The facilities are basic and the climate can be cruel-a giant icicle dangles precariously from a water faucet. Our host seems underwhelmed by our entourage as he checks our paperwork, raises the gate and ushers us on our way. Two hours later, I'm at the wheel of the first Ferrari ever to enter Bolivia. In contrast to Chile, which has recovered well since its brutal dictator, General Pinochet, left office in 1989, Bolivia is still desperately poor. "We have all the resources of a rich country, but we've been let down by poor administration," says our guide, Dante. The incumbent president, Evo Morales, is openly courting Castro, which has not pleased the country's entrepreneurs, or Seor George W. Bush.
It's already dark by the time we reach Uyuni and we've been driving for over fourteen hours. A hasty dinner is followed by a night of deep sleep. In the morning I wake to discover dusty streets filled with elderly, dilapidated people. The poverty is self-evident and it's quite a culture shock after the relative affluence of Chile. Uyuni probably wouldn't exist were it not for the extraordinary Salar De Uyuni. Around 120 miles long, it's the world's largest salt flat and makes Bonneville look like a children's playground. There's even a hotel-the Playa Blanca-made entirely of salt. I spend a few naughty minutes sliding the Ferrari on the low-grip surface.
It's late afternoon by the time we leave Uyuni, which proves to be a mistake. The journey to Potos is little more than 124 miles but it takes us nine hours. On rutted dirt roads, we crawl along at 15 mph with the 599's steering wheel shaking violently in my sweaty palms. The closest most Ferrari owners will come to such terrain is a sandy drive in Malibu. There are moments when the dust clears and I catch sight of the vertical drops and sheer cliff faces that line the route. From time to time, we also creep through tiny communities, their residents no doubt bemused by the sight of two supercars kicking up dust. Do they really know what they're seeing?
As we near Potos, we're also forced to dice with over-enthusiastic minibus and cab drivers, who have little interest in self-preservation. At a little after midnight, a 20-year-old Mercedes minibus comes roaring past and misses me by inches. It's a relief when, at 1 am, we arrive safely at our hotel. Potos is the world's highest city at 13,420 feet and, in the 18th century, silver mining made it the richest in Latin America. Back then, Bolivia was a Spanish colony and its architecture retains a classical, European beauty. It would have been nice to spend more time here, but we must push on to La Paz.
The road to Bolivia's commercial capital is quick and paved, to the relief of us all. The cars and their occupants have been taking a battering and the journey across the Altiplano has not been entirely trouble-free. A damaged wire has obliterated the dashboard electronics on my car and a tire was ripped near the Chilean border. The latter was fixed immediately and the dashboard will be repaired during tomorrow's rest day. Ferrari is carrying a van full of parts and should the worst happen, there's a spare car waiting in Italy. There can be no denying that the Ferraris have handled the terrain remarkably well. Gone are the days when the products of Maranello were no more than a weekend plaything for the rich and spoiled. The 599 is comfortable and practical enough to be used as an everyday tool, which has to be a good thing. If you owned this Ferrari, you'd want to use it.
On the final run to La Paz, the road opens up and I'm at last able to exploit its potential. In perfect conditions, this car will hit 60 mph from rest in just 3.9 seconds and even though the altitude has slaughtered some of the horses, it's still on the quick side of rapid. And it makes the most wonderful noise. Quiet enough at cruising speeds never to become an irritation, it responds to a determined prod of the throttle with a soulful howl. Time and again I find myself shifting down, just to hear its crescendo. The LA bling parade might lean towards the V8-engined F430, but a V12 Ferrari remains the purist's choice. The paddle-shift gearchange is also the best I've known. These systems were disappointingly crude even in their previous generation, but the software has now been developed to the point where I'd choose it over the stick-shift alternative. It seems to fit the 599's comfortable yet engaging character. At around $255,000, this Ferrari is undeniably expensive but it's difficult to think of a rival that offers such a potent mix of virtues.