The Chilean Atacama Desert and the Bolivian Altaplano - a 10 day hybrid travel itinerary
Updated: May 13, 2022
Chile is one of those places that I could honestly explore year after year and still be fascinated. The culture is intriguing and the people are so kind. And if you're an active traveler like I am, your head will spin from all the hiking and exploration options within this incredibly diverse country. But since we were a little 'out of practice' of traveling internationally the last few ( due to COVID restrictions), we decided to ease back into it during the first week of the trip, and then take on a less-structured Bolivian adventure the second week. So we started our trip in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile with Explora Eco-lodge - an organization that offers some pretty incredible all-inclusive, active-luxury experiences in several remote areas of South America. I encourage you to read my reviews of both Explora Patagonia and Explora Peru to see what I mean. I'm currently working on my write-up on Explora Atacama and will post it within the month.
So the itinerary below is really for the hybrid traveler – someone who enjoys both actively exploring the outdoors, as well as having a luxuriously soft bed, a hot soak and a great meal at the end of the day. And as you'll see later in our itinerary, it's for those who enjoy both local guesthouses and simple living as well as luxury lodges and elevated experiences. Ten days is really not enough time to see all that this area has to offer. But we managed to do some fabulous hikes in the Atacama desert, see diverse wildlife and multi-colored lagoons in the Bolivian Altaplano, and ended with a 'other worldly' dose of the Uyuni Salt Flats.
So, let’s go to Chile and Bolivia!
In Chile, we chose to stay at Explora Eco-lodge for the San Pedro de Atacama part of our trip because we felt that they offered the most comprehensive active explorations of the land, as well as introduction to the food and local people. Plus, bottom line - Explora just knows how pamper you at the end of a hard day of hiking. Read my full review of Explora -Sacred Valley, Peru and learn more about Explora's Patagonia / Torres del Paine location (which we feel is a definite 'bucket-list' location!) for more details.
For Bolivia, we hired a local guide and driver through Mariana Tours. There was less hiking for this portion of it. We mainly drove to different locations and walked around. But the terrain was rugged, warranted good walking shoes and being healthy and fairly fit had it's benefits - we were at 13,000 - 15,500' the entire time!
The San Pedro de Atacama area has several upscale hotels and lodges in the area. Aside from Explora, Nayara Alto Atacama Lodge and Spa looks quite beautiful and was located near the Cartarpe Valley. Hotel Cumbres boasts guided services and beautiful pools. Noi Casa Atacama has variety of board/excursion packages to choose from. And Tierra Atacama has eco-friendly design and boutique comforts as it's primary goal. Hotel Altiplanico and Hotel Kimal offer more moderate accommodations but do not include guide service.
How to Connect
Bolivia is an extremely impoverished country and one of the best ways to support them is through using local guide services when you travel there. If you'd like to contribute in a more extensive way, organizations like the Help Bolivia Foundation or Global Giving Bolivia can give you more direction.
Trip Rating - L2-3 English is spoken by many guides and employees of the larger hotels and restaurants in the. But knowing some Spanish will help you a lot. Although we speak enough Spanish to get directions and ask questions, we paid extra for a bilingual guide in Bolivia. Also, the Atacama area of Chile resembled some smaller areas of Mexico we have traveled to. The cleanliness and 'style' of public restrooms may be different than what you are used to where you live. Have patience and compassion. Realize, that in a highly impoverished area, they are providing what they can. So carry hand sanitizer, and be prepared to use the "Inca restroom" on hikes or when traveling out in open roads (aka 'squat' in nature). The food, although comprised mostly of familiar ingredients such as trout, chicken, quinoa, fresh vegetables and a wide range of potatoes, will also include opportunity to try guanaco, llama cheese and ice-cream and foods flavored with rica rica and chanar. Read more about our trip rating system here.
Length of trip - 10 days on the ground, excluding flights. We flew from the west coast of the USA, our international flight got cancelled and rescheduled twice (!) So in total our trip required 14 days.
Month of Travel - Late April - early May. It was about 70 degrees F during the day, but dropped to ~ 40 degrees F as soon as the sun set. The sun in INTENSE here. So long-sleeves and hiking pants recommended. In the evenings, dress was very casual, adventure/active-chic. We didn't see anyone 'dressed up' for dinner. Plus it was too cold in the evening for dresses or skirts (FYI).
Arriving in Chile - Flight – we took a flight on LATAM airlines from the west coast, USA. We flew LAX to Santiago (~10 hours), then flew Santiago to Calama (~2 hours). From there you need to get a taxi or other ground transportation to San Pedro de Atacama.
Ground transportation – Explora includes pickup and drop-off from Calama - which is about a 70 minute drive. You can also get a taxi, bus (every 4 hours) or we saw transportation companies like TransVIP and TransferAtacama at the Calama airport.
