A path leading to Laguna Miscanti in Atacama, Chile

Atacama Desert itinerary: San Pedro de Atacama to Salar de Uyuni

Planning a trip to the Atacama Desert? This 6-day tour includes San Pedro de Atacama and the 4WD desert adventure to Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia.

From the driest desert on earth, to the world's largest salt flat; this is a road trip like no other. The route takes you from the tourist outpost of San Pedro de Atacama, past vibrant flamingo-filled lagoons and wild vicunas, to one of the most mesmerising sights on Planet Earth, Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia.

The Atacama Desert lies just south of Peru and to the west of Bolivia and Argentina. Spanning over 1000 kilometres, it is thought to be the driest non-polar land on earth. According to NASA, parts of the Atacama see just 1 mm of rainfall a year, and some riverbeds are thought to have been dry for over 120,000 years.

Just across the border, and the 4000-metre high Altiplano that divides Chile and Bolivia, lies Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia’s unfathomably beautiful salt flats. It’s the largest natural phenomenon of its kind at 10,000 square kilometres, and one of the flattest places on earth. But the stats don’t end there. The area is also home to the world’s largest mountain range, the Andes, extending through seven countries or ‘Andean States’.

There aren’t many roads on this cross-country voyage. Expect to find dirt tracks, salt brick hotels, and a strangely-abundant gathering of wildlife like flamingos, foxes, and wild alpacas, known as vicuña.

Mountain reflections at Piedras rojas in the Atacama desert, Chile

Getting to the Atacama Desert

San Pedro de Atacama is the gateway to the desert, located 2,443 metres above sea level. It’s connected with the Calama airport in Chile by a 100-kilometre road, taking around an hour and a half to drive from the airport.

It’s also possible to cross overland through Bolivia into the Atacama desert. Trips usually start in Uyuni, a small Bolivian town accessible by road from Potosi, or by plane or an overnight bus from La Paz.

The best way to see everything is to take a tour from San Pedro de Atacama to Uyuni (or vice versa). Tours usually take 3 to 4 days and offer basic accommodation, food and a driver/local guide.

It’s possible to hire a car or take a bus, but it’s much better to get local knowledge from a guide - particularly useful when crossing barren, inhospitable spaces without road signs.

Historic centre of San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

San Pedro de Atacama (2-3 days)

Spend a few days before the tour in San Pedro de Atacama to make the most of the many available activities surrounding the town. Hotel Desertica is one of the best places to stay in San Pedro de Atacama, with luxurious rooms and a stunning pool to escape from the desert heat. Or, for something more affordable, Hostal Puritama is a clean, comfy base in the heart of town.

There are lots of activities for adventurous sorts around San Pedro de Atacama. You can find everything from hiking and mountaineering, to sandboarding, biking, off-roading, and paragliding. There’s also the Puritama hot springs for a more relaxed day out, or take a day trip out of town to float in the salty blue waters of Lagunas Escondidas de Baltinache or Ojos del Salar.

During the evenings, simply looking upwards is one of the best activities in the region. San Pedro de Atacama and the Elqui Valley boast several major international observatories; it’s one of the best places in the world to stargaze with unpolluted views of the Milky Way.

There are also several highlights near San Pedro which are well worth visiting:

Moon & Death Valley

Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) and Valle de La Muerte (Death Valley) are located next to each other, forming a microcosm of life in the Atacama Desert. The amazing geological formations appear otherworldly, eroded by the passage of time. The absence of life, and the lack of water, make this one of the most desolate places on the planet.

The ‘Cordillera de la Sal’, or salt mountain range, runs between the two valleys, giving the horizon an out-of-place snow-capped effect. Visit the salt caves, go sandboarding on monumental dunes, and visit the Pukara de Quito, a pre-Inca fort from the 12th century that sits on a steep hillside.

Laguna Miscanti in the Atacama Desert, Chile.

Los Flamencos National Reserve

This 740 square kilometre national park is home to many more attractions besides the famous Valle de Luna. It’s one of the region’s top destinations for tourists, with high-altitude lakes, ancient ruins and plenty of wildlife. Notable highlights of the reserve are the Aldea de Tulor ruins - dating back to 800 BC, the Laguna Chaxa, the Salar de Atacama, the Catedrales de Tara, and the Monejas de Pacana (the Monks of Pacana).

Also part of the reserve, located around 110 kilometres from San Pedro de Atacama, are the Lagunas Miscanti and Miniques. These high-altitude lakes are an unlikely place to find wildlife, surrounded by miles of uninhabited desert and a thin crust of salt. But you are likely to encounter the Andean fox roaming the shores, as well as great flocks of James’s, Chilean, and Andean flamingos.

Geysers Del Tatio

Head 90 kilometres north of San Pedro de Atacama to El Tatio. At an altitude of 4320 metres, El Tatio is home to an impressive 80 active fumaroles and comes in third on the list of the world’s largest geyser fields.

