Uyuni, Bolivia

Salar de Uyuni is the world's largest salt flat at 10,000 square kilometres. It is located in southwest Bolivia, near the crest of the Andes and is at an elevation of 3,700 meters. It can be clearly seen on satellite photographs of the earth

The Salar has been formed from several prehistoric lakes, which over the years have become covered by a few meters of salt crust. During the wet season, Lake Titicaca overflows and discharges into Lake Poopó, which, in turn, floods Salar De Coipasa and Salar de Uyuni.

The Salar has an extraordinary flatness with the average altitude variations within one meter over the entire area. The large area, clear skies, and the exceptional flatness of the surface make the Salar an ideal object for calibrating the altimeters of Earth observation satellites. The crust serves as a source of salt and covers a pool of brine, which is exceptionally rich in lithium. It contains 50 to 70% of the world's lithium reserves, which is in the process of being extracted.

The Salar serves as the major transport route across the Bolivian Altiplano and is a major breeding ground for several species of pink flamingos. Salar de Uyuni is also a climatological transitional zone since the towering tropical cumulus clouds that form in the eastern part of the salt flat during the summer cannot permeate beyond its drier western edges, near the Chilean border and the Atacama Desert.

Lacustrine mud , interbedded with salt and saturated with brine underlies the surface of Salar de Uyuni. The brine is a saturated solution of sodium chloride, lithium chloride and magnesium chloride in water. The solid salt crust, floating on top of this brine, varies in thickness between tens of centimetres and a few meters. Of the salts, lithium is the most important commercially as it is a vital component of many electric batteries. With an estimated 9,000,000 tonnes, Bolivia holds about 43% of the world's lithium reserves. Lithium is concentrated in the brine under the salt crust at a relatively high concentration of about 0.3%. It is extracted by boring into the crust and pumping out and processing the brine

The centre of the Salar contains a few "islands", the remains of the tops of ancient volcanoes submerged during the era of Lake Minchin. We had (bad) lunch in a cafe on one of these islands. They islands include unusual and fragile coral-like structures and deposits that often consist of fossils and algae

Click on any of the thumbnails below to get a larger photo

We had to change from the clapped out old yellow taxi back to the 4*4 on the outskirts of Uyuni - again Roberto had not told us about the changeover in advance, and it was effected in a lay-by. Roberto disappeared in Uyuni, without discussing it with us, grandly informing us that he would see us at 10.00 the next morning. Although the distance to Hotel Luna Salada is less than 10 km, it takes half an hour on the difficult road, and the 4*4 managed to break down in this time. For reasons that I never fathomed, the anti-theft device came on while we were driving, and the engine cut out, leaving us motionless on the dirt road. Eventually a passing car stopped, and between its driver and our driver, they managed to bypass the security cut out and got out car going again. When Roberto rolled up - late - the next day, no mention was made of the breakdown, so I assume it was quite a normal occurrence.

Set on a small hill overlooking the Salar, everything in Hotel Luna Salada is made of salt from the floors to the walls, the beds to the restaurant tables and the lounge chairs.

Because Luna Salada hotel is half an hour's drive out of Uyuni on a very bad road, you have to eat in the hotel. The dining room is interesting with the salt table and chairs - you do get tablecloth and cushions! But the food was nothing special. Mind you, I would be surprised if Uyuni offer much in the way of better dining and we were, after all, a long way from the nearest supermarket

However, whatever the quality of the food, it is a hotel that you will always remember, as it is made entirely of salt. That is everything, walls, floors, tables, chairs, beds. And the view over the salt flats is superb . Sunset and sunrise are memorable. Worthy of mention too are the great number of sitting areas throughout the hotel. Though they have fires, which you need on the cold evenings, only two were used. We ended up, as seems to happen from time to time, sorting out one of these so that we had a roaring fire going - the staff are always reluctant to tend to a fire: I guess they are trying to avoid having to restock the log baskets.

For some unknown reason the reception desk was abandoned at 9.30 am for around 20 minutes, and we were unable to get anyone to check us out. When someone eventually did appear, they were completely unconcerned that several guests had been waiting

So, a really great building , questionable staff, but on balance you probably would want to stay here- to take away the memories.

