One of the main reasons for me to ride through Bolivia on my Panamerican Peaks tour was to see the world’s largest salt flat, the Salar de Uyuni. From various cyclist reports I knew that riding on this sea of salt would be an extraordinary experience.
After arriving by train from Villazon to Uyuni I booked a one-day jeep tour out to the Salar. This gave me a rest day after the stressful 9hr night train ride and would also give me a feel for the size and condition of roads etc. During this jeep tour we crossed the Salar from the little village of Colchani (20km North of Uyuni) in the SE to the volcano Thunupa in the North. Two of the passengers had booked a two-day tour with a climb up towards the volcano, so we drove to the village on the base of the volcano to drop them off. Then on the way back we drove to the Isla Incahuasi in the middle of the Salar. There are some small and clean facilities as well as a nice walking path to the top of this island. The views from up there across the white sea of salt with the snow-capped peaks of the Cordillera rising on the horizon is exceptional.
(Isla Incahuasi in the Salar reminded me of the Isla Taquile in Lake Titicaca.) Also spectacular cacti growing on this island, some more than a 1000 yrs old and up to 10m tall! All too soon we had to say Good-Bye to this place and head back some 50km across the Salar to Colchani, chasing our own shadow in a race against the clock and the setting sun.
Fresh rested and equipped with 10l of water and coke I headed out the next day to ride on the Salar. I left Uyuni behind knowing that there wouldn’t be much infrastructure for a long time and that I would probably not be able to get online for several days. After the first 20km I had lunch in Colchani, then took the ramp to get onto the salt flat, passing some of the structures built of salt like the Hotel de Sal as well as the commercial salt farms.
Now I was on the Salar – just endless white level salt stretching to the horizon in every direction. It was easier to ride following some tire tracks, almost like ski tracks in backcountry snow.
I changed my helmet against the brimmed sunhat and applied sunscreen and lip balm every hour or so to protect my skin from the intense radiation. Hours passed heading towards the North with volvano Thunupa as beacon in the distance. After about 2 hrs or so I met a local cyclist who was riding out to a little hut cutting salt for a living. I can hardly imagine an encounter of two more different cyclists in a more surreal setting than this!
Hours went by without much change in the scenery; this was similar to the 30km straight roads along the pampa in Argentina, but here it was all endless in 2 dimensions. I stopped every hour or so for a drink and more sunscreen. There were no cars or human beings anywhere since several hours. Out here I was on my own. Due to the somewhat bumpy ride and a slight headwind my speed was only around 12-15 km/h. I soon realized that I wouldn’t be able to cross the Salar today. But I had wanted to spend a night out here anyway and I came prepared.
The shadows got longer and the colors more vivid. 1/2 hr before sunset I stopped, moved aside from the tire tracks (to be safe in the unlikely event that a car would follow those overnight) and set up my tent.
Some photos just before sunset, which you can literally feel on your skin, as the temperature immediately starts dropping once the sun disappears. I spent the next 20min or so eating in my tent while it got dark and the stars emerged. The night sky out here is brilliant, with the Milky Way as clear as ever. One can even see the Magellan Cloud, our nearest galaxy. There is no artificial light or any sign of human activity out here. No dogs barking in the distance, no trucks, no TV or radio, no animals, nothing. The silence, darkness and solitude out here is so profound, it’s very serene. One of the most unique and awesome experiences of my entire trip!
The thermometer dipped down to -3C and my water bottle on the bike had some ice in it. But there was very little wind and with my good equipment I didn’t have a problem with the cold. Next day the sun rose at 7am and quickly warmed the air again. I packed away my tent and continued heading North. Eventually I found tire tracks leading to an exit to the NE and so left the Salar again. The following 2 days of riding were very hard, through very remote areas and tiny villages, with local farmers working the seasonal Quinoa harvest and an even colder night (-8C) in the tent. The roads are particularly challenging, with gravel, sand, at times large rocks, rivers without bridges, mudflats, and some washboard. Bike and rider take a beating on those stretches, but that seems to be the price of admission to crossing the Salar… Once back to the good roads and even pavement near Huari the poor quality of the roads will soon be forgotten, but the impressions of the Salar likely will remain burned into memory forever!
SPOT track of last week’s ride from Uyuni to Patacamaya (near La Paz):