© Margo Pfeiff
Salt, sun and survival in the most remote regions of the Altiplano on the road to Chile
I’m on a psychedelic Hunter S. Thompson-esque road trip. Over the past four days I’ve watched vicuñas trot across a Day Glo-orange lagoon and bunnies with long fluffy tails hop through towering cactus forests. I’ve seen blinding-white salt plains that look like ice, extra-terrestrial-looking lime green blobs of vegetation flourishing on stark desert, and pink flamingos strutting shallow magenta ponds. But unlike the gonzo author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas whose encounters with giant attack-bats were drug and alcohol induced, the only thing I’ve guzzled as we bump across the surreal technicolor foothills of the Bolivian Andes is bottled water.
Years ago, on my first trip to Bolivia, I spotted travel posters for this unique region where the world’s biggest salt plain, the Salar de Uyuni, stretches towards a bizarre landscape of mineral pools, exotic critters and all things actively volcanic from geysers to boiling mud pools. But traversing the Altiplano high desert of the Andean Plateau in the country’s southwest meant travelling on rough tracks through a remote region with just a handful of basic hotels. I read posts about overcrowded vehicles breaking down in the middle of nowhere without spares or satellite phones, about altitude and food sickness, and running out of drinking water en route. I put Bolivia’s Outback on the backburner.
Then, recently, I learned that a few international outfitters were offering cushier options for small groups. They include certified guides, communications and oxygen on board reliable vehicles, and clean food and water. One of them, Santiago-based Explora, started five-day, four-night Travesias — traverses — from Uyuni through the Andes to their luxury Hotel de Larache in San Pedro de Atacama in Northern Chile (and vice-versa). So far they have been the only outfitter to tackle the Bolivian one-star accommodation issue by crafting their own unique outposts en route.
Three clients and I meet up with Explora’s Chilean guide Luis Guzman in the old silver mining town of Potosí before zooming three smooth highway hours to Uyuni (elevation 3500 metres), a wild west salt mining town on the edge of the 19,270-square-kilometre dry salt lake.
We literally hit the salt, driving straight onto the wide-open plain in our hefty adapted mini-bus, the hard textured surface shuddering beneath our wheels. We pass tiny clusters of stone houses and whitewashed churches before veering off an hour later at the last village. We meet Felix Urrelio, our Bolivian driver and trip logistics whiz, in front of our home for two nights, a trio of centuries-old wood-and-stone cottages with mud and thatch roofs like those in the rest of Tahua (population: 20). Ours have been insulated and renovated traditional/rustic-style. Three small double bedrooms make up one house, each with puffy down expedition sleeping bags and alpaca blankets atop deluxe cots. Across a courtyard we each have our own spacious bathroom complete with a hot rain shower, robes and goodie bags of amenities.
In the kitchen and dining cottage, Felix’s wife, Hortencia, has laid out fresh coffee, and crackers with avocado and morsels of homemade llama jerky. The multi-course dinner includes hearty local quinoa and vegetable soup with a grilled lamb-chop “popsicle” to pick up and munch with the hand that is not holding a glass of Chilean wine. Under a full moon that has the salt plain glowing, I slip into my sleeping bag’s silk liner, the last thing I remember being the chocolate left on my pillow melting in my mouth.
Bolivia or bust
A llama stampede starts the morning as farmers herd their animals through town to pasture. Partway up the slope of the dormant 5430-metre Tunupa Volcano, we visit a cave where a family of 1800- year-old mummies have been preserved by the hyper-dry air. They’ve remained untouched since the last eruption.
In nearby Chantani (population: 4), we drop in at an intriguing little museum and outdoor sculpture garden. We then stroll along the shoreline back to our refuge communing with grazing llamas, local farmers and women dressed in full Bolivian skirts and bowler hats before plunking ourselves in the middle of the salt at sunset to watch low pink rays glitter across the polygon-patterned crystallized plain while sipping champagne.
We leave Tahua the next morning for Isla Pescada, the biggest island in this plain that becomes a shallow, half-a-metre-deep lake during the December-to-March rainy season. An easy hike to its summit takes us through cacti 10 metres tall as viscachas, cute, long-tailed rodents similar to chinchillas, scurry into burrows at their feet.
A posse of viscachas doing the cha-cha on the rooftop of our next vamped-up stone cottage abruptly awakens us at dawn the following morning. We leave the salt behind with a breathtaking climb towards 4100 metres where we’re surrounded by glacier and snow-capped peaks topping out over 6100 metres. Felix navigates stretches of “road” that are mere boulder-strewn ruts: wide-open plains look like plowed landscapes with hundreds of dusty routes.
We come across a magical desert cave, a wizard’s lair with delicate stalactites alongside a pre-Incan cave cemetery. Mini-tornados twirl across the desert as we hike past wind-sculpted stone hoodoos. That’s where I first spot The Blob. Luis identifies the bizarre green, moss-like mounds as “llareta,’” a high-altitude relative of parsley. “The plant lives over 3000 years and exudes a highly flammable resin,” he explains.
As the air gets thinner, things get weirder so I’m barely surprised that our guesthouse for the night is a series of 12-metre, re-jigged shipping containers with a killer view. Outside, after Hortencia’s dinner of fork-tender wild duck, the stars across the night sky look like an exercise in pointillism.
Our last Travesia day is a surreal parade of multi-coloured mineral ponds, most crowded with three species of flamingos combing the waters for brine shrimp. Laguna Colorada shimmers from burgundy to orange to pink at the puff of a breeze as vicuñas trot by our shore-side picnic spot.
We top out at 4700 metres amid geysers and plopping mud ponds, then reach the Chilean border-crossing. After almost 965 hard-core kilometres we say goodbye to Felix and hop into a waiting SUV that drops us 2130 metres in 47 blissfully paved highway kilometres. By the time we reach San Pedro de Atacama, a mellow desert outpost of adventure travel shops, boutique hotels, bars and restaurants at 2500 metres, my lungs are drunk on oxygen.
After almost a week of eyeball-stinging dust and lunar landscapes, the trees and lush gardens around Hotel de Larache are as much a shock as the sudden luxury. Known for its desert expeditions from hiking and mountain biking to horseback riding — especially for advanced riders — and lounging in its own cascade of hot springs pools, Explora has also taken advantage of Atacama’s clear skies and built an onsite observatory for guests.
On the hour-long shuttle downhill to Calama airport, we pass an entourage of experimental solar cars racing in the 1300-kilometre Atacama Solar Challenge. As the shiny, insect-like vehicles whiz across the driest desert in the world, I can’t help wondering what Hunter S. Thompson would have thought he was seeing.
This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.