The Ungraceful Guide | Budget Travel Guides

How To: Uyuni in Bolivia to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile

After a successful four nights in Uyuni, and by successful we mean to discover a way, in the form of a little adventure, to visit the Salar de Uyuni salt flats without booking a tour or hiring a guide.

When online research says something is impossible, our stubborn selves tend to find out if that’s really the case in any attempt necessary. Sometimes it’s correct, and it is impossible. Most times, there is a way. Sure isn’t there always a way?

Although we managed to satisfy our salty pursuit, while walking around Uyuni town, the tour touts continued to shout their pitches and name their prices. Every offer includes that, should we book a 3-day tour, it’s optional to be dropped across the Chilean border in either Calama city or the tourist favourite, San Pedro Atacama. Naturally, for anyone who has plans to continue south, this is an appealing factor and therefore nearly anyone who is heading onwards to Chile will opt in for the 3 days. It really does make sense!

But what about us two eejits? We had been too distracted with our ‘seek out some salt’ mission that the ‘we still need to cross the border into Chile’ thought didn’t creep through our heads.

Quite disorganised thus learning the hard way, we left our Bolivian departure until the last minute which resulted in us coughing up for the most expensive (and way overpriced) bus.

So, if you plan to cross the border from Bolivia to Chile without a tour, here’s how. Minus our fuck up of course!

But what was our fuck up, we can hear you shout at the screen. Well, we decided to leave Uyuni on a Tuesday. Yup. Who would have thought to check that buses don’t run every day?! Us, that’s who.

So let us warn you! If you are on a tight budget make sure to leave Uyuni on any day except Tuesday or Saturday. The two days when all the cheaper bus services take the day off, leaving only the most expensive, Cruz del Norte, as an option.

Table of Contents

Uyuni Bus Schedule:

Thankfully there are a number of companies who run a service from Uyuni across to Calama, the nearest city to San Pedro de Atacama.

Whether your destination is San Pedro de Atacama or not, a pit stop through Calama is highly recommended. Especially for those watching the spending. It’s true what they say about San Pedro de Atacama, it really is the most expensive place in the North of Chile. Catering only to tourists, even the local fruit and veg markets are charging extortionate prices.

It’ll be a shock to the system leaving low-cost Bolivia. So trust us when we say that you will want to stop in Calama; use an ATM, eat for cheap, stock up on reasonably priced groceries and grab anything else you need to survive Chile’s desert.

Our point is, that a direct bus from Uyuni to San Pedro de Atacama isn’t so appealing when you realise how much a stop in Calama can actually save your budget in the long run.

Trans Azul:

Buses to Calama with Trans Azul leave only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. There is one departure on those days, at 4 am, and the promised 7-hour journey costs the flat fee of 80B (€10)

11 de Julio:

With four buses per week leaving at 5 am on Sundays, Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, 11 de Julio also charges a flat fee of 80B (€10) to Calama.

Cruz del Norte:

Our only option (as it still worked out cheaper than spending another night in Uyuni) was to travel with Cruz del Norte, which leaves its terminal at 5 a.m. every single day.

A company that promises luxury, it’s yet another standard bus with no toilets, little leg room and no fancy features at the price of 130B (€16.25) to Calama and 160B (€20) direct to San Pedro.

Even with only 30B (€3.75) in the difference between Calama and San Pedro de Atacama, we still suggest stopping in Calama as taking the shuttle from Calama to San Pedro de Atacama costs 3,000CP (€4). So no major loss there.

Bolivian Immigration:

A very early start, enough to make you fall back deep into dreamland once your head hits the bus seat. After 2-3 hours of the journey, there is a bathroom and breakfast stop. Bathrooms costing 2B and breakfast consisting solely of salteñas and soup. When the 15 minutes is up, it’s back on the bus for another hour or two before we reach the Bolivian border.

As we boarded, the ayudante handed us our Chile custom forms to complete. At around 10 am we arrived at Avaroa, the final Bolivian border town. Despite being the only bus in view, the queues were long and with only one official working at the time, we were there for nearly an hour.

