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Salar de Uyuni salt desert is a land of extremes

It's a desert, but there's no sand.

It's a desert but there are no camels, just pink flamingos.

Salar de Uyuni is a salt desert that stretches across 4,085 square miles of South America. It's twice the size of Delaware, but as flat as the plains of Kansas, nestled in southwestern Bolivia.

Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world, roughly 25 times the size of the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. Some 40,000 years ago, it was part of Lake Minchin, a prehistoric salt lake. Today it is a popular tourist attraction for its natural wonder, salt islands and a now-closed hotel made almost entirely of salt.

My journey started in mid-September in San Pedro de Atacama, a small town in northwestern Chile, which sits in the Atacama Desert, the driest desert in the world. I joined a Brazilian couple and a Dutch couple on a tour headed northeast into Bolivia.

We traveled for three days through a land of bizarre rock formations, geysers with boiling volcanic mud and multicolored lagoons.

We arrived at Salar de Uyuni in the chilly, pre-dawn hours. September is wintertime and there's an extreme temperature variation _ from the 70s in the afternoon to below zero at night.

Travelers can sleep on the outskirts of the desert in small refuges that have no heat or running water, but are simply a place with a cot to lay one's head. The desert tour with one guide for six people costs $75 per person for three days and two nights, including the rough accommodations and basic meals.

As the sun began to illuminate this vast space, white salt and blue sky reached as far as the eye could see in every direction. We put on our sunglasses to protect our eyes from the blinding whiteness.

The salty ground looked like the brittle surface of the moon.

"It's amazing, all white," said Bertine Fleerkotte, a traveler from the Netherlands.

We got out of our 4-wheel-drive vehicle and stepped onto the salt to a sound like a thousand crunching potato chips breaking the silence. We walked with that ever-present crunching noise while our guide explained the desert's history.

We later stopped at the Salt Hotel, on the edge of Salar de Uyuni. Most of the furniture is constructed from blocks of salt, including the chairs, tables and beds, with more salt sprinkled over the floor.

The hotel once had 12 guest rooms, but it has been closed for several years. Visitors still can buy post cards and souvenirs as well as textiles made by the locals at a small gift shop there.

Driving across the salt _ we saw no roads _ we headed for Isle de Pescado, Fish Island. It's not your typical island because there's no water around it. It's one of the desert's few landmasses with rocks, cacti and shrubs in the middle of the salt flat.

After our 12-hour trip, we headed to Uyuni, the dusty town closest to the desert, leaving behind the tranquility of spectacular nothingness.

"Mountains far away, high cactus," said Fleerkotte.

"It's really, if you like, the end of the world," she said and paused. "Beautiful."

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IF YOU GO:

Northwest, Continental and Delta airlines all have flights that connect in Miami to American Airlines flights to LaPaz, Bolivia. Check the airlines for more information.

WHEN TO GO

The best time to visit Bolivia is during the dry winter months of May through October. In the rainy summer season, November through April, journey times are longer and some roads are blocked.

GETTING TO UYUNI

From La Paz you can take the bus to Uyuni. But the most comfortable route is to take the bus from La Paz to Oruro, then the train to Uyuni.

TOURS

There are dozens of tour agencies in Uyuni. Most are situated near the clock tower on Avenida Arce. All have tours to Salar de Uyuni and beyond. If you are not sure what is offered in the tour, ask. I booked with Colque Tours, www.colquetours.com, which has an office in Uyuni and San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. The guide was very knowledgeable about the salt flats and surrounding area. Very few guides speak English. Most hotels have basic accommodations.

MONEY MATTERS

There are several exchange offices that accept travelers' checks, and there is an ATM outside Banco de Credito in Uyuni. Most tour agencies will change dollars.

WHAT TO BRING

Serious sun protection, a good hat and a pair of polarizing sunglasses. It can get very cold in the higher elevations, so pack warm clothes.

Sources: Free Press research, www.turismobolivia.bo, "The Rough Guide to Bolivia" published by Rough Guides and "Bolivia" by Lonely Planet Publications

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WHILE YOU'RE IN BOLIVIA:

VISIT SUCRE

Known as "The White City" for its white-colored buildings, Sucre is considered by many to be the most elegant and beautiful city in Bolivia. It has some of the finest Spanish colonial architecture in South America. One of the highlights is the Tarabuco Sunday Market, with inexpensive handicrafts, ponchos and weavings. Transportation to the market can be organized through most hotels in Sucre.

VISIT POTOSI

Potosi is the highest-elevation city in the world. Tons of silver once was extracted from its mines, making it at one time one of the wealthiest cities in the Americas. The silver mines have long dried up, but the many old colonial buildings are a reflection of its rich past.

Highlights include a visit to a mine, in which you can speak with friendly miners who work under grueling conditions. This can be a very strenuous tour.

There are daily tours and local transportation to both cities from Uyuni.

Source: Free Press research, www.turismobolivia.bo, "The Rough Guide to Bolivia" published by Rough Guides and "Bolivia" by Lonely Planet Publications

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