Hopped in a 4X4 from Uyuni with six others for a day tour of Salar de Uyuni (bucket-list item, check), the largest slat flat in the world. There is little that can be said about Salar de Uyuni that isn’t better shown through photographs, so I’ve taken the liberty of listing some facts shamelessly lifted from Wikipedia and elsewhere. Sometimes I didn’t even bother paraphrasing the information. Thug life!
Occurring at 3 656 metres above sea level, the Salar spans 10 582 square kilometres. The Etosha Pan in Namibia is spread over 4 800 square kilometres.
This, along with the smaller Salar de Coipasa (806 square kilometres) is what’s left of several prehistoric lakes, which transformed into two major salt deserts between 42,000 and 11,500 years ago (a series of transformations).
If I understand correctly, when the Salar is wet (the famous reflective photographs you’ve seen elsewhere) it is not because of rain. Rather, Lake Titicaca overflows into Lake Poopó, which, in turn, floods the Salar. There is however conflicting information on this – seasonal rainfall in February is also cited.
The Salar exhibits “an extraordinary flatness” with the average altitude variations within one meter over the entire area. The seasonal floods dissolve the salt, keeping the area level.
Because of this flatness and stability, and the lack of industry and infrastructure, the Salar is ideal for satellite calibration.
In some places the salt crust is 40 centimetres deep (this according to our driver-cum-guide), and in other places up to 6 metres. There is a layer of water (brine) under the salt.
The brine is rich in lithium chloride – Bolivia reportedly harbours 43% of the world’s lithium. Foreign mining companies have met strong resistance in the past, and in January this year Bolivia opened its first state-owned trial plant, with expansions underway.
Less than 25,000 tonnes of the Salar’s estimated 10 billion tonnes of salt reserve are mined per year.
Because of its location near the border of Chile, its size and its flatness, this is a major vehicle transport route.
There are almost no plants or animals in the Salar de Uyuni. Three species of flamingo – Chilean, Andean and James’s – breed in the Salar every November. Giant cacti like these, on a waterless island, grow at a rate of about 1 centimetre per year to a height of about 12 metres.
Even on a short day trip like this the the Salar imposes its giant self on you. It’s better to be quiet in this place. It is difficult to believe your own eyes. It is impressive, deep impact stuff.
Much like with snow, the flatness and the whiteness of the salt flats means photographs lose their depth of field, making for hours of fun. I do wish we had prepared some ideas beforehand, but I did get at least one money shot.
On the day trip we also visited the train cemetery and a village near Uyuni.