Rubbing Salt in: Crossing the Salt Flats of Bolivia to Chile

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Our first Salt lake, the Salar de Coipasa

 

We are in Chile! Country 26 of the adventure, and it’s a huge relief to be back in civilization. We have crossed the salt flats of Bolivia, the Salar de Coipasa, the Salar de Uyuni, and the Salar de Chiquana. We have some photos to treasure but I honestly can’t recommend cycling this route to anyone. This part of Bolivia is the territory of the 4×4 and definitely not the bicycle. They haven’t yet built asphalt roads around the salt flats so we have been pushing our bikes through sand, stones, washboard car tracks, (and that’s all before we mention the late afternoon wind storms).

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Happy to have escaped with just a few scratches after my fall on New Year’s Eve

 

On 2 January, we picked ourselves up and dusted ourselves off, and left our church in the tiny abandoned place we had named “New Year Village”. The cuts on my elbow were not very deep and were healing quickly.

A short ride on the sandy track to the tiny town of Vitalina, and then we were passing llamas, and out onto the salt flats. It was amazing. The salt looks like ice and I kept imagining it would crack and I would fall through but it’s actually very firm and smoother to ride on than the terrible dirt track we had been on. We reached the island and crossed more dirt track, occasionally pushing our bikes over rocks and sand, to arrive at the village of Coipasa. The hostel was closed, and the “tourist area” was deserted. We met a few locals and asked about a place to stay. One man offered us a room but without a bathroom, we turned down the offer and chose to keep going instead and look for a place to camp. Cycling across the Salar was awesome. We had been warned that at this time of year, the Salar would be ‘under water’. Some parts were wet, with some small rivers dotted with flamingoes but we had been lucky that with no rain for 2 days, it was still dry enough to cross the whole Salar safely. Although we raced to avoid black clouds that were following us. The strange thing about the salt flats is that you can see so far into the distance. 10km looks like 1km and you can’t tell if the volcanoes ahead are small or far away. And then with headwind, you find yourself exhausted and wanting nothing more than for it to end.

When we reached the edge of the Salar, we camped next to a pond at the edge. The wind was crazy that night and getting the fire started took some time. The pond was the main water source for the nearby town of Tres Cruces, and in the morning we were joined by locals arriving in their 4x4s collecting water.

The few kilometers to reach Tres Cruces involved pushing the bikes in deep sand and after the town (where we saw nobody) we had an uphill climb on rocks and loose stones. The whole day we walked and pushed the bikes so when we arrived exhausted in another tiny town called Peña Blanca in strong wind, we called it quits for the day. We will remember the town as ‘Mango town’ because the only thing we could buy was mangoes from the back of a truck (after Paola had overheard a woman telling her kids to go to buy something). We had spent many days without any fresh food so those juicy mangoes tasted unbelievably good. I went to fetch water from a well (a hole in a field), and when I returned we got some good advice for reaching Tahua, which was to be our starting point for crossing the famous Salar de Uyuni, and a town big enough to have a shop. A nice lady advised us to cycle on the Salar rather than continuing on the road. She was right. It was much easier, and we found supplies and even a nice hostel in Tahua.

In the morning I was told there had been a huge storm, and my first reaction was “oh no! We won’t be able to cross if it’s flooded” but Paola just said we should just go and see. And then something magical happened.

There were just a few centimetres of water on the Salar de Uyuni, which had dissolved the ridges of the honeycombs of salt so the surface was as smooth as marble. And most amazingly, that small coating of water turned the Salar into a giant mirror reflecting the sky in a way that it seemed we were cycling in the sky.

Cycling in the sky at the Salar de Uyuni
Cycling in the sky at the Salar de Uyuni

 

We headed SouthWest across the Salar which became drier, and we found ourselves going slower, as we bumped and crunched over the ridges of salt. The wind also became stronger and stronger and we took shelter that night on an island on the Salar, where we hid the bikes in a cave and used the rocks to shelter us while we made a fire to cook our pasta. The sunset that night was awesome as the pinks, purples and oranges reflected off the patches where water was still sitting on the surface.

We took another day to cross the Salar to arrive at a tiny village called Silanaco where two little boys, both called Fernando, (we named them Fernando and Fernan-“Dos”) showed us where the well was and helped me find firewood. FernanDos also showed us a dinosaur bone before later admitting he had told a “mentira” (a lie) and it was actually the bone of a llama.

Then we had an awful day pushing our bikes on awful dirt tracks to reach San Pedro de Quemes where we found a hostel and managed to get some money changed (the best way to get things in these towns is walk around looking confused and asking people until you eventually find the right door).

And then we had one more day to reach the border with Chile to Ollague. This was possibly the worst day ever. We spent the day circling volcanoes, pushing our bikes on terrible sandy rocky dirt tracks which drained our energy and left us tired and cranky. Silvers chain snapped and this wasted an hour as I replaced it. A slow puncture on Onyx had been bothering Paola but when I tried to remove the wheel, my spanner snapped! I couldnt remove the wheel so we added some air and kept going. At 4pm we finally found the salar de Chiquana and some flat surface we could actually ride on. Bolivia decided it did not want us to leave yet and whipped up some hurricane-strength headwind. Before we reached the trainline (you can follow this to the border) I decided to add a bit more air into Onyx and this just deflated the tyre even more. Eventually after swearing a lot, I eventually managed to remove the wheel with pliers. Then we tried to inflate the tyre, and the pump snapped in my hand. Paola offered to help and I responded by dropping the heavy back wheel against her shin! Crack!

Nothing broken (except our spirits), that night we walked for four hours (two in pitch black darkness), against the strongest wind I have ever experienced, pushing to get off the Salar, tired, bruised, battered and in the foulest of moods. There was no way we could cycle, and we eventually gave up on leaving Bolivia that night. We even imagined buildings in the distance which did not exist. In the morning we woke in our tent, glad it had not been blown away, but wondering where were the houses we both were sure were there the night before.

Without the wind, the morning was much easier and we finally crossed the border at Avaroa (Peru) to Ollague (Chile). On the way we passed some Argentinians guys who were on their way to the Dakar race in Uyuni. They were really nice guys, and we exchanged cards. I joked with them that “if they wanted to do something really difficult, they should do it on a bicycle”!!!

We took a bus to Calama (we did not want to do another 200km of unpaved road) and after 175km to Antofogasta, a nice truck driver stopped to offer us a lift for the last 40km. Both Calama and Antofagasta are built around the copper mining industry and are very big cities with everything you could need.

The next blog will be about our journey down the coast of Chile, as we head down to Santiago. All I can say so far is that Chile is much, much easier. The drivers are nicer, the roads are better, and the towns have things. Of course, the best thing was being able to contact our families after two weeks and call off the police search. Apparently, parents worry. Who knew?

DISTANCES…

(we actually believe we are now counting less than the actual milage)

Crossing the Salar de Coipasa from New Year Village to Tres Cruces 54km

Tres Cruces to Peña Blanca 20km

Peña Blanca to Tahua 36km

Tahua to Island in the middle of the Salar de Uyuni 40km

Island in the Salar de Uyuni to Silanaco 55km

Silanaco to San Pedro de Quemes 50km

San Pedro de Quemes to Ollague 80km

Calama to Antofagasta 175km (40km on a truck not included)

RUNNING TOTALS….

6,509km in South America so far

28,017km around the world!