This ethereal landscape of sulphur and steam makes for a moody way to spend a morning exploring the natural wonders of Chile. Tatio is a Native American word for ‘oven’, but with temperatures dipping well below zero in the desert overnight, make sure to wrap up warm for this geothermal experience.

Flamingos in the pink Laguna Colorada in Uyuni, Bolivia

The Desert Crossing (3-4 days)

From San Pedro cross into Bolivia at the Hito Cajon border. It's best taking a tour, and they'll stop in different places. Accommodation is usually shared and can be quite basic. In Santiago de Agencha, the Jukil Community Lodge is a wonderful example of sustainable tourism, directly giving back to the local communities that live there.

Some highlights before you reach Salar de Uyuni are:

Termas de Polques hot springs

Many visitors will make a trip to the more well known Puritama hot springs in Chile, but cross the border and you will uncover a lesser-known spot to decompress in thermal bliss.

Termas de Polques, also known as the Uyuni Hot Springs, are located on the Salar de Chalviri salt flat in the heart of the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve. You will go right past them on a trip over the Bolivian Altiplano between San Pedro de Atacama and the Uyuni salt flats.

This scenic sauna is the perfect place to acclimatise, and will (probably) be the highest bath you will ever have.

Laguna Verde and Laguna Colorada

If you thought Chile was spectacular, wait until you lay eyes on Bolivia. The 10-kilometre-long Laguna Colorada glistens pink, green and blue, a natural phenomenon caused by algae that thrives in its salty water.

The varied algae display different colours depending on the time of year and attract vast flocks of breeding flamingos. Framed by snow-capped volcanoes, it's one of the most breathtaking sites of Bolivia.

Devoid of all life, Laguna Verde gains its emerald-green-colour from mineral suspensions of arsenic, magnesium, carbonate and calcium. Laguna Verde and its neighbour Laguna Blanca sit at the foot of the volcano Licancabur near the Chilean border.

Inspired by its deadly reputation, the 5,916 metre volcano has hosted several NASA experiments to prepare for future missions to Mars.

Piles of salt on the salt lake at Salar De Uyuni, Bolivia

Uyuni and the Salar De Uyuni (2 days)

The small town of Uyuni lies right on the edge of the salt flats, and is the most common entry and exit point. It has everything you need for a short stay; great restaurants, local shops, and affordable hotels.

Stay at the Casa de Sal - Salt Hotel for a taste of local architecture, built with salt blocks it features beautiful details of Andean décor. Or for something a bit further out of town, stay in the world’s very first salt hotel at the Hotel Palacio de Sal.

Salar De Uyuni

Unquestionably one of the greatest sights on earth, spanning 4,050 square miles of the Bolivian Altiplano, is the world’s largest salt flat.

Salar de Uyuni offers perspective-altering views, mirror-like landscapes, and one of the biggest reserves of Lithium in the world. It’s believed to have been left behind by prehistoric lakes, long since evaporated, now only the thick salty crust remains.

Get creative with toy dinosaurs, hats and even cutlery for some fun photo opportunities on the flats. Then visit the flags of the world, see the ancient cacti at Isla Pescado, explore the rust-ridden train graveyard, and spend time with the small Quechua community at Santiago de Agencha.

Reflections of jeeps at Salar De Uyuni, Bolivia.

Do I need to do a tour of Salar de Uyuni?

In a word, yes - it's best to book a tour. It’s not safe to visit alone, and you will want the knowledge of an experienced local guide. Although some tours offered can be incredibly cheap, do your research and pick one that that doesn't cut corners, even if it's not the cheapest option.

The isolation and out-of-this-world nature make for an incredibly dangerous landscape where you will need to be able to trust your guides implicitly. Travel with a reputable company, making sure to book a tour that benefits the local people.

When to take this trip

May to November is the dry season in the Altiplano, with the peak months of June, July and August getting busy with tours and hotels, so book well ahead. Between December to April is the time that Salar de Uyuni floods. You can get some amazing mirror-like photographs and enjoy out-of-this-world scenery, but some areas of the salt flats are inaccessible at this time of year.

In winter, the weather can get quite cold in San Pedro de Atacama. During June, July and August, the average daytime temperature is 22°C, and by night it drops to around 4°C with lows of -2°C. During the summer (January, February and March), the temperature averages around 27°C during the day, and 16°C at night, with highs of up to 32°C.

Every few years, the desert blooms in a colourful carpet that breathes new life into the barren landscape. This event is becoming increasingly less predictable due to climate change, and its most recent appearance has prompted the Chilean government to declare part of the Atacama a National Park.

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Jo Williams

Author - Jo Williams

Jo Williams is a freelance writer with 10 years' experience working in travel and tourism. A Brit who got fed up with the 9 to 5 corporate life, she sold everything to become a full-time wanderer.

Jo has travelled to over 70 countries and worked throughout Europe for a major tour operator. She hopes to inspire you to work less and travel more.

Last Updated 4 September 2023

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