The Southwest Circuit drive in Bolivia is one of the most remote and epic drives in the Americas and adventurous travelers are rewarded for their effort with high-altitude highlights including red lakes, pink flamingos, geyser fields, volcanoes, surreal wind-whipped geography, natural hot springs, and more (including some of the roughest roads in the country).
This Southwest Circuit (sometimes called the Route of the Lakes or Ruta de las Lagunas in Spanish) is most commonly done as a one-way road trip adventure between Uyuni town and the town of San Pedro de Atacama in the Atacama Desert in Chile (or vice versa) or between the town of Tupiza, Bolivia and Uyuni town (or vice versa). We did this route as a loop out of Uyuni town then back to Uyuni town.
This route takes travelers through the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve (150BS or about US$20 per person to enter). Established in 1973 and named after a 19th-century Bolivian war hero, this reserve protects 1,766,176 acres (714,745 hectares) and includes the Laguna Colorada National Wildlife Sanctuary. These areas are home to some of the most spectacular scenery in Bolivia, (which is saying something) plus more than 100 species of animals and more than 200 species of plants.
If you book a Southwest Circuit trip with a tour company, the first day will likely be spent exploring the Uyuni Salt Flat before spending a night in one of the hotels made out of blocks of salt on the edge of the salt flat before embarking on the Southwest Circuit to Hedionda Lake and beyond on the second day as described below.
We drove the Southwest Circuit in our own truck, so we did those salt flat activities on our own, as we described in our post about Uyuni Salt Flat Adventures, before embarking on the Southwest Circuit drive. Here we go.
Day-by-day on the Southwest Circuit drive in Bolivia
Day 1: Uyuni town to San Cristobal
We wanted to be able to begin the Southwest Circuit early in the morning, so we drove southwest out of Uyuni town to the town of San Cristobal on the mostly-paved Route 5 before cutting off onto Route 701 (50 miles/80 km, allow 1.5 hours). In retrospect, it would have been wiser to simply leave Uyuni before dawn and begin the circuit at sunrise with no need to overnight in San Cristobal.
In San Cristobal, we stayed at Hotel San Cristobal which was essentially the only game in town (220BS or about US$30 for a filthy private room with a gross bathroom, unemptied trash cans, and no Wi-Fi). An odd pub/pizzeria combo was the only eating option we found in San Cristobal, so we made do with Cup ‘O Noodles we’d brought for eating emergencies just like this. San Cristobal does have a 350-year-old stone church which is worth a visit to see its paintings and its cactus wood ceiling (15BS or about US$2 to enter, no photos inside the church).
Day 2: San Cristobal to Laguna Colorado via Hedionda Lake & Arbol de Piedra
Continuing west out of San Cristobal, you will soon reach the first of two left-hand turns that travel south off of Route 701 and onto the Southwest Circuit.
The first left-hand turn you come to takes you along a road that’s rough, but in MUCH better shape than the road you reach via the second left-hand turn off of Route 701 which is extremely rough because this is the route that dozens of tour company land cruisers take every day.
Both left-hand turns will get you to Hedionda Lake and Laguna Colorado and all Southwest Circuit points beyond. We chose the first left-hand turn because it was in better condition and because far fewer vehicles take this route. Like most sections of the Southwest Circuit, there are no signs and roads are often little more than tracks. It’s easy to question whether you’re going the right way and we doubled back at least once before successfully reaching Hedionda Lake.
After seeing virtually no one else on the road after we turned off Ruta 701 we arrived to Hedionda Lake to find a dozen or more Land Cruisers packed with tour group travelers who’d arrived via the second left-hand turn off Ruta 701. From Hedionda Lake onward, we would almost always be traveling with one or more of thees tour vehicles on the road with us–often passing us at top speed.
Hedionda Lake at 13,520 feet (4,120 meters) is almost always full of flamingos. This area is home to three endemic species of flamingos (James’s, Andean, and Chilean) and we saw these birds many times during this drive. What we didn’t expect to see was the Flamencos Altiplano Eco Hotel right on the shore of Hedionda Lake. The location of the hotel is great, plus they have heating and Wi-Fi. Had we realized there was a hotel here, we would have driven straight from Uyuni town to Hedionda Lake and skipped San Cristobal altogether (see our alternative itinerary, below, for more hindsight driving route tips).
