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Self Drive in Calama

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Self Drive in Calama

We are planning to drive around Chile with the following route in the last two weeks in December:

Flight from Santiago to Calama

hire car in Calama

drive to Calama -> Atacama desert -> Uyuni -> Sea Flat -> Salta -> Calama

Does it make sense?

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1. Re: Self Drive in Calama

You may have trouble finding a rental company allowing you to take the car to Uyuni. If you are wanting to see the salt flats then your best option is a tour from San Pedro de Atacama with a return on the 4th day. It is best to leave the driving to someone who knows the route as it is very easy to get lost in the limitless landscape.

There is a train from Uyuni to Villazon, cross the border to La Quiaca and bus to Salta. There is a bus to San Pedro de Atacama from Salta but perhaps not every day. You could also return to SPA from Uyuni and then a bus to Salta, but doing the same trip twice might be tedious if you were returning to SPA.

Scunthorpe, United...
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2. Re: Self Drive in Calama

I understand Bolivian law requires that you have a guide or driver for crossing the Salar de Uyuni. There are no accurate maps and no recognised roads in many of these areas. Sat nav doesn't work either. Then factor in no signs, nobody to ask directions, no villages....

Drivers navigate using the mountains as markers. Each driver has his own preferred route. On the 3 days we spent on the trip we saw few other cars. Those we did see were each following their own route. There is the potential to get seriously lost.

If by any chance you do manage to hire a car have you thought about the logistics?

• Petrol - you will need to have enough for the trip plus possibly 50% more as there are no petrol stations. If you run out of petrol you will stay there until a kind soul comes along and is willing to let you have some of theirs. People have died waiting.

• Breakdown - are you a good car mechanic and will you be able to repair/fix any problem which might arise. You can't rely on a helpful person arriving when you need them. Your life could depend on this.

• Food - you will need to take all food and water with you (plus means of cooking) as there are no shops. Again over estimate needs, especially water.

• Do you speak Quecha? Most of the native Bolivian Indians you meet will not speak Spanish.

• Accommodation - what are you planning to do here? There isn't a lot. Sleeping in the car is NOT an option. Overnight temperatures can drop to minus 20. Even locals have frozen to death at night in their cars.

• Navigation - have you considered the implications of route finding without recognised roads and what to do if you get lost... You can't rely on following someone else. There may not be anyone else around and they may not be going where you want to go. The Salar is a very large flat area with no landmarks.

And finally don't under estimate the effect of altitude as parts get up to 4500+m.(nearly 15,000ft).

Edited: 30 October 2011, 22:17
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3. Re: Self Drive in Calama

HI, EEWS,

Thanks for your information. Are you talking the drive in Uyuni -> Sea Flat ?

How about the Atacama desert? Is it also diffcult to do the self drive from Calama to Atacama?

Scunthorpe, United...
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4. Re: Self Drive in Calama

Yes, my answer was in reference to the Salar de Uyuni part of the trip.

There is a main road between Calama and San Pedro de Atacama so you won't have problems with this bit. You can get a transfer from the airport to San Pedro as well.

Are you intending to use a hire car to do the sights round San Pedro? If so you will need a good map. Problem could be finding one. We did buy a road atlas before we left but it was useless. There don't seem to be many maps available in UK. Post a specific question on this as I believe you can get reasonable maps in Chile.

Signing is virtually non existent off the main roads in the Atacama desert. Depending on where you want to go and what you want to see you could have problems with route fnding. You see tracks disappearing into the desert with no indication as to where they are going.

If you are wanting to do the trip to El Tatio, you have to leave San Pedro well before dawn to get to the geyser field just before sun rise. This does mean driving along dubious roads in the dark, but you will be in a convoy of other vehicles all rushing to get there...

There are lots of possibilities of tours from San Pedro and they aren't very expensive. It may be the hassle free way of getting around. You will need to join a tour from San Pedro to Uyuni or else arrange your own car, driver and guide which is going to work out expensive. This can be done using an agency in San Pedro.

