Wanders and Wonders
It is sometimes referred to as the ‘Machu Picchu of Bolivia’. The two places have nothing physically in common, but the Salar de Uyuni attracts a lot of tourists, hence the comparison. Though nothing like as many tourists as Machu Picchu, obviously.
So what is the Salar? I’ll let Wikipedia do the basics:
Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat at 10,582 square kilometers (4,086 sq mi). It is located in the Potosí and Oruro departments in southwest Bolivia, near the crest of the Andes, and is elevated 3,656 meters above the mean sea level. The Salar was formed as a result of transformations between several prehistoric lakes. The youngest prehistoric lake was Coipasa…When it dried, it left behind two modern lakes, Poopó Lake and Uru Uru Lake, and two major salt deserts, Salar de Coipasa and the larger Salar de Uyuni. [The latter] is covered by a few meters of salt crust…underneath the surface is a lake of brine 2 to 20 meters deep. The large area, clear skies and exceptional surface flatness make the Salar an ideal object for calibrating the altimeters of the Earth’s observation satellites. The Salar serves as the major transport route across the Bolivian Altiplano and is a major breeding ground for several species of pink flamingos.
Along with the Death Road and buying legwarmers, visiting the Salar is top of the list for any traveller with more than a weekend to spend in Bolivia. After being in the country far longer than a weekend (more like a year), some friends and I finally made it down to this high desert land. And after waiting that long the predictably unpredictable whims of Bolivian transport kept us waiting a little longer. We were all set last Wednesday; a dispute over a traffic light kept the road between Cochabamba and Oruro closed. Thursday lunchtime we reassembled at the bus terminal; the Bolivian national cycle race meant we couldn’t leave until 4.30pm. That meant we arrived in Oruro too late to catch the overnight bus to Uyuni. That meant we had to spend a night and day in Oruro – an appealing place during Carnaval but not the most lauded tourist destination otherwise. We made the best of it however, hat shopping in the lively market and watching on bemused as firefighters sprayed schoolchildren with hosepipes and men dressed as dogs sang songs at an anti-drugs rally.
At 3.30 our train left Oruro for Uyuni. There aren’t many trains in Bolivia – many railways have been promised but very few built. However there is a trainline down in this corner of the country and I was pretty excited to be able to use it after a year of long bus journeys. Especially a train with a restaurant carriage passing through the Andean plains. We saw our first flamingoes near the shores of Lake Poopó and watched the sun go down at alarming speed. We also sat and drank beer and played some of the first of many, many hands of Hearts – a recurring theme of the trip.
I’m not the biggest fan of tours, but it is impossible to visit the Salar without taking one. During the three days that we spent in the area there were many moments driving in Landcruiser convoy, getting out en masse to take photos alongside other white people in legwarmers. That said the scenery is spectacular enough to take up all of your attention, and since we made up four of the six people in our 4×4 (seven including our driver Theo, a man extremely economical with words) the experience felt like a pretty personal one.
And what do you see? There’s a train cemetery just outside Uyuni which makes for a perfect ten-minute photo stop. There are a number of places which boast some really unusual rock formations (some grey, some red…bit hazy on the geology), including the Arbol de Piedra made famous by Dalí, and others shaped like lions and birds, or soldiers apparently. You see and hear (and smell) volcanic, sulphuric steam spewing from holes in the ground. You can spot vicunas and vizcachas as well as the more common llamas. You stop at several stunning lakes that change colour with the wind and are, indeed, home to several species of flamingo, which you can get really quite close to. You stay in hotels constructed out of salt blocks – walls, floors, furniture and all. There are no actual trees but there are some made out of coral, as well as islands of cacti. There are caves which, especially if you have been watching the Alien movies recently (as I have), look to be full of strange cocoons from which terrifying things are about to burst forth. There is a natural thermal pool, 30 degrees hot, which is absolutely worth waking up at 4.30am and stripping in near-freezing temperatures to get into.
But for me the overarching experience of being in this landscape, even despite all the other tourists, was of seeing the earth as a planet. I’ve spent time in the desert before, but the combination of this solid white sea, active volcanoes, vast plains with multicoloured mountains in the distance, fierce winds, extreme temperatures, the smell of sulphur, and an incomparable dome of nighttime stars makes you feel a little bit like an astronaut (sleeping at 4,200m it can also be quite hard to breathe sometimes).
Tourism is the most noticeable economic activity at the Salar, and there are communities here clearly entirely dependent on it. Surprisingly, however, there is some agriculture – even here. Quinua is grown – that amazing Andean grain which, thanks to our willingness in the North to pay huge prices for, has resulted in just 20 per cent of the quinua grown in Bolivia being consumed here. A staple for thousands of years, it has become too expensive for most Bolivians too eat.
Salt is also mined of course. Salt which contains sodium, magnesium, potassium, borax – and lithium. Anyone familiar with current affairs in Bolivia knows that lithium is a crux issue. Bolivia holds 43 per cent of the world’s lithium reserves, mostly under the Salar. Lithium powers rechargable batteries – in your camera, in your laptop and, especially significant in terms of future markets, in electric cars. The country is sitting on a proverbial gold mine – but it has sat on many such mines before (silver, tin, gas…) only to find its chair pulled out from under it and foreign investors running away laughing with all the cash. So the government is determined to keep the profits from the mineral inside the country, but working that out without having the manufacturing industry it needs to produce finished or even intermediate products is a challenge. As yet progress has been slow, and the potential impact on the environment and the tourism industry means this isn’t only an economic problem. (This downloadable report has lots more on the lithium issue).
For now the daily round of ATVs will continue setting out from the town of Uyuni and ferrying their loads of curious visitors through this extraordinary terrain. Despite a tyre blowout and unpaved desert tracks, the tour itself was by far the smoothest transport experience. We got back to Uyuni Monday evening to find out Oruro was surrounded by another road blockade, this time apparently to do with attempts to raise transportation prices. So we took a bus to Potosí, arrived at midnight and transferred onto a bus to Sucre. Stretched out on the back seat I didn’t even realise until my friend woke me at 6am that we’d been parked up for two hours on the roadside. Sucre was blockaded too. We started walking into the centre until a bus picked us up, and passed the day drinking coffee and wandering about this prettiest and best preserved of Bolivia’s colonial cities. It wasn’t looking hopeful as far as catching a bus to Cochabamba was concerned – it seems the dispute on this stretch of road was about departmental borders – but in the end we came back to the bus terminal to collect our luggage in the evening and, lo and behold, there was a bus ready to take us home. Our adventure lasted a little longer than expected, but it truly was epic.