Historic Facts about the Bolivian Salt Flats (Salar de Uyuni)

I ticked a long-standing aim off my bucket-list in 2018 – visiting the Bolivian Salt Flat (Salar de Uyuni). It didn’t disappoint from a natural perspective! But I was delighted to uncover some bitesize pieces of history about it. Here are some historic facts you will learn while touring the Bolivian Salt Flat:

  1. The Bolivian Salt Flats were formed sometime between 11,500 and 13,400 years ago years ago, the legacy of a prehistoric lake that went dry, leaving behind a desert-like, nearly 11,000-sq.-km. landscape of bright-white flat salt. img_0948
  2. Name Origin: Salar means salt flat in Spanish. However Uyuni originates from the Aymara language and means a pen (enclosure). So Salar de Uyuni loosely translated means ‘salt flat with enclosures’. It’s disputed as to whether or not the enclosures are referring to the various islands on the Salt Flat itself, or animal enclosures at Uyuni town itself. 
  3. The Aymarans lived in the region before the arrival of the Spanish arrived. Today, they are one of few native south American peoples with a population of over 1 million. Aymara legend claims that the nearby mountains were original giant people. When one of the giant wives, Tunupa, was left by her husband Kusku for Kusina, Tunupa started to cry while breastfeeding her son. However, her tears mixed with milk and formed the Salar. It’s a legend, but many Aymara say that Salt Flat should be called Salar de Tunupa in her honour.
  4. In the centre of the salt flat sits Incahuasi Island (or Isla Incahuasi). Well, technically it’s not an island anymore, but rather, a hilly outcrop from which stunning views of the salt flat are available. Numerous fossils have been found on Incahuasi, and the whole place is the top of an ancient volcano, which was submerged by the lake some 40,000 years ago. The name comes from Quechua, with Inka meaning Inca and wasi meaning house. Inca House. (It’s sometimes also called the Isla del Pescado thanks to its fish-like profile). Oh and it’s famously covered in cacti – be warned!
  5. Near the town of Colchani (a salt-mining town), there is a cave on the hillside with the 900-year-old remains of eight figures. This grave is largely intact, with three full skeletons (including a mother holding a baby). The skeletons are all intentionally deformed, which is believed to have been done deliberately so that they would stand out to the Gods. 
  6. On the outskirts of Uyuni lies an enormous Train Graveyard which most tour companies will bring you to (although it’s walkable from Uyuni town). In the 19th century, plans were afoot to build huge networks of trains out of Uyuni into neighbouring countries. but the project was abandoned because of a combination of technical difficulties and tension with neighbouring countries. There is now an enormous collection of late 19th and early 20th century rusty trains sitting on the salt plain. The salt winds have corroded the metal, and many have been vandalised, but they remain an astonishing (and marginly eerie) remnance of an industrial dream.
  7. One of the first things you notice in Bolivia (whether or not you end up visiting Salar de Uyuni) is that almost every Bolivian elderly woman will be wearing a Bowler Hat. It’s claimed that a line of Bowler Hats were created in the UK my two brothers, who intended to sell them to British railway workers working in Bolivia at the time. But the hats were too small for men and were instead given to local women. Today, they areworn slightly too small still – symbolic of the mistake – but the original bowler hat women were spun a yarn that this was the female fashion back in Europe!
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6 thoughts on “Historic Facts about the Bolivian Salt Flats (Salar de Uyuni)

  1. A wild place, through and through. I’m curious where you found the backstory on the bowler hats and the two brothers. Can anyone point me to a source?

    It’s worth noting that many Bolivian vehicles also wear bowler hats, specifically in August around Independence Day.

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