Burning Across Bolivia Part 2: Scads of Salt Flats

11/21/2016

Sabaya, Bolivia.

From my quiet perch in Sabaya I look out at the entrance to the Salar de Coipasa, an enormous salt flat here in Southwest Bolivia. It is the smaller and lesser-known sibling to the largest and famous Salar de Uyuni, and my route would pass through both over the next few days. I loaded up on lip balm, sun screen and water, and pushed out into the wide open terrain. 

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Just as I got off the sandy entry road to Coipasa, I noticed this ominous offering. A rusty and destroyed old bike wheel laying out in the last bits of mud before rolling onto the salt flat proper. I certainly hope neither of mine will join in it’s fate…

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Ominous article #2: Did someone die of thirst or exposure out here? No telling. Time to just keep rolling on. 

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I’ve never seen nor visited, never mind ridden across, a salt flat before. Coipasa was vast. Small outcroppings of rock and mountains dotted the otherwise oceanic off-white horizon.

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The only texture in sight were the small cracks within the surface. As I approached the middle of the salar, it really felt like being out alone on some other planet. 

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I stopped for a while, sat down on the ground, and recorded a birthday video for my Father. It’s been a long time since I’ve maintained any close relationship to calendars, dates, or even days of the week, but certain family birthdays seem to provide the structure that can help me orient myself. I love singing birthday wishes on video to people I love, and this was no exception. Funny to notice how sitting on the salt for 15 minutes caused it to liquify onto my shorts as I felt the wetness and stiffness of salty water on my shorts. As it dried the shorts got stiff enough to stand on their own!

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Playing with perspective. One of the fun things you can do on the Salar. Do a google search for Salar de Uyuni and you’ll see what I mean…

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Given that the “road” across Coipasa was nothing more than a set of tire tracks reaching endlessly onward across the salar, I decided to go rogue and ride my own direct route toward the coastal exit where my road continued toward Uyuni. I assumed that the whole salar would be as consistently smooth and easily navigable as it was out in the middle. I was of course mistaken. With 14 miles ahead before reaching the coast, the cracks slowly transitioned from tiny 1/2” lips that I easily crunched over to larger 1-2” cracks that felt more like abrupt speed bumps…

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A mile or so later, those cracks again transitioned to large raised plates of salt that I’d have to periodically jump over and crash through in order to continue… the average speed quickly diminished…

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Every couple of miles the terrain got progressively harder… well… more difficult… because it actually got SOFTER. This particular phase involved a cardboard-thin layer of super crunchy salt, with loose, deep sand underneath it. Extremely high drag coefficient here. Ugh. Still, so very interesting to travel on a surface I’d never yet encountered. Despite the extreme challenge I was somehow able to muster a sense of curiosity about how much more difficult it could possibly become!

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The Law of Attraction in practice. This was certainly more difficult. Adding to the crunchy salt-shell-over-sand surface were dense composites of some form of hard moss that raised up 4-10” from the surface. Yay! Luckily this was the last and most difficult surface before reaching the shore. I really really really should have just stayed on the “road” as I’m sure it would have required less ground-breaking. Alas. I rolled up over some sand dunes to reach what I assumed would be the smooth and faster main road, back on my route. 

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WRONG! Deep deep deep sand and heinous headwind to blow it up into my eyes and mouth every few seconds. Deep enough that my tires could not float me above it. As evening approached, I began walking. Slowly. Spreading my bike tires through the sand like a knife through peanut butter. 

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I eventually reached a small village a few miles down the road. I was going to find wind protection for my tent here in the basketball court, but a local man stepped out of his house to show me a small house still under construction that I could sleep in. He also kindly offered to fill my water! People. So good. 

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I pushed out early the next morning knowing I had a long day of exposed heat ahead. The deep sandy road surface continued, and I dreamed of reaching the smooth and flat surface of the Salar de Uyuni…

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 Llica, a surprisingly large and bustling town on the Northwest “shore” of Salar de Uyuni. I found some women selling meat-filled enchiladas on the street and filled both bags and stomach to the brim. 

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For those traveling toward Llica from across the salar, this sign marks your arrival. Great job crossing the largest salt flat in the world! For me, it’s the last sign before embarkation! 

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As sand and dirt slowly transition to salt, the long straight road reaches for the horizon. 

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Given yesterday’s debacle, I now know this stage of the salar. I’m a few miles out onto it, and it’s luckily getting smoother with time! I rode out onto the open salar, off the road, and realized one specific aspect unique to my current experience: I could ride, in any direction, and run zero risk of hitting anything at all! I could even… ride with my eyes closed…

So I did. For about 5 minutes straight.

At first it was really scary. We are taught NOT to do things like this from a very young age. But over the short time of exploration my comfort increased and I could really feel my other senses sharpen. Highly interesting to feel how balance is effected when you remove the main sense used in orientation. I found that I tend to veer left as the track I took over that time was a long arc with a left curve to it. Pretty neat.

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Yes, there is one random street sign. 

