The Road Less Travelled
I never in my life saw so much nothingness. The remoteness was total, the desolation absolute, like driving from Utah to Wyoming by way of Siberia and the Yukon.
This was Bolivia, and I was driving with my guide, Dietmar, along the salt lakes of the Daniel Campos province beyond the Wild West town of Uyuni. Driving on lakes - that’s right. A bed of brilliant white hexagonal salt tiles, the azure of the altiplano sky and the distant peaks of the Chilean Andes reflected with crystal clarity in the six-inch layer of water that covers the whole expanse of this saline desert, as it stretches a hundred or so miles beyond the horizon.
Our base was the fabled Salt Hotel, a building made entirely from hulking great slabs of salt - except for a bizarre conical straw roof that makes the whole place look somehow like an albino Wurzel Gummidge with windows.
Inside the hotel are salt walls, salt sofas, salt beds, even a pool table made from salt. Outside the hotel, and at random intervals all the way to the giant cactus-festooned Isla Incahuasi, are pyramid-shaped pillars of salt, awaiting extraction by the workers from the Colchani processing plant.
The salt lakes are no place for a dodgy motor. Pity, because that’s what we had. An ageing, ailing Toyota Land Cruiser (that last word is very euphemistic) that broke down so often it needed not so much a mechanic as a therapist. You could time the breakdowns like contractions - every 20 minutes, preceded by much spluttering and juddering. This was a motor even Arthur Daly would bar from his forecourt.
Dodgy motors are de rigeur in Bolivia, and they get the roads they deserve, most notably the notorious and insanely dodgy Yungas Road. This alleged, and largely unsurfaced, highway slithers and snakes its 10,000 ft descent from La Cumbre to Coroico, flirting capriciously with the vertical slopes of the Cordillera Real, as great wafts of steam rise from the tropics that lie beneath.
The adrenaline rush of riding the Yungas in an open camión is extraordinary. Waterfalls cascade across your path with such force as to erode the road before your eyes. Look up, and monolithic great rocks threaten to flatten you from a very great height. Look down - which is perilously easy on a road with one lane, nowhere to pass, and no safety barriers - and you can almost count the thousands of feet to Hades. Is there a more hazardous highway on the planet? I doubt it.
Bolivia is filled with such highlights. You just know it from the moment you descend into La Paz, gazing through the aeroplane window on this gigantic amphitheatre, a sunken city utterly cocooned by a perfectly circular wall of snow-capped mountains, some of them towering a further 10,000 ft above an already two-and-a-half mile high city.
La Paz is a thrilling city vibrating with people. Everywhere, people. Day and night, people. Impromptu union marches, improvised city hall sit-ins, every street and plaza filled to overflowing with life. It was here that I hooked up with Hernán, who was to be my guide for the next leg of my Bolivian odyssey, La Paz to Lake Titicaca.
We were off to the lakeside town of Copacabana to see the Blessing of the Toyotas. Now I’m not a religious man, but opportunities to witness the benediction by the local padre of a bunch of Japanese cars come, perhaps, once in a lifetime.
The ceremony is simple, cerebral and wonderfully silly. A prayer is said car-side outside the cathedral, holy water (GTX, I presume) is sprinkled on the flower-festooned bonnets, and the cars are then driven down to the lake for baptism. Following which the cars are deemed ready, I guess, to tackle the Yungas. Bolivian irony - you have to admire it.
"Did you ever see such a thing before?" Hernán asked, as we hiked the 800 ft up the Cerro Calvario for a sunset view of the lake and the town. "I’m Jewish", I replied. "We don’t baptize our cars, we circumcise them. Two inches off the exhaust, then seven times around Brent Cross Shopping Centre". The sun set over a cavalcade of garlanded Japanese cars, and all seemed right with the world.
By Peter Moss, Journalist.
Your edit for Latin American inspiration
Our exciting range of articles on Latin America explore everything from iconic destinations and lesser-known cultural gems to delicious traditional recipes. You’ll also find exclusive travel tips, first-hand client reviews and the chance to get your personal questions answered by our travel experts.View Extraordinary Inspiration
Chris Rendell-Dunn - Travel Expert
Anglo-Peruvian Chris grew up in Lima and spent much of his adult life in between London and Cusco as a tour leader, before settling permanently in our London-based Tailor-made and Group Tours sales team.
Mary Anne Nelson - Travel Expert
Born in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, Mary’s insider knowledge and dry sense of humour make her a highly valued member of the Tailor-made Holidays and Group Tour sales team.
Lina Fuller - Travel Expert
Lina's passion for the continent where she was born really took off when she moved to Córdoba (Argentina) to study, spending the holidays travelling between Argentina and her native Colombia.
Paul Winrow-Giffin - Travel Expert
After graduating in Computer Science, Paul spent seven months travelling from Colombia to Argentina and came home hooked on Latin America.
Carrie Gallagher - Travel Expert
A former JLA tour leader, Carrie brings a wealth of on-the-ground experience to our London-based Tailor-made and Group Tours department.
Millie Davies - Travel Expert
Having caught the travel bug as a child, Millie has travelled all over Latin America before making her home in Buenos Aires for 3 years.