I can't help with Uyuni to Salta. Post in the Bolivia forum for advice as several people there have done this.

Something you also need to check out is whether it is the wet season on the Salar. If so tour companies may not be running over parts of the salar and will be taking an alternative route.

Edited: 31 October 2011, 15:51
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5. Re: Self Drive in Calama

It is salt flats not sea flats. If you are hoping to go to both Salta and the Uyuni salt flats, then you might be better going San Pedro de Atacama to Salta first, the route Salta to La Quiaca in Argentina which I described above, cross the border and train Villazon to Uyuni. Buses from Salta do not cross the border. Then take the tour from there ending in San Pedro. The advantage is that you do not climb to altitude so quickly coming from that direction as you do is starting the tour from San Pedro. You would need to book the bus San Pedro to Salta, which you can do on the Andesmar bus website. San Pedro is listed as Atacama, I believe. For details of the train, post in the Bolivia forum. Buses from Salta to La Quiaca are quite frequent.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salar_de_Uyuni

http://www.andesmar.com/shop/default.asp

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6. Re: Self Drive in Calama

Thanks dancingmolly,

> You see tracks disappearing into the desert with no indication as to where they are going.

It sounds scary after reading your comments about the tracks in the desert. I think we may plan our itineraries as follows:

fly from UK to Santiago

Santiago -> Calama by flight

Calama -> Salta by bus

hire a car in Salta to travel around in Salta

go to La Quiaca , drop the rental car there if it is possible

La Quiaca to Villazon to Uyuni (by train)

join tour to Atacama

Flight back to Santago

Does it make sense?

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7. Re: Self Drive in Calama

That sounds a lot better. Get the details about train times and tips on the Bolivia forum. They will also be able to recommend tour companies no doubt. There is plenty about the Salta area in the Argentina forum if you do a search and then ask a few questions.

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8. Re: Self Drive in Calama

As dancingmolly says that does make a lot more sense.

Have a look for tour companies on the Bolivia forum. Choose your company with care as some reports are quite scary with drunken drivers and poorly maintained vehicles. Fremen tours do seem to a have a good reputation but you would need to book this before you go.

www.andes-amazonia.com/dir_en/demo.html

Also consider what sort of accommodation you want to stop in on the Salar as this does vary a lot. The TAyka hotels do provide en suite accommodation but are expensive. Don't expect 5* luxury - these are simply furnished and food is very plain with no choice. This is the middle of nowhere.

http://www.taykahoteles.com/es/

Other places have very basic accommodation (and I do mean very) and I have heard stories of vehicles rushing to arrive at accommodation early to be sure of passengers getting a bed...

Have a read of the reviews for the Salar de Uyuni to let you know what you are 'letting' yourselves in for.

tripadvisor.co.uk/Attraction_Review-g317033-…

My review is on this page:

tripadvisor.co.uk/…REVIEWS

Don't underestimate the effect of altitude on this trip - Uyuni is 3600+m (12,000') and you will be getting up to 4500+m (14,700+') on parts of the drive. Make sure you allow yourselves time to acclimatise and take it steady. Be aware of the symptoms of AMS. Coco tea is available and is supposed to help. Don't bring any back with you - as customs will get very upset.

There is advice on altitude and Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) here:

http://www.traveldoctor.co.uk/altitude.htm

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9. Re: Self Drive in Calama

Thanks EESW and dacningmolly for your suggestions.

Now, I am a bit worry about the AMS.

I remember someone comment that we should go from Calama -> Salta -> Uyuni and then Atacama desert due to the altitude, right?

No the other way round - Calama -> Atacama -> Uyuni -> Salta?

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10. Re: Self Drive in Calama

Yes, I said it in post #5. Whatever way you do it you are going to go very high. Most people have no trouble at all if they don't get out and run around at 4500 metres. So whichever way you do it, try to spend a day or two getting used to the altitude before you start.

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