Flash in the pan

Gemma Bowes explores the world's largest salt flat and nearby lakes and eco-lodge stays in Bolivia's south-west.

I'm strapped in for one of the rides of my life. The engine purrs and we move forward. Soon the ground disappears and beneath me is nothing but blue sky and cloud. I look across at my friend, Ally, sitting next to me. She has a big grin on her face. Outside the window, the view is incredible. We can't take our eyes off it, but after some minutes, it's time. "Are you ready?" I ask. "Yes! Let's do it!"

So we unbuckle our seatbelts, open the doors and leap into the clouds. My feet meet warm shallow water, and off I go, paddling across the sky. The experience might look a bit like skydiving, and feel a little like sailing, but we're travelling by car, experiencing the wild sensation that is a trip to the Salar de Uyuni in the rainy season at which time this 6440-square kilometre salt flat becomes what must be the world's biggest mirror. A couple of inches of shallow water cover it, reflecting the sky, and a mirror image of the clouds stretches as far as you can see in every direction, to an invisible horizon where there is nothing to distinguish earth from sky.

The Salar is the world's biggest salt flat, comprising 10 billion tonnes of salt, with a cracked surface that forms natural hexagons. Dozens of four-wheel-drives, stuffed with backpackers who have booked trips in the nearby gateway town of Uyuni, come to the flats each day, but they all soon disperse, and take on the appearance of birds, small aircraft or boats, adding to the illusion you are driving in the air.

To step out of the car on to the flats and wander off is an incredibly uplifting experience. The scene before me is astonishingly beautiful, like a cliched glimpse of heaven, and all I can see, as far as the snow-capped Andes in the distance, is shimmering sunny blue, and line after line - lines by the hundreds - of clouds tinged with lilac, pink and grey. It's bizarre and wonderful, and feels slightly as if, all at once, I'm on a white sand beach, in a desert, in the Antarctic, up in the sky and in the middle of a calm, warm, shallow ocean.

Lunch is a surreal event: the 4WDs park around a building made from salt that houses salt sculptures and has shady rooms in which to picnic - on tables made from salt. Our excursion, arranged with tour operator HighLives, includes a cook, Nadina, who whips out a feast of avocados, salad, quinoa, lamb and roast llama. It's delicious, although - and I swear this is true - it could have done with a bit of salt, and Nadina didn't have any.

The Salar is Bolivia's main highlight, but it is close to the borders of Chile and Argentina, so is often ticked off by travellers passing through. Compared with its glamorous neighbours, Bolivia remains off the beaten track.

It is a rougher place to travel, but offers the most authentic South American experience, with the highest proportion of indigenous people, a strong traditional culture and a government, led by Evo Morales, that resists North American or Western influence.

But it is also poorer than its neighbours and, because it is far less trodden by tourists, there has been minimal investment in infrastructure to cater for them, especially as Morales does not want Bolivia's future to depend on tourism.

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Bolivia has few high-end boutique hotels, yet visiting the main sites no longer means a hostel stay; a smattering of classy city hotels and interesting eco-lodges have opened. However, after travelling in Bolivia for a month, we decide to judge hotels on style and atmosphere rather than luxuries and details - even the nicest tend to be a little shabby.

In Uyuni, a down-at-heel town of unfinished bare brick buildings, there are a couple of stylish options. La Petite Porte is a converted townhouse decorated with Amazonian wood and handmade furniture, and the Jardines de Uyuni, where we stay, has colourfully painted adobe walls, a stony indoor garden with benches set on pieces of salt rock, and rooms with striped weavings. The bathroom is a bit grubby and the shower curtain torn, but we do enjoy the feel of the place.

Many travellers stay nearer the flats at one of a handful of hotels built from salt. These tend to be basic and chilly, but the Palacio de Sal is a salt hotel that goes against the grain, in glossy-magazine style. Of course it's easy to look contemporary when white minimalism is forced on you, but here you'll find cathedral-like atriums, pale lampshades dangling from thick ropes, salt sculptures, chairs made from holey cactus wood, bedrooms with domed salt-brick ceilings and lounge areas ranging from airy spaces to alcoves.

The rooftop lounge, styled like a safari tent, with orange fabric chairs, wooden floors, pine beams and wall-to-wall windows, is an incredible place from which to watch the sunset. We enjoy a simple meal of spinach soup, lamb with mashed potato and salad, and a baked banana with chocolate (there is no menu choice, but the service is friendly).

The salt flats are vast and potentially dangerous (you might recognise them from the recent film Blackthorn, about an ageing Butch Cassidy living in hiding here). Between 40,000 and 25,000 years ago a vast lake, Lago Minchin, evaporated. Later another smaller lake, Lago Tauca, lasted for 1000 years before it, too, dried up. It left behind lakes Poopo and Uru Uru and two salt flats, Uyuni and Coipasa.

