Where Salt Comes From:
Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
Didn’t you think that by 2012 we would have vacation specials to outer-space? Forget about sending robots to Mars; send me! Ok, so since that isn’t happening anytime soon, I have the second best thing – touring the other-worldly landscape of Southern Bolivia!
Jaime and I did a 4 day tour of Southwestern Bolivia (called the Uyuni area) by 4×4 when we visited Bolivia earlier this year. I hate the cold and love green nature… Southwest Bolivia is both freezing and a complete and total desert (like nothing green for a hundred miles). That being said, it was literally the best tour I have ever been on and it even topped Machu Picchu, which we saw a month later.
Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
But wait a minute, we are suppose to be talking about salt. The name Uyuni applies to the whole National Park area in Southwestern Bolivia but the name is more famously tied to the Uyuni Salt Flat, which is actually the biggest salt flat in the world!
But what is a salt flat? Well, imagine a huge inland sea (really salty, like the Dead Sea). Now imagine it dries up leaving a huge flat area of salt. Yep, that’s about it.
But when I say the salt flat is big, I’m not kidding. It is over 4,000 square miles and is used by NASA to realign satellites as it is one of the easiest items to spot from space. It is especially easy to spot during the rainy season when the salt flat is covered in a thin layer of water and turns into a giant mirror.
When Jaime and I visited, it was the later half of the rainy season and only parts of the salt flat had water. The salt is mined at this time by local men who shovel it into piles and then truck it out. During the dry season, whole chunks of salt are cut out in brick shapes which are then either processed into usable salt or used to build local homes…
Did you catch that last part? They build their houses out of salt! And not just the houses… just about everything is made out of the salt bricks. We stayed in a local hotel on the edge of the lake and everything from the walls to the tables to the bed frames were made of salt. Of course Jaime had to lick the walls, just to make sure.
The salt flat is also one of the flattest places on earth. The entire area has been leveled out thanks to the yearly rainy season and the water which has dissolved the salt into a nearly perfectly flat area. In fact, over the whole 4,000 sq. miles, the salt flat only deviates in height by about a meter.
This fact also leads to a bit of fun thanks to the optical illusions possible when you have endless, open, flat areas to play in. Check out some of the best pictures from our trip… I especially love the one where I get to hold Jaime in my hand! It’s “Honey I Shrunk the Tour Group!”
The Uyuni Salt Flat is currently mined out at a slow rate and by local Bolivian contractors only. This is due to a number of factors but mainly boils down to the fact that the Bolivian people are very protective of this unique, natural wonder.
Not only is the area sacred to the native communities and filled with pristine, nearly untouched and unpolluted nature (other than the horrible litter right next to the town of Uyuni), but under the salt flat there lies a real treasure. Lithium! Used in batteries and almost all major electronics, lithium is one of the most valuable elements on earth and calculations have predicted that Bolivia is the owner of between 47-70% of all the lithium in the world. For now the Bolivian government is keeping their investment safely stored under the salt flat and only have small mining operations. It’s only a matter of time though before someone gets greedy and selfish. I would really hate to see this beautiful place destroyed.
So see it while it latest… one of the world’s truly great wonders and the most magically, surreal place I’ve ever been. Oh, and don’t forget to pick up a tacky salt carving from the gift shop!