How odd is it that one of the precious handful of utterly breathtaking places I’ve been is simply a flat, barren wasteland of salt? And, man, has this salt brought some tourism to Bolivia. In the rustic town of Uyuni, the dirt streets are lined with hostels and touring companies. I cannot imagine an international airport (yes, although it has all of two gates it does have a regular flight coming close from Chile) being in this Bolivian middle-of-nowhere without the Salar. Fleets of Land Cruisers carrying tourists come and return from the great expanse seemingly all day. There is a railroad that passes through the city that enjoys commerce with Chile, but besides that and tourism, to me, there seemed to be no other lifeline keeping this city alive, especially considering that the environment is too salty for agriculture.
As more and more tourists seem to be discovering Bolivia and its immense natural beauty, I cannot help but wonder the economic fate of this small town. I’ve been to Aguas Calientes on the way to Machu Picchu and wonder what sorts of similarities there may be between Uyuni today and Machupicchu Pueblo back when it was still the “Lost City.” If Bolivia is truly serious about the grandiose plans it has for tourism, one would expect Uyuni and the nearby practical ghost town of Colchani to be immediate beneficiaries. It’s hard to imagine the trip to the Salar being anything more than rustic and remote. However, a traveler would have laughed thirty years ago at the prospect of a five-star hotel being in proximity to Machu Picchu.
Though tourism can bring a profound economic boost to a place, it also by nature brings people. People that pollute, corrode, and take. Bolivia did well when it shut down the salt hotel in the middle of the Flats that was producing too much waste. However, I look at another example at Machu Picchu where they allow much more than double the amount of recommended visitors entrance each day. This problem of management is confounded in Bolivia presently by the fact that the Salar de Uyuni and many of the astounding places around it are not considered a national park. With a steadily growing trend of new visitors, the topic of preservation is certainly one to keep an eye on. Though I certainly want to see some stimulation in the economy of these remote villages, I hope that Bolivia can maintain a Salar experience that preserves the astounding beauty of its nature. It will be interesting if I can come back for another time in my life to see where these places will be and contrast them to how they were.