A spectacular crossing: San Pedro de Atacama (Chile) – Uyuni (Bolivia)

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We managed to work ourselves up into quite a state about this 3 day tour from San Pedro de Atacama (Chile) to Uyuni (Bolivia). The tour was 2 nights through parts of southern Bolivia that could only be accessed by 4×4. We assumed we were going to do it (it is a very popular tour) but it wasn’t until we were sitting in Salta planning our next steps when we realised the risks.

If you do a Google search for the tour the majority of things you will find are as follows:
1. Unreliable tour companies: The tour companies are unreliable and you may pay one company only to find you are placed in another tour company’s vehicle when you get to the Bolivian border
2. Drunk drivers: Drunk drivers are common and you may end up having to take over from your driver if he spends the whole night drinking.
3. No showers: There are no showers for at least the first 48 hours and toilets would be mostly of the ‘natural kind’.
4. Limited / horrible food: Some tours have rather dubious food (which is a problem when there are no shops to be found).
5. Altitude Sickness: The tour goes quickly from 2600m (in San Pedro) to 4900m (the geysers) on the first day and the chance of suffering altitude sickness is high. Not to understate altitude sickness (it can be very serious) but after reading accounts on the internet we were convinced we were going to need to be airlifted from our hotel close to death (that is, if we could get access to a phone).
6. Cold: It gets cold – really cold – and if you’ve packed for a summer holiday in South America and not even brought a sleeping bag then you will be very uncomfortable.
 
Despite this, the overwhelming feeling we got from the (100s of?) blogpposts, reviews etc that we read was that the scenery was so spectacular that any discomfort or illness was completely worth it.  So, we decided we had to do it. Although, the feeling I had at 8am on the morning of the tour was reminiscent of how I used to feel the morning of a dreaded sports day at school.

A note on choosing our tour company
The general consensus seems to be that the success of your tour depends less on the company and more of your driver, vehicle and companions. However, the better the company the better the chance you had of those things working out (or so we hoped). We went for Cordillera because 1) it was recommended by some people and 2) it was the most expensive (85 000 Chilean pesos / £100). We worked on the assumption that if they charged more they would cut fewer corners. Also, they guarenteed (in as much as you can in an office in the desert to which they know you will never return) that they do not pass anyone on to other tour groups, they put a maximum of 6 people in a car, the cars are in good condition, they have their own hostels and their own cooks at each of the hostels. This all turned out to be true and we were very pleased with our choice.

Day 1: Crossing into Bolivia, Laguna blanca, hot springs, geysers and laguna colorado

We gathered at the tour office at 8am to buy our water supplies and change some Chilean pesos into Bolivianos. We then set off in two mini buses to the Bolivian border. The border can only be described as a roughly built room in the middle of nowhere. This was our first no hay banos (there are no bathrooms) stop but with the promise of some at the park office (a 10 minute drive away) it was not too serious. We had a little picnic breakfast (coffee and jam/cheese sandwiches) before the 18 of us divided ourselves into groups of 6 and chose a driver. Our group comprised of me and Chris, Katarina and Patrick (from Germany), Marco (from Italy) and Mark (from USA).

Our first stop was the park office to pay the BOB150 (£14) entrance fee. Also an opportunity to use the toilet for BOB3 (30p). We then headed off to the Laguna Blanca (white lagoon). It is impossible to put into words the beauty of the scenery. I was a bit overwhelmed and my desperate attempts to capture the landscape on a camera were just frustrating – how do you take the 360 degree landscape and the emotion it evokes and fit it into a little box picture on your camera. I resigned myself to the fact that I was not going to be able to do it and would just have to enjoy it while I was there.

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We travelled through the Dali Desert (which inspired a few attempts of taking photos with watches) and Laguna Verde (although the recent rains meant it was brown and not green). We spent the afternoon relaxing in a Thermal Spring and learning that when do you do find a toilet in Bolivia, sometimes it will just be a smelly bucket. We then ascended up to close to 5000m to see the Geysers. Although less impressive then the ones we had seen in the Atacama, the fact that we were at the highest altitude either of us had been was pretty exhilarating.

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Laguna verde

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Another day relaxing in a thermal spring...

