UYUNI SALT FLATS, Bolivia - On the bulletin board of the hotel rising out of a surreal moonscape high in the Andes, somebody posted a note: "Please don't lick the walls."
The walls, you see, are made of salt. In fact, much of the hotel - the roof, some beds, chairs, tables and bar - are made of salt. Even the floor is covered with salt granules.
The hotel, recently renamed the Salt Palace and Spa, sits in the middle of the Uyuni Salt Flats - Salar de Uyuni - a prehistoric lake of salt near the Chilean border, covering 40 square miles at an altitude of 12,500 feet.
The salt flat is bordered by a strange land of volcanoes and geysers, flamingoes and cactus, with a rich history and spectacular scenery that has become one of Bolivia's main tourist destinations.
A railroad "graveyard" in the village of Uyuni southeast of the salt pan, was once an important railroad junction. It has vintage locomotives and boxcars that recall the days when Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid robbed trains and banks before being gunned down in 1908 not far from here.
Juan Quesada, an adventurous tourism operator, built the hotel with 14-by-14-inch hard blocks of salt cut with axes out of the salt flat.
Twelve guest rooms with 24 beds and shared bathrooms surround a central courtyard. The intense sun heats the blocks of salt during the day and at night the bedrooms remain cozy while outside temperatures drop below freezing.
I spent two nights at the hotel and found the rooms comfortable and dry with no salty smell. There are flush toilets, but no showers.
One night we dined on barbecued llama meat. Quite tasty.
The hotel, built four years ago, charges $50 for a single, $60 for a double. There is a separate building at cheaper rates for backpackers.
As interesting as the hotel is, the scenery around it is breathtaking. During sunsets and sunrises, the sun casts shadows on the white expanse and geometric forms shaped by salt crystals. Star-watching is dazzling.
The nearest town to the hotel is Uyuni, once one of the country's premier railroad centers, 220 miles south of La Paz.
Minerals are still mined, but it's the tourist industry that is fast changing the region, bringing in money and creating jobs. An estimated 15,000 tourists last year visited the salt flats and Fisherman's Island that lies in the middle of the flats.
On Fisherman's Island - Isla de Pescadores - there are thousands of cactuses, some of them 30 feet high, and a stranded colony of vizcachas, long-tailed rodents related to the chinchilla.
Around the flats, tourists encounter herds of graceful and shy vicunas (relatives of llamas) and dozens of pink flamingoes.
Laguana Colorada in the highlands of this far southwest corner of Bolivia is a fiery-red lake. Birdwatchers are interested in the rare James' flamingoes that inhabit the lake.
Hundreds of Quechua Indians in surrounding villages make a living scraping layers of salt for processing into table salt, or by cutting blocks of salt. After a block the size of a shoe box is cut, brine that lies just below the surface rapidly fills the hole. After a few days, the surface becomes hard as rock.
Today, the salt is carried on rusty trucks to nearby villages where residents make a living by drying, grinding, adding iodine and packaging the salt.
Many quaint villages with beautiful churches that flourished around the salt flats for centuries are being revived thanks to tourism and aid-developed farming.
"Please don't lick the walls."
If you go
Accommodations: Reservations for the Salt Palace and Spa can be made through Hidalgo Tours, fax 591-62-25186. The address is P.B. 314, Potosi, Bolivia.
Getting there: The Andina Train Company offers service to Uyuni on Mondays and Fridays. The Copacabana and Nobleza buses under contract to Andina leave La Paz at 6 a.m, connect with the train in Oruro and depart at 10:10 a.m. for Uyuni. Trains arrive at Uyuni at 4:25 p.m. For reservations contact Andina in La Paz at 591-2-391-770.