Salinas Grandes…grande? really?

If you’ve ever been to the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia you know the true meaning of the term ‘salinas grandes’. So enormous is the Salar de Uyuni (the world’s largest salt flat) no one, not even at the Bolivian Tourist Board, feels the need to point out that it is, in fact, really quite large. It can, after all, be seen from the moon.

So it was with some scepticism that we drove over yet another mountain range towards one of Argentina’s largest salt flats, the Salinas Grande. Not withstanding the beautiful and dramatic hairpin bends of the Cuesta de Lipan on the drive to get there, arriving at the Salinas Grandes was still pretty spectacular. Set in a bowl ringed by mountains, the white of the salinas is almost luminous viewed from the 4170m mountain pass above it.

The dramatic hairpins of the Cuesta de Lipan, Argentina

The dramatic hairpins of the Cuesta de Lipan, Argentina

En route to the Salinas Grandes, Argentina

En route to the Salinas Grandes, Argentina

The Salinas Grandes in the distance, Argentina

The Salinas Grandes in the distance, Argentina

Snaking down the road towards the salinas we passed through yet more beautiful landscapes, and even saw a few of the rare vicuna camelids…

Vicunas near to the Salinas Grandes, Argentina

Vicunas near to the Salinas Grandes, Argentina

The Salinas grandes is still worked for salt. Today the majority of it is used for animal salt licks, but some salt continues to make its way onto the dinner plates of Argentinians, much as it has done for millennia.

Salinas Grandes, Argentina

Salinas Grandes, Argentina

Salinas Grandes, Argentina

Salinas Grandes, Argentina

Salinas Grandes, Argentina

Salt man, Salinas Grandes, Argentina

Salinas Grandes, Argentina

Salinas Grandes, Argentina

Salinas Grandes, Argentina

Salinas Grandes, Argentina

Salinas Grandes, Argentina

Salinas Grandes, Argentina

Salinas Grandes, Argentina

Salinas Grandes, Argentina

Salinas Grandes, Argentina

Salinas Grandes, Argentina

Salinas Grandes, Argentina

Salinas Grandes, Argentina

Salinas Grandes, Argentina

Salinas Grandes, Argentina

Salinas Grandes, Argentina

Salinas Grandes, Argentina

Red rain over the Salar de Uyuni

Driving into the middle of the world’s largest salt flat is like entering a hostile alien world – the Salar de Uyuni really does beggar belief. There is little that can rival it for sheer visual impact as the brilliant white of the salt reflects the intense Andean sun like a giant salty mirror – sun glasses and sun block are vital.

My visit to the Salar de Uyuni in 2012 was made under perfect blue skies, coming back early in 2013 for a day trip was to experience a very different salar. Summer rains had left patches of water on the surface, clouds created endlessly fascinating skies, while all around the the edge of the salar thunderstorms formed a dramatic backdrop to the luminous white of the salar…and that was before the red rain swept in.

Mining salt, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Mining salt, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Mining salt, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Mining salt, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

At the edge of the salar, near to the salt mining and processing village of Colchani, people mine the salt much as they have done for centuries. The great llama trains that used to leave the Salar de Uyuni taking salt across the Inca empire may have been replaced by the combustion engine, but mining techniques haven’t changed much.

Mining salt, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Mining salt, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Children walk through a salt mining area, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Children walk through a salt mining area, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Mining salt, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Mining salt, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Also close to the edge of the salar are strange looking pools of water that bubble away thanks to volcanic activity. They create an intense colour contrast with the white of the salar.

Volcanic pools in the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Volcanic pools in the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Volcanic pools in the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Volcanic pools in the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Driving further into the Salar de Uyuni, with the final destination of lunch at the bizarre, cactus-covered Isla Incahuasi, we passed several small holes in the salt crust until finally our driver, Milton, stopped by a much larger hole (big enough for one of the wheels of the 4×4 to go fully into).

The holes become very dangerous when the salar is covered in water later in the rainy season, drivers can’t see them and there is a very real risk of wheels plunging into the holes. Vehicles often can’t venture too far into the salar as a consequence. We also passed a now defunct salt hotel which sports a large collection of international flags.

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Large hole in the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Large hole in the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Flags in the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Flags in the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Salt crust, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Salt crust, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

As we approached the Isla Incahausi we saw a bus speeding across the salt flats, it looked utterly insignificant against the vastness of the salar. An odd sight in this strange place but a lifeline for the communities that survive around the edge of the salar.

A bus speeds across the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

A bus speeds across the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Cactus covered Isla Incahausi, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Cactus covered Isla Incahausi, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Cactus covered Isla Incahausi, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Cactus covered Isla Incahausi, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Cactus covered Isla Incahausi, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Cactus covered Isla Incahausi, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Our return back to Uyuni involved a 100km drive across the salt flat, but it looked like we would have to drive through an oncoming storm. The storm clouds looked a strange colour, a sort of rusty red, which Milton called ‘Red Rain’.

This was no normal storm, there was no actual rain, and we found ourselves driving for 20km through an immense dust storm with limited visibility and the windows firmly rolled up. When we emerged out the other side the whole car was covered in a fine red dust.

Red rain, the approaching storm, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Red rain, the approaching storm, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Red rain, the approaching storm, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Red rain, the approaching storm, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Red rain, the approaching storm, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Red rain, the approaching storm, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia