The altiplano of Bolivia is a bleak, hostile environment at the best of times. Then you reach Salar de Uyuni, and the bleakness and hostility ratchets up a few notches.
Salar de Uyuni
Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world. Measuring just over 10,000 km2 in area, it’s about the same size as Lebanon or Kosovo.
The salt lake was once an enormous endorheic lake (i.e. a closed basin with no inlet or outlet), with a depth of 140 metres. The lake salted up over a period of tens of thousands of years. It eventually became so salty the surface formed into a thick salt crust (which varies between ten centimetres and ten metres in thickness), beneath which lies a dense briny soup.
Salar de Uyuni also happens to be one of the largest flat surfaces on Earth.
The elevation of the salt flat – 3,656 metres above sea level – varies less than a metre over its entire 10,000km2 area. Satellites often aim at Salar de Uyuni when recalibrating their altimeters.
And the briny soup is extremely rich in lithium. In fact it’s estimated that Salar de Uyuni may contain up to 50% of the world’s lithium reserves.
There has been relatively little lithium extraction at Salar de Uyuni to date, but that is set to change as the state-controlled lithium industry ramps up its efforts meet the needs of the electric battery boom.
Isla Incahuasi (meaning Island of the Inca House) is a rocky protrusion that rises from the middle of the salt flats. This island, actually the tip of an extinct volcano, is covered in Giant Cacti (if you come at midday it’s also covered in tourists).
The cacti are very slow-growing, averaging just a single centimetre of growth per year.
The tallest cacti on the island reach up to 12 metres in height. If you do the maths, it means these plants could be well over a thousand years old.
The salt hotels of Salar de Uyuni
There have been several salt hotels built on Salar de Uyuni over the decades. The oldest (as seen in the photo below) are now defunct and derelict.
But there are others that are still operational. The salt hotels are literally made of salt; with walls, tables, benches and beds all made from salt bricks that have quarried from Salar de Uyuni.
Strangely, our dinner table was not set with a salt shaker, and we had to ask at reception for one to be brought forward when we sat down for our evening meal.
Perhaps, given the circumstances, we should have shown a little more initiative and chipped the salt we needed from the hotel walls?
Salar de Uyuni can be visited as a very long day trip from Potosí. It’s about three hours from Potosí to Uyuni by road.
The best way to visit the salt flats is on a 3-4 day 4WD adventure tour. These tours take you across the bleak, hostile, but exceedingly beautiful Bolivian altiplano, starting in Uyuni, Bolivia, and ending in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. More info on the tours can be found here: http://wikitravel.org/en/Salar_de_Uyuni