Cycling the world’s largest salt flat: Salar de Uyuni
Pedalling across no-man’s land from Chile into Bolivia, it felt as if things changed more dramatically than on any of our other border crossings. The people looked much more indigenous whilst a bottle of sprite cost half of what it had. It seemed as if we had finally arrived in the real South America.
We entered Bolivia on the barren expanse of the Altiplano, and as our first night in South America’s poorest country approached, were looking for a campsite with shelter from the wind. There was little to hide behind, so we were relieved to spot some derelict buildings next to the military base of Chiguana that would make a good wind break.
The soldiers though offered for us to sleep in one of their camouflaged domes, nowadays disused, but complete with a lectern and papier-mâché scale model of the border with Chile. With thick walls, it served as an ideal warm space for the night.
The following day, we reached the remote village of San Rosario de Juan and treated ourselves to a bed for the first time in a week. After six consecutive dinners of pasta, the hostal restaurant of home-cooked food tasted especially good, washed down with a nice bottle of Bolivian red.
Not far out of town, we stopped to chat with some road workers conducting the back-breaking work of redistributing the sand and gravel using shovels. It seems a futile task as jeeps continually speed past reshaping the road back into cycling chaos.
At Cocha K, after a particularly tough day falling victim to Bolivia’s lack of and wayward signposting, we found a great little alojomiento (guest house) with a solar powered shower for the equivalent of £2.15 each. Warm and out of the wind, we enjoyed the knowledge that we were only a few kilometres away from the world’s largest salt plain, the Salar de Uyuni, one of the highlights of our trip whilst planning.
Our anticipation heightened when we met a French couple coming from there. They offered some good advice about covering up from the sun, having themselves fallen foul of the shiny, white surface which reflects the sun back upwards.
In total, we pedalled across 80km of this prehistoric salt lake, via the rocky outcrop of Isla Incahuasi in the middle. As we set out onto the crusty surface, the only landmark we had was Volcan Thunupa at the far end to guide us, there being no road markings to follow.
The island (an old coral reef) changed from an apparition floating on the salt, to a clearer landmark, and finally a couple of kilometres away we could make out its tall cacti. Getting closer still an armada of jeeps appeared, the spot being a popular haunt on the backpacker trail .
Eating llama and vegetarian burgers at the island’s cafe, we made the most of the tourist services, before finding a secluded camp spot on the edge of the island to watch a spectacular sunset.
Cycling on the salt pan wasn’t quite the quick, smooth ride we had expected. The shiny service meant that it was cooler than on the surrounding land and very bright. Whilst the hexagonal tiles of salt created a cobblestone effect, which was like riding up and down Coronation Street for two days.
The surface of the plain changed as we cycled across. It was mushier towards the sides and holes appeared here and there, clearly revealing the water below that supports the salt crust. Whilst pink flamingos bathing in the pools of water at the northern edge made getting back onto land tricky.
Despite having been on the Altiplano for a few days, it was clear we had yet to acclimatise fully to the lack of oxygen. This became very apparent as we climbed out of the village of Jurira on a horrendously rocky road over the eastern flank of Volcan Thunupa. Trying to keep the bike upright was extremely hard and after even short sections we found ourselves folded over our handlebars desperately trying to get the breathing under control.
It was slow progress, as we pushed through sand much of the way to the sleepy village of Salinas de Garci Mendoza. We sat exhausted, eating bread and cheese in the town’s shady plaza, and reached a decision: we had achieved what we had wanted with the Salar de Uyuni but the next few days would involve much of the same exhausting struggle to reach the tarmac road at Huari, so we opted to take a 4×4 bus preparing to head eastwards.
The journey took us five hours to cover 130km, a slow speed record for any South American bus. Within the first ten minutes all the bags had bounced off the luggage racks and the bus was a dust bowl. The constant bumping and our view of the road made us confident we had made the right decision. It would have been a miserable few days pushing through thick sand, at that altitude and into the strong north wind.
For whilst we want to cycle as much of the route as possible, we don’t plan to make it unnecessarily difficult on ourselves – we’re here to enjoy it!