Once reaching the small village of Sabaya we met a lovely woman called Estha who had just come from the other direction. It had taken her seven days from Uyuni, this slightly concerned us. Seven days? I think I’d go slightly salt flat crazy. After trying all the hostels in town (there were two, both closed) we found a lady who would let us sleep in her, er I think it was a garage. There were beds, children’s toys and a motorbike. Most importantly there was also a hot shower. When we tried to pay though she was having absolutely none of it. She wouldn’t accept a single penny and just thanked us for visiting. In return we tried to buy everything from her shop and gave her some painkillers for her toothache. Then left, feeling guilty and sincerely hoping she wasn’t allergic to pain killers as the nearest doctor was probably 300km away.
Confidently following both Esther’s and Andes by Bike’s advice we rolled out of Sabaya and onto the dirt tracks which would lead us to the village of Coipasa on the first salt flat. The only problem was that both sets of directions we were following were written in the opposite direction. The maps were also useless as everything was along the same lines as ‘just follow the only road out of Coipassa which leads to Sabaya’. We were going the other way and there were about 5 tracks, all kind of intertwined, crossing each other, some completely unridable and others barely. It was going to have to be a compass kind of day. We settled at trying to figure out which mountain Coipasa might be hiding behind and just aim blindly in that direction. It kind of worked, both blogs and Esther has reckoned the distance was approx 34km, it took us 39km and over four hours. By the time we arrived it was late afternoon and we were both hangry. Our arrival also coincided with the children leaving school for the day ‘Gringo, Gringo Gringo’ and before we knew it we were swarmed by 7yr olds who were trying to open every pannier and press every button on my GPS. Yay.
There was an option to stay in the village but we were pretty keen for a night on the Salar so with a couple of hours of daylight still remaining we headed out and onto the glistening white plane. We cycled vaguely South and about an hour before sunset decided to set up camp. Luckily there was not a breath of wind and given that it was pancake flat salt desert in all directions we had no trouble choosing a spot as all spots were the same. We settled on facing the tent east so we would get the best view of sunrise and set about making camp, eating and getting into the tent asap before the sun disappeared and the temperature plummeted.
We had been anticipating sleeping on the salt flats for over a year. When planning the trip back in London we did loads of research into people taking on similar adventures and the pictures which never ceased to amaze us were of people camping on the salt flats under an insanely clear view of the milky way. It didn’t disappoint and we did our best to capture the moment. There were two things we had not fully anticipated – just how cold and how quiet it would be. The temperature wasn’t too bad, although all our water was frozen. The trick is wearing all your clothes and a down sleeping bag, snug as a bug in a rug. It was the silence. I have never heard (or not heard) anything like it in my entire life. We’ve camped in some pretty remote spots before but there’s always been some background noise, wind rustling through leaves, running water, animals, a road. There was literally nothing, it felt like we needed to whisper so as not to disturb the peace. The next day was all about making it to the town Llica which is situated in between the two salt flats, stocking up on some supplies and maybe having a shower before we tackled the big one, Uyuni. It shouldn’t have been a long ride, we just had to make it off the other side of the salt flat, about 30km and then a 10km or so ride into town. Well, as you can probably guess if there are two people capable of messing up something as simple as ‘ride 30km in a straight line, turn right, ride 10km’ Herbie and I’s hands are firmly in the air.
The first thing that went wrong is we tried to be clever. All the blogs and directions we had been reading talk about cycling alongside the salt flat for 8km, then when you get the the tree (yes, there is only one) you turn left onto the salt flat and head towards the right of the big hill. Even reverse this sounds pretty hard to mess up right? Wrong! When we had met Esther she had mentioned the 8km track that ran alongside the salt flat was really sandy and she ended up doing a lot of pushing. So we obviously thought, why would we want to push for 8km through sand, why don’t we just cycle diagonal across the salt flat and get off closer to the town? We were both congratulating ourself on being such brainiacs, so innovative. Why didn’t everyone else do this, why cycle the extra distance? Well, what hadn’t occurred to our pea sized brains was that there is a REASON people use the tree as a marking point to enter the salt plane. I shall explain.
