Being out of shape after my mountain sickness in San Pedro de Atacama, I have to establish a new route to avoid any too fast ascent. We decide to give up the idea of doing 3 days by jeep to Uyuni. Instead, we will visit the salt desert for only one day from Uyuni. The trip from San Pedro to Uyuni will be done by classic bus.
It is also the good plan found by other young Chileans that we will cross in the bus taking us to Bolivia. Some of them have never heard about the 3 days jeep tour from San Pedro de Atacama.
Part 1: Travel Diary
Part 2: Practical Tips
Part 1: Travel Diary
San Pedro de Atacama -> Uyuni by bus: the good local map
The trip from San Pedro de Atacama to Calama takes only 1h30, it’s a bit disturbing because we are now used to long distances, I hardly have time to take a nap. We have a small problem with the bus terminals, we are dropped off at a terminal much further than the one we had spotted. The city has nothing charming, but I notice some Chinese restaurants, it will be my last opportunity to eat Asian food before very long!
We ask for information about tomorrow’s bus to Uyuni but the hotel receptionist has no idea what we are talking about. The cleaning lady of the hotel, originally from Uyuni, comes to our rescue by proposing the Cruz del Norte bus at 4:30 am.
We thus remain on our initial plan: to go to the terminal ofAtacama 2000 Antofagasta street, which has a bus leaving at 8 am, because 4:30 am it is too early for us. We are very lucky because there are only 5 places left!
Note: apparently now this same bus leaves rather at 6am (ask for more information!)
A very nice route
What I like about this trip is that the road is pretty good on the Chilean side. We climb slowly towards 3500m of altitude, which allows everyone to acclimatize well. Sometimes, we drive between two huge sand dunes, or between two volcanoes, the landscapes are magnificent. Never we have never been so “in the middle of nowhere”. There is just a road, and nothing around. It is magic to see some snowy summits in the middle of the desert like that. JB also saw a small lake where came to drink hundreds of llamas (not me because I was sleeping).
We finally arrive at the Chilean border, the last “pee” stop before Bolivia (there are toilets in the Chilean buses but not in the Bolivian buses).
Once the formalities are completed, the bus makes 10 meters to stop in front of another bus Exp 11 of Julio. You can’t travel in Bolivia with a Chilean bus, you have to change bus. Those who make the trip in the other direction have already unloaded their things, we look for our luggage and put them in the Bolivian bus. Everybody rushes so I hurry too (it’s the sheep effect, what do you want).
At the Bolivian border, where the policeman is much more interested in my origins than in my French passport (it seems so unlikely to him that I am French that he asks me where my father was born), we have to fill out a small form and we are rewarded with a nice stamp allowing us to stay 30 days. As for Chile, there is a piece of exit paper that we have to keep and show at the exit of Bolivia.
Oxygen is scarce and breathing difficulties begin, without being unpleasant as in San Pedro. The slightest effort requires a crazy energy, we try to drink even if we aren’t thirsty. The road becomes more irregular, without being too unpleasant.
We arrive in another world, another culture, with people with matt skins, with very colorful pleated dresses size XL and a bowler hat on the head. It’s 4pm and it’s still hot, but everyone has a sweater and covers themselves from head to toe.
Upon arrival, I immediately spot small apricots that remind me of those in Vietnam. The saleswoman gives me a huge bag for only 10$B (1,3€). It’s good to have reasonable prices like that, thank you! It’s a change from Argentina and Chile! To us the purchasing power hehe!
Check-in at the hotel: 250$B/night, it’s very expensive but it’s the price at the moment. We decide to stay nevertheless 3 nights, 2 to acclimatize (we are out of breath, especially with our luggage) and one day to visit the salar of Uyuni.
As usual, we have to withdraw some money (even if we did a bit of exchange in Santiago just in case…). We go around the banks with an Australian who has trouble withdrawing money like us, until we come across Banco Unión. Surprise: 0 withdrawal fees! We can thus withdraw according to our needs without ceiling as in Argentina and Chile!
The city isn’t very pretty but strolling in the streets (slowly eh because we get out of breath quickly) is super cool. Everyone advises against staying in Uyuni more than one day, but we really like this city. As soon as we leave the main street, there are full of half-constructed houses, there is nobody, just the desert.
We notice a row of chairs numbered from 1 to 150 in front of a building. A few people sit on them all day long, we will learn later that they are queuing all weekend in front of the school to be able to register their kids for school on Monday. Ouch! It looks like Vietnam.