The crust can be uneven, and layers can crumble into deep holes - some intrepid types do cross it, one of them by pushbike (crazyguyonabike.com) - but the flats remain relatively unspoilt. They contain about 10 billion tonnes of salt, of which 25,000 tonnes are extracted each year by a co-operative based in the town of Colchani. We visit a small producer on the edge of the flats where a cholita - a Bolivian woman in the typical outfit of layered skirts, sparkly cardigan, apron, bowler hat and long black plaits - sits on the floor packaging salt into bags.

The most important resource here though, and the greatest threat to the environment, is lithium, a soft metal used in batteries. The flats have more than half of the world's lithium reserves and during the 1980s and 1990s these were exploited by foreign companies. Morales, who wants Bolivia to profit from its natural resources, is now keeping companies at bay, and there is just a small-scale, nationalised extraction plant. How long this industry will stay small-scale remains to be seen; Bolivia's economy desperately needs revenue from more than just coca leaves.

The Salar is so mesmerising that we expect everything - the next few days, the rest of the trip, life - to be an anti-climax, but our journey takes us through very different but almost as spectacular scenery as we drive south-west from Uyuni to the Eduardo Avaroa national reserve, which stretches to the Chilean border, dotted with volcanoes and lakes in spectacular colours. The most famous, Lago Colorado, is also near one of a new collection of ridiculously remote eco-lodges, run by a community tourism group called Tayka.

The ride here might not have the dreamlike splendour of driving over the sky, but it has just about everything else. We pass snowy mountains, long crumbling escarpments and crimson boulders that resemble giant bones. At Lago Canapa and Lago Hedionda, further south, thousands of flamingos prowl greyish water and apricot-coloured mud. "They migrate from here to Miami and back again each year," Javier, from Millenarian, our local tour operator, tells us.

The massive Ollague Volcano (5868 metres) looms ahead as we approach Hotel Tayka del Desierto, after driving for a while against the flow by a river that follows the course of an old Inca road. We have just checked in when an incredible sunset turns the whole world red - the skies, the ochre ground, the huge, smoky clouds - the most intense colours of a trip full of vivid hues. We have barely seen another car in about 10 hours and once again we're the only guests at this remote lodge. A friendly couple welcome us, explaining they're part of a community who helped to build the Tayka hotels, and share the jobs and profits they generate.

There are three other Taykas: Hotel de Sal, a salt hotel north of Uyuni; Hotel de Piedra, a lodge of local stone near the ruins of San Pedro de Quemas; and Hotel de los Volcanes, also in the Eduardo Avaroa Reserve, near the border with Argentina. All are operated in the same way and aim to offer guests an upmarket experience, at about $90 a night, with solar-powered hot water, feather duvets, excursions and a warm welcome.

The lodge is high - 4400 metres - and even though we have been in Bolivia for more than a week by now, mainly at altitudes above 3500 metres, we have still not acclimatised (in fact, we never completely do, even after a month) and we're soon ready to collapse into bed. We leave in the dark, at 4.30am, and I see two shooting stars before climbing into the car and driving to see a strange rock formation shaped like a tree, then on to Lago Colorado, a multicoloured lake with bright white islands, the Islas de Hielo, and thousands of flamingos.

This is supposed to be the first of many colourful lakes we will see today, before driving back to Uyuni, but unfortunately this is where the fan-belt packs in, the car breaks down and we're stranded until our tour company tracks down a spare car, which returns us to Uyuni in time for sunset.

We might have missed seeing the lakes of turquoise, green and pink, but everything goes wrong in an enjoyable way. That's Bolivia: one minute you can be flying, the next you're back down to earth with a bump. But the descent is quite an experience.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

American Airlines has a fare to La Paz from Sydney and Melbourne for about $2985 low-season return including tax. Fly to Los Angeles (about 14hr with Qantas), then to Miami (5hr), then La Paz (6hr 50min); see aa.com. Australians don't require a visa for Bolivia but if transiting through the US you must apply for US travel authorisation before departure at esta.cbp.dhs.gov.

Touring there

HighLives Holidays, a British-based Bolivia specialist, offers a salt lake and desert experience as part of a 13-day Bolivian Odyssey package priced from £1350 a person ($2034). This includes a night at the Ritz Apart Hotel in La Paz (ritzbolivia.com), as well as the Palacio de Sal (palaciodesal.com.bo) and Tayka Hotel stay (taykahoteles.com/es/hdesierto). A six-day private experience in the salt flats and desert costs from £1247. See highlives.co.uk.

- Guardian News & Media

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