The road from Hedionda Lake to the hot pink waters of Laguna Colorado continued to be rough and extremely washboarded which meant that we drove at a very slow and careful speed while Land Cruisers whipped around us. On top of that, we did this drive in August, which is mid-winter in the Southern hemisphere. This meant that the weather was dry but the temperatures were very cold which created patches of frozen snow across sections of the road. Many frozen patches were so large and solid that we had to detour around them.
About 18 miles (11 km) before Laguna Colorado we passed an isolated wind-carved sandstone formation in the Siloli Sand Dune area. There are quite a few formations like this in the natural reserve, but this 16 foot (5 meter) tall formation has been dubbed Arbol de Piedra (Stone Tree) for obvious reasons.
Laguna Colorado, elevation 14,035 feet (4,278 meters), covers 23 square miles (60 square km) and is full of mostly shallow (average depth is 1’2″/0.35 meters and the max depth is 4’11″/1.5 meters) pinkish/red water. The color comes from sediment and the presence of microalgae called Dunaliella salina.
There are a handful of simple guesthouses near the shore of Laguna Colorado. Each offers solar power, basic food, and multi-bed rooms with shared cold-water bathrooms. We got a bed for 50BS (about US$7.25) per person. Decent meals (soup and pasta for dinner and pancakes for breakfast plus endless hot drinks) were available for another 50BS ($7.50) per person. The owners of our guesthouse also gladly supplied thermoses of boiled water for people, like us, who brought their own food and drinks like Cup O’ Noodles, tea, instant soup, dehydrated camping meals, etc.
Day 3: Laguna Colorado to Villamar Mallcu via Sol de Mañana geysers, Polques hot springs, the Dalí Desert & Laguna Verde
The next day was a very, very long one punctuated by many geographic highlights, so we departed Laguna Colorado before the sun came up which meant we headed out in extremely cold temperatures (not fun when you need to empty a jerry can of fuel into the tank). We were thankful that our truck started and we remained on the lookout for sections of the road that were still frozen solid.
Our first destination of the day was the spectacular Sol de Mañana geyser field on a road that required that we drive around many big deep puddles that were frozen solid. Some stretches also required navigating steep sections and we used four-wheel drive quite a bit.
The Sol de Mañana geyser field covers 4 square miles (10 square km) at an elevation of 15,980 feet (4,870 m), but just before the geysers we reached the highest point we’ve driven on our Journey so far at 16,150 feet (4,923 meters). To put that into perspective, that’s more than 1,650 feet (503 meters) higher than Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the lower 48 states of the US.
Driving around the bubbling mud pots, sputtering fumaroles, and spouting geysers felt a little bit like going illegally off-road in the geyser fields of Yellowstone National Park in the US.
From the geyser field, we continued to another geothermal wonder: the Polques hot springs where salty pools are naturally heated to between 100 and 104 degrees Fahrenheit (38 and 40 Celsius) by the area’s abundant volcanic activity.
There are changing facilities near the soaking pools for those who want to take a dip in the pleasant pools that members of the local community have created. There’s also simple accommodation similar to that at Laguna Colorado and, when we were there, a more full-service restaurant was about to open that also had three less basic rooms.
Beyond the hot springs, we passed through the aptly named Dalí Desert. This small sandy area at 14,173 feet (4,320 meters) is home to lava rock formations that come in colors and shapes that really do seem surreal.
Beyond the Dalí Desert, we continued south toward Laguna Verde (Green Lake). At Laguna Verde, we parked the truck and walked around to admire the color of the lake (which is, indeed, very green) and views of Lincancabur Volcano which seemed close enough to touch.
In the Atacameño Kunza language, the word Lincancabur means “The mountain of the people” and this nearly perfectly conical volcano is an icon in both Bolivia and in Chile because it sits on the border between the two countries. The top of the volcano rises to 19,409 feet (5,916 meters) and the volcano is home to a frozen crater lake and Incan ruins.
After enjoying Laguna Verde, we drove back to Polques hot springs, then cut off to the east along rough dirt roads that took us around salt flats and sand dunes and over mountain passes.
Eventually, we left the boundaries of the national reserve and descended a bit from the extremely high plateau. In the lower valleys, we passed spring-fed wetlands that were lushly vegetated (an unusual thing in the usually-barren altiplano) and filled with birds and wildlife including vicuña (the wild cousin of the llama), rabbit-like vizcachas, and emu-like nandus (aka choiques).
