Cycling on a sea of salt

November 5th, 2013

Ask a cyclist at the start of their trip what they are expecting from it, and they will probably be able to reel off a list of highlights to you – a mental collage of images, anecdotes and place names gathered from months of preparation reading cycling blogs, gazing at photos and scouring maps. Every classic cycle touring route has its iconic rides, and for anyone riding through South America then a crossing of the Bolivian salares (salt flats) is probably near the top of the list.

Of course, it’s usually a recipe for disappointment. By their nature, the most hyped rides are often just that: over-hyped. Chances are it will be the hidden gems, the rides that take you by surprise when you are expecting nothing that you will still be talking about years later. Certainly that has been our experience so far.

The salares, however, are – for us at least – a definite exception to this rule. Over the past two years we have crawled up a lot of beautiful passes. We have freewheeled down many stunning descents. We have seen amazing forests and rushing rivers. But so far we hadn’t yet cycled 120km across a crust of perfect, crystalised salt – and I’m pretty sure we won’t again. In a world where every competing attraction claims to be “unique”, the salares truly are something special – and the excitement of pedalling across them is hard to match, no matter how many photos you have seen before hand.

By way of introduction, the Bolivian salt flats were formed by the drying of a giant prehistoric lake, called Lake Minchin. As the lake dried, it left behind several salares, including the Salar de Uyuni – the world’s largest salt flat, covering an incredible 10,500km². The salar is covered by a crust of salt up to several metres thick, but far more valuable is the brine underneath, which is rich in lithium. The Salar de Uyuni alone is estimated to contain up to 70% of the world’s lithium reserves – that’s a lot of batteries. In keeping with Bolivia’s current policies against foreign exploitation of its natural resources, there is currently no mining on the salar. There are however plans to create a Bolivian-owned and operated pilot plant to begin lithium extraction – who knows what effects this will have on this fragile environment.

After a Chilean salar aperitif around the Salar de Surire, our Bolivian salar starter took us across the Salar de Coipasa, before moving on to the main course – a ride across its bigger and more famous brother, the Salar de Uyuni. Each of the three salares had their own character: the wildlife and hot springs of Surire; the complete solitude of Coipasa; and the sheer enormity of Uyuni.


Cycling map of the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Our route from Pisiga/Colchane on the Bolivian/Chilean border takes us first onto the Salar de Coipasa, through the Sierra Inter-Salar to Llica, and then diagonally across the Salar de Uyuni to Colchani.

Rusting car in Pisiga, Bolivia

Waving goodbye to our young llama hosts in Pisiga, we stock up on food and water – after five days in Chile without seeing a single shop, we are learning fast that when you see food around here, you make the most of it. We head towards the Salar de Coipasa, through typically deserted altiplano hamlets populated by sleeping dogs and rusty cars.

Picking up a rock for camping on Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

On the way, we remember to pick up that all important tool for salar camping: a rock. Without that, we have no chance of getting our tent pegs into the hard salt.

Covering up for cycling the Salar de Coipasa, Bolivia

The sun here is ferocious, not just from above but also reflecting back up at you from the salt below. We hear stories of cyclists who’d ventured out onto the salt without sunglasses and ended up snow-blind for several days. Taking no chances, Anna gets into salt ninja mode using one of her custom-made buffs.

Cracked salt cycling the Salar de Coipasa, Bolivia

The salt at the edge of the salar is thin, cracked and soft. We work our way across it, the salt crackling under our tyres like fresh snow.

Cycling through salt on the salar de Coipasa, Bolivia

In places the cracked salt has formed raised, hollow pyramids and we invent a new game: salt breaking. It’s great fun – until of course I get slightly carried away. Apparently thinking I’m aboard one of the 18 wheelers from Ice Road Truckers instead of a fairly delicate touring bike…

Bike crashes into salt on Salar de Coipasa, Bolivia

…I take on a slab that’s a bit too big to handle. Instead of crashing through the salt as expected, the bike stops dead, I am launched into the air… 

Bent bicycle fork after crahs on Salar de Coipasa, Bolivia

…and the front end of my bike shunts backwards, leaving me with a front fork that is far more banana-shaped than its previously elegant curve. Amazingly, the bike is still rideable – just with slightly dubious steering and a new toe overlap. Rule #1 of salar riding: salt is tougher than you think.

