When backpacking to Bolivia most travellers want to explore the country’s Number One Tourist Attraction – Salar de Uyuni – the biggest salt flat in the world. As part of this adventure, you’ll probably also want to investigate the south of the country with its stunning arid sceneries, volcanoes and amazing coloured lagoons…
I have spent more than a year traveling and working throughout South America and I always try to find my own way through a country instead of booking a tour. In the end, it is not only more fun and adventurous, it will at the same time connect you to the locals who will be more than happy to teach you about their culture.
As I had some friends from Canada and Europe planning a visit to Bolivia I asked myself – why don’t we rent a car instead of booking with a tour group?
There are a couple of huge benefits of car rental…
I guess everyone who has ever rented or owned a car and explored a country this way knows how much freedom you gain being able to stop wherever you want and make your home wherever you park it.
Most tours range from one to four days, a car rental makes you more flexible regarding your time frame. You can stay as long as you want!
You can plan your journey to ensure that you are not in the same location as the tour groups at the same time. You can have ALL THIS to yourself!
As you can imagine, renting a car and heading out on a road trip in a country that you don’t know is exciting and a little scary. But rest assured that you’ll meet local people along the way who will help you with your journey and be excited to learn more about your culture too! Being able to chat with locals, cook together and play with their kids – all these experiences will be possible when you have the time to connect and stay a little longer at each place – a luxury that you often don’t have when travelling in a tour group.
We knew that there wouldn’t be a lot of shops along the way so we bought veggies, fruit, wine and snacks in advance in Sucre, our starting point, and some additional items in Tupiza. Make sure you bring enough water for the drive to be able to cook and to stay hydrated especially on altitudes above 4,000m!
Rent your car in Sucre
We started our adventure in Sucre, the white city of Bolivia, a lovely town with a mild climate and a perfect spot to plan the trip. Here we stayed in the wonderful Beehive Hostel and rented our car with the amazing people of BIZ car rental, a small & young business with brand new 4×4’s that allow you to drive over the salt flats, which not every car rental in Bolivia does. They also provide you with a lot of information to make you feel comfortable on the road. Just send them a message to receive a personal quote and they will get back to you as soon as possible.
We choose the Mitsubishi Montero Sport…
…but there are a lot of other cars to choose from depending on how many people you are and what’s your budget.
They are also very knowledgeable when it comes to direction and distance. Their rental package includes:
- A 100 litre extra tank, as there are no gas stations in the south.
- A shuffle will be provided in case you get stuck.
- Two spare tires.
- Hose to fill up the gas.
- Maps and a GPS.
I did the drive twice with different groups of friends and the first one I did was a little more adventurous; we slept in the car and went a slightly different route from Sucre to Tupiza to Uyuni to Sud Lipez and back to Sucre via the Salt Flats. Both routes have amazing landscapes although the tour via Tupiza felt a little more adventurous. In the following I will explain the second route a little more in detail.
Sucre – Tupiza – Laguna Verde – Salar Uyuni – Sucre
Route 2: The classic itinerary
Sucre – Laguna Verde– Salar Uyuni – Sucre
From Sucre we headed south towards Uyuni. The landscapes along the way are truly amazing and you will be impressed by the scenery of mountains, volcanoes and lagoons. On our way we passed through the city of Potosi, where you can stay for the night, but we kept on going to leave the bigger cities behind…
Uyuni is a small desert town with lots of hostels, restaurants and markets to stock up on food, water and gas.
From there you head further south while finding your way through different treks that more or less all lead the same direction:
The red lagoon is located at 4,200m and there are some basic hostels close by…
Around noon the colour red is most visible, but also around sunrise and sunset you can witness stunning views on the lake, which is filled with pink flamingoes. We spent two nights of the journey here and the next day was a perfect day trip down south to Laguna Verde and the Chilean boarder.
Only half an hour away from Laguna Colorada you will encounter the geysers. At this point you have reached the highest point of the journey, which is at 4,900m.
The green lake is located at the most southern point and almost on the Chilean boarder. We arrived at Laguna Blanca and from where we walked to the border.
It is a 2-hour windy walk with amazing scenery. At Laguna Blanca you can also find a small restaurant and hostel incase you want to spend the night.
The hot springs are located one hour away from Laguna Colorada, but we decided to stop by on our way back when we had the hot springs all to ourselves.
We chose to head back to Uyuni on a different route along the border of Chile, stopping by plenty more lagoons and volcanoes. This route is a little more challenging to drive but totally worth it. In order to stay on track we constantly asked drivers along the way who were always super friendly and helpful when it came to directions.
We drove to a tiny town called Chuvica and one of the guides directed us to a salt hotel for 35BOB (4.9US$)
In the salt hotel we enjoyed our first shower since a couple of days and relaxed a little in order to be ready for the next day and our drive on the Salar itself!
In Tunupa we watched a wonderful sunset and got up at 5am the next morning to enjoy sunrise on the salt flats which was indeed n unforgettable moment. Tunupa is named after the volcano which is close to the town and definitely is one of the highlights of the area.
From there we headed back to Uyuni to explore the train graveyard, which is a wonderful place to wander and explore and take some photos that look like a film set!
After a big breakfast we headed on back to Sucre, which is a 6-hour drive from here. We brought the car back and enjoyed another night in Sucre reflecting all what we had seen and experienced before heading back to La Paz.
General info for undertaking your own independent road trip:
In general it’s pretty easy to drive, although once you leave Uyuni there are no paved roads any more. Nevertheless, you only drive off road in rare locations. That being said you don’t have to be a 4×4 expert to be able to do this trip!
I would defiinitely advise to be able to at least speak the basics in Spanish as the car rental and also the police officers along the way won’t speak English. The same goes for the guides, in case you get lost and you want to ask for directions. In the end knowing the language will enrich your experience as you’d be able to talk to locals along the way.
In general it is a touristic zone and there is no real need to be scared. I did it twice and we never felt unsafe even while sleeping out there in the nature.
We did our trip during the dry season, which starts in May and lasts until October. During the summer months, which are from November to April driving will be more difficult and I am not sure if I’d recommend heading south. However, this is the time to head to the Salar if you want to photograph reflections.
Things to bring along your South Bolivian Adventure:
Warm clothes: During the night temperatures drop below zero so bring layers.
Coca leaves: The highest point will be around 5,000m so make sure you acclimatise beforehand and bring some coca leaves to make tea, which will aid any altitude sickness.
Camping equipment: If you intend on sleeping in the car bring a good sleeping bag and a camping cooker along in order to make tea and be able to cook.
Water and food: Once you leave Uyuni or Tupiza there won’t be any markets with fresh fruit and vegetables, only small stores with the basic necessities.
Cash: There are only ATMs in Uyuni and Tupiza so bring along some Bolivianos in order to pay for hostels and gas, and the entrance fee of the Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve of 150 BOB.
In general the costs of a car rental are higher than booking with a tour agency, but the freedom and the adventure you will gain are priceless. Driving through the south of Bolivia made me speechless countless times and we encountered probably some of the most stunning scenery I have seen in my life. So in the end I am glad we took our time to explore, wander and have the time to really appreciate the beauty instead of rushing through the region as some of the tour groups do.
We paid in total with 4 people around $1000 for the rental and additionally around $150 for accommodation, food and gas for 6 days for all of us. Incase you hadn’t guessed – IT WAS WELL WORTH IT!