Uyuni: the largest salt flat on earth

Uyuni: the largest salt flat on earth

After four days in Potosí, we headed to the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat on earth hidden in the altiplano Bolivia. What a place! We were lucky to visit during wet season when the salt flat fills with water and becomes the largest mirror on earth. During those few months, you can’t tell the earth from the sky and the horizon seems to go on forever.

Uyuni: el salar más grande del mundo

Después de pasar cuatro días en Potosí, fuimos al Salar de Uyuni. ¡Es una maravilla! Teníamos mucha suerte de visitarlo durante la temporada de lluvias, cuando se convierte en el espejo más grande del planeta. No se puede distinguir el agua del cielo y el horizonte parece continuar hasta la infinidad. No tiene fin.

– Salt crystals re-form at the edge of the salar. Beyond this point, the water is consistently a foot deep for nearly 100km.
– Cristales de sal se forman al borde del salar. Más allá, el salar tiene una profundidad constante de unos 30 cm
– Transport trucks hall semi-dried salt across the salar. They push through the surface water but have to be careful for cracks and “ojos” that could trap them.
– Camiones transportan sal por el salar. Los conductores tienen que prestar atención para evitar chocar con grietas y “ojos”

In this photo you can see a truck hauling salt. At first, I thought it was really strange to drive across the salt flat when it’s covered with a foot of water. It turns out that it’s actually easier to do that than it is to risk your life on the terrible “roads” that go around the salt flat. Under that water, it is a “flat” after all.

The trucks that we saw going by were transporting salt for human consumption but there are others that have much more valuable cargo – lithium salt. That has generated lots of controversy and conflict and one rather scandalous conspiracy theory involving Elon Musk (more on that shortly).

When I thought that it was crazy to drive a heavy truck loaded with wet salt across the flats, I wasn’t totally wrong. It turns out that there are holes under the water. In Spanish they’re called “ojos”, or eyes. I thought the salt flat was solid but it’s more like a glacier, replete with cracks, gashes, and holes. Better drive with care.

En esta foto se puede ver un camión cargado de sal. A primera vista, pensé que era muy improbable conducir por el salar cuando está cubierto de 30 centímetros de agua, pero resulta que es mucho más fácil conducir en el salar que en los caminos calaminados al lado del salar.

Los camiones que vimos estaban llevando sal para consumo humano a productores en La Paz y Cochabamba. Desde el otro lado del salar otros camiones cargan sal de litio, la cual es mucho más valiosa ya que es un componente importante en baterías.

Cuando pensaba que era una locura conducir un camión pesado en el salar, no estaba del todo equivocado. Resulta que hay “ojos”, una especie de agujero peligroso. Pensaba que la superficie del salar era sólida, pero es como un glaciar con grietas y huecos. Hay que prestar mucha atención.

– Like a terrifying hole in a glacier. You don’t want to fall into this ojo.
– Como un pozo en un glaciar. No quieres caerte aquí

The strangest thing is the air bubbles that gurgle up from the depths. Where do they come from? Is that hole three feet deep? 300? Very mysterious.

Lo más extraño es que burbujas de aire salen de los ojos. No he encontrado una buena explicación de este fenómeno, pero era muy raro.

– Whether you walk or drive across the salar, be careful of “ojos” – holes in the surface crust where fresh water and air bubble up from the depths below.
– En auto o a pie, presta mucha atención a los ojos. Además, hay que protegerse del sol intenso que te quema en segundos a esta altitud.

As we were exploring the salt flat, I came across something that really demonstrates how this strange place was formed and how it re-forms every year. This colourful yarn was once tied to the ears of a llama. The llama owners tie coloured yarn to the ears of their animals to distinguish theirs from those of their neighbours. There are no llamas anywhere near the salt flats. These strands of yarn must have fallen off the llama and gotten washed down from the distant mountains in the torrential rains of summer. Once they made it into the salar, they began to crystalize. That’s the process that repeats every year. Rain dissolves minerals from the rocks of the mountains and washes them down into this basin. As the wet season comes to an end, the hot sun begins to bake the salt flat, evaporating every last drop of water. This causes the dissolved salt to reform as crystals once again.

