Bolivia's Salar de Uyuni salt flats are an other-worldly destination for adventure travelers.
Our guide reached into the glove compartment of his Toyota Land Cruiser and pulled out a green plastic bag. Having traveled in Bolivia’s Andes before, I had a good hunch what Faustino was reaching for.
“We’ll be going higher,” he said, no pun intended, as he grabbed a fistful of leaves from the bag and stuffed them into his mouth. “These coca leaves help me with the higher altitude, and they’ll keep me awake.”
It wasn’t even 11 a.m. on this deserted gravel road in the spectacularly beautiful southern Bolivian highlands, but I wasn’t going to argue with Faustino’s rationale, at least not on the first day of our tour. I start the day with several mugs of strong coffee. Faustino prefers coca leaves, which in this South American country are cheap (less than $1 a bag), legal and widely available.
Our plan over the next three days was to visit the famed Salar de Uyuni salt flats. The area, at an elevation of 12,000 feet (and higher), has lagoons populated with flamingos; geysers that shoot sulfur steam into the crisp Andean air; a graveyard for vintage train cars; and — gasp — a hotel where we’d spend the night at 14,343 feet.
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“Yes, tomorrow night we’ll be staying at the Hotel Tayka del Desierto,” Faustino said as he chewed away. “Some people have a hard time breathing up there. And since it’s so high up it can also get very, very cold.”
Although I had spent many nights in the Bolivian and Peruvian Andes at 12,000 feet or so, I was queasy about sleeping at a much higher altitude.
But my travel agent in the Bolivian capital of La Paz had assured me that the Desierto would be heated and far superior to the one alternative: a bare-bones, unheated shelter. I also was comforted by a secret weapon I had discovered on the World Health Organization Web site, a prescription medication called acetazolamide (brand name Diamox) that supposedly wards off altitude sickness.
So with Faustino at the wheel and reggaeton star Daddy Yankee on his CD player, I set off with my wife, Freddi, our teenage daughter, Gabriela, and her pal Christina on a three-day, two-night, 600-mile excursion to a remote corner of South America that until the 1990s had few tourists.
Faustino had met us the night before in Uyuni, a dusty, bitterly cold town during the Bolivian winter of about 15,000 people. Getting there from La Paz, about 300 miles to the north, involved a 3 ½-hour bus ride across the Andes’ high plateau to Oruro, a rather bleak town known for its world-class carnival, followed by a seven-hour train ride. The journey offered glimpses of isolated villages and Andean animals, especially llamas and alpacas.
A loud, boisterous band was playing when we stepped off the Expreso del Sur train in Uyuni on a Friday night. “Uyuni is having a party,” Faustino said as we checked into our hotel. “We’re celebrating our 120th anniversary as a city.”
A salt world
Our first stop the next morning was the train cemetery, a collection of graffiti-desecrated 19th-century railcars and engines only a few minutes outside town, yet eerily isolated. The British-built steam trains once hauled minerals such as silver and tin to ports on the Pacific Coast but were abandoned after the decline of the Bolivian mining industry in the 1940s.
We posed for goofy pictures on these rusting relics, then headed for Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat at 4,000 square miles. “Put your sunglasses on,” Faustino said as we approached this white, seemingly endless desert, where the glare from the sun’s reflection can be intense.
Sitting atop an ancient seabed, the flats are more than one of the world’s tourist wonders; they provide jobs for thousands of people in one of the Western Hemisphere’s poorest countries. Locals work on the salt flats, extracting salt and lithium, the mineral used in mood-stabilizing drugs and in batteries that power electric cars and high-tech devices such as the BlackBerry.
Stepping out of our jeep, we felt positively puny as we split up to walk in different directions, ready to experience what it’s like to take a stroll to … nowhere. Scanning the horizon in each direction, we realized that we were the only signs of life.
Back in the jeep, Faustino told us that fewer than 150 people visit the flats on any given day. We saw a few other people during our picnic lunch at Incahuasi, a hilly “island” surrounded by salt and made up of volcanic rock, petrified coral and towering cactus.
We spotted more people at a privately owned salt museum, built as a hotel in 1991 and constructed entirely of — you guessed it — salt. According to Faustino, the Bolivian government shut the hotel a few years ago because waste from the guests and staff was polluting the otherwise pristine environment. (“Pristine” may be a terribly overused word, but it fits Salar de Uyuni perfectly.)
Less environmentally intrusive salt hotels have opened on the edges of the flats, including the 47-room Takya Hotel de Sal, where we would spend our first night. These hotels are typically furnished with chairs, tables and even beds made from blocks of salt.
Our hotel was built on the outskirts of a village named Tahua, which in the local Quechua language means four. “There are four villages in this area, with a total of about 100 families,” Faustino explained.
Tahua was ghostly. We drove around for several minutes and spotted a couple of dozen llamas but not a single human — and there were no signs of anyone inside the stone houses. “Most everyone is out working in the countryside, herding llamas,” Faustino said.
In the morning, we bade the salt flats goodbye and found ourselves in the midst of the majestic Andes. En route to Desierto, we visited the Galaxy cave, discovered less than 10 years ago with some prehistoric human remains inside, and picnicked at a site known as the Army of Rocks — petrified boulders.
Just before dark, as the temperature dipped into (I’m guessing) the teens, we arrived at the rustic Desierto hotel, eager to warm up in our rooms. But the electric heaters emitted barely any heat. The fireplace in the dining room worked fine, though, so Freddi and I found a cozy table and ordered a bottle of Bolivian cabernet. We left the hotel at dawn, happy to be on the road after a fitful (and cold) night of sleep at more than 14,000 feet.
We spent the day soaking up more spectacular scenery on the way back to Uyuni, stopping at the Laguna Verde (which gets its blue-green color from arsenic and other minerals in the lake), admiring a dozen of the rare James flamingos and watching as steam spewed from several geysers at the highest point on our trip: 16,000 feet.
All around us were wind-whipped mountains, most devoid of trees or vegetation, some covered partly by snow and ice. But by early evening, we were back on the dusty streets of Uyuni, ready for a pizza and a warm hotel room after our adventure.