Overland Guide to Bolivia’s Southwest Circuit

Uyuni (pronounced oo-you-nee)

It’s best to think of Uyuni as an outpost, not a destination or town.  Get in, get stocked up, and hit the dirt road outta there.  It is a good place to meet other overlanders and Minutemen Pizza is a great place to waste away an evening.  For an outpost of a place it has a bit of charm.

Uyuni may seem trashy

We made a custom Google map with the recommended route and selected waypoints:

View PanAmNotes Bolivia Southwest Circuit Guide in a larger map

Getting Gas

There are three gas stations in town.  When you first enter town you’ll see a YPFB station.  They would not sell us gas, but know that if you beg them they will fill you up at the international price of B/8.40 a liter.  You can fill up with non-potable water here.  The gas station north of town wouldn’t fill us either.

We were able to fill up at the local’s price, B/3.75/L, at the Servicentro G.C. (S20 28.185 W66 49.204) on the southwest edge of town.  Tell them you don’t need a receipt and will pay a tip (No nesicitamos una factura y pagamos una propina).  The attendant wasn’t even expecting a tip, just willing to give us the local’s price.  They are closed for lunch and on Sundays.

It is tough to say how the tourist gasoline pricing is going to play out in the future.  We filled up six times and never had any trouble getting the local price (before Uyuni).  We met some folks in a Land Rover 110 covered with sponsor stickers and they had trouble at every single fill-up in the country.  In the following years getting the local price may be more of a challenge or the price discrimination may drop all together if/when Evo leaves office.

Bolivian Altiplano

Getting Propane

Behind the YPFB station is a YPFB GLP plant (S20 27.365 W66 48.855).  They were able to fill our US style propane bottle without issue for only B/10.  They close from 12-3 for lunch.  With a full propane bottle we were able to run the heater at will.  Finding this place was a stroke of luck and made our time in the region much more enjoyable.

Car Wash and Fumigation

Prior to going on the Salar we had our vehicle washed and fumigated at the following place directly across from the gas station: S20 28.156 W66 49.172.  They recommend spraying used oil on the underside of your vehicle (they call this fumigation).  When you return they spray the salt, dirt, and oil all off.  It is a great wash for only B/30 (exterior only).

Camping in Town

Many overlanders camp near Minutemen Pizza or the main square.  There is a military base on the main street of town.  The town has public bathrooms near the square and showers can be purchased at this lavanderia: S20 27.831 W66 49.412

We camped in Hostel Marith’s parking lot (S20 27.941 W66 49.602) for B/25 per person.  It was not much to look at but had electricity (for an extra B/10, plug in at the workshop) and nice hot showers.

Other Uyuni Info

There is no grocery store and we found the municipal market to be mediocre at best.  The meat we bought there was inedible.  I’m not sure why this surprised us; as far as the eye can see, the land is barren.  There are a handful ATMs in town.  Broadband internet is available at an internet café along the square.  Minutemen Pizza (excellent pizza) wifi is for hotel guests only and we found no other place with wifi.

Eerie horizon

The Salar de Uyuni

Access

The closest salar access point is 25km north of Uyuni, S20 18.972 W66 58.889.  Those 25km are some of the worst corrugations we’ve seen in Latin America.  There are dirt roads on the side you can take alternatively.  When driving onto the salar it is important to stay on the track (which is black from all the tires).  Here it is possible to break through the surface and get stuck.  If in doubt, stop and wait for a land cruiser or a salt truck and follow them.  Once you are on the surface you’re free to roam off the tracks.  4×4 isn’t usually needed, we have friends that drove the salar in a minivan.

Salar Camping and Features

It is suitable to camp anywhere on the salar.  The sunsets are spectacular.  Island Incahuasi (S20 14.458 W67 37.657) is an interesting site with hiking trails and many cacti.  A B/30 entrance fee gives you access to the island which has services such as bathrooms, a water faucet, restaurant, and trash cans.

South of Island Incahuasi are a few other islands with no fees.  At the southern end is the Gruta de las Galaxies two different caves discovered recently with interesting formations.

Looking at the road to Chile

Salar Weather

On the salar in October we experienced warm sunny days.  It’s important to take sunscreen and wear sunglasses.  Because of the white surface your eyes can get painfully sun burnt.  Each afternoon the wind picked up from the west and blew hard until after sunset.  Each night it dipped below freezing.