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It’s really hard to take any of those amazing perspective shots you see online when you’re riding out here alone. So I just managed to shrink my flute for now!

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The main route across Uyuni is surprisingly well-travelled… all in perspective of the low traffic in general in Southwest Bolivia. A saw a couple of these commuter busses taking locals and tourists across the salar every now and again. While riding on this smooth, almost paved surface, I looked down at the salt tiles. I noticed that almost every single one was either a 5- or 6- sided polygon when counting sides between 3-way joints. I began to wonder if there were anomalies in which I’d see more or less than 5 or 6 sides or line intersections where more than 3 lines joined at one point. So I looked down for a while (not much else to look at in the middle of a salt ocean!) to find out.

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I’d see places where the lines were just about to join.

 

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Other places where the lines had just joined. But still, always 3. 

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Over almost 10 straight miles of searching for a 4-line intersection, I only saw ONE. Was this a valuable way to spend my time out here? I don’t know. But once finding this one exception to the “rule”, I could relax and just take in the silent vastness of the salar. 

 

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We’ve all seen what appears to be a boat floating above the horizon out on calm ocean, right? Well, I saw a lot of floating mountains out on Uyuni. Enough to take a note and figure out what was going on here (again, too much time on my hands??). It’s often referred to as the Fata Morgana, named after the fabled Italian floating castles near the Strait of Messina. Scientifically the mirage is a result of light being refracted through layers of air varying in temperature causing the visual distortion. 

 

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Wha? How? 

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Yep. There are various “islands” in the salar. Some quite small, just a few meters above the surface. Others up to 1/4 mile long. I climbed around on one for a while and was surprised to find a couple small species of birds, some black flies, a few flowers and lots of cacti!

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The largest of the islands, Isla Pescado, called to me. I rode up to it and found a few other bikers had had the same idea! We decided to camp together and enjoy the a salty sunset.

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The wind howled ferociously. Enough so that we were forced from our original campsite to a more sheltered one amongst the rocks. Well worth the transition as I’m sure my tent poles would have snapped.

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The four of us set out the next morning to continue our crossing.

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Isla Incahuasi. The highly touristy island in the center of the Salar. Many private jeep tours include the Salars in their tours of Southwest Bolivia, and all stop here for souvenirs. I think seeing a group of people cycling across the salar was the biggest attraction however. The other 3 cyclists headed due East from here and I headed South, in search of more desolate routes with less traffic than the primary route across the salar. 

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Damn jeeps are everywhere though!

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I’d heard that many of the local communities use bricks of salt to build their homes, but didn’t understand how that worked. Until of course I came across this pile of salt bricks! Cut out of the ground with a sawzall, the underlying surface is kind of a gloopy mud of salt and dirt, just 5-6” down…

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The footprint to prove it. I wondered how deep my foot would sink. Was it like quicksand and I could fall in and drown? No, only a few inches deep. But so interesting!

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I saw more and more interesting uses of the bricks that had already been cut. Someone had built this gate and let it sit out in the open salar. 

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As I rolled on, I saw that others had written words with the bricks…

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I of course followed suit. The bricks were surprisingly heavy! Each one 1-2’ long, 6-8” wide and about 5” thick, they had to have weighed about 30 pounds each on average. An hour of brick hauling later and Spoke and Words had left its mark on Uyuni… until the next traveller re-appropriates it of course. 

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Reaching the edge of the salar, I decided to learn from yesterday’s folly and stay on the road. A good choice as all sorts of strange obstacles lined the roadside. This random pool stood out among them. The water color was reminiscent of hot springs, so I tested it. Not hot. Alas. But perhaps a pretty amazing lap pool for those who might be in need of a dip??

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Back on the shore… and back to the sand. 

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25 slow and sun-exposed kilometers later, I reached the small town of San Juan. It would be my last resupply before setting out for the last section of my Bolivian adventures: the lagunas route. For now I needed a place to crash and a general store. 

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Unfortunately all of the 3 hotels were full with jeep tour attendees. Reaching the last one, I was kindly accommodated by the owner who found a bed for me amongst the tour guides. He even fed me some left over food from one of the passing tours! I found the general store and stocked up on everything I could, not knowing how long the next 200 miles could take. Would it be smooth road? Likely not. Sand? Probably. I would carry 5 days of food and 3 days of water just to be sure, and the going would be slow. For now a good night’s rest and preparation for a whole different world ahead!


https://ridewithgps.com/trips/18298086

4 Responses

  1. Box Canyon Mark
    | Reply

    Incredible desolation, elements, and true grit to conquer it. Let’s hope all that salt stays out of wheel bearings…
    Box Canyon Mark

  2. Brad
    | Reply

    Hey Scott,
    Can’t wait till I get down to that part of the world. Might even find your Spoke and Words salt bricks when I’m there. Looking forward to catching up on your much delayed posts. 😉
    Cheers, Brad

  3. Marianne & Damien
    | Reply

    More than one year ago already… It was great to meet you there, in the middle of this incredible white landscape… 🙂 Hope you’re doing well! Greetings from Belgium!

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