As we reshuffled our idea of descending into Arequipa’s canyons due to lack of time, our exit from Peru suddenly included visiting the famous Lake Titicaca. Sitting astride Peru’s and Bolivia’s border, the local joke goes something along the lines of “Peru got the titi and Bolivia got the caca” but our trip around the lake was equally enjoyable on both sides.

There is no immigration control on the far side of the lake, so from Lampa, we travelled by bus to get our passports stamped in Puno (more details at the end of this post) before visiting the Capachica peninsula and then riding the eastern side of the lake on quieter roads to the border at Tilali.

Sarah & James

A basic map of the Capachica Peninsula, Lake Titicaca, Peru

Our “high tech” map of the Capachica Peninsula (with our route marked in pink) which reaches out into the lake just to the east of Juliaca. We spend a few days here before heading towards Bolivia…

Sarah riding alongside a rubbish dump on the road from Juliaca to Capachica, Peru

…but to get there, first we have to ride past this. Stretching out of Juliaca on the windswept altiplano is 15-20km of rubbish. Some brave souls sift through it for treasures to keep and sell but mostly it’s broken tvs and used nappies.

Sarah riding through a gate shaped as an indigenous hat at the beginning of the road to the Capachica Peninsula, Lake Titicaca, Peru

After riding through the town of Capachica, we reach a gate shaped as the hat typical to this region and we know we have arrived at the lake… 

View of Lake Titicaca and a reed bed, Capachica Peninsula, Peru

…and get a first glimpse of its calm waters and totora (reed) beds.

View over our cycle campsite alongside Lake Titicaca on the Capachica Peninsula, Peru

A rest day is prescribed and we pitch the tent at Kawai homestay near Llachón, overlooking the lake and back towards Puno…

Yellow crysanthemums alongside Lake Titicaca on the Capachica Peninsula, Peru

…and spend the day drinking coffee and admiring the flowers…

Three photos of Mari at the Kawai homestay near Llachón, Capachica Peninsula, Lake Titicaca, Peru

…all in the company of the owner’s daughter, adorable three year old Mari.

Magno and family at Kawai homestay near Llachón, Capachica Peninsula, Lake Titicaca, Peru

Kawai homestay: Magno and his family provide accomodation and tasty local meals overlooking the lake, just outside of the village of Llachón.

Four photos of the sunrise over Lake Titicaca, Cacpachica Peninsula, Peru

We drag ourselves out of the tent at 0430 and up to the highest point of the peninsula to see the sun rise over the lake. The magnificent views are more than enough reward for the effort – thanks for the tip Alfie!

Bowl of breakfast doughnuts at Kawai homestay near Llachón, Capachica Peninsula, Lake Titicaca, Peru

And we still make it back to the homestay in time for delicious fresh doughnuts and jam for breakfast. 

Sarah and the bikes on the beach at Chifrón, Capachica Peninsula, Lake Titicaca, Peru

A leisurely ride around the rest of the peninsula and we are at Playa Chifrón just in time for lunch on the beach… 

Poster of the Miss Playa Chifrón 2013 competition, Capachica Peninsula, Lake Titicaca, Peru

…but unfortunately a day too early to witness the annual “Miss Chifrón Beach” beauty competition.

Sarah cycling around the edge of a cliff near Escallani, Lake Titicaca, Peru

Riding away from the peninsula towards Escallani, we follow a wonderful dirt road that hugs the coastline…

Sarah cycling along the coast of Lake Titicaca, Peru

…and makes us feel like we are cycling in the Mediterranean. 

Man driving a tractor near Pusi, Lake Titicaca, Peru

Lakeside life goes on as normal: tractor drivers wave hello… 

Cows outside a typical house on the shores of Lake Titicaca, Peru

…cows graze in front of political propganda…

Two people in a boat near Pusi, Lake Titicaca, Peru

…and the boats are out collecting totora; the prolific reed that grows on the shore is used for everything from eating to weaving to animal fodder.

Boat covered in reeds near Huancané, Lake Titicaca, Peru

There’s enough totora for everyone.

Sarah cycling past a protestor's roadblock of stones and branches near Huancané, Lake Titicaca, Peru

The people of Huancané, upset with their corrupt mayor, lay a road block in protest. Thankfully cyclists are allowed through…

A view of Lake Titicaca from outside of Huancané, Peru

…and we reach the “other” side of the lake. Little traffic and beautiful views make it the perfect way to leave Peru.

