From Atacama to Uyuni
a surrealistic trip
Besides the Iguazu Falls and the Machu Picchu, Salar de Uyuni was one of the most important things on our South America todo-list. The Salar de Uyuni is with 10,582 square kilometers the largest salt flat worldwide. It is located close to Uyuni, a small desert town in the south of Bolivia, 3,656 meters above sea level. It appeared after several prehistoric lakes of the region were drying out, leaving a layer of few meters pure salt.
The probably easiest and cheapest way to visit the salt flats is from Uyuni itself. As we were coming from Chile we decided to do the Uyuni tour from San Pedro de Atacama. Besides Tupiza and Villazon in the south of Bolivia it is one of the most common starting points for tours through the Atacama Desert to Uyuni. In this article we are going to share our experience and give you all necessary information about preparation, costs and the tour itself.
PreparationUsually the tours include everything what you need for the 3 days. But there are always some useful things to make your life easier, especially in the desert. Water for example is only available during the meals and at the arrival to the hostels. It is recommended to bring around 6 liter per person, for drinking or washing your hands in between. The meals are sufficient but it is not bad to bring some fruits or snacks for the way. You should definitely bring a flashlight since not all the accommodations are supported with electricity. A travel pillow can bring you additional peace on the way, because the cars are shaking quiet hard while driving off road. With a pillow you have at least the chance for a little nap in between the long distances and yes you will need some rest, the whole thing is pretty exhausting. If you have a phone or mp3 player put some music on it, usually the driver lets you play some songs to make the ride more interesting. Some coca leaves are a good and natural alternative to altitude sickness pills. The altitude is in some parts of the trip a true problem, even after acclimating for 3 days in San Pedro we had the constant feeling, which you have after blowing up a way to large camping mattress. You can get Coca quiet cheap at the markets in San Pedro and in every corner in Bolivia. Don't forget your swimming trunks / bikini and a towel if you want to swim in the hot springs. If you plan to do the tour in the winter months bring definitely a good sleeping bag, since it can be up to -15C° and there are no heaters in the hostels. Another option is to ask your tour operator, if he provides a sleeping bag or if you can rent one on the way. Another thing which you should do in the cold time of the year is talk to your travel agency, if the border is opened. We met some people on the way who canceled their tour because the border was closed due to heavy snowfall and they were running out of time because of ongoing flights. So better ask somebody from your agency if the tour will be going on for sure. For everything which you need to buy additionally we recommend you to do your shopping in a nearby place like for example Calama, as everything in San Pedro is at least 30% more expensive than in the rest of Chile.
CostsThe Costs of the Tour from San Pedro vary between 90.000CLP (125€) to 120.000 (167€), depending on the tour operator. The prices from Uyuni to San Pedro are starting at 760Bs. (100€) and usually you can push the price a little more down. Additionally to that you need 200Bs. (26€) for the entrance fees and warm showers on the way. 150Bs. are obligatory but the rest is totally worth it to take.
In the beginning we were conscious about the big price differences between the operators. Especially after hearing the usual horror stories of overtired or drunk drivers we were about to invest a little more. Our low budget forced us to book the tour for 90.000CLP with Patajcha expeditions, which was a great decision in the end. Our driver Ivan was super friendly, gave us a lot of information about all the destinations, helped us taking pictures and drove fast but very responsible. The rest of the tour was exactly the same like the other organizations, the cars where from the same type, we slept in the same accommodations and as well the food was more or less the same. If you don't understand anything in spanish, you might invest a little more for an english speaking guide, otherwise you will lose a lot of important background information of the trip.
The TourWe got picked up at 7.00 in the morning by bus together with all the other attendants and got brought to the border, where we were supposed to wait for around an hour. Usually it goes way faster but the border was closed for the past 3 days due to heavy snow, so there was an enormous queue of other tour operators and truckers who were waiting for the immigration. We used the time for a very extensive breakfast, organized by our travel agency. After that and filling in the immigration papers we got brought to Bolivia, where we got splitted in to groups of six people and changed from bus to 4x4. The cars and drivers where provided from a company called Uturunku travels. Our first stop after half an hour was Laguna Verde, a large, beautiful lagoon in front of Volcano Licancabur, close to San Pedro. The name comes from the green color of the lagoon which is caused by the high amount of copper in the surroundings. The entrance for the natural park was 150Bs. which includes Laguna Verde and several other sights on the first and second day of the tour.
