San Pedro to Uyuni: Booking My Trip to the Bolivian Salt Flats

by Dave on March 3, 2014 · 15 comments

Taking a turn behind the wheel on the Bolivian salt flats

Taking a turn behind the wheel on the Bolivian salt flats

It was one of the most memorable adventures of my life.

Traveling off road in a 4×4 for three days from San Pedro de Atacama to Uyuni across the Bolivian salt flats.

It felt bittersweet to be leaving the Atacama Desert, but there was only one way forward, and I knew it too would involve high altitudes and spectacular landscapes.

Booking the Trip

As with most multi-day treks and tours I’ve taken around the world, it’s easy to book your Bolivian salt flats trip once you arrive in San Pedro.

There’s little to no difference in itineraries offered by the local tour companies, though the prices do vary $20 to $30.

You can pay a little more than average in the hopes that the SUV and food are nicer, but there are no guarantees. And the variance in the dozen or more SUV’s that I saw was negligible. Most are Toyota Land Cruisers, and all appeared quite capable.

One piece of advice I did try to heed was the importance of booking a trip with a driver who owns his own SUV, and is thus more likely to take good care of it, and you.

Drunk driving amongst Bolivians is an ongoing issue in the region, and not to scare anyone away, but serious traffic accidents have occurred on the salt flats.

Needless to say, it’s a good idea to have comprehensive travel insurance before embarking on this kind of trip.

Lunch the second day included canned tuna, potatoes, rice, corn, salad, cheese and fresh fruit

Lunch the second day included canned tuna, potatoes, corn, salad, cheese and fresh fruit

By Western standards, my tour was astoundingly cheap. I paid just $135 for the three-day, two night trip, and this was considered on the expensive side compared to some of the other agencies with tours priced around $120.

Included in the price were:

  • 4×4 transport from San Pedro to Uyuni
  • Two nights basic accommodation
  • Six meals, starting with lunch the first day and ending with breakfast on the last
  • Water and drinks during meals

The following were not included:

  • Bolivian entry fee ($135 for Americans, paid in cash in Uyuni)
  • National park fee ($27)
  • Sleeping bag rental ($3)
  • Drinks outside of those included at meals
  • Bottled water

One thing the tour agency didn’t tell me in advance was that the driver would hold my passport as collateral until I paid for my Bolivian visa in Uyuni.

I learned that tidbit at the border crossing, where I was given no alternative but to hand over my passport to the driver I’d just met minutes earlier.

My backpack

My belongings

It is recommended you bring the following:

  • Snacks and water (I took 1.5-liter and 6-liter bottles)
  • Sunscreen
  • Sunglasses
  • Toilet paper
  • Warm clothes (dress in layers)
  • Bathing suit
  • Sleeping bag
  • Passport
  • Camera

Seven and a half liters of water may seem like a lot, but it turned out to be about right. The rule of thumb is to drink one liter of water for every thousand meters of elevation.

I can’t overstate how important it is to bring warm clothing. On arrival in San Pedro, I’d already bought an alpaca sweater, hat and gloves in the local market as night-time temperatures plummet quickly in the desert. This is especially true at higher altitudes.

In the Western sense, you may view your driver as your guide, but from the Bolivian perspective, I discovered my driver simply saw himself as a taxi driver who just happened to be transporting people in a place with no roads and exotic scenery.

The lodging where we spent our first night (4,200 meters)

The lodging where we spent our first night (4,200 meters)

Acclimatization

If you arrived in San Pedro from Santiago, whether by bus or plane, you’ll want to allow as much time as possible to acclimatize to the higher elevation before leaving for Bolivia.

In San Pedro, you’re sleeping at 2,400 meters, while your first night in Bolivia will be at 4,200 meters. The second night will be a bit lower at 3,600 meters.

As a reference, in mountaineering, it’s not advised to sleep higher than 300 meters above where you slept the previous night, in order to allow your body to acclimatize. Otherwise, you increase your risk for developing Altitude Sickness.

