Onsite Review: Bella Bolivia

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Your clients will be walking on clouds when they visit Bolivia’s Salt Flats.

‘Tis probably true that it’s not often (yet) that a client says, “This is my year to go to Bolivia.” But perhaps it’s because they don’t know that the country holds a monopoly on sky-high attractions: the highest navigable lake, Titicaca; the highest golf course, La Paz Golf Course; the highest ski resort, Chacaltaya; the highest commercial capital, La Paz; and the world’s highest international airport, El Alto at 13,555 ft.

There’s lots of buzz nowadays about this up-in-the-clouds country. So this was my year to return to Bolivia to explore another superlative that is currently drawing attention and increasing tourism to Bolivia: Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat in the world, covering an area of 4,680 sq. miles at an altitude of 11,970 ft. in Bolivia’s remote southwest area.

Luna Salada Hotel.
Luna Salada Hotel.

“Without doubt, the Salt Flats are our grandest natural wonder,” says Darius Morgan Jr., managing directer of La Paz-based Crillon Tours, and “it’s a wonder that has put a new and positive focus on the treasures of Bolivia.” But to be honest, he adds, “In 2014, Uyuni received 300,000 visitors—more than Machu Picchu—and the main reason for the increase is the Dakar Challenge, which moved from North Africa to South America in 2009. Starting and finishing in Buenos Aires, each January motorcyclists follow a gigantic route through Argentina and Chile, with a loop into Bolivia’s southwest Altiplano, and we get great press from drivers who are particularly dazzled by the Uyuni Salt Flats terrain.”

a salty landscape
You can customize exploring the Salar de Uyuni in many ways, however, my daughter Abigail and I bought into a normal 3-day, privately escorted circuit. We start in the dusty town of Uyuni, which offers absolutely no reason to tarry other than a stop at the so-called train cemetery, an eerie wasteland of locomotives (a joy to railroad buffs and photographers) slowly rusting away in the desert. The sandy road from town quickly gives way to an incredible all-white vista of a glistening sea of salt, 25 times the size of the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. In areas where thin layers of water rise to the surface, they mirror the clouds and the surrounding mountains. And so it goes that at Salar de Uyuni, your clients will be walking on clouds.

During the first day spent on the Uyuni side of the flats, we head over the crusty salt for an hour-plus drive to Isla Incahuasi, an island studded with giant cacti, more than 6,000 of them, with the tallest growing to 47 ft. The trail to the top is worth taking—certainly at a leisurely pace in these high-altitude places—for there are few better 360-degree views of the dramatic landscape. And little surprises were nice: a good restaurant and a nice little museum. Another visit took us to the village of Colchani to learn about harvesting salt and making salt bricks, produced traditionally, family-by-family, in a cluster of adobe houses.

Fittingly, our first night was spent in one of several hotels built of salt, the new 30-room Palacio de Sal ($145 dbl or sgl; breakfast and WiFi). The walls are cinder-block-size bricks carved out of the salt pan with salt-and-water mortar; and the floors are loose salt, crisscrossed by wooden walkways. The public areas—regional-style restaurant, bar and gameroom—are rather handsome; many of the 16 rooms, with igloo-like ceilings and nice big bathrooms, lack good daylight.

I was impressed with the lighter and brighter Luna Salada Hotel ($140 dbl or sgl; breakfast and WiFi). Except for tiled bathrooms, all the walls and floors are made of compacted salt crystals; even the furniture is mostly made of salt, made homey with cushions and Bolivian textiles. Guestrooms, with electric blankets and cozy bedspreads, are built along one side of a long corridor, opposite which there is a sitting area with large bay windows framing grand views of the salt flats.

Uyuni Salt Flats.
Uyuni Salt Flats.

route of the lagoons
The next day we headed south, crossing from a surreal desert landscape to broad, volcano-ringed valleys, to high Altiplano and into the protected area of the Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve of Andean Wildlife—heavily populated by herds of wild vicuna, rhea (South America’s version of the ostrich), wild cats and dozens of bird species—to a series of high-altitude lakes.

The first is Laguna Colorada, a small lake tinted a fiery red by minerals and algae that attract three types of flamingo to the lake’s salt-crusted shores: the Andean, Chilean, and the largest population in the world, the James flamingos.

On the road again, climbing closer and closer to the Chilean border, we next visited the Sol de Mañana, a patch of earth pocked with dozens of steaming craters, the size of large hot tubs. A pungent sulfur smell wafted from the mud pots as they bubbled, some yellow, some orange, others gray like vats of molten zinc; there was even time for a dip in a hot spring, before heading on to Laguna Verde, or “green lake,” really a gorgeous shade of jade. The lake’s backdrop is the Licancabur Volcano, on the Chile border. Nowadays, the adventure- and nature-loving traveler often combines the Uyuni Salt Flats with several days in San Pedro de Atacama, the driest desert in the world, in Chile.

