Besides making the biggest mirror on the planet, Salar de Uyuni – the world’s largest flat of salt – contains minerals that could transform the Bolivian economy.
Nowhere can the experience of nothingness offer so much. When Bolivia’s salt desert is covered by a thin layer of water, the sky is mirrored to perfection across its 10,000 square kilometres; the sky and the earth melting together on the horizon. With nothing else around, you are practically walking on a surface of clouds, captured in what is best described as a surrealistic vacuum.
This is the phenomenon that is the Salar de Uyuni, the salt surface which lies at an altitude of 3,650 metres on the Altiplano – the world’s highest mountain plateau outside Tibet, located in south-west Bolivia next to the Chilean northern border. It was created when the pre-historic Lake Minchin dried up tens of thousands of years ago, leaving behind two modern lakes and two flats of salt. Here, the rainwater evaporates quicker than the rate of rainfall, and with no surrounding drainage outlets, this giant brine lake has been able to amass an estimated 10 billion tonnes of salt, some of which forms its solid crust surface that fascinates so many travellers.
That is no wonder. But besides its visual features, the Salar de Uyuni has practical functions too. It is a crucial transport route across the Altiplano due to its flatness, in a rugged area of volcanic rocks, mountains and lakes. In fact, due to the salt crust’s smoothness, it has been used for testing and calibration for satellites and their sensing instruments.
Is there more to it than just salt? Of course. Volcanic islands spring up from the desert; a prominent example being the amusing Isla del Pescado (‘Fish Island’, named after its shape) where giant cactuses stand 12 metres tall. There are also three breeds of flamingos in the area – Chilean, James’s and Andean – although apart from that, animal life is scarce. The most prolific feature, however, are the lagoons in which these flamingos venture; most notably the Laguna Verde (‘Green Lagoon’) whose beautiful green-blue colour stems from its sediments containing copper minerals; and the equally visitable Laguna Colarada (Red Lagoon).
Such sights, coupled with the salt desert, make for good tourism. “When being on the Salar [de Uyuni] and all you see is white around you, you feel like being on another planet,” says Gijs Dijkshoorn, owner of Ruta Verde Bolivia, a travel agency based in Santa Cruz. “What we hear is that for most clients the Salar and the lagoons are the highlight of their visit to South America, even surpassing Machu Picchu.”
Are there downsides with visiting the desert? “The altitude though does cause problems sometimes,” he says. “Especially with people coming from sea level and not giving their body enough time to adjust. We always recommend travelling at least a few days at a certain height before doing this trip.”
Like at every tourism hotspot, hotels have been built to capitalise on the influx, offering tired travellers a warm bed, food and heating. But very much unlike elsewhere, these ones are made of salt. Solid blocks are extracted from the desert to build walls, floors and furniture. “Pretty much everyone who enters the hotel goes ‘wooow’,” says Pablo Michel, who works at the aptly named Palacio de Sal – the ‘Salt Palace’ – which even has a nine-hole golf course. “The younger often lick the walls to see if it’s made of salt. Others just scratch the surface, but pretty much everyone wants to make sure it’s real.”
But while the Sala is a prized tourist attraction, what lies under it is much more valuable. The brine lake beneath is estimated to contain more than half of the world’s lithium reserves; a lightweight metal used for the high-powered batteries in cell phones, iPods, laptops and electric cars. This metal is unique in the amount of power it can store and its neat weight. In fact, it is widely regarded as the short-term solution to our disastrous dependency on fossil fuels. As such, the Bolivian government can been seen as sitting on a gold mine. There is only problem: it refuses to share.
The reason is rooted in Bolivia’s history of letting go of its assets cheaply. It has previously passed its gold, silver and oil to Western companies while remaining the poorest and most underdeveloped country in South America. This time though, socialist president Evo Morales is holding tight, and has rejected investment proposals from a series of multinational companies eager to solve their energy shortage. Instead, only a small-scale nationalised plant has been set up to extract the lithium. The project is moving slowly but, despite a desperate market, Bolivia is in no hurry to unearth its treasure just yet.
Photos: Gary Yim, J Duggan, Alberto Loyo [all via Shutterstock.com].