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The Altiplano in northern Chile

San Pedro to Salta – One Scenic Bus Ride

Our goal while in Chile and Argentina is to move between the two countries using public transport wherever possible. Not only is is much less expensive but its a great way to absorb some of the local flavour.

We traveled from Chile’s Atacama Desert, specifically San Pedro to Salta in northern Argentina by bus. I was less keen on this ride, mainly because of its length – 11 hours.

Updated January 2020. This post includes some affiliate links. If you make a purchase via one of these links, I may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. 

The fun part - waiting to load in San Pedro de Atacama
The fun part – waiting to load in San Pedro de Atacama
The Altiplano in northern Chile on the San Pedro to Salta bus
The altiplano in northern Chile
Dramatic colours of the landscape in northern Chile
Dramatic colours of the landscape in northern Chile
Salt flats before you arrive in Argentina
Salt flats before you arrive in Argentina

But what a beautiful bus ride to Salta from San Pedro de Atacama!

We left at 10 AM, drove less than a kilometre and then piled out of the bus to go through Chilean customs for exiting the country. Don’t ask me why. That took the better part of half an hour but then we were off.

Climbing on the way to the Chilean border
Climbing on the way to the Chilean border

In one section the bus gains 6,000 feet

The scenery out of San Pedro de Atacama initially is not that interesting but you climb quickly, up and out of the valley into a land marked with yellow-coloured grasses framed by volcanoes.

In no time you are at an altitude of over 14,000 feet and the bus feels like its straining hard. It is. The vertical gain is over 6,000 feet in this stretch.

The road on the San Pedro to Salta bus ride
The road on the San Pedro to Salta bus ride

Then it’s down, down, down to a broad valley where there is a small river flowing which attracts the wildlife – mostly flamingos and vicunas. In no time you are at the border and that´s where you stay for about 90 minutes.

The Chile-Argentina border crossing

Unfortunately at the Chile-Argentina border there was another bus in front of us – so we had to wait for them to clear customs before we could get started. We sat on the bus, though the drivers did throw some lunch at us – a package of crackers, two hard candies and two orange drink boxes. Yum.

Go prepared because there are no opportunities to purchase anything. Then you all clear the bus (again) with all of your stuff and go to get your passport inspected.

Once that is done pick up any of your bigger luggage and wait in line so you can put your luggage through a portable x-ray machine. Again WHY? I have no idea. Collect luggage and go back inside building to have luggage inspected. Tell the agent you have dirty clothes and you should be finished.

Then wait another 45 minutes for the rest of the people to clear customs. Head back to the bus and the best part of the trip lies ahead – but we didn’t know that at the time.

Scenery early on the bus ride
Scenery early on the bus ride

Count the switchbacks on the highway between San Pedro de Atacama and Salta

I thought the scenery out of San Pedro was pretty special but it pales in comparison to the next mountain crossing. The big crossing took us on a series of 72 switchbacks.

For those of you afraid of heights the few hours to complete this part of the journey might be a tad terrifying.

Village on the way down from our mountain crossing in Argentina
Village on the way down from our mountain crossing in Argentina
Huge flood plain
Huge flood plain

Near the end of the mountainous section we passed through a series of rocks that were incredibly colourful. I was on the edge of my seat in awe for several hours.

The white mountains are very beautiful
The white mountains are very beautiful
Set of colourful hills outside of Purmamarca
Set of colourful hills outside of Purmamarca

The landscape becomes lusher and lusher the closer we get to Salta.

Lush valleys on the Argentinian side on the San Pedro to Salta bus ride
Lush valleys on the Argentinian side

The bus stops for a very short time in the forgettable town of San Salvador de Jujuy.

The forgettable town of San Salvador de Jujuy on the San Pedro to Salta bus ride
The forgettable town of San Salvador de Jujuy

Then it’s on past miles and miles of tobacco fields.

Miles of tobacco fields on the San Pedro to Salta bus ride
Miles of tobacco fields on the way to Salta

During the last hour of the trip we saw hundreds of people lining the highway – with their kids, cameras and with a real party atmosphere happening. It turns out the Dakar road race and been by earlier that day.

