Age-old problem: You see a picture of an inconceivably beautiful and incomprehensibly remote locale and/or read an article about the best places to visit this year in a travel magazine and/or stumble down an internet blog rabbit hole that leads you to some list about things to see and do before you die and, in all three instances, it’s the same place you keep reading about—somewhere you need to go and need to go now—and so you think: OK, but how do I get there?
Cruising across the Bolivian Southern Altiplano
This happened to me as I was trying to figure out how to get from San Pedro de Atacama, Chile to Uyuni, Bolivia while ensuring I would see the quintessential sights of the Bolivian Southern Altiplano: the rusty waters of Laguna Colorada, the jewel-toned lakes that are sprinkled across a desolate landscape, the ever-present flamingos, and the vast white canvas of the Salar, the world’s largest salt flat. I initially imagined that finding the right outfitter to use in southern Bolivia, one of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere, would be difficult, a sort of “choose between the best of two abysmal options” scenario. Rather than there being a dearth of operators, however, I experienced the exact opposite. There must be 20 companies running the Atacama to Uyuni route, all offering similar packages and visiting the same sights: 2 days/3 nights from Atacama to Uyuni and 3 days/4 nights round-trip Atacama to Uyuni to Atacama.
So, how to choose? After reading a smattering of reviews and comparing rudimentary website offerings, I selected Cordillera Traveller for the following reasons:
- They responded to my email;
- We were able to confirm the exact dates of our tour (a lot of operators don’t get into the specifics over the internet and a few don’t have websites or respond to emails);
- The reviews were generally positive;
- The price was reasonable and seemed consistent with what the other operators were offering ($185 for 3 days, food and board included); and
- The reviews indicated that they had a solid safety record (an excessive amount of space on the internet is consumed by people complaining of drunk guides and 4WDs that broke down in the middle of nowhere).
This rationale proved sound, for I have only wonderful things to say about Cordillera Traveller. When you effectively relinquish control of your itinerary and put your health/safety/sanity in the hands of a tour operator, you at worst want to simply arrive at your final destination and at best want to have a life-changing episode in process. My experience decidedly skewed towards the latter, and here’s why: Cordillera made everything easy. They picked us up at our hotel in San Pedro, bused us to the Chilean-Bolivian border, gave us a snack of tea, bread, cheese and deli meat, loaded our luggage onto the roof rack of a Land Cruiser and off we went, a caravan of 15-18 4WDs owned by various operators, on a road trip across the all-consuming vastness of the altiplano. Somehow, despite the 4WD caravan, the trip felt private and singular, as if this experience were entirely my own. Our lodging and meals were functional, never opulent although not quite squalid either—admittedly, options in this part of the world are limited; there is only one place to rest your weary head in the Laguna Colorada vicinity. For three days, this wild and immeasurable landscape was ours to experience, ours to adore with childlike awe, ours to lose ourselves in. We stood on the windswept shore of Laguna Colorada for a few hours with no agenda other than soaking in the colors of some place so surreal; we watched the sunrise over the cold, windswept plain of the Salar de Uyuni, befriended our four traveling companions in the confines of our Land Cruiser—effectively our home for two days’ worth of waking hours—and chatted over meals with other travelers who called France, Spain and Brazil home. The landscape was stunning, but I had anticipated that after repeatedly seeing Uyuni and surrounding environs surface and resurface in travel magazines and on Instagram accounts. What I hadn’t anticipated, however, was how easy it would be to traverse such an isolated landscape and how effortlessly a Bolivian tour operator could intertwine relaxation with adventure.
For a more thorough recounting of my seven days in Atacama and southern Bolivia, read Atacama to Uyuni in the Travel Itineraries section.