We packed up and cycled off straight in the direction of Llica, cutting a great big diagonal in the suggested route and high fiving ourselves for being such poineers. The first hour or so was wonderful, it was just us and the whiter than white salt glistening like diamonds under our tyres. A few times the salt got a little slushy but it wouldn’t last long and before we knew it we were out the other side back on the rock sold sparkly plane. Gradually the rock solid surface we were cycling over became a lot less rock solid, we kept changing down gears, spinning our legs faster and faster to stay upright through the slush. Until it was impossible, our bikes were too heavy, the surface too soft and we were left standing there like polar bears in the middle of the Sahara Desert and feeling like compile twits. Oh yes, the REASON people do the ‘dog leg’ route and aim for the tree is because we idiots had just cycled into a lake. We were lucky, it was dry season and there was no water in this lake, but there was a lot of slushy salt that compressed about 3 inches under our weight. We had a few options;
a) Turn round back the way we came onto a harder surface and circle back aiming for the tree
b) Turn left, heading towards the tree and hope the surface got better
c) Keep pushing forward and hope it got better
The problem with option ‘a’ and ‘b’ was that when we finally (if we ever made it) to the tree we would still have an 8km stretch of sandy road to navigate. Also, Herbie and I are stubborn arses so we chose option ‘c’. Option ‘c’’ ended up being four hours and 12km of misery, swapping sides every 30minutes in an attempt to keep my back from looking like Quasimodo. Did I also mention that we thought this was going to be a ‘short’ day? Because of this the morons that we are hadn’t thought to bring much in the way of lunch and only managed to scrape together a small packet of biscuits, a chocolate bar and a can of condensed milk as sustenance to share between us.
When we finally, and I mean finally (It’s not often I think the world might end before the end of the day) reached the edge of the Salar, the track towards the village was beyond a joke. We’d find a bit of track firm enough to cycle on, pedal as fast as we could until we’d inevitably hit a patch of deep sand and our bikes would come to a complete halt underneath us while we flew off in any given direction. It’s not often I repeatedly hear Herbie shout really badly language at the top of his lungs, but this was one such occasion. Two more hours of torture and we eventually made it to the village just as the sun was setting.
As if Salar de Coipasa hadn’t messed with us enough, the following day meant tackling the big daddy. Salar de Uyuni, it’s freaking huge – 17,000sq km to be exact. As long as we didn’t get cocky, try to take short cuts and ‘did what everyone else does’ we should have been ok. And here’s the dull bit – we were! Day 1 was 80km of straight track towards the ‘island’. Everyone goes on about how beautiful the salt flats are, how crisp and white and otherworldly and magical and BORING. 80km cycling in a straight line with a never changing horizon is pretty dull, and this is coming from somebody who had spent an above normal percentage their life on a rowing machine. The problem with Salar de Uyuni is it’s popularity, in comparison to Salar de Coipasa it’s yellower, there are black jeep tracks, potholes and occasional rubbish. After a very long day cycling in a very straight line we reached the ‘island’ and were met with106 tourist jeeps. I know I might be one to over exaggerate, a little, sometimes. But this is not over exaggeration, ok I didn’t count them but it was a shock seeing so many people after a couple of days of silence. Among the tourist jeeps were also other cyclists, what?! After seeing hardly any other cycle tourers for weeks there was suddenly eight of us, all planning on staying on the island for the night.
As if often the case when we enter a really touristy place with our bicycles we became a bit of a novelty. Lots of people came up close and just stared or took pictures of us like we were in a zoo. There were six nationalities between the eight of us so we had a fair few languages covered if they wanted conversation. It’s at rare points like this where I can really feel for people who might be ‘different’ for whatever reason. I am not exceptionally tall or have an obvious disability, I have the normal number of limbs, two eyes and I’m not famous. The point I’m trying to make is that I blend in, I don’t get stared at. Unless of course I’m standing in the middle of a tourist attraction with my entire life strapped to a bicycle.
What was actually really lovely is that amid all the staring, a Colombian couple came to talk to us. They were on holiday and he was a keen cyclist back home (I think all Colombians are keen cyclists). What was even more special was that this lady was thrilled not only that we had cycled 17,000km, but that I was a girl. It’s something I hadn’t thought of at all beforehand. We’d met loads of female bike tourers this trip, Jackie, Michelle, Kirstin, Estha just a few days ago. But she was right, we’d met so many more guys, and here I was standing in a group of eight cyclists, seven men and me.
I thought back to all the times I’d met people along the way, the questions they had asked. ‘Are you married?’ ‘How old are you?’ ‘Where are your children?’ Herbie was hardly ever asked those same questions. Guys going on adventures was completely normal. I was suddenly really proud. Maybe what I’m doing isn’t extraordinary, I’m not the first or the fastest, my trip isn’t the longest, I’m not a solo female, I won’t get a book deal or spend the next few years delivering key note speeches. But if my little cycle inspires one woman to start her own adventure, get on her bike, go camping or get her feet muddy I might just shed a few tears of joy.
If you go to Salar de Uyuni once in your life it truly is exceptional, you do indeed feel like you are on another planet but we had been spoilt by the beauty of Coipasa and then punished for being unprepared. I’m ashamed to admit that after only 20km on Uyuni, with only another 170km to go I was ready to get off. Thank-you Bolivia, I am done!
It may have also been something to do with the fact I had forgotten to put suncream on my ears, the suns reflection off the white surface had burnt the underneath of my nose and I looked like a lobster. Oh and Herbie had also managed to sunburn his tongue?!