Bolivia Atacama Expedition Travel Tips & Advice

By Finding Awesome | Mar 2015

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Best time to go:

Traveling through the salt flats and desert at different times of the year will provide travelers with uniquely different experiences. To see the water reflections across the salt flats, the best time of year is typically March and April, but expect more tourists as well. Also, during this time some areas of the salt flats are inaccessible due to the risk of vehicles sinking into the salt.

The number of visitors significantly drops after peak season. There may only be a few other tour groups during an excursion in May, making for less crowds around area attractions and enjoying the desert all to yourself. The skies are clear and sunny on most days after the rainy season but temperatures can range between 20° F and 50° F (-6° to 10° Celsius) as the winter approaches in the Southern Hemisphere.

Uyuni Salt Flats South End

View of Salar de Uyuni Southern Edge

Vulcan Tunupa from Tahua

Vulcan Tunupa from Tahua

Jump to Bolivia Tour Photos
 
 

How to get there:

  • From Uyuni, Bolivia (via bus ride from La Paz)
  • From San Pedro de Atacama, Chile (via bus or taxi from Calama).

    Take a flight from Santiago, or Lima, to Calama. For a more unique experience, fly into Tacna Peru, grab a taxi to Arica Chile, and then take a bus to San Pedro de Atacama.

Both Uyuni and San Pedro de Atacama have plenty of tour operators available. There are a lot of backpacking travelers in both cities and so multiple tours run daily in both directions. We suggest booking a tour in advance, though, it is possible to find a good tour option while out there.

 

What to expect:

Entry: U.S. Citizens should be prepared to pay an entry visa to enter Bolivia, in cash. Tour operators may fail to mention the entry visa – UPDATE U.S. citizens no longer need a visa to enter Bolivia for tourism. Source: Travel.state.gov.

Weather: The weather from May through September is cold, really cold! Expect sunny, windy, and freezing temperatures. Visitors may need sunblock and a winter jacket at the same time. Pick up a llama wool jacket in San Pedro de Atacama before a tour for ~$10 USD. See ChampionTraveler.com for more complete Bolivia Altiplano weather information.

Group Tours: Many of the group tours cram up to 6 people in a truck, accommodations are in a generic hostels, and they do not provide a translator. Group tours are generally on a tight schedule and do not allocate enough time for visitors to explore attractions. There are many tour operators available, as well as cheaper day trip options.

 

Private Tours:

Private Tours through Bolivia will ensure a safe driver, tour guide/translator, very nice lodging, breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well snacks along the way. While more expensive than a group tour, private tours offer personalized attention, custom itinerary, and greater flexibility including deviating from course or spending more time at places for pictures.

Fremen Tours and other private tour providers partner with many of the remote hotels in the region. This makes them a good choice for the traveler who prefers a fully accommodating tour package with hotel versus a group tour and hostel.

 

Hotels:

The hotel accommodations from our Bolivia expedition were very nice with friendly and attentive staff. The hotel information for each location is detailed below.

  • Hotel Jardines de Mallku Cueva (location) – As the only guests in the hotel that night, the staff was super excited to see us! The host made sure we had everything we needed and began to prepare dinner as soon as we arrived.
  • Tayka-Hotel de Piedra (location) – The view of the stars from this hotel is spectacular - Service is attentive, WiFi works great, and the food is delicious.
  • Hotel Tayka de Sal (location) – This hotel is made entirely of salt. Dinner is delicious, and the view of the Uyuni Salt Flats at dusk is incredible.

 

Bolivia Luxury Expedition:

Many Bolivia tours start in Uyuni Bolivia and end San Pedro de Atacama Chile, or start Uyuni and return back to Uyuni. There are also options to start San Pedro de Atacama and end in Uyuni. Our Bolivia Expedition experience began in San Pedro de Atacama and completed in Uyuni.
 

San Pedro de Atacama

Before beginning an expedition in Bolivia, check out the sights in and near San Pedro de Atacama.

Laguna Chaxa Park The park is located in Salar de Atacama. Only short drive from San Pedro de Atacama, the park is a typical stop for most day tours. The main attraction here are the flocks of flamingos (flamencos).

