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A journey across the Bolivian salt flats

Eleanor Hughes

Contributor

Speeding across the flattest place on earth, it can appear as if you’re travelling on a gigantic shed snakeskin. The ‘scales’, as far as the eye can see, are in fact large hexagonal and pentagonal shapes made by raised white ridges of salt. A satellite image of the Bolivian Salt Flats, known as Salar de Uyuni, shows an area that looks like a glacier but this is the world’s largest salt flats, situated in south-west Bolivia. A 4WD day tour from the dusty, parched town of Uyuni, around 4000 metres in altitude, take travellers across the flats visiting a town which produces table salt, a salt hotel, and an ‘island’. Many tours end when the day ends, waiting for the sun to set, tinging the salt a pinkish-orange colour. Then they race through blackness back to Uyuni.

On the Salt

Out on the flats there seems to be no road rules, but then there’s no roads, just black tyre tracks running in various directions where others have gone before. Drivers use GPS as well as the ‘islands’, the peaks of ancient volcanoes which can appear to be floating blobs or holes on the horizon, to navigate. There are no other landmarks.

Wet season, which runs from December to April, leaves water on the salt surface which reflects the sky making it difficult to discern where the salt finishes and the sky starts. It makes for some fantastic photographs. During December and January it can get very wet and tours can be cancelled. Dry season is just as good to get reality defying images. Tour operators carry props – plastic dinosaurs, wine bottles, spoons, toy vehicles… With the right angles and distances between objects it can appear as if you’re fighting life-size dinosaurs, blowing people off your hand, stomping on a Lilliputian friends…

Here and there, thigh-high salt pyramids jut up. Scoured from the flats leaving shallow rectangles on the surface the salt dries like this before being trucked to Colchani.

The salt can be mere centimetres thick, a worry when travelling across it, but can reach over 10 metres in thickness. 

Below the Salt

Below the salt surface is a saltwater lake. Dipping your arm in the bluish-green brine will result in a white coating covering your skin which remains when dry. Floating on top of the lithium rich brine are tiny, almost transparent shapes resembling magnified snowflakes. These salt crystals eventually attach to each other and form large, smooth rock-like crystals.

Families eke out a living hacking holes into the surface and collecting crystals to sell. The harsh environment requires being covered from head to foot against the sun and ferocious wind.  

Colchani

The one street town of Colchani, 20 kilometres from Uyuni with a population of around 600, is on the edge of the salt flats. Salt is manufactured here into table salt. The archaic process takes place within mud brick and stone buildings where the salt is dried on concrete slabs heated underneath by wood fires stoked from outside the building. It’s turned by shovel, and once dried crushed in a grinding machine. The plastic bags the table salt is sold in are sealed by melting the ends over a gas flame.

At around 10 582 square kilometres and with an estimated 10 billion tonnes of salt, of which 25,000 tonnes a year is processed, one assumes the town will be producing table salt for a long time.

On its one street, Aymara women sell salt crystals and ornaments carved from salt.

Isla Incahuasi

The ‘island’ of Incahuasi is situated eighty kilometres west of Colchani, around a two hour drive from Uyuni. Once an ancient island, today it is encased by solid salt. Cacti sprout from the lava rock and given that the cacti only grow a metre over a century, some are estimated to be 500 years old. They’re the only plant that grows out on Salar de Uyuni.

It’s a popular place for tours to stop for lunch. Taking an hour to walk, it’s slow going in the altitude, great views can be had across the flats. Cars look like matchbox toys racing across a never-ending white sheet with car-wide lines criss-crossing it. 

Salt Hotel

In the middle of nowhere, the one-level Hotel De Sal Playa Blanca is one of several hotels built on the flats. Except for the roof, windows and doors, the rest of it – walls, beds, tables, chairs, is constructed from salt blocks. Perhaps, not the toilets… Some blocks are 35cm square with layers of brown and white within them, the brown from the dust blown from far-off land. Tours stop at one of several salt hotels built on the flats. They are a welcome shelter from the wind.

Within walking distance from Hotel De Sal Playa Blanca is a salt sculpture, a monument to the Dakar Rally which has run through Bolivia since 2014 and next to the hotel a stand of country flags, torn at by the harsh wind, offering the only colour in this white environment.  

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