Spectators from the Dakar road race
Spectators from the Dakar road race

Buying bus tickets from San Pedro to Salta online

It can be a pain to buy bus tickets. I HIGHLY recommend using Busbud – something I have done in Canada and in Chile. You can pick your seat online. It seems they only work with Pullman on certain days of the week. Buses with Busbud leave at 9:30 AM and arrive at 8:50 PM.

Other useful information for the San Pedro de Atacama to Salta bus ride

The cost is around 43,000 Chilean pesos (about $Cdn72 or $US54). Unless you order online the ticket must be paid for with Chilean pesos. And the ATM doesn’t always work in San Pedro de Atacama.

Reserve your seat ahead of time . Phone or go to the ticket office in person. You will need to bring your passport with you when you buy a ticket.

The Gemini bus line uses professional, seasoned drivers who really knew what they were doing. There are two bus drivers per bus.

A small lunch and early evening snack are provided but bring more food and definitely bring water.

Fortunately only two movies were shown – English ones with Spanish subtitles. The rest of the time it was quiet. (Thank heavens.)

Make sure your camera batteries are charged.

Buses leave San Pedro de Atacama on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays.

Further reading on South America

Visit the Chile Tourism website if you need more information.

Click on the photo to bookmark to your Pinterest boards.

The spectacular bus ride from San Pedro de Atacama to Salta, Argentina

 

Leigh McAdam

Leigh McAdam is a Calgary based writer, author, photographer and social media enthusiast with over 61,000 followers. Her blog: HikeBikeTravel is frequently cited as one of the top travel and outdoor adventure blogs in Canada.

Author of Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures
Co-author of 125 Nature Hot Spots in Alberta

This Post Has 26 Comments

    1. It was frustrating not getting shots you wanted + all shots were taken through class at a speed which doesn’t help either. Nonetheless the bus ride far exceeded my expectations.

  1. Great photos! I love long, scenic bus rides. Good info too, if I remember correctly getting a bus out of San Pedro de Atacama required a bit of planning ahead! 😉

    1. Booking the bus ride to Salta is difficult. You cannot book online – at least with the Gemini Bus Line which is considered to be one of the better, safer bus lines. We had someone make a reservation on our behalf and then we had to buy the tickets in crisp Chilean pesos only – no $US or credit cards. If you were hanging around in San Pedro it wouldn’t be so difficult but in high season the buses can still fill quickly. Take your passport with you too when you go to purchase the tickets.

  2. Great pictures! I’m going to be arriving in San Pedro next month from Bolivia. I only plan to be there for 3 days or so before heading to Salta. Do you know if that will give me enough time to get my bus tickets or should I try to make a reservation by phone from Bolivia?

    1. I hate to give put this kind of advice without checking the bus schedule but providing the schedule hasn’t changed I think you should be OK for just getting your ticket in San Pedro. Put it on the top of your to do list though & get it the minute you get into town. Don’t forget to take cash with you.

  3. I know this post is quite old, but I’m hoping it’s still relevant! I’ll be doing the same trip later in the year. Are you able to tell me how you went about booking your ticket? And is it possible to stop off early?
    Thank you 🙂
    Megan O’Brien

    1. @Megan We bought the ticket in town – cash only – crisp bills – lots of offices selling them. I assume but can’t say for sure that it’s possible to stop off early. It’s a great ride.

  4. That looks fantastic! I’m looking to do the same bus ride only starting in Salta. Do you think I would miss any of the good sights due to the sun setting if we left at a similar time from Salta?

  5. Hey!

    Great post! One question: Do you remember what the border crossing was like? Were the Argentina and Chile border checks in separate locations? I need to change over to my UK passport going into Chile and am trying to avoid complications. Thank you!

    James

  6. Thank you in advance..I am in San Pedro De Atacama on Feb 12th; it’s a Monday .. you write how buses leave to Salta only on Tuesday, Friday & Sunday .. what are my chances of catching a bus without a reservation (I can’t seem to reserve online)

    1. @Manu I’m sorry I really don;t know. I do remember that we couldn’t reserve online so I’d be at the ticket office early with fresh looking bills. Good luck.

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