If you’re overlanding South America, you’ve heard of it: the famed Laguna Route through Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve, tucked in Bolivia’s remote, southwest corner. It’s legendary within the community for good reason: the high altitude, alien landscapes painted with salt flats and lakes, volcanoes, geysers, and desert; the hardy fauna adapted for the extreme climate; and of course, the vehicle-crippling conditions within the park.
If you have yet to be deterred by the tales of your fellow travelers, here is some advice we can impart to make your voyage through this treasure of the Altiplano safer and, hopefully, less frustrating.
- 1) How do you prevent frozen diesel and/or liquid coolant?
- 2) What do you do about the lack of fuel availability?
- 3) How do you navigate without road maps?
- 4) How do you survive the extreme road conditions?
How do you prevent frozen diesel and/or liquid coolant?
If your rig operates on diesel, you are in for a treat! The nightly temperatures at these altitudes are -20 ºC (-4 ºF) and average around 3 ºC (37 ºF) during the day. The temperatures also do not vary throughout the year, so there is, unfortunately, no way to avoid these conditions by visiting at the “best time”. Regardless of what type of vehicle you’re roving in, your coolant liquid freezing is an issue that could impact your adventure. If you are camping in the park this is a very common occurrence and is best averted with a few simple steps.
Follow these steps
1) Park your vehicle overnight with the engine or diesel tank facing toward the sunrise. Depending on where you camp and the temperature there, it may be impossible to avoid something freezing. If this does happen, you will want your engine or tank facing the sunrise as this will thaw the liquid over the course of a few hours. Plan accordingly, as it is possible you may not be able to resume your journey until the afternoon.
2) For diesel vehicles: Locals remove diesel filters, because they take longer to defrost. If you have access to them, additives can prevent frozen diesel in the first place.
3) For engine coolant: antifreeze coolant is your friend. This is not common in older vehicles and will need to be purchased.
What do you do about the lack of fuel availability?
It doesn’t matter whether you’re entering the park from Bolivia or from northern Chile: there is no fuel available for hundreds of kilometers in either direction of travel. It is tough to predict how much fuel your vehicle will be chugging with the uncertain distances you will have to travel (see next sections on no roads and extreme road conditions) combined with the additional taxation of exceptionally high elevation.
Carry spare fuel
The last thing you need is to be stranded in such a desolate and sparsely-populated environment. As such, self-sufficiency is the best and only realistic option. Carry spare fuel in jerry cans to ensure you can make it to the next gas station. In the worst case scenario where you need more fuel and have none, it is often possible to purchase fuel from passing tour groups at exorbitant rates (this is their spare gas after all).
Additional tip: The only caveat to this tip is that the containers can collapse and break if you fill up at altitude and then drive down a lower elevation without using the fuel or allowing for the pressure to be corrected. This can lead to leaks and a nasty mess or, at worst, the complete destruction of your jerry cans and a complete loss of fuel. Ensure that they are at the correct pressure for the elevation you are at.
How do you navigate without road maps?
You read that correctly. While traversing the park, you will notice that not only does it seem that there are roads everywhere, but somehow, simultaneously, that there are no roads at all! Judging by the tracks in every direction, every visiting vehicle has blazed their own trail. That can leave you wondering, which is the correct way to visit Laguna Colorada or the Sol de Mañana geysers? Google will only help you so much, as the most popular features of the park will appear on your screen, but with no sensible route to get there. Before you, dear reader of a certain age, accuse us of being lazy and ignorant in the storied art of using real maps, we will have to point out that there are no paper maps. The closest you will find is in the official park brochure, which more closely resembles an amusement park guide than a useful road map. It provides no key or references to gauge distance and provides little to no direction for how to find your way to the differing points of interest as, despite what official park signage may claim, there is no existing main road through the park.
Follow the tour jeeps.
While we survived the majority of our Laguna Route odyssey by using offline Google Maps and driving our truck camper in the direction of whichever laguna or geyser we wished to visit, we discovered between debating which path was the “correct” road and praying that whichever route we chose would not result in washboarding-induced cookies being tossed, that it was faster to follow the tour jeeps going in the same direction. The experienced tour guides know exactly how to get to the places you want to see and, generally, seem to know the least uncomfortable route to get there (if you can keep up with them!).
How do you survive the extreme road conditions?
Between the steaming geyser fields and breath-snatching vistas, the “roads”, if they can be labeled as such, are in poor condition to say the least. Know that you are signing up for a driving experience that ranges between vehicle-brutalizing off-roading and an absolute ripio wonderland. While the less-than-undulating park terrain offers a jackhammer-like experience for your backside, your vehicle’s insides will inevitably suffer far worse. As an example, our truck camper suffered damage to its steering with a destroyed Pitman arm and an upper control arm left wobbling; uncountable loose screws; and the final death knell to its already somewhat-bruised shocks. How the tour jeeps zoom about at 90 kilometers per hour, seemingly impervious to road conditions, is still beyond our comprehension as we agonizingly toddled along at 20-30 at best.
Save your vehicle, take a tour.
If you are experienced as an overlander and know how to get your rig relatively unscathed over ripio, we commend your bravery. Speaking from our own experience of needing upwards of $1000 in new parts and mechanic fees, taking a tour with a guide and a vehicle that is not yours will save you a ton of money. There are infinite tour companies based out of Uyuni, Bolivia and San Pedro de Atacama, Chile that specialize in tours to Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve. Simply choose one that suits your needs best.
With daunting challenges like fuel nonexistence and painfully treacherous roads, the Laguna Route in Bolivia demands a heightened level of preparation and an indomitable spirit. Whether your journey is smooth sailing or you end up with a hefty price tag in vehicle repairs (which hopefully this article has helped you to avoid), it is guaranteed to be a memorable expedition through this distant pocket of Bolivia.