After we picked up our bags from the hotel front desk (The manager and one and only staff member wasn’t around) we waited in the pitch dark for the shuttle to Calama airport. It arrived relatively on time much to my joy given my loss of contact with the man who arranged it. The shuttle driver then informed us that the shuttle was for Calama city and not the airport, which made our travel that night a lot easier.

The car hurtled along the dark desert highway. The only lights outside being the stars above and the headlamps on the road. I then contemplated the arduous journey ahead between us and Salt Flats of Uyuni.

Planning the route

The original plan was to take the usual highway to from Argentina to Bolivia, but the Atacama detour complicated things. There would be more points of interest on the desert route but it also meant having less local transportation over the border. Calama had an airport but as it was domestic, a flight to Bolivia would require a long & expensive detour via the capital, Santiago in the South.

The land routes available between Atacama and Uyuni were limited to:

1. A 3 night road-trip by jeep through the desert
2. An overnight coach bus from Calama to Uyuni on the regular road

Option 1: The Desert Jeep

A typical jeep used on the 3-day trip. credits

The jeep tour was geared towards tourists and although the prices seemed reasonable, accommodation would be rough (rustic rooms with no heating) and the jeep ride legendarily bumpy as it would be very much off-road. And although this route would be more scenic.

With scenery like this:

Laguna VerdeLaguna Verde

<img src=””/ alt=”Lagunda Colarado”> Laguna Colarado more photos

We rejected this route on the grounds of time (only had 2 weeks remaining to cover the rest of our trip) and comfort.

Option 2: The infrequent bus

This left us with booking the very scarce coach bus to Uyuni. We were able to book online via, a Chilean bus booking site which even accepted PayPal! The only trouble was that the bus tickets were only released a week before the trip and the details on the bus schedule I’d obtained from various sources (forums to other bus sites) were sketchy at best. It would be tense few days while we waited for the tickets to become available (the backup plan was to hire a very expensive private car if the bus route failed). I’d observed the bus tickets being available on the Sunday a few weeks earlier and hoped that would be sufficient a guarantee that there would be a bus on the day we travelled.

Thankfully plan B was never required and the bus tickets became available as predicted within a week of travel. The bus left Calama at 6am in the morning and based on the google map, it departed from their office which meant no terminal as a safe haven. Calama was considered quite dangerous by night and I had no intention of loitering about outside the office in the dead of night.

Our accommodation at Calama was quite posh compared our rustic Atacama accommodation. We spent the night at a small boutique hotel on the suburbs of Calama city (considered relatively safer). Check-in was a difficult affair with this hotel as the staff did not know English and we struggled to communicate using my Google Translate app. I was expecting some difficulty based on my email communication with the hotel. I had tried to book the bus tickets via the hotel when I was having trouble booking it online. However it took a few emails to ensure they understood my requirement by which time I had managed to book the tickets online.

Finally we managed to figure out that some payment was pending and after settling that we managed to request a very early breakfast at 4am followed by a taxi pickup. With these items settled we called it a night.

The morning started on schedule but things broke down once our driver realized that our bus was at 6am and it took a mere 10 minutes to arrive at the bus office. A miscommunication with the hotel staff had resulted in a overestimate of the distance to the bus office. In the rush I hadn’t verified the distance on Google Maps (which I probably should have done at the time).

We were almost an hour too early, the street were dark (for lack of street lighting) and the office was still closed. The driver strongly suggested we wait in the taxi till the bus arrives and we wholeheartedly agreed.

There were a few hooded characters loitering about the area which did make me feel a bit edgy. I recalled what I’d read in the Lonely Planet guides and tried to consider how violent the crime would be in this city compared to the larger cities of Lima or La Paz which were better known for violent crime. The driver locked the doors & snoozed but we stayed alert for most of the time.

Calama owed much of its existence to the Copper mines in the area and its economy wasn’t well geared for anything but mining. It was noted to be a rough town even by day and petty theft at bus terminals was a common threat to travellers. The city itself had no attractions of interest to travellers apart from being a transit point. A nearby airport and cross-border bus-services to Argentina & Bolivia ensured a sizeable number of tourists would pass through it.

At 6am, more people had clustered by the bus office gate and staff started to open up the large garage gate next to the office to reveal the bus. The fare (thanks to the waiting charge) was a rather hefty 10000 CLP but was reasonable given the circumstances. We then got our ticket printouts validated, loaded the baggage and boarded the bus.