Day 1 - San Pedro de Atacama arrival
We arrived in Calama around 12pm and took our private transfer with Explora to the hotel. Once settled into our rooms, the guides asked if we wanted to join them on a introductory excursion to sunset lookout. My husbands camera-finger twitched and of course we said yes!
Recommended exploration - Laguna Baltinaches ( part of Moon Valley ) with a view of Lincacabur volcano at sunset (this is the photo above and under the title of this post)
Accommodation - Explora Atacama
Day 2 - Atacama - Hot Springs and Canyons
At Explora Atacama, explorations are offered as either two half-days - with return to hotel for lunch in between - or one full-day exploration. On this day, we did a morning hike to Puritama Hotspring and a late afternoon hike to area the guides referred to as Domeyko valley.
Accommodation - Explora Atacama
Day 3 - Atacama - Volcan Blanco
This day was intended as a step-up acclimatization excursion to see how we did hiking for several hours at 13,000 - 14,000' in elevation. First, we drove for an early morning viewing of Tatio Geysers and then on to a long , windy trail amidst steaming hot pots, warm rivers and wide open marshland filled with vincuna. This was the most diverse hike we did with Explora, with many types of wildlife and birds and no other people sighted.
Accommodation - Explora Atacama
Day 4 - Atacama - Cerro Toco climb
Since we did well on the prior day's hike, we were 'cleared' to climb Toco Volcano, which summited at over 18,000 feet. We drove to, and started our hike at close to 17,000', so only need to cover 2-3 miles gradually. We had an excellent Explora guide, and we were able to make it up in less than 2 hours and back to the vehicle in 1 hour. However, the drive back our lodge (~8,000' ) resulted in a raging headache from losing so much elevation in only a few hours - not something our bodies are designed for.
NOTE - Explora guides only work with a 1:4 person max for climbs like this, and they make sure you are acclimated for safety. We saw other local guides as 1:10-11 person ratios, many of which were struggling. Make sure you ask how many people, per guide, are in your group before you do a high altitude hike. Your health and safety are worth paying a little more money for.
Accommodation - Explora Atacama
Day 5 - Atacama - Relaxation
After yesterday's activity and being up early several days in a row, we decided that sleeping in, a relaxing day of soaking in the hot pools and random napping was in order.
Accommodation - Explora Atacama
Day 6 - Atacama
This was our last full day of exploring this area. So we asked to be guided on two explorations that were unusual - Punta del Inca and Catarpe Valley. The morning hike was through a beautiful gorge that had us scrambling over large boulders in the cool shadows that surrounded a shallow river. The second was a later after hike through a popular mountain-biking canyon that led to panoramic views.
Accommodation - Explora Atacama
Day 7 - Bolivian border crossing and beautiful lagoons
This morning started early and was our transition to Bolivia. And I'm going to point out a few logistics that I highly advised you coordinate carefully or hire a guide service to do for you - NOTES:
Your country may require a visa. This can take several weeks to process so make sure you leave time for this before your trip. If you wait and do it at the border, the patrol is somewhat notorious for only accepting 'perfect' US cash dollars and will reject and hold you from entering if there is even a wrinkle on the edges. Do it ahead of time and save yourself the hassles. For the United States, it cost $160 usd per person but is valid for 10 years.
Bolivia and Chile aren't exactly 'friends' - Differing political systems don't make it easy for drivers to easily cross back and forth. We had a separate Chilean driver take us to the border. Then we had to physically walk about 10 yards across the dirt border with our luggage, where our Bolivian driver and guide were waiting.
The border is ~ 7 hour drive from Uyuni where most guides are based. We did the 'reverse' of the typical touring route, because we were already in San Pedro de Atacama - only a 45 minute drive from the border. Most travelers fly into Santiago, then fly to Sucre or Uyuni, see the salt flats, drive to the lagoons and Altaplano, then double-back to Uyuni. But for us, it made more logistical sense to do the tour starting from the border instead of driving all the way back to Calama and finding flights to Uyuni. HOWEVER, realize we had pay extra to do this. The guides basically drove 7 hours to get us, stayed overnight in a village near the border, spent 4 days with us touring between Altaplano and Uyuni, drove us back to the Chilean border and then drove themselves back to Uyuni. Lots of driving for them. Easier logistics for us. All can be coordinated with forethought. We used MarianaTours and our guide and driver were Marco and Leo. Both were excellent, well worth the money spent and they were very grateful for the employment.
There are very few signs! Driving across the Altaplano is a definite adventure. It's a gravel, bumpy road for hundreds of miles and there are no directional signs. Our guide had driven this area for 20 years, so just seemed to use landmarks as guidance. If you choose to drive it on your own, just make sure you have GAIA maps downloaded on your phone and are confident working from a GPS.
