In a time when gods left footprints as wide as lakes and their heads towered over clouds, there was once a mountain goddess called Tunupa. Legend has it her husband abandoned her for another woman. Heartbroken and distraught, Tunupa cried while breastfeeding her child. The water from her tears and the milk from her breasts mingled to form the largest salt flat in the world—the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia.
Tunupa has since been immortalised as a mountain, which bears her name, by the Aymara people of the Andes. In Aymara belief, specific geological formations are considered sacrosanct, as gods can choose to take the shape of caves, hillsides or rivers.
Nico, this film’s protagonist, has lived and worked in the shadow of Mount Anupa all his life. The frosted expanse which surrounds the mountain is almost as large as the state of Connecticut, and is where Nico voyages to work every day. As he hacks away at the salt rock with a well-worn ax to source material for his sculptures, he steadily chews coca leaves—his labor becoming a form of self-induced meditation. “The salt flat is a nurturing entity to Nico. It is as if it connects him to a higher dimension,” says director Ivan Olita. “It provides for him and his family, so it has to be treated according to the teachings of his elders.”
Nico maintains some reverence for the Salar by using traditional and more time-consuming hand tools over mechanized instruments to extract the rock. “Myths are a potent way to investigate our reality from a different perspective,” says Olita. “They inform the life of the people from the area they belong to and can help us connect with it more profoundly.”
The wonder of Bolivia’s bleached sea, which continues to draw the awe and respect of local residents, also precipitates its own desecration. Salar de Uyuni is one of the flattest places on Earth and holds up to 70% of the world’s lithium reserves, making it a hotspot for tourists and a mining magnet for tech companies.
“The Aymara myth intertwining with contemporary myths of technology exemplifies the co-dependence between man and nature,” Olita comments. “But most of all it is an attempt to identify the connection that exists between places that live in the collective consciousness and the people that actually inhabit them.”