Bolivia, a tiny landlocked country in South America, is famous for its otherworldly Salt Flats of Uyuni, the Death Road, and the surreal Lagunas Route leading towards the Chilean border. But just like with most places, what makes a country unique is its people – and in Uyuni, the history runs deep.
I first made it to Uyuni aboard my tiny Chinese bike back in 2013, following some dirt tracks from Challapata. Before reaching Uyuni, I stopped for a break at a tiny village of Colchani situated right on the edge of the famous Uyuni Salt Flats. The largest salt flat in the world, Uyuni is called Salar Celeste, or the Heavenly Desert by the locals because of how the skies are perfectly reflected on the salt flats during the rainy season.
Nowadays, the Uyuni Salt Flats are a huge tourist destination and likely, a beginning of a new era for Bolivia because of large deposits of lithium hiding beneath the salt crust. The mining of lithium has already begun, and it’s impossible to tell the fate of the pristine Heavenly Desert when the world needs more and more batteries; chances are, lithium mining might erase the salt flats altogether if Bolivia’s ex-president Evo Morales’ words that “lithium will be the new oil, and Bolivia will become the new Saudi Arabia” come true.
But before the tourists and the lithium mining companies, the Salt Flats of Uyuni have sustained local indigenous people for centuries. Local communities would harvest salt from the flats and transport it down to the Bolivian lowlands using llama caravans and trade it for goods, then return to the villages on the Bolivian plateau – so vast and remote it’s often likened to Tibet – and continue their work.
However, towards the end of the twentieth century, the llamas have been replaced by Toyota trucks, and independent salt miners were forced to work for large mining companies for meager salaries. Increased tourism has made independent salt mining even less profitable; those who refused to work in the mines or sell trinkets to tourists left for La Paz and Cochabamba to look for a better future, and the indigenous populations on the Bolivian plateau continue to dwindle.
But in the turmoil of the ever-changing world, one man from the Colchani village refuses to put his tools away. Every day at the crack of dawn, Moises Chambi Yucra still packs up his pickaxe and heads out into the salt flats, sometimes accompanied by his cousin. There, in the eerie quiet of the desert, his sunglasses protecting from the scorching sun, Moises works all day to harvest the salt which he then sells.
Because of his refusal to give up the work of his father, his grandfather, and the long line of others behind them, Moises had become somewhat of a celebrity in Colchani. So much so that when I asked Tomas Adomavicius, a fellow adventure rider and photographer who was traveling Bolivia a few years back, to try and track Moises down for me, Tomas found Moises without much trouble. Having spent a day out in the desert with Moises, Tomas came back with a handful of photographs, and I had my story of the last salt miner of Uyuni.
“My son will not be a salero. He tells me he wants to be a doctor or an engineer. My wife is a hairdresser. That’s okay. But for me, the Salar is everything. This is what my father did, and his father before him. I work carefully and I take little… the large mining companies might take all”, Moises says. “It’s hard work, and it doesn’t pay much. But I don’t want to leave”.
Uyuni and the Lagunas Route
If you’re heading to Bolivia and planning to ride to Uyuni, stop in the village of Colchani and look for Moises – chances are, he’s still out there, pickaxe over his shoulder, working on the salt flats from dawn to dusk. If you find him, invite him for lunch, and maybe he’ll take you out into the desert together – it may not be on the most spectacular route or the visit to the Salt Hotel, but it will be an experience of a lifetime.
And once you leave Uyuni behind, don’t take the paved road to Potosi and ride West instead, taking the Lagunas Route towards San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. Crossing the breathtaking Desert of Dali and the colored lakes of the high desert, the Lagunas route is one of the most spectacular off-road trails on the entire South American continent, so remote and out of this world you’ll feel like you’re riding on another planet. Fuel, food, and lodging will be scarce, but the landscape and the tiny indigenous settlements along the way will make for unforgettable memories.
Images: Tomas Adomavicius