Dispatch from Uyuni, Bolivia

Uyuni, Bolivia is best known as a portal into the country’s legendary salt flats. But this isolated speck of 29,000 people holds rich character in its own right. Like many places, Uyuni is home to parallel realities: one that caters to the hordes of visitors who pass through each week, and another, deeper, more slow-burning cousin largely reserved for those who live there. With good luck and timing—and thanks to the extraordinary hospitality of the locals—I found myself briefly immersed in the latter experience, which offered some of the most interesting and delicious food of my four-month stint in Latin America. And then I, like every other tourist, shipped off to the salt flats, with a duffel bag and Spanish dictionary in tow.

I arrived to Uyuni via the cheapest method: an 11-hour night bus from La Paz. We pulled into the terminal (a reserved parking spot on the side of a road) at five in the morning, far ahead of schedule. It was the off-season, and the town was desolate. With no planned itinerary, I ventured into the city center to seek out tour operators, hoping that I could barter my way into a cheap last-minute deal to visit the Salar de Uyuni, the planet’s largest salt flat. But no shops had yet opened for the day, so I headed toward the only visible activity, an indoor market that was just beginning to rustle awake.

As I stumbled into the space, visibly disoriented, I caught the eye of a shopkeeper, who was filling her display with the day’s freshest vegetables. She motioned me toward a distant corner of the market, where a single stall was open for business. There, a group of locals was sitting around a picnic table for an early breakfast. I walked over and took a seat at the bench. Almost instantly, the owner of the stall, a Boliviana named Jhenny, brought over a piping-hot bowl filled with chunks of meat and a deep-red broth. It was the only item on the menu. And at that hour, it was salvation.

Fricasé, a Bolivian stew filled with puffed corn, potatoes, and llama meat. (Photo by Noah Kirsch)

When I finally looked up, I inquired about what I had just eaten. The dish, it turns out, is called Fricasé, a regional specialty. The spicy tomato broth is filled with freeze-dried potatoes (chuño), puffed corn, and a healthy portion of llama meat. Jhenny laughed relaying that last detail, fully aware that it would catch me off guard.

After I paid, a fellow diner grabbed my arm and led me into the market, now teeming with shoppers. He accompanied me to his favorite purveyor of salteñas, flaky pastries filled in this case with potato, onion, and chicken. Next he took me outside, where two women were hawking mounds of coca leaves, a traditional remedy for altitude sickness and a legion of other maladies.

A woman sells coca leaves outside the central market in Uyuni, Bolivia. (Photo by Noah Kirsch)

Eventually, I found my way into a tour company office and landed the cheap deal I sought. The three-day outing onto the Salar was as magical as advertised. All told, the trip to Uyuni offered an amazing confluence of surreal landscapes, unique food, and locals open to sharing their culture with a weary outsider. It is, to be sure, an entrancing place.

Passengers take in the views near the start of a three-day trip visiting Salar de Uyuni. (Photo by Noah Kirsch)