Bolivia: Driving the Western Lagunas Route

After our days spent out on the flats, we were a crusty, salty mess. Once back to Uyuni, showers were in order for both humans and truck. Thus cleansed, we stocked up on more groceries, drinking water and gasoline. We were headed for the Western Lagunas Route in far southern Bolivia: a land of desolate wilderness at sky-high altitudes with few amenities along its 450km route. At the end was our penultimate country of the road trip: Chile. 

The first portion of the route is used by long-haul truckers; they powered through, spraying rocks in all directions. After a white-knuckled few hours, we pulled off the road in search of a campsite.

 

We found a good site, hidden from the main highway and with a small windbreak. Chris and I have become experts at using the truck to provide shelter for the kitchen table and gas stove. Our burner is finicky and doesn’t take kindly to breezes blowing under the frying pan. That is the disadvantage of having an outdoor kitchen, I suppose.

 

This was the first night that we’ve ever had trouble with our heater. It’s an Eberspacher Airtronic D2 diesel heater with a 1 gallon  tank; our primary worry is running out of fuel in the middle of the night.  But it was behaving in a wonky manner, which is unusual as it’s typically quite apparent when the tank is dry. Chris was the one that eventually figured out that we’d maxed out on altitude, even with the high altitude kit installed before we left Seattle.

Heights in Bolivia are a funny thing: they creep up unobtrusively; the area doesn’t feel particularly high as you’re still surrounded by massive peaks. But checking the gps revealed that we were at 4,285 meters above sea level (14,060 feet); dangerously close to the 4,300m cut-off on the altitude kit. Worse yet, we were supposed to be higher still for the following two nights with bitterly cold temperatures. It was worrisome.

 

In the picture below, can you see the tiny wisp of plume from the far left-hand side of the mountain? Welcome to Bolivia, land of smoking volcanos!

 

The next morning we turned off the highway and headed due south on a bumpy ribbon of dirt track. The beginning of the Lagunas route!

 

Desolate does not even begin to describe this land. Dirt, rocks, and relentless wind.

 

We soon found that there was no single road: just hundreds of tracks that crisscrossed through the valleys. The majority of people that travel through this area go on 3-days tours with outfits out of Uyuni and San Pedro. There are hundreds of land cruisers driving pell mell across the desert, with little incentive for staying on established routes. It was disheartening. We picked the biggest track and went slowly as to avoid bottoming out with the heavy camper.

After a morning of hard driving we arrived at our first lake. The flamingo welcoming committee was in full force.

 

The area is home to three species of flamingos, although I was not able to distinguish between varieties. They were busy feeding and paid us scant attention. 

 

The next lake was home to Los Flamingos Ecolodge, a lonely outpost that is primarily used by the tour companies. We admired their large flocks of resident birds (the hotel is well-named!) but kept heading south through lonely valleys and past wide, salty lakes. 

 We met this guy along the road, whom I believe is called a cupeo, a sort of Andean fox. She was surrounded by piles of potato chips; clearly she makes her living by begging food from the passing motorists.

 

 

 

After a long day of driving, we finally pulled over at this little lake and set up camp for our second night. Hidden from the main tour route, it was a perfect


Despite the sunny skies, it was bitterly cold and the wind was howling. One of Emma’s shoes blew 20 feet across the valley floor as we raced to batten down the hatches. 

After a cold but tolerable night, we prepared breakfast and watched the flamingos slowly wake up. These three did several loops around the lake before finally disappearing over the neighboring hills in search of a better breakfast.

We decided to take stock of our liquid situation. The route is roughly 300 miles of rough track with no chances for refueling of either gasoline or water. Rough terrain and high altitude both contribute to high fuel consumption so back in Uyuni we’d carefully saved our water jugs and spent a lot of time figuring out just how much gas we should purchase before beginning.

 

Here is what we brought:

Gasoline (2008 Toyota Tundra)

-Full tank of gas (80 liters)
-‘Gas’ cans (40 liters)

Of our 120 liters, we used roughly 100 liters between Uyuni and San Pedro de Atacama. Did we have extra? Yes. Were we happy to have it? You’d better believe it. Peace of mind is worth a lot, especially when you’re traveling with two small children in the wild outback.

Drinking/cooking/washing Water

-50 liters (4 days/3 nights)(plenty)

The next day would prove to be our hardest yet. The tracks were a mess of washboards, pot holes, and sandy spots. The scenery, however, was spectacular. 

We spotted a few vicuna along the route, but had a difficult time imaging what they were finding to eat out there.

We should have spent our third night here at the hot springs. They looked amazing. But it had been a brutally rough day thanks to the washboards and soft sand; we decided to push on to a hotel in San Pedro, provided we could make it across the border. 

Have you ever seen a border post that was located at 5,033 meters (15, 034 ft) above sea level inside an active borax mine?! We sure as hell hadn’t. A first for everything!

 

 

Weirdly, after ‘exiting’ Bolivia, we still had several hours left of driving before we officially entered Peru.

Laguna Colorada is not to be missed. The red algae lake, dotted with pink flamingos, is bizarrely spectacular.


At last! CHILE!!

 

 


Recommendations 

Campsites – Lagunas Route

Boulder Wild Camping – The area has lots of small spur roads off the highway; some provide decent wind breaks. No amenities and high altitude.

Hidden Lagoon – A wonderful spot next to the lake and away from the jeep route. Brutal wind, with partial windbreak (depending on the direction). Probably best for 4×4 vehicles. Our favorite one of the Lagunas Route.

Aguas Termales de Polques – We didn’t spend the night here but we should have – or at least taken time for a dip in the pools! They looked lovely.

 

One thing to note: The elevation gain coming from San Pedro de Atacama up through the Lagunas Route is massive (South to North). We came the opposite direction and were traveling slowly so didn’t have issues but we read about a lot of people running into trouble due to too-fast ascents. Travel wisely.

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