The Tunupa Salt Lake

Tunupa cover

Asociación Armonía, Bolivia 2000. Text: Lois Jammes & Martin Specht. Watercolours by Oscar Tintaya.

On the roof of the world at almost 12,000 ft above sea level, there is an expanse of brilliant white salt so vast that in it's centre, there is nothing beyond the horizon. There are parts of the salt lake where you can drive along at top speed with no need for eyes looking ahead or hands on the wheel. When I drove across the salt with my good friend Lois Jammes, the main author of this book, we had a game of chess in the car, all eyes on the game. One of us was driving.

The product of months of on-site research, writing, sketching and painting in appalling weather conditions, this delightful little book contains first-hand knowledge of the geology, biodiversity and native culture surrounding Bolivia’s magnificent Tunapa (Uyuni) salt lake the largest in the world and one of the country’s prime scenic attractions.

The Tunupa (better known as Uyuni) salt lake is also an extremely fragile ecosystem and for centuries has been an important cultural and spiritual reference for local populations.

However, the salt lake faces an uncertain future: it has the misfortune of sitting on top of 40% of the planet's lithium reserves, and lithium is a prime element for the manufacture of batteries, cell phones and many other gadgets that humans are unwilling to live without. 

The book has been donated to local communities and schools, and sold to tourists and conservation organisations. The authors have recently developed an updated edition.

Get in touch if you want to obtain a copy.

Here are some of the cartoon sketches I contributed to the book, usually to illustrate parts of the text.

Meet the authors!

Lois Jammes

Meet the first author of this book: Lucho (Lois) Jammes. Bush pilot, humanist, artist, author and conservationist. Also the founder and president of the Armonía Association at the time, a Bolivian bird conservation NGO that later became the national partner of BirdLife International.

Martin Specht

Martin Specht, co-author of the book and a geologist working for Total. Martin took care of most of the scientific content of the book. 

Oscar Tintaya

Oscar Tintaya, the artist responsible for the watercolours in the book, all painted on location and in all weathers. On this adventure, Oscar developed a remarkable ability to paint while wearing woolly mittens. 

Salt extraction is still an important economic activity
Llamas are the traditional mode of transport
If you do use a car, watch out for the water holes!

When I visited the salt lake I met an extraordinary character who was traversing the Andes by bicycle

Infrequent trains link the town of Uyuni on the eastern margin of the salt lake with the outside world

A far more common form of transport

salt hotel

There is an extraordinary little hotel on the salt lake where you can have a meal and stay the night in a room entirely made of salt. Even the tables and chairs are made of salt. When having lunch there, I asked for the salt pot for my chips. Incredibly, I was told they were out of salt. So I just scraped some raw salt off the table top with a spoon - true story!

There is wildlife on the salt lake, including three species of flamingoes. 

Here is Lucho again, studying the wildlife on one of the islands

Geologist Martin Specht busily examining the rock formations on one of the salt lake's islands

While Oscar Tintaya continues to paint

With increasing tourism, the islands are targeted by many visitors as a stop-off for various basic needs. This unfortunately causes environmental damage such as soil erosion, littering, and some visitors even scar the cacti. This cactus is about to exact a small measure of justice...

Though long extinct, the Tunupa volcano overlooking the salt lake does have reason to get annoyed at times: this fragile ecosystem, revered by the native population for hundreds of years and a central part of their ancestral culture, is now at the mercy of the greed of the modern world. There are plans afoot to mine lithium from beneath it. The same lithium that is in your cell phone. 

There is the native wildlife, and as with the tourists, the salt lake is also, albeit rarely, visited by species from other parts. Like this pelican, blown off course all the way up from the Chilean coast to the salt lake, nearly 4000 m above sea level in the Andes. A true story. One may easier understand the attitude of the Bolivian border officer when taking into account the history between Bolivia and Chile...