After we continued the ride for another hour we had a 45 minutes break at some hot springs, while Ivan was preparing the lunch for us. The entrance for the springs was 5Bs. and it’s totally worth it to go. The water has around 30 degrees all year long and especially in winter its really nice to take a warm bath under open sky.
With our lunch we started off to our hostel with a short stop at a geyser field to take photos and enjoy our incredible mother earth. Around half past 4 we reached that place which you could barely call a hostel, it was actually the only thing which was very unpleasant on the whole tour. On more than 5000m altitude we had -15 degree at night and the only thing to keep you warm was a cup lukewarm water per person to make either a tee or a coffee - no heaters, no oven, nothing. The lunch was basic but ok, more surprising was the dinner which got served 1 hour after that. Same thing here nothing very special but edible, anyway nobody was really hungry after the lunch. From 8.00 to 10.00 we had electricity to charge our devices and light which allowed us to play some cards to not think of the cold. After 10 there was not much to do except of going to bed, which consisted out of a mattress on a beton block, which didn't really helped to isolate the cold. Our tour operator provided free sleeping bags, but even together with our private sleeping bags and the blankets of the hostel it was just cold. Even in all our clothes and beanies it was freezing all night long, not to think about sleeping. The altitude gave us the rest so that we were completely hammered the next day. It felt like a strong hungover without drinking - a weird feeling of sickness, weakness and headache.
But hey time to go on, after some pancakes with dulce de leche and marmalade with a coffee we started the second day at 08.00 am in the morning. At 08.30 we reached Laguna Colorado, a colorful lagoon with several seagulls and flamingos. The rest of the day was pretty boring, mainly just driving and every hour a stop at a random lagoon with slightly different story or some stone formation from lava. I mean all these sights on their own are pretty amazing but after the 3rd. lagoon combined with the constant feeling of sickness we just wanted to go on and reach that goddam salt flat as soon as possible. Anyway lunch at 13.00 and arrival to our salt hostel in San Juan at 17.00. Salt hostel? yep the whole building is completely made from salt. The walls, tables, chairs and even the floor everything consists out of salt. Actually pretty cool and way more comfortable than the last accommodation. We got a private room, hot shower (for 8Bs.) and unlimited electricity, due to less altitude it wasn't even that cold. At 19.00 they served dinner - chorrillana, a traditional Chilean dish from fries, meat, sausages, eggs and pepper, this time even really tasty together with a bottle of Bolivian vine. There wasn't a vegetarian alternative but if you leave the meat out, together with some fruits you can have a more or less adequate meal. As we were still feeling sick and the next morning was supposed to start very early we went to bed at 8pm.
The next morning we started at 05.00 to catch up the sunrise over the salt flats. After one hour ride we got out of the truck and there it was - salt as far as the eye can reach. Really incredible and worth all the way and stress to see it. Basically you can imagine this like a regular desert just way more plane, extremely white and with an octagon pattern, which is caused by the humidity. During summer (rain) time the salt flat is completely plane and has an incredible mirror effect caused by a thin layer of water which creates the reflection. After half an hour of freezing, taking pictures and wondering about this surrealistic environment the sun finally started to rise and offered an amazing overview on the salar.
We continued our trip and reached la Isla de Incahuas at 08.00, a small Island with a hill completely covered by cactuses, with a great view from the top. The entrance was 30Bs., we stayed around an hour to explore the island with subsequent breakfast. Afterwards we continued the ride in the direction of Uyuni with several stops to take photos and enjoy this truly amazing nature phenomenon. After a quick lunch in the salt desert at 12.00 we reached another small village with a way too touristic artesenal (handmade) street fair, from where we started the last stage to Uyuni. We reached the desert town at 14.00 and visited the train cemetery as a last stop. Actually a pretty cool location to take pictures with very old steam locomotives surrounded by the desert. After that Ivan brought us to the Office of the agency close to the main terminal, where the tour ended. Uyuni itself is not that interesting, just a very touristic, small town with several restaurants, travel agencies and bars. It is not really worth to spend a night there, so we took the overnight bus to Sucre, besides that you have good connections to La Paz and all other major cities in Bolivia.
All in all it was a great tour with amazing nature and interesting phenomenons, which we can recommend to everyone. If you have any more questions about Salar de Uyuni, the Atacama desert or the tour, feel free to contact us.
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