the detour.
This is the highest aduana office that i know of, it is almost at the elevation of Everest base camp.
10 minutes from the Aduana we saw a bit of steam coming from the ground and drove closer to investigate.
I’m not sure of the correct terminology, these mud pools were vigorously bubbling and it was pleasantly warm next to them. The air had a distinct smell of sulfur and the ground was covered in yellow patches of what i assume are sulfur minerals.
It was so cold in the morning that i really wanted to go into these mud pools. How would you know if it is safe to go in? I didn’t risk it, but i assume we would measure the temperature, pH and make sure there is enough O2 to breath? Am i missing anything else?
Back on the main road we saw a tour car and followed it down a side track to an actual geyser – Sol de Manana.
You still have your mud pits and sulfur here.
But there is a spot that actually has steam bellowing out all the time. Since this is not the United States, you can just walk up to it and hang out at your own risk.
We ran around in the warm steam, like little kids. Where else are we going to have another chance like this?
Just a short drive from the geyser you can find the hot spring. By the time we got there, the parking lot had 20 or 30 tour land cruisers and a couple of tour buses. I don’t know what time these people get up in the morning, but we are always the last ones to arrive.
Luckily the hot springs were large enough to accommodate the swarms of tourists. I know, i know…”Ivan, but did you shower before going in?” No , we tried to find a shower, but couldn’t so we just went in. I know gross, but the water already smells like farts so its not like we were dirtying it!
The pool is shallow so you sit on your butt and stretch out your legs to keep your body underwater and warm. It was nice to hang out and enjoy the view, but it was too crowded and getting out was not very pleasant (cold and windy).
From the hot springs to the border is only 80km or about 2 hours of driving with stops for photos. The road is good, the views still beautiful.
Right before the border you get to see the last two lakes: Laguna Blanca and Laguna Verde.
To be honest, it was hard for me to tell which one is which. Even now, when i’m writing this post i had to look back on the map and the time stamp of the photos to determine which one is which. So the two photos above are of Laguna Blanca.
And these are of Laguna Verde. Do you see a clear difference in their colors? Maybe… Either way, their waters are murky whitish/greenish colors.
From this angle I can see a bit more clearly that this is supposed to be the “green” lake. And yes, that is a volcano in the background.
Panorama of Laguna Verde.
And our noble steed that got us there.
10 minutes later and you are out of the park and at the border. Just a shack in the desert. There is a gate, but you can just drive around it if you want. The immigration officer stamped our passports without any issues this time and let us go.
Another 20 minutes and you are back on the asphalt, we turned right and were in San Pedro de Atacama in 40 minutes.
Here is the technical information. I used two sources to gather information about this route. All the credit goes to the original authors, i’m just organizing it here for me…
Interactive overview – you can click on the little button next to the name of the map to toggle sidebar with layer information.
1. From Horizons Unlimited post by Peter-denmark (http://www.horizonsunlimited.com/hubb/south-america/san-pedro-de-atacama-uyuni-34664#post186853)
Coordinates in Excel format – ExcelGPSCoordinates – Horizons Unlimited
Coordinates in Google Earth format – GoogleEarthPoints
2. From “From Alaska to Brazil” blog (http://fromatob.org/2012/11/09/an-overlanders-guide-to-bolivias-southwest-circuit/)
Coordinates in Excel format – ExcelGPSCoordinates – From Alaska to Brazil
Coordinates in Google Earth format – GoogleEarthPoints
3. Our camping location – S 22 17.586, W 67 46.881
Coordinates in Excel format – ExcelGPSCoordinates – NomadicYear
Coordinates in Google Earth format – GoogleEarthPoints