Visiting Salar de Uyuni, the gargantuan salt flats of Bolivia, is like taking a trip to a different planet.
Standing in the rarefied air of 3600m altitude, looking out over Salar de Uyuni’s incredible, white expanse of emptiness with little but the remnants of an ancient ocean for company is like nothing else on earth.
These are the largest salt flats in the world, measuring 10,500 square kilometres. For perspective, this is twice the size of Kangaroo Island. It takes hours, driving at full tilt across the enormous flat pan of salt, to cross it.
And it is spectacularly beautiful: the monstrous scale as well as the sparse nature inhabiting it. Then there’s the history, both cultural and geological.
This enormous congregation of salt is the result of millions of years of geological transformation. The rising mountain range of the Andes elevated huge inland seas that were once here and left water trapped behind in remnants like Salar de Uyuni and Lake Titicaca 400km to the North.
In the centre of the salt flats is further evidence of this ancient history in the form of a few ‘islands’ dotted across the landscape, which are in fact the cones of extinct volcanoes that were once submerged in the great sea and covered in coral.
The largest of these islands is Incahuasi, or House of the Incas. Incahuasi is a bizarre sight. What appears to be a barren rocky outcrop from a distance is actually a mound of ancient coral covered in enormous cacti teeming with birdlife. The island was once a sacred site for the Inca civilisation — whose empire encompassed Salar de Uyuni 500 years ago — as their kings made the pilgrimage to the surreal island on a regular basis.
The cacti on the island grow at a rate of about one centimetre a year, and considering their remarkable height of up to six metres, it is a sudden shock to realise one is wandering among the very same cacti that Inca kings were once carried past.
Depending on whether one visits in the wet or dry season, the surface of Salar de Uyuni is something to behold, and creepily uniform across its expanse. In the dry, the white salty crust is covered in raised ridges that form strange hexagonal shapes like a vast and inexplicable alien patchwork. In the wet, much of Salar de Uyuni is covered in water, turning the pan into a gigantic mirror.
You are likely to have seen tourist photos from these times of year, with photographic tricks showing travellers emerging from Pringles cans in the dry season, and haunting ethereal mirrored vistas in the wet season.
Tours are run frequently across Salar de Uyuni from villages at the edge of the salt pan. The best of these tours show visitors how the local people live off the rich resource that is the salt flat. The harvesting of pure salt for export is one such activity, and many of these villagers live in homes constructed entirely from salt bricks. The locals extract around 25,000 tonnes of salt annually. It may sound like a lot, but the flat consists of around 10 billion tonnes of salt. The flats will be a plentiful resource for centuries, maybe millennia, to come.
Guides also take visitors to neighbouring attractions that showcase Bolivia’s more recent history. One such example is the Train Graveyard, yet another truly bizarre place, where rusted-out steam trains sit desolate and abandoned on a desert plain. The tracks under them point to the surrounding mountains, leading to an abandoned network that once took Bolivian trains to its now Chilean and Peruvian coastline.
Another booming industry at Salar de Uyuni is the procurement of precious metals like magnesium and lithium. It is estimated that Salar de Uyuni possesses around 50 percent of the world’s supply of lithium, a crucial component to just about every battery on the planet.
Yet, once again, due to the massive scale of the flats, these industries are practically invisible when standing upon the great white void.
Photography: John Dexter, Shutterstock