In the driving seat in Bolivia
'This is the best place to learn how to drive,' my perky guide Maribel declares. 'There's no speed limit, no police, no one to control you. No one cares. You can drive as fast as you want!'
She's right. Apart from the occasional 4x4 zipping past, any wannabe speed demon would have a field day here – with all 10,000 sq km of the Uyuni Salt Lake’s endless white terrain as their private race track.
Unlike its South American neighbours, landlocked Bolivia can consider itself off the beaten track mainly because it is still so hard to get to. There are no direct flights from Europe to capital La Paz, so most people cross the border from Peru, Argentina, Brazil or Chile, which also gives them the chance to acclimatise to the city's heady 3,636-metre altitude.
Uyuni's vast and glorious salt lake is the undisputed jewel in Bolivia's arid crown. The seemingly infinite lake, based near the southern town of Uyuni is dazzling – literally.
We've been warned to wear sunglasses, high-factor sun cream and a hat to avoid being fried and blinded by the reflection of the sun. You must dress wisely, too. At night and early in the morning, it's freezing, while daytime temperatures can climb to 30ºC. At an altitude of 3,653 metres, it's the highest and largest salt lake in the world.
Driving across it is a surreal experience. When we arrive, it's the beginning of winter and the dry season and the glittering thick white salt surface looks like snow. It forms endless hexagonal shapes beneath the startling crisp blue sky. Both stretch as far as the eye can see.
During summer and the rainy season, the lake is covered by a layer of water that reflects that looming sky like a giant mirror.
But be warned, visiting the lake without a proper guide is not a good idea. Maribel tells us about foolhardy tourists who arrive without a GPS system and, unsurprisingly, get lost in the near featureless salt lake and its 33 largely indistinguishable islands.
'They get confused and end up having to call the emergency services to rescue them. Driving at night is even more dangerous, especially when there's no moon,' she says.
You can even stay in a hotel made from salt. I bunk down in the Luna Salada (Salt Moon). Everything is carved out of salt – the walls, the floor and even the beds. Like Hansel and Gretel in the candy house, I'm tempted to lick something. Not a place to stay if you're suffering from high cholesterol, however.
Leaving the lake, we make a pit stop at Fisherman’s Island, an ancient resting place for Inca traders. It's a pretty little mound of land dotted with giant cacti. It offers a spectacular view of the salt flats along with the surrounding mountains, including the Tunupa volcano. The Eduardo Avaroa National Park, just south of the salt lake, is also worth a visit. Home to colonies of flamingos residing in the fiery Red Lagoon and turquoise Green Lagoon, it's a great stop for nature lovers.
On our return, Maribel regales us with the story of a honeymooning British couple who stopped at the small village of Villa Mar on their return from the salt lakes. We stay at the same hotel as them, which has no heating and electric blankets that work only until 10.30pm. It's below zero outside and I start to worry about hypothermia.
'The bride was so cold she was crying but her husband persuaded her to stay to enjoy the beautiful Bolivian landscape,' Maribel tells us.
Here's a tip – if you're expecting creature comforts, don't come here on your honeymoon, or maybe choose a more sympathetic spouse.
He was bang-on about one thing, though – the landscape is stunning.
Ann Lee; Metro newspaper