Salar de Uyuni

In the early morning light of the equinoccio de primavera, and its promise of warm days to come, the mining city of Potosi, Bolivia was as yet still cold and raw.  High in the Andean Cordillera Central, even with the sunshine, walking around on a Sunday morning trying to find an open café was not much fun.  We circled around the streets a while, and ended up back where we started.  During our cold, wet arrival our hostel the night before, we missed that there was a kitchen available for us to use.  Having now discovered that, Jalene made a breakfast of oatmeal and fruit, and we packed up the bikes.

The ride out to Uyuni from Potosi takes you through rolling mountains and high desert.  I just loved this day’s ride, as we rolled along through terrain seemingly straight out of a model railroad set, with rugged, weatherworn rocky ridges and a narrow-gauge rail line winding around, crossing and re-crossing the road.  Brown and red bands of rock in the ridges stood out, and far-off rain clouds dropped ribbons of water down onto them in the distance.  We crossed over rises where the snow from the day before lay all around, but our road was dry and the sun was on us.  Eventually we passed down into flatter land, cruising through open valleys with broad marshy areas holding large herds of llamas.  Except for these low wet basins, we were passing through a very dry country, and the sand and rock was peppered with cactus plants in all their various forms, some round and plump, some tall and corrugated, some palmate with broad, thick disks of green spreading in the sun.  Most had spines and thorns, but some were smooth, and a few were showing a flower.  Sometimes we would come through a little settlement or farm, and one could see very old structures directing water, either canals dug or stone aqueducts built, running out from the springs or creeks and toward the towns and fields.  The value of water here was made plain by the tunnels hacked through solid rock, connecting aqueducts to route the water where it was desperately wanted.

We had a grand surprise as we neared Uyuni.  The road had flattened out and some clouds come over, and we were in an occasional bit of rain.  Then we saw them – two bicyclists with orange reflective tape plastered all over their bikes, and we could not mistake that this was Genevieve and Michael, whom we had met at our Cusco hostel stay.  We laughed and hugged and had a brief, excited chat before they had to be off, and we too.  They were coming up from Uyuni and we going down toward it, so we exchanged info about the road ahead for each, and were on our way.  It’s always a huge instant recharge for me when we see people we know by chance along the road and get to say hello again, even for just a brief few moments.  We wished each other well and, in my mind at least, prayed for their safety, and that we would someday meet again with time for stories.

Welcome to the town of Uyuni.

Dusty and tired, we rolled into Uyuni, on the edge of the Salar, and found a hostel with a nice garage area for the bikes.  This town was originally a stop along the railway line, where rails from the north, east, and west all came together.  As such, one of the things this town is famous for is the Train Cemetery, where one can see long lines of old steam engines and cars left to rot from days long gone.  Jalene and I never got out to see them, and I’m sorry about that now, after seeing some really amazing photos taken by others.  Don’t miss it if you go there.

The Salar de Uyuni itself was a different story.  We both really wanted to see it, and get out on the biggest salt flat in the world.  It’s so big and so smooth that the space agencies use it as a mirror to calibrate their laser and radar surveying satellites.  We got up the next morning and rode a bit north to Colchani, where you can take a dirt road out to the west, gradually changing in composition from dirt to salt.  After a bit of wandering through a potholed section where you could see the mushy wet salt underneath, we made it out onto the hard, thick, white crust of the Salar, and stopped for photos.  As we were having fun with that, a small black spot far out on the Salar slowly grew, and another moto rolled up with a fellow from Argentina aboard.  He told us about the Dakar Rally monument about 5 kilometers further out on the salt.  No problem, he said, just ride generally west, and you can’t miss it.  So we took off, following the dark line of tire tracks that we thought went in about the right direction across an otherwise completely featureless plain of stark white.  Soon enough, something big loomed on the horizon, and we soon found ourselves converging with other vehicles on the immense Dakar Rally monument.  Someone built a huge stack of salt blocks and then carved into the familiar stylization of the Touareg tribesman with his folds of fabric covering all but the eyes from the blowing sand.  Flags of many, many countries were strung up like prayer flags nearby, and everyone was grinning and welcoming each other in a way I’d never really seen before or since.  We rolled the bikes up in front of the giant salt carving and took a few victory photos, with the crowd cheering us and helping out.  One woman even did a little video interview of us for a project she was doing.  A French couple wanted to know about the Dakar Rally, as they had never heard of it.  “Are there any French competitors?”  After explaining that it was originally the Paris-Dakar Rally years ago, and it is recognized as the toughest race in the world, I simply had them google Cyril Depres on their phones (5-time motorcycle champion from France), Stephane Peterhansel (7-time winner in cars, 6-time moto champion, from France), Richard Sainct, Hubert Auriol, and Cyril Neveu (all French Dakar moto champions) and they were astonished.  I simply loved the looks that came over them as they realized they were standing in front something that the French racers have excelled in!

