The largest salt flat in the world

By Matilda Battersby

You could probably see your face in the mirror-like Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat.

The 12,000sq km salt-encrusted prehistoric lakebed is located in Potosi, southwest Bolivia, near the crest of the Andes, 3,660m above sea level. It is almost 100 times larger than the famous Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, USA, and so flat that NASA uses its surface to calibrate sensors on board satellites.

During the dry season, from May to October, the surface crust of sodium chloride – more than 10m deep in places – is parched and cracked and looks as though it belongs on another planet. But, come the rainy season (roughly November to April), it is often covered with a shallow layer of water, which makes it hard to tell where land ends and the sky begins.

For years, only intrepid tourists and saleros (salt gatherers) have made it to this remote place. But now the Bolivian government has ambitious plans for mineral extraction that will bring big changes to the isolated landscape. The region is believed to contain the biggest store of lithium in the world – in demand for its use in lightweight batteries.

Plans to link this remote area to the modern world via new infrastructure are underway, with the mineral wealth hidden beneath this pristine reflective surface leading some to predict Bolivia will be ‘the Saudi Arabia of the 21st century’.

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