Saturday, November 7, 2015

Surreal Life: Biking the Salars. November 2nd-7th

Sabaya-Coipasa-Llica-Salar de Uyuni-Isla Incahuasi-Uyuni

November 2nd
After waking up, we enjoy an enormous, delicious breakfast with Freddy and his family. They won the lottery to get a U.S. visa and visited Washington D.C. last year! With some common ground, there is no end of things to talk about.

With Freddy and his family
After saying our goodbyes, it's time to head out into the Salar de Coipasa. For a while we ride on flat, sandy dirt, wondering when we'll actually get to the salt flat. A mirage on the horizon blurs the edge between mountains and ground, and we try to decide which land mass in the distance is the island of Coipasa. Finally the ground starts turning white and then we're riding on pure salt! At first it's a bit wet, but then the surface hardens and we can ride anywhere we want!

Hannes doing some tricks on the hard-packed salt
No road, no problem
Hannes becoming a mirage
When we reach the island of Coipasa we stop for lunch in the windshade of a wrecked jeep, and then continue into the town to get water. Several ladies warn us about the winds in the afternoon, but we decide to continue on regardless. Perhaps this was not the best idea.

Riding back out into the salar, the gusts of wind are so strong that Julia is knocked over. We decide to stop early on one of the islands, hoping that it will provide a wind break. We spend the afternoon huddled behind some rocks, playing reverse Jenga with the crazy lava rocks this island is made of (trying to stack the rocks as high as possible). When it's time to set up our tent, the winds have gotten even stronger. A ferocious gust breaks one of our tent poles and we end up not using the poles at all, just building a small windbreak and sleeping in the tent like a giant bivy sac. Never have we felt with such crazy winds!

Julia with one of our rock towers. No, we`re not cycling, she just likes to wear her helmet for the shade.
Tam and me the next morning with our not-so tent. Photo courtesy of Hannes

November 3rd
The wind is still blowing in the morning, but thankfully it has died down a lot. The salar is hard-packed salt, glittering and sparkling in the morning sun. I feel as if we are riding on a spectacular sheet of marble. Since it's such nice riding and we've heard that the salar is totally dry and passable on this side, we decide to take a shortcut to the town of Villa Victoria instead of following the main road to Tres Cruces.

Slowly the salt begins to build up in ridges, and then it starts forming large plates that push together at their edges and form ridges, like a miniature version of plate tectonics. We are still able to ride, plowing through some of the ridges and bumping over others. But then the going gets worse. The salt crusts up in bumpy waves like a turbulent ocean and when our tires break through them they hit deep sand below. Although it's possible to ride, it's exhausting and in the end it's faster to push. The shore is much farther than it looks and it takes us hours to reach it.
An altogether exhausting endeavor, but it was quite interesting in the end to see all the different permutations of salt formation on the salar.

Tam and me in the morning sun. Photo courtesy of Hannes
Salt plates and ridges
Once on the shore, wind and sand make for tough going and we stop early again, this time in the remains of an old adobe house, an excellent wind break. We joke that we have our own three-room flat for the night.

Like being at the beach!

Sunset over the altiplano. The greyish smudge near the bottom right is one of the many sandstorms that the winds kick up in the afternoon.
November 4th
We wake up with the sun and spend a good part of our morning making our way along sandy roads to the town of Llica. Once in town we realize to our delight that there is a real downtown area with lots of nice shops and hospedajes. In no time we find a nice place run by a friendly guy by the name of Franz. His place is newly opened and he's psyched to have us. He can't stop trying to pronounce Hannes` name and telling us what an adventure we're having! He also tells us all about the local tourist attractions and points us to good restaurants in town. We spend a lovely afternoon doing laundry and eating far too much delicious food, including all 15 pounds of an entire watermelon.

Late afternoon, two cyclists from the Basque region of Spain roll in. Aritz and Esti started their trip in Peru and are continuing south, perhaps as far as Patagonia! They are fun to talk to, and we have a great time helping Aritz clean the innards of his bike`s suspension.

November 5th
We sleep in late because our room is so dark and quiet, but finally we are on the road and headed out into the expanse that is the Salar de Uyuni.

There's some debate about how best to get out there. Go straight out and risk rough road conditions, or follow the crappy washboard road that supposedly leads out to the main road on the Salar. I think we learned our lesson on Coipasa. We decide to stick to the main road, and in no time we are cruising out onto hard packed smooth salt. We made the right decision: everywhere but this road are rough wavy salt plates that would have been awful to ride on.

Entering the Salar de Uyuni
After riding for a while we stop for a while to take ridiculous pictures. Because the salt flat is so large and white, it is difficult to tell perspective.

