The surreal world

A bus in the Bolivian wilderness

I see an endless white space ahead, which unites with the blue sky, far at a distant horizon. After a while I find myself having forgotten that I am still on the same planet. In fact, I am in the middle of a giant salty desert. Delving into the wilderness of the Altiplano plateau, I come upon other unforgettable landscapes, high mountain lagoons, volcanoes, vast emptiness, bubbling geysers, scattered rocks, burning earth and flamingos dancing in water. It’s not an illusion, neither a dream, delusion, nor anything of my imagination. This is south-western Bolivia.

Salar de Uyuni is a plateau situated at an altitude of 3656 meters, a remnant of a dried salt lake. It is also one of the most flat areas in the world with a height difference not exceeding half a meter. Salar, covering an area of ​​10,000 km ², enjoys the reputation of largest salty desert in the world. The surface made of salt crust is several meters thick, under which there is close to half of the world’s lithium reserves – a metal used to produce lithium-ion batteries.

Salar de Uyuni

It is also a giant reserve of salt and other minerals, successively mined by local communities. On the outskirts of Salar I pass idyllic villages, whose nearly all inhabitants are engaged in the mining industry. Salt is then exported to Chile, Paraguay and Venezuela. Despite the continuous degradation and ongoing inflow of foreign companies exploring minerals, it is worth mentioning that Salar regenerates itself in the rainy season and its surface becomes perfectly flat again.

It is not only the scenery you see when traveling across Altiplano

plateau. Just look closer. Somewhere between the rocks there is a crouched viscacha, a rodent resembling rabbit, but the one who is used to live at an altitude of 4,000 meters. Suddenly the animal jumps and lands on a green stone. Oops… it’s not a stone! Yareta is a bizarre, ever-green and hard as stone plant. It grows very slowly and its high density provides good protection against unnecessary loss of heat and moisture. Annual growth is estimated at about 1 centimeter and some of these plants can live up to 3000 years!

Plentiful rocks spread across the desert form extensive rocky landscapes. Sometimes the monotony of the desert is disturbed only by a few stones of unknown origin. Arbol de piedra, or ‘A tree made of rocks’, is a rock having an unusual tree-shape carved over the centuries by air, sand and rain carried around by strong local winds. It is surrounded by emptiness.

Geyser master of disaster

High-mountain lagoons are located in the real lunar landscape. Massive snow-capped peak, resembling giant caramel desserts topped with mouth-watering icing set the background for this vast, untouched by human activity area.

Some of the lagoons are inhabited by populations of flamingos, wading – and even dancing – in search of food. We are now located at an altitude of 4.300 m. Laguna Verde is a salt lake near the Chilean border at the foothills of the volcano Licancabur. It can get unusually cold here, but in that scenery you can easily forget about being cold. If not, taking a bath in local hot springs should do it.

Located nearby Laguna Colorada is only 80 centimeters deep. White borax islands here and there interestingly contrast with its waters, generally red, but also changing colors depending on the weather and time of day. Dissolved sodium, magnesium, borax, deposits of copper, gypsum and microorganisms found here are used for the production of paints, fertilizers, pharmaceuticals, toothpaste, as well as more sophisticated applications such as rocket fuel filters. The vast majority of minerals extracted would be exported to the developed countries and there subjected to further processing. For instance, borax is used in production of fiber glass.

Train cemetery and so-called English hospitality

Train cemetery

Another interesting spot – this time related to human activity – is a train cemetery.

A little over a hundred years ago, a prosperous town of Uyuni was a major logistics hub for facilitating further transportation of the extracted minerals towards the ports on the coast of the Pacific Ocean. The traction network was built at the end of the nineteenth century by English engineers and contributed to the Uyuni dynamic development

Just like many other similar activities on the neocolonial ground, this initiative also had its supporters and opponents. The former President of Bolivia, Anciento Arce (probably correctly) believed that the new transport network would be beneficial for the country, while local Aymara Indian communities constantly sabotaged project, accusing foreign investors of interfering in their lives and taking away lands originally belonging to them (which is also reasonably true).

Over the next few decades the railway was used by mining companies. It was just like that until 1940s when the mining industry has undergone great crisis and collapsed. It was mainly due to the depletion of needed resources and some technological changes resulting in decreased demand for specific minerals.

Then, in gratitude for decades of looting and exploring Bolivia’s mineral resources and workforce, the generous British left Bolivians the rolling stock. “Hereby we present you with these excellent trains, please have them and let them serve you”. The trains, of course, soon began to rust and deteriorate and after a short time of operation became no longer fit for further use. Thus, all the remains were grouped in one place, making at least the tourist attraction of grateful England: The train cemetery.

Laguna Colorada

A few interesting facts:

  • The salt crust covering the Salar de Uyuni is up to 10 meters thick
  • Salar’s salt reserves top more than 10 billion tons
  • Salar covered by water creates the world’s largest natural mirror
  • Layers of sediment on the Altiplano’s lakes create a complete thousands years old history record of consecutive dry and rainy seasons
  • The annual production of salt is estimated at about 25,000 tons
  • The surface of Salar de Uyuni is almost perfectly flat and unchanging at the time, thus the U.S. agency NASA uses this surface to calibrate their satellites
  • The flat area is so homogeneous that it’s easy to lose the sense of distance and this way it becomes an interesting place to take pictures with the effect of lost depth.

February 2012

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