09 Oct Bolivia Pt. 3
Days 496 – 498 –
After breakfast and a quick stop at the local market to buy fresh bread and vegetables for the next few days, we headed to the entrance of the Lagunas Route. The Lagunas Route is a famous rough 4×4 dirt road that goes from Uyuni, Bolivia, to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. It winds through pristine alpine lakes, full of vicuna and flamingoes, and supposedly has some of the most epic scenery in the country. There are no services along the 250 or so mile stretch, and the road is all high altitude, some parts reaching up to 16,400 feet. The highlights are the beautiful lakes and remote camping opportunities. This was the main reason we had bought a few extra gas cans because on this stretch with no gas at high altitude, we weren’t 100% sure we could do it on a single tank.
We set off on the washboard road and were immediately greeted with beautiful and stark mountains. After about 8 miles, we started seeing the lakes. After checking out the flamingoes at multiple lakes we found one suitable for camping, down below the main road and on the shore of a small lake with a few vicunas and flamingo neighbors.
We went on a walk to the neighbor lake in the wind, and were glad we chose our spot near a large pile of stones that gave us some shelter from the icy wind. It was still so cold out that we ate dinner early enough to be finished washing the dishes by nightfall, otherwise the water would freeze onto the dishes as we were washing them. Lucky for us, Mark designed the truck bed so that when necessary, we could cook inside by flipping up the mattress and setting the camp stove on the wood platform, out of the weather. This was one of those nights.
To give an insight of the cold, Becky, bundled inside the truck was wearing 3 pairs of under armor cold gear leggings under her thick jeans, 4 pairs of socks, one long sleeve thermal, one regular long sleeve, 2 pullover sweaters, one zip-up sweater, one winter jacket, two hats and snuggled in a sleeping bag under two large and warm blankets. That cold. So cold that in the morning our Nalgene bottles of water were frozen solid and our thermometer says “error”. We expect it doesn’t read colder than 20 degrees. Each morning on the route we awoke to a thick layer of ice on every inch of the windows inside the camper shell. It’s so cold that in the morning the flamingos are frozen in place on the lake, and have to wait for the sun to thaw enough of the ice to get moving.
The second day on the Lagunas route was the worse in terms of road quality. Hours and hours at 5 miles per hour just bouncing over intense washboard. It was enough to make us both pretty cranky. We stopped for lunch hiding behind a rock near the “stone tree”, only type of tree to be seen out in the high desert. We made it to the stunningly beautiful Laguna Colorada in the afternoon, and had the viewpoint to ourselves. We’d heard so many stories of being surrounded by tour groups in Landcruisers, but we’d seen very few other tours. It felt so remote. The wind was relentless though, and we could only enjoy the mirador for a few moments before we got back in the truck.
In the evening we tried to stay in a little village at a hostel, as we thought it’d be nice to be out of the wind. It was the off season though and most of the hostels were closed. One that was open was completely full and the last one was simply not interested in selling us a room. So we decided to drive on and camp again. It turned out to be a great choice, as none of these hostels have heating or a place to cook, so what are we really paying for? We found a sparse canyon that we could drive into off the main road and find shelter from the wind against the wall. It was actually really beautiful, and we were able to have a cold salad and cook a taco in the slight wind. As usual we ate in the front seat of the truck which was relatively warm, and even made some hot chocolate which we sipped in bed, later. The afternoon clouds cleared, and though it was cold that night, the stars shown so bright in the canyon, and it was really picturesque. We finally braved the cold to take a shot at some night photography.
The next day the washboard was slightly better heading south from Laguna Colorada, but clearance was more necessary. We scraped our skid plate a few times on some rocks and were really glad we were in a truck and not a van. Even we could have used a few more inches of clearance, especially around the geysers. Our first stop was the Sol de Manana geyser field, another attraction we had totally to ourselves. Nothing like the smell of rotten eggs, slightly heated, to go with the frigid, windy 16,400 feet of altitude.
We then made it to the some hot springs, but we were in no mood to get wet, even though we were dusty and dirty. It was just too cold and windy. And the hot springs were the only place we saw along the route that had tourist. We didn’t even stop. We had lunch near Laguna Verde, which was one of the most beautiful lakes.
We considered pushing on to the border that afternoon, but decided, after another hour of slow washboard to check into the last hostel on the road as a slight break from the wind. We brought our campstove in to cook a stir fry dinner. The hostel had no running water (definitely no showers) and concrete floors, and to be honest, was not much more pleasant than simply camping behind a wind break like the previous two nights. But it was cheap! Only about 5 dollars each to sleep inside.
Our last morning we cooked eggs in the little hostel room on our campstove, but when we went to wash our dishes outside, our water container was frozen solid, so we packed away our dirty dishes. The border crossing to Chile was about as expected. On the Bolivian side we were asked to “pay” for our exit stamps, a police officer and border official were both in on it and because there’s no way we were going to start an argument and risk not being able to leave the country (and we really didn’t want to drive back through the Laguna’s Route), we just paid it.
On the Chilean side we had to wait for two hours because they only process one direction at a time, and there was a long line of buses dropping off tourists at the border to start their land cruiser Laguna Route tour. When we finally made it to customs, it was the first vehicle search we’ve had on our whole trip. We grimaced as they took some of our food including our raw quinoa and popcorn seeds, and left feeling a little bit violated. Five minutes after we got on the pavement we were stopped by a not-so-friendly policeman directing traffic. A huge semi had crashed and a crane was removing the mess from the road.
When we finally arrived in San Pedro de Atacama, we tried to check in to a campground a bit outside the city because we knew it was the week of their Independence Day and we thought there would be space available. But the first two we tried were unavailable, so we settled, exhausted, on a very expensive hostel in the city center that would let us sleep in the parking lot and use the facilities. $30 a night is the most we’ve paid for “camping” on the trip, and in fact more than we’ve paid for 95% of hotel rooms on the trip. Chile was off to a bit of a rough start for us. After a massive cleaning spree of the inside of the truck and our bodies, we went out for dinner at the cheapest place around. It was delicious but still very expensive after coming from Bolivia.
We spent the next few days in San Pedro trying to figure out how to get an oil change over the holiday, but the only two places in town were charging a lot and didn’t have the oil we wanted. We found a much better place to camp, where we met 2 bicyclists that were really great to talk to. They were British and had flown to Prudoe Bay, AK, and are doing the same trip as us. They left Alaska 1 month after us and we are just now crossing paths, I guess we’re slow! It was really refreshing to spend a few days hanging around and chatting with them, as their stories and attitudes were very relatable. The weather was so warm and perfect. San Pedro de Atacama was a very expensive little town, but it was so nice to relax in the warm sun and camp at a place with great hot showers. Our time there was a treat.
We had been planning to drive down the coast of Chile, but after some research and debate, we decided there was more to see in Northern Argentina, so we drove back over the pass towards Salta, Argentina. We had a really easy day visiting a few of the regional lakes on our way towards the border. We saw some flamingoes and salt flats at Laguna Chaxa.
And we stopped for the view at Lagunas Miscanti and Laguna Miniques. We wild camped with a view of the Chilean salt flats and the valley, made an early dinner, watched the sunset and had an easy night before crossing into Argentina the next day.