Section 7, part 1: Cycling the Salt Flats

Day 67: La Paz to Patacamaya, 92k

I couldn’t wait to get out of town, I was over the chaotic cars and thousands of people. We left the hotel and rode up a hill to the cable car station. We must be getting better at city riding, because Bruce and I traversed the traffic with finesse. We hopped on the cable car that basically took us 200 meters straight up. I was thankful we did not have to spend an hour riding up that hill with the switchbacks and traffic.

At the top we entered a very busy suburb that was bustling with people heading down to La Paz. The roads were hectic with the taxi vans that have no regard for anyone else, dogs, busses, etc. Luckily, we only had to endure the chaos for 14k. The road opened up to four lane divided highway with a large shoulder. Bruce and I were able to ride side by side all day. The road was pretty flat with a few rollers. The landscape turned into West Texas. A few villages and herds of animals, but other than that it was desolate.

We stopped in one town for an ice cream, while we ate a local man was inspecting our bikes. He asked the usual questions, and asked if we bought our bikes in Bolivia. Then he asked if we spent a lot of money on the bikes. He was probably one of the first rural locals to realize we had nice bikes.

IMG_1885When we entered camp, it was a village soccer field right on the side of the highway. A few local kids hung around while we set up tents, they were thrilled to help.

The sun was hot, and the shade from the vans was too cold so most everyone spent the afternoon in their tents.

I enjoy bush camps because it feels more like an adventure, however it is nice to have A bush to do your business. Luckily, there was a ditch to squat in.

Day 68: Patacamaya to Oruru, 118k

We woke up after the sunrise, so for the first time in weeks I did not need to bundle up before leaving the tent! The ride continued on the highway for the entire day. A few climbs that felt more like false flats. We prepared for a day of desolate prairies.IMG_5791 After lunch, we descend into a valley and could see a small salt flat in the distance. It was exciting to finally get a glimpse of this geological phenonomenom.

After riding a 20k more, we saw a giant field of green moss. IMG_6844It looked like it was a salt flat at one point, but dirt had blown over and grass had grown over time. A few more kilometers more we saw more legit salt underneath the tall grasses and brush. I am looking forward to seeing more of the salt flats.

Our camp was in a dirt field 100 meters off the highway. Windy but plenty of dirt piles for business. I am looking forward to a quiet night of sleep!

Day 69: Oruru to Challapata, 128k

The morning was very cold and windy. The sun was up, but did not keep us warm. We couldn’t wait to get moving. We camped just a few kilometers from the city of Oruru, so we had to navigate the bust town first thing. Oruru is a city with lots of traffic, we did get to go on some streets and get a glimpse of what they offer. Driving in South America is like a big game of chicken, people keep driving until someone loses their nerve. No one WANTS to get in an accident, they just push the limits. Luckily, people are respectful of cyclists in the cities. But, once you enter the outskirts back on the highway, it is every man for himself. I yelled at a few taxi vans today for being jerks.

IMG_0273We were finally out of the city around 15k. The road turned into a 2 lane road with very little shoulder. It reminded me of a country road in Ohio, minus the mountains of course. We continued on this road for the rest of the day. Traffic was moderate, but we’re becoming used to being buzzed by semis and buses at this point.

The road was fairly flat with some gentle rollers. At points you could see forever because it was so flat. We did see more salt flats today. IMG_3843Along the road it almost looked like a frozen tundra rather than Andean prairies. IMG_7486The large salt flats looked like a mirage from the distance. I could see mountains, but they looked like they were floating in the air. Unfortunately, my phone did not take a sufficient picture of this.

Our camp was in another field off the highway. It has been dusty the last few days, I can only imagine how rank we will be when we arrive in Uyuni.

Day 70: Challapata to Meteor Crator, 110k

Not as cold this morning, and the sun was warm. Bruce and I decided to ride separate since the road conditions and shoulder were not optimum. It was clamoring with light traffic and beautiful landscapes of mountains in the distance and sprawling prairies. The conditions are actually more like the desert with sand every where and prickly grass. We finally turned off the highway after 30k onto a smaller highway with even less traffic. IMG_9439The road was lined with desert and llamas, alpacas, and vicuna. I am happy to report that I now know how to properly identify each species.

Around 50k we had a very steep climb up a mountain into a small village. It was probably the steepest climb we have had for a while. After the climber it was a rapid descent into more desert alpaca land.

IMG_9969I was having issues with breathing today and my heart rate getting too high. I am baffled because we have been above 3700m of elevation for over three weeks now. It is frustrating not being able to breathe but your legs want to hammer. I decided to ride the bus to camp after lunch at 71k.