Tiny Julia and small Tam balancing on Hannes` bike
Hannes being fed in a spoon

Tiny Tamara, me, and Julia 
After lunch we decide to see how far we can ride straight with our eyes closed. There's nothing to crash into out here! All of us are able to go straight for a while, but then a slight turn and we all end up riding determinedly off into the distance and away from the road, still thinking we're going the right way. It's quite hilarious.

In the salar there are many more islands than the map would indicate. In the distance their edges are rounded by mirages and they look like sideways boats floating on a shimmering sea of sky. Our road itself seems to simply end in sky. It's a surreal landscape. Have we gone to another planet?

Julia, Tam, and Hannes riding into the sky
When we arrive at one of the larger islands, Isla del Pescado, we find a pre-built windbreak and an amazing camp spot for the night. Another cyclist is there already! Vaughn is from Fairbanks, Alaska, and tells us a bit about his travels through Boliva and Chile in the last months.
As we eat dinner, a tremendous sunset lights up the salar in bright yellow, then in pinks, purples and blues. A colorful end to a great day!

Cactus and sunset, Isla del Pescado, Salar de Uyuni
Cactus and sunset, Isla del Pescado, Salar de Uyuni

A Poem by Tamara
The salar is white and flat
Make sure you bring your sun hat
'Cause when you're riding up this high
All that's around is sun and blue sky
Islands float in distant mirages
I'm thinking my legs could use some massages
We keep crunching through the crystals below
Let's see how far we can go
The salt stretches as far as the eye can see
What a crazy place to be.

November 6th
Back on the road, it's not long until we reach the Isla de Incahuasi, the well-known, touristy island where 30 Bolivianos (about US$4.50) is charged for entry. We're quite happy we camped where we did. Isla del Pescado is actually bigger, with nicer camping spots, and it's free!
We do appreciate, however, that water can be found on Incahuasi. We fill our bottles, have a snack, and then continue on our way.

The morning is clear and calm and we decide to see how fast we can go on this salt flat. Danny and Hannes top out just above 41 km/h, Hannes riding Danny's bike for better aerodynamics. I get to 39 but can't seem to go above that. I think the guys just had more of a tailwind.

Me taking in the view
After lunch the wind picks up, and we are literally blown across the salar. Around 2 pm we reach the salt hotel. The place is swarming with jeep traffic and tourists, a contrast to the rest of the salar, which has been pretty remote. The place looks as if it is made from normal bricks, but when you look closer you realize that the bricks are made out of salt. Tables and chairs at the restaurant inside are also made from salt, along with various llama statues. Only the roof is made from wooden logs and regular roofing materials. It's a neat place, but we don't stay long.

Not quite as fuzzy as non-salt llamas, but still very huggable
Just down the road is a huge monument commemorating the 2015 Dakar rally that went through Boliva, Argentina, and Chile. It`s also built out of salt. Dakar symbols adorn nearly everything in this region, proud testaments to the endurance race that was moved here recently from its original home in north Africa due to safety concerns
A swaddled Tuareg remains the logo. Photo courtesy of Hannes
Back on shore and out of the salar we encounter a newly paved road that takes us right into Uyuni. Awesome! It has been a 100+ kilometer day, but we made it to the city! It takes a long time to shop around and find a hotel because everything is incredibly overpriced. We are in the heart of Bolivia's tourist's gem.

Finally we find a place that's a bit more reasonably priced, and out walks Max, the French-Canadian cyclist we rode with in Mexico! With him are his girlfriend, Dev; Tom, a British cyclist we met in Cusco; Daniel, a Brazilian cyclist also heading south; and a few other new faces. What a crowd of people to walk into! After happy reunions with Max and Tom, we make plans to meet up later then get settled at our hotel.

Daniel, Tom, Max, Dev, and Tam. A happy cyclist bunch.
November 7th
Rest day to update blog, eat good food, and catch up with our amigos. Max, Dev, Tom, and Daniel are all heading the same direction we are so we'll probably see them down the road!

Route Notes:
From Sabaya we took a shortcut to the town of Coipasa. The salar was all very smooth, wonderfully rideable, but it might be muddy early in the dry season. From Coipasa to Llica it`s pretty straightforward, but definitely follow the road to Tres Cruces. Even with dry conditions, we pushed for numerous hours on the salty crust over deep sand. Shortcut = bad idea.
To Llica was a bit sandy but never too frustrating, almost all rideable. About 9 km of washboard until entering the Salar de Uyuni, and to navigate from there to Uyuni, check out the posts on andesbybike.

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