Painted mountains

The Lagunas Route (Routa de las Lagunas)

Mileage and Gas

We broke up the trip into two portions due to our gas range.  After the salar we returned to Uyuni for a car wash and to refuel.  We are glad we did.  We had averaged 14-16 MPG on the roads of Peru and Bolivia.  While on the Lagunas Route, we averaged 12 MPG, a 20% decrease.  This figure is aided by the last 49km to San Pedro in which you lose 6,500 feet (2,000m) in elevation.

Our total mileage from Uyuni to San Pedro de Atacama: 295 miles (475 km).  This does include a few extraneous side trips but I estimate those accounted for less than 12 miles (20 km).

I estimate that you would need to add another 70 miles (110 km) if planning to visit the salar, Island Incahuasi, and then head south straight to the Lagunas route for a total of 365 miles (585 km).  This is just an estimate. UNurban didn’t refuel in Uyuni and their  mileage was closer to 700km.

If leaving from Uyuni there is a gas station on the way to the lagunas route in San Cristobel, S21 09.242 W67 10.006.  This is only 54 miles (87 kms) south of Uyuni.  Additionally they are occasionally out of gas and/or diesel.

The route turns rocky

Road conditions

Leaving Uyuni, the first 100 miles (160 kms) the road is in good condition (Bolivia standards).  We were able to average 60km/h.  From there the road will turn to a rocky two-track road, with multiple options as there are multiple tracks.  It will stay in this condition as you pass Laguna Chulluncani, Hedionda, Chiar Kkota, and Honda.

There was one deep river crossing, just over two feet deep and about 20 feet across.  In a couple of spots you will navigate up through a rocky canyon.  I needed 4×4 low to get through.  This northern part of the lagunas route was some of the finest off-road navigating we found in all of Latin America.  Do not miss it.

By the time you enter the park boundaries around the Arbol de Piedre (rock tree, S22 03.108 W67 53.076) the road turns to a horrible corrugated mess.  Driving with a truck camper on this type of road is not fun.  The majority of the roads from here to the Highway 27 in Chile were like this.  4×4 was not needed as we saw even a Westfalla (non-synco) on this section of the route.

Laguna Verde

Campsites and Features

Campsites and Features are listed in order going from Uyuni to San Pedro de Atamaca

Altiplano Camps near a stream, S21 16.847 W67 16.977 (approximate): Past San Cristobel you will be on the sparsely-populated altiplano.  You can camp anywhere in this area, but there is little to no cover from the road.

Boulder Strewn Area for Camping, S21 24.306 W67 45.770 (approximate):  Much better place to camp as there are numerous large boulders to block the wind and view from the road.  Several great places to turn off and camp several miles before and after the given coordinates.

Laguna Chulluncani Camp, S21 32.414 W67 52.609 4462m: The first flamingo lake you will come across.  No facilities, just flamingos and snow capped peaks.

Los Flamingos, bathrooms and restaurant, S21 34.501 W68 02.449 4137m: B/5 for use of bathroom

Laguna Hedionda Camp, S21 35.023 W68 03.116 4157m: overlooking the lake on a turnoff, great spot

Excellent camping all around Lagunas Chulluncani, Hedionda, Chiar Kkota, and Honda.  After these lakes you will pass through a beautiful altiplano with 360 degree views of snow capped mountains.  Camping here also great but a little higher in elevation compared to the lakes.

Arbol de Piedre feature and bathrooms, S22 03.108 W67 53.076 4580m:  After the ranger/guard begged us for money he charged us B/10 for use of the bathrooms.

Ticket Control, Bathrooms, and a Trash Can, S22 10.255 W67 49.048: Fork over B/150 for a 4 day pass to the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaora.  It may be best to camp on the north end of Laguna Colorada before entering the gate control to buy yourself more time in the park.

Laguna Colorada Camp, S22 12.767 W67 47.948 4317m: Campsite overlooking the red lagoon.  Nice spot but an even better spot may be before the registration and check point: S22 09.885 W67 47.915.  Camping here buys you an extra day in the park.

Bolivian Aduana

ADUANA, S22 26.454 W67 48.357 5000m! (16,500 feet): Maybe the highest customs office in the world!  Nothing needed, simply hand over your temporary vehicle importation permit, they give you nothing in return either.  Trash can near parking.

Note: just before the hot springs there is an optional side trip you can take to explore the northeast section of the park.  See Optional Side Trips below for more information.

