Arriving in the tiny village of Tahua on the edge of the great Salar de Uyuni as the sun sets is to be treated to one of the natural wonders of Latin America – watching the Salar de Uyuni’s dazzlingly white salt crust transformed into brilliant oranges, reds, purples and blues. It was a magical experience – although at these altitudes it was also freezing cold.
If you ask someone to name one thing they know about Bolivia chances are they’ll say the Salar de Uyuni (although Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid and Che Guevara provide stiff competition). The salar is one of the natural wonders of the world, the largest salt flat on the planet, so enormous and so bright white that it is easily seen from space. Neil Armstrong is said to have seen the salar when stood on the moon and mistakenly thought it to be an enormous glacier.
I’d seen photos of the Salar de Uyuni before, but nothing really prepares you for the real thing. It is amazing and beautiful, and even today is mined for salt by local communities as it has been for thousands of years. In Inca times great llama trains would transport the salt across the empire, although iodine needs to be added to the salt to prevent thyroid problems and cretinism.
Beneath the salt crust the salar contains approximately half of the world’s reserves of lithium, a critical component in modern batteries, making it Bolivia’s most important natural resource. Lithium hasn’t blossomed into a major industry as it is currently hard and expensive to extract, and under the Morales government Bolivia is reluctant to just export its raw materials to industrial nations. How long this will last is uncertain, but once mining starts it may sound the death-knell of tourism.
Starting early the following day, we visited a small adobe church in an abandoned village on the edge of the salar, abandoned due to water sources drying up – fresh water is a serious problem in such a parched landscape so hostile to human habitation. The church looked pretty typical from the outside, but inside it was decorated with beautiful naive paintings.
Leaving the church we drove out onto the salt flats and headed for the Isla Incahuasi, an island in the middle of the salt flats covered in cacti, some of them thousands of years old. The car dropped us 2 kilometres from the island and we walked through the amazing landscape of the salar to reach it.
The Isla Incahuasi is home to a number of rabbit-like viscachas, while the shores of the salt flats are home to herds of llamas and their wild relatives, vicunas. Only camelids could survive in this harsh landscape.