Bolivia's Salar de Uyuni salt flats Chimu Adventures tour review: A wild night out

There's a howl of wind that begins in the middle of the night. It's loud enough to wake us as it whips past the campervan, a sudden noise to replace the eerie silence that had previously settled over the Salar de Uyuni. 

You're grateful for a thick continental quilt at times like these, grateful that you're able to snuggle up in the warmth of a heated campervan and listen to that wind in safety, pondering the isolation, dreaming of the wide-open spaces outside.

There's nothing and nobody for miles around out there. The pitch darkness hides vast swaths of salt flat, the largest in the world. There's a small village at the base of a volcano a few kilometres away, but no one else is camped out on the lake tonight.

It's a  rare opportunity. There's no other way to stay the night on the salt flat except in this campervan. There are salt hotels on the lake's edge near the town of Uyuni, but nothing else that sits in the middle of this endless white expanse. We're isolated, but we're not exactly roughing it. 

The  previous morning, my friend and I were collected from Uyuni airport by Gustavo, our guide, in one of the town's ubiquitous Landcruiser four-wheel-drives. They are the hardiest vehicles for driving on the crusty salt pan, and Uyuni is littered with them.

We had flown from La Paz, a one-hour journey in a tiny aircraft that deposited us in this dusty, desert town. It's about 3500 metres above sea level, an arid place dotted with volcanoes on every horizon. 

Gustavo takes us into the fairly unremarkable town centre for a coffee, before we begin our journey into the great white unknown.

There are more than 10,000 square kilometres of salt flat, and as our tyres crunch onto its surface, the size of the place and the challenge of navigating it become clear.

"You have to navigate like you're in a boat," Gustavo explains. "We can use the volcanoes as landmarks, but inexperienced people get lost out here all the time."

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The Landcruiser hits 80, then 100, then 120km/h as we roar over the salt flats in search of our camp. It's out there somewhere in the endless whiteness. Fortunately, Gustavo seems to know where. After we've been driving in a straight line for about an hour and a half, the silver of the campervan glints in the distance.

We're in the middle of nowhere. There's not a breath of wind or a sound. There's not a soul as far as the eye can see, and the eye can see a very long way out here on the salt flat. 

Our abode is a silver Airstream campervan from the United States. Inside, it's more luxurious than most hotels, with two beds, a toilet, shower, living room and kitchen. The kitchen is superfluous, however, because hidden behind the curtained window, on the salt behind us, is a cook's tent from which all of our meals during the next 24 hours appear. 

The first is lunch, served on a linen-covered table set up on the salt pan. My mate and I sit down to a feast of melon and prosciutto, followed by grilled steak and potatoes, and a cold beer. Most visitors to the lake today eat soggy sandwiches in the back of a four-wheel-drive.

There are certain experiences, however, that every visitor to Uyuni salt flat has to try. One of those is to find a desolate patch of salt (not too hard) and take photos that play with the lack of depth perception in such a featureless landscape. Check. The other is to visit Incahuasi, one of two islands in the salt lake, a rocky outcrop dotted with 500-year-old cacti. It's there that we finally encounter some other people, joining the day-trippers for the climb up to the top of the island to take in views of the lake and the surrounding volcanoes. 

Then we're back in the Landcruiser and heading towards camp, stopping in the middle of the salt pan to see a spectacular sight that none of the day-trippers has the chance to experience: sunset. The crusty salt surrounding us turns orange, then yellow and finally a deathly blue as the sun creeps below the horizon.

There's barely enough light to pick out the shape of the campervan as we arrive back to huddle around a fire as the temperature rapidly drops. Fingers are freezing around wine glasses as we pile into the campervan to eat dinner indoors with Gustavo. After the meal ends, he leaves us alone to enjoy the isolation: the sight of a million stars in the sky above and the sound of silence all around.

Soon, however, the desert wind starts to whip itself into a midnight fury – a howl heard by no one but us few.

Explore the Salar de Uyuni salt flats in the photo gallery above.

The writer travelled as a guest of Chimu Adventures and LAN Airlines.

TRIP NOTES

More information

chimuadventures.com.au    

Getting there

LAN Airlines flies daily from Sydney to La Paz via Santiago, Chile, with connections to Uyuni. See lan.com.

Staying there

Sydney-based travel operator Chimu Adventures offers seven-night Bolivia tour packages that include one night in the Airstream camper, plus a night in a salt hotel on the edge of the salt flat. Other highlights include accommodation, a city tour in La Paz and a trip to Lake Titicaca. The package costs from $4970. Phone 1300 215 489. See chimuadventures.com.au.  

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