By 3pm we were at our ‘hotel’ for the night. Although we had to sleep in dormitories and there were no showers, I had to admit it was a lot better than expected! There were 2 clean flushing toilets, numerous blankets on the bed and a nice communal dining room area. Carolina, our cook, also made sure we were well fed as soon as we arrived – with plenty of mash potato, sausages and a fresh salad of avocado, tomato and cucumber. (I began to stop dreading that I was only going to have llama to eat for 3 days!). We then we to see the Laguna Colorado (a striking red coloured lagoon full of flamingos) but a storm and some very strong winds meant that we were not there for long and rather returned to our home for the rest of the night. Dinner that night was vegetable soup, pasta and tomato sauce and peaches for dessert.

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Flamingos in the Laguna Colorado

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Our home for the first night

Day 2: Arbol de Piedra, more Lagunas, Valle de la Rocas, Culpina and San Cristobel

We had a lot more driving to do on the second day so we were up and away by 8am. Stopping only when someone in the car yelled ‘flamencos!’ or ‘Llamas’ we headed straight to the Arbol de Piedra (tree rock). Yes, just like we experienced in Argentina and Chile, this was another example of a rock that had been given a name and then surrounded by stones so that tourists could be brought there to pose for photos. We did just that.

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Laguna en route to the Arbol de Piedra

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View from the Arbol de Piedra

We then travelled to a series of Lagunas. While on the first day we had seen a white, green and red lagoon, these were all lagoons of the same colour. Each was no less impressive than the next but we scolded ourselves for becoming increasingly nonchalant about each one. At one lagoon we had a picnic lunch of rice, tuna and salads. At another lagoon I found a secluded rock and enjoyed possibly the most beautiful view from any toile that I have ever experienced.

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Reflections and Chris

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Picnic lunch spot

Our next stop was the Valle de la Rocas (Valley of rocks) which was an area (seemingly infinite) full of rocks. Very surprisingly none of them had been named! So we spent the time finding creatures and objects in the shapes of the rocks. We then topped in the Pueblo de Culpina (village of Culpina) to, I think, photograph a church. Although we were more taken by the two llama wondering the empty dusty streets!

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Chris, Patrick and Katarina

Our final stop was our hotel. Or at least, it will be a hotel when they have finished building it. Chris and I got one of the few ‘matrimonial rooms’ and , much to the envy of everyone else, had a TV. Although there was no chance of us putting it on having seen or the hanging electric wires around the place. The showers were terrifying (again, wires hanging but this time close to water) but everyone decided to risk it. Dinner was vegetable soup followed by steak and chips. Then, it was early to bed for everyone.

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Is this a hotel? Is it still being built?

Day 3: Cementario de Trenes, Salar de Uyuni

We left our hotel at 7am and drove straight to the city of Uyuni to see the Cemetario de Trenes (train cemetery). I was a bit skeptical about this stop. Basically, someone has dumped a whole lot of rusty trains outside of Uyuni and now they bring tourists to it. Chris, however, really enjoyed seeing all the old rusty trains so there must be something to it.

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Dry landscape en route to Uyuni

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Rusty old train

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Parts of the cemetery had been converted into a playground...

After dumping our bags at the tour office in Uyuni we headed to the main attraction of the tour:- the Salar de Uyuni (the Uyuni salt flats). We had seen a salt flat on the drive over to Chile from Agentina and on one of our tours in the Atacama but nothing prepared us quite for the scale of the one. To put it simply, it was huge. Our drivers drove some way into it so that we could experience being on the salt flat away from other tourists. We spent ages taking photos (playing with perspective), exploring the salt and avoiding getting burnt – he sun is very harsh out there on that white surface. We had a picnic lunch of chicken and pasta out on the salt and enjoyed taking some final group shots (knowing the end of the tour was creeping closer!).

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The breathtaking salar

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Romance in the salar part 1

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Romance in the salar part 2

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Our driver Iber and his carload of tourists

So…………

What about all those things that were worrying us at the start?

