Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
Posted on 01 November 2013
This is a very late post, from July in fact, so it will be more of a photo entry than a story… but I think that’s ok because probably the most fascinating part of our trip to Salar de Uyuni was the regularly changing and breathtaking vistas.
We were excited to meet our friends, Edouard and Laetitia, who had traveled from France to spend 2 weeks with us in Bolivia. We had been waiting for friends or family to visit to do some of the tourist highlights, but understandably Bolivia is just too far away and expensive to get to for most people. This was our chance! We decided to meet our friends at Lake Titicaca soon after they crossed the border from Peru and take them to Isla del Sol before our adventure to Salar de Uyuni.
After 11 hours in a bumpy overnight bus, with Laetitia very sick with a gastro virus, we met up with some other friends and all wearily filed into a 4WD to be taken into Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat at 10,582 square kilometers and at an altitude of 3,656 meters. Salar means salt flat in Spanish and Uyuni (the gateway town to the Salar) originates from the Aymara language meaning a pen (enclosure). Aymara legend tells that the mountains surrounding the Salar were giant people: One mountain, Tunupa, married another, Kusku, but Kusku ran away from her with Kusina, the third mountain. Grieving, Tunupa started to cry while breast-feeding her son. Her tears mixed with milk and formed the Salar. Many locals consider the Tunupa an important deity and say that the place should be called Salar de Tunupa rather than Salar de Uyuni.
Our first stop was at an eerie antique train cemetery, located just outside the town of Uyuni. Rusting skeletons of trains covered in graffiti tell a story. The rail lines were constructed between 1888 and 1892 by British engineers, who were encouraged by Bolivian President Aniceto Arce, believing that Bolivia would flourish with a good transport system. Also, Uyuni became the distribution hub for trains carrying minerals en route to Pacific Ocean ports. However, the rail system was constantly sabotaged by the local Aymara indigenous Indians who saw it as an intrusion into their lives and then in the 1940s the mining industry collapsed, partly because of mineral depletion. Many trains were abandoned, producing the train cemetery.
After briefly wandering the train graveyard we headed out in to the once prehistoric lake – impressive, very flat, and glaringly white Salar de Uyuni. The seemingly endless white is actually a top layer of salt which goes down a few meters. Salar de Uyuni is estimated to contain 10 billion tonnes of salt, of which less than 25,000 tonnes is extracted annually. The salt layer covers lacustrine mud that is interbedded with salt and saturated with brine that is exceptionally rich in lithium – in fact, it’s estimated that Salar de Uyuni contains around 50% of the world’s lithium reserves! You know about lithium, right? It’s that vital component of many electric batteries. At some point an American-based international corporation invested $137 million to develop lithium extraction but in the 1980s and 90s foreign companies met strong opposition of the local community, who, despite their poverty believed that the money infused by mining would not reach them. Now there is no mining plant at the site and the Bolivian government does not want to allow exploitation by foreign corporations. Instead, it intends to build its own pilot plant.
Every stop was an opportunity to admire the landscape, marvel at the pyramid like crystals of salt and of course, we couldn’t resist playing with the perspectives to take some interesting photos 🙂
The center of the Salar contains a few “islands”, which are the remains of the tops of ancient volcanoes submerged during the prehistoric era. We visited one of these islands – Incahuasi Island or Inkawasi (Quechua, meaning “Inca house”), also known as Isla del Pescado, Isla de los Pescadores or Isla Inca Huasi – admiring the unusual, giant cacti atop this rocky hill as the sun lowered in the sky. Given the Salar is virtually devoid of any wildlife or vegetation, this was a fascinating place to wander. There are 1000 year old cacti some of which are 3 and a half meters tall.
That night we slept in a salt “hotel” which was a very basic structure made primarily from salt, without heating and limited hot water for showers (to be paid for). Thankfully I chose to shower that night as the next place we stayed didn’t even have showers. The nights are cold all through the year, with temperatures between -9 and 5 °C, so Jean and I were happy to squeeze into a single sized bed together for the night.
We continued our journey the next day, exploring the lakes of the region. These lakes are a major breeding ground for several species of pink flamingos. It’s also an abundant source of borax, evidenced by the many large trucks we saw carrying it away.
Our first lake was Laguna Hedionda – rich in sulphur it is normally tinged green with the mineral but as you can see from our photos it reflected the bright blue sky while we were there. The wild grasses growing around the lake danced softly in the brisk wind and flamingoes fed, often balancing on ice.
Laguna Onda was next – bigger with mossy black volcanic earth.
We next drove to the Arbol de Piedra which is a volcanic rock formation in the desert Silol that is unique because the natural elements have carved its shape into that of a tree.You can see from these surreal formations why a nearby area is known as the Salvador Dali rocks.
Laguna Colorado was absolutely incredible – a mass of red water (made by the micro organisms living in it) surrounded by a myriad of yellow grass, green moss and white salt. This lake holds vast amounts of borax. Jean and I broke away from our friends to enjoy the tranquility together. The frozen winds against our rugged up bodies was calming and the perfect time for reflection (and play). That night we marveled at the bright galaxies that shone so brightly above us in the night skies while our friends played with their lit frisbees, creating swirling patterns across the endless darkness.
On our last day in the Salar we woke up early to see the geysers which are natural boiling mud formed by the volcanic activity under the surface. Everyone braved the cold to see the steam billowing out of the earth, except me. I stayed in the car as I was very sick with a chest infection and was trying to stay as warm as possible.
Next we stopped to dip our toes in the hot springs and view the beginnings of the vast Atacama Desert. The scenery around the hot springs was captivating as steam rose from the hot waters, creating beautiful mysterious scenes with birds standing on ice.
We made our way back to the town of Uyuni and got ready for the bus journey back to La Paz… to get ready to go into the jungle 🙂