The Salt of the Earth
Countless travel writers and guide book authors have returned from the Salar de Uyuni with enticing stories based entirely on the incredible landscape the area is famous for. Regrettably they ignore one of the most interesting facets of the south western circuit: its people and history.
Like the mystery surrounding the thermal mists of the Laguna Colorada, intrigue surrounds the original inhabitants of the Salar area. Few written records exist of life before Spanish colonisation, although some facts are known from archaeological artefacts and oral history.
Prior to colonisation, society was organised into ‘ayllus’, or clans. These were separate groups of people, each with their own set of rules and customs, and different methods of agricultural production. Some ayllus have survived colonisation and are still raising llamas and producing agriculture in the north-west and west of the salt flat.
The ayllu society in its early stages was nomadic, hunting in Lipez and the northern Chilean valleys. As agricultural methods developed the clans gradually settled down, particularly in the area around the Quetena valley.
For the budding archaeologist, the Salar is a goldmine. Although many archaeological studies have been carried out in the area (dating some of the artefacts at over seven thousand years old), most of the ruins and sights have been left in their natural environment where they can be viewed by the more adventurous explorers.
The most prominent ruins still standing are the man-made settlements: large circular stone buildings with doorways facing the north (to capitalise on the sun in the southern hemisphere). In some areas the walls still stand over a meter tall, and protect many of the tools such as arrowheads and stone knives that can be found inside. It’s thought that these settlements were occupied for relatively prolonged periods of time, although whether the settlements were permanent is unknown. These ruins are most easily accessed in the areas surrounding Laguna Colorada and Chalviri.
In addition to the larger human settlements, smaller ‘jaranas’ (campsites) are also still visible. These are generally simpler affairs than the large settlements near fertile pasture. Consisting of a simple stone shelter, the jarana was a place where a caravaner could load and unload llamas, cook, eat and sleep for a short period before continuing on their journey. Ceramic work associated with the Tiwanaku culture can be found in many of these sites (in addition to colonial ceramics from a later period).
Similar to the jaranas are the much smaller ‘tambos’, which were checkpoints on the imperial highway. These are generally quadrangular corrals (used to lock up llamas for the night), but often have a small area with a roof where a caravaner may have found shelter.
Due to its rich geology, the Salar was heavily colonised by the Spanish looking to capitalise on its rich deposits of lead, zinc, and silver (not to mention salt).
However, mining was not the only thing brought by Europeans to the area. Uyuni holds the distinction of being the first place where a plane took off and landed on Bolivian soil (in 1921). In addition Uyuni has a dubious claim to being the first city where soccer was played in Bolivia- apparently the game was played amongst the British engineers building the railways.
Visitors to the area should not be deterred by the description of Uyuni in one guidebook as “a post apocalyptic wasteland”. Perhaps due to its reliance on tourism after the decline of the local mining industry, but more likely because of their naturally friendly nature, the people of Uyuni and the surrounding communities will make you feel welcome.
There are not many English speakers in Uyuni, but everyone is extremely willing to help you plan your trip into the salt flats. What truly denotes the friendliness is the smiles offered your way even after booking with a rival touring company.
Excluding the community at Uyuni and isolated examples such as the Salt Hotel in the middle of the salt flat, there are very few communities living in the seemingly inhospitable environment of the Salar.
Two notable exceptions are the communities at Quetena Grande and Quetena Chico. Quetena comes from the Aymara word for swamp (queta), so the names of the towns literally mean “big swamp” and “little swamp”.
The 184 residents of ‘Big Swamp’ survive by farming llamas, sheep and goats. Although these livestock provide meat, milk and wool, greenhouses are also used to try and grow vegetables despite the inhospitable climate.
Despite being the ‘Little Swamp’, Quetena Chico is the larger community with 485 inhabitants. Around half the people live in the town of Quetena Chico, the rest are scattered around Laguna Colorada and Potrero. The town has a school providing primary education and a health post with resident nurse.
Both towns cater to tourists and provide relaxing and affordable places to break the trip. Despite the swampy names, neither is a backwater!!