Travel: Mixing with the salt of the earth

The desert lands of south-west Bolivia are remote and unearthly. Kerry McKibbin spent five days in a surreal landscape.

"Five hundred dollars and food not included? You want us to starve to death in the desert? Think of my mother, I beg of you," said the Israeli tourist.

For a good hour I had been convinced that I was the only tourist in town. Certainly, I had been the only traveller among the old men gathered at the main square, exchanging the evening's gossip under a watery sunset. As I'd ventured up the Avenida Ferroviaria, a bowler-hatted woman had stridden ahead of me, her coca-leaf wares wrapped in a pink, woven shawl, and her child waddling behind, tightly padded against the intense cold, his arm stretching up to hold the end of his mother's plait. Both were dwarfed by the statue of an armed railway worker which dominated the main street of Uyuni, the last outpost on the edge of the Bolivian desert, and the main base from which desert expeditions begin. Survival on such journeys requires two things: endurable companions and a driver with a compass in his head. As a solo traveller, I was on the lookout for both.

As I entered the tourist office, the other foreigner was bargaining hard: "OK. Three hundred dollars - but I'll find five more people." His eyes lit up as he saw me. "Four more people." One more Israeli, a Swiss and a French couple later, we'd secured a five-day round trip. A teachers' strike also provided us with Quintin, who, instead of delivering lessons on natural science, became our driver.

Early the next day, with pan-pipe music blaring, our four-wheel drive vehicle headed towards an intriguing strip of white salt that glimmered in the distance. We exchanged the usual introductory stories of tropical diseases suffered, while the desert crept upon us unexpectedly. Suddenly the vehicle skidded. We were driving across the flats of Salar de Uyuni. A blinding white sheet of tightly packed salt crystals, forming interlocking, octagonal tiles, stretched from one horizon to another. Only a faint, brown track where the salt crust had been worn by previous Jeep tyres indicated human intrusion. We were surprised, therefore, to encounter a commuter.

In front of us, a boy wearing a balaclava and sunglasses shovelled salt on to a pile, licking his finger and marking it with his initials. Quintin waved in recognition. The boy was one of the salt farmers who cycle daily from Colchani to work the 10 billion tonnes of salt for export to Brazil.

Apart from such commuters, the edge of the Salar boasted an hotel, also made of salt blocks. Here, guests sat on salt chairs around salt tables, admiring salt ornaments which already included a Christmas tree complete with baubles. Stopping for lunch, we played table football, trying to reassure ourselves that this was still the same planet we'd been inhabiting that morning. But the faraway Isla de Pescadores with its carpet of cacti continued to shimmer and float on the midday heat haze.

Back on the track, Jeeps from competing companies accelerated past us, throwing up clouds of dirt which coated my tongue with red, metallic- tasting dust. Brown, sloping hills rhythmically rose and fell to pan pipes while the French couple began to complain that the Swiss traveller's one cassette, Musica de los Andes, was becoming wearing.

Occasionally we would encounter sculptured erratics, desert versions of twisted, wind-blown trees. Small lakes would appear ahead, and rare James flamingos with shocking-pink wings took flight at the sound of our engine.

That evening, in the village of San Juan, I crept down the main dirt track to the church, my footsteps startlingly loud. No trees wave their branches here. No traffic passes. No birds sing. Untying the chicken wire at the gate, I passed graves with wooden crosses. Some were decorated with flowers; not all were named. Like the surrounding dwellings, the thatched church was made of adobe bricks. Its tower, no higher than 12ft, supported two pottery vases and a crucifix. From behind me the sun cast an orange light, and the purple shadows in the crevices of the mountains increased with the fading light. The church door was slightly ajar and in the beam of my torch I picked out a sack of skulls. Next to it was another containing leg bones; another with arms and spines. A distant cry intruded as women herded their llamas into stone pens, pulling their shawls tight as the sun finally went down.

Back at our communal room, the Swiss boy, suffering altitude sickness, had stuffed his mouth with coca leaves. Meanwhile the Israelis investigated the outhouses, and reported a lack of showers. At least we were to be saved the nightly terror which accompanies electrically-heated (and badly wired) Bolivian showers. In the darkness of the room, pan-pipe music played softly. "For God's sake!" came exasperated French hisses. I could see my breath in the moonlight. It was minus 20 degrees outside.

The desert defied my senses. Mirages held inverted reflections of hills; lagoons changed their colour as the winds blew. Laguna Colorada appeared red; Laguna Verde's grey mixed to blue and then to green as the temperature of its minerals rose. High at the Sol de Manana, 4,800 metres above sea level, the earth squealed scalding steam; sulphur clouds rose up, enveloping my companions whose silhouettes looked trapped against the early morning sun.

And in the midst of this wilderness, we encountered blasted check-points - one of them a camouflaged military camp where the Bolivian flag fluttered madly in the wind and two soldiers, who looked about 16, stood around in tattered uniforms. They allowed the Israelis, who had just finished their military service, to check out their rifles before receiving an angry dressing-down from their commander for handing over their weapons. Meekly, they checked our passports, lifted the road barrier and, returning to the jeep window, asked whether we had any sweets.

After five days and 870 kilometres, we returned in darkness to Uyuni. The town, we agreed, looked almost welcoming, and the prospect of a hot meal at El Rosedal was positively luxurious. As we ordered, Edith Piaf was playing in the background.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Imperial College London: Safety Training Administrator

£25,880 – £28,610 per annum: Imperial College London: Imperial College London ...

University College London: Client Platform Support Officer

£26,976 - £31,614 per annum: University College London: UCL Information Servic...

Guru Careers: Instructional Designer / e-Learning Designer

£30 - 32k (DOE): Guru Careers: We are seeking an Instructional / e-Learning De...

Recruitment Genius: Schools Education & Careers Executive

£30500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Schools Education & Careers Executive ...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor