One of the many highlights of South America is the 3-day/2-night or 4-day/3-night off-roading adventure from San Pedro de Atacama, Chile to Uyuni, Bolivia. The days are filled with incredible panoramas of deserts, volcanoes, lagoons, salt flats, geysers, wild animals, fauna, and more…all between the altitude of 3,500 meters and 5,000 meters! Tack on the high altitude, freezing temperatures, and heatless nights, and you get an amazing and memorable adventure that is not for the faint of heart.
There is no shortage of tour companies in San Pedro selling excursions to Uyuni, but after reading numerous nightmare stories about drunk guides, shitty vehicles, insufficient food, and lying companies, I narrowed it down to the top two companies: Cordillera and Estrella del Sur. We ended up going with Estrella del Sur (125,000 pesos pp, ~$210) because they not only had one of the best reputations, but they also presented the tour in the most professional manner and they rented sleeping bags which was a necessity for the first night. Luckily we had no major issues with the trip; our driver did not fuck up, the food was plentiful and delicious, and our itinerary was thoroughly followed. We can definitely vouch for Estrella del Sur! Whatever company you choose from, all companies more or less follow the same route, which I will highlight with photos below.
All travelers start with an early morning hotel pickup at 7:30am. Exit Chile, immigration and border stuff in Bolivia, all the fun shenanigans. We hoped to buy the $135 multiple entry visa but we were only able to purchase the $60 single entry visa. Boo.
After everyone got their stamps and chowed down on a picnic breakfast at the border, we met our driver, hopped into his 4×4 Toyota Land Cruiser, and set out for our adventure. Not long after heading out on the bumpy dirt road, we were quickly treated to stunning scenery of Laguna Blanca and Laguna Verde.
Next was a natural hot spring. Because we had already spent time in the springs of the Geysers of Tatio, Laguna Cejar, and Termas de Puritama, we had no desire to enter another spring. Plenty of people soaked in it though.
And then we made a stop at a small geyser field. I actually favored these small geysers over the Geysers of Tatio, perhaps because we were able to approach them and they were hissing and spitting at an earsplitting pitch.
By this point we were at about 4,500 meters and suffered a bit of altitude sickness. Symptoms included severe dehydration and throbbing headaches. (I drank so much water that I literally had to pee every 20 minutes.) We took altitude medicine and then headed out for the mirador at Laguna Colorada.
It was painfully cold. The wind was loud and menacing. The high altitude pounded our heads. Dry, thin air scraped at my throat and perpetually deprived me of water. What was supposed to be a hike ended up being more of a slow amble across the unforgiving desert. But the wondrous beauty of Laguna Colorada was worth it. Not only did the lagoon shine an unique, brilliant red, it was filled with literally thousands of Andean flamingos.
After the hike we returned to the hostel for dinner and a freezing night of sleep. All the structures in this remote area of Bolivia were quite primitive and rudimentary; lightbulbs were fueled by solar power and heating systems were a luxury that simply did not exit despite the subfreezing temperatures. Although all the beds were equipped with plenty of thick blankets, we were all thankful that we had sleeping bags to snuggle in.
Then we continued down the bumpy, dirt road which eventually became an alley of rocks. Viscachas, the adorable high plain mammals that look like a cross between a bunny and a squirrel, live in these rock formations and can be easily spotted.
Because it was a hotel, there were double, triple, and matrimonial rooms with private bathrooms. Hot showers (they were warm at best) were provided between 6:30pm-8:30pm, and electricity was provided until 10pm. Of course, there was no heat, but because we were at a slightly lower elevation, the night wasn’t as cold as the first night. Everyone had a good night’s rest prior to a 5am departure for sunrise.
“5am sharp,” our driver told us in Spanish the night before. Well, it would have been sharp had he not locked his own damn keys in his idling car. Fortunately he was able to break into his own car within 25 minutes (with the help of Chris and others), and we were off to the finale of the whole trip, the largest salt flat in the world of Salar de Uyuni.
This giant salt flat is about 3,600 meters elevation, which was a lower altitude compared to our first couple of days. Because we had acclimated a bit more and had taken more altitude medication, the only real challenge that we endured was the painful cold. Fortunately the dark, frigid moments didn’t last long because the temperature rose as soon as the sun peeked out of the horizon.
Then our driver took us through the tiny town of Uyuni. It didn’t take long to cross the entire town, where we eventually arrived at a train cemetery. Where else in the world can you climb on and play with blown-out trains?
After lunch we returned to the town of Uyuni. There really wasn’t much to do there except roam the streets and people watch. About 95% of the travelers finish their tour in Uyuni–their off-roading adventure is 3-days/2-nights long. But because Chris and I were returning to San Pedro, our adventure lasted 4-days/3-nights. We had 2 hours to kill in Uyuni before hopping into another 4×4 to head out for a final night in the desert before returning to San Pedro the next morning.
Finally the time rolled around for us to depart Uyuni and head back to San Pedro. We had an uneventful ride back to the desert, checked into our last hostel, ate dinner, and slept through a final night of subfreezing temperatures. It was another 5am departure the next morning, as the driver needed to make it to the Bolivian-Chile border to begin another off-roading adventure with the next set of excited tourists.
We were back in San Pedro for one final day before departing for Arica. Chris got a good work day in, and I hiked the archeological ruins in the outskirts of San Pedro. Thanks to acclimating to 4,000 meters in Bolivia, I had no issue walking up the hill in the 2,500 meter-high town of San Pedro.
I was amazed that we had spent an entire week in San Pedro and never ran out of things to do. Despite our incredible time spent in the Atacama Desert, I have to admit that the multiple-day off-roading excursion to Salar de Uyuni was the highlight of Northern Chile/Southern Bolivia. Just imagine–tourists from all over the world set out for this journey every morning. It doesn’t matter how cold it is, how high the altitude is, how bumpy and dusty the roads are, or how remote it is. The beauty of the high desert plains is not to be missed.