Tom Waite heads to Bolivia to discover a setting of staggering dimensions and raw beauty, the iconic Salar de Uyuni salt flats.
It is said that as the Apollo 11 mission revolved around the earth, bracing for its sling-shot to the moon, Mission Commander Neil Armstrong remarked to Mission Control, Houston, about the big ‘mirror’ shining back up to him from the South American continent. What he was witnessing was the vast Bolivian salt flats, the Salar de Uyuni. Upon his return to earth, thoroughly spiritualised by his journey to the moon, his lust to wander took him to Uyuni to find this vast white mirror in South America. I can just imagine him peering back from whence he’d come, just as astonished at the view from below as he’d been from above.
I’ll never follow Commander Armstrong’s footsteps to the moon, but to Uyuni I went, bursting to discover this most alien of earth-bound environments. And, wow, you cannot fail to be impressed with the Salar. It is an odd landscape, simple to describe – salt, sky, mountains – yet hard to define at the same time; enigmatic, beguiling, interesting, remarkable, mystical, beautiful. All are adjectives that would apply, yet all would fall short of really encapsulating what this place is really like.
Rolling in a Land Cruiser, the billiard table flatness of the pure white salt flats is disorientating in its immensity, and the vast domed sky is bigger, emptier, clearer and bluer than any sky I’ve ever seen anywhere else on earth. The distant volcanic slopes on the lake shore seemed almost dirty against such ethereal purity of salt and sky; seemingly a million miles away, yet tantalizingly close at the same time. Disorientating as I said. Maybe the course we took was a circular one, but these massive Andean volcanoes never seemed to get any closer either, so vast was their size and so far was their distance.
Experiencing the Salar is not just limited to driving across it, gawping at its staggering size and strange beauty. You can also experience the Salar from a hotel made almost entirely of salt. There are several famous salt hotels around the lake, from the charming surrounds of the Luna Salada to the unexpected grandeur and quirkily domed rooms of the Palacio Del Sal – both are a revelation of comfort and class in such remote and unusual locations.
However, the most unique, special, memorable and, dare I say, even romantic way to experience the Salar is with a night alone, way out on the salt flats in an authentic, iconic Airstream caravan.
This exclusive experience involves a private tour of the salt flats with your own vehicle, private guide and driver, discovering all the sights of interest as any other visitor would. But, as dusk approaches, a quiet spot is selected to stop. Your guide and chef will prepare canapés and a crisp sundowner before cracking on with your romantic candlelit dinner for two.
"The billiard table flatness of the pure white salt flats is disorienting in its immensity, and the vast domed sky is bigger, emptier, clearer and bluer than any sky I've ever seen anywhere else on earth."
Then, with dinner done, your entourage retreat out of sight deep into the darkness, leaving you alone with the silence and with the stars – and there’s always stars! Snuggle up within your cosy aluminium refuge for a night of blissful solitude. Even the generator has a four kilometre extension so as not to disturb your peace. Along with sunrise returns the warmth of the day, your entourage and breakfast, then it’s onward back across the flats. An amazing experience.