Day 71: Salar De Uyuni

Tue. 23rd October 2012

Straight out of the guide book - in more ways than one!The highlights come thick and fast on this trip (which was the prime reason for choosing it) and today we start on another – a 3-day expedition out onto the Salar De Uyuni (salt flats). I was a little worried that seeing the salt and the flat would take perhaps half a day and we’d then run out of things to do – even if there was 10,000 sq. km of them! Janet assured me that this wouldn’t be the case. [The Wikipedia link is here, if you want to find out more].

We piled into the 3 Toyota Land Cruisers waiting outside our hotel, with our day packs stuffed full with clothes for the next couple of days – it could have been much easier packing, but we are expecting it to be below freezing at night, and we aren’t going to be staying in 5* hotels! The Land Cruisers looked like they have seen some service, though we never found out how many miles they had done as the speedometer wasn’t connected!

We hope Chris recognises this equation - or we want the tuition fee money back!Before we get to the salt flats, there are a couple of stops to do, the first of which was at the Train Cemetery. Here are the (very slowly) rusting remains of the trains that were used to transport minerals to the Pacific Ocean. The line was built (and operated) by the British and when the minerals ran out, they found that it was cheaper just to leave the trains in the desert at the edge of town rather than ship them home. I’m not sure what was sadder – the degradation caused by nature or that caused by man by adding swings and see-saws to the wrecks!

Darwin loads salt into bags and seals them on an open flameAs we drove out to Colchani, the town at the edge of the salt flats, Neil (our new Shiry!) gave us some facts and statistics – there are 10 billion tons of salt in the desert and, as we were to find out, it is only mined in a very basic fashion and none of Bolivia’s salt is exported. However, the salt is only the top layer and underneath it is a brine containing 40% of the world’s reserves of Lithium (c. 9m tons) . Precisely none of this has been extracted yet. As usual, it is politicians that keep getting in the way. Bonkers!

Pyramids of salt drying in the sunIn Colchani, we stopped at the local salt mining co-operative’s operation – essentially a storage yard and a shack – and we were given a salt processing demonstration by Darwin, who looked to be around 13 or so. After drying and being brought back to the yard, the salt is baked on a hot metal sheet for 20mins or so. After cooling, it is ground in the only machine used in the process and a little iodine added. It is then bagged, manually, and the bags sealed on a jet of flame from a propane cylinder.

At last we got onto the flats themselves and we quickly came upon mining activity – if you can call a couple of blokes with pick-axes miners. They were piling the salt into pyramids for drying before shovelling onto lorries for transport back to Colchani. We were surprised that this part of the flats were so wet – the water is runoff from Lake Titicaca as well as the nearby mountains. We also saw the Ojos Del Salar (the eyes of the salt flats) – a pool where gas was leaking out underground and bubbling to the surface.Its flat and white and very sunny!

Olly leads the wayThen, at last, it was on to the flats as I expected them to be – dry, white and flat – though there was a weird effect of a raised wall of salt forming a hexagonal pattern right across the flats. It was absolutely flat as far as the mountains in the distance and with the sun reflecting off the salt it was all about coping with the glare and making sure the Factor 50 sun-cream was liberally applied to any exposed skin. Whilst we were waiting for our picnic lunch to be set up, we had fun with the cameras and took the trick perspective photos that one is supposed to take here. All very silly, but really fun and good to get Olly involved!

Looking back over Isla Incahuasi across the salt flatsAfter lunch, it was back into the 4x4s for a drive across the flats to Isla Incahuasi (Fisherman’s Island) a volcanic outcrop in the flats. Walking around the island, it was easy to see the coral formations on the underlying rock and so to understand that this whole area used to be under the sea. The highpoints of the island were the huge cacti growing on the hills and the incredible views right out across the flats. As with the photos, it is hard to judge perspective – when driving across the flats for a long time you don’t seem to be getting any closer to your destination and then, all of a sudden, you are upon it.

Salt walls and salt furniture in the Salt HotelOur overnight stop was in the Salt Hotel. Like the Snow Hotel we stayed in in Norway, it is named after the construction material, but in some ways it is even more basic. Everything, from the walls to the beds, the tables and the stools was made from blocks or slabs of salt – even the floor was a layer of coarse salt crystals (along with notices warning against spilling water”!) The girls' roomAccommodation was in 6 bed dormitory rooms – one for the boys and one for the girls (we weren’t quick enough off the mark to bags one of the two double rooms on offer). Electricity was only provided from 7pm to 10pm and whilst there were showers, the lack of hot water deterred any interest. Still, we survived camping on the Inca Trail and so this is a piece of cake and we are all just about tucked in bed by the time the lights go out at 3 minutes to 10pm.


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3 Responses to Day 71: Salar De Uyuni

  1. Salt flats were great fun. Check out our picture with Ollie too!

  2. Chris says:

    Awesome, I forgot that train was in Peru, if I remember correctly the equation describes how gravity causes space-time to curve.

  3. Dave says:

    Glad that your time in St Andrews was well spent. However, the train isn’t in Peru, it’s in Bolivia – do keep up!

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