We were both hesitant and excited before setting out on the salt flats tour. Excited about all the stunning landscapes we were going to see, but hesitant after hearing reports of pissed up 4X4 drivers, broken down old jeeps, bitterly cold accommodation and generally feeling terrible from altitude sickness.
Before embarking on our adventure, we tried to do some research to decide which company to go with. We visited the local tourist information office; however we were simply directed to a large book of complaints about local tour companies from previous travellers. We sifted through the book and settled on 3 companies that seemed to have the least number of complaints. These were; Cordillera Travellers, Atacama Mistica and Estrella del Sur. We got quotes from each company as follows:
Cordillera Traveller – 85,000 chilean pesos pp
Atacama Mistica – 70,000 chilean pesos pp
Estrella del Sur – 79,000 chilean pesos pp
They all offered an identical route, and included similar basic accommodation, meals and transport. All companies excluded toilet paper, drinking water, and the 150 Bolivianos (£14 / $22) national park entrance fee.
We decided to check these companies out on trip advisor first and talked to other travellers at our hostel. We found that for every company there was a number of good reports, and a number of bad reports. We decided to go with our gut feeling, and also keeping in mind our purse strings, we choose the cheapest option – Atacama Mistica, saving ourselves £21 / $32 compared to Cordillera Traveller.
Cordillera Travellers is the largest operator, and due to the fact it is mentioned in the guidebooks it seems to be the most popular. The company seems to have a very well-rehearsed and artificial sales speech that didn’t make us feel like valued customers. Some travellers found this sales speech reassuring as it was spoken in good English, and they were told that their drivers never drink, vehicles never break down and their food and accommodation was far superior to what other companies offered. However in our experience, people will tell you what you want to hear, but this does not always come to fruition. Therefore at £21 / $32 a head more we found the extra cost hard to justify.
The next day we handed our cash over to Atacama Mistica.
First impressions weren’t great as the minibus turned up 20 minutes late, however the rest of the trip was perfect. Our driver was really great, he had over 10 years’ experience, and made an effort to explain everything to us and answer all our questions. He did only speak Spanish but we managed to get along ok on our limited knowledge. In addition, whilst our accommodation was basic, it was perfectly ok, as was our food (we were even given red wine with one of our meals), and it became obvious that all other tour operators stay in basic accommodation also. All in all, I would definitely recommend booking with Atacama Mistica.
Tips for choosing your tour operator
1. Go to Tourist Information in San Pedro de Atacama or Uyuni and read the big book of tour operator complaints – choose a number of companies with the best reviews / least number of bad reviews.
2. Talk to other travellers that have just done the salt flats tour
3. Go to your chosen companies and compare prices
4. After visiting some tour operators go with your gut feeling