The drive from La Paz to Uyuni was less eventful than we feared. We weren’t stopped by any of the corrupt police we’d read about, and also managed to successfully get hold of fuel! The deal with petrol in Bolivia goes something like this; locals pay 46p/L of petrol. Cars with foreign plates are due to pay 86p/L of petrol, almost double the cost, and also fill in complicated paperwork. A lot of the gas stations aren’t interested in the hassle of filling out the paperwork so the way we got fuel was to go to stations we’d read about were more sympathetic to travelers and barter. Yes we actually had to haggle for petrol! It was an experience for sure, but we were lucky and the first station we went to agreed with us that 50p/L was a good price. Later in the trip it was 60p/L which is still pretty cheap. The attendants basically pocket the difference in the local price & what we pay, so it’s a win win!
So, after 7 pretty uneventful hours we arrived in the not so beautiful town of Uyuni. It was, as Mikey remembered from his visit here 4 years ago, an uninspiring town which made you question where all the tourism money was really going. We stayed at ‘Emilios place’ which is basically the front yard of a savvy local man who was raking in the money being the only campsite in town! His place was full of other overlanders and a few other Brits to whom we offered a square of Dairy Milk as a taste of home!
We also met Joop & Juntine there again, a Dutch couple who we’d end up spending quite a lot of time with! We’d briefly met them in Copacabana in our first campsite in Bolivia. We had booked a 1 day tour of the salt flats as we wanted to inspect the quality of the road before subjecting Betty to it, and they booked the same tour and joined us. The next morning at a very reasonable 10:30am we were all picked up and headed on our tour of the salt flats.
The first stop was the train graveyard, however it was completely full of tourists at this time of day so we agreed we’d come back with our own vehicles the following day for photos when it was emptier. By a sheer stroke of luck the other couple who were travelling with us had a vehicle as well! So we were a tour group full of overlanders, which was nice as we all had a lot to talk about.
Next was time for the main event, we headed into the salt flats themselves! We were pleasantly surprised by the entrance as our driver took us through a route which wasn’t so wet. Our first stop was the salt hotel which was only operational for a few years as following these years it was decommissioned due to the build up of sewage – lovely! Still the island of flags was interesting to see and also we had our first glimpse of the wilderness of the salt flats.
After the salt hotel we headed into the middle of the flats for a tasty and filling lunch and also our cringe tourist photo opportunities! It was nice to drive to the middle of the flats with literally nothing around, and Annie got to try her hand at driving the 4×4 we were in which was brilliant fun! Then we played with the toy dinosaur to take all the shots you’ll see below, and the guides were experts at knowing which shots and angles to take.
Following our photo shoot (which took hours!) we headed to cactus island. It’s what it says on the tin, and island in the salt flats with a lot of cacti on it. We think it was probably simply added to the tour to kill some time, so we could hang around until sunset. When sunset came we drove to a part of the flats which had a thin layer of water on, creating a perfect like mirror effect. Once again we hung around here for a few hours getting some absolutely incredible shots! This alone made the tour worth it, as we were never going to drive on the wet part of the flats.
After the tour was over we arrived back at camp tired and late, but we were safe in the knowledge that the flats were dry enough to drive on! We also felt more confident going as two overlanders, as if anything were to happen we weren’t stuck on our own in the middle of nowhere. This was an exciting prospect so the next morning we prepared with Joop & Juntine for our night in the salts by stocking up on wine, food, and also spraying the undercarriage of Betty with a mix of oil & diesel. This is common practice for the tour vehicles and prevents the salt sticking onto the undercarriage of the vehicle, preventing long term rust.
Finally in the mid-afternoon we followed each other one by one onto the salt flats incredibly slowly through the entrance which was the wettest part. In an almost anticlimactic manner, within a few minutes we were in and driving on the salt flats! It was an incredible feeling, as all your senses were suggesting you were driving on ice and snow that could fall from under you any minute. Also there were only poorly tracked out lines to follow rather than real roads, this was a unique experience!
We passed the salt hotel and the Dakar sign on the way in for some photo opportunities, and then headed towards the island. As it’s an hour away we decided not to burn fuel for no reason and parked up about 20 minutes towards it, still making sure we were in the middle of nowhere. Then we took lots of photos with the van and cooked a warming soup, and all enjoyed some Bolivian wine! This was one of the best campsites and experiences of our whole trip, as the night sky was so unbelievably clear. We saw several shooting stars and so much of the milky way we never see at home. Then we got an early bed as it reached -2C at night so it was also one of the coldest nights!
The following day we left the flats and got the car completely deep cleaned, and also sprayed again with diesel on the undercarriage to keep the salt off. Then it was time to leave Uyuni, and head out of Bolivia having had a short but memorable experience in the country!