We arrived in San Pedro de Atacama after a 16 hour overnight bus ride from La Serena, again we booked online with Turbus. CH$27,000 for a semi-cama seat. San Pedro is a base for the popular Valle de Luna (moon valley), where we took a day tour (CH8,500)! You can also rent bikes and cycle there. There are dozens of agencies offering this tour and many others to geysers, thermal baths, volcanos, lakes and desert villages.
Salar de Uyuni (Salt Flats) Tours
San Pedro is a half hour drive from the Bolivian border and is the start or finish for those doing the Salar de Uyuni (salt flats) tour. Trip Advisor is a God send when it comes to this tour, research is paramount, always book in person. Arrange online and you’re likely be overcharged massively. We chose White and Green Travel.The most important aspect for us was safety. Drunk and reckless drivers are a big problem on these tours. Our driver Freddie drove carefully, refused alcohol and managed to take us to nearly all the locations, often ahead of other groups, without speeding. While he didn’t speak English it was a good opportunity practice Spanish. We paid 95,000 pesos each.
The following is a description of our two night/three day tour. When I was doing research I struggled to find specific information related to each tour, and I suspect some agencies might skip some locations, so hopefully this information is useful.
Day 1: San Pedro de Atacama – Villa Mar Dinner
At 7:30am, we were collected by the shuttle van from our hostel. We passed through Chile’s border control in San Pedro and reached the Bolivian frontier at Hito-Cajon, about 40 minutes later. After the gentle incline, it was difficult to believe that we had ascended 2,000 metres. At the frontier we were served breakfast and introduced to our 4×4 driver.
We all took a few sachets of the coca tea from breakfast with us, which helps with acclimatising to the altitude (this was important as it wasn’t provided for the remainder of the trip). It’s also a good idea to abstain from alcohol for a few days beforehand and drink lots of water. I may have taken this to the extreme and then realised there is a severe lack of toilets during the tour! We stopped first at laguna blanca, followed by Laguna Verde at the base of the Licancabur Volcano. By this stage my bladder felt like it was going to burst so I had no choice but to go “au natural” behind a rock! If you do need to use the outdoors as a toilet, please take a plastic bag for your toilet paper and take it with you! Also a couple of times on the tour I nearly stepped in a number two (gross). If you’re that desperate, at least bury it or put a rock over it! The only toilet on the first day is at the thermal baths in the Salvador Dali Desert, where we stopped for lunch and a soak in the hot pool. On the second day you stop at more villages and toilets cost 2 – 5 BOB.
In the afternoon we ascended further to almost 5,000 metres to the Sol de Mañana geysers, continuing on to the breathtaking Laguna Colorada: the freakishly pink lake filled with thousands of flamingos. We were the first jeep to arrive and tried our best to sneak up on them for some close ups, they were a little too smart for that!
We stopped briefly at the Laguna Capina, which is now a borax mine, before reaching the hostel in Villa Mar. Simple but comfortable, it had electricity and running water, and the blankets were warm (no sleeping bag required). We’d heard that other tours sleep in refugios with no windows or electricity. We were grateful for our tour choice especially as we were all feeling the effects of the cold and altitude.
Day 2: Villa Mar – Villa Candelabra
A panadol and a good nights sleep and my altitude headache was gone, and after a pancake breakfast we set off at about 8:30am for the rock valley. We visited laguna escondido, surrounded by red rocks and a lush valley, herds of IIamas grazing alongside viscachas, rhea (a South American ostrich) and wild geese. We passed many llama farms and local villages, stopping at one for lunch. Moving on to San Augustin, we were lead into a shop and encouraged to buy the ‘local beer’. On closer inspection these beers are actually brewed in Sucre and are far cheaper there! Josiah was excited to try the quinoa beer and was very disappointed. The coca beer is drinkable though.
Our final stop for the day was at another local village, which has a cargo rail line going to Calama Chile. About all there is to do is climb on the train carriages. We spent the night at a salt hostel (yes, made of salt) in Villa Candelabra overlooking the Salar de Uyuni. I was impressed that each couple had a private room and dinner was served with a delicious Tarifa red wine.
Saving the best for last, we rose at 4am to drive to Isla Incahausi to watch the sunrise over the Salar de Uyuni. After this we enjoyed an on-site breakfast. We then drove out into the vast salt flats and spent a good couple of hours trying to perfect our perspective photos, it’s actually not that easy. If you’re travelling to or live somewhere flat, it’s definitely worth doing some practice photos with your chosen props. It’s amazing how fast the time flies! We stopped in at the museum of salt and the Dakar Rally and Toyota sculptures before browsing local handcrafts and eating lunch at Colchani.
The tour ended in Uyuni after a short visit to the train cemetery, which is within walking distance of town and free to enter so I feel its a bit token but all the tours seem to do it. At Uyuni we dropped off the other two couples and then the car wouldn’t restart. Freddie kindly walked us to our hostel, we went back out over an hour later and found him in the same place leaning over the open bonnet. Sadly I think the drivers get the raw end of the deal on these tours which may explain the low morale. I was grateful the car waited until the end to break down!
Some tips for the tour
- Take lots of water – we brought two six litre bottles from San Pedro, though you can buy water in the villages on day two it is more expensive.
- Take extra Bolivianos – for toilets (2-5BOB) and showers at the hostels (10BOB) & anything you want buy.
- Leave reviews – on trip advisor and with the agency. It’s important that the dodgy agencies and reckless drivers are weeded out and the good ones acknowledged to hopefully increase the consistency and safety of tours. Name the driver in your reviews.
- The Bolivian drivers are paid poorly, a small tip at the end goes a long way.