As I stepped out of the Toyota Land Cruiser, it felt like walking on shattered glass. Spinning around, all I could see was a white void stretching to the horizon, a surreal, almost lunar landscape. It struck me that this might be the closest the planet has to complete, timeless nothingness; from pre-Incan peoples to the present day, humanity has made almost no impression on this endless expanse of white.
Covering some 4,000 square miles at an altitude of 3,650m, the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia is the world’s largest salt flat. It has long been a popular destination for backpackers, who come and stay in the handful of basic hotels around its perimeter and make day-trip excursions out into the salty desert. Now, though, travellers can stay right in the middle of the mesmerising emptiness, camping out in a shiny Airstream caravan.
The trips have been created by Darius Morgan, a local tour operator and hotelier who has imported three 25ft-long Airstream Safari caravans from the US so that guests can view the bizarre landscape in glorious solitude. “Now you can pay for the indulgence of being completely alone – you feel as if you actually own time and space,” he told me when I flew down from La Paz earlier this month to be his first guest.
The hour-long flight landed at the recently opened airstrip outside the unattractive mining town of Uyuni. A driver and guide were waiting and we set off in the Land Cruiser, quickly passing through the town of Colchani, a cluster of adobe houses where most of the salt gatherers who work in the desert live. Geological studies have found the salt is up to 120m deep in places; in total the Salar contains an estimated 10bn tonnes, of which 25,000 tonnes are extracted annually.
We drove out on to the surface of the salt pan – flat but cracked into a billion naturally occurring hexagon shapes. Its appearance can change dramatically: in dry conditions the surface can look like snow or ice while at night it glows with reflected moonlight; when wet it takes on the appearance of a colossal mirror fringed by distant, snow-capped peaks.
After two hours’ driving, we made our first stop at Incahuasi, the remains of a volcanic cone that now looks like a small rocky island rising out from the salt, about 45 miles west of Colchani. The Salar was formed some 30,000 years ago by the drying up of a vast prehistoric lake, Lago Minchin, and Incahuasi’s rocks show traces of seashells and coral. Its slopes are dotted with thousand-year-old cacti, and as I climbed up among them with my guide Iván Blanco we began to pant in the thinning air. The view from the summit, 100 or so metres above the surface of the salt sea, is astounding. “Look around,” said Blanco. “I’d venture to say that this is the last truly virgin spot on Earth.”
It’s easy to see his point but, nevertheless, the island is a stopping point for most tours of the Salar and can get busy with day-trippers, so we pressed on farther into the wilderness. We drove north for another hour, to the camp where Morgan and his Airstream were waiting for us.
“This is the loneliest spot of the salty desert – and it is all here just for you,” said Morgan, as we prepared to eat a dinner of juicy roast llama steak, served with some decent Bolivian red wine from the southern region of Tarija, under an umbrella in the middle of the desert.
The van sleeps two (with the option of a third traveller on a sofa-bed) and was kitted out with everything I might need: a toilet, toiletries, a shower with hot water, a heater, a comfortable queen-size bed with electric blankets, an iPod dock and a fully stocked minibar. It is towed behind a 4x4 (either alone or in convoy with the two other Airstreams if there is a group of friends). It is followed by the “teardrop”, a smaller supporting wagon that carries a kitchen and other necessities, which vanishes after dinner, taking chef, driver and guide off to stay in the nearest village at the edge of the salt pan, and leaving the guest with just a radio and satellite phone in case of emergency.
The next morning, from the comfort of my warm bed, I witnessed an orange dawn lighting up one of the most extraordinary landscapes I have ever seen. Soon after, the ever-courteous chef, Isaac Quispe, knocked on the door, bringing freshly squeezed orange and pineapple juices and sweet papayas served alongside fresh coffee, all produce coming from Bolivia’s western Amazon basin. He left quickly, telling me: “The idea is to leave the traveller completely alone, so you can enjoy the experience the way you want. So, please, excuse me.”
But there are benefits beyond solitude. Having a mobile base makes it easier to explore the area – cycling or trekking across remote parts of the salt flats, visiting local communities or climbing the volcanoes at its edges.
Later, we drove north to the tiny villages of Jirira and Coqueza in the shadow of Thunupa, the extinct volcano that looms over the salt pan.
“For us, the salt flats are almost sacred,” said Doña Lupe, an Aymaran elder wearing a bowler hat and pleated skirt, who owns a humble but comfortable eight-room hotel made of salt bricks in Jirira. “We would like more people to be able to feel that.”
We wandered through the deserted streets and admired the colonial churches and quinoa plantations, then moved on to spend the afternoon trekking to 800-year-old Aymaran fortresses made of red rock, and visiting chullpas, pre-Incan tombs, where I was greeted by well-preserved mummies. We were passed by low-flying pink flamingos who come to the Salar to breed, and saw llamas, alpacas, and vicuñas.
That night, my second on the salt, we drank aperitifs by candlelight as the sunset turned the ground red. Then, using a telescope, we admired the yellow rings of Saturn in one of the southern hemisphere’s most pristine skies. And I realised my initial impression had been mistaken: what looks like a vast “nothingness” is full of rich experiences.
Andres Schipani is the FT’s Andes correspondent
The Airstream story: The caravan that took off
In 1929, Wallace Byam’s wife refused to go camping again without a kitchen. On a previous trip he had erected a tent on a trailer towed behind his car, but it had proved an unpleasant experience — and a wet one when it rained. So this time “Wally” built a permanent shelter on the trailer, complete with an ice box and a kerosene stove, and in doing so conceived the first Airstream caravan, writes Peter Leggatt.
Byam made more than $15,000 by publishing an article — “How to Build a Trailer for One Hundred Dollars” — then selling further plans to readers for $1 each. He went on to build trailers for friends in his garden, before the Airstream Trailer Company went into full production in 1932, based in Culver City, California.
The company suffered during the second world war, as travel became a luxury and it was hard for non-military companies to obtain aluminium. When the war ended, however, the company took off, becoming a symbol of American freedom and wanderlust. The unique, rounded shape, based on aeroplane fuselage, was stylish and practical – creating 20 per cent less drag than a standard caravan.
Airstream owners set off in convoys to explore the world, one heading from Mexico to Nicaragua in 1951, another from Cape Town to Cairo in 1959.
More recently, Airstreams have become destinations in their own right. From rural Wales to the Pyrenees and Cornwall to New Mexico, static Airstreams, either alone or grouped in Airstream “parks”, are being rented out to tourists seeking a taste of 1950s America.
Other Airstreams have found their way into even more unusual roles. On their return from the moon in 1969, Neil Armstrong and his crew were quarantined in an Airstream until it could be determined they were free from “lunar pathogens”. They remained inside for three weeks, and were visited by President Richard Nixon.
Airstreams have also been strapped inside US military cargo planes, usually C-17 Globemasters, to provide private, portable and comfortable quarters for government officials, including Dick Cheney, and first ladies, including Laura Bush, when on foreign trips.
Andres Schipani was a guest of Abercrombie and Kent which offers a five-day itinerary from £1,895, with two nights in La Paz and two nights in the Airstream, including meals and flights from La Paz to Uyuni, or £2,390 including flights from Lima