James stands with his bike looking over the cliff's edge near Moho, Lake Titicaca, Peru

Overlooking the drop, James dreams of a nice cold swim…

View of a bay near Moho, Lake Titicaca, Peru

…and soon we find the perfect bay…

Sarah swimming in Lake Titicaca, Peru

…nothing for it but to get stuck in. It freezes my brain! I am really not a fan of jumping into cold water but I can’t just sit on the beach and observe; this is Lake Titicaca after all.

James swimming in Lake Titicaca, Peru

James on the other hand loves a chilly swim…

Close up of James after swimming in Lake Titicaca, Peru

…even if he does come out of the water looking like a half-frozen shipwreck survivor. 

Picture of a granadilla near Lake Titicaca, Peru

We warm back up in the sun and enjoy sweet granadillas; this kind of tropical fruit will be harder to come by in Bolivia, we are told, so we eat as much as we can in our last few days in Peru.

Sarah cycling up the dirt road between the borders of Peru and Bolivia, Lake Titicaca, Peru

After passing the police checkpoint at Tilali, Peru has one tough climb left for us. I grumble all the way up and vow to make a case to the Office of International Border Crossings (there must be one, right?) that they do not always have to choose difficult dirt climbs to mark the territories between countries…or perhaps it’s just the particular borders we choose to cross at?

The base of the obelisk marking the border between Peru and Bolivia at Lake Titicaca, near Tilali, Peru

We finally reach the obelisk overlooking the lake that marks the line, and we are into Bolivia. 

View of some of the contraband lock-ups on the border between Peru and Bolivia, near Tilali, Lake Titicaca, Peru

There’s no one else up here, just hundreds of empty buildings that are used on Wednesdays and Saturdays for a huge contraband market. 

Sarah cycling through the no-man's land area between the Peruvian and Bolivian Borders near Tilali, Lake Titicaca, Peru

No-man’s land (and the climbing) continues much further than I anticipate; it’s an 18km slog from Tilali to Puerto Acosta, the first town on the Bolivian side. We arrive shattered and seek out dinner… 

Lady cooking dinner in a kiosk at Puerto Acosta, Bolivia

…which we find at a kiosko in a deserted square. First food impressions are positive: hot hearty soup followed by a heaped plate of rice, potatoes and minced beef for just over US$1. Exactly what is needed. 

View of Puerto Acosta, Bolivia

Our first impressions of Puerto Acosta on the otherhand are pretty bleak – we arrive as it’s getting dark and there is a bitter wind blowing around a town where seemingly no one lives. The following morning both the people and the sun emerge and it’s a much nicer place to be. 

A bunch of bananas bought in Bolivia

And our first impressions of bananas – the crucial staple food of cyclists – they’re cheap, really cheap. In Escoma, 4 bananas costs us 1 Boliviano…in sterling, that’s 44 bananas for £1! 

A lady running past a group of houses, near Escoma, Bolivia

We continue to follow the lake on the Bolivian side, through peaceful villages where running is a rarity… 

A group of kids on bikes heading to school in Ancoraimes, Bolivia

…on to Ancoraimes, now truly on the altiplano, where bicycles are the most common form of transport. We get swallowed up in the school commute. 

A roadside village sign featuring the Bolivian flag and Ché Guevara near Achacachi, Bolivia

Ché propoganda reappears reminding us of our month in Cuba, nearly two years ago. His final guerilla campaign took place in Bolivia before he was captured and shot by the Bolivian army and CIA at Villagrande; his iconic face can be found everywhere here. 

A view of the Cordillera Real near Achacachi, Bolivia

We ride alongside the stunning Cordillera Reál on the way into La Paz…

Indigineous lady in a bowler hat with her bicycle in Achacachi, Bolivia

…and encounter more locals who opt for cycle transport. This cholita with trademark bowler hat balanced precariously and pleated skirt flowing, does her shopping by bike.

James shows a crowd of local people our mini-globe in Achacachi, Bolivia

In Achacachi, a curious crowd gathers around our bikes and James fields a mountain of questions. 

View of La Paz and Illimani from El Alto, Bolivia

We make it to El Alto (the city above La Paz) in no time, practically free-wheeling along the pancake-flat altiplano. At the border between El Alto and La Paz known as La Ceja (“The Eyebrow”) we are treated to an unforgettable first view of the city with the snow capped peak of Illimani in the background. Time for a few days off to gather ourselves before we head back out onto the altiplano

 

Route notes:

We followed the excellent information on Bicycle Nomad and from Harriet and Neil on the Andes by Bike blogs – here are a few additions and updates:

Lampa (35km NW of Juliaca on the secondary routes to and from Cusco) is undoubtedly a more pleasant base than Juliaca for the immigration trip to Puno. It’s 1½ hours each way in combi from Lampa – Puno with a change in Juliaca.

