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 from $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 SUVs 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, not to scare anyone away, but serious traffic accidents have occurred on the salt flats.
It's a good idea to have comprehensive travel insurance before embarking on this kind of trip.
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
The tour agency didn't tell me in advance 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.
It is recommended you bring the following:
- Snacks and water (I took 1.5-liter and 6-liter bottles)
- Toilet paper
- Warm clothes (dress in layers)
- Bathing suit
- Sleeping bag
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.
Still, from the Bolivian perspective, I discovered my driver saw himself as a taxi driver who just happened to be transporting people in a place with no roads and exotic scenery.
If you arrive 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 to allow your body to acclimatize.
Otherwise, you increase your risk of 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.
Dave is the Founder and Editor in Chief of Go Backpacking and Feastio. He's been to 66 countries and lived in Colombia and Peru. Read the full story of how he became a travel blogger.
Planning a trip? Go Backpacking recommends:
- G Adventures for small group tours.
- World Nomads for travel insurance.
- Hostelworld for booking hostels.
- Rail Europe for train passes.
Thursday 2nd of February 2017
Hello. Thank you for all your information. where can I find the prices for 3/4 days tours with your operator... I can not see anything on their website...
Saturday 4th of February 2017
You'd have to email or call them. As long as you're booking with a local company like this versus an international company such as a G Adventures or Intrepid Travel, you might save $50 per person trying to cost-compare between local agencies, but nothing significant. I don't even think it'd be worth your time.
Looking back, I still can't believe I got the 3-day tour for just $135!
Prices in a country like Bolivia, which is extremely poor, are unlikely to rise noticeably year to year.
Tuesday 15th of November 2016
Dave, I am guessing there is no full 3 day tours from San Pedro to Uyuni salt flats back to San Pedro... the 4th day of travel back may be a deal breaker... :(
Thursday 30th of June 2016
What if you have been in Bolivia a few days.....you pay that $135 fee upon arrival, no? And that is done at the airport? I am looking at tour company in Argentina that is asking $1940 for a private tour from Sucre, Bolivia to Potosi and Uyuni and then on La Paz. It is 4 days.....does that sound about right to anyone? I would love a travel mate and am looking into group tour prices from Sucre. I want something simple and easy......but am wondering if I should venture to Uyuni and see if I can get a $120-135 deal? What do you think about traveling alone with a driver? Thoughts......
Thursday 30th of June 2016
When I visited back in 2012, I arrived in Bolivia overland and had to pay the $135 visa fee. I imagine it's collected at the airports too.
$1940 is A LOT to me, given Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in South America. My 3-day Salt Flats (group) tour was only a few hundred dollars, and then I went on to travel by local bus to Potosi and Sucre on my own. It was quite easy. From Sucre I flew to Santa Cruz de la Sierra.
You could save a lot of money arranging your own travel and doing the Salt Flats with a group. Plus, it's more fun if you can share the experiences with other people.
Monday 30th of May 2016
Hi Dave, thanks for this really useful post. I have a couple of questions if that's ok:
Does this trip repeat any of the Atacama sightseeing or does it head straight into Bolivia?
Also - does the trip end in Uyuni proper - as in the city? And at what time of day on the third day did you arrive there?
Sunday 17th of January 2016
Do you have a tour package to visit Uyuni, La Paz and San Pedro Atacama for the dates below? If so what is the price per person?
Please can you let me know what this tour includes (e.g. food, accomodation etc) and doesn't inlcude?
We are looking to be in the following locations during these dates:
April 19th-20th - La Paz April 21st-22nd Uyuni Tour April 23rd-24th San Pedro de Atacama Tour