Salt flats in Bolivia

Le Monde d'Hermes thumb, Bolivia article A version of this article was published in Le Monde d’Hermès in Autumn 2014


At 3600m in the high altiplano of Bolivia, a prehistoric lake disappeared leaving a crust of salt on the earth 10,000 square kilometers in size. These salt flats, popularly known as Salar de Uyuni but known to many in the region as Tunupa, have been mined for salt at least since the time of the Inca, half a millennium ago.

I have driven for four days, off-road through spectacular and inhospitable terrain, to stand within this vast salar and wait for the sun to rise over a distant mountain. The air at this altitude is thin, leaving me breathless, and bitingly cold despite the proximity to the equator. The first shards of light reveal what surrounds me: a vast expanse of total nothingness. The surrounding lands are dominated by towering volcanoes and deep, still-active geysers but the salar itself is the flattest surface on earth, varying by less than a meter across its whole expanse. The occasional seasonal rain sweeps over the surface in summer and dissolves the hard crust, leveling it off much as water reaches an equilibrium in the ocean. Now, the coarse white surface crunches under my feet, firm and featureless, but there are no lines in the landscape, no variation in topography that might give depth to perspective, as far as the eye can see to the horizon in any direction. Near and far, large objects and small, all get compressed by the space into a kind of visual equidistance that is utterly disorienting, almost hallucinogenic.  I turn around, trying to get my bearings, but there is nothing.

Salt was the principal method of food preservation until the invention of refrigeration. It remains vital to the region to this day and, in the distance, there are a few men, humbled by the scale of the landscape, mining the crust as others have for centuries. But salt, essential for life, has created here a life-eviscerating environment that glows blue with the refracted dawn light and then turns bright, brilliant, searing white as the sun rises in the sky. With the intensifying light, I can make out on the surface of the salt a subtle pattern of interlocking hexagonal forms, naturally occurring, that repeat in infinite variations. But there are no trees, not a blade of grass, only a few ‘islands’ piercing the salt crust that are, in fact, not islands at all but the tops of ancient volcanos. One of these partially submerged volcanos, known as Incahuasi, was of spiritual importance to the Inca when they ruled this land from their seat in Peru. It is home to dense clusters of giant cacti; the tallest of the cacti, at ten meters, are probably one thousand years old. They were already ancient when the Inca walked this island and their enduring presence is a burst of life so unexpected amid the isolation of the salt flats that its existence seems a kind of mystery.


Click here to see all of Sean’s blog posts about South America.


Sean also shot the photographs for this article. Click images below to view the tear sheets.

Le Monde d'Hermes cover, Bolivia articleLe Monde d'Hermes, Bolivia article page 1-2Le Monde d'Hermes, Bolivia article page 3-4