Bolivia´s 10, 582 square kilometre salt flat (salar) should be, unequivocally, the eighth wonder of the world. Then again, naming it such (which many people are actively trying to do) might bring so much attention to it as to destroy it completely, so perhaps it´s best that it´s not so well known. At the risk of giving it more publicity, though, we can´t help but share with you its magnificence and truly incredible splendour.
We started our salar tour from the magnificent salt hotel where we had just spent the night of Felix´s tenth birthday, in the little hamlet of Colchani on the edge of the salt desert. (The hotel, Palacio de Sal, should not be confused with the better-known but rather notorious one that is actually on the salt flat, and illegally so, because of its un-ecological wastewater disposal practices.) Beautifully designed and furnished, landscaped with artistically twisted dead wood (what else could you plant in salt?),and completely solar-powered, the Palacio de Sal was a work of art. We almost didn’t get to stay there because there were no rooms for four available, but we couldn’t give up on the thought of doing something so exciting and special for Felix’s birthday, so we took a double and the kids were more than happy to sleep on the floor. (For anyone wondering about the price, yes, it was a splurge – about four times as much as most other places we’ve stayed – but for $140 Cdn, you couldn’t dream of better.)
The hamlet of Colchani is home to about 80 families, all of whom are involved in salt extraction. Judging by what we saw of Colchani, salt mining not a very lucrative way to make a living. Nonetheless, the salt miners and their families persist in what is obviously very demanding work. Using a pick axe, they mark out squares on the surface of the salty terrain, each several metres across, and then proceed to loosen the top few inches of wet salt covering the marked area and shovel it into neat conical piles. They can only take the top few inches of salt because below that it is too hard. The salt is left to settle in these piles for about 2-3 weeks (so the water drains out) before being shoveled onto trucks and taken into Colchani, where residents further dry it, grind it, bag it and sell it. About 25,000 tons of salt is extracted every year, 80% of which goes to human consumption, the remainder to animals. If you’re worried that the salt might run out, worry no more. The Salar de Uyuni is estimated to contain 10 billion tonnes.
In the area where extraction is taking place, the salt is not perfectly white but streaked with brown, as a result of rainfall carrying very fine sediments and other particulates – i.e., pollution. But as you head further out onto the salar, the surface becomes increasingly white, with just the occasional circular brownish soft spot, like a patch of slush over snow. Unlike snow, however, the salt is very sharp and crusty – great for traction, but it would really shred your knees if you fell on it. In some spots there are actually holes, which can be quite dangerous if you drive into them; the salt can be as much as 10 metres thick with water (ancient sea) way, way below.
Before setting out we had been warned that as the rainy season was just ending, and the salar still covered in water in many places, we might not be able to make it all the way to the island in the centre of the salar. Salty water, as you can imagine, is death to vehicles, even seemingly immortal Land Rovers. One component of this salt in particular is lithium, which is very corrosive of electric cables and such. (As an aside, this is the very lithium that may be the future of electric cars, meaning that Bolivia is sitting on a veritable gold mine here.) Vehicles that are over-exposed to this salty water or are poorly maintained (e.g., not immediately washed down after leaving the salar, or not regularly checked for salt damage) risk suffering electrical short circuits, meaning that they might stop and not be able to start again. Then you´re good and truly hooped, since the island you are destined for is a full 80 km from shore and vehicles are not equipped with much in the way of communication devices (no GPS, or even two-way radios, as far as we could discern). As an aside, we learned that compasses don´t even work out here because of the magnetism of the salt!
Our lucky stars must have been smiling down on us that day because against all odds, and in spite of some rain the night before, our driver was able to navigate a dry route all the way to the island at the centre of the salar – la Isla de los Pescadores. This was the first time he´d made it there since November 20! Our vehicle was only one of three there at the time, the majority of companies not having ventured out that far or not having authorized their drivers to go there just yet.
Being on an island in the middle of a sea of salt would be incredible enough, but the island is made even more stunning by the giant cacti growing all over it and the fossilized coral covering its rocky base. We hiked here for about an hour and were utterly amazed by the views from the summit.
We had our picnic lunch on the tailgate of the Land Rover about 10 km away from the island in the middle of a blinding expanse of white salt. With nothing else around for miles, quite literally, we had a lot of fun playing with perspective (or the lack thereof).
As we left the Salar de Uyuni we felt overwhelmed with gratitude, and at the same time almost stupefied, by the experience of having seen and experienced something so dazzling, so other-worldly, so stunning as this.