Stranded with old salts

Steve McKenna embarks on a drive most sobering — unlike his driver.

Despite a few headaches brought on by the dizzying altitude, it had been a good trip for the first two days.

We'd blazed a trail across the high Bolivian Andes, watching gaudy pink flamingos dance on spectacularly colourful lakes; we'd swum in thermal baths surrounded by jaw-dropping, Dali-esque landscapes and we'd gone nose to nose with adorable llamas munching on grass under extinct volcanoes.

Our Bolivian driver - who looked 30ish but claimed he was only 20 - was safe and courteous and the fact that he spoke no English meant our Spanish had dramatically improved in the past 48 hours.

On the last day, we checked out of our hotel made almost entirely of salt and were looking forward to visiting the Salar de Uyuni, the world's largest salt plains that blanket 12,000 square kilometres of south-west Bolivia.

Gathering us together, our driver told us there was a problem. It transpired that Uyuni, the town where we were ending the tour, was under a blockade - meaning no one could get in or out with a vehicle.

The locals were making a protest to the Bolivian government and the eye of the storm awaited.

As he started the engine, our driver assured us that he would take care of us. At 9.30am, he cracked open his first beer. My friends and I looked at each other. A second beer followed shortly after and, once he'd finished that, he pulled over at a ramshackle store in the middle of nowhere and clunked three large bottles into the four-wheel-drive. My friend Henry, who was sitting in the front, told our driver: "No mas (no more)."

He smiled and nodded. Shortly after, we arrived at the Salar and had to whip out our sunglasses. We'd never seen such a bright, sparkling expanse of white before. It was like a flat sheet of ice with no end in sight.


While we took a series of silly photographs of ourselves on the salt flats, our driver took off with one of his friends, who was driving fellow tourists in another four-wheel-drive. When the pair returned, the three beer bottles were empty and they both slumped on the floor and dozed.

"A few years ago, seven tourists got lost out here," a Brazilian traveller from the other vehicle, said. "They were found a year later. Dead."

Fortunately, an hour later, the drivers had sobered up sufficiently to make lunch. Afterwards, they drove us to Uyuni via a "secret road".

Just before sunset, the other car became stuck in mud just outside town. The blockaders rushed over and surrounded the vehicle. We thought they were going to lynch us but one of the leaders told us they meant no harm. They allowed us to walk into Uyuni, a litter-strewn dustbowl of a place. We were tired and also worried how long we'd be stuck here - especially when we discovered that the town's two ATMs had run out of cash. Some grumpy travellers had been trapped here for a week.

Thankfully, the blockade was lifted the following morning and we were on the first bus out of there - with a driver who seemed, at least, to be as sober as a judge.