The Laguna Route in Southwestern Bolivia is a popular route among overlanders for many reasons. First, the route allows for entry into Chile, but is close enough to Argentina that it is easy to decide to follow the Chilean coast or the Argentina Ruta 40 to the south. Next, the Laguna Route follows a series of lagunas or lakes (hence the name) that are very unique to the high altitude environment and are home to large populations of flamingos. Finally, the Laguna Route is almost entirely gravel/dirt, two track roads making for a challenging off road adventure.
One of the biggest difficulties faced when taking the Laguna Route is the long distance between fueling stations. From Uyuni to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, the distance is 285 miles. About 50 miles from Uyuni is the last fueling station in Bolivia in San Cristobal, leaving a distance of about 235 miles between fueling stations. With our 35 gallon tank plus five gallon jerry can, our range is typically around 550+ miles, leaving us more than enough room to stretch the gap. However, the slow rate, steep hills, driving in sand, water crossings, 4WD, etc. drastically reduces fuel economy. Nonetheless, we figured that even if our mileage was cut in half, we would make it without much trouble. For overlanders with small fuel tanks, the only option is taking more fuel with extra jerry cans or buying more from tour operators.
Before we actually dig into the adventure itself, I wanted to specifically mention something to look for in the photos. When there is a clear sky at this altitude, the sun is extremely strong. Equally as strong are the shadows cast from everything. During our visit to Sajama National Park in Northern Bolivia, we noticed how pronounced the shadows were but have not had a chance to mention it until now so keep your eyes peeled for that. Ok. Onward!
After refueling in San Cristobal, we headed due west for nearly 40 miles. This road was in surprisingly good condition allowing us to travel at 50 MPH. Once we turned off the main road, we quickly ran into rocky, corrugated roads slowing us down tremendously. Almost immediately, we stopped the truck to air down our tires. Reducing the air pressure in tires allows the tire to absorb much of the shock from rocks, bumps, etc. while also providing more surface area contact between the tire and ground resulting in better traction off road. The downside is that airing down reduces clearance and also runs the risk of breaking the bead between the tire and the rim. The lower the pressure, the higher this risk becomes. Typically we run pressures of 55PSI in the front and 60PSI in the rear tires. We found that running at 45PSI makes a noticeable difference and is the pressure we stuck with. Other folks with similar truck/camper set ups will run with pressures down to 30PSI but we decided the risk wasn’t worth it.
Within an hour of leaving the main highway towards the south, we ran into a fairly deep stream crossing. It looked like someone else had passed through not long before us, but we walked it out to see how deep the crossing was and if the ground underneath was firm. The ground looked good and the deepest part of the stream was about two feet deep. Rather than backtrack an hour over bad roads, we opted to cross and made it without incident. The only photos we have of the crossing are of the llamas that were hanging around the area. They are really distracting and much more interesting than a water crossing anyhow!
After the river crossing, the road got worse! Many large sections were essentially boulder fields forcing us to stay in low gear. Other sections were at steep angles that didn’t concern us too much but required us to continue slowly. Along the whole route, there were anywhere from two to ten tracks all leading to the same place but all with different qualities. Eventually, we returned to the main route running north-south and we were met with 20+ Land Cruisers leading tours between the lakes.
Early in the afternoon, we arrived at Laguna Honda where we would camp for the night. The winds were blowing 50MPH+ and forced us to stay inside the camper all afternoon and evening. We heard that the wind could be pretty nasty along this route and we had the opportunity to experience it firsthand.
In Laguna Honda were hundreds of flamingos doing flamingo things all afternoon. When the sun set and temperatures began to drop, the flamingos huddled together to keep warm and we could hear their subtle squawks from inside the camper. Temperatures dropped to just below freezing and we slept very well on our first night on the Laguna Route at 13,500 feet.
When leaving in the morning, not more than a quarter mile from our camp spot, we saw a curious fox trotting along in front of us. By an act of God, we happened to have the telephoto lens on our camera and Laughlin got some great photos of the little guy! Laughlin named him butter cup or taza de mantequilla in espanol.
Back on the main north-south route, we settled into our place behind the pack of Land Cruisers making our way towards Laguna Colorada. The road ranged from bad, to terrible, to 4-low rock crawling. Much of the route our second day was through fairly deep sand. In some areas, it was impossible to distinguish one track from another and the route was literally one half mile wide of nothing but corrugated sand. We have never seen anything like it. It saddened us that the tour operators drive wherever they want across the delicate landscape but scenes such as this are common in Bolivia.
