The Bolivian Salar de Uyuni is truly a wonder of nature and also one of the must see places in South America. I reach it from the Chilean side, and it’s a real off-road but with the landscapes that still appear in dreams (you can read about it HERE).
At the border of the salt flat there is a town Uyuni, which is a starting point and a dosshouse for all that come to see the greatest natural mirror.
Even though, the town doesn’t have much interesting to offer but I am really delighted with its citizens. Uyuni is the first place I visit in Bolivia and the disparity of garments and the appearance of the Bolivians really impresses me. The women wear very colorful clothes and I can’t take my eyes off them. Generally, I spend the whole morning glued to the camera, taking pics of the everydayness of the inhabitants.
Luis, who is my guide and driver here, comes to pick us up at 10am and without wasting any minute more, we go to the train cemetery – supposedly the biggest local attraction. Soon I realize that this place is nothing more but a huge marketing trick. Its history is connected directly to the golden age of the Bolivian mining industry. In towns called Potosí and Sucre there were huge rolling stock centers and Uyuni was responsible for maintenance and repairs. As the prices of the resources dropped and as a result the trains were used less frequently, more and more trains stood idly in the depot. In order so that they did not stand in the way, they were bit by bit removed out of the city to the place, where they rusted and decayed, forming the train cementary.
No one knew what to do with them… but someone cleverly contrived an idea that they could become a touristic attraction, called poetically the Cementerio de los Trenes. So, in brief, the remarkable marketing and making people believe that they absolutely need to come to this place and take pictures, resulted in crowds of tourists who come here like it was an adult playground. I can stand only 5 minutes there and after making sure that this is absolutely not my climate, I turn Luis back out of this besieged location.
Before we go deeper into Salar de Uyuni, we stop for a lunch in a place built wholly of salt, which stands in the middle of the desertic nowhere. Luis has prepared food for us – llama steak and quinoa with vegetables. It’s so remarkably tasty! And healthy too! Quinoa is the basic component of Bolivians’ and Peruvians’ diet. It’s been cultivated for 5000 years. It was the basic food in the Inca Empire, as a substitute of corn, which was very difficult to plant on the mountain slopes. Customarily, the Inca ruler sowed the first seeds. Until the conquest of the Inca Empire by the Spaniards, wheat and barley were introduced as well, what made quinoa less important in the region.
However, because of its prohealthful abilities it became appreciated once more and thanks to that quinoa became known in various parts of the world. It’s included in the group of highly nutritive food, so-called superfoods, because it contains not only protein but also lots of other components, which are valuable for our health. It’s a rich source of manganese, magnesium, calcium, iron, copper and phosphorus. The inhabitants of the Southern America are aware of that and eat it almost every day, praising its magical influence on the organism.
During our lunch we make plans for the next couple of hours. It’s the end of the rainy season and you can still find here tracts of water, reflecting the sky. But if you want to see them, you have to drive into the salt desert – really deep. Contrary to appearances, we really have a huge stretch of land to choose from.
It’s the biggest salt desert in the world, situated at altitude of 3 653 meters above the sea level and covers almost 12 000 square kilometers. It the past it was Lago Minchin, a prehistoric salt lake that covered most of the modern south-west Bolivia. Today, the salt layer in the central part of the salt flat exceeds 10 meters and the whole area contains around 10 million tons of salt (!).
Near Uyuni, in Colchani city there is a salt mine, the only one in the area. Every year 20 000 tons of salt are extracted here. The locals often mine the salt with their own hands, collect it and build piles with it. You can see lots of such salt cairns around.
It’s estimated that this salt plain contains 50-70% of world’s salt resourced. At present, some forces struggle for rights to mine it. If the Bolivian authorities allow it, there is a huge chance that the landscape of Salar de Uyuni will simply cease to exist.
In the dry season the plain is covered with a layer of dried salt, making an impression that the ground is chapped. However, during the rainy season, the plain is covered with a layer of water, creating a huge surface that ranges as far as the horizon. And I want to find that view.
We move out. Everywhere spans only white emptiness. Nothing, nowhere. Like I was driving on a sheet of paper. It’s one of the most flat areas in the world (the difference of altitude is only… 41 centimeters).
We decide to stop and play with perspective. It’s probably the biggest attraction of Salar de Uyuni – the possibility to take pictures, in which you can easily make objects seem larger or smaller than they are. You are only limited by your imagination.
When we run out of ideas and props, we move out, driving a several dozen kilometers straight. Finally, the outskirts of the town disappear and the landscape looks like it was closing around us. Wherever we look, we are surrounded by sky dome and the ground. The sky reflects in the water, that covers the salt. Or maybe the ground reflects in the cloudless sky? I can’t tell for sure. Everything becomes so mixed.
I climb on the roof of our car to see it better. White void as far as the horizon is simply breathtaking. I have the impression that I am stuck between the real world and the divine, inaccessible plain. It’s undoubtedly one of the most beautiful, raw landscapes in Bolivia that literally dazzles with beams reflected by the white minerals.
I take off my shoes and try to walk in the shallow water. The salt is dense and sharp, the walk is not pleasant, not at all, but it brings me back on Earth. In this unreal place human sensation might sober you up. There is no life around, not even one gust of a wind disrupts the silent stillness. Strange feeling. I close my eyes and take this time suspension in.
We stay here till the sunset, which literally burns the sky around and covers the salty surface with a pink glow. Luis takes out a bottle of wine and I make a toast – for one of the most memorable moments of this journey, for here and now, somewhere between the Sky and the Earth.