Hot Springs Camp beside Laguna Chalviri, S22 32.071 W67 38.940 4393m: Superb spot next to 29C hot springs.  The geography gives you a bit of a break from the wind.  The hot springs are crowded during breakfast and lunch time but wait an hour and you will have them to enjoy in solitude.  Hot springs are free to use, bathrooms cost B/3, there are trash cans and snacks for sale across the road.

Laguna Verde Camp, S22 48.188 W67 49.732 4369m: Overlooking the lake and famous Volcan Licancabur (5960m).  If the wind is low this would be a better spot overlooking the lake: S22 47.180 W67 49.051.  The guidebook suggests you can find a guide “hanging around Laguna Verde” if you’d like to climb Licancabur.  We sure didn’t see anybody hanging around.  Arrange in advance or from San Pedro if you plan to climb anything.

Southern Ticket Control, S22 49.881 W67 46.744 4360m: Here they will check your park ticket to ensure it is still valid.  There seems to be a very simple hosteria here also.

Bolivian Immigration, S22 52.856 W67 47.905: Get your Bolivian exit stamp here at the border.  No paperwork or copies needed.

San Pedro de Atacama is 49km after the border and all down hill.  The crashed and burnt trucks on the side of the road serve as good reminders to down shift!

Chile Aduana & Immigration, S22 54.641 W68 11.630: Simple check-in procedures, get you passport stamped then move to the next window and get your vehicle imported.  Nothing to it.  Just bring your original vehicle title and passport, no copies needed.  This does include a vehicle search where they take all meats, fresh fruit, and fresh vegetables.

See section on San Pedro for GPS coordinates for gas station and camping

Sunset at camp

Side Trips

Before you reach the park boundaries you will see tracks leading in every direction.  They will take you to even further removed mountain ranges, lakes, and valleys.  We struck off down a few and really enjoyed leaving the tracks and discovering more.  If you’re the wandering explorer type, you may never run out of tracks.

Once in the park there is one side trip we considered but did not take due to our gas range.  Just before the hot springs there is a road leading to the small settlement of Quetena Chico.  In the village there is rumored to be a hostel with hot shower (S22 11.732 W67 20.426).  Along the way you’ll pass by more lakes, including Laguna Celeste, and incredible scenery.  Once you have arrived you can take the world’s highest motorable road winding it’s way up Volcan Uturunca (6020m).  The road tops out at 5900m, 200m higher than the road over the Khardung La in India.

Side note: the continent’s highest pass, is just south of here on RN40 in Argentina.

GPS Maps [add links]

Bolivia seems to have the worst GPS map options in South America.  Your choices for the southwest corner of Bolivia are as follows:

Open Street Maps (OSM): This seems to be the most accurate but is missing some roads and a lot of features.

Mapear V9.40: Great for Chile and Argentina but only has the far Sothern portion of the Lagunas Route (no Salar or Uyuni).

Ruta Bolivia v3.5 (BOL Map 3.5): We found this to be the best.  The map is very difficult to find online (we had to register for a couple online forums before we could download).  It is loaded directly to the GPS and cannot be loaded into MapSource.  This map is missing some roads but has many features including good topo information and mountains (for a road map).

Lagunas Route Weather

Each of our seven days in October were warm and sunny.  About every other day we woke up to an enjoyable calm morning.  On the other days and every afternoon the wind blows constantly.  Every night it froze hard.  Overnight lows hit the single digits (-12C).

Sunset on the Salar

San Pedro de Atacama, Chile (8,330 feet / 2540 m)

Although there’s only one gas station in town, a Copec at S22 54.802 W68 11.930, San Pedro will seem like Mecca compared to Uyuni.  The popular camp for overlanders is Los Perales (S22 54.793 W68 12.040) which offers electricity, solar showers, and a climbing wall on a dirt lot [C:4,000/per person C:2,000 for elec; ~$20US].

There are a few ATMs in town, all which seem to run out of cash by the end of the weekend.  There are numerous cafes and bars with great food and wifi.  The town center has free wifi also.  There are a number of corner stores, but no proper grocery store.

Once recharged in town, the Atacama Desert surrounding San Pedro offers a whole different menu of options for overlanders.

Special thanks to the following people who helped get us through the region:

UnURBAN / Check out their post for more info on the region
Adventurous Spirits / Check out their post
White Acorn / their guide to the SW Circuit
Chris at Minutemen Pizza

If you have any revisions, please let everybody know in the comments below.