Bolivia: Llama pizza and tons of salt
I came in from biting wind to the smell of baking dough, melting cheese and roasting tomatoes. A smiling waitress beckoned me towards a table clad in a brightly checked cloth, where I ordered a beer and perused the menu. Should I choose the Mexican, with spicy beef; the Palermo, with eggplant, Parmesan and olives; or the Pizza Uyunese, with cheese, red peppers and llama?
(right) The Bolivian Altiplano is a vast area of salt flats, active volcanoes, hot springs and flamingo-filled, red and green lakes (Isla de Pescado on the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia: Llama pizza and tons of salt)
Indecision over a pizza menu wasn't a problem I had expected in this remote corner of Bolivia. "I can't say it's the highest pizza parlour in the world, but our slogan, 'Pizza with an Altitude 3670' [metres above sea level], is a salute to good food at great heights," said Chris Sarage, the American owner of the Minuteman Restaurant.
"We sun-dry our own tomatoes, but at first we had to import everything else. These days the local market has more fresh produce. Really, it's about surprising travellers with unexpected and fresh food in the middle of nowhere."
Since 2003, Chris and his wife Sussy have run the restaurant in the tiny town of Uyuni, which was founded in 1889 at the junction of the railways that entered Bolivia from Chile and Argentina. But the couple met in Massachusetts, where Chris was managing a pizzeria.
"We named our restaurant Minuteman because in Massachusetts it's our state motto," he said. "Minutemen were colonial revolutionaries who were ready in a minute, and what we were doing was quite revolutionary." The restaurant is part of the Toñito Hotel - the first in Uyuni to have rooms with private baths. The pair also help manage Toñito Tours, a travel company started by Sussy's parents in 1990.
At the time, tourism was new to this region, which features active volcanoes, hot springs, arid desert, flamingo-filled lakes and the 4,085 square miles of the Salar de Uyuni - the world's largest salt flat. In fact, it had probably changed little since the day in November 1908 when Robert LeRoy Parker and Harry Alonzo Longabaugh - better known as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid - are said to have met their sticky end in San Vincente, a mining settlement four hours' drive from Uyuni.
"I had always been fascinated by Butch and Sundance, and when I first came here I felt like a frontiersman in the Wild West," said Chris.
The Salar is a dazzling white nothingness, punctuated only by two small coral islands covered with towering, cartoon-style cacti, and inhabited by viscachas - large Andean rabbits. The terrain is treacherous, with no roads, and the weather hazardous: floods occur in the rainy season and temperatures fall to -25°c in winter.
Chris quickly realised that tourism could not succeed without the support of the community. "We have a long-term commitment to the area," he said. "So unlike some companies we keep our drivers and cooks on a year-round salary and sponsor community needs." In 2003, Toñito Tours helped the seven families who occupy the tiny settlement of Bella Vista to build an eco-friendly tourist lodge there. Bella Vista's young people were leaving for jobs in Chile or Argentina but the lodge has provided work and helped the community to survive.
Next day Chris took me to see Uyuni's other major tourist attraction, the silent iron carcasses of abandoned steam engines in the Cementerio de Trenes (train cemetery). It was easy to imagine them steaming across the stark expanse of the Bolivian Altiplano, hotly pursued by outlaws intent on robbing the mine-company payroll. The Salar's pale, otherworldly beauty is renowned for the tricks it plays on the eyes, but this mechanical graveyard showed just how inhospitable it could be.
The town of Uyuni has developed rapidly over the past decade, thanks largely to the popularity of overland adventure holidays. The windswept streets are still lined with shabby, tin-roofed houses, and stout bowler-hatted women with long dark plaits sit watchfully near every doorway. But internet cafes, pharmacies and displays of Western luxuries have joined the cheap bars and threadbare guesthouses.
However, this is still a place that is ruled by the elements. "Local legend has it that the Salar is made up of the breast milk of a volcano," said Chris, as we headed back towards the warmth of the Minuteman. "The story is that she lost her only baby and squirted her milk on to the plains in mourning. And I'll tell you, after you've lived out here for a while, anything seems possible."
Dragoman Overland (01728 861133, www.dragoman.com) has a 16-night Andes and Atacama tour that includes the Salar de Uyuni; from £430 (excluding flights). To book with Toñito Tours, see www.bolivianexpeditions.com.