The remaining 39k became more hilly and very few villages.

Our camp was right next to a meteor crater. It is massive and deep with a salt accumulation at the bottom. The area above is surrounded with black rocks. Now herders allow their llamas and sheep to hang out in the crater.

Day 71: Meteor Crater to Conqueza, 77k

Frigid morning! We hit the road a half hour earlier to avoid strong winds in the afternoon. It was so cold, but the sun was shining and we barely saw any other vehicles or people for over an hour. IMG_0394We road on rolling tarmac for the first half of the day. The views of the Tunupa Volcano were stunning and  Vicuna were everywhere. As we entered the town of Salinas, the King of Quinoa, the road turned to dirt and sand for the rest of the day. I have seen tractors tilling desert land the last few days, perplexed what could possibly grow in these conditions, luckily the sign before Salinas explained that everyone is growing quinoa.

The dirt road was mixed with sand and difficult to ride through at points. But it was still exciting to be off the highway. The land opens up to a vast and flat area heading towards the base of the volcano. IMG_4560There were so many different trails to take, it was almost like “Choose Your Own Adventure”. Luckily, the tour staff had flagged rocks to ensure we one went in roughly the right direction.

After lunch we rode to the base of the volcano through a small farming village. Lots of sheep and alpacas watched us ride by, a few locals shouted pleasantries.

We had one long climb for the day. We had a small mountain pass to go over, it was all dirt and sand and steep in sections. It was a test to our fitness gains over the last few months because Bruce and I motored up it, only taking breaks to remove warm riding clothes and apply sunscreen. At the top of the climb we had our first view of the epic salt flats.IMG_2937 Absolutely stunning! It was probably one of the best views of our trip so far. It looked like a massive snow field with blue mountains in the distance. We rode down the mountain into a small town where we turned onto the actual Salt Flats.

I have to admit I assumed it would be a smooth and hard packed surface but It was bumpy and difficult to maintain speed. We still had fun and it was an amazing experience. IMG_9033We rode probably 10k on the salt until we reached the village where we would be camping.

Our camp was actually a hostel and we each had rooms and working bathrooms! What a surprise because we thought it would be another bush camp. Another bonus is that the winds pick up to over 40k per hour at night, so need to worry about the tent staying upright!

Day 72: Conqueza to Uyuni, 135k

Salt Flats day! This is one of the epic rides of the trip! The salt flats area 12000 square kilometer area of perfectly flat land that was once a prehistoric lake that dried up. Or the legend is that the volcano Tunupa was married to Cusco. Cusco ran off with another woman and Tunupa was so sad she cried while breastfeeding her son, the milk and tears mixed to make the Salt Flats, or  locally known as Solar de Uyuni.

The morning was not feeling as cold, but it could also have been because we did not sleep outside. The sun rise over the salt flats were beautiful. The surrounding mountains were kissed with purple and orange. We started our day early to avoid high winds and it is a long day. IMG_3021We headed straight into the flats towards an island 38k away from the village. Our direction was to stay on the black truck tracks so we would not get lost. The surface was a little smoother than yesterday, but it was still bumpy like riding on a flagstone path. Sometimes the salt would have potholes, sometimes raised bumps.

Bruce and I, as well as a few other riders rode together and took pictures and videos for most of the first section.IMG_1890

When we reached the island it was covered with cactus and several shops and restaurants. A man asked me if I had signed the book, they keep a guestbook for cyclist riding along the salt flats. I signed it and added our website.

After the island we headed east, the dinner van was parked maybe a kilometer away to make sure we were heading the right direction. Our group stopped to take a hundred photos of ourselves using the perspective of the flat surface. Sadly, none of our ideas worked out for the iPhone camera.

IMG_1901We continued along the truck tracks, which are grey and sometimes black, for another 40k until we saw the lunch van. During that time Bruce and I practiced riding without hands and planking on the bike, An excellent opportunity when its flat.

We did soon grow bored of the flat and bumpy surface. Luckily the cycling gods blessed us with a tail wind that allowed us to hammer to the mainland.

We ran into two French guys solo bikepacking, they rode with us for about 10k asking a hundred questions about our trip. I’m sure we will see them again soon.

When we reached the main land we rode on about 5k of dirt into a village, it was small and we managed to find a coke stop. After navigating the dusty dirt we made it onto the highway again that was freshly paved. The Coke was jet fuel for me and mixed with the tailwind we hammered into Uyuni 20k away.

Uyuni is another dustbowl of a town. The necessary stores and restaurants, but I am looking forward to a real rest day tomorrow. Our hotel is nice and the wifi is meh in the common areas, so I am sure I will read and snooze most of the day tomorrow!



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