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Salt and stars in Bolivia

Whether you visit in the dry season when they are a vast expanse of white, or when the rainy season turns them into a giant mirror reflecting the clouds, Bolivia’s salt flats are a wonder – all the better experienced from a luxury camper van, writes Georgie Lane-Godfrey.

Starkly dichotomous, the scenery that surrounds me is divided into flawless blue sky and cracked, white, hexagonal salt formations, as far as the eye can see. I gather up my night bags and prepare to settle in to my accommodation, surveying the unlikely location we have selected to set up camp for the night. It is one of the most inhospitable places on earth. The barren 12,000 sq km Salar de Uyuni salt flat is incredibly beautiful, but undeniably harsh. The salt shines brightly enough to temporarily blind me, and there’s not a plant or living creature in sight. We’re at an altitude of 3,656m, and the temperatures are capable of freezing or frying in equal measure, depending on the time of day.  

And yet here I am, setting up a deckchair in the middle of it all, equipped with all the conveniences of home. A stainless steel cooker, memory foam mattress and flatscreen TV are tucked away in my accommodation, a stylish Globetrotter Airstream camper. This sleek silver bullet of retro cool is where I will spend the night, under a dazzling cover of stars. Luxury and comfort, even in a place most animals don’t dare to roam.

It is the feeling of isolation within such an endless space that I find most appealing. Hundreds of tourists visit this, the world’s largest salt flat, each day, driving into its centre to take photos with hilariously- distorted perspectives, and to visit the ‘islands’ where cacti grow and rabbit-like viscachas somehow survive. Some folk stop off on their way to Chile’s Atacama desert, others on the trail of outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, who fled here and ended their days, legend has it, in San Vicente, after robbing the payroll of a Bolivian silver mine.

During the day, a smattering of cafes on the flats sell snacks , and a pinch of hotels made from blocks of salt sit around the edges. But here, in the northern part of the salt flat, an hour away from the nearest village (which has a population of just 270) there is no one. The saline expanse, created when prehistoric lakes ran dry, is deserted. The silence and space is the perfect antidote to Bolivia’s busy cities, where I’d felt the crush of bodies on the colourful streets of La Paz, and in its Witches’ Market, where dried llama foetuses are sold on the stalls (you bury them under your new house, for luck). I’d crowded into the cosmopolitan, student-packed cafes of the charming white capital, Sucre, and its churches and colonial buildings. Now I sought escape, to see Bolivia’s astounding wilderness in peace.

Like most visitors, my husband and I left the ramshackle town of Uyuni on the south-eastern border of the flats by 4x4, cruising across the parched landscape towards the foothills of the Thunupa volcano. Tales of violence are buried beneath its slopes, in the tombs of Incas killed in the last eruption, but at the base are more peaceful scenes: llamas grazing lazily on the greenest grass, fed by mineral- rich volcanic soils and the mountains’ glacial streams; pale pink Andean flamingos foraging in the shallow waters. In the rainy season, between November and March, the Salar’s surface is turned into an enormous mirror by rainwater that reflects the sky above. Driving across it is like driving through the sky. When I visit in September, the dry season is equally spectacular, but in a different way, and with fewer tourists.

The camper vans are usually set up in the same isolated spot, 20 miles from any other human soul, with up to three Airstreams each accommodating six. We’re in luck – no one else has booked these dates, and we are completely alone. Alone, that is, except for our driver and chef, who cooks and sleeps in a small metal trailer detached from the 4x4. It’s hard to truly grasp the extent of the Salar de Uyuni’s enormity – until we get on the mountain bikes provided for guests. We make for the horizon, pedalling until we’re puffing, but seem to be making no progress at all, despite the sound of the tyres crunching across the salt. It’s only when we turn back and see our camper, a speck in the distance that we start to comprehend.

Happily, a drinks trolley laden with spirits awaits our return, so we mix ourselves a gin and tonic and settle by the campfire as the sun starts to sink. The temperature rapidly plummets as the  light  fades, so we don thermals and scurry beneath the fleecy blankets heaped on the rocking deckchairs. The fire burns merrily as the canapes begin to flow – mini tostadas topped with fresh tomato, mouth-watering morsels of cured ham and hard-boiled quail’s eggs sprinkled with salt (not local, ironically, land-locked Bolivia imports a lot of sea salt). Above us, a riot of colour begins to blaze across the sky; bursts of yellow and orange become candy pink and lilac, then turn to purple-tinted greys and blues.

While our eyes feast on the intense colourway, we hear not a sound but the crackle of the fire. Eventually we retreat from the cold to dine by candlelight inside, enjoying a superior version of Bolivia’s ubiquitous quinoa soup, grilled chicken
and that exotic, indigenous Andean produce, the potato. But afterwards, we steal back outside for the most astounding stargazing of my life. The setting is ridiculously romantic, and the complete lack of light pollution means the entire sky seems to glitter. It is one of those rare, truly awe-inspiring moments in life. The idea of dragging myself away to bed seems like madness, but sleep cocooned in utter silence is tempting, too.

By night and day, natural beauty is not something Bolivia does by halves. The salt flats are its stellar attraction, yet the otherworldy desertscapes beyond, and its mineral-rich lakes – the red-tinted Laguna Colorada and green Laguna Verde – are equally awing. I was enchanted while walking the sunny shores of sparkling Lake Titicaca, believed by the Incas to be the birthplace of the sun, and by the Valley of the Moon near La Paz, with its eroded sandstone rock spires. My inner geek loved the 68-million-year-old dinosaur footprints on a rock face near Sucre. But it was the Salar de Uyuni which truly left me awe-struck. Remote, rugged and completely untamed, this country of epically expansive landscapes is made for losing all sense of yourself in. “Let’s go someplace like Bolivia”, said Butch Cassidy to the Sundance Kid. I now know what he means. 

To find out more or plan a tailor-made itinerary, speak to one of our Latin America experts.