Second day in a hostel in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. Shade, 30 degrees, roof over my head, running water and electricity, all the commodities of civilization. Now, let’s see how I ended up here!
After returning from a short trip to Machu Picchu, it was about time to saddle up Lou and to finally start moving sort of South.
While I was absent, Lou was in the good hands of Luis and Marina, owners of a cheap lodging in Challapata, a small town on the main road La Paz to Uyuni and then Argentina. Two, three days of preparations, doing laundry, shopping, reviewing Lou and it was time for new adventures on the road. Based on the info I had for my intended route, the next 600km will be “adventurous”. Interesting “roads” which are a mix of rocks, sand, washboard, headwinds (prevailing winds are westerly or south-westerly), sporadic access to water, small shops with food are more of an exception than a rule. Oh, let’s not to forget, all this is happening between about 3.600 and 4.600 metres above sea level. Just in case, so not to be too easy.
My first goal was the Salar de Uyuni, the biggest salt flats in the World. Absolute flatness of pure white that stretches beyond the horizon. It was just a matter of getting there.
On the first day I got a pleasant surprise in the morning when Luis, the owner of the place where I was staying, told me that the road to Salinas de Garci Mendoza, a town to the north of the Salar de Uyuni, is completely paved. The info I had, which were a bit older, prepared me for dirt roads, so pavement will be a nice gift.
After about 30km on the main road to Uyuni I have headed west. Morning predictions of tarmac proved to be true, so I was enjoying the gift. Wide, open expanses of the Altiplano are battered by the wind which produces dust storms that sometimes cross my path and cover me with dust. I’ll have to get used to this.
End of the day in a small village of Vengalvinto where the local teacher opens the door to the schools dining room where I can roll out my sleeping bag. Dark, black clouds looming on the horizon. Just in time as 10 minutes later the village is engulfed in a sandstorm that covers everything in a cloud of dust.
The next day the tarmac continues and the only inconveniences are the two small storms that catch up with me just when there is a possibility to seek shelter under a roof of a house or an open shed. To finish it off for a day, I treat myself to a cheap hotel and a hot shower in Salinas de Garci Mendoza. Tomorrow I’m heading south and my goodbye to tarmac is swift yet touching.
Exiting Salinas I’m greeted by a sandy road and the logic of the local paths. Often there are more tracks to choose from and you have to decide which one you like the most.
To make a judgement which one of them is the most passable (i.e. least sandy), you have to rely mostly on luck. So I choose one that seems like it will take me across the dry mud flats to reunite with the main road with the least effort. From there it’s just over a small “hill” and the promised flatness of the Salar. I enjoy the unexpected plains so much that I do not even notice the track has taken me away from the main path. All of a sudden the track practically ends and I’m left with no other option but to get off Lou and push it through sand for about an hour back to the main road. Latter it will turn out that this was just an intro to what will become a quite common situation in the coming two weeks – pushing fully loaded Lou through deep sand.
But today I make it back to the main road, head uphill on top of which there is immense whiteness on the horizon – Salar de Uyuni!
I descend to the other side and on the edges of the Salar I find shelter for the night. A small community house that is currently not in use.
Beautiful, sunny morning, a bit fresh. Today is the day for Salar. The road takes me out of the village and after about two kilometres it transitions from rocks to salt. Flatness!
Today’s goal is Isla Inchuasi, a small island in the middle of the Salar. I turn in the general direction of the island. Same as yesterday, there are plenty of tracks to follow that all disappear somewhere in the distance. I decide on the dirtiest since it means they are the most transited ones. And based on that logic they should lead to the island.
The horizon is endless, whiteness everywhere you look!
Only after about 15km a small dot starts to emerge on the horizon. It confirms I’m moving in the right direction. Slowly, way too slowly it’s getting bigger and bigger. Here on the Salar the distances are misleading and are practically impossible to judge them.
Contrary to what I have expected, the road is not exactly smooth. Sure there are parts that I can ride practically with my eyes shut, but mostly that is not the case. There are small potholes or small bumps or just the connections of the salt plaques. They transform my ride across the Salar into a slalom across a minefield.
After hours of whiteness, nothingness and the sun that burns I make it to Isla Incahuasi in the early afternoon. The solitude is replaced by Disneyland of tourist that make it to the island on a day trips by jeeps. The price I have to pay to visit one of the touristiest destinations in Bolivia.
My arrival is followed by a long period of questions from all the tourists. To them I was probably an even bigger attraction here in the middle of the Salar than the cactus filled island. After replying to all of their questions I manage to get some time to myself. That means a quick befriending with Juan Lopez, the guy in charge of a small group of workers, taking care of the island. After we establish that I will be staying on the island for the night, he offers me to sleep in an office that is not being used. The price of this luxury is buying the ticket to visit the island. Obviously for me, a cyclist, the price will be local, 15 Bolivianos (about 2 EUR). Officially this is the price for Bolivians, for foreigners the price is double.
I accept the offer since it means I will not have to seek shelter for the tent neither will I have to set it up. And yes, buying the ticket also gives me the opportunity to climb to the top of the island to take a view of this white immenseness.
Just before the sunset the Disneyland ends and all the jeeps head back to Uyuni. Now it’s just me and the caretakers on the island. Each of us turns to his things. For me this means first a coffee and looking at the sunset as the wind blows to my face.
Already before 5h I’m awaken by the jeeps that start to arrive with new hordes of tourists. I get up just in time to catch the weakening of a new day and then I head south and out of the Salar.
This means another 40km of “minefield” that somewhere halfway through turns into a smooth surface so that I can do some more kilometres. Nearing the exit from the Salar I focus on following the tracks leading out of the Salar. Still have a vivid memory of pushing through the sand two days ago.
So I’m again welcomed by washboard, sand not being far away.
Given being reunited with the reality of local roads, it is not that hard to decide to finish the day a bit early. Well that and the fact that my equipment started to rebel a bit. Already in the morning I broke off my rear view mirror, then somewhere in the middle of nowhere in the Salar I broke the stick I had to support Lou when I stop. After that the antenna I use as a flagpole almost got between my spokes and to finish it off I find out that one of the hooks of my panniers has broken lose. Added by the fact that it’s already afternoon and that the wind is already wide awaken, I can with a complete peace of mind turn towards the nearest town where I find a cheap bed and a hot shower.
Tomorrow I have another 30km to San Juan which is my last option to stock up on supplies for “Ruta de las Lagunas”, another 300km of dirt roads, sand, wind and wilderness all the way to the Chilean border. But that is a story for next time.
With a Smile on my face, until next time!