One of South America's Best Restaurants Just Opened at Bolivia's Uyuni Salt Flats
A chalky city on the edge of the world’s largest salt flat, Uyuni and its surrounds could hardly be described as a gastronomic hotbed. With little water supply, most of which is saline, there’s almost zero agricultural industry. Except for quinoa (which thrives because of the ground’s minerals) and salt, all other produce has to be transported in. Yet on the edge of the Salar de Uyuni, at the base of the dormant Tanupa volcano, Gustu, one of South America’s most esteemed restaurants, has opened at the new Kachi Lodge. Never has the remote destination had such a high-profile culinary contribution.
From afar, Kachi Lodge, which opened in May this year, looks like a space station. A collection of nine white dome tents strung along the cusp of the stark white salt flat, it’s the only sign of life for miles. The lodge’s remote location and easy access to the salar are obvious attributes that set it apart from other hotels in and around Uyuni, but what really makes it shine is all the bells and whistles. Inside the fire-warmed tents that peer onto the salar, art works by legendary Bolivian artist Gaston Ugalde hang, reindeer furs are draped over chairs, and handmade local rugs line the wooden floors. But most impressively, in the main dome tent, guests can feast on meals prepared by Gustu.
Founded in 2012 by Noma’s Klaus Meyer, Gustu is responsible for kick-starting an important global conversation about Bolivian cuisine. “Gustu raised the bar and elevated the role of the chef,” says Mariono Ugalde of La Paz-based Salar Travel, who has seen La Paz’s gastronomy scene transform over the past decade. It is undoubtedly the most famous restaurant in Bolivia, largely accountable for shifting the perception of La Paz and making it a city to stay in, rather than pass through.
Gustu at Kachi Lodge works off the same philosophy as the original Gustu, albeit with a few site-specific changes. “Initially, I thought one of the biggest challenges would be selecting a team that would be willing to go to Uyuni for a prolonged period of time. However we received so much interest,” says Ella Asbun, CEO of Gustu. At the new restaurant, there are five members from Gustu working under head chef Felipe Cordero, who devised a menu with Marsia Taha-Mohamed, the current head chef at Gustu La Paz.
In many ways the new restaurant will be similar, but with a few environmental adaptations. “We had to borrow what is available locally and incorporate it into Gustu’s identity, which is applying innovative techniques to local products,” says Asbun. But unlike Gustu La Paz, which has access to all the conveniences of a big city, the Uyuni location does not. The lodge, which is constructed on salar land loaned from the local community, has an agenda to be as low impact as possible – fires are heated with recycled wood pellets, drinking water comes from a well in the nearby town and shower water works on a continuous loop that is recycled. The main production kitchen is located in the town of Jirira (a short drive away), while the on-site kitchen, which runs on a generator (solar panels are being implemented in the future) is mostly for prep. “Not having access to a lot of electricity means you have to limit yourself and be creative in how you present service,” says Asbun. “It shaped the menu and how we presented it.”
Even though the lodge is entirely off-the-grid and outdoorsy dinner attire is common, dining at Gustu is still a fancy affair. Diners gather around a long wooden table in the bright main dome tent, flung with bright cacti designed by Ugalde, natural rugs, and basket lampshades.
“We’ve focused on having one meal that is special, so dinner is fine dining,” says Asbun. Cañahua (grain) with confited carrots, queso humacha (a local brothy dish with cheese and potatoes) and confited pork with potato purée and bell peppers – dishes on the dinner menu will be as innovative as on the menu in La Paz. For lunch and breakfast, it’s a simpler spread. Mindful that many lunches are eaten on the salar during a full-day excursion, the team created a less complex menu with dishes like peanut soup (a Bolivian classic), quinoa with broad bean emulsion, and homemade breads. During a meal in the stark salar, a table is erected in what feels like the middle of nowhere, and laid with a bright cloth and napkins, an umbrella is popped open, food is dished onto fancy camping plates, and local wine is poured into glasses. The only sound that can be heard (other than those talking around you) is the crunch of salt under your feet. It’s an experience that makes glamping look shabby.
Gustu has done, and continues to do, pop-ups all over the country, but this is their first secondary permanent space. For Asbun, partnering with Amazing Escapes (the company behind Kachi Lodge) was an obvious alignment.
“Amazing Escapes considers the environment and local communities in whatever they do. Fine dining is not everyone’s cup of tea, so finding somebody who was willing to invest in that was a huge consideration,” says Asbun. The restaurant was conceived with a social agenda in mind, so community and sustainability is an ongoing theme. “Gustu is always growing, through different services we offer or projects that we do with social work. We continue to expand, we never stop." Nor do we wish them to.
If Gustu could turn La Paz’s culinary scene around, maybe it can turn it around for the sandy city of Uyuni. Until then, guests at Kachi Lodge are guaranteed innovative Bolivian plates from one of South America’s most pioneering restaurants; served on the salar with a side of serenity.