Ten Billion tonnes of Salt

19 11 2007

Every cycle tour across South America includes some reference to the Salar de Uyuni. So it was with some anticipation that we approached. We stayed in Oruro an extra day to make sure everyone was healthy, or at least not too sick.

Then followed a big day of over 130km to Huari, and the end of the asphalt. It has been a good (and relatively fast) 1300km with only a small amount of dirt. Back on the bumpy road for a while.

From Huari to the northern edge of the Salar hasn’t raised a mention in most travel reports, although this turned out to be more of a challenge than the Salar itself. It took us two days to get to Salinas de Mendoza, mostly riding on corrugated roads, or along the side of the road on tracks of varying surface quality (from decent … to deep sand). The road is currently being worked on extensively, with a good chance that there will be asphalt most of the way at some point. Some sections are like riding in the Aussie outback – hot, dry and seemingly a million miles from anywhere. The tiny pueblas along the way don’t help to dispell the illusion – they would be called ‘abandonded’ or ‘derelict’ anywhere else. But people live there, and they will occasionaly sell you horrible tasting soft drink and point you in the direction of the town well if you inquire about water. I declined their offer.

The Bolivian towns are also increadibly confusingly named, with Santiago de Huari, Hauri, Santuario de Quillacas and Quillacas all in the same area. To make it even more fun, the residents of each town drop the first part of the name, and don’t seem to appreciate that there is a similar sounding town only around the next corner. Luckily we had been pre-warned and didn’t get turned around at every junction. Although if we were following the map this surely would have happened – the roads are completely different to what the map suggests, and when I tried to use the GPS for a bit of help, we found the map grid was half a degree out (that’s a fairly long way). So we just kept riding in what we thought / hoped was the right way and possibly we’d stumble across the right town. We did; just follow the biggest road to Salinas – it’s easy.

In Salinas we stumbled across the best and worst of Bolivia. The first ‘restaurant’ (on the plaza if you’re interested) we asked for food served up a soup that was quite nice, followed by the most evil smelling concoction I have smelt. I couldn’t eat it. Then, slightly up the hill, we found a very nice, new, hotel with restaurant. Possibly the nicest place we have stayed, especially considering it is way out in the middle of nowhere. They served up a good Llama steak.

We stocked up on water and food, and headed toward the Salar and Volcan Thunupa (we could see both from the nice hotel bedroom window). My bike was as heavy as it’s been, with 7L of water on top (literally) of all the other gear.

And so came the sand. With a heavy bike, sand isn’t much fun. We pushed. Luckily it wasn’t all that far.

Over a small hill, and then… A thumping great salt lake. Of course we were expecting that. On the edge of the Salar (in the north) is the small town of Jirir. We were expecting a hospedaje, a small shop and signs of life. What we got was a ghost town. We ate lunch in the church garden, under the only tree with decent shade for miles around. There was electricity here, but no people. It was Sunday, so we thought they may have all gone on a drinking session in Uyuni. But the houses with windows not bordered over were clearly abandoned – nothing except dirt inside. It’s still a conundrum, because we did find a few people living there eventually, after a lone (local) cyclist came riding through and pointed us at was an unlikely shop. We raised hell until someone came to the door and sold us some water and chocolate.

And then the salt lake. It seems made for photos in stupid poses (some to be posted in a few days). It’s not as white as I was expecting, although that could be because it is almost the end of the dry season, and lots of dirt has been blown onto it, giving it a brown tinge.

It is flat. Ridiculously so… overall. But on a bike it can be a little bumpy – the small ridges between the flat tiles and the other lumps of salt make for a bumpy ride. Nothing like the corrugations of the road in, however.

With nothing to get in its way, the wind is more of a concern. The first day it came from the side, limiting our speed to about 13km/h, the second day we had a glorious tail wind, which allowed us to average over 24km/h (faster than we get on the asphalt normally), and I hit a maximum of 47km/h in one burst of stupidity. I was going for 50, but the thin air (we are still at 3600m!) meant that getting oxygen in is still a challenge.

The only night we spent on the salt was by a big lump of rock called Isla Pescado (or other things, by different people). Found using the GPS – you can only see about 6-10km across the salt (due to earth curvature), although we could see the Isla for 30km because it is high (15km from the edge). They have an overpriced refugio for self powered travellers, but tried to charge us for everything from entering the isla, to overpriced water. Gringo central. So we camped on the salt, in what is in effect the car park for the island.

The sunset was glorious. Amazing orange glow on the horizon for some time. The wind was cold.

The night was surprisingly warm, when I got up for sunrise (out of the hammock, yes you can bivvy in a hammock on a salt lake) the temperature was 12°C. Other reports of -20°C I think are slightly exaggerated (or we had exceptional weather). Then the Gringoness of the place hit me – 2 cars full of tourist arrived before sunrise, with another 6 or so very shortly after. It was horrible. Spending so long alone has really given us a dread for this kind of thing. The rest of the day was a mix of cycling alone across 70km of salt, and being passed by hordes of 4 wheel drives full of tourists.

We will be one of those now – we are embarking on a 3 day tour to see the lakes of South West Bolivia – it’s too hard to get there by bike.


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