Uyuni, Bolivia. was founded in 1890 as a trading post, the town has a population of 21,400. The town has an extensive street-market. It lies at the edge of an extensive plain at an elevation of 3,670 meters above sea level, with more mountainous country to the east.
There is little agriculture in the area because water supplies are scarce and somewhat saline. Today the town’s primary function is as a gateway for tourists visiting the world’s largest salt flats – the Salar de Uyuni. Each year Uyuni receives approximately 60,000 visitors. The city also acts as a gateway for commerce and traffic crossing into and out of Bolivia from and to Chile. Salar is salt flat in Spanish and Uyuni originates from the Aymara language and means a pen (enclosure).
One of the major tourist attractions of the area is an antique train cemetery. It is located 3 km outside Uyuni and is connected to it by the old train tracks. The town served in the past as a distribution hub for the trains carrying minerals on their way to the Pacific Ocean ports. The train lines were built by British engineers who arrived near the end of the 19th century and formed a sizable community in Uyuni. The engineers were invited by British-sponsored Antofagasta and Bolivia Railway Companies, which is now Ferrocarril de Antofagasta a Bolivia. The rail construction started in 1888 and ended in 1892. It was encouraged by the then Bolivian President Aniceto Arce, who believed Bolivia would flourish with a good transport system, but it was also constantly sabotaged by the local Aymara indigenous Indians who saw it as an intrusion into their lives. The trains were mostly used by the mining companies. In the 1940s, the mining industry collapsed, partly due to the mineral depletion. Many trains were abandoned thereby producing the train cemetery.
The Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat at 10,582 square kilometers (4,086 sq mi). It is located in the Potosí and Oruro departments in southwest Bolivia, near the crest of the Andes, and is elevated 3,656 meters (11,995 ft) above sea level. The Salar was formed as a result of transformations between several prehistoric lakes. It is covered by a few meters of salt crust, which has an extraordinary flatness with the average altitude variations within one meter over the entire area of the Salar.
The crust serves as a source of salt and covers a pool of brine, which is exceptionally rich in lithium. It contains 50 to 70% of the world’s lithium reserves,which is in the process of being extracted. The Salar serves as the major transport route across the Bolivian Altiplano and is also the breeding grounds for three species of pink South American flamingos: the Chilean, Andean and rare James’s Flamingos.
It is one of the most stunning sights I have ever seen. I was lucky to have travelled there various times with my job and never tired of it. The openness and the sense that you could get lost is eerie. The locals mines the salt from the edge of the salt flat and bag it then sell it locally.
Bagging the salt, in a rather unsafe fashion, the flames from the gas bottle seal the plastic bags closed ready for sale. They sit here for 8 hours a day, with no heat at all in crazy cold condition and earn pennies.