Among the best of accommodations along the “route of the lagoons” is the Cave Hotel Gardens Mallku ($130 dbl or sgl; breakfast) built into (and of) rock, with interior floors of wood. The hotel has 12 comfortable rooms with private baths, central heating, dining room, lounge bar with fireplace, and a sun lounge. After a hearty breakfast, we took the road back, with many detours for views and wildlife, to the Uyuni-town side of the salt flats for a very special grand finale night of glamping, Salt Flat-style.

glamping with crillon tours
While we were paying customers on our trip to Bolivia, for one night we were guests of Crillon Tours, which has introduced a unique opportunity to overnight (or two) in a deluxe, vintage-style Airstream camper in the middle of the Salar, totally alone in a sea of whiteness.This super-duper camper is refitted with a comfortable queen bed or two twins, electric blankets, bathroom (with  hot water and toiletries), living space for dining, a fully stocked minibar, an oxygen tank, and first aid kit; outdoor amenities include bicycles and rocking chairs.

And we’re not completely alone, for in a separate camper, our staff—chef, server, guide and personal concierge—are on-hand with multi-course, freshly prepared meals, tea at teatime, and cocktails served up with a blazing sunset. The after-dinner entertainment can’t be beat—lying out with mattresses and blankets for star-gazing as our guide’s laser beam points to constellations. If we were staying longer, a specially fitted 4×4 vehicle—used for guided excursions during the day—could have towed us to another out-of-this-world location. Crillon Tours offers customized charters as well as several 3-day Deluxe Camper Adventures, priced all-inclusive at $2,450 pp sharing.

contact information
Cave Hotel Gardens Mallku: mallkucueva.com
Crillon Tours: titicaca.com
Hotel Luna Salada: lunasaladahotel.com.bo
Hotel Palacio de Sal: palaciodesal.com

“South America travel continues to grow for us year after year,” reports Beth Karlicek, senior v. p. of Alexander+Roberts, and the company’s Latin America maven. “Bolivia does sell—of course,  it has yet none of the popularity of Peru and Galapagos—but the kind of clients who have already traveled to Peru are [an example of] the likely candidates for a single-country trip to Bolivia.”

Alexander+Roberts’ 7-day Treasures of Bolivia & Lake Titicaca visits La Paz, overnights on both Sun Island (legendary birthplace of the first Inca) and Huatajata, on Lake Titicaca, and spends two nights in Uyuni in a salt hotel with excursions. Covering private car, driver and guide; handpicked superior first class hotels and lodges; most meals; all on-tour transportation including two internal flights, the tour is priced at $3,399 pp sharing.

Karlicek says, “I like to think of Bolivia as up-and-coming, because it’s undiscovered and because it’s exotic. It’s a country that captures the imagination of today’s traveler: The landscapes are unique, and where else can you stay in a hotel made of salt, walk among Aymara communities still observing their living traditions around Lake Titicaca, or view no-longer living mummies in a sacred cave at Tunupa
Volcano.” Karlicek predicts that “with a strong market for places offering new vistas and close-up experiences, Bolivia will not remain up-and-coming for long.” (800) 221-2216; alexanderroberts.com or alexanderroberts.com/Rewards/Login.aspx

cox & kings
Bolivia: Mysteries of the Altiplano is the Cox & Kings-lead private journey for the destination, one that Ignacio Villan, the company’s director for Latin America, points out has long been passed over. “Clients tend to think of Bolivia as an extension of Peru, going across Lake Titicaca [shared by both countries] to La Paz, and then flying on,” he says. Villan believes that while Bolivian tourism is rather in its infancy, more upscale hotels, lodges, and good guides are needed.

Cox & Kings has introduced Bolivia: Mysteries of the Altiplano, an 8-day itinerary that explores La Paz and its other-worldly Valley of the Moon; journeys to Lake Titicaca for an overnight at Utama Hotel & Spa; travels to Sucre, famous for its colonial churches and colorful market, and to the once silver-rich town of Potosi; spending three nights discovering the Uyuni Salt Flats; one night at Luna Salada Hotel; and two nights in the Airstream camper, making excursions to local villages and training binoculars on flamingos, rheas, llamas and vicunas. This private journey’s all-inclusive cost is $5,915 pp sharing.
(800) 999-1758; coxandkingsusa.com or coxandkingsusa.com/content/travel-advisor-portal-login