I was intending to finally write up the financial summary of SE Asia, but now feel compelled to highlight some takeaways from a pretty spectacular 3-day trip that we took from San Pedro de Atacama to Uyuni. One of the places I knew I wanted to visit on our travels were the high plains of Chile, Bolivia, and Peru. The travel popular 4×4 trip from San Pedro de Atacama, Chile to Uyuni, Bolivia seemed to promise spectacular views along with providing a practical way to make our way from Northern Chile to Cusco, Peru. Essentially, it’s three days of 7-8 hours of driving per day over mostly rough dirt roads through some of the most incredible landscape imaginable. Views include geysers, snow-capped mountains, high plain deserts, flamingo-filled lagoons, and incredible rock formations. The opportunity for incredible vistas is non-stop. Nights are spent in relatively Spartan accommodations at altitudes of approximately 4,500 meters and 3,600 meters.
Given this trip is increasingly popular with travelers there is quite a bit of information on Trip Advisor with comments all over the board. Additionally, there are some good blogs that others have put together that really do a great job of providing an overview of the trip. One in particular that is very descriptive, has great photos, and is recently written is this one at Lady and the Tramper.
I thought it might be interesting and helpful to try to come at our experiences and observations of the 3-day trip from some alternative angles. First and foremost, I was pretty blown away by what we saw and experienced over the three days. It was simply amazing and strongly recommend it to anyone who is traveling in that part of South America. Carve out the time and make it happen.
I read review after review on Trip Advisor on the numerous tour providers and sphinctered-up with fear that I might make a bad decision on selecting one of them. We ultimately arrived in San Pedro de Atacama without having made reservations. The reviews are all over the board for all the trip providers. That stated, if one stands out for you as a good option on the internet, I’d say book it and go into it with an open mind. Here’s the deal, anything can happen while you are out there. The 4×4’s could break down (regardless of year/make), the weather could turn sour, you could be placed with some goofballs in your tour, and the food won’t probably be exactly as you would like it. If you can mentally prime yourself for some unforeseen discomfort, I guarantee you’ll enjoy the trip.
We ended up going with Cordillera Traveller, ultimately because the owner (Francisco) of La Casa del Pueblo Hostal (nice hostel in a great location) recommended it to me. When I went to book the trip, in addition to the typical technical questions most probably ask of the tour operators, I asked her why she though Cordillera Travel was the best operator.
She said it was because it was a family business based in Bolivia and they owned/operated all the lodging along the way instead of contracting the services. That seemed to be a good, practical, honest enough response for me. We later found out that many of the drivers and staff were also family members. They worked long days, communicated well and managed our expectations. Cordillera used Toyota LandCruisers and they were solid vehicles over some pretty tough terrain. Their vehicles were their babies (they individually owned them) and cleaned and prepared them every evening prior to the next day’s drive. There were minor car issues (slow leak in our tire, electrical issue in another vehicle), but they never made it our problem and resolved the issues quickly.
The three-day tour cost was $185 per person and it included everything except the park entrance fee (about $25 per person), water (we had to bring), and any snacks. We brought two gallons of water for the two of us and a couple rolls of cookies. We ended up not even using one of the gallons of water and didn’t need the snacks, but they were nice to share with others during the long drives. One drawback that turned out to be a bit of a pain in the ass was that Cordillera was unable to accept credit card payment, so I had to pay in cash. Not a huge deal, but I was only allowed to withdraw a maximum of $200 in cash per day from the ATM. That wouldn’t have necessarily been an issue except for the fact U.S. Citizens also need to pay $160 per person in U.S. currency for a Bolivian visa at the border. It all worked out in the end, but something to plan for. Overall, without hesitation, I’d recommend Cordillera to anyone taking this trip.
A plug for the SPA (San Pedro de Atacama) to Uyuni vs. Uyuni to SPA related to the Salar
You’ve been traveling rough roads for two days and wake at 4 a.m. on the last morning to be carted out to the Uyuni Salar (salt flats). The vehicles leave the dirt road and drop into shallow (1-2 centimeters deep) water and drive for several more kilometers. It’s surreal as its still dark out and one can only see the water spray coming off the other vehicles via headlamps.
The sun begins to rise and passengers get out of the vehicles to begin taking all of the beautiful and corny pictures on this amazing incredibly shallow lake. You have breakfast out there and everything is mystical. Everyone gets back into the vehicle and continue to drive toward the endless salt flat horizon. And you drive. And you f$cking drive. You end up driving another 2.5 hours at 20-30 kilometers an hour due to the water spray coming off the vehicle. It was incredibly mind-numbing after three days of the trip. Ironically, for me, the real appreciation of the Uyuni salt flat is having to endure the painful drive to truly understand how incredibly huge it really is. I think it would be a very different 3-day experience if traveling the other direction and the awe of the salt flat would be lessened with anticipation of seeing other views on the trip down the road.