Salar de Atacama Sunrise

Sunrise over the Salar de Atacama at Laguna Chaxa

Lagunas Miscanti y Miñiques is located in Los Flamencos National Reserve. Volcanic mountains surround the two high altitude lakes popular for photos and wildlife. Lucky visitors may see groups of Vicuñas along the road or even volcanic ash spewing from the tops of nearby volcanos.
Miniques Vulcan Chile+

Panoramic view Lago Miñiques

Laguna Miscanti pano

Panoramic view Laguna Miscanti

Valle de la Luna The valley is a popular attraction for the moon-like landscape.
 

Bolivia Day 1

National Reserve & Siloli Desert - Day 1 of a Bolivia Tour starting from San Pedro de Atacama begins with a short taxi ride from San Pedro de Atacama to the Bolivia / Chile border crossing and entering Bolivia's Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa. The first stops are Laguna Blanca and Laguna Verde. The White and Green Lagoons, respectively, get their names from how they appear due to the minerals in each lake.

Desierto Salvador Dalí or the Salvador Dalí desert gets its name from the volcanic debris spewed over the desert landscape - resembling the artist style from the famous artist.

Dali Desert Bolivia

Panoramic view of the Dali Desert in Bolivia

Termas de Palques are natural hot springs along the road side. Stop for lunch and spend a few minutes relaxing in the mineral rich pools. Sol de Mañana Geyser is the next stop along the tour. The rumbling sound of the geysers contrast the complete silence of the Siloli Desert and are a neat sight to see so high up in altitude.
Laguna Colorada is a main attraction in the Siloli Desert. The lake is a vibrant red dotted with thousands of pink flamingos. Surrounded by eroding volcanos, Laguna Colorada is a picturesque destination that will be sure to amaze!
Laguna Colorada Bolivia Pano
Árbol de Piedra or the Stone Tree is one of the most photographed attractions throughout the Altiplano. The "tree" is volcanic stone eroded by the desert sands over time and has a beautiful ancient volcano backdrop.
Tree of Stone Bolivia
The remainder of day 1 is spent crossing the highest elevation point of the tour, over 5000 meters (+16,400 feet), crossing paths with groups of Guanaco's, a relative of the Llama, and navigating cliff edges next to a river ravine.
Bolivia Altipano Desert at 5k elevation
Bolivia Altiplano Dusk

Bolivia Altiplano near Laguna Capina at Dusk

The day ends in at Hotel Jardines de Mallku Cueva.
 

Bolivia Day 2

Valley of Rock & Altiplano - The second day begins in Villamar Mallcu, with the first stop at Laguna Negra, also known as the Laughing Lagoon for the bird sounds that resemble humans laughing hysterically. Very amusing!

Laguna Negra Bolivia

Laguna Negra - The Laughing Lagoon Bolivia

The Black Lagoon is part of a volcanic rock formation stretching 70km, called the Valley of Rocks.
Valley of Rocks Bolivia

Panoramic Photo of Valley of Rocks, Bolivia

This area is quiet and remote and not many tours venture out here. Enjoy a quick lunch at Villa Alota before driving up the canyon edge and through the mountains until reaching the village of San Agustin, known for their giant red quinoa.
Valley near Villa Alota

Valley between Villa Alota and San Agustin Bolivia

The afternoon is spent crossing a salt flat with a railroad in what seems like is heading off to nowhere. The flats are surrounded with ancient coral formations.
Bolivian Desert Railroad

Railroad to Nowhere near San Juan Bolivia

Bolivia Coral Fields

Sea of Coral in Bolivia

The day ends in San Pedro de Quemes at hotel Tayka-Hotel de Piedra. The hotel is made entirely of stone and the view of the stars from this town is unmatched throughout the expedition.
 

Bolivia Day 3

Salt Flats & Volcàn Tunupa - The third day is filled with sightseeing, starting out at Cuerva de Galaxias (Galaxy Cave) or the Gruta de las Galaxias.

