The Salar de Uyuni is one of those places that is on the list of pretty much every tourist visiting Bolivia. And it’s no shock really. The vast expanse of salty nothingness is a place unlike anywhere else in the world. Initially, we didn’t plan to cycle across it – tales of crispy and weathered cyclists had put us off. But after a few months of cycling in the Andes, our confidence had grown and we thought ‘how hard could it be?’ – It was flat after all!
Really though, we should never underestimate natures ability to destroy us. And if nothing can survive there, it’s likely to be a savage place! We packed accordingly – sun hats, sun cream, food and plenty of water. We took a rock to hammer pegs into the hard salt, long pegs and extra guylines for the famous winds we’d heard all about but were yet to properly experience.
Within a few hours of leaving Uyuni we were rolling on white glitter and in high spirits. It felt good to be back out on the bikes after a long stint in the city. We had gotten stuck in La Paz amidst the political chaos that followed the election results. Daily demonstrations, the smell of tear gas, and military jets flying overhead were etched into our memories. Now things were simple again. Just us, the endless salt and our thoughts.
It’s amazing just how much getting out of the city can clear your head, especially when you’re cycling. I liked to imagine my mind as the vast open space of the salar. Quiet and still. Nothing but the sound of the crunching salt and the infinite white space, curving along the horizon.
We camped on the salt beneath a spectacular sunset, blown away by the unique, featureless landscape. We were completely alone. And it’s in those moments that you really appreciate the freedom and solitude that travelling by bicycle can bring. To really be in the place and experience both the beauty and hostility of the environment.
It was more hardcore than expected though. The constant exposure to the relentless sun is brutal. Expect cracked hands and peeling, rough skin. Not a good look. And the jarring salt ridges can lead to one very sore arse! Needless to say, the novelty wears off after a while and you just need to cover the distance. With nothing but salt to look at, it can become a bit monotonous, and so a good drum and bass playlist is highly recommended!
On the second night we found ourselves cycling into a gale force headwind in the dark, hoping to reach the Isla del Pescado and shelter from the wind. The Island had, at once, seemed so close. But after four hours of cycling towards it, it didn’t seem to be getting any closer! That’s the mad thing about this place, with no real concept of space and distance, the islands ahead look like a mirage, hovering above the ground.
‘Nearly there now’ would play on repeat in my head as I attempted to re direct my thoughts away from the pain and focus on keeping my eyes open. With no obstacles in sight, the salar is, at least, one of the safer places to fall asleep at the wheel, but still, it wasn’t ideal. The night rolled in, and we rolled on, at little more than a walking pace. At 9.30pm we eventually reached the island, setting up the tent and collapsing into our bowl of instant noodles.
It was probably an avoidable situation. We knew the winds got worse in the afternoon but it still didn’t stop us from taking a long three hour lunch break at the previous island, Incahausi, a cacti covered tourist hot spot in the centre of the salt flats, and the inspiration for the illustration above. If we had just cracked on, instead of relaxing in the shade and drinking coke, we would have been there before dark. But at the time, going out and getting fried was just not as appealing as staying put and eating biscuits! So the choice was made!
We completed the crossing with memories of joy and pain, making me wonder if the highs would have been possible if we hadn’t suffered a bit to get them. With saddle sores and salty smiles, we reached the small town of Llica, where a bed and meal for the night was met with a great appreciation for the simple comforts in life. From there we would prepare for the next section over the Salar de Coipasa and onto the Ruta de Las Vicunas, a route through the desert that would lead us towards the beach city of Arica.