My first glimpse leaves me confused, even though I’ve spent days trying to get here – having taken a detour on a pan-American road trip – and months dreaming of this place. I crest a hill on a potholed road and am suddenly blinded by the white.
My first thought is that I’ve stumbled upon a snowcovered mountain lake. Around me are the dun-coloured mountains of southwestern Bolivia, nearly bare of vegetation, inhospitable with dust and wind. But the white expanse ahead is not snow. It is Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat, 3,656 metres above sea level in the Andes mountains. Salt as far as the eye can see.
Ancient salt that has dried into a perfectly flat pancake 10,582 square kilometres in size, reflecting the sun with such brilliance that the eyes of onlookers burn and stream with tears.
I kick my motorbike back into gear and roar down the hill, into the barren, shimmering white wilderness.
The salar (Spanish for “salt flat”) is all that remains of Lake Minchin, which existed some 30,000 to 42,000 years ago. It sits in the middle of the Bolivian Altiplano, a high plateau formed during the uplift of the Andes. The salt flat is surrounded by mountains with no drainage outlets, forcing mountain run-off into this natural evaporation crucible.
The altitude of the salar varies by only one metre over its entire area, making it flat enough to be used as a target for calibrating and testing remote sensing systems on satellites in orbit. Nevertheless, its surface is not perfectly smooth; it is pebbled with delicate salt bubbles that crackle and collapse under my tyres. There are no roads, no signs, no fences – and no speed limits. Only a few dirty grey tracks show where other vehicles have gone before me. I point my motorcycle into the trackless glare and twist open the throttle.
The only points of reference are a few islands, the remnants of ancient volcanoes that were submerged in Lake Minchin. The heat reflected by the salt causes mirages that raise the images of these islands into the sky, creating dream-like horizons.
Riding across this barren expanse has become a point of honour for motorcyclists and cyclists touring South America. Stories abound of adventurers getting lost, driven mad by the white glare. I take a compass reading and check my water supplies before setting off, like a ship heading out to sea.
After half an hour a black dot appears, wavering in a mirage. Slowly it materialises into a cyclist, his bicycle laden with gear, a scarf wrapped around his sunburned face. His bike wobbles on the rough surface but he steadfastly pedals on.
Next a four-wheel-drive truck comes over the horizon, its passengers – tourists – waving as they find their own track across the lake.
There are reasons to linger here, though; when it rains (which is most likely between January and April), for instance, the salt flat becomes a giant mirror, offering visitors a chance to “walk on water”.
Isla Incawasi is a rocky, arid island of fossilised coral covered in gigantic cacti. It is the top of an ancient volcano that became covered in coral when it was submerged in Lake Minchin. Amid the coral are a tourist centre and a restaurant.
There is a hotel on the salar, too: Playa Blanca, which is built entirely of salt, from the walls to the roof to the tables, chairs and even the beds. While being a clever use of local building materials, the hotel has raised the ire of environmentalists by mismanaging the waste it produces.
Other salt hotels, such as the Palacio De Sal, are built of the same materials but stand on the edge of the salt flats, and so have less of an environmental impact.
Salar de Uyuni is also a breeding ground for three species of pink South American flamingo, including the rare James’ flamingo. The birds are best viewed, however, on the shores of the magnificent “coloured lakes”, 350 kilometres southwest of Salar de Uyuni along a rough, unmarked road. The bright red Laguna Colorada, coloured by algae and the surrounding red sediment, and the jade-green Laguna Verde, tinted by copper minerals, are the most striking.
The salar may be a beacon for those on two wheels with speed or endurance on their mind but it has far greater value as a source of resources than as a tourist attraction. Beneath a salt crust that is several metres thick is a brine containing large amounts of sodium, potassium, magnesium and borax, as well as lithium, the greatest prize of them all, because it is used to make batteries. By some estimates, this salar contains up to half of the world’s lithium reserves, which Bolivia is working to extract and sell – this time for the benefit of its own people.
Extraction of lithium in the 1980s and 90s by foreign companies came to a halt amid local opposition to the loss of wealth overseas.
Salt mining, meanwhile, is an ongoing endeavour. The salar contains some 10 billion tonnes of salt, and a co-operative of workers hauls about 25,000 tonnes of it away each year, for a variety of commercial uses.
After several hours of squinting into the white glare my face has turned bright red with sunburn and my eyes ache. But before I head for shore I must do a little mining of my own. My camping larder lacks salt, so I use my knife to chip off a few lumps.
For the next few weeks, every time I season my food I’ll remember that first, stunning sight of Salar de Uyuni in all its pristine glory.
Getting there: Cathay Pacific (www.cathaypacific.com) flies daily to the United States, from where there are many connections to La Paz, Bolivia. Local airlines and tour buses provide services between La Paz and Uyuni, where most tours of the salar begin and end. A train service to Uyuni is also available, departing from the city of Oruro.