Cuerva de Galaxias Bolivia

Cave of the Galaxies Bolivia

Pulling up to what looks like a giant rock in the ground - It is actually a cave with a unique web-of-bones like appearance. The mound also contains pre-Incan culture burial ground. The top of the mound offers expansive 360° views and is covered with 'Coral Cacti' - fossilized coral that resembles cactus.
Bolivia Coral Cactus

Bolivia Coral Cactus from a top Cave of the Galaxies

Cacti on Isla de PescadoAfter entering the Uyuni Salt Flats from the South edge and taking funny perspective photos with your driver and guide, the next stop appears in the distance. Crossing over Isla del Pescado, an island popping up on the salt flat with hundreds of years old monster-sized cacti marks about halfway across the ancient dried up lake. The final main attraction of the day is after enduring the vast and blinding whiteness of the Uyuni Salt Flat. The town of Coqueza Canton on the north edge of the flat and at the base of Volcano Tunupa presents amazing opportunities to take pictures. After a quick lunch, drive and then hike up the side of Volcàn Tunupa for an endless panoramic view of the Uyuni Salt Flat, surrounding mountains, and villages below at Mirador Chatahuana.

Mirador Chatahuana Bolivia

View from Mirador Chatahuana - Tunupa Volcan Bolivia

The day ends in the town of Tahua at Hotel Tayka de Sal. Be sure to get outside and view the volcano and salt flats at sunset.

Tahua Tunupa Salts Flats at Dusk

Panoramic Photo of the Uyuni Salt Flats with Volcàn Tunupa at Dusk

 

Bolivia Day 4

Isla Incahuasi Cacti FrameSalt Flats & Uyuni - The final day starts at the Chantani Museum featuring native artifacts collected from the hillside and volcano. Visitors are surprised to see the unique collection of items including a ceremonial ayahuasca pipe carved of wood only found in the amazon jungle or an array of sea shells from the ancient salt lake. Afterwards traverse the salt to the island Isla Incahuasi. Tour the island museum and hike to the summit for panoramic photo opportunities from the middle of the worlds largest salt flat. Check out the island at night for out of this world stargazing or visit during the wet season for mirror like reflections across the salt flat surface. Stop at the salt processing fields and discover how the locals turn the mineral & lithium rich Salar de Uyuni into edible table salt. Be sure to venture to the Train Graveyard before ending the trip in Uyuni.

Uyuni salt processing fields

Salt Processing near Uyuni

Abandoned Locomotives Uyuni

Abandoned Locomotives near Uyuni

Other attractions along the way to Uyuni a small town on the edge of the salt flats, which was the starting point for many tourists, and the large Dakar Rally signs from the annual races that took place here. The afternoon can be spent exploring the city while waiting the overnight bus trip from Uyuni to La Paz.

Sign at Gruta de las Galaxias

Petrified Algae Inside Cuerva de Galaxias

Curator at Chantani Museum

Monkey Carved Ayahuasca Pipe

Sea Shells from Ancient Salt Lake

Miniature Model of Uyuni Salt Flats

Cacti on Isla Incahuasi

Salt Formations in Uyuni Salt Flats

Uyuni Salt Flats

Funny Pictures on Uyuni Salt Flats

Dakar Rally Sign in Bolivia

Flags on Salt Flats

Isla del Pescado

Vastness of Uyuni Salt Flats Southern End

 

La Paz to Cusco


Cusco Parade
 The La Paz bus station is about 9 hours away from Uyuni. Spend time in La Paz, or catch a bus ride to Cusco from here. The bus tickets are inexpensive, and for a $5 USD upgrade, get a seat in the climate controlled lower deck complete with WiFi and a restroom. It is well worth the upgrade price as the bus trip takes about 13 hours!

The bus crosses the border at Desaguadero, and continues along the shore of beautiful Lake Titicaca for several hours. There are several stops along the ride, including in Puno Peru. The trip ends in Cusco Peru after a slow, and sometimes scary, bus trip through the mountains and cliff edges.

 

Photo Gallery Information

The collection of photos and panoramic pictures above were taken while on excursion through the Chilean Atacama and Bolivia Highlands. Learn more about booking an adventure like this at our affiliate partner Trip.com.

Left to right, top to bottom:

 

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