Getting there & away
Getting out of isolated Uyuni can be problematic. Buy your bus ticket the day before and your train ticket as far in advance as you can. An air service is constantly being mooted, but it’s a sketchy prospect due to the cost of construction of high-altitude runways and treacherous Altiplano wind conditions.
If you’re heading on to Chile, it can be a wise idea to pick up a Bolivian exit stamp at migración , since the hours of the Bolivian border post at Hito Cajón (just beyond Laguna Verde) are somewhat unreliable. Although it’s rarely enforced, you’re expected to leave Bolivia within three days of getting the stamp.
There’s supposedly a new bus terminal in the works (funded by the US$0.20 terminal fee), but at last look all buses were still leaving from the west end of Av Arce, a couple of minutes’ walk from the plaza. There’s a choice of services to most destinations, so ask around to get the best price or service. Ranking Bolivia keeps an updated timetable of all services.
Several companies offer daily evening buses to Oruro (US$2 to US$3, eight hours), where you can change for La Paz. It’s a chilly, bone-shaking trip, so you might prefer the train or Todo Turismo (693-3337; www.touringbolivia.com; Cabrera s/n, btwn Bolívar & Arce), which runs what is surely the best bus in Bolivia, a luxury affair with friendly staff and an onboard meal. It heads between Uyuni and La Paz (US$25, 10 hours) via Oruro (US$20, seven hours), leaving at 8pm Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. While it’s expensive, there are two advantages to this service: it’s heated, and you avoid having to deal with freezing Oruro in the middle of the night – travelers have reported being robbed while waiting there for a connection to La Paz.
There are several departures around 10am and 7pm for Potosí (US$3, six hours), with connections to Sucre (US$5, nine hours) and Tarija. There’s also a 3pm direct service to Tarija (US$12, 18 hours) if conditions permit.
There are daily 4WD services to Tupiza (US$6.25, six to eight hours), leaving around 10:30am. Although it’s a tight fit for 10 in the back of the Landcruiser, it’s a spectacular, memorable trip via Atocha, where you can expect to spend at least an hour. Buses also run the same route a couple of times a week, as does the odd camión.
There are services at 3:30am on Monday and Thursday to the Chilean border at Avaroa (US$3.75, five hours), where you can connect to a service to Calama.
An alternative route to Chile is with an organized tour, which will leave you in San Pedro de Atacama. Some of the tour companies, including Turismo El Desierto (693-3087; firstname.lastname@example.org; Arce 42) and Colque Tours (693-2199; www.colquetours.com; Potosí 56), offer direct jeep transfers to San Pedro. These leave around 3pm and take seven to 10 hours. The disadvantage is that the agencies never know if they are sending a jeep until shortly before departure, as it depends on whether someone has booked a tour in San Pedro. It costs US$15 to US$30 per person.
Uyuni has a modern, well-organized train station (693-2153). Buy your ticket several days in advance or get an agency to do it for you.
Comfortable Expreso del Sur trains ramble to Oruro (popular/salón/ejecutivo US$4.15/6.50/12.60, seven hours) on Thursday and Sunday at 12:05am (that’s Wednesday and Saturday nights folks) and southeast to Tupiza (US$3.10/5/12.60, 5½ hours) and Villazón (US$4.75/7/16.90, 8½ hours) on Tuesday and Friday at 10:40pm.
Chronically late Wara Wara del Sur trains are supposed to chug out of the station at 1:45am on Tuesday and Friday (ie Monday and Thursday nights) for Oruro (popular/salón/ejecutivo US$4/5/10.75, 7½ hours) and on Monday and Thursday at 2:50am for Tupiza (US$2.75/3.60/8.25, six hours) and Villazón (US$4.25/5.75/12.40, 10 hours); these engines always seem to be chanting ‘I think I can… I think I can…’
Depending on size, you may have to check your backpack/case into the luggage van. Look out for snatch thieves on the train just before it pulls out.
If tickets sell out on these trains, take a bus 111km south to Atocha, where there are bus connections and where the train stops two hours before/after Uyuni. There are often tickets available there even though the Uyuni station has sold out their allocation.
On Monday at 3:30am a train trundles west for Avaroa (US$3.90, five hours) on the Chilean border, where you cross to Ollagüe and may have to wait a few hours to clear Chilean customs. From here, another train continues to Calama (US$11.40 from Uyuni, six hours from Ollagüe). The whole trip can take up to 24 hours but it’s a spectacular, if uncomfortable journey.