After a couple long days of driving and hiking, driving and eating, driving and then some more hiking, we made it to the Uyuni Salt Flats. Amazing. Simply amazing.
Located in southwestern Bolivia and at 12,000 feet above sea level the Uyuni Salt Flats (Salar de Uyuni as it’s known here) is the world’s largest salt flat, covering nearly 4,100 square miles. To put that in some perspective, that’s nearly 100 times the size of the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. The salt flats are the result of the drying of prehistoric lakes, the oldest dating from about 40,000 years ago. They left behind a lot of salt, a few meters worth over the entire area. Below that lies nearly half the world’s proven lithium reserves, enough to supply both manic-depressives and our iPhone batteries for years to come.
Besides the tourist value and minerals, the salt flats are also a major transportation thoroughfare. After days bouncing along the horrible gravel roads of western Bolivia, driving on the salt was like a fantasy – smooth, flat, straight. It was like my childhood memories of driving on Lake Superior after it had frozen over and been plowed, right down to the vast expanse of white everywhere. It was almost hypnotic – you’re cursing along at maybe 50 miles an hour but you can’t feel the road or really see anything changing as the distances are all so far.We spent two days altogether in or along the Uyuni Salt Flats. First we drove out onto it, stopping occasionally just to admire the unworldly beauty. Our driver let us out maybe a mile from where he was going to set up lunch and said “Just walk.” What an experience. By the time we got there they had lunch set up out in the middle of the immense nothingness. I took our portable speakers from my luggage and we listened to various divas – Aretha, Ella, Whitney, even Lily Allen! – while having a great little lunch. The driver and Danilo, our guide, were pretty amused; they’d never had music out on that vast expanse.
Our time in the area included a couple big hikes on the “islands” that dot the salt flats, with again amazing views of miles and miles of whiteness. Our lodge was on the edge of a tiny town that itself was on the edge of the salt flats. One of the amusing things we noticed about some of these tiny towns is that while everything else in town seems to be falling apart they have beautiful soccer fields. Same case here, an oasis of bright green with perfect lines and nice stands. Apparently they know their priorities.The next day we hiked around some more, always with great views. We went up and around La Bella Tunupa, a beautiful (thus the name) multi-colored old volcano. Danilo had come to understand that we like to hike so he suggested we head up there and explore options for further hikes. A fair amount of it was just bushwhacking across not always easy terrain, but most of it was pretty great. There was a mystery, though. The hills along the mountain – steep, difficult hills – were lined with old stone walls meandering here and there. Because of the seemingly random curves and swirls, it didn’t appear they were marking property. Danilo didn’t know what they were for and our Bolivian driver didn’t know either. Llama pens? Fire barriers? Property markers? No idea. So after we got down Danilo went into town and asked around. They’re apparently a couple hundred years old – they stand without mortar or anything, just rocks piled on top one another – but no one in town knew what they were for either. Weird and still a mystery.
Then as sunset approached drove back out onto the salt flats for some pre-dinner appetizers and wine to watch the sun go down. Again, an amazing experience with fantastic colors and shadows. And wine! One of my concerns about coming here was just whether it would feel Disney-esque, crowded with tourists and so on. So not the case. It’s big enough and remote enough that you just don’t see or sense anyone else. It’s just you and the salt. And the staff, of course, driving you around and setting up the bar. We know our priorities, too.
So that was the highlight of the multi-day trek, two days on the Uyuni Salt Flats. One more day, crossing into Chile, before moving on down to Iquique where we finish the journey. More pictures tomorrow, then.