Sajama- Macaya- Sabaya- Salar de Coipasa- Lilca - Salar de Uyuni- Uyuni
With a day’s rest in our legs and our food stocks well and truly re-filled, most of it it seems in my bag, we were ready to make our way towards the Solars. Something I have been looking forward to since dreaming up this adventure.
We left our accommodation knowing we had two cyclists just ahead of us. Two Swiss cyclists who we briefly crossed paths with in Cusco we knew had made an early jump on us and for most of the day we followed the distinctive tyre tread of their Mondials (thats a type of tyre Mum), using them as a make shift GPS guide, as well as an early warning sign for any spots of deep sand that we could see they had been caught up in. It was on this stretch that we were truly grateful for the new rubber we had put on our bikes, both of us had opted to go with the age old saying of bigger is better. Jess now had some chunky 2.1 inch tyres while I had a 2.35 for some added cushioning and floatyness through the deep sand we hit. Both seemed to be working perfectly as we made short work of a gradual descent while our friends with the slimmer Mondials, including Ryan, found themselves sliding out on more than one occasion.
We caught the Swiss as they were setting up camp, this was to be our first of many days chasing them down but camping as a group. It was also our first experience of Bolivian wind as we camped. A rather noisy night but we all survived to ride another day, well mostly, our inner tent zip has decided that now would be the perfect time to break, we are now opting for maximum ventilation by sleeping with the door half open!!!
We waved goodbye to the Swiss in the morning, they were up and packed befor ewe had even started breakfast, it's true what they say about Swiss efficiency!! Our aim for the day was to catch them, this time before camp. We once again set out following their tracks but today we did have a brief spell of route finding when the Swiss pulled the oldest trick in the book; a river crossing to disguise their tracks. Jess wasn’t deterred and without even waiting to take off her shoes Jess charged straight in and made the crossing cleanly, ok, she got wet feet but that didn’t stop her riding it out till dry land! That set the tone for the rest, not wanting to loose face we all ploughed in following in Jess wake. We caught our comrades’ shortly after our refreshing foot spa, turns out it wasn’t a fair race; one they didn’t know we were racing, and two, Severen was ill so riding at half pace.
Opting to trail blaze for our new friends we forged ahead and made it to Chinchillani. The Bolivian food supplies still haven’t improved however we have mastered the art of looking worse for wear and managed to convince the only shop owner to rustle us up some fired egg sandwiches, again the quantity we wanted seemed to have her confused, why on earth did we want 13 egg sandwiches, there was only three of us eating them?! Trying to explain a cycle tourists hunger is difficult when you speak the language, it’s near impossible when you only have the equivalent of a toddler’s skills to communicate with! Even more confusion was added when the Swiss rolled in and consequently ordered 6 more, we hastily paid and left before things got even more confusing.
With food in our bellies we hit he road, thankfully the sand relented, only to be replaced by the dreaded washboard. The going was slow and tempers were fraying. The soft patches of sand could be funny, one minute you were riding the next you were wresting with the bike to keep it in a straight line, this caused great amusement, especially if it wasn’t you wrestling but the person in front of you. Jess had taken to hitting prolonged sandy patches with increased speed and just hanging on. A technique that although unorthodox, and visually entertaining seemed to be working surprisingly well for her, most of the time that is! Washboard however was a different story. All you could do was hope to find the line of least undulations and try and stay in the seat without being bucked off as the bike jittered and fitted its was through. This kind of riding is miserable and uncomfortable, it didn’t help when I managed to take my eyes off the task at hand to check the view only to hit a rough patch and get a pinch flat. After a slow fix, having no desire to start riding the road again, it was catch up time, Jess had pushed ahead to try and slow the boys down. When I finally caught up well after our designated time to find camp Ryan was gone. He had somehow missed Johnny who had gone to check a possible camp spot. While we debated whether to go after him the Swiss rolled in, we opted to stay put, Ryan was to fend for himself for the night while we made the most of the natural wind protection our current camp spot offered.
Ryan hadn’t got too far and we caught up with him the next day, and continued on. We hoped to make it to Sabaya and if the amenities were available, i.e. a hot shower and wi-fi, a rest day was on the cards. The roads didn’t improve and the riding was challenging mainly to our patience, Ryan found the going tough without the help of a fizzy drink and after passing through three small towns with no shops to speak of his patience was done. While we stopped for a lunch of stale bread and jam he pushed on to meet us at the next available store with a sugary drink. We caught up with him, and luckily a fizzy drink, another 25km down the road.
Here we learned from the Swiss that we were out of luck accommodation wise, they had also been planning a rest day but with not much on offer we all decided the best option would be to push on saving our hard earned rest days for something with a few more commodities. We rode out after stuffing our faces with chicken and chips to an increasing wind, Bolivia is really putting our tents to the test and this night was no exception. With no option of shelter, we did our best at predicting the wind direction for the evening and set up camp. It wasn’t one of our best and at 4am we were awoken to our tent flapping madly as one of the pegs had pulled out of the soft ground.
