How to Plan Your Time in the Atacama Desert

Comparing Putre, San Pedro de Atacama and the Uyuni salt flat tour.

Visited the region at the end of September 2015.

The Atacama Desert had long been on my list of places I wanted to visit, but developing a plan to best tour this region was not easy. In the end we spent close to two weeks in the region focusing on the National Parks outside of Putre, the areas around San Pedro de Atacama and the Uyuni salt flat in Bolivia. While the high Altiplano landscape of volcanoes, salt lakes and salt pans is similar in all three locations, each has characteristics that would appeal to different kinds of travelers.

Putre – Is the most remote and isolated of the three locations. You can only reach the area by bus or car from Arica, Chile or La Paz, Bolivia. Services in the small Altiplano town are basic, no resort hotels or upscale restaurants and few tour agencies service this area.

Salar de Surire

Salar de Surire

While we found the landscape of volcanoes and salt lakes just as enchanting as the other two locations, there were next to no other tourists. Imagine having a salt lake all to yourselves. That is if you don’t mind sharing with the flamingos, vicuñas and suris, a type of ostrich. In general we saw more wildlife in this region compared to the other two.

San Pedro de Atamaca – Is a well marketed gateway town with plenty of resorts and higher end restaurants. There are also many more tour agencies that service this area with a wide variety of activities to choose from.

Valley de la Luna Tour

Valle de la Luna

While much more expensive than Putre, the services are far superior including guides that speak good English. Except for the Valley of the Moon, we found the sights to be similar to those of the other two locations. Expect numerous tour group vehicles at all the major sights.

Uyuni Salt Flat Tour – Is another great way to see the Altiplano desert. This tour is generally done as a 3 day/2 night excursion out of either Uyuni, Bolivia or San Pedro de Atacama. You can also do it as a one way tour starting in either of the two towns. See my review of Cordillera Traveller for more information on the tour.

Uyuni Salt Flat

Salar de Uyuni

 

With volcanoes and other thermal activity, salt lakes and wide open barren desert, the landscape is generally the same as the other two locations. The big draw, and for us one of the highlights of the entire region, is the salt flat itself. Neither of the other two locations have anything that compares. This tour also had the best flamingo sightings.

On the downside, expect numerous vehicles at all the major sights and accommodations and services that are the most basic of the three locations. If you are short on time, however, and don’t mind roughing it a bit, this tour gives the most bang for your time and money in the Altiplano desert.

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