Wheelbarrow for salt extraction on Salar de Coipasa, Bolivia

We pause for lunch where the salt extractors have been at work…

Cyclist profile on Salar de Coipasa

…and then, finally, we’re onto the good stuff: smooth, hard-packed salt. With the wind picking up, we decide to postpone our salt camp, and head instead for Coipasa island…

Campsite while cycling Salar de Coipasa, Bolivia

…where we find a sheltered camp spot with a breathtaking view over the flats. After a few days of spluttering on dirty Bolivian fuel, our fancy new Primus stove finally packs up. Thankfully, Anna’s trusty Trangia alcohol burner is at hand to cook up a delicious soup. We pack the Primus away and resolve to make ourselves a DIY alcohol stove to see us through the rest of Bolivia. All in all, not a good day on the kit front.

Chasing cyclists across the Salar de Coipasa

The first 20km the next morning are spectacular: hard, fast and without a breath of wind. We fly across the salar, before we reach a decision point: the jeep tracks veer east, whereas we want to continue south. We push on south, confident that we can find a “shortcut” to shore. 

Pushing bikes over soft salt on the Salar de Coipasa, Bolivia

Rule #2 of salar riding: there are no shortcuts. The salt becomes thinner and more sponge-like; a salty slush that sucks at our tyres and drains our legs within minutes. If the first half of our morning is like riding on perfect new asphalt, then the second half is like riding through treacle. We push a long, slow 18km to shore, finally falling into the shade of an abandoned village square for lunch.

Bike in sand, Llica, Bolivia

It’s not the end of our pushing for the day either. The “road” that leads to Llica is a typically Bolivian cocktail of dirt, washboard and sand. Most of the time you can pick a rideable line through it…

Pushing bikes through sand, Llica, Bolivia

…but sometimes, there is no avoiding the sandpit. Our puny, long-neglected upper bodies get their second workout for the day… 

Exhausted cyclist push to Llica, Bolivia

…and we finally roll into Llica – where most of the village is busily engaged at the cemetery, getting very drunk to celebrate el dia de los muertos (Day of the Dead). We find ourselves double plates of roast chicken, before collapsing into a cheap hospedaje for our first shower in 10 days, and a long, well-deserved sleep in a bed. 

Salty bike after cycling Salar de Coipasa, Bolivia

First priority the next morning is a scrub down of our salt-encrusted bikes to try and keep the rust at bay, followed by a re-supply of the all-important chocolate stash. 

Cycliing across Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Then we’re onto the big one – the Salar de Uyuni: an endless expanse of perfectly flat salt, and very little else. This time we stick to the jeep tracks, and the surface is a dream: hard-packed and fast… 

Honeycomb texture of Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

…like riding across a giant honeycomb, stretching in every direction as far as the eye can see. 

Tent peg on the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

We team up with Jan and Eva – two Slovakian cyclists we met in Llica – for our first night’s camping on the salt. Out comes the trusty rock, and with no shelter on offer we batten down all the hatches. 

Camping on the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Our luck is in though – it’s a perfect, calm evening. Once the tents are up…

Camping on the Salar de Uyuni at sunset

…there’s nothing else to do but enjoy the sunset… 

Camping on the Salar de Uyuni at sunset

…and revel in the blissful solitude. No dogs, no TVs and no car alarms. Just us, the salt, the stars and perfect silence.

Dawn cycling on Salar de Coipasa

The next morning, we are up at 4.30am and pack quickly for the chance of a sunrise ride across the salar. Leaving Jan and Eva sensibly tucked up in their sleeping bags…

Sunrise in fingertips, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

…we head east, into the rising sun… 

Sarah cycling Salar de Uyuni wrapped up

…gradually defrosting numb fingers and toes… 

Warmed by the sun, cycling Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

…and casting long, pink-tinged shadows…

Cyclist crossing Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

…speck-like in the enormity of the salar. A dawn ride to remember. 