Encontré algo que muestra muy bien cómo funciona el salar. Esta lana colorida es la misma que los ganaderos ponen en las orejas de sus llamas en las montañas muy distantes del salar. Es un objeto completamente ajeno – incongruente – del salar. Su presencia muestra que las lluvias traen materia de las montañas, por muy lejos que estén. También las lluvias traen lodo, arena y sal que disuelta de las rocas a medida que caen y fluyen en arroyos.

Una vez en el salar, la sal disuelta empieza a formarse en cristales al evaporarse el agua.

– Salt crystals form around llama yarn. Ranchers tie these colourful yarns around the ears and necks of their llamas to identify them. These yarns must have washed down 100s of km in rainstorms to have ended up in the salt flat.
– Cristales de sal se forman en estos hilos que granjeros usan para identificar sus llamas

Uyuni is the biggest tourist attraction in Bolivia, mostly because this strange place lets you take some rather unique photos (which everyone posts on instagram). We were lucky to visit Uyuni with just the right amount of water. Too much and the wind makes ripples, destroying the mirror effect. Too little and no mirror forms.

El Salar de Uyuni es el sitio más visitado de Bolivia entre los turistas porque el espejo hace posible tomar fotos muy divertidas. Teníamos mucha suerte de tener exactamente la cantidad justa de agua en el salar para hacer el reflejo posible. Si el agua es demasiado profunda, el viento forma olas en la superficie, que distorsiona el espejo.

– Fun poses in El Salar de Uyuni. The lack of anything familiar to give a sense of scale lets you mess around with perspective.
– Es divertido crear imágenes chistosas. La falta de perspectiva hace posible distorsionar la realidad
– In reality, the scary dinosaur is only a few inches tall
– En realidad, el dinosaurio mide solo unos 20 centímetros

Without any normal point of reference, like buildings or trees, there’s no sense of scale. That makes it possible to take some pretty funny photos.

Al ser un lugar sin ningún punto de referencia normal que pueda darnos una noción de escala, es posible tomar fotos con una perspectiva muy diferente de la normal.

So, what do we with all of that salt anyway? Well, beyond sprinkling it on your french fries, you can cut it into blocks. More precisely, over time, heat and pressure compress the salt crystals into rock and you can cut that rock into perfectly-shaped blocks. That’s how Hotel Luna Salada was built. Yep, the hotel is pure salt rock.

Y ¿qué se hace con toda esta sal? Además de consumirla y meterla en baterías, se puede cortar en bloques la piedra que se forma con el paso del tiempo. Así se construyó el Hotel Luna Salada. Sí, es un hotel de pura sal, piedras de sal.

– Hotel Luna Salada. The hotel is built from salt stone. Theoretically, you could dissolve it if you went around splashing the walls with big buckets of water.
– En teoría podrías disolver este hotel al echar agua en las paredes
– The long halls of Luna Salada in Uyuni. It’s warm when we visit but it gets pretty cold in winter, so a fireplace would be quite a luxury.
– Hacía buen tiempo durante nuestra visita, pero creo que hace bastante frío en invierno. Menos mal por la chimenea

Remember the trucks hauling lithium across the salt flat? It turns out that a conspiracy theory involving those trucks has gotten popular in Bolivia. More specifically about the lithium they’re hauling. Ex-president Evo Morales was known for his communist leanings and for kicking out foreign companies, taking over entire industries for his party. He wanted to nationalize the lithium industry too. That didn’t make one particularly powerful well-known entrepreneur very happy. Many Bolivians believe that none other than Elon Musk organized a coup d’état to get rid of Evo Morales and take control of all that valuable lithium. Is that true? Maybe. The other side of the story is that Evo was running for president for a third time. Just like in the US, that’s illegal according to their constitution. It’s all quite a controversy and not something you would think of while making funny poses in the middle of the world’s largest mirror.

¿Te acuerdas de los camiones que cargan sal y litio por el salar? Se ha vuelto popular una teoría de conspiración que tiene que ver con ellos. Más bien, tiene que ver con la extracción del litio del salar. El expresidente Evo Morales quería nacionalizar esta industria, cosa que no hizo feliz a un empresario bastante poderoso. Muchos bolivianos creen que nada más que Elon Musk organizó un golpe de estado en Bolivia para apoderarse del litio. ¿Es una teoría verídica? Dímelo tú.