With a bad night sleep in all of us we were somewhat earlier to leave, the Swiss’ head start was reduced to a mere 30minutes compared to the usual hour and a half they have over us in a morning. I’d like to say it was group effort but the reason we were so early was due to the fact that for some reason Johnny was up and decamping before the rest of us had gotten out the tent. He still wasn’t the first ready but he definitely set a new personal best for time to de-camp!
Today also saw us get our first taste for salt if you will. The road led us to Solar de Coipasa, a smaller and somewhat less famous little brother to the Salar de Uyuni. The road led straight on to it and before we knew it we were cruising over hard pack salt with nothing but a blinding glare reflecting up at us. It was a surreal feeling riding across the salt flats, there was a road of types but its was only there because off the constant comings and goings of vehicles from Island Coipasa had compacted the tracks to follow. These tracks led us to a small island and a shop that for the first time in Bolivia stocked pasta sauces! We stocked up on what as left and once again headed back onto the Salar, not before packing a handy sized rock into our already over loaded bikes. Our intentions were to camp on the salt but trying to get a peg in wold be impossible without a little help.
The second section of the Salar was even more impressive than the first. Less tracks and before we knew it we were in the middle of an expanse of salt. We set up camp and sat back to take in our surroundings, that was until the winds picked up forcing everyone to retreat to their tents for another noisy night, at least this time I was confident our pegs wouldn’t be coming out, I wasn’t even sure if I was going to be able to get them out the next day never mind the pesky wind pulling them out.
Salar de Coipasa was a warm up for things to come with the Salar de Uyuni. This is somewhere I have been excited about riding to since we dreamed up the trip. To camp on the Salar de Uyuni was the reason we have taken so many buses, the reason we have had to skip stretches due to time. It was all to get to the Salar before the rainy season hit and it flooded. I was now a mere day away from realising this dream. All I had to do was get off the Salar de Coipasa, which was no easy task. We set off on the harder than concrete salt but before we knew it our tyres were sinking and the riding had a similar sensation to trying to ride through super glue. Brutal isn’t the word. We pumped our legs as hard as any mountain climb, as any head wind but progress was practically non existent. Slowly, very slowly we cold see dry land edging closer. In some sadistic way it was quite enjoyable, the pain of riding this soft but not too soft terrain, I was a challenge, I wasn’t impossible to ride, it was just very very close to that, and the more time we spent churning the legs the harder it got.
After a leg busting stint we hit hard surface once again, it felt like we were flying, our pace was probably only 20kph but it felt like I was riding at a Tour de France pace on a carbon fibre bike. I suppose that’s the joy of the tough sections, they make the good sections even better.
Once back on somewhat firmer roads we pushed the pace and made it Llica, here it was a hot shower of sorts, more a bucket of sun heated water but it felt great to wash the salt of us and also a scrub down of the bikes which were also supporting a new white layer crusted onto every inch of available space
The next day and it was a mere bimble to the long awaited Salar de Uyuni. We left our hotel and before we new it our surroundings had taken on a somewhat whiter appearance. We were there, I had made it before the rains flooded the place, now all we had to do was not take the wrong road and make our way towards cactus island. A slight tail wind and a super flat hard, as concrete surface, saw us making great progress until we realised we had in fact followed a rogue Jeep track, not to worry, a quick crunchy ride off road if you will and we would intersect the correct road in no time.
Crossing various tracks, we kept up our crunchy cross country route knowing we had to make at least 4km to be back on route. What we didn’t realise is the tracks move each season, what we had previously written off as far too soon turned out to be the road we were in fact looking for. Another about turn and finally we were back on track.
The rest of our day was spent riding into the never advancing horizon finally making it to the island to replenish our water supplies. We rejected the offer to pay 30 bovs (just over 3 pounds) per person to camp on the island and instead, pushed on aiming for a 100km day. From here we found the first jeep-track free spot we could and set up camp for another night on the salar.
Another windy night but with our trusty rock at hand the tent held strong and the morning dawned calm and bright, Johnny, enjoying his time on the salar so much opted to take a lazy morning and then find a scheduled spot for himself. Jess, Ryan and myself felt a good meal and a hot shower were in order and pushed on for Uyuni.
Its funny, every picture I’ve seen of cyclists camping on the slat flats the wind never comes into it. The pictures look tranquil and calm, the sunset, the lunar esq landscape, its all so idyllic and easy. In reality, its not quite like that; once that wind picks up its anything but calm. It roars as it smashes you, building its momentum for over 100 uninterrupted KM before you and your tent get in its way. The evenings are spent listening to the noise of your tent being thrashed, watching as the walls buckle this way and that. Still, I wouldn’t change it, I felt is if I was really surviving, doing something that not every individual could do. The wind has a way of making situations feel far more extreme than the actually might be.
Uyuni brought tourists and with it western food. More importantly, pizza! It also meant we could extend our Bolivian visa; the Lagunas route is meant to be tough so any extra days we could muster on our month visa would allow for any rest days that may be needed while on the route.
Danny and Jessica living the nomadic dream.