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One of the Worlds Great Bus Rides; San Pedro de Atacama to Salta

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. A few days ago we traveled from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile to the city of Salta in northern Argentina by bus. I was less keen on this ride, mainly because of its length – 10.5 hours.

"The Altiplano in northern Chile"

The Altiplano in northern Chile

"Salt flats before you arrive in Argentina"

Salt flats before you arrive in Argentina

But what a bus ride to Salta!

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

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 yellowish 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 near the border"

The road near the border

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

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

"Giant cactus inhabited one of the climatic zones we drove through"

Giant cactus inhabited one of the climatic zones we drove through

"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.

"White mountains"

White mountains

"The town of Purmamarca"

The town of Purmamarca

"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"

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"

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 way to Salta"

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

Other Useful Information for the San Pedro de Atacama to Salta Bus Ride

  • The cost is 25,000 Chilean pesos (about $US50) and the ticket must be paid for with Chilean pesos. And the ATM doesn’t always work in San Pedro.
  • Reserve your seat ahead of time but you cannot do this online. 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.
  • Buses leave San Pedro de Atacama at 10 am and are supposed to arrive in Salta at 8:30 pm.
  • 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.

For similar posts that you might find useful:

  1. 30 Tips for Long Distance Bus Rides
  2. Crossing the Andes: Mendoza to Santiago by Bus

Leigh McAdam

Author of Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures
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Join the discussion 26 Comments

  • Candice says:

    I want to go sandboarding in the White Mountains! Those pics are awesome!

  • Alison says:

    Wow! This look incredible! The only downside would be not being able to stop the bus for more photos!

  • Kristina says:

    Great post and photos!

  • bethany says:

    Great photos! The mountains look beautiful :)

  • Laura says:

    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! ;-)

    • 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.

  • Michael says:

    Wow. Looks amazing!

  • lailian says:

    this is so beautiful…may i know on which side of the bus should i take to get this amazing view?

  • Stephen says:

    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?

    • 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.

  • Megan O'Brien says:

    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

    • @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.

  • Bernardo says:

    Great info.
    Thanks

  • Keir Rowland says:

    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?

  • Anne-Marie says:

    Great post! I will be doing the trip from Salta to San Pedro in July :)

  • Jane says:

    Hi there, what side of the bus would be the best to sit on for the best views? Thank you!

  • James says:

    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

  • Manu says:

    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)

    • Leigh says:

      @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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