TIP - bring cash with you into Bolivia! We didn't find anywhere that took credit card until we hit Uyuni. Bolivianos is the preferred currency for tipping your guides at the end of your tour.
Change currency in Chile if you can. ATMS are few and far between until you hit Uyuni. Some hotels will change currency for you as well.
Once we passed through immigration and border inspection, we spent the rest of the day touring the colorful mineral-laced lagoons and the incredible Salvador (Dali) Valley.
Stop 1 - Laguna Blanca
Stop 2 - Laguna Verde
Stop 3 - Salvador Valley
Stop 4 - Chalviri / Polques (lunch and Hot Spring)
Stop 5 - Sol de Manana geyser area ( meh. Very windy when we went, bypass if mid-day, as colors as not as clear when sun is high)
Stop 5 - Laguna Colorado -** favorite! Lots of flamingo and vincuna here. Great photography spot
Accommodation - Hotel Jardines de Mallku Cueva - super quaint hotel in a really interesting area. Family-run, simple meals, friendly with cozy decor
Day 8 - heading towards Uyuni
We had a 3-4 hour to get to Uyuni today. But we still managed to spend the morning discovering new places.
Stop 1 - Valley of Rocks / Camel Rock
Stop 2 - Laguna Negra - beautiful, peaceful, need to walk-in about 10 minutes for best appreciation
Stop 3 - Anaconda Canyon lookout
Stop 4 - Uyuni ( about 4 hour drive over rocky roads from last stop)
Accommodation - Palacio del Sal - Gorgeous property, with a beautiful lounge, spa and rooms with salt domes over the bed. The restaurant food and service was excellent as well.
Day 9 - Uyuni Salt Flat
If you arrange it like we did, you can do a 3 hour astro-photography excursion. You'll have to get up around 4am to catch the Milky Way and best star viewing and then early sunrise. And it's COLD! So you better bundle up ( as in 3 layers including a down jacket ) and thick socks (guides will loan you rubber boots) because you will be standing in 3 inches of near-freezing water. Guides then take you back to get a few hours sleep, have breakfast, and then pick you up around 10am for that day's exploration. Nic Stover Photography was able to get some drone time in and some amazing shots. Check it out on his website and I'll update this post when he gets through all that he took.
Stop 1 - Local market and salt factory
Stop 2 - various across the flat to fly drone, see interesting lithium circles and look for Halite crystals.
Stop 3 - Isla Incahuasi (Cactus Island / Lunch spot)
Stop 4 - Sunset location
Accommodation - Hotel Luna Salada - another luxury hotel very close to the other but sits up on a rise. The rooms are very modern and beautiful, and the bathrooms and showers are larger than Palacio del Sal. But the spa here couldn't compete with Palacio. The hotel has a lovely design and has many sitting areas with fireplaces, a nice bar. and even a game room. It's seems designed to accommodate larger groups. I think our perfect "dream combination" would be Palacio del Sal with the rooms and bathrooms of Luna Salada.
MORE UYUNI PHOTOS in GALLERY at end of itinerary
Day 10 - drive back to Chilean border
I initially thought this long 6-7 hour drive back would be dull and something I'd have to fill with reading or podcasts. But I was wrong. The reverse journey across the Altiplano was visually stunning and equal to the first time we crossed it. The weather was a nice 70 degrees F and I found the time pass by quickly. Our drivers wife even made us a delicious home-cooked hot meal for the road.
The Border: we had to first stop at Bolivian customs and fill out a new form, then onto Bolivian immigration and finally were handed off at the combined Chilean customs and immigration after all of our bags were thoroughly assessed. Whew.
NOTE: some places online say Bolivia is not a tipping country. I say BS. Every guide loves a monetary 'thank you' and here, your money goes a long way. They work hard and live a meager lifestyle. Please be generous if you felt you had good service.
Then it was 45 minutes back to San Pedro de Atacama where we spent the night, had a nice meal in town and then took a taxi to the Calama airport.
TIP - If the USA is still requiring negative COVID antigen tests prior to return, the IHEALTH online system worked really well, was inexpensive and very convenient. Just set up an appointment ahead of time, bring your test kit with you, and make sure Chrome, your sound and your video is working well on your laptop (won't work on Iphone)
Accommodation - Hotel Altiplanico This hotel was terrific. I think it's classified as 'moderate' or a 3-4 star hotel. But the grounds are beautiful with a lovely dining patio, landscaping and large rooms. Our room even had an out door shower! The staff were really nice and both Christian (desk staff) and Oscar (manager) were so helpful with getting our transfer in order and suggesting restaurants in town.
Our taxi drive to the Calama airport (50 min) and our flight to Santiago was smooth and easy - a nice reward compared to how we began the trip. I hope you enjoy our photos and are inspired to travel to this beautiful part of the world and meet these hard-working people.
Feel free to contact me with any questions at jen@paradoxtravels. com