Salar de Uyuni - World's largest Salt Flat

Trip Start Jan 30, 2010
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Trip End Sep 12, 2010


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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Monday, April 12, 2010

We have just completed several days in Uyuni, at the southwest corner of Bolivia, exploring the the 'Salar de Uyuni". At 4,000 square miles in surface area, it is the world's largest salt flat. Words cannot convey the surreal landscape of the salt flat. Our photos don't do it justice, though we managed to capture a bit of the salar's magic in digital images. The Salar de Uyuni has to be experienced in person to be fully appreciated -  in the same way as do the Grand Canyon and Death Valley in the US. The town of Uyuni, at the edge of the salt flat,  is an austere altiplano outpost at 3,700 meters elevation (12,200 feet). Uyuni is the hub of tourism to the Salt Plain, along with San Pedro de Atacama to the west, on the Chilean side of the plain. There's a rich, long-gone past to Uyuni that makes it feel both authentic and forlorn. In the early 20th century, Uyuni was center of major salt mining operations, owned by American and other foreign companies. The collapse of the mining industry in the 1940's followed repeated sabbatage and protests by the indigenous Amayra, who vehemently opposed foreigners taking Uyuni's mineral wealth out of Bolivia. All that remains as a reminder of the mining heyday of the 1920's is the Cemetario de Trenes just outside of town, where the rusting bodies of locomotives and hopper cars decay. The visual effect of these rusting skeletons in the desert is both eerie and beautiful. Uyuni is now a shadow of its former self. Its wide boulevards that lead directly onto the salt plain are lined with souvenir stalls, small tiendas, and phone/internet centers that connect this forsaken place with the outside world. Night falls fast and shafts of light and the aroma of home cooking spill from doorways of comidores. Within, families dug in to meals of grilled chicken, rice and quinoa soup; the food and atmosphere a sharp contrast to the touristy pizza places on the square. We lacked the courage to go in and possibly upset the relaxed ambiance of these locals' hideaways. 
We came directly from Sucre on a ten hour bus ride, bouncing along the dirt road at the desperately slow speed of 20mph. In about a year, this road will be paved, cutting the time from Sucre to Uyuni in half.  Evo Moralas is making good on his promise to improve Bolivia's roads, as construction workers were hard at work all along this road, even building ew steel and cement bridges.  For now, it's a tough, rough ride. Uyuni has only been on the 'gringo trail' for about ten years, from nothing to more than 80 agencies offering land cruiser expeditions across the salar (salt flat) and the "southwest circuit". We chose to put together a private tour of the salar and sourrounding sights, rather than join one of the standard tours. These cover 1200km in 3-4 days, on dirt roads or the salar, and involve driving up to 12 hours each day packed in a land cruiser with 6-8 others. (No thanks!.) Our driver, Eloy, picked us up the first morning. To Oliver's delight, his car was a 'new' (ie just 12 years old) Lexus landcruiser with leather seats, rather than the 70's or 80's versions we had seen around town. We headed out of town and onto the salar, a 12,000 km2 smooth salt playa, where horizons disappear, islands (yes there are islands protruding through the salt!) float and perspectives can get very confused (see our pictures). We visited some of the 'standard' tourist sites such as a salt hotel and Isla Incahuasi, an island used by the Incans when crossing the salar. The former was environmentally a disaster (all the wastes go back into the lake below), the latter was beautifully maintained as a National Park, with hundreds of giant cacti, stranded coral reefs (the lake was much deeper thousands of years ago), fantastic views, new visitor facilities and a unique location, 50km to the nearest lakeshore. Although we missed the wet season during which the lake can be covered in inches of water (when you can really seem to be floating), there was always a little water at our feet. In places the salt crust was just a few inches thick and without good knowledge you can perhaps sink into the surface (a guide was essential, at least according to our guide.....). Salt is still harvested from the salar using traditional manual labor by less than a hundred people, the salt going for internal Bolivian consumption, a kilo bag selling for 20 centavos (3 cents US). A team of 5-6 people can dig, transport, dry, crush and bag approximately 5000 kg in one day, yielding up to $140 between them, (this is considered good money in Bolivia). The distance from any major markets and the fact that Bolivia has no sea port means that the cost of harvesting the salt is uneconomic for any larger scale mechanised operation. Thankfully, at this rate, it will take an awful long time to make any kind of dent in the 10 billion tonnes of salt here! On our second day we travelled the shores of the salar, visiting sights off the 'standard' trail, not meeting any other tourists all day - 1200 year old mummies and related artifacts in remote caves and small museums, more caves with strange stalactites and salt formations, meeting and talking with local people - a fascinating look at life long ago and today away from the influence of mass tourism - people mostly just getting on with surviving in their almost deserted pueblos, growing quinoa (a grain now popular for it's anti-cancer miracle properties) beans, carrots, onions, maize etc.in thousand year old rock-walled fields or herding llama and alpaca on the meagre pasture close to the lakeshore (these animals are only found on the altiplano of Bolivia & Peru, above 3000m - their meat features in the local cuisine and their wool in local fabrics).Our third day was a little more strenous, as we hiked up to a mirador (viewpoint) overlooking dormant volcano Tunupa. A slow hike indeed, reaching our highest point to date (4,700m, 15,500 feet) after a three hour slog, rewarded by amazing views of the volcano and of the salar. Unfortunately, we have no proof, as our camera battery died just as we reached the top, leaving no record of our exertions. We ended our tour at a deluxe salt hotel, "El Palacio de Sal", constructed completely of salt: salt walls and ceiling, floors covered with salt, and even salt furniture. The lobby even contained salt abstract statues.Using the copious quantities of salt at their disposal, the hotel had conceived a unique spa experience, which came free of charge with the room price. After bathing in a salt water pool, where the high saline content made us boyent we sate in the sauna to open our pores before dipping into the saline pool, where the hih salt conten made us boyant and relaxed. We then were ready for the main event, and stretched out on cushions on the ground next to a huge salt pile. A young man in formal attire, who we recognized as the bell boy who carried our backpacks to our room, came toward us, wielding a full sized, steel-reinforced shovel. Digging his shovel into the pyramid of salt, he began methodically shoveling course, slightly damp salt on top of us, smiling calmly all the while. Once we were each buried, but for our heads, under individual white mountains, he smiled and walked away, leaving us lying there to ponder our fate. He never returned, and possible was wanted at the front desk for a check-in. After the initial pleasant tickle of rock salt against skin, the sensation became more akin to a wet wool blanket beginning to itch, everywhere. "Health" benefits not-withstanding, we all had a good laugh, at least! 
After cleaning the salt from every nook and cranny -- fortunately the shower water was salt-free -- we retired to the formal dining room with the other five guests for a memorable buffet dinner featuring the House Special Meal, "pollo al sal", which was delicious. Whole chickens were slow-cooked in a huge pot of salt, cermoniously dumped onto serving platters. It was moist and delicious, but so salty that it should be accompanied by a health warning for those prone to hyper-tension. Needless to say, the waiter was none other that our friendly jack-of-all-trades, wielding oven mits instead of a shovel, and wearing his still-fresh tuxedo and smile. This is class, Bolivian style. 
Well-fed, and having had no exercise that day with the exception of walking to and from the spa, we waddled back to our rooms to sleep it off in our cozy salt beds, under a domed salt roof. 

 
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