The salt in Argentina’s Salinas Grande is not for eating. It’s mined for industrial sodium and potassium, which, in turn, is used for making soap, oven cleaners, drain openers and other products. But recently the mining emphasis in Argentina’s salt flats has shifted to another element that lies beneath the salt—lithium.
Not to get too technical, but the average concentration of lithium in mines worldwide is 1,100 ppm (parts per million). In Salinas Grandes, it’s up to 1,600 ppm.
And there’s a lot of it—about 20 million tons of the ore, from which can be extracted about 300,000 tons of pure lithium. Think about that the next time you buy a pack of lithium batteries (lithium is also used in ceramics and glass, electronics, lubricating greases, metallurgy, pyrotechnics, air purification, optics, and on and on).
But that’s not why I was there. I just wanted to see it—2,300 square miles of white stretching toward distant mountains. I had seen photos of people at these and other salt flats; they were doing fun things like jumping, lying down, and using the absence of scale to take photos—one appearing to stand in the hand of another. I wanted to do that, too, but by the time we got there, I had altitude sickness and could barely walk.
Because these salt flats are at an elevation of about 11,000 feet.
“You don’t have enough oxygen in your blood,” our guide told me as I wobbled out of the van complaining of nausea and dizziness. Before leaving the town of Salta that morning, he had stopped at a convenience store and instructed us to buy a bag of coca leaves (yes, THOSE coca leaves), a bunch of which we were to stick between our teeth and gums, swallowing the juices—a blood-oxygenating remedy for altitude sickness. I can’t say if I would have been worse off without the leaves, but I can tell you they are bitter, they poke the insides of your mouth, and I couldn’t wait to spit them out. (Coca tea, I found out later, is a much more pleasant alternative).
Actually, the salt flats weren’t exactly white because they were covered with layers of dust, which washes off with the summer rains. Good thing, too, because I lacked sunglasses and even the dingy saltscape was bright enough to make me squint.
You might be wondering how the salt comes to be there. We were actually standing on a lake covered with about twelve inches of hard-packed salt. Each year, rain in the mountains washes minerals down to this lake, renewing the crusted salt beds. To mine the minerals, workers simply chop out a 3×5-foot-by-six-inch-deep rectangle with a pick ax, then shovel the salt out and pile it next to the cut. Water seeps into the cut, and within six weeks, the sun evaporates the water, and salt fills in the cut as if it had never been made.
The road we had traveled runs through this white sea on its way to Bolivia, and I noticed that a number of black vehicle tires had been placed here and there on the flats adjacent to the road. They’re markers, I was told—a warning to anyone planning to drive onto the expanse of whiteness for a photo op. Like thin ice on a frozen pond. Unwary vehicles have broken through the crust and become stranded. Tractors, bulldozers and backhoes—like salt Zambonis—do venture onto the flats to move and collect the salt, but they know which spots to avoid. At least, I assume they do.
Next to the tourist-van parking lot, I peered in the window of a building and found rows of salt tables—workstations for packing the salt into blocks, perhaps? Outside, some of the 20-somethings in our group gleefully climbed on the mounds of salt, defying a sign that specifically said, in Spanish, do not climb on the salt.
We heard that sometimes you could find a craft market next to the roofless outdoor café—its tables and benches made exclusively from salt bricks. But on the day we visited, the café was deserted, and we found no market—just a shelf containing a few miniature llamas carved from salt.