When we finally arrived at the other side of the flat (near Uyuni) we passed several other tourists who had driven out 1-2 kilometers from the other side and were experiencing the views and photo ops. While I’m sure their photos will be as good or better than ours, I don’t think they’ll ever experience how incredibly impressive the flats really are because of the limited experience.
Travel companions are a critical component of the experience
Cordillera Travel, the group we selected, takes 18 clients per trip. From the San Pedro de Atacama to the Bolivian border (about an 1-hour drive) the clients are riding in mini-buses as the road is still asphalt. Once at the border, the 18 clients are divided into three groups of six to travel along with the driver into three Toyota Land Cruisers for the 3-day journey. Unless one is traveling with five others they already know, groups are selected by a mixture of tour guide matching and a bit of self-selection.
Max and I joined a couple from Santiago and another father/son (son was older at 22 years) pair from Amsterdam. Our driver, Eddie, was Bolivian. I couldn’t wish for better travel mates and one of the greatest aspects of this trip was getting to know Oscar, Catalina, Ard, and Tom over the three days. There were great conversations had while driving, but also long periods of silence when we were all taking in the landscape. There was good group dynamic in that regard. We shared meal tables with them and slept in the same dormitory room as them. That stated, as we were traveling in a caravan with two other vehicles, we also had the opportunity to get to know the other 12 travelers at stops, over meals, and in the evenings at our lodging stops. After getting to know the other 12, I feel confident we would have also been as happy had we been placed with another group of travelers. Everyone was wonderful and we were really fortunate to have a very diverse group of travelers from all over the world with us. Japan, Brazil, England, Netherlands, Switzerland, and Chile were all represented.
While our comrades in travel were one of the most positive aspects of the trip, I could also imagine situations where group dynamics could destroy the experience for someone. There is really no way to avoid this unless you can cough up a private tour experience or travel with a group you already know and are comfortable with. Regardless, I think it’s worth the risk either way as the travel companions make up a huge portion of the Uyuni Salar experience…for better or worse they’ll contribute to the stories afterward.
Weather and conditions
While with many travels, I could honestly state that given that I’ve seen them once I wouldn’t need to see them again. This tour over three days provides too many variables that I know would change each and every time traveled. Our first days was full of perfect blue skies. Our second day started nice, but the afternoons gave us a hail storm, amazing lightning shows, and picturesque cloud movements over mountains.
Similarly, the Uyuni Salar had 1-2 centimeters of water for the entire 80-kilometer distance during our passage. If we were to travel in the Andean summer, the flats would have been a bone-dry, cracked surface. We also learned that the flats can become impossible for travel after huge rains when water levels exceed 50 centimeters. All I guess that I’m saying here, is that while I would have initially thought there were ideal conditions to travel the 3-day tour, I’ve know come to realize that if I did it again tomorrow I would be equally and differently blow away by the landscape in very different conditions.
San Pedro de Atacama and Uyuni are rapidly changing
One could feel how the towns at either end of this trip are rapidly changing due to tourism. The roads in San Pedro de Atacama are still dirt. Uyuni still is a town that happens to have some tourists passing through. I know, things change…and possibly maybe even for the better. That stated, part of the reason people travel is to get away from the stuff they already know. After traveling through over 30 countries on this little journey, I can say the much of the world feels more familiar to this U.S. Citizen than not. It’s just not the McDonald’s, Pizza Huts, and Starbucks evident in most major cities globally, it’s also the clothing, language, and customs that all start to feel a bit homogenous.
Tied to the change referenced above, we learned that somewhere between 60-70% of the world’s lithium reserves are located in the Uyuni Salar (or salt flat). We also were told that some pretty significant mining and processing factories will soon be lining the shores of the vast Uyuni salt flat. For me, seeing the random piece of trash in the flat was disheartening. It’s even more depressing to have to imagine the site of huge industrial buildings and machinery lining the shores in the near future. Lithium is too important to the world at this point for this not to become a reality and I’m glad we had a chance to see it when we did.
Overall, we had amazing three days. I think Max had a good experience interacting with great folks from around the world independent of his dad. I’ve really come to appreciate his willingness and ability to jump into conversations when his father (and/or mother) aren’t dominating conversations. For me, it’s right up there as one of the most memorable experiences of my life.