I’d heard briefly about the salt flats – Salar de Uyuni – in Bolivia but had done no research into what they were really about. I wanted to go there and have an experience without expectation. It was, at least, a good pretext for lack of planning.
After the trip to the Train Graveyard, me and my fun lovin’ tour buddies jumped back in our jeep and headed onwards towards the infamous, eerie beauty of the salt flats.We stopped off at a little village a few kilometres shy of the actual salar. ‘You can buy hats and scarves here’, said Gonzalo, ‘or some salt’. Tables covered in woollens and salt crystals and touristy trinkets lured in the shoppers. Big bed socks? Absolutely. A cosy cardigan? If you don’t already have one, yes, it is recommended.
In a series of little rooms and back alleys, we observed the process of salt refining from the cutting out of bricks through to the packaging up of smooth salt, ready for the market and the table. We had a go at lifting a heavy pick axe, the tool used in bygone times to hack up the salar into manageable chunks, replaced now in most instances by circular saws.
And we learnt about the solar evaporation system and the use of solar energy to extract lithium and uranium from the 120m deep flats (unsurprisingly, it’s not a Bolivian company that is funding this project and one can only hope that since President Morales announced measures to ensure Bolivia’s natural wealth wasn’t sold for pennies to other countries who would reap the profits, Bolivia actually benefits from this arrangement).
And then we got back in the car and finally, finally, there she was: 12,000km2 of white, salty landscape stretching off to a flat horizon, Volcan Thunupa to the side. The driver sped on into the whiteness. ‘You using GPS?’ I asked Gonzalo. ‘No, we’re just using the distant landmarks’, he said, ‘the driver knows where to go’. I didn’t doubt it but it was still a little difficult to understand just how he knew where to go as we left behind any recognisable geography. Regardless, over the next few days I realised that salt flats or desert dust, drivers have it figured.
And then we stopped and got silly on the salar. Devoid of any natural life, we, like many tourists before us, brought the idiocy of humanity to the salt flats.
Toys came out of their boxes and we played; with dinosaur dummies and cocktail umbrellas, with beer bottles and banana skins, with our imaginations.
On the way headed out of the salar, we stopped off at the Salt Hotel where some of the guys had been raving a day or two earlier. One tall, dreadlocked Swede was still hanging around and the boys went over for a comrade catch-up.
The ground around the hotel was yellowed and dirty. ‘Some locals don’t like these parties’, commented Gonzalo, and I totally got it. Predominantly put on for the tourists and accepted by the police as something to turn a blind eye to, a rave gathering in such a beauty spot could only ever lead to a bit of spoilage. But I also saw it from the other side. To be able to party in this place: wow.
What, I wondered, was driving the decision to run the parties out here, though? Was the money raised sufficient enough for locals not to cause too much opposition? Did any of it feed back into their communities? How was the salar being maintained and looked after subsequent to the partying?
Contemplative thoughts in amongst further merriment on board the jeep as we headed towards our first night’s destination of Villa Mar.
- More than a Pinch of Salt – Uyuni, Bolivia (travelpod.com)
- Salt Flats – Salar de Uyuni – Uyuni, Bolivia (travelpod.com)
- Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia (tahitiangoddess.wordpress.com)
- Tourists reflect on the world’s largest mirror (thesun.co.uk)
- The Best Desert Getaways: 9. Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia (outsideonline.com)