LEGEND HAS IT THAT a long time ago, the mountains in the Andes could walk and act like humans. One of them, Tunupa, was a female who lived with her husband and three children. When one of her children died, her husband left her, taking another of their children with him. Tunupa cried so much that her tears mixed with her breastmilk. The valley below her was flooded with the tear-soaked milk, and formed the blinding-white salt flat of the Salar de Uyuni.
At 10,582 sq km, the Salar de Uyuni (meaning ‘Islands of Salt’) is the world’s largest perennial salt flat . The salt crust sits atop a vast lake of highly saline brine that contains 50-70 percent of the world’s lithium reserves. The salar’s salt reserves estimate is 10 billion tonnes; the annual extraction averages a puny 25,000 tonnes.
Colchani, the tourist gateway to the spectacular flats, still looks the part of a frontier ‘town’ located on the edge of the salar. But despite Colchani’s location, it’s Uyuni that makes money from the tourists; Colchani’s bread-and-butter, so to speak, comes from its Coöperativa Rosario, which farms the salt. Using pickaxes and shovels, workers literally scour the salar for halite (salt crystals), which they pile up in pyramids and leave to dry in the sun. It is then shovelled into trucks and taken to Colchani, where it is further ‘cooked’ in ovens and infused with iodine. It is ground to powder—table salt—and children as young as six are drafted to stuff it into one-kilo sacks that are then trucked down to Bolivia and Brazil.
Trucking is inefficient and costly, but there is no alternative. Colchani once had a fully functioning railway station; what’s left of it is a memory. A single train from Uyuni now steams straight through Colchani as if this gateway to the salar doesn’t exist.
In truth, very little exists in Colchani other than the nearby Hotel Palacio de Sal, the ‘Salt Palace Hotel’ and the Hotel Luna Salada (Salty Moon) in Uyuni. The Salty Moon’s claim to pedigree is that it once hosted Bolivian President Juan Evo Morales Ayma. Morales demanded that the hotel give a 50 percent discount to Bolivians, which served little purpose—even at half rates, few Bolivians, among the poorest of Latin Americans, can afford to stay at the expensive star hotels in the salar.
Madai Laime, 18, has been bagging salt since she was six; she has to shoehorn work into study periods, filling one-kilo salt sacks and then stuffing 50 of them into a larger bag. Her take-home is incommensurate with her labour: bagging 2,500 kg of salt brings her $5 (35 Bolivianos, or about R255), which works out to two cents (less than R2) for 10 bags.
Nirmo Chambi, 31, a resident salt-miner-philosopher who has been trawling the salar since he was 10, is one of four brothers who started a band named Nubes del amor (Clouds of Love) in 1991 with tin cans for instruments. Nirmo, like his brothers, has other ambitions now: he wants to save up to buy his own trailer in order to haul the salt he personally harvests and sell it outside Colchani. He believes he can increase his monthly earnings from $143 to $1,500.
On those rare, windless days from November to March, when a few centimetres of water covers the salar, the flattest area on Earth turns into a perfect mirror. The salar has a surreal, postapocalyptic beauty.
Many of Colchani’s residents have never set foot in the flats. It’s a subsistence economy—they couldn’t care less about the thousands of tourists.