La Madre Tierra: The Ancestry of Bolivia's Salt FlatsLa Madre Tierra: The Ancestry of Bolivia's Salt Flats

La Madre Tierra: The Ancestry of Bolivia's Salt Flats

​The Salar de Uyuni is the world's biggest salt flat—but in Bolivia, the natural wonder is a living history of its predecessors. Mandy Sham journeys through the prehistoric lakebed and examines its modern-day significance.

The parting sun was a deep explosion of colours: an espectáculo of firecracker red and glowing ember orange. But at nearly four thousand metres above sea level, the warmth of its rays felt far away; in its place were strong gusts of wind, adding to the numbing high altitude cold.
There were maybe ten or twelve of us, split among two rugged and dusted all-terrain vehicles, parked deep in the middle of the Salar. As far as the eye could see, the ground was white salt. Our drivers put music on and passed around glasses of Bolivian red. It’s a bizarre, beautiful moment: being so high up, tucked in the middle of South America, drinking wine and watching the sun set in the world’s biggest salt flat.
The south of Bolivia is one of the most extraordinary places I’ve been on Earth. It’s gorgeous, of course; the Salar and its surroundings are filled with islands of cacti, lagoons that are painted red and white, and incredible scenes of vicuñas and flamingos close by.
But the Salar of Uyuni was more than that. My experience there almost felt surreal: the way the lands rich with volcanoes and geysers were largely empty, and the absolute necessity of an experienced driver to know which tracks to follow. These landscapes feel precious, even spiritual. It’s a sensation echoed by the many Indigenous peoples who continue to inhabit it, and work its lands.
During the three days we were together, my guide Enrique taught us how to give an offering to Pachamama, la Madre Tierra. He talked about the mountains, still rich with minerals, and some of the protections they have; the dialogue branches of government need to have with local communities if they want to extract a mountain’s resources. It was evident that he, along with our drivers, worked hard to preserve and share their beliefs and languages.
This instinct, though, doesn’t simply come from nowhere. It’s a stark contrast to the nation’s history—going back to the 1500s, when Spanish colonizers found silver in Potosí. The city flourished on the backs of Indigenous labour; for hundreds of years it was the bloody heart of the Spanish empire’s wealth. When the silver dried up, Potosí was left in ruin. And Bolivians were left to mend it.
Today, more than seventy percent of the country’s population is Indigenous. Many of them are working to protect and reclaim their power. There is meaning to the Salar, rich with salt and lithium—and meaning to the minerals that colonizers haven’t ripped bare.
With tourism now in the mix, the drive through Uyuni’s wonders feels simultaneously hopeful and fragile. It’s helped the local economy prosper enormously, but the increasing footprint on the environment hasn’t gone unnoticed. The lands as they are now are still sacred and significant to many; what would happen if tourism changed the character of the salt flats?
When I posed the question to Israel, a restaurant owner in Uyuni and former guide, he told me there’s a point where all this could collapse. The flats are being contaminated, slowly but surely; passing cars are disturbing the natural deposits, kicking up dust and covering flora. And the behaviour of fauna, he says, is also starting to change.
It’s a balance that Bolivia is in the act of managing; the government has its role to play, and things will likely never be perfect. But preservation is about people just as much as it’s about big decisions made in a parliament chamber. Many people living in and around the Salar are tied to it, emotionally and spiritually. In the collective consciousness, people remember the Aymara legends linking the nearby Tunupa volcano to the salt flats’ origins.
There’s a moment early on in my trip, when I ask Enrique what he did before he was a guide. “I was a musician,” he said, “playing folkloric music in a band with dozens of others.” It was easy to see that struck a chord with him—the way he lit up almost immediately.
“We’ll have a lot to talk about these next few days,” he added. “There’s a lot to learn about the Salar and the mountains.” I didn’t know it then, but he was right in just about every way. The sheer vastness of the landscapes; the deep appreciation for Mother Earth. Ahead of us, the sparkling white sea of salt stretched on to the horizon.
To view more of Mandy’s work, you can view her social channel here. Discover more awe-inspiring and documented travel stories like Peru’s Salkantay Trail here, and others on Urth Magazine.