Peruvian immigration:
In Puno we were given our Peru exit stamp dated for that day. According to the immigration agreements between Peru and Bolivia, we were then told that we had to present ourselves to Bolivian immigration within 7 days. This was plenty of time to get to Puerto Acosta, even with our Capachica Peninsula detour.

Capachica Peninsula:
To access Capachica, ask in Juliaca for the road to Coata. The most spectacular section of the loop was the cliff-top ride from Chillora to Escallani on the eastern side, en-route to the main Juliaca-Huancané road at Taraco.

To take the coastal road from Moho (highly recommended), ask for the paved road to Tilani via Conima (38km total Moho-Tilali). Leaving Tilali, you pass through a final police checkpoint, and then climb up to the border line by the smugglers’ market. From here it’s a rough climb and descent into P.Acosta (18km total Tilali-P.Acosta).

Bolivian Immigration:
We were given a 30 day tourist visa in P.Acosta. We tried to get this extended to 90 days (apparently this is easy at more major crossings), but were told we had to go to La Paz to do this – which we did, free of charge and with no hassle.

Our total distance from Lampa-La Paz was 502km (it would have been 386km without the Capachica detour), and took us 6 days riding.

 

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A Chilean interlude

October 31st, 2013

Joined by our friend Anna – who we have repeatedly bumped into over the last year but had never quite managed to cycle with so far – we set off together from La Paz. The aim was to leave Bolivia briefly and enter Chile, hunting for volcanoes, salars and thermal baths through the Vicuñas and Isluga national parks .

Two weeks of riding in little-visited corners of Bolivia and Chile covered a wide spectrum of physical discomforts and absolute pleasures. Scraped, chafed, burned, steamed, scratched, sore, parched, blistered, windswept – and yet at the same time mud-bathed, elated, relaxed and awed; we enjoyed every minute of cycling in this remote and epic landscape.

Sarah

Sarah and James with Mabel, Pablo and Yolanda at the casa de ciclistas in La Paz, Bolivia

The ‘overflow’ Casa de Ciclistas in La Paz is at Mabel’s house; Mabel, stepmother to indefatigable casa host Cristian, also hosts cyclists in her very comfortable basement. We are received as family and really hope to see Mabel, Pablo and Yolita again.

Max, Kanaan and Andy in the kitchen at Mabel's house, La Paz, Bolivia

Before leaving, we are lucky to spend time with some very hairy Alaskans. Max, Kanaan and Andy of “A Trip South” introduce us to Russian dumplings, excessive egg eating and the finer points of taming facial hair that is over a year old.

Rock formations on the road out of La Paz, Bolivia

After the frantic road out of La Paz, we welcome the solitude that the desert brings on the second day.

Anna wild camping outside of La Paz, Bolivia

Wild camping with Anna, we begin cooking together. Travelling with other cyclists obviously requires a certain amount of adapting to each others’ ways. We soon find though that on the most important topic (food) Anna’s appetite and hunger for good camp food matches ours and a beautiful new cooking team is born.

Poster of Pedro Fernandez in a shop-restaurant in Curahuara, La Paz

Just one of an eclectic mix of tasteful posters we get to peruse while having lunch in a shop in Curahuara.

Sarah and Anna drinking cups of tea by the roadside near Sajama, Bolivia

An icy downpour forces us off the road and into a disused shelter. The stove comes out and in a flash we are huddled over cups of tea until the weather clears…

Sarah and the two tents, wild camping near Sajama, Bolivia

…and a few kms later, we are settling into another idyllic camp site…

View of Volcan Sajama, Bolivia

…with beautiful views of Volcan Sajama – Bolivia’s highest peak at 6542m.

Anna and Sarah cycling through the dust near Sajama, Bolivia

A day’s very dusty and windy riding…

View of Volcan Sajama from the town square in Sajama village, Bolivia

…blows us into the sleepy village of Sajama, in the shadow of the mighty volcano.

Sarah eating breakfast with Volcan Sajama in the background, Sajama, Bolivia

From our humble lodgings we have a majestic view to enjoy with our breakfast…

Sarah washing clothes in front of Volcan Sajama, Sajama, Bolivia

…and it follows us around all day – even scrubbing clothes becomes enjoyable with this backdrop.