To help your body adapt, you should also take day trips from San Pedro to higher altitudes, such as the nearby Salar de Tara and Tatio Geysers.

This is the first in a series of posts from my wild ride through the Bolivian salt flats. Stay tuned.

_______

This post was brought to you by Southern Cross Travel Insurance.

About the Author:

is the author of 1723 posts on Go Backpacking.

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Categories: Bolivia, Features

15 Comments

Mike March 4, 2014 at 12:10 am

Considering Bolivia’s high altitude, it’s advisable to check your travel insurance coverage details for any altitude restrictions.

Reply

Dave March 4, 2014 at 11:22 am

Good point Mike. Though I don’t recall having seen high altitudes as an exclusion in my current or past medical or travel policies, I would not be surprised to see some companies stick it in there. Or include it as part of a sports rider you have to pay extra for.

Reply

Mat March 4, 2014 at 12:12 am

Im booking this in the next two days, who is the trip with?

Reply

Dave March 4, 2014 at 11:24 am

As I mentioned, they’re more or less the same. The company I booked through was Expediciones Estrella del Sur. They have an office in the main tourist area of San Pedro.

Reply

Jen March 4, 2014 at 6:02 am

Can’t wait to read your next few posts on this. Visiting the Salt Flats is something I really want to do soon.

Reply

Dave March 4, 2014 at 11:24 am

Thanks Jen. It’s an incredible area, and well worth the effort to get there.

Reply

Jayne March 10, 2014 at 4:46 pm

I just finished this trip about a week ago – so great! I also went with Estrella and had a good time. It’s a shame we didn’t go at the same time. I would have loved to have bought you a beer to thank you for this great blog.

Reply

Dave March 10, 2014 at 5:00 pm

Thanks Jayne! Glad you had a good time on the trip.

Reply

Monica Limpias March 11, 2014 at 5:41 pm

I am planning on doing this trip in june, but we will start and finish in Uyuni. I am from Santa Cruz, Bolivia and I follow your blogs. Thanks for all the information.

Reply

Dave March 11, 2014 at 8:50 pm

Hi Monica, thanks for reading! After Uyuni, I visited Potosi and Sucre before flying to Santa Cruz where I spent 5 days. I’ll be writing a story about your city in April :)

Reply

John @ GoodPlanetLiving March 12, 2014 at 9:27 am

Bolivia is a nice country. I think my next trip will be Bolivia. however, food in the picture is really delicious I think.

Reply

Paul Bailey March 26, 2014 at 12:20 pm

Hi. I’m planning on doing this tour in mid-July… is it at all likely that I will not be able to get a place on a tour on a specific day?
Or are there so many agencies and tours that I don’t need to worry… can I even rock up on the actual day and book just before I go, orrrr would you recommend doing it at least a day in advance?
So many questions for such a simple thing, sorry!
Thank you :)

Reply

Dave March 26, 2014 at 2:27 pm

The tours leave early in the morning, around 7 or 7:30am, so you’ll need to book it at least one day in advance. Also, if you want to book with a certain operator, it will depend on whether there are enough other people for your preferred departure date.

But in short, there’s a constant stream of travelers leaving San Pedro for Uyuni, so it shouldn’t be an issue. I went one-way to continue traveling in Bolivia, but you can also pay extra to add an extra day/night for the return trip to San Pedro.

Reply

Daniel June 21, 2014 at 4:30 pm

Hi Dave,
I’m an American currently in San Pedro and am interested in doing the 4 day trip with Estrella del Sur. I’d like to go this Monday, but I’m a bit hesitant because I don’t have a yellow fever immunization form, a passport photo, etc. How strict is Bolivia with these tour groups? Would you recommend not doing the tour because of this? Just want to make sure ahead of time in order to avoid problems at the border. Thanks!

Reply

Dave June 21, 2014 at 9:24 pm

I dont know, you def need to show tour pasapor. You should ask in a couple of the tour offices

Reply

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