Just after leaving the reserve, there’s a fork in the dirt road. The road on the right continues east and takes travelers to the town of Tupiza, Bolivia. The left fork returns north toward San Cristobal and Uyuni town. We continued to the left on the horrible washboard road for a few more hours before reaching the Mallku Cueva hotel just as the sun began to set. It had been a long day indeed.
Located in an area known as Villamar Mallcu (sometimes spelled Mallku), this hotel is owned by Hidalgo Tours. It was built into a giant rock outcropping that looks like a wall of enormous boulders shooting up out of the ground. In some places, those rocks were incorporated into the walls of the structure itself. The hotel offers 12 rooms with solar power heating, private bathrooms, and hot water in comfortable and stylish rooms (think wood floors and traditional textiles). There’s Wi-Fi (mostly) in the common area which also has a fireplace. There’s also a restaurant serving simple local and traditional dishes.
Day 4: Villamar Mallcu to Uyuni town
The next morning we drove the 113 miles (182 km) from the Mallku Cueva hotel back to Uyuni town.
The map, below, shows our Southwest Circuit epic drive route.
And check out life on the Southwest Circuit in our drive-lapse travel video, below.
Alternate itinerary for the Southwest Circuit drive in Bolivia
Knowing what we know now, we would alter our Southwest Circuit itinerary to the schedule below.
Day 1: Drive from Uyuni town to Hedionda Lake and spend the night in the Flamencos Altiplano Eco Hotel.
Day 2: Drive from Hedionda Lake to Laguna Colorado passing Arbol de Piedra and arriving at Laguna Colorado by late morning when the sunlight and wind conditions are best for admiring and photographing this lake. Then drive from Laguna Colorado through the Sol de Manaña geyser field to the Polques hot springs and spend the night there, allowing time for a soak.
Day 3: Drive from the Polques hot springs through the Dalí Desert and on to Laguna Verde before continuing through to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile or backtracking to the Polques hot springs and out to Tupiza, Bolivia (which may require two days).
Travel tips for the Southwest Circuit drive in Bolivia
You can get fuel in Uyuni town and in San Cristobal but there is no fuel available after that until you reach San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, Tupiza in Bolivia, or return to San Cristobal or Uyuni town. This means you must carry more than enough fuel. If you need to fill extra jerry cans (as we did), you can buy them in Uyuni town.
Once you leave Uyuni town, there are no ATMs, no medical facilities, no Wi-Fi, and very little cell service.
The Southwest Circuit is quite remote, but you probably won’t be alone. More and more independent overlanders like us are driving this circuit and many tour operators offer this trip to groups of travelers. When we were there, dozens and dozens of Land Cruiser tour vehicles were driving this route and they had really chewed the road up badly.
The Land Cruiser drivers all lower their tire pressure to 25 psi which allows them to fly over the road which, in turn, creates miles and miles of epic washboard ruts. If, like us, you have a heavy vehicle and can’t reduce your tire psi to that of a soft balloon, be prepared to travel extremely slowly and carefully to avoid damaging your vehicle on the rutted road. The tour vehicles will also fly past you, often throwing gravel your way as they do so.
August and September are the windiest months in this region, but expect wind all year round (we did this drive in August and it was quite windy). In October, temperatures get a bit warmer, but that’s relative at these altitudes where it’s never really warm. Around November the rainy season begins bringing wet weather and snow.
To provide a bit of protection from the salty, corrosive terrain, we had the undercarriage of our truck misted with oil at a car wash near the gas station on the south side of Uyuni town (40BS or about US$6). We strongly urge you to coat the undercarriage of your vehicle in this way even if you’re just driving on the Uyuni Salt Flat and don’t plan to do the Southwest Circuit. Don’t underestimate the damaging effects of salt and minerals. The same car wash charges 70BS (about US$10) to powerwash under your vehicle to remove the oil and any corrosive salt and minerals you’ve picked up during your epic drive.
This route is all at very high elevations. After leaving Uyuni town, you’ll almost always be above 13,500 feet (4,115 meters) and the terrain goes as high as 16,150 feet (4,923 m), so expect very cold temperatures year-round. Few guesthouses have heating and while they do provide bedding, you’ll pass a much more comfortable night if you bring your own sleeping bag if you’re traveling with one.
Here’s more about travel in Bolivia
Here’s more about Adventure Travel in the Americas
See all of our Epic Drives in the Americas