Legend has it that mountains used to walk and talk like humans. One of these mountains was Tunupa, a woman who lived with her husband and three children. One of the children died and the husband left, taking another child with him. In her grief, Tunupa cried so much that her tears mixed with her breast milk and gathered in a valley below to form the Uyuni salt flats.
At over 10 500 sq kms, the Salar de Uyuni are the world's largest salt flats. The thick crust of salt rest on top of a vast body of highly saline brine which contains between 50-70% of the world's lithium. The whole salar is estimated to contain 10 billion tonnes of salt of which only 25,000 are extracted per year. The coarse salt can easily be scraped off the crust and is a vital source of income for small communities living along the shores of the flats.
The tiny village of Colchani on the shores of the flats relies heavily on the salt industry. Children as young as six are drafted in to shovel salt into bags for transportation to the nearest transport hub. Colchani used to have a railway station but the train, which still runs from nearby Uyuni, now steams through the town without stopping. Other than its abandoned train station, Colchani boasts very little in the way of amenities with no sewage system and no running water.
15 year old Madai Laime has been bagging salt since she was six and now fits in stints of work during her school day before and after classes. She fills smaller bags with one kilogram of salt and then puts 50 of these into larger bags. She needs to bag 2,500 kg of salt per day to make a meagre $ 5. Nirmo, another Colchani resident, is planning to leave the town and sell his salt outside. He reckons he can make up to $ 1,500 instead of a disappointing $ 143 per month by going independent.
On windless days, the thin layer of water covering parts of the flats forms a perfect mirror reflecting the cloudless blue skies. Sunsets create surreal spectrums of colour. These sight and the sweeping views of the vast flats and surrounding mountains have drawn tourists to the flats for decades. The Luna Salada (Salty Moon) Hotel in Uyuni is the most extravagant accommodation in town, built out of blocks of salt, and once hosted the country's president who, known for his egalitarian views, demanded that the hotel offer a 50% discount on rooms to Bolivians.
Karla Gachet and Ivan Kashinsky visited Colchani and the Salar de Uyuni on their road trip from the equator to the tip of Tierra del Fuego.