Salty Dogs: Cycling Through Bolivia’s Salars

 

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I added a little poem to all the inspirational waffle on the walls. I think the work of Eggman Jones holds up well against the neighbouring Emily Dickinson quote.

When I returned to the Casa de Ciclistas it had been invaded by French, Swiss and Belgians. All very nice people I’m sure, but the lingua franca was no longer English and I found myself drowning in a sea of French chatter. Even the one other English guy was fluent in French. It was time to leave.

I made a short trip down to Viacha where I met up with Philipp. From there we would travel south to cycle Bolivia’s famous salt flats but not before we spent a day recuperating and sorting our lives out. One particularly greasy meal later and we were both struck down with a mild case of food poisoning, making our ride south windy in more ways than one (I’ve rarely met a cyclist that hasn’t had some kind of stomach issues while in Bolivia). The route was one to forget: a flat, straight, busy highway that passed through ugly little towns with names like Sica Sica and Vila Vila and was surrounded by dull, unchanging pampa. We stayed in horrible little hotels and every time we stopped for a break silver-toothed Bolivian men would pester us with the same old questions – one dead-eyed goblin of a man making dick jokes about the respective girth of our tyres. It was a relief when we finally pulled into Oruro.

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All smiles in our little hospedaje room before we ate the accursed meal.
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I didn’t take many photos on the dull motorway south.
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Weary cyclists eating peanuts by the roadside.
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Notice how all the streetlights are lacking the ‘light’ part. Unfinished, like so many things in Bolivia.
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Oruro was an uninspiring city, redeemed slightly by the array of weird statues and monuments that decorate the city’s many boardwalks.
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We spent a couple of days trawling the markets. I bought a new tyre and we both armed ourselves with blankets which we had sewn up on one side so we could fit our sleeping bags inside and sleep snugly like sausage roll men
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Here are some more creepy dead baby llamas for your viewing pleasure.
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Rather than head directly south for the larger and more famous Salar de Uyuni, we cut west in search of it’s smaller sister salt flat, the Salar de Coipaisa. Most of the time we had the road all to ourselves and for the first time in a while I felt like I was really getting away from civilisation.
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It felt good to camp again. For much of the trip I’ve treated camping as a last resort but out here, with no rain to worry about and the entire altiplano at our disposal, it was a joy.
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The road was mostly flat but we passed through the occasional small mountain range – the landscape veering between sparse desert, shrubland and lake country.
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Phil in front of Jabba’s palace.
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YAAASSSS!!!
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Apparently ostrich-like birds called rhea roam these lands but we weren’t fortunate enough to see any.
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WELCOME TO ESMERELDA! COME AND SEE OUR LLAMAS AND OUR…UH… OTHER CAMELIDS! WE HAVE A 5-A-SIDE FOOTBALL PITCH TOO! …where are you going? 😥
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Approaching Sabaya we got our first taste of salt flat.
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In Sabaya we bumped into Esther, a Canadian cyclist heading north and a Swiss couple driving around in an old van. Esther told us of her glorious, windless days cycling through the salt flats and got us all excited.
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First we made our way through soft sand…
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…then we did our best not to get lost in the pre-salt grubland…
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…before arriving on the immaculate salt flat of Coipaisa. Where we were promptly beaten down by some of the strongest wind I’ve ever felt in my life.
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I’m not talking steal-your-hat strength wind. I’m talking kidnap-your-toddler strength wind. Look at what it did to my face. I was soon sick of the stupid, overrated salty plain and wanted off.
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After a miserable night camping on one of the islands we awoke to a crisp, sunny, windless salar. My opinion quickly changed.
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That first morning of cycling was incredible.
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We did some good ol’ fashioned llama hunting…
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“WE EATIN’ LLAMA FO’ DINNER T’NIGHT, BOYS!”
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…then stopped in the middle of nowhere for a lunch break, sprinkling salt from the salar into our pots for seasoning.
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The surface of the salar was ever-changing – at times covered in geometric patterns, at others almost like an ice rink.
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Sometimes it cracked under the tyres like meringue, other times it was like cycling through soft snow.
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Alas not all the llamas brave enough to step onto the salt find their way off it.
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Salty bikes.

