Thursday 3 September 2009

BOLIVIA Across the Salt Lakes Pisiga-Uyuni (Aug 28-Sept 1)

We left Pisiga and followed a sandy winding road for 20kms through desolate country with abandoned villages and apachetas (rock cairns)crowning the hilltops.

Then suddenly we emerged onto the Salar de Coipasa. It was weird and surreal riding into a white flat landscape. At the edge of the salt flat workers were busy salt mining.

This salt lake was very wet in patches and the salt particles stuck hard onto the bike. Check out the last photo in this post.

Jude riding across Salar de Coipasa. The water sits on the filmy surface of the salt with a glittering effect.

This was rather a short ride - about 16 kms to the other side, on the Chilean border. When we hit `land´ we were greeted enthusiastically by Chilean and Bolivian truck drivers at a camp. They seemed to be involved in some illegal trade (avoiding custom duties). From here we followed the edge of the salar, the surface a mixture of smooth salt pan and deep fine sand.

At twilight, riding deep in sand desperate for a campsite in this bare scrubland and dune country. We eventually found a corrall with its own kitchen alcove, just north of a village, Hizo. Perfect!

A choice of roads....sand or sand

Jude pushing her bike through the thick sand. It took us back to the infamous 2007 ride along the Old Andado Road beside the Simpson Desert in central Australia. However here the sand was dull grey instead of the Simpson terracotta red and we only had to push our bikes for 4kms instead of 12.

We arrived in Llica on the western side of the Salar de Uyuni. It was a friendly town, with a pleasant alojamiento (guesthouse) and internet (at a costly 8 bolivianos an hour). Also well-stocked shops, including one with fresh vegetables!

Left Llica before 8am and rode out to the edge of the salar. After about 8 kms riding on a smooth salt pan beside the rough road we came across the terraplen. These are earth ramps which are built at the edges of the salar to avoid the soft outer edges of the salar.

Then we were on the salar itself. This salt lake is the largest and highest in the world, over 12,000 sq. kms and sitting at 3665m above sea level. We rode from west to east - over 150kms on the salar. Most cyclists and tourists do a shorter route from north to south or south to east. We followed the route used by other vehicles but sometimes veered off onto little-used tracks.

Lunch on the salar

Just add salt...

After 50kms on a whiter shade of pale we arrived at an island, Isla Pescado. It was like being washed up on a deserted tropical island. As the salt hit land the thin surface crumpled like small waves and driftwood speckled the beach...

...and instead of palm trees we had weird prickly cacti, emerging from coral rock.

And it was a good chance to get in bit of nude sunbathing. I´m getting a spot of solar radiation on the cyclist´s pale bits before the salty tide comes in. Nobody around on the deserted island so I felt at ease soaking up the sun. Not for long because when the sun sinks below the flat horizon, the temperature plummets, dropping to -15 degrees C!!

I climbed to the highest point on the island 200m above the salar, for spectacular views of a vast white world punctuated with islands and volcanoes.

We camped on the western side of the island on a sandy beach. Golden light on the salt surface. The salt forms rough protrusions in weird geometric shapes.

Sunrise on the island, looking west.

Salt Flat! No punctures just flat out!

The white highway. Blinded and dazzled by the white monotony, mesmerised by geometric patterns and hallucinating on distant floating mirages it was an otherwordly experience. We went across this salt lake in 1992 in a jeep tour but being on a bike and spending 2 full days on this milky way was a completely different experience - unreal and quite bizarre. We spotted two other cyclists about 5kms way heading west and through the binoculars they appeared to be levitating over the salar. Weird stuff!

Salty geometery and `ojos de agua´, or eyes of water.

As we got nearer to the eastern edge of the salar, salt scribblings marked the surface. This must be the genesis of the hexagonal forms, not yet fully formed.

A pothole full of salty water with salt crystals floating on the surface. A real hazard for the hallucinating cyclist.

Jude riding flat out on the salar. We averaged 15kph and I hit a max speed of 32kph. Poor Jude had a torn Rohloff cable cable and only had 8 low gears. And she rode for 160kms in a silent white world whereas I had my Mp3 player blasting out The Doors `This is the end...´

Guess what this is? Table salt, of course.

This is outside the famous Salt Hotel, built entirely of salt. We saw the beginnings of this hotel in 1992. Now open again at $20 a night. We decided to head for terra firma and camp at the edge just before Uyuni.

For cyclists info, there is a shorter route from the salt hotel avoiding Colchani and the awful road. It cuts out 10kms and reaches hard land over an alternative ramp (15kms north of Uyuni). I have GPS waypoints so if you want this info send a comment.

Arrived in Uyuni at 10am next morning. Even though we had scraped off a lot of the salt encrustations in Llica (after Salar de Copiasa) a few barnacles has clung onto our vessels. Here is the bottom of Jude´s bike before I cleaned our bikes thoroughly.
The surface on the Salar de Uyuni was fortunately very dry and left very little detritus on the bikes.


Tim said...

Wow, what am amazing bit of riding! said...

Hey Pete, I've been thinking about you two heaps over the last 24 hours, so was great to get your email. I didn't realise it was cinquenta this year..and what an amazing way to spend it. I love the photos and commentary. Gives a great feel for where you are. Am gonna post a link to Oisin, who turned 12 yesterday (on 12th) and what did he want to do for his birthday? Go for a cycle ride....he will really appreciate this....

Good to see the ankle is holding up.I'll never hear 'This is the end' the same again I have those salt pan vistas in mind.... :o)

Nick's away in QLD putting his Bill Hughes sculpture in an exhibition

I've got a cold and am in bed, but it's sunny spring weather here today...was 20 degrees yesterday...and snow on the way....

Big hug to Jude


Castropolitan said...

AWESOME Trip!!!.. thanks for all the tips.. we going on october just Pisiga to Uyuni ;P