Saving the Salars with Silliness

Bland, blanco, beautiful and boring. The Bolivian salt flats are a memorable ride, unfortunately though this isn’t necessarily for all the right reasons. Like just about everyone else who wields a touring bike in anger in South America I never thought twice about taking my tour across the Salars de Coipasa and Uyuni. It’s just what you do as a cycle tourist, you know from the outset that you will ride the salars and the reasons why are obvious. They are fairly unique environments that make for some high-impact and seductive photos and for some great stories. Plus, they’re one of those special places where riding a bicycle will reward you with unrivaled access to the generally inaccessible. In theory being on a bike on the salars should help hype a cyclists general touristic smugness, in reality though I think a quick exit by Jeep may in fact have its upsides.

Salar de Coipasa 360

At 10,582 square kilometers (4,086 sq mi) the Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat, an impressive statistic. However, all that means in practice is that it’s an enormous expanse of absolutely nothing, where… well… just about nothing… lives. Coipasa and Uyuni both developed when the enormous Lake Minchin dried up thousands of years ago. When it did I wish it had left the salt flats a little smaller because they’re painfully boring to ride across. I approached the Salar de Coipasa feeling like a little boy at Christmas, hardly believing I was about to ride such an icon. Then within an hour of actually being out on the thing a deep conflict started to bubble up from within: One of the things I love most in this world is huge pristine landscapes. One of the things I hate most in life is flat, straight and monotonous bicycle riding. Unfortunately on the salars the awe and incredible beauty of the environment soon wares thin whilst the mind numbing nature of the riding just burrows deeper and deeper into your soul until the whole experience veers dangerously close to becoming complete drudgery. The only thing that saved the experience for me was abject silliness. I invested my time and energies on the salars in trying my damnedest to be positive and enjoy them. For that reason my memories of them will forever be shaped by photos like this…


Please God, if you’re up there, save me from this boredom!!!

… and video’s like this…

A Salty Rinse on the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia – Shy FX, Skibadee, Fearless – Prophecy 89.5 from Nathan Haley on Vimeo.

I cut loose on the salt and despite all my moaning and complaining about how boring they were, with hindsight I have to admit that between the bouts of dull riding I did manage to manufacture quite a lot of fun. The night I spent camped alone as a tiny speck on the enormous Salar de Uyuni was extremely special and the sheer wackiness of the whole experience was at times hilarious. So I suppose in my heart I’m still a little conflicted about the whole thing. Regardless of how I feel about it, the fact remains that for the most part I (kind of) enjoyed the four day ride from Sabaya across the Salar de Coipasa to Llica and then across the Salar de Uyuni to the tourist town of Uyuni.

Here is how my time on  the salt panned out…


Leaving Sabaya was no hardship… the place is a dump…


… and I’m excited as pie to be heading out onto the legendary Salar de Coipasa


But before I get absorbed into the massive open heartland of the salar…


… I detour to Coipasa village. Unsurprisingly it is also a complete dump, where people dump at will seemingly wherever they choose. But it serves it’s purpose, I get some salty drinking water from the well of a blind shop keeper, strap on some cheese puffs…


… and hit the salt


As I spin my way over the flat crusty mineral…


… any initial excitement…


… soon drains away. There is nothing there… just blue and white boredom


But I’m riding the salt flats, these places are legendary and I’m determined to have fun. So I throw down my bike…


… rip off my clothes…


… and try riding with liberation for a while… it doesn’t work… I get bored with worrying about sun burn and eventually redress


But the skinny ride has got my juices flowing and with the help of some choice tunes I’m able to keep spirits buoyed…


… for a short while. When the naked adrenalin wares off I resort to taking fun from taking pictures. First on the salar picture list is some glamour shots of the Shermster… standing up…


… lying down…


… and as my arty bent gets the better of me… in shadow


But taking pictures standing up isn’t enough of a buzz for this thrill seeker. In search of the ultimate camera/bike related high I take my camera up into the saddle. Cue scintillating and genre busting POV riding shots and even…


… a collection of feet pedaling pictures… a definite award winner


It’s just all too exciting!


Before long the sun is starting to drop…


… shadows lengthen…


… and the days blues evolve into to pinks, greys and oranges


Having originally intended to sleep out on the salar some strong winds eventually turn my mind against the idea and I instead push on to shore to sleep


As morning dawns I soon find myself plodding through the sand in this salty route sandwich. Determined to avoid Tres Cruces I’m rewarded with some glorious sandy single track…


… that skirts the salar…


… before joining up with the main track from Tres Cruces


A short period of bouncing over washboard and wiggling through grabbing sand delivers me past Challacollo…


… and into Llica. Having heard stories of a marching band that tours the town playing the same tune on repeat all day and every day it’s an easy decision to take the day in Llica to relax. But the entertainment never surfaces, all I get to gawp at is a sex show from the local dogs. It’s just not enough to keep me in Llica…


… so I leave town and return to the ‘exciting’ salt desert


The Salar de Uyuni is the big one, the one popular with tourists and even more iconic than its northern neighbor. But that doesn’t mean shit to me as the tedium of charging south-east on the Jeep tracks soon reaches ignition point…

Snapshot 1 (05-10-2014 16-15)