Potosí – Bolivia’s Silver City

Potosí – Bolivia’s Silver City

Bolivia is a high and mountainous country, especially its altiplano, a place where it’s cold year-round, it’s hard to breathe, and the sun burns any exposed skin. It’s surprising, then, that the Spanish Conquistadors gave this inhospitable place much attention at all. But they sure did. Why? Silver. Lots and lots of silver. Continue reading “Potosí – Bolivia’s Silver City”

Bolivia’s Jungle National Park: Amboró

Bolivia’s Jungle National Park: Amboró

In the center of Bolivia, there’s a very special place. Three important ecosystems meet here. The Amazon jungle, the Andes mountains, and a huge desert-like area called Chaco all intersect at this specific point: Amboró National Park. The mixing of these three ecosystems makes it one of those most biodiverse places on the planet. There are more bird species here than in all of North America. Continue reading “Bolivia’s Jungle National Park: Amboró”

Iguazu Falls

Iguazu Falls

One of South America’s most impressive sights must be the thundering Iguazu Falls. At the start of our Latin America trip I didn’t really have any plans to visit the falls but covid restrictions suddenly made it a good option. We started the trip in Chile and they kept all their land borders firmly shut, so I started looking at options to fly out. It turned out that a quick flight to Iguazu was the cheapest option and too good of an opportunity to pass up. Continue reading “Iguazu Falls”

2021 in 12 Photos

2021 was a year of staying at home in Canada, a place that many people dream of visiting. Even though I really wanted to travel, staying at home gave me the opportunity to foster kittens and to welcome a wonderful dog into our home. I reconnected with the mountains at the BMC climbing camp and got together with good friends to explore a rarely visited park, hidden in northern BC. With the cooler temperatures of autumn, I began exploring many more of the beautiful trails that the Kootenays have to offer and set myself a goal of hiking every one of them in my guidebook. Finally, at the end the year, I got to travel again. We picked Chile, one of the safest but most complicated countries to visit, where both the capital and the amazingly scenic Patagonia left a lasting impression.

En 2021 me tocó permanecer en casa en Canadá, un lugar al que mucha gente sueña con ir. Pero, qué sitio tan bonito. A pesar de tener muchas ganas de viajar, me hice amigo de muchas gatitas, a las que cuido como dueño de paso, y una perra cariñosísima. Volví a las montañas rocosas de Columbia Británica a hacer alpinismo y me reuní con buenos amigos para explorar un rincón escondido en el norte del país. Descubrí muchos nuevos senderos y me propuse terminarlos todos, lo cual será un meta a largo plazo. Por fin, a finales del año, me tocó viajar de nuevo. Me fui a Chile para conocer la capital y para desafiarme en los caminos patagónicos. Que el año entrante sea muy especial y lleno de aventuras.

– January – After many years of spending winters travelling, it’s wonderful to snowshoe everyday.
– Enero – Después de muchos años viajando, es maravilloso disfrutar del invierno canadiense.
Continue reading “2021 in 12 Photos”

BMC 2021

BMC 2021

Nearly every summer since 2014, I’ve attended a week-long mountaineering camp in BC. There are two similar camps, one fairly big and the other more intimate. The larger camp is organized by the Alpine Club of Canada and it’s really quite impressive the logistics that go into hosting 25+ climbers. Given the ongoing pandemic and just because I prefer smaller groups, this year I decided to join the smaller camp organized by Pierre Hungr and his wife Natelle. After missing out on both camps last year due to the pandemic, I was pretty excited for the whole experience. Continue reading “BMC 2021”

Edziza – A Volcanic Backpacking Trip

Edziza – A Volcanic Backpacking Trip

Part 1: Edziza Spectrum Range Traverse
Part 2: Crossing the Edziza Plateau
(this post)

Three years after our first trip to Edziza, Jim, Calder, and I are back. This time we’ve got a bigger group. Marilyn (Jim’s partner) as well as Meg and Manrico (Marilyn’s friends) join us for what promises to be another exciting adventure.
Continue reading “Edziza – A Volcanic Backpacking Trip”