Days 143 to 148: Uyuni to Oruro, via the Iconic Salar de Uyuni
Riding across the vast salt flats of Bolivia has become an iconic rite of passage for most cycle-tourists in this part of the world. The largest of them, the Salar de Uyuni, has a diameter of more than 160km making it the largest in the world, and is visible to astronauts in the space station with the naked eye. Apparently it contains 10 billion tons of salt, but I can’t even get my head around how much that actually is. A lot I guess. The landscape is so flat that it even gets used by satellites for confirming distance calibrations. But this flatness also makes cycling navigation occasionally hesitant, as at times it’s hard to know what you’re actually aiming for when a flat expanse of white simply rolls out 360 degrees around you. Fortunately a combination of smartphone gps maps and jeep tracks was enough to guide the way.
Right in the middle of the Salar is a small rocky outcrop known as Isla Incahuasi (Island of the Inca’s Door). It was a 100k ride to the Isla from Uyuni town but the Salar’s surface was quite rideable and I made pretty good time getting there. Lots of jeep excursions stop at the island , but about an hour before sunset they all left leaving me there with just a couple of Bolivians who either run a shop or collect the entrance fee, a Swiss cyclist headed the opposite way and a Dutch couple touring in a 4x4 with a fancy tent contraption on the roof.
It was a nice remote sensation to know that it was just us with basically no one else in a 160km diameter. To add to the occasion, we were treated to an awesome fiery red sunset. The Dutch couple were hoarding a fair bit of wine which they invited me to help drink as we also shared dinner and a pack of chocolate biscuits for dessert.
The next morning we fooled around with photography a little, as the flat unchanging horizon makes a deceptive environment for depth perception. It’s become standard for most visitors to the Salar to make objects seem huge or tiny depending on their distance from the camera, so we played games making my bike seem enormous and myself minuscule.
Another 80km flat cycle saw me pop out the other side of the Salar in a town called Llica.
From there my adventure took a serious nosedive as I ended up having a shitty couple of days. There is another smaller Salar called Coipasa, but the road between the two was a sandy hell and I was forced to walk often. But worse was the Salar itself- despite assurances from some that it had also dried out like the first one, the reality was quite different. Although it started out fine, as I crossed it became very wet and boggy and my tyres and shoes were sinking through the surface up to ankle height. The only redeeming feature was sunset....
Another day of lots of walking, again. I managed to get across to a large island in the middle where I picked up a road out of there north which was thankfully connected to the mainland by a causeway so I didn’t need to get back in the salt bog again, but the whole day was without many redeeming features to be honest. Cant say I’d recommend it to anyone. After 2 shitty days I arrived in the town of Sabaya arguably the grumpiest person in Bolivia.
So let's ignore I ever went there with some more photos of the first Salar, Uyuni, instead.
To wear off my grump I decided on a long hard day the next day; it was 200km on to the city of Oruro on a flat sealed road, and although it was never gonna be possible in a day I still knocked off 155km to the town of Toledo. It was enough to wear off the residual angst. I’m now resting in Oruro, which is a scruffy industrial city but I kinda like it. The Saturday market yesterday was fun and last night I went and saw a local dub/roots band play at a live music venue. I was the only foreigner there and had no shortage of people wanting to talk to me so made for a fun night, and got back in around 3am. With 270,000 people it’s the biggest place I’ve been in for a few weeks by a long way, so it’s been nice to take advantage of some “city” stuff again.
Resting up today before going in search of some mountain rides for the rest of the week!