Along the route, the barren landscape was captivating. So beautiful, yet so odd, we stopped every so often to contemplate the landscape. After three hours of driving, we arrived at the Arbol de Piedra translated to stone tree in English. This rock outcropping in the middle of the sand dunes was oddly satisfying to look at. The Arbol de Piedra was most interesting resembling a petrified tree with a large canopy supported by a narrow trunk.
Throughout the day, we played leapfrog with an Austrian overlanding couple who camped near us the first night. They spent a great deal of time exploring Africa before beginning their South America adventure. We admired their nonchalant attitude towards having no Bolivianos to pay for their entrance into the national park we were about to enter later in the day. Our American outlook on the situation would have given us a heart attack! And to answer your question, yes, they made it into the park.
Mid afternoon, we arrived at one of the most popular lagunas along the route, Laguna Colorada. This laguna contains water that is almost entirely red or pink but appears to have a rainbow appearance in shallow areas. Since we visited during the dry season, the water levels were low revealing the alkaline surface below. To visit the lake, we drove to a parking area near the center of the lake along one of the worst roads of the day. The fine, loose sand was picked up by the tailwind and blown in front of us. The dust was so thick, we couldn’t see the road in front of us and was similar to driving in a blizzard. Nonetheless, we made it to the parking area and set out on foot in the strong winds.
From the parking area, we walked down to the shore for an up close look at the water and the flamingos. The area we explored was slightly sheltered from the wind which was inviting to the flamingos. We got a few up close shots that we think turned out great!
We ventured a few miles away from Laguna Colorada to a small canyon that we hoped would offer us shelter from the wind. Unfortunately it seemed to funnel the wind as it was strong as ever. In weather like this, we are happy to have our hard sided truck camper versus a rooftop tent so many of our friends travel with. The wind died down around 10PM and we had another good sleep in our camper with temperatures just below freezing at 14,400 feet.
Around 10AM Monday morning, we left our camp and continued heading south. Temperatures rose enough that starting our diesel was no problem at all. We had a relatively short driving day ahead of us with thermal pools waiting at the end. There was no sense in rushing to get there as tour operators and their tourists occupy the baths until mid afternoon.
We have no idea how the vicunas survive with the lack of vegetation here but they do! Pretty cute little buggers.
Only a few miles from our camp spot, we parked the truck and set out on foot to investigate some odd looking ice structures. As it turned out, the ice was actually snow but had been melted away leaving rows of tall columns. Neither of us had ever seen this and have no idea how or why the snow melts this way. This is another example of the extraordinary world we live in.
As we bounced down the road at 10-15MPH, we topped out at 15,600 feet when we reached the pass beyond Laguna Colorada. When we finally made it to the thermal baths that afternoon, we were greeted by more flamingos in the laguna and nearly 100 tourists in the small pools. Rather than fight the crowds, we set up the camper and ate lunch. Before long, all but a couple of tourists were gone and we jumped in the pools to enjoy the hot mineral water. It was a welcomed stop after being on the Laguna Route for three days. This would be our final night on the Laguna Route. Temperatures held steady at just below freezing at 14,600 feet.
In the morning, we set out once again following our Austrian overlanding friends. Just a few miles from the hot pools lies the Salvador Dali Desert and, on the opposite side of the road lies Dali’s Rocks. These two areas seem to have inspired some of Dali’s desert paintings although we don’t know if he had ever visited here. Although the desert colors were vivid, the uniform color of the sand and mountains seemed to have been painted in place.
Just when you think you are awesome for driving this rough track at high elevation with no services, you are slapped in the face by two French cyclists with a baby! After visiting with them for a few minutes, we learned that the three of them had been cycling the Laguna Route for thirteen days. We had to get a photo to remind ourselves how luxurious our way of travel is compared to many other people.
As we neared Laguna Blanca and Laguna Verde near the end of the Laguna Route, we were met by Lincancabur Volcano straddling the Bolivian/Chilean border and topping out at almost 20,000 feet. At the base of the volcano lies the final two lagunas we would see. We stopped for lunch at Laguna Verde and enjoyed the view.
We made the decision to cross the border into Chile one day earlier than we had planned. The wind along the Laguna Route is horrendous and we were tired of being cooped up in the camper. Since it was early afternoon, we had plenty of time to knock out another border crossing in the afternoon. As we climbed the final mountain pass separating the two countries, we had bittersweet feelings about leaving Bolivia.