Some places have to be seen to be believed. During my second month in South America I drove south from La Paz towards the town of Uyuni in southern Bolivia: A base for the world’s largest, and highest salt lake.
A White World
Salar de Uyuni is literally translated from the Spanish for ‘salt flat’ and the Aymara word for ‘enclosure’. This giant salt lake was formed from the subsidence of a huge prehistoric lake over 30,000 years ago, and even today the astounding residue it left is still several metres deep across an area of more than 10,000 square kilometres.
As I took my first glance, the strange salty landscape appeared to blend seamlessly with the horizon and it was easy to play with photographical perspectives: Objects seemed tiny or humongous dependent on how close they were to the camera!
Science and Legend
I began my exploration with a drive across the white wonderland to Isla Incahuasi; a remote outcrop of umber rock and giant, 1000-year old cacti that sat somewhere between the white crystals at my feet and the mystical blue mountains on the horizon. Crags of rock heavy with deposits emerged from the white surface and rose to the height of a five-storey building.
I could empathise with the local belief that this beautiful place was made by higher beings. Aymara legend tells the story of the surrounding mountains as giant people who experienced love and loss just as we do. They say that the salt lakes were formed from the tears of grieving goddess Tunupa. This legend is underpinned by the indigenous Andean people’s worship of Pachamama, or Mother Earth, who is deemed responsible for all aspects of the natural world.
However the scientific explanation for the phenomena was almost as impressive; Incahuasi is the summit of an ancient volcano that became submerged in the massive lake that gave rise to the salt flats. So, already a spectacle in itself, the island also harbours ancient fossils and coral deposits of great scientific note.
While the historical importance of the region is renowned, in the 21st century Salar de Uyuni also plays an important part in future scientific progress. As I experienced first hand, the lack of undulation across such a large surface (the flats don’t fluctuate by more than a metre at any point) combined with the stunning clear skies makes it an ideal area for calibrating satellites.
Science and history aside, Salar de Uyuni provides a major transport route across the country in dry season. Additionally, locals earn a living harvesting the salt for distribution as part of the Colchani Cooperative. I stopped at Colchani, a tiny cluster of buildings on the edge of the flats, where blocks of salt were stacked up against houses to create walls taller than me. In a gloomy room off the main street, a mother and son team were busy processing huge piles of their local delicacy.
Less known perhaps, is that the bright white shield of sodium and brine covers a wealth of other substances such as lithium, potassium and magnesium. In fact, it holds well over half the world’s lithium reserves, which are mined for use in batteries globally. Consequently, this seemingly empty expanse is one of earth’s most precious natural mineral reserves.
It came as no surprise that in this world of salt the local residents had found some curious uses for surplus supplies. One of these fed the latest addition to the local economy: tourism. After only a day on the flats I returned to Uyuni to sleep, but other travellers could take refuge in a salt hotel. The entire structure was made of sodium, and while from afar it held an off-white tinge, up close each tiny crystal glistened in the walls.
An Otherworldly End
As I watched the sun set over this white world it gradually turned mauve into navy blue before disappearing completely. I felt closer to Pachamama than ever before. I believed in science above all else but I considered: why sully such an extraordinary place by trying to explain it away with modern measurements, timelines and chemical analysis?