Taking a 4WD tour from San Pedro de Atacama to the Bolivian Salt Flats

Nature
The wow factor for nature - does it show nature at its best? Doesn't need to be the wilder-beast migration or diving with hundreds of hammerheads. Rather make you pause as you realise just how awesome the natural world can be
9
Culture
How much does this experience showcase some of the better and finer things that us humans can offer? Sure, it can be ancient ruins and renaissance churches, but it can also be festivals or soaking up some of the great modern cities of the world
3
Fun factor/activity
Very simple - was it fun? This is usually linked in with doing some kind of activity - i mean, walking along some cliffs is nice, but paragliding from them, now that is fun. Its a vastly underrated factor in a truly great experience
7
Avoid the crowds
Big tour groups and being surrounded by loud fellow tourists can sap the life out of even the greatest of travel experiences. This score is to reflect just how much you can avoid this. But. . . The score also takes into account if the crowds actually add to the experience, such as with a party town or a bustling food market
8
World famous
How world famous is the experience?
9
unique
How hard is it to have a similar experience in other places round the world?
9
Overall Score
The highest score of nature or culture, + fun factor, + avoid the crowds, + the highest score of world famous or unique. Then turned into a score out of 100. More details at the bottom of the page
82 *What the scores mean and where do they come from
continent
South America
country
Bolivia
Length of time
3-4 days
Rough cost
Obviously people have different tastes, so this will depend on those tastes, but this is a rough idea of price of the whole experience based on 2 people able to split the accommodation costs and excluding travel there and back
$ 250
Time of year visited
February
Primary Tags
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RANKING
How this travel experience ranks compared to all the other experiences on this site
22nd/334 This travel experience's ranking compared to all the other experiences on this site
Top 10% SUMMARY RATING: Unmissable

Summary

The Salt flats (Salar de Uyuni) are world famous, unique, big enough that you can avoid other tourists and so cool that you can just stand around in awe (see The Bolivian Salt Flats in Rainy Season entry for details on the Salt Flats themselves). But I’d also highly recommend taking the 4WD trip between Uyuni and San Pedro in the Atacama desert . . . in fact its kind of a must if visiting the Salt Flats because of the sheer stunning vistas in this part of the world.  The trip can be a long drive and don’t expect luxury, but seeing the AltiPlano is otherworldly and a world class adventure

highlights

#1 The Salt Flats - world famous, world class place to check out. Whether in the wet season for those unforgettable views while getting your feet wet in the inland shallow sea, or the crumbly white salty floor of the dry, it really is a must do

#2 Volcanoes - stunning peaks that are worshipped by the locals as gods and sitting above the clouds

#3 High Altitude - you'll spend most of the trip at 4000 metres plus, so be prepared!

#4 4-Wheel Driving across some of the most unusual and remote landscapes in the world

#5 Mirror Lakes - with often little wind or disturbances to the water, the mirror lakes can be stunning, especially with some of the volcanoes behind them

#6 Geysers - dotted all over this Martian-style landscape

#7 Train graveyard - so this was a bit unexpected, but there is a spot outside Uyuni which seems to be where many of the old Bolivian trains come for their much needed rust. Its worth a half hour stop on the way

#8 Viscachas! The very cute chinchilla-like rodents that can often be round scurrying around the rocks

#9 Llamas and Vicunas! You'll find llamas and Vicunas (the smaller, more high altitude cousin) just about everywhere on your trip. Some even come to stay hello in your room

#10 Flamingoes just about everywhere on the route over to the Salt Flats

The route

Rough itinerary

  • Day 1 – you’ll leave early in the morning to head up to the Altiplano (above roughly 3,500m / 11,500ft) to cross over the border into Bolivia. That day you’ll get to see some of the towering volcanoes that look over San Pedro de Atacama, the mirror lakes and the flamingos. Altitude is around 4,500m / 14,750ft – so high! Accommodation will be super basic, although beds are typically comfy
  • Day 2 – you’ll check out the thermal pools, the coloured lagoons and the usual rock formations of the Siloli Desert. Similar altitudes for this day and smaller rooms
  • Day 3 – probably the highlight. You get to see the Train Graveyard and the Salt Flats themselves for around 3 hours or so. Spend the evening halfway back to San Pedro
  • Day 4 – 5am or so wake up and drive back to San Pedro

Travel tips

  • ALTITUDE – the altitude jump can be brutal. You go from 2,400m / 7,875ft in San Pedro to 4,900m / 16,100ft within around 4 hours and sleep on the first night at 4400m / 14,450ft, with zero sympathy from the Bolivians. My strong suggestion is you have at least a couple of days in San Pedro to acclimatise, take altitude sickness pills / painkillers and just generally dig in. Coca tea work for some, sugar for others
  • WET / DRY – the wet season is January to April, which is when you’ll get those spectacular photos and be able to dab your feet in the water, but could get hit by the rains (we didn’t). Other times of year you’ll be able to see the salt clearly and take some of those cool group photos. There isn’t really a better or worse
  • LUXURY STANDARD – Before making a decision to take one of these trips it’s important to bear in mind you’ll be going through one of the poorest countries in the world, across often very basic roads and in a car for roughly 75% of the daytime. So don’t expect luxury, nor the super attentive helpers you find elsewhere near here
  • VARIABILITY OF GUIDES – you just don’t know what you’re going to get, despite what you are promised by the company. We were promised an English speaker, didn’t get one, but the guy’s attitude made up for it. Vast majority of people we spoke to had good guys and had a fantastic time, but some had horror stories of drunken guides crashing. Pot luck
  • CORDILLERA TRAVEL – we went with them and they were good. Toyota Land Cruisers used were perfect and were replaced quickly if any problems, drivers were super friendly and happy to help, accommodation was comfortable and clean (first night can be v basic), food was good and enough of it, had some great ideas for photos etc on the salt flats.  USD235 per person, plus some extra cash if you want to buy snacks etc
  • COLD – it gets bloody cold up there, even in summer it’s below zero. Bring warm clothes
  • GROUPS – once you pass the Bolivian border, the small bus you’re in will get split into 4x4s. Worth getting chatting to someone you think you’d enjoy spending 4 days in a car with before this point so you’re not open to pot luck and getting stuck with a bunch of heavy smoking loud mainland Chinese guys
  • UYUNInot much there, don’t bother

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Score Detail

Background - how many times have you asked someone what a travel experience was like and the response was "amazing" or "awesome"?  That response is nice to know, but it makes it hard to differentiate that experience compared to others.  That is exactly what these scores are trying to do - differentiate the experience by giving a score out of 10 based on 6 categories and then giving an overall experience score

This overall experience score is calculated by:  take the highest of the "Culture" or "Nature" score (1-10) + "Fun factor" (1-10) + "Avoiding the crowds" (1-10) + highest of the "Unique" or "World Famous score" (1-10).  Then convert into a score out of 100

Extra detail - the logic being that I find all of the 6 individual scores important, but I don't want to mark an experience down just because it doesn't cover both "Culture" and "Nature", or because it isn't both "World Famous" and "Unique".  Take the examples of Safari in The Serengeti and walking through Rome - they both appeal at opposite ends of the nature / culture spectrum, and you can have a fantastic time without needing to appeal to both sides.  So, their overall scores aren't penalized for their lack of one or the other, and I've done the same for "World Famous" vs "Unique".  But . . . I do think that the "Fun factor" of an experience is important, irrelevant of other factors, and so is "Avoiding the Crowds" (or where there are crowds that add to the experience).  So, both of these scores are standalone