1. Unreliable tour companies: We were very pleased with our tour company. Everything they told us would happen did happen. They were realistic about the trip and made it as comfortable as possible.
2. Drunk drivers: We were initially nervous when we say that there were 4 bottles of wine in the boot of our driver’s car. We asked whether they were for us and our driver answered that they were all for him. Turns out he was just joking with us and they were actually for us to drink with dinner on the second night. There was a small hiccup with one of the cars in our group who’s driver kept falling asleep at the start of the driver. However, after he had a good nap (while one of the tourists drove) he was much better.
3. No showers: Yup, there were no showers for the first night but this was not a big problem. We were out in the middle of nowhere after all!
4. Limited / horrible food: The food was plentiful, fresh and varied. We even had coffee and biscuits each afternoon. No complaints.
5. Altitude Sickness: No one died. No one had to be airlifted. In fact, no one was sick. Everyone felt a bit out of breath and most people had headaches but this was nothing that sitting still and a bit of ibuprofen couldn’t deal with.
6. Cold: It got cold in the evenings but nothing that my fleece and scarf couldn’t deal with. Turns out I didn’t need the thermals or the gloves I had bought in San Pedro.

(Em)

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20 responses »

  1. What an amazing blog! You paint such a clear picture, Em and make us feel like we’re there with you. It looks incredible. Thank you for sharing so eloquently.

  2. Oh Em, this is such a lovely blog, so enjoying it. I have a son of a friend who is cycling round and about South America birding. He started in Argentina and is currently in Peru with his brother who has joined him for a 6 week trip. He also has a blog and a FB page so it is great to read both and get a wonderful insight into South America. Keep blogging and loving your adventure. X

    • Thanks Gwynn, we are having such an amazing time. I am so glad we decided to do a blog because even now it is helping us remember what we did at the start. I think Chris would like to be cycling more so I will look for the other blog you mentioned!

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  4. What a beautiful journey! I’m so glad to have found your blog by way of your comment on Emily Luxton’s post today – I’m desperate to go to South America and now will get absolutely nothing done at work today as I continue reading about your trip. Love the perspective photo on the salt flats!

    • Thank you so much for your lovely comment! South America is incredible and if you are able to go then you definitely should. There are so many different things to see and experience – The salt flats were probably the most amazing thing I have ever seen but the whole San Pedro – Uyuni trip was memorable. Thank you for reading and happy planning!

      • Hi Michael, Our driver could only speak Spanish with a splattering of English. We were fortunate to have a girl on our tour who spoke both Spanish and English fluently so we managed to get quite a lot of information out of him. The tour company were very clear with us that this was not a guided tour and our driver was expected to drive us, not to be able to explain things to us in English. Before we left, I asked for a print out of the itinerary in English which really helped me. At least I knew exactly where we were going each day!

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    • Hello. Thank you for stopping by – we are so pleased to hear it was useful. We did the tour from 1-3 March 2013. Hopefully you are busy planning on doing the tour – it really is spectacular!

  6. We will be doing the same travel from San Pedro, and will book through cordillera thanks for this great blog. Where did you go once you arrived to uyni getting pretty excited after reading your great blog

    • Thank you so much for your lovely message! I’m a bit jealous that you still get to do the trip – wish I could do it all over again! We spent one night in Uyuni before heading to Potosi. We splashed out and stayed on an amazing hacienda about half an hour from there (you can see our blog post on hacienda de cayara). After that it was 2 weeks in the fabulous city of Sucre – learning spanish, eating food and just soaking it all in. Let us know how you find the trip and what you get up to when it’s done. You are going to LOVE it!

    • Hi there – sorry, I totally missed this comment. I hope you found the details you were looking for in the post (their in the paragraph in italics about choosing your tour company)… In case not, we used Cordillera at 85000 per person. Thanks for stopping by! Em

  7. Hi there! I’ve stumbled upon your blog in preparation for our travels to South America, love your stories! Both very helpful and entertaining 🙂
    I wonder if you could help me out with something: did you book the Cordillera tour way in advance, or just before your departure when you were in SPA? On the one hand I want to leave the departure date for the Uyuni tour a bit flexible, but on the other hand I don’t want to miss the opportunity becaude they are full up!
    Thanks & kind regards from The Netherlands!
    Mandy

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