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From San Pedro de Atacama to Uyuni Salt Flat
San Pedro de Atacama is one of the places you must visit in Chile; but if you already saw all its strange and changing landscapes, a highly recommended route is to cross the border with Bolivia and visit the spectacular Uyuni Salt Flat. It’s the largest in the world, with 10,582 km² (4,085 square miles) and only 520 km. away from San Pedro de Atacama.
There are two main ways to make this trip: To go on your own and take a bus to Uyuni or to hire a tour in San Pedro de Atacama. You could also rent a car in Calama, with permission to leave the country, but this is not a very safe option, since you can get lost or have problems with the car’s paperwork at the border.
To Uyuni by Bus
If you chose to go on your own, the best option is to take a bus from San Pedro de Atacama, to Calama (in the town’s Bus Terminal) and then take another bus directly to Uyuni. Tickets can be purchased the same day, but it would be better, in high season, to buy them online a couple of days in advance. The trip from Calama to Uyuni lasts between 8 and 10 hours. There are 4 companies that provide the service: Frontera, Atacama 2000, Cruz del Norte and Trans Salvador. The buses leave every day during the morning, so you must be in Calama very early.
In general, Cruz del Norte and Trans Salvador are the only companies that offer a bathroom in the bus and in which you don’t need to change buses at the border with Bolivia (it’s very cold). So if these two things matter to you, check before your purchase; the price difference is not much. The ticket from Calama to Uyuni costs between CLP 10,000 (USD 15) and CLP 15,000 (USD 23), depending on the company.
During the high season you can also find direct trips between San Pedro de Atacama and Uyuni.
To Uyuni on a Tour
The tours that takes you from San Pedro de Atacama to Uyuni Salt Flat, usually take 3 days / 2 nights, ending in the town of Uyuni. But you can also do it as a round trip of 4 days / 3 nights, returning to San Pedro de Atacama.
In San Pedro de Atacama you will find a lot of agencies that provide this service. Prices start at CLP 10,0000 (USD 153), for the 3 days / 2 nights tour and CLP 12,0000 (USD 184), for the 4 days / 3 nights tour. If you decide to take this last option, it would be good to go only with what’s necessary and leave your luggage with one of our keepairs in San Pedro de Atacama, such as Hostal Katchi.
This kind of tour takes you in 4×4 vehicles and if you choose the lowest prices, you will share the tour generally with 5 people or more. Accommodation is also shared and basic, but they provide breakfast and hot water. You can pay a little more than the average hoping that the SUV and food will be more enjoyable, but there are no guarantees.
Before buying you should check what’s included in your tour, such as the kind of accommodation, how many meals are offered, if water and drinks are included, of course, to which places they will take you before going to the Uyuni Salt Flat and if the entrance fees to any tourist point (Uyuni salt flat, national park, hot springs, etc.) are included.
The beauty of this trip, if we compare it with the direct bus to Uyuni, is that you will stop at several places in the Bolivian highlands, each one more impressive than the other. Since the itineraries don’t really change from agency to agency, during this trip you should visit at least 4 important spots:
The Green and White colored lagoons, which are at the foot of the Licancabur volcano, in the Eduardo Abaroa National Reserve. As the name implies, these lagoons are a glowing emerald green and a white with milk texture. Like the Colored Lagoons in Chile, these colors come from the minerals concentrated in the water. The panorama is beautiful and worth visiting.
The Polques springs are small natural pools with water at about 35 degrees, which in contrast to the cold air outside, are a marvel.
At almost 5,000 meters above sea level is the highest point of the tour, the Sol de Mañana desert area Geysers. Here you will be able to see geysers and fumaroles up to 50 meters high, boiling at 90 degrees. If you already visited the Tatio Geysers in Atacama, you may not be too surprised, but it’s a nice place anyway.
And The Colorada Lagoon, where more than 30,000 pink andean flamingos nest, looking impressive in contrast to the color of the lagoon. The red color of its water is given by algae and minerals, which are vital in the reproduction of the fauna that lives there.
After these baseline spots, the rest of the route will go through the desert of Siloli and some of the high plateau lagoons, like Cañapa, Hedionda, Honda and Chiarcota. In some tours you will know them all and in others only a couple. It’s not too important to visit all of them, unless you are in love with the flamingos and you can’t stop photographing them.
Once in Uyuni, whether you are on a tour from San Pedro or have gone on your own, you will live the same experience. You can’t go on your own to the Uyuni Salt Flat because it’s quite far from the town and even if you have a vehicle, only authorized tour operators can enter.
The Uyuni Salt Flat, is as impressive as you can imagine. It’s just like being on another planet and you won’t be able to stop taking pictures, even if you’ve been there for several hours. The most beautiful thing about this landscape is that it’s never the same, since depending on the season, the amount of water on the ground creates different visual effects. Also, depending on the time of the day, colors change. If you are lucky you’ll be able to see several animals, such as flamingos, bolivian vizcachas and perhaps a culpeo fox.
Tourists going to the Salt Flat generally stay at a moderate distance from the 4×4, I recommend walking away a little, to appreciate this wonder of nature in silence.
After seeing this, what remains of the tour is just an extra. The Salt Museum, the Colchani Village, (where you can buy cheaper handicrafts than in Uyuni) and the Train Cemetery, which is basically trains that someone abandoned. Nothing spectacular.
The most important thing about this trip, in whatever way you have decided to do it, is to be able to appreciate natural phenomena that you may never see anywhere else in the world. That’s why it’s very important to take care of all the places you visit. Step carefully and don’t leave trash, because these beautiful ecosystems are threatened. Be conscious and enjoy the trip.