Basic Facts & History of The Salar de Uyuni
By now, you probably know that the Uyuni salt flats, or Salar de Uyuni, are the world’s largest salt flats. In fact, they’re over 100 times larger than the Bonneville Salt Flats in northwestern Utah, the largest salt flats in the United States.
In total, the salt flat spans over 4,000 square miles, and contains 11 different layers of salt in the “crust” that remained when prehistoric salt lake Lago Machín evaporated. This layer of salt can be as thick as 30 feet in some locations, and is consistently thick enough to drive on for much of the area of the salt flats. Together, this means that there are roughly 12 billion tons of salt in the Salar de Uyuni.
The salt accumulated into the lake over thousands of years due to its lack of outlet to the sea--the Salar de Uyuni is nestled almost 12,000 feet above sea level high in the Andes mountains.
The degree of salinity in the lake is what caused the salt flats that we know today to remain there today.
These unique conditions, particularly the lack of freshwater, has also coincidentally resulted in the area’s rather pristine preservation.
Indeed, the salt flats are so well preserved, so flat and so large, that the Salar is often the main point that NASA uses to calibrate some of its satellites.
The World’s Largest MirrorAs if the salt flats needed another attribute to enhance it’s stunning nature, the rainy season in Bolivia (approximately late November to early March) can often leave an inch or two layer of water on the surface of the salt flats--turning the surface into effectively the world’s largest mirror.
The Salar de Uyuni Today
60 to 70 thousand visitors come to Uyuni to see the Salar de Uyuni each year. It’s the primary industry that keeps the town going at this point.
And the vast majority of them see the salt flats in guided tours, smushed into 4x4s gliding across salt.
For years, only the most adventurous of tourists and salt producers made it out to the Salar. Of the billions of tons of salt estimated to be in the Salar, only about 25,000 tons make it out to Colchani and other salt mining towns surrounding the Salar.
The process is hardly industrial--the salt is manually moved into conical piles on the surface to dry. After it’s trucked over to the village to finish drying and have iodine added before being ready to bag and ship. You can find salar-branded salt from the Salar in most supermarkets around Bolivia.
The Salar in Movies & Film
The salt flats is quickly gaining international recognition, and with it, is entering into pop culture, movies and videos.
The Future of the Salar de Uyuni
Despite the salt flat belonging to a protected area, and the local’s reverence for the preservation of the environment and mother nature, the Salar is hardly off limits to industrialization and development.
One potential disruption to the current existence of the Salar revolves around the presence of lithium in the salt composition below the Salar.And not just a little lithium, it’s estimated that just the area below the salt flats contain 25% to 70% of the world’s lithium supply. And given its important uses in batteries today, it’s not out of the picture that increased lithium mining could come to the salt flats.