Local family at Colchani, harvest, dry and pack salt Colchani has a tourist market ..and a couple of small museums designed to entertain the passing ..
..tourists. They gather salt on the Salar, and leave it in stacks to dry, before taking it back home to process A spring bubbles to the surface

Next day our first stop was right on the edge of the Salar de Uyuni at Colchani, home to the salt cooperative,and the easiest point to access the great salt flat. The local salt gatherers make about 1 US cent for a bag of salt, and it looks like a lot of hard work. In fact this village appears to be the only Bolivian attempt at salt producing, and we noticed that they had to buy in Iodine to add to their lake salt, to make it usable in food. Ironically, when we looked at the salt that our guide was carrying for our lunches, we saw that it was from Chile, not Bolivia.

There were a couple of small museums that had little to offer, and it was difficult to know if this was a genuine attempt to help the local economy, or merely to extract money from passing tourists. We then headed out onto the Salar itself. It is BIG and flat and white. One has no sense of perspective, and when you head towards an island you have no idea whether it is 10 or 50 kms away. Our driver seemed to lock in on a landmark, then put his foot down, reaching well over the legal motorway speeds. Colchani to the Tunupa Volcano is over 100kms, and one seems to see the volcano on the horizon for ages, before you actually get there.

Tunupa is a dormant volcano on the northern side of the Salar de Uyuni and reaches 5,300 meters at its summit. And there are small settlements around the base. The volcano is crisscrossed with rock walls that must have been built over hundreds of years. The crop is quinoa. Harvesting has to be a killer as inside the fenced enclosures are many, many more rocks. The local farmers don't eat quinoa - they only grow it for export to make money. It is the most nutritional crop that can be grown here. It is high in protein, lacks gluten, and is tolerant of dry soil. Tiny, bead-shaped, with a slightly bitter flavour and firm texture, the Incas cultivated it, regarding it as the 'mother grain' as they grew it high up in the Andes. Unlike wheat or rice, quinoa is a complete protein - containing all eight of the essential amino acids. It has been recognised by the United Nations as a supercrop for its health benefits: packed with dietary fibre, phosphorus, magnesium and iron. Quinoa is easy to prepare and its fluffy texture and slightly nutty flavour make it an excellent alternative to white rice or couscous. When cooked, its grains quadruple in size and become almost translucent. Quinoa can be prepared much like rice. It should usually be rinsed or soaked before use to remove its bitter coating. Bring to the boil and simmer for 15 minutes in water.

Exiting the flat Salar, we had a bumpy ride half way up the volcano to the chullpa or tomb. It was a short walk, past the odd quinoa patch to get to the cave with the mummies. There are a number of mummies in a cave that seems to be an old volcanic tube. People have left offering of coca leaves and coins . The mummies had been buried with decorated ceramics, carved utensils, coca pouches, patterned textiles. A strange eerie place, with an old, toothless guardian. It was difficult to know how many tourists came each day, but it did not seem to be more than a handful.

Then it was back down the bumpy track and out onto the Salar again

Our next run across the salt took us to a volcanic outcrop in the middle of the salar, called Isla Incahuasi, or Fish Island. It is the last mortal remains of an extinct volcano and the host to a forest of giant cacti. These slow growing plants can survive 900 years and reach 9 metres in height.

I was not impressed by this place. A somewhat tired "tourist" destination, in the worst sense of the phrase. Described by Lonely Planet as an "industrialized tourist experience". Every tourist, his friends, his guide and his driver, comes here for lunch. Less than mediocre food in less than convivial surroundings. The man would not let me use the toilet, even though we were eating in the restaurant. Our useless guide, Roberto, had failed to give me the "ticket" that one needed. Anyway we had our photo taken, as did the boys, and headed on for better things. The Wikipedia photo sums the place up for me.

After lunch, on the way to San Pedro de Quemes and on across the salt, we stopped at Cueva Galaxia. The cavern is about  20x30 meters and varies in height. This is a sub-aquatic cave formed prior to the formation of the glaciers when volcanic eruptions took place when the lake that used to cover the Salar still existed. Inside you can see calcified shapes of magma that solidified as they hit the water.

Beside the caves is another burial site - with Pre-Colombian constructions inside. Cueva del Diablo was actually a cemetery full of Chulpas, pre-Incan graves but all of the mummies were moved when the Spanish invaded. Inside the cave there are a couple of dozen graves (without the mummies) , known as chullpas, a style of construction common to the altiplano region but normally seen out in the open as large square or rectangular structures painted in natural colours.

From there it was on to Quemez and our next hotel

Holiday in Bolivia, Chile and Argentina