Although there is no official entry or exit fee in or out of Bolivia, here the officials charge 15B (€1.90) per person.

You can dispute it as much as you like, but even locals pay this fee. There is no receipt and most definitely no official cert or sign acknowledging the compulsory cost. In fact, we triple-checked if this fee was in any way legit, surprise, surprise… It’s not.

We’re fairly easygoing and generous people, but nothing grinds my gears more than being ripped off. Even for something as little as €2. We have no qualms about paying an official fee, or even a small donation but a scam, well that just sucks. Principles and all that! Yet, with the locals handing it over without a murmur, we obviously felt obliged to do the same.

However, if you feel like you want to fight this one, or at least try to get out of paying you could act dumb, and flash the credit card. We noticed they didn’t have a credit card machine therefore they won’t be able to charge you. But make sure they stamp your passport before any same scam revenge (and good luck!).

Now, back on the bus.

Chilean Immigration:

In less than 20 minutes another big stop is ahead. This time it’s Chilean immigration.

First up is to queue for your entry stamp. A simple no-questions-asked process. Next is the most thorough bag search we have ever encountered. And I mean, ever.

As strict as an airport search only here, the bag screenings take place before your very own eyes. To begin, all the bags are pulled from the bus, both carry-on and main backpacks. The bags are then aligned outside the bus, and passengers are asked to sit away from the baggage on nearby benches. Security officials bring out the big guns, in the form of cute overly excited Labradors who first enter the bus searching all seats and overheads. The dogs then walk up and down the line of bags. Not just once, twice or even three times but at least five.

Thinking it was all over, we were prompted to take our bags before being ushered to a nearby building where our bags were then hand searched. And this wasn’t your normal ‘lazy pat’ on the bags. Let’s just say I had to repack my bag after the search.

The officials are searching for everything; obviously enough drugs and undeclared items but mostly fruit and vegetables. Even a banana is disallowed! We witnessed officials confiscate papayas and question a passenger’s coca leaves.

All in all, we were at the immigration office for over two hours. We swear airport and government security teams should come to the Ollagüe frontier for training. Thorough, professional and intimidating, everything you want in a border official. Although it was fun to watch the dogs at work.

Once the bus is reloaded and everyone takes their seats, it’s another hour and a half to Calama.

In total, the journey and immigration stops meant it took over 9 hours to get from Uyuni to Calama. We left Uyuni at the darkened time of 5 am and arrived in Calama at 3.00 pm, peak sun o’clock.

Prepare for delays and long border waits by bringing some form of lunch and lots of water. Not only is it long, but it’s stuffy on the bus.

Oh! A ‘heads up’ that we know we don’t need to include but feel the gentle reminder is no harm. Keep the entry visa slip (in this case it looks like a receipt) safe. You will need to flash it when exiting Chile.

From Calama To San Pedro de Atacama:

Depending on what bus company you travel with, usually, all buses terminate about three streets away from Calama’s main ‘shop street’.

Head to the main shop street, near Avenida Antofagasta, to purchase and stock up on any necessities before moving onwards to the desert. Groceries are a must, if you prefer to cook in the hostel that is. If hunger has hit (no doubt after such a long day of travel) grab a three-course menu del dia for 2,000-2,500CP (€2.85-€3.60) instead of waiting to pay 4,000CP (€5.70) for one or two courses in San Pedro de Atacama.

Once stocked, locked and fully loaded, it’s time to jump on the public bus from Calama to San Pedro de Atacama. Firstly, make your way to Avenida Antofagasta to catch the microbus. Buses run until 8 pm but the later you leave it, the more chance the bus will be full. We caught the 6 pm bus with Frontera del Norte for 3,000CP (€4). Depending on traffic out of the city, the journey time is roughly 2 hours.

All in all, it is a painless border crossing, one we would much prefer to do at night (if anyone in charge is listening!). But at the overall price of €16 (including the dodgy official unofficial Bolivia exit fee), it’s not bad going at all.

Welcome to Chile!



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