Imagine looking out for miles and miles and only seeing frozen white crystals. Except, it’s not snow. It’s salt.
What you’re imagining would be the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat in the world.
For a weekend, my group and I traversed the Salar in beat-up Land Cruisers to see all the beauty the land had to offer.
While we took unforgettable pictures in the Salar’s reflection, chased after Andean flamingoes in breathtaking lagoons, and climbed volcanic rocks for even more incredible views, there were plenty of sights that would not be postcard worthy. Such a place so rich in beauty (and salt and lithium) was not rich in much else.
Being one of the most remote places on Earth, I knew going into the trip that luxuries like Wi-Fi and cell reception were out the question, but I’d be shocked with how many other utilities my weekend would lack.
First, we stopped in the small village of Colchani, which was once focused on salt-refining and packaging but now seemed to be staying afloat by selling trinkets to tourists passing through. What instantly stood out was the state of this town: barren and run-down. Roofs on houses were caving in. The old railroad tracks were in shambles. And most shocking, running water was a communal spigot out in the dirt. Other than the main drag of souvenir stalls, not much other activity was going on.
Later in the evening, we stayed at a hotel made out of salt bricks in a small Salar village. Of course, there was no heating, and after a freezing night under the salt bricks, we woke up to no electricity. We speculated that the blackout occurred from a surge from the local mine powering-up. I wondered if this was common for the local people. Back home in Virginia Beach, our most common disturbance is jet noise from the naval base. Sounds like nothing to complain about in comparison to losing electricity every day.
Passing through all the little towns, I kept asking myself questions like: “Where do children go to school?”, “Where do they buy groceries, and how often are markets stocked?”, “What must goods and services cost out here?” But mainly: “How could anyone live out here?”
It was definitely a hard life, and one I could not imagine.
On our way back to the Uyuni, we passed through San Cristobal, which is home to one of the world’s largest silver and zinc mines. Pulling into town, I couldn’t help but notice the stark differences between San Cristobal and everywhere else we had visited. Besides having a lot more inhabitants, the city also had a lot more resources. Differences included a smooth, paved road to travel to and from the town, a hospital, a large market, a recreational sports league and gymnasium, just to name a few. All around San Cristobal, I also saw signs and markers denoting that the mining company had sponsored the projects for the San Cristobal.
It was the “haves” and the “have-nots” with San Cristobal clearly being the “have.”
While the trip was unforgettably fun, it was also remarkably insightful.