One of the most poignant experience for me during the trip to the salar was our short hike on Incahuasi or “Inca House”, a small cactus covered island in the middle of the salar. Upon approaching the island I made note of the fact that it truly did look like an island, with beaches and a small bay, jutting up from the center of the salt flat. As our tour guide later explained, it was once an island in the traditional sense, as the salar itself is the remains of an enormous inland saltwater lake. This lake was separated from the Pacific Ocean by the movement of the tectonic plated following the separation of Pangea roughly 200 m.y.a. The South American plate was lighter than the Nazca, or North American plate, and as the two plates collided, the South American plate was forced on top of the Nazca plate, resulting in the creations of the Andes mountain range, and the isolation of massive areas of salt water inland. As these “lakes” were no longer being fed by anything other than rain water, they began to evaporate, and shrink to smaller and smaller areas, eventually reaching their lowest level at the area of the current salt flat, where the salt from the lake concentrated and crystallized.
Incahuasi island was once completely underwater, but as the lake level fell, the island was revealed and became a fascinating landscape in and of itself. Much of its rocky face is covered by petrified/fossilized coral which sits on top of pieces of exposed black rock, which is the main component of the island itself. This formerly oceanic landscape is sharply contrasted by the most prominent feature of the island, it’s many large cacti. The cacti stand up to 9 meters tall, although they only grow about a cm per year. The oldest cactus on the island is roughly 900 years old, meaning it first began to grow around 1100 B.C.E., at the beginning of the 12th century.
Being on this island really made me think about its significance as a convergence of people, and also of time. There were many tourists on the island, hiking, stopping for photos, and buying handicrafts from the vendors at the island’s summit. I personally heard French and Japanese being spoken, but I am sure there were people from dozens of nationalities on the island. This wide range of people was coupled with the significance that the island had for the Inca, as a place to perform ritual sacrifice, made me very aware of the fact that this was a place where thousands of people from all over the world, as well as throughout thousands of years, have come to appreciate the natural beauty of the island, and have ascribed to it some sort of significance. Additionally, the landscape of the island, and of the salar itself has remained very much the same throughout this whole period. It’s eye-opening to think that all the people who have visited this island, for whatever reason, have seen basically the same thing. They have marveled at the black island appearing in the middle of the otherwise desolate landscape. They have arrived at the same beaches and seen the same rock formations. They’ve avoided the cacti and walked the same paths that I did. There are very few places left in the world where modernity and human development have not altered the landscape in significant ways, preventing people today from truly sharing an experience with people far in the past, but this is one of those places, and I feel very lucky to have been able to experience it.