We will discover with greed the corner market, surprisingly clean, with stands of fruit, butcher’s shop (we will even see a lama’s head cut off, but smiling arhgg) and bui bui.
You see how I’m melting into the mass? 🙂 It’s super hot outside but I cover myself like Bolivian women.
The first tests are conclusive: the llama meat (on the right) is super good. And the pollo pepper (left) is very good too. 13$B/ plate. In the evening, we will be satisfied with a portion of braised chicken with rice and fries (15$B each).
Everywhere in the street, you can find stands of freshly squeezed juices, smoothies, home-made ice creams… the prices are very low (5$B for most of them or 0,7€), they don’t try to rip us off at all (we observed the locals before asking the price), which is very nice. We are rarely stared at by the locals (they don’t care in fact, we had some feedback that Bolivians aren’t very curious towards tourists, they can be very cold even). That suits us! As a result, when somebody is too much interested in us, we notice it immediately and we remain vigilant. Nobody is interested in JB but I already have a lot of questions about my origin. As Bolivian Spanish is slower and more understandable, I take the opportunity to discuss a little bit with the locals.
For the moment, we don’t feel insecure, but we take advantage of our 3 days in Uyuni to observe people, try to melt a little more in the mass, and put into practice some basic rules to protect our business (divide the money, make a photocopy with passport stamp in case we cross false policemen etc.).
After a night in Uyuni, we are less out of breath than the day before, but we still have to climb the stairs slowly and walk slowly. JB buys a SIM card from Tigo (10$B). The activation of the card requires the national identity card number. The salesman, too nice, puts his own and helps us to recharge the credit. We advise you to buy at least 25$B of reload, which corresponds to one week of Internet with 1GB of data.
Bad luck, we missed the Dakar by 5 days. At the same time we would surely not have found accommodation if we were there at the right time. BTW, the statue next to JB is made of salt.
A little tour of the agencies later, and here we are with two tickets for the day tour to the Salar de Uyuni the next day (I’ll do a separate article). The agency warns us that the access to Isla something isn’t possible because the salt desert is flooded, but it means that we will have more time to take pictures by playing with perspective. I confess that I don’t care about the island thing, I came to the Salar de Uyuni on purpose to see this “biggest mirror in the world” effect, that we only see when the desert is flooded. Might as well tell you that I am SUPER EXCITED!
We also pass by the bus terminal to note the bus departure times to Potosí.
The article on the flooded Uyuni employee is here!
Part 2: Practical Tips
- Bus :
- San Pedro -> Calama : 4000$CH/person, 1h30
- Calama -> Uyuni : 15000$CH/person, 8h – foresee 25$B in case you are asked for a “tip” at the Bolivian border
- Hotel: 250$B/night, private room for 2 at Hostal Cordillo Liliana with breakfast (special rate for whatever reason – usually it only costs 140$B)
- Laundry: 15$B/kilo
- Food :
- 6 to 8 $B/ 2L bottle of water (do not drink tap water, brush your teeth with mineral water)
- 5$B/smoothie or squeezed juice
- between 5$B-7$B for an ice cream
- Others :
- 5$B for 1 hour of connection in the cyber cafes (if your hotel has no Wifi)
- 10$B the SIM card. 25$B for 1G to be used in one week (at Tigo, Entel has a better network coverage)
- Bus Chile -> Bolivia
- We took the Atacama 2000 bus as indicated at the beginning of the article, from Calama.
- It is quite possible to leave directly from San Pedro de Atacama to Uyuni by bus without sleeping in Calama but it is necessary to get up early (4am). Contact Cruz del Norte for more information
- Frontera in Calama also serves Uyuni, their office is right next toAtacama 2000
- I know that on the Internet, it isn’ted that the bus Calama -> Uyuni leaves only 3 times a week but in January 2017 in any case, there are buses leaving every day from Calama
- Bus in Bolivia: We were advised two reliable and comfortable companies from Uyuni (to Sucre, Potosi or La Paz): Emperador and 11 de Julio
- On Sundays, there is a very nice market on the main street, you can buy cheap food, it smells great.
- Food: Avoid the pedestrian street overlooking the church, it is ultra touristic. Go a little further away and eat for 3 times nothing at the central market.
- As everywhere in South America, we throw our toilet paper in the garbage and not directly into the toilet
- Tap water isn’t drinkable. It is even advisable to brush your teeth with mineral water
- If you ever have trouble withdrawing money, choose Spanish as the language in the ATM menu.