For today's Geo Quiz, we encounter the salt of the earth.
Pink flamingos that migrate from neighboring Chile. Photo: Ruxandra Guidi and Bear GuerraPink flamingos that migrate from neighboring Chile. Photo: Ruxandra Guidi and Bear Guerra
We're headed to the world's largest salt flat. Now if you're thinking Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah...well, that's not even close.
This one is 26 times as big as Bonneville. There's enough salt here to fill your shaker for a long, long time.
Photo: Bear GuerraPhoto: Bear Guerra
Here's a final hint. The salt flat is in southwestern Bolivia.
We'll give you a few minutes to come up with the name.
First we're heading to Bolivia. That's where you'll find the world's largest salt flat.
Salt pyramids in the Salar before they're "harvested" by the locals to make table salt. Photo: Ruxandra Guidi and Bear GuerraSalt pyramids in the Salar before they're "harvested" by the locals to make table salt. Photo: Ruxandra Guidi and Bear Guerra
It's the one we were looking for in today's Geo Quiz. There's about 10-billion tons of salt there. And only about 25,000 tons is extracted each year.
Salt bricks to build houses in the communities surrounding the Salar. Photo: Ruxandra Guidi and Bear GuerraSalt bricks to build houses in the communities surrounding the Salar. Photo: Ruxandra Guidi and Bear Guerra
That should be enough to salt those fries, no matter how often you super-size. The answer is the Salar de Uyuni.
Reporter Ruxandra Guidi takes us for a visit.
It's mid-morning, and four travelers -- including myself -- are driving away from the Bolivian town of Uyuni and towards the mountains.
We're at an altitude of 12,000 feet... and the outside temperature is a chilly forty degrees Fahrenheit.
But inside our four-by-four Toyota truck it feels like summer.
Ruben -- our driver and tour guide -- has the heat up all the way. Forty minutes later we arrive at our destination.
Eugenia processes salt to make it into edible iodized table salt in the village of Colchani. Photo Ruxandra Guidi and Bear GuerraEugenia processes salt to make it into edible iodized table salt in the village of Colchani. Photo Ruxandra Guidi and Bear Guerra
Ruben launches into his standard introduction to the Salar de Uyuni. He mentions that these are the largest salt flats in the world, at over 4-thousand square miles.
Ruben tries to sound excited -- but his voice is a monotone. He delivers that speech more and more often these days.
He says tourism here has grown exponentially recently.
He says years ago -- the few tourists who came here rode on their bicycles.
Now it's different.... tourists come via Land Cruisers.
And they're always amazed at what they see when they arrive.
STAND-UP: "It's really difficult to imagine the Salar de Uyuni until you get here, because really, all there is to it is this vastness of white that goes on for miles and miles -- it's a pretty stunning landscape. The sky above is very bright light blue, and scattered throughout the Salar you see pyramids, white little pyramids, and that's salt that is setting out to dry...The folks from the communities nearby leave it out for a couple of days at a time, and then they pick it up and truck it into their villages to then process and actually produce table salt."
A tourist stands by the "train cemetery" near the village of Uyuni. Photo: Ruxandra Guidi and Bear GuerraA tourist stands by the "train cemetery" near the village of Uyuni. Photo: Ruxandra Guidi and Bear Guerra
Ruben takes us to the nearby village of Colchani, next to the Salar, to see just how this white stuff is turned into table salt.
Eugenia lives here in a humble house made of salt bricks...Outside, there is a thick layer of salt drying out in the sun. When it's done, the salt is taken inside, baked, iodized, and packaged for sale.
Producing table salt, she says, is the only way she and other villagers can make a living.
You saw what's like, she says, there's no water. It's too dry for raising farm animals or grow crops. So salt is the only viable business.
That .. and tourism.
Ruben gets us back in the Land Cruiser and steers away from the Salar.
Our own tour of the giant salt flats is over.
As he drives, Ruben explains tourism provides financial opportunities for a lot of people of this region -- himself included.
But some argue that such opportunities come at a price for Bolivia.
A week later, back in Bolivia's capital, La Paz, I meet Guillermina Miranda.
She's an ecologist at the state university here, and an expert on the Salar de Uyuni.
She's worried about the negative effects of increased tourism at the site.
MIRANDA: "What do those tourists do? They show up in SUVs, drive around the salt flats for four or five days, and then they go away -- often leaving a lot of trash. Now you can see the environmental damage. There's trash everywhere, and many of the animals in the region are eating it!"
Miranda says tourism can be a good thing for the Salar de Uyuni and the people who live near it.
She just wants to see that tourism managed in a more environmentally-responsible way.
For The World, I'm Ruxandra Guidi, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia.
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