The Salar is a strange place, where you can have fun with perspective in photos.  The surface is perfectly flat, a uniform white color, and stretches to the horizon unbroken.  As such, there are no objects in view for scale or size reference.  If you wish, you can place a camera, park the bike well away from it, walk toward the camera until you find that perfect spot where you can hold up your hand and have the bike seemingly in your palm.  There is nothing in the photo except you and the bike, and so the viewer has no way to tell how big anything is.  People construct all kinds of interesting photos in this crazy, empty environment. It was fun to watch them having so much fun with it, and to play around with it ourselves.  

We met some guys on dirt bikes at the Dakar monument, turns out to be a tour led by an English fellow that moved to Uyuni and now runs guided off-road trips on and around the Salar.  He made a point of emphasizing how corrosive the salt is.  Living right on the Pacific Ocean in Oregon, I had already decided not to spend too much time on the powdery lake surface.  We didn’t like the idea of salt in the electrical connectors and such, and so turned back toward “shore” after having enjoyed a great time riding out about 10 km onto the Salar.  Others we know have ridden out to an island far, far out in the middle of the Salar and camped there.  Sometimes I wish we’d not been quite so conservative on this trip and had done things like this, as I’m told that the view of the stars from the island is absolutely astonishing.  I’d encourage others to find a balance a little more toward adventure if they can.  No regrets, though, we had a long, long way still to go, and the bikes had been serving us dependably.

Once back in town, I decided that my front tire had gone far enough with me on this trip.  I spooned on the new tire I’d been carrying since Lima, where I’d bought the tire I wanted at a decent price about two months ago.  We try to get every mile we can out of them, and they end up pretty smooth.  It’s always a guessing game of what the road ahead will throw at you, and do you think this tire can make it another day?  Where will we find new ones?  Our rear tires were getting down there, too, and I was starting to look into buying some here in Bolivia.  I could get Brazilian-made Pirellis cheap here in Bolivia.  In Chile, we could get whatever we wanted, but they would be much more expensive.  Tariffs in Argentina made buying tires there out of the question.  As it turns out, I bought the Pirelli rear tires in Sucre, Bolivia from a moto shop for about the same as the internet price in the US.  We then carried them for maybe three weeks before mounting them on the bikes.  Carrying tires is not hard, it’s just another bit of hassle to deal with when packing and unpacking the bikes each day, but it does add several pounds to our load.

Uyuni is a dry, dusty town, but it has several nice places to eat, and a nice plaza and market area to browse through.  Down the center margin of the main drag, they have many old steam engines, boilers and train equipment placed, with a kind of Industrial Sculpture Garden feel to it.  I enjoyed puzzling out how the old boilers fit into the original engines, and how some of the other pieces were originally used.  Anyone with a mechanical mind will love this area, there is so much historical iron lying around.  We cruised on foot through the town, and had some great pizza just a few doors down from our hotel.  The place was filled with a busload of tourists from Europe, and we had some fun conversations, as we always do, with so many viewpoints from so many places all talking at once about their journeys, the strange things they see, or helping others to understand mysteries which they have already found the answers for.  Jalene and I, somewhere along the line, had found that we were becoming those people that could answer the questions more and more often.  We had been on the road over a year now, and had run into many of these mysteries ourselves, and so were morphing into the seasoned travelers that tended to have the answers.  It seems such a short time ago that we were new at this, full of questions, and so nervous at crossing those first few borders.  Now we hardly think twice about it, except to make sure we have all the papers (and snacks!) we need handy once we get there.  We have changed immensely, in knowledge, in confidence, in communications, and in trust of ourselves and, especially, each other.

Our time in Uyuni came to a close with the decision that, instead of taking the road around the south side of the Salar over to Chile, we would see more of Bolivia.  We chose to turn east toward the old city of Sucre, which we were told was a busy town with a lot of history and parks to enjoy.  It was also supposed to be warmer there, and that alone was pretty attractive to us.  But Sucre was going to throw a curveball at us from out of the Cretaceous Period, and we were in for a big, big surprise.

***

Check out photos of the Salar de Uyuni and Jalene's blog video that we made on the Salar.