The bus itself wasn’t as plush as our bus from Argentina but reasonably comfortable. The staff gave us some yellow ticket stubs which he instructed us to keep till Bolivia. He wasn’t able to elaborate further (probably due to lack of English).

The bus didn’t depart on-time but 30 minutes later we were on our way. There was a stop for a tourist to draw cash from an ATM, but apart from that it was relatively express till we reached the border in the first rays of morning.

Chilean Immigrations

chilean border

The Chilean border was quite organized and didn’t take much time (unless u forgot the slip of paper they give you at the start, in which case you’d be in a big mess). Once we completed the immigration formalities we re-boarded the bus and crossed to the Bolivian side.

A Chaotic Border

bolivian border

The Bolivian border consisted of a small house with 2 rooms and a big soldier with sunnies walking about the entrance. There was no queue and I likened it to a marketplace in which everyone was shouting and barging. The locals seemed to know what they were doing though the tourists were left stumped until the guard instructed them on the form to fill. There were insufficient forms, no instructions and it was quite evident that Bolivia didn’t think this border warranted much investment for the handful of tourists that entered via this route (most of whom being low-budget backpackers). We managed to fill out our forms and got an audience from the one immigrations official in his office.

As a British citizen I could enter visa-free though for my Singaporean co-traveller the government websites were less transparent. I had read that though the official visa cost at La Paz airport was US$90. It was known to fluctuate wildly at the more remote border crossings, probably as a result of corruption which was so rampant in this country.

The official took a while to lookup the price for Singaporean passports and finally replied with what mistook to be :

Sing dollars!

Which caused some amount of confusion till a calculator settled it as 100 USD and what he had meant was:

Cien dollars!

This was one of the most disorganized border crossings on my trip, but then again this route wasn’t a very popular one. The only reason we took it was to cover the Salar de Uyuni. One of the largest Salt flats on the planet.

With our passports stamped we re-boarded the bus, only to be transferred to a colourful rickety Bolivian bus a short way along the road. This ramshackle bus was a lot less comfortable than our Chilean bus (probably also a reflection in the differences in the economic state of Bolivia to its Southern neighbour).

Not the actual bus but resembled its age & colour-scheme. credits

Our yellow stubs were collected by a woman in native Bolivian garb: Bowler hat and woolly scarf. She spoke no English but thankfully needed no explanation.

The arid desert landscape finally progressed into the shacks of Uyuni. It was clearly a lot poorer than San Pedro de Atacama and I was thankful our accommodation for the night would be outside the town.

The bus dropped us off at the dilapidated bus terminal in the centre of town. I had called the hotel as we approached the town to confirm our taxi pickup. The hotel was on the salt flats and far outside the usual transport links.

The taxi picked us up and took us away from the chaotic streets of Uyuni and into the salt flats.

Salt Hotel

The hotel was constructed out of blocks of Salt carved out of the Salt Flats. I’d heard of it online and wanted to experience it for myself.

We spent the rest of the day recovering from the bus ride and explored the hotel. I made bookings for the Salt Flat tour for the next day, before We then settled down to recuperate after our exhausting bus ride. The hotel was quite impressive in both scale and use of local materials which gave a novel character. One down side to the novelty was that there was no floor tiling in any of the rooms or main corridors. The floor was essentially salt gravel so you'd be wearing shoes within your room (apart from the toilet which was thankfully tiled). The hotel kept a basket of coca leaves and hot-water handy for guests in the lobby.Coca tea is a common remedy for altitude-sickness, and although my diamox pills were effective enough at keeping that at bay I felt curious enough to try the tea. The tea was essentially leaves in hot water, a beverage I found to be far too grassy to my taste. ## Conclusion The crossing of the Atacama into Uyuni was neither scenic nor comfortable. But was by far the cheapest and fastest means of making the entry into Uyuni. More adventurous souls with more time to burn would probably prefer the more leisurely (albeit more touristy-prices) jeep tour and I did meet travellers further on who did take that route. The bus route was probably an even bigger logistical challenge than the jeep as the jeep tour was more frequent and there are plenty of operators available online, where as the bus runs at most twice a week, and the bus schedules were non-existent such that travellers have just here-say on forums to plan their routes in the weeks beforehand (had we missed that bus we'd be in a complicated situation indeed). This was one of the instances on this trip that made it such a touch-n-go affair. It's most definitely not a stress-free affair.