Atacama to Uyuni – Taking the road less travelled.

My experience with off-roading has generally been limited to a few hours here and there in the hills around where I grew up. So I was intrigued with the idea of embarking on a 3 day off-road trek from San Pedro de Atacama (in Chile) through the high-altitude deserts, mountains and salt flats to the town of Uyuni (in Bolivia).

It definitely isn’t a “do it yourself” endeavor (e.g., rent a truck and hope for the best).

It is one of the harshest environments in the world. It is very remote and easy to get lost on the tangle of unmarked dirt tracks that crisscross the area. In other words – things can go horribly wrong, fairly quickly, if you don’t know what you are doing.

Which track would you follow?

In reading reviews of different tour companies online I found it impossible to narrow down the selection.

It seemed like a total roll of the dice. The reviews would vary widely from “most amazing and magical experience of my life, our driver was awesome” to “it was horrible, we almost died and our driver was passed out drunk half the time” – all for the same tour company!

There is no shortage of drivers that will take you on this trek for the right price…figuring out which one to trust is another story.

I was so perplexed that I contacted the adventure travel company we have arranged a few other trips through – BikeHike out of Vancouver, BC. Even though this driving trip isn’t something they regularly organize for clients they did the legwork and arranged the driving tour for us through a reputable local company.

That problem solved, our next hurdle was getting across the Chile-Bolivia border.

The tourist visa requirements for U.S. citizens to visit Bolivia are fairly arduous (typical paperwork plus proof of financial solvency, an exit plane reservation in hand, copies of hotel bookings, yellow fever vaccinations, etc.) and definitely expensive ($160 per person).

On the first morning of the trip a Chilean driver picked us up at our hotel in San Pedro de Atacama, drove us to a building on the outskirts of town to get our exit stamp from the Chile immigration officer, then started taking us higher and higher and higher into the mountains outside of town.

 Eventually we came upon a tiny little building in the middle of nowhere that served as the Bolivian border station.

Remote border crossing between Chile and Boliva.

We weren’t really sure what to expect. I had read online that the border officers at this location can be unpredictable and may make it difficult to cross if you didn’t get a tourist visa before you left the U.S. (which is what Chris, Glenn’s brother was able to do).

Glenn and I had stacks of meticulously compiled tourist visa paperwork and we anxiously entered the building wondering if we’d get through.

We handed the paperwork to the officer, ready to begin our dance. He barely glanced at the front page, turned around and plopped it on top of a leaning stack of similar paperwork from other tourists, and held out his hand for money. $320.00 in crisp, clean, untorn, unwrinkled and unblemished small denomination U.S. dollars, to be exact. Chris had brought us the cash from the U.S. and he had to visit several different banks to get enough high quality bills to satisfy these requirements.

In the end the officer wouldn’t accept our last $20 because there was some pink ink from the production process on the bill. Chris had a few other $20 in his wallet so we started pulling those out. The guard would look at them, make a disgusted face and throw them back across the table at us. We were getting nervous when we got down to the last extra $20. Luckily this one seemed to satisfy his requirements, he grunted and he gave us our visas.

We made it through!

Next thing you knew we were piled into a waiting Toyota Land Cruiser with our Bolivian driver, Freddie, and guide, Larissa. Luggage in the back, extra gas tanks strapped to the roof and Glenn, Chris and I wedged into the back seat.

We broke down not long after we got started. Flat tires seemed particularly problematic. Here our driver is replacing the serpentine belt.

While a 3-day off-road road-trip isn’t exactly my favorite pastime, it is really the only way you can get into these remote areas to see the sites. We visited colorful lagoons (green, red, blue, gray), many of which were full of elegant flamingos.

A beautiful teal colored lagoon.

Larissa our guide, me and Glenn hiking down to the red lagoon.

Pink flamingos in the red lagoon, quite a sight! (Photo by Chris)

We saw vast landscapes carved by wind and sand, a steaming volcano, as well as cactus filled canyons.

Amazing what erosion can do.

Setting off to hike through a rocky, cactus filled canyon.

We visited several little villages and settlements of the indigenous people who carve out a tough existence growing quinoa and herding llamas.

We spent one morning herding llamas as they set out to feed on local plants. Glenn was chasing down two rebel llamas here. 

The llama shepherd showing us how to throw rocks with a sling. We could get them to go a few feet, he sent them sailing for yards and yards with amazing accuracy and power.

We hiked through a beautiful cave that was found by the local indigenous people when they were out looking for a lost llama. They make extra money for their village by allowing visitors to wander through.

We stayed in a hotel made entirely of salt.

Even the floor was made of salt, which crunched like snow when you walked down the hallways.

We saw mummies, still entombed in their final resting place in some caves at the base of a volcano.

This man was mummified and entombed in the cave with his wife and two children. It was fascinating to see something like this in a real setting instead of a museum.

Eventually we ended up at the Uyuni Salt Flats, the largest salt flats in the world.

Such a captivating view.

It is impossible to describe the vast openness of the salt flats. They go on forever and ever and ever. We will be spending a few more days on the salt flats, so I’ll share more pictures of our adventures there in my next post.

Being out on the salt flats can be very disorienting.

If you ever find yourself in this part of the world it is definitely worth the time and effort to arrange for the driving tour (Atacama to Uyuni, or Uyuni to Atacama). You’ll see some unbelievable sites that few others have seen. It was a grand adventure. More pictures below!

Another beautiful lagoon. (Photo by Chris)

So fun to see flamingos in the wild. (Photo by Chris)

Flamingos can fly…who knew? (Photo by Chris)

One of a few funky little hotels in the middle of nowhere. Here you could go to the ticket booth (little white and blue building on the right) to buy a ticket to use the bathroom (about $.75 U.S.)…then the lady would walk you to the bathroom on the other side of the complex. Once through the door she’d turn around and ask you for the ticket she just gave you a moment before. It was hysterical.

Time for lunch.

Sun, cactus and salt…yup, we’re in the desert. 

Hiking back out to our ride after visiting the hidden cave. The salt gets thin near the “shore” so the trucks can’t drive on it.

Chris making friends with a local boy. The kid was quite taken with Chris’ height and referred to him as a “cuckoo.”

A beautiful hike on one of the “islands” on the salt flats. Many of the islands are actually made of coral, which you can see here.

Just a wee bit windy! 

Train cemetery outside of the town of Uyuni.

Glenn looks like he is about to rob one of the trains.





8 comments on “Atacama to Uyuni – Taking the road less travelled.

  1. Michele….SO glad you decided to do this road trip. Was it worth it or what? I mean talk about views, and amazing rock formations….and the people!

    • Hi Mike – I never would have done this trip across the Bolivian desert without your suggestion…and it was spectacular! Thank you!

  2. Pingback: Suck it up, Buttercup: Biking the Uyuni Salt Flats | A Life More Extraordinary

  3. Hello Michele,
    Wow! What an amazing adventure. I’m so excited for you and Glen and all the fun you are having. I’m glad you can laugh, even in frustrating times. Travel can be a challenge, but you two look like you are making the best of it. It sounds helpful to have Glen’s brother there (at least for $$)! The photos are amazing, I did not know that flamingo’s could fly — great photo! Enjoy your adventures and your time together. Best wishes,

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