… and I explode into dance. It’s safe to say I’m fairy obsessed with Drum & Bass music, listening to it everyday. Sometimes when a bad tune drops I just can’t help myself. On this occasion ‘Pandora’s Box‘ opens me up into a salty solo rave and seeing as I have a blog, I thought I might as well film some of it (that’s normal right?) You can view the results at the top of this post


After a hard morning ‘inside the ride’ it’s finally time for the highlight of my afternoon… lunch. Cue more award-winning photography


A long leisurely lunch ends in more photography capers as I start to mess around with some fish-eye business. Seems apt as the riding is so samey on the salars I figure only someone with a goldfish memory could really get excited by it. Some of my fish-eye experiments work…


… and some don’t work quite so well


The only traffic I see until reaching the touristic Jeep hell of Isla Incahuasi is this rundown bus. It passes me one way and then on the return trip stops beside me. As I watch on a man and his young daughter get off. The bus drives off leaving them stood by the ‘road’ in the middle of nowhere


Carrying two days of water I have no space on the bike to give the guy a lift, instead I plod on over the salar… past Isla Pescado…


… and Volcan Tunupa…


… to Isla Incahuasi. This is where the tourist Jeep tours from Uyuni drive out to. Keeping my distance so as to avoid any interaction with this other breed of foreigner I quickly skirt the island


Isla Incahuasi marks the end of my solitary salt spin, the remainder of my ride is in the company of these Jeep tourists. At one point a Jeep stops in front of me and the tourists pile out with their camera’s primed, taking pictures of me. This infuriates me beyond belief, how incredibly rude to take someones picture without permission! In silent protest I stop and turn my back until they have got the message and pissed off. This controlled reaction makes me proud as deep inside all I want to do is shove their camera’s where the sun don’t shine. This ain’t no feck’in freak show people!


Taking a wide berth away from the Jeep tracks I put good distance between myself and Isla ‘Tourismo’ before a falling sun signifies camp o’clock. As the angle of the sun flattens the colours, shapes and character of the hexagonal salty carpet twists and morphs


Despite my best efforts to wring every last morsel of warmth from the setting sun…


… I’m eventually forced into conceding the onset of evening and make my home for the night


As a spoilt cycle tourist who has camped under hundreds of elaborately setting suns I seldom get excited by them these days. This evening is different, a true spectacle of natural theater ensues…


… as a sky of mild pinks quickly erupts into…


… an explosion of cloud fire


And as the sky parties, so do the salts…


… a choppy sea of crust reflecting and absorbing the riot of colour and movement. It’s a sunset orgy and it is truly magnificent


Much like my over exposure to sunsets has left me complacent, my life in a tent has largely desensitized me to the joys camping, it’s just normal life to me now. But waking up to sunrise over the salar is special. Despite the salty water that goes into it, my coffee tastes all the better for such a glorious night


But there’s still work to be done and boredom to be battled out on the Salar de Uyuni. So after breakfast I stretch my legs…


… say goodbye to Clive the trusty tent-peg whacker…


… and join the Jeep tracks east


Despite the distraction of small windows into the salty underworld…


… and the temptation to keep on dancing…


… I quickly make it off the salar and into the small town of Colchani


Stopping only to take pictures of a few rusty car wrecks, I high-tail it out of Colchani on the ‘road’ to Uyuni


The road construction between Colchani and Uyuni works to my advantage, giving me a smooth traffic free ride. Just before the asphalt starts I’m waved down by a couple of French cycle tourists. The lovely Anne-Marie and Patrick then join me for the quick cruise into Uyuni, a land of all you can eat breakfast buffets, pasty faced tourists and smooth flowing wi-fi


Route Tips

3 days riding (including two half days into Llica and Uyuni), 303 km (188 miles), 405 m (1,329 ft.) of climbing

Sabaya to Uyuni Route elevation profile

Although some people may find the prospect of riding out into a large white space of nothing intimidating, there really is very little to worry about. The Salar de Coipasa is easy to navigate despite its lack of well worn Jeep tracks. The tactic is to take a compass bearing, pick a point on the horizon (such as the hill just east of Tres Cruces) and ride in a straight line towards it. Easy. Riding the Salar de Uyuni is even simpler as well defined Jeep tracks will deliver you smoothly from near Llica to Isla Incahuasi and then on to Colchani.

As always, I found the route notes and information provided by Neil and Harriet Pike to provide the only guidance I needed. If you’re a GPS user it may be helpful to download my GPX track from this RidewithGPS page. Otherwise the locally available ‘Salar de Uyuni a los Lipez’ map and the Pikes ‘Uyuni to Sabaya‘ post will give you all the information you need to ‘enjoy’ the salars.

It’s a short route so food and water are not a problem. That said I’d advise filling up with water in Sabaya as the water I got from Coipasa was unpleasantly salty. I presume if you need to you can find water in Tres Cruces but I avoided the detour, instead carrying enough from Coipasa to get me all the way through to Llica. I also made the decision to carry two days of water out of Llica. This enabled me to bypass having to make a pit-stop on Isla Incahuasi.



7 responses to “Saving the Salars with Silliness

  1. Pingback: To Love or to Loathe?.. Wrestling with the Lagunas | Velo Freedom - Cycling South·

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s