When it comes to salt, most people associate it with taste and food. And that’s not odd, right? To amplify the taste of one’s meals, salt is the right way to go. But would you believe it if we told you that salt can also serve beautification purposes? Well, that is a fact when you visit Salar de Uyuni, which is located in Bolivia. This is the largest salt flat in the world and has gathered a major tourist attraction due to the large amount of salt located in that area and how beautiful the ground looks when water touches the salt, making it look like the world’s largest natural mirror.
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The World’s Largest Mirror
Located in southwest Bolivia at over 10,000 square kilometers (… square miles), Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world. It is said to have been created as a result of transformations occurring amongst several prehistoric lakes that existed around forty thousand years ago but have evaporated over time.
Currently, there exists a hardened salt crust on the surface of the land that adds to its flatness. This crust also serves the purpose of salt production. The crust also covers a pool of brine, which is exceptionally rich in lithium.
When it rains, a thin layer of calm water on the surface of the crust transforms the flat into the world’s largest mirror, which is 129 kilometers (… miles) across. This has allowed the area to become a major tourist attraction as the pure reflection of objects on the surface creates the most awesome pictures!
Meaning Behind The Name
Salar de Uyuni has Spanish and Aymara origins. Salar means “salt flat” in Spanish whiles Uyuni comes from the Aymara language which means “enclosure.” Uyuni is also the name of the town that serves as a gateway for tourists visiting the area. Therefore, the meaning of Salar de Uyuni loosely means “salt flat with enclosures.”
There are also legends that tell of how the salt flat came into being. Aymara legend tells that a long time ago, the mountains surrounding the flat today, which are Tunupa, Kusku, and Kusina, were giant people.
Tunupa married Kusku, however, Kusku was unfaithful and ran away from her with Kusina. A grieving Tunupa, after she found out of Kusku’s betrayal, began to cry whiles breastfeeding her son. Her tears mixed with her breastmilk formed the Salar. Even today many locals in the area consider the mountain Tunupa as an important deity and argue that the area is called Salar de Tunupa instead of Salar de Uyuni.
Who Owns The Flat? Locals Or Internationals?
The Salar does not only produce salt. It is also containing a large amount of sodium, potassium, lithium, magnesium, as well as borax. Bolivia currently holds about 7 percent of the world’s known lithium resources most of those which are located in the Salar de Uyuni.
Lithium is one mineral that gathered the attention of most companies to the Salar. The lithium in the Salar is concentrated in the brine under the salt crust at about 0.3 percent. It is also present in the top layers of the porous halite body lying under the brine however the liquid brine is easier to extract by boring into the crust and pumping out the brine.
Lithium is an important mineral in the creation of modern-day tools and gadgets such as smartphones and laptops. As such, it would be understandable that the lithium would be sort after by most companies. Although one may imagine that this would bring about a lot of money to the area by the interest of international companies, the people of the Salar have refused to allow international companies to mine their salt and lithium.
Although lithium extraction in the Salar has been in the interest of some international companies, lithium extraction in the 1980s and 1990s by foreign companies faced strong opposition from the locals because they believed that the money would not come to them.
This forced the Bolivian government to step up and as of now, it does not allow exploitation of the Salar by foreign corporations. Instead, it intends to reach an annual production of 35,000 tons by 2023 in a joint venture with ACI Systems Alemenia, GmbH.
The Train Cemetery
Aside from having the ability to reflect objects beautifully, the Salar is also known for its very own train cemetery! The train cemetery came as a result of the town’s past services. The town served in the past as a distribution channel for trains carrying minerals to Pacific Ocean ports.
The rail lines were built near the end of the 19th century by British engineers under the encouragement of the then Bolivian President, Aniceto Arce. As the presence of the rail lines had formed a sizeable community in Uyuni, President Aniceto believed that it would help Bolivia’s development by creating a good transport system. Although these intentions were good, the local Aymara indigenous Indians did not support the idea. They constantly destroyed parts of the rail lines and trains continuously.
In the 1940s, the mining industry collapsed partly due to the effects of minerals on the bodies of the trains. Many trains were abandoned which brought about the train cemetery. So when you can visit Salar de Uyuni, don’t forget to visit these old ghost trains as well! They may have their own secrets to give!
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Written by: Abigail Adeyemi, Sun, Jun 12, 2022.