Where is the highest desert in the World?
Basking in the rarefied air of 4000 to 5000 meters, the southern altiplano of Bolivia presents an awe inspiring desert landscape – really a moonscape on earth!
To cross from Bolivia to Chile by rail or bus is always an adventure. By chance we found an exciting 4-wheel drive tour that takes 3 days to go from Uyuni, Bolivia to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile.
After a month exploring Bolivia we journeyed by bus from Potosí to the railroad junction of Uyuni located on the southern altiplano. Our guidebook informed us that twice a week a train ran through the mountains to Calama in Chile from where we had to catch a plane south to Punta Arenas, our next major destination.
The train proved elusive. Most passenger trains had stopped running in Bolivia. In Uyuni we found several tour agencies offering trips through to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. In fact, there are tours galore to visit the local salt pans, volcanoes and hot springs; Uyuni is now a thriving adventure-tour centre.
Salar de Uyuni is a vast salt plain stretching to the horizon, over 12,000 sq.kms of dazzling whiteness. A few thousand years ago this was a high altitude lake and now it is evaporated to dryness. Vehicles can go anywhere on its surface. To venture forth is to enter a new and unforgettable world dominated by the burning sun, a deep blue sky and blinding salt.
Our party consisted of a Spanish-speaking young local driver-cum-guide and an Indian lady cook who sat in the front seat of the 4-wheel drive Toyota, while squeezed in behind were 6 tourists – 2 Australian, 1 German, 1 Swiss, 1 French and 1 Spanish, plus food and fuel for 3 days. We headed off expectantly across the glaring sea of salt into a world I never dreamed existed.
We stop for drinks at the Hotel Playa Blanca, a unique hotel built entirely of salt blocks, except for its thatched roof. It stands in splendid isolation on the salt pan waiting for curious tourists. Its tables, chairs and beds are carved from salt, all protected by the arid atmosphere.
Our route leads to Isla de Pescadores, formerly a volcanic island in a lake but now a conspicuous rocky outcrop covered by weird 3 to 5 metre high cactus (Trichocereus), looking like a colony of stranded Martians. The black volcanic rocks are coated with gypsum. Two imported llamas graze the sparse vegetation. Tour vehicles stop here for tourists to have a leisurely lunch. The rocky outcrops are the home of the friendly viscachas, a rabbit-like animal that will eat apple peelings from your hand.
Late afternoon we leave the salt pan for clay pan and thence sandy slopes of the surrounding mountains, gaining altitude continually, reaching 4900 metres. Our overnight stop is at the Indian village of San Juan which has an adobe hostel providing basic accommodation for tourists, their main source of income after farming alpacas. Our cook fills us up on vegetable soup and a main meal of roast chicken, rice and potato fries.
The second day we head south, through sandy desert with occasional teetering rock formations carved by the wind-blown sand. Each shallow valley has its laguna or lake of shimmering saline water inhabited by flocks of graceful pink-breasted flamingos searching for shrimp.
Towards dusk we reach Laguna Colorada and its adjacent adobe village offering similar accommodation. Some salt is mined in primitive fashion here and we watch how mud blocks are made and laid to dry in the sun. Red algae colors the lake shore. Our guide informs us that next day we have a 4.30am start in order to see a geothermal area at dawn and then cross the frontier to Chile.
In the cold and dark we traverse the 50kms to Sol de Manaña, a geyser-valley seething with volcanic activity, arriving just as the sun shows itself over the mountain ridge. Near the road a geothermal bore blasts steam to great height. We joined up with four other tour vehicles. Tourists roam the paths around smelly fumeroles and ponds of grey mud plopping away like an evil pot of porridge. Sulfurous steam roars out of vents and geysers of boiling water shoot skyways when least expected – all this activity at 4850m altitude. Most astounding!
We drive on to have breakfast beside a laguna with a hotspring, called Las Termas de Chalviri. The steaming hot pool here is big enough for everyone to bathe and paddle, yet incongruously only meters away is thick ice on the lake shore.
Our “road” or trail winds up the sandy volcanic slope to a cairn of rocks marking the highest point of 5200 meters – from now on it’s all downhill to Chile. Next stop is at the stunning Laguna Verde – and it really is green with white salt deposits on the shoreline, nestling beneath the imposing cone of Volcán Licancábar 5916m, the other side of which is visible from San Pedro. Our guide tells us that on the summit is an Inca burial site.
We stop at the Bolivian border post where our passports are collected and stamped. A Chilean minibus awaits us. Luggage and personnel are transferred. We say farewell to our wonderful guide and cook. Off we cruise downhill on a smooth sealed road to the middle of the Atacama Desert and the green oasis of San Pedro once visited by conquistador Pedro de Valdivia, 450 years ago.
The Chilean customs and border post is on the outskirts of San Pedro. Eventually we get dropped off in the central plaza and head straight for Residencial Juanita for a cool beer! No rooms vacant here so we book in around the corner at La Florida, a pleasant residencial having a sunny courtyard and costing only US$6.50 per person.
Even if you are not planning to travel to Bolivia, San Pedro de Atacama is a “must see” place – really a tourist paradise with many tour agents willing to take you on excursions to El Tatio Geysers, Valle de Luna and distant Indian villages. ¡Buen viaje!
If you want more information about this area you can email the author or check out our South America Insiders page.
Where to Start?
This 3-day desert trip is a fantastic way to travel from Bolivia to Chile, or viceversa.
La Paz; capital of Bolivia (airport is at 4082 m altitude). All SA national airlines fly into La Paz. Bus or train south on altiplano to Uyuni (600kms, US$10) located at edge of the huge salt pan, Salar de Uyuni, altitude 3653 m. Alternatively, bus the scenic route with stopovers at Cochabamba, Sucre and Potosí. Accommodation see Lonely Planet.
Calama, Chile; population 120,000, altitude 2700 m, copper mining center in the desert. Fly in from Santiago, or by bus (23 hours). Interesting stopovers are La Serena, Copiapó and Antofagasta. From Calama take bus to San Pedro de Atacama (120 kms, US$2.50), desert oasis village, population 1000, altitude 2440 m. Popular backpacker resort.
Our trip was organized by Uyuni Tours at Hotel Avenida, Av. Ferroviaria, Uyuni Cod. 0693 Tel. 2095 Fax 0693 – 2121.
The 3 day and 2 night tour cost US$75 including accommodation and meals. Vehicles don’t cross the frontier, but exchange passengers. Contact Turismo Colque in San Pedro to go the otherway.
Make sure you have the required visa, exit stamp and cash. There are ATMs in Uyuni and Calama, but not in San Pedro. Use up residual bolivianos in shop at Laguna Colorada or earlier, and pesos at San Pedro. US dollars in small notes always acceptable. Internet at Uyuni and Calama.
This trip was done at the end of last November. Trips go all year but in the southern winter expect subzero temps at night and some snow. Check weather forecast.
Sun exposure and glare is extreme. Hat, sunglasses and sun screen are essential.
At times vehicles have become bogged in sand, mud or salt slush. Always carry warm and protective clothing and spare food in case you have to camp out!
You can visit Allano’s web site by clicking here.