Isla del Pescado, Salar de Uyuni

We head for Isla del Pescado, one of several islands which are the remains of ancient volcanoes submerged when Lake Minchin was formed.

Breakfast on a table of salt, Isla del Pescado, Salar de Uyuni

With stomachs rumbling, we rustle ourselves up a picnic table from blocks of salt and enjoy a leisurely breakfast.

Sarah and cactus on Isla del Pescado, Salar de Uyuni

After breakfast, we go exploring. The island is covered with towering, giant cacti… 

Flower buds on cactus, Isla del Pescado, Salar de Uyuni

…topped with antennae-like flower buds waiting to bloom.

Cactus and salt, Isla del Pescado, Salar de Uyuni

It’s a beautiful, yet surreal place – the enormous expanse of white still keeps tricking my mind into thinking I’m sat on the polar ice cap, surrounded by an alien invasion of enormous cacti from the tropics.

Sarah on a sublime chocolate bar, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Rule #3 of salar riding: the perspective shot. We pay tribute to the two things that have kept these three cyclists’ legs turning over the past two weeks. Firstly, the humble Sublime – at 175 calories of chocolate and nut goodness for just 32g, a cyclists’ dream. We gave up messing around and buying them individually a while back – now we bulk buy in boxes of 24. Sadly, we’re yet to find one of these super-size versions…

Cyclists on a coffee pot, Salar de Uyuni. Bolivia

Secondly, the stove-top cafetera – probably our most prized piece of kit (and also possibly the main reason why Anna stoically put up with our faffing and general slowness for the past two weeks). If only it was this big – imagine how fast we’d go…

Cycling towards Isla Incahuasi, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

After a relaxed morning on Pescado, we head towards the salar’s more famous island, Incahuasi, which floats in the distance through the heat haze.

Jeeps on Isla Incahuasi, Salar de Uyuni

After 24 hours without seeing another person, it’s a shock to come across this mass of 4x4s and day-trippers. Luckily though, we find what we are looking for – a tap, meaning we can fill our water bags for a second night on the salt. 

Bus crossing the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Paved roads are hard to find in Bolivia – and so in the dry season the salar becomes a main transport route across the altiplano. 

Hole in the salt, Salar de Uyuni

We pause at a hole to investigate what lies beneath. The crust of the salar varies in depth from tens of cms up to several metres, and floats on a sea of muddy brine. Continuing my polar theme, I was still half-hoping to see eskimos sitting fishing around these holes in the “ice”. 

Tent at sunset, Salar de Uyuni

How to pick a spot when you’re surrounded by 10,500km² of camping perfection? Just close your eyes, keep pedalling, and stop when the urge takes you… 

Tents at sunset, Salar de Uyuni

…and settle in for a second night of probably the easiest wild camping we will do on the whole trip.

Breakfast on the Salar de Uyuni

Another perfect sunrise and a long lingering breakfast… 

Watching sunrise, cycling Salar de Uyuni

…a last chance to soak up the magic of the salar.

Leaving a rock for camping on the Salar de Uyuni

Finally, we bid our trusty rock farewell (left in case of a fellow camper in need), and head for shore – a bumpy last leg along well-travelled jeep tracks.

Salt extraction at Colchani, Salar de Uyuni

Colchani, at the salar’s eastern edge, is the base for salt extraction. I was expecting a large-scale, commercial operation – but instead it’s endearingly Bolivian: an old guy with a spade, his bike leaned nearby… 

Chevy Spartan at Colchani, Salar de Uyuni

…and a collection of vintage trucks to haul the salt away to market.

Train cemetery, Uyuni, Bolivia

From Colchani, it’s a short final hop to the Wild West railway town of Uyuni: a blend of tour agencies, pizza restaurants and rusting trains…

Old men chatting on a bench, Uyuni. Bolivia

…all presided over by the usual collection of amused, flat-capped old men in the square. We settle in for a few days of serious eating, resting and stove construction – with the added bonus of a pizza-fuelled catch up with Neil and Harriet, friends from Huaraz who arrive fresh from their trail-blazing “Great Divide” crossing of Peru.