Anna having her photo taken by a little girl from Sajama, Bolivia

No photos please! Anna gets ‘papped’ with her own camera in the hands of Maria Luz, one of the residents of Sajama with a keen eye for photography.

Sarah knocking on the door of a closed shop in Sajama, Bolivia

There’s not much going on in Sajama, and the handful of village shops are rarely open. We patiently knock, and wait, and hope…

James and Anna cooking dinner in the hotel room in Sajama, Bolivia

…supplies are short and we have to improvise but there’s still sufficient food to throw three cyclists into a cooking frenzy back in our hotel room…

Breakfast plate of eggs, bread and chorizo in Sajama, Bolivia

…which provides a sumptuous chorizo dinner and leftovers for a decadent breakfast.

Anna and Sarah cycle out of Sajama, Bolivia

Leaving Sajama behind, we ride towards two more epic peaks…

View of James' bike in front of Volcan Sajama, Bolivia

…pausing to look back at their imposing neighbour…

Anna and Sarah outside a tiny stone chapel near Sajama, Bolivia

…and stopping to explore clusters of houses with their own tiny stone chapels…

Yellow and orange banners inside a chapel near Sajama, Bolivia

…tattered and a bit worn inside, but definitely still used and loved.

Sarah cycling alongside a queue of trucks waiting to get across the border from Bolivia to Chuile at Tambo Quemado

We jump the queue in front of the many trucks also waiting to cross the border at Tambo Quemado…

Chilean flag in the desert near the Bolivian/Chilean border

…and then we are into Chile for a few days of detouring in the desert.

James eating an egg sandwich near Guallatiri, Chile

We are forbidden from carrying fruit, vegetables, dairy or meat into Chile and not expecting to encounter shops or restaurants on the Chilean side, we have prepared reluctantly for a five day stint of dried foods and basic meals. We strike gold however on the first morning – a roadside café offering delicious fried egg sandwiches…

A vicuña skeleton on the road near Guallatiri, Chile

…but clearly not everyone is as lucky with their access to food out here.

Sarah being covered in dust by a passing lorry, near Guallatiri, Chile

We share the road with a procession of trucks on their way to Arica on the Chilean coast. Despite being very courteous, the lorry drivers can’t avoid covering us in layer after layer of dust.

Anna and Sarah riding along a dirt road near Guallatiri, Chile

Most of the time though, we have the road to ourselves…

Sarah looking out onto a valley near Guallatiri, Chile

…and can take time to watch the landscape open up in front of us.

Bike flags blowing in the afternoon wind near Guallatiri, Chile

Afternoon winds are brutal…

Sarah pushing her bike through sand near Guallatiri

…and finding ourselves on a wide empty plateau in the early evening, we have to push 3km through sand and wind to find some shelter for camping.

Sarah and Anna sheltering in a corral out of the wind near Guallatiri, Chile

We find ready-made shelter in a corral which is perfect for cooking our dinner out of the wind.

Vicuña and flamingos on the Salar de Surire, Chile.

After a silent night of tranquil camping, we are just a short hop away from the edge of Chile’s Salar de Surire. A wide, bright, sparkling, deserted expanse of salt and a haven for vicuña and flamingos.

Sarah standing on the Salar de Surire, Chile

Tentative steps out onto the salar thankfully reveal that it’s spongy but not a complete bog.

A spongy green plant on the Salar de Surire, Chile

Flashes of green from quirky local plant life…

of Pollequere, Salar de Surire, Chile

…contrast with the dazzling white salt and turquoise thermal pools. We arrive at the thermal waters at Polloquere…

James covered in mud at the thermal pools of Pollequere, Salar de Surire, Chile

…and jump in. James quickly returns to his “creature from the deep” incarnation, last seen on Lake Tititaca…

Sarah covered in mud at the thermal pools of Pollequere, Salar de Surire, Chile

…and I scoop up the silky mud for a face pack. In the cold afternoon winds, the warm waters at around 45°C are bliss…

Sarah snuggled in her down jacket on the Salar de Surire, Chile

… but it’s a very different story out of the water. Getting straight into warm clothes is a race as the temperatures plummet. We layer up to keep warm…

Sun setting over Pollequere, Salar de Surire, Chile

…as the sun goes down.

The thermal pools at Pollequere, Salar de Surire, Chile

Waking to towers of rising steam and with no wind, the waters are hotter than the night before…

James and Anna sitting on an island at the thermal pools at Pollequere, Salar de Surire, Chile

…nothing for it but to get back