Extracting salt from Bolivia’s great white open

The light is merciless and the air is thin. At the world’s largest salt flat both men and machine are put through their paces. This is where truck driver Dario Machaca Colque has worked for more than 30 years.
Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia.
Every year approximately 25,000 tonnes of salt is extracted from Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia.
Dario Machaca Colque has been working in the salt desert for more than 30 years.

The first sunrays of the morning are starting to filter through over the mountain peaks surrounding the salt flat. The wind gathers speed over the endless expanse and the crisp cold air bites at the cheeks. For a recent arrival the thin air manifests itself in the form of a light headache.

“I started driving Volvo trucks here when I was 14 and I have never used other trucks,” Dario Machaca Colque says as he climbs up into the cab of his Volvo FH16 parked outside his home in the little town of Colchani. 

Salar de Uyuni, or Salar de Tunupa as the local Indians call it, is situated in the province of Potosi in western Bolivia. The worlds largest salt flat covers the same area as the city of Los Angeles and consists of 10,583 square kilometres of densely packed salt.
Today, Dario will load and transport salt that is extracted from the salt flat. Before heading out he picks up the loaders who will help him today. They have a hard days work ahead of them. The large trailer will be loaded with 25 tonnes of salt – by hand, aided only by simple shovels. That’s why Dario makes sure he brings lunch and drinks for the loaders.

“That’s Edgar and his brother Ivan, they are also from this town. Everyone knows everyone around here,” Dario says as the two loaders arrive.

Edgar and Ivan climb up on the trailer bed where their father Paulino, who is also a loader, is already sitting. 

After every second trip in the salt we wash the trucks carefully with water. Then we spray them with oil and grease to protect them during the next trips.
On every assignment, Dario Machaca Colque needs help from a small team of loaders.

40,000 years ago, this whole area was a prehistoric lake, and when the water receded the salt flat was formed. The salt crunches under the wheels when the truck drives out on to the vast plateau where it makes large octagonal shapes. All traces of the road disappear in the white emptiness and Dario navigates using the mountains in the distance as reference points. His knowledge of the local area is exceptional.

“The surface is really made up of two layers of compressed salt, one upper and one lower. In between these is a layer of mud. It is not dangerous to drive on the salt but if you drive off your regular route you can get into trouble. In some places the surface is softer and the truck can get stuck deep in the salt.”

The sun climbs up over the horizon and the rays bounce off the white terrain making sunglasses essential. Dario’s calloused hands and the creases at the corners of his eyes bear witness to a life spent working hard in constant struggle against the pitiless light. The salt flat has been Dario’s place of work for over 30 years.

“But the people who live here are strong and healthy. The salt is good for arthritis and joint pains,” Dario explains with a smile.

Throughout the years Dario has had several Volvo trucks. Today he owns two 2006 Volvo FH16 with 610 horsepower. He has imported the trucks himself from Europe. On Dario’s truck you can still see the stickers from the previous owners, the logistics company DFDS in Germany.

“I plan to buy another Volvo truck, a 2008, at some point next year. I will import it from Sweden.” 

The salt must be loaded by hand, using simple shovels.

Dario and 23 other drivers are members of the “11th of July Co-operative”, which is a drivers co-operative that carries out both domestic and international transport assignments to and from the area. The roads around the salt flat are poor and the distances great. That is why the salt flat is used as a corridor to the Oruro province to the north, Cochabamba to the northeast, and the neighbouring country Chile to the west.

As members of the co-operative the drivers own their own trucks but share the administration. Costs and profits are shared between the members.

For Dario and his fellow drivers, driving Volvos is the obvious choice – 20 out of 23 vehicles in the co-operative are Volvo trucks.

“In the winter it gets very cold here and some other trucks simply won’t start up. The roads around the salt flat are very rough. Other trucks shake to pieces and start leaking, the engines stop running smoothly. That doesn’t happen with Volvo. They are sturdy and can handle these punishing conditions.”

Since the salt accelerates rusting, the work is hard on the trucks. Dario explains that quite a bit of maintenance work is necessary:

“After every second trip in the salt we wash the trucks carefully with water. Then we spray them with oil and grease to protect them during the next trips.”

Every year approximately 25,000 tonnes of salt is extracted from Salar de Uyuni. The extraction process is simple, but labour intensive. The salt, which is moist, is piled up by hand to dry overnight before it is loaded.

In this area the salt is solid enough that there are no problems driving heavy trucks here, but over there it is softer…the trucks can sink into the salt.

Suddenly, the endless whiteness is interrupted by silhouettes in the distance. After a while the pyramid shaped piles of salt become more pronounced. Dario stops his truck, climbs down and explains to Edgar, Ivan and Paulino, how the work shall be done. First three piles of salt are to be loaded on one side of the trailer bed, then the truck is turned around and an additional three piles are loaded on the other side. 

Salar de Uyuni consists of 10,583 square kilometres of densely packed salt - roughly the same size as the city of Los Angeles. When fully loaded, Dario’s truck will carry 25 tonnes of salt.

“It is important to load from both sides so that there is no imbalance,” Dario explains.

He points out into the distance.

“In this area the salt is solid enough that there are no problems driving heavy trucks here, but over there it is softer. Over there the trucks can sink into the salt.”

Right now the salt flat is dry but during the rainy season of the summer months, the nearby Popoo lake floods and covers the flat with a layer of water. In some places the depth can be up to a metre.

“That is why we build up a supply of salt in Colchani before the rain comes and load from there. Neither us nor the producers work in the salt flat during the rainy season.”

Paulino, Edgar and Ivan throw the last few shovels of salt on to the trailer bed. The work has taken a little under three hours. Then they are given a ride back to Colchani by one of the many cars working in the tourism trade in the area.

Before Dario heads back, he and his truck are caught in a sand storm. The wind pounds in from the nearby stone deserts and builds up sandy brown clouds on the horizon. The fine dust falls on to the salt flat.

Dario sits in his cab waiting for the storm to calm down.

“It usually only lasts no more than an hour, then it exhausts itself,” Dario explains. He turns on the radio where a news anchor runs through the local summary in staccato.

He is right, the storm passes and in the distance the ominous clouds draw away from the salt flat as Dario starts up his engine.

Volvo is the truck of choice on the salt flats, accounting for 20 of the 23 vehicles currently operating the local cooperative. Dario Machaca Colque imports his Volvo trucks himself from Europe.

The truck

Technical data: Volvo FH16 tractor with a Brazilian trailer made by Randon. Intended for long distances and heavy loads, this 2005 truck has a 16.1 litre in-line six-cylinder engine with 610hp and it boasts 2800nm of torque at 1000-1500 rpm.

How is it used: Used for transporting borax and sulphur from the mines in the area and salt from the salt flats both internationally and domestically. A typical assignment takes 14-18 hours. Approximately 70,000 km/year.

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