 

Cycling through the salars I went through an array of emotions: from awe and jubilation, to frustration and downright anger. Those first morning hours roaming through the empty, otherworldly expanse I shall never forget. There wasn’t a person for miles and all we could hear was the sound of our tyres cutting through the pristine silence. Well, that and the sound of me whooping and hollering as I chased llamas through the boundless white. This initial ecstasy wore off and was replaced by a quiet wonderment at the sheer size of the thing. You can cycle for miles and miles in any direction and nothing changes. It’s like you haven’t moved at all.

And therein lies the cause of the frustration.

Even the most spectacular of scenery becomes boring if you stare at it for long enough, and over the course of those 4 days cycling through the salars at times I was begging for the great salt lakes to end. I didn’t help matters by proposing we take a shortcut to the shore of Coipaisa to save time. While my plan started off well enough, the quality of the surface gradually worsened and we had no choice but to push for the last 12km through thick, muddy salt mush. Suffice to say much swearing was involved.

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Utterly exhausted, we arrived in the tiny town of Villa Victoria where we stocked up on snacks and I had a much needed beer.
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That night we had a big campfire before hunkering down in our tents. It was a stupidly cold night – minus 10 inside the tents – and all our water bottles froze.
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Before heading south through exasperating sandy paths. Sand is not a friend of cyclists and once again much pushing was needed.
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We passed through some typically sparse Bolivian backwater towns…
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“MIRA! GRINGOS!” The schools out here are tiny, with as few as 2 or 3 students per year. There’s no choosing your friends out here.
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In Llica we replenished our supplies and had a little rest…
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…enjoying the decor in the town’s only restaurant…
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…before we hit the big one: the Salar de Uyuni.
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It’s absolutely massive and we racked up around 150km scaling this salty beast.
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You can pretty much camp anywhere. And we did. I’d always wanted to camp directly on the salar, which must be one of the most unique places to camp in the world, and I had one of those spine-tingling, “Holy Fuck” moments watching the colours of the sunset melt into the horizon as I took a glorious piss into the void.
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Poor Phil spent most of the night suffering from stomach issues and by the next morning much of the magic of the salar had worn off. We got our heads down and set about grinding out the 70km to the centre. Unlike Coipaisa, which was wild and ever changing, cycling across Uyuni was much more functional: we followed the long, straight “road” for hour after hour after hour.
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Our day was brightened when we were caught up by Laura and Herbie, a cool English and Irish couple we’d met back in Cusco, and Falk, a German dude cycling on a bamboo bike with fat tyres.
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As dusk fell we arrived on the touristy island of Inca Huasi.
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While all the tourists took photos of the salar, I was more in awe of how many jeeps there were.
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After enjoying another gorgeous sunset…
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…we banded together with a Brazilian, an Argentinian and a Turkish cyclist to sleep in Inca Huasi’s “cave”: a room they set aside at night for cyclists to sleep in. We made quite the gang.
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After some quick morning snaps of the cactus covered isle, me, Phil, Laura and Herbie set about tackling the final 70km to the shore…
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…taking some half hearted perspective shots along the way.
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By the time we reached the big flag monument thing my arse really hurt and I was well and truly sick of the sight of the salar. I’d gone a week without a bed, 10 days without a shower and was in dire need of some R&R.
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And it was with great relief that we arrived in the town of Uyuni to eat our bodyweight in something other than pasta and sleep the sleep of the dead.

Tunes: Elvis Presley – Greatest Hits, Japandroids – Near To The Wild Heart of Life, Wilco – Schmilco, The Menzingers – On The Impossible Past

Reads: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil – John Berendt, Killing Floor – Lee Child, At Home – Bill Bryson, One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich – Aleksandr Sosdkfhksdfabf

 

 

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