Chile to Bolivia: San Pedro de Atacama to Uyuni via the Bolivian Salt Flats
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San Pedro, the gateway to Bolivia! There are few that would doubt that the small town of San Pedro de Atacama essentially exists for tourism. Although it’s a really interesting little place, in the middle of the desert there is little more to do here for locals that supply tourist services or logistics. However, it’s still managed to keep a certain quaintness without being absorbed with the Mickey-Mouseness of other tourist-centric towns.
The vast majority of visitors are there to go from San Pedro de Atacama to Uyuni via the Bolivian Salt Flats, or have just done so from the Bolivian side. There are a few other things you can do here, such as a star-gazing tour in the Atacama Desert, but realistically if you’ve gotten this far, why not see the epicness of the flats too?
This guide will help you understand how to book an Uyuni Salt Flats tour from San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.
After reading this post on how to book a Bolivian Salt Flats Tour from San Pedro de Atacama to Uyuni, check out:
Getting to San Pedro de Atacama from the South of Chile
To get from San Pedro de Atacama to Uyuni, you of course first have to make your way to San Pedro. It’s sort of in the middle of nowhere, so you will have to initially get a bus to a neighbouring city, such as Calama, and then pay the $4 or so to get a local bus the final 100km to San Pedro de Atacama.
Hitch-hiking from Calama to San Pedro
Hearing that hitch-hiking is so easy and safe in Chile because it’s ingrained into their culture of sharing and love of meeting interesting people, we decided to try our thumb at hitch-hiking from Calama to San Pedro de Atacama. We’d love to say that this was like, a really cool, successful and enlightening experience, but to be honest it was exhausting and disheartening.
What we didn’t realise is that you cannot under any circumstances hitch-hike from the urban area of Calama – even the dodgiest of vehicles will not stop for you, though luckily we got plenty of beeps and frantically-pointed fingers directing us to keep walking outside of the city.
The point in Calama from which you can hitch-hike to San Pedro de Atacama, as it turns out, is on the Ruta 23 motorway, 6.5 km from the bus terminal. Despite having read all the blogs we could find beforehand, we didn’t realise this until it was too late to get a taxi out there (and besides, that would have surely overridden the point of hitching?!) so we walked all that way with front and back rucksacks, along dusty roads in the sweltering 33 degree desert heat.
Once we found a nice spot from which to stick out our hopeful thumbs (under a large road sign to avoid sunstroke), we were then in for a 90 minute stretch of disappointment and rejection. Not only is traffic not particularly thick, but people don’t seem to head that way unless they have a full car (there are no towns between Calama and San Pedro de Atacama).
Eventually, perhaps ironically, the only man to stop was a minibus driver with 16 empty seats. It was comfier than a colectivo but probably not worth all the effort to eventually only save $1 each!
How to book a Salt Flats Tour from San Pedro de Atacama to Uyuni
Once you get to San Pedro de Atacama, you’ll find that the small town centre is just one strip of tourist offices. We see the Chile-to-Bolivia tour direction as better than Bolivia-to-Chile, because the salt flats are then the climax of the tour and you get to see them at sunrise. Make sure you go into tourist agencies and barter down your tour – tours have fairly unlimited space as they just call in more drivers and negotiate with other companies (there were three different companies within our 6-seater tour jeep).
Also – and we can’t stress this enough – EVERY BUDGET-LEVEL BOLIVIAN SALT FLATS TOUR FROM SAN PEDRO DE ATACAMA TO UYUNI IS EXACTLY THE SAME. You go in the same jeeps, at the same time, through the same route, to the same stops (there is so much more to the tour that just the salt flats!), eat the same food, sleep in the same quality hostels – the only difference is the price you pay.
We made the almighty mistake of booking online to make sure we had a place – AVOID. We paid a whopping $200 each with Keteke/White & Green tour agencies hoping for a mid-level experience, and were sick to our stomachs to find that the people we spent the entire trip with paid $100.
If you’re set on finding a Uyuni Salt Flats tour of higher quality, you need to be paying an even higher price than we did to get a personalisable experience on a private tour. You are unlikely to find these at the kiosks in San Pedro de Atacama, you are best off booking ahead.
Book a tour in the right language!
This is an important thing to confirm with the agency before you book a Bolivian Salt Flats tour from San Pedro de Atacama to Uyuni. If you don’t speak Spanish, English-speaking tours will cost you more because one of the seats in the jeep is taken by the tour guide.
However, on Spanish-speaking tours, the tour guide is just your driver, and he doesn’t say more than a few lines in the car before you get out to explore on your own, so you likely get more info and energy out of an English tour, although it’s completely luck of the draw.
We’ve seen some people recommend taking a Spanish tour even if you don’t speak Spanish and hoping someone will translate for you, but…
1) you risk no one being able to translate (in our experience, English is not as widely spoken in South America than in other parts of the world) so you will not only miss out on the social side of the tour, but also miss important logistical information like when to wake up or where to meet as you’re often left to your own devices
2) it feels a little harsh to expect another tourist to spend their holiday doing the work for you because you didn’t want to spend an extra $20 on someone who is paid to translate.
Bolivian Salt Flats tour timings
Every Bolivian Salt Flats tour from San Pedro de Atacama to Uyuni claims to leave earlier and earlier, but we found that it’s actually better to get one of the tours that leaves the latest.
As all jeeps are fighting to get to landmarks first, they end up in a dense pack that all arrive within minutes of each other.
Our driver was particularly chilled, tutting at all the jeeps whizzing past at speed, and although frustrating at first, it actually meant that we spent time at places when no one else was there. That’s right, no other jeeps to photoshop out of the salt flats!
Preparing for a Bolivian Salt Flats Tour from San Pedro de Atacama to Uyuni
Cash – under no circumstances should you wait to get to San Pedro de Atacama to get cash out. No no no. There are only 2 ATMs in the whole of San Pedro de Atacama (one of which shuts at 2pm), and every day at least a few hundred tourists are trying to get $100-200 out each.
If the machines run out of money, tough. You’ll have to wait until the next day to pay for your tour – and if your tour starts at 7am tomorrow, you’re screwed.
Without cash, you can’t buy entry into the national park (150Bs/$21), and for some nationalities you can’t cross the Bolivian border without it either.
Use your remaining time in San Pedro de Atacama to stock up on essentials for the trip – loo roll, hand sanitiser, water and coca toffees for the altitude. The top altitude is around 4500m above sea level so most people feel something, whether just nausea, a migraine or actual sickness. It passes though!
If you head towards the bus terminal there is an interesting artisanal market and an excellent juice bar next to the park. That’s about it though!
Where to stay before your Bolivian Salt Flats tour
As the jeeps leave for the Bolivian Salt Flats tour from San Pedro de Atacama so early in the morning, you’ll need to stay the night in this small town before your tour. Accommodation in San Pedro isn’t the cheapest – usually around £30-40 for 2 people, but at least you’ll know that in a matter of days you’ll be in the beautifully cheapo zone of Bolivia.
Your best option in the centre of San Pedro de Atacama is Hostal Sonchek, but if you don’t mind going further out, Hostal Ayni is a bit of a bargain and amazingly rated. There are a lot of camping spots around the edge of San Pedro de Atacama, which will give you a fair chance of stargazing once the town’s lights have been switched off at night. Take a look at the glamping available at Aji Verde.
When to go on an Uyuni Salt Flats tour
During the rainy season (Jan to March), the flats will be covered in a 1-2 inch layer of clear water. This means your reflections will be crystal clear, although the classic perspective shots will be much harder because you can’t put your camera on the ground and reflections blow your cover.
Make sure you bring shoes that you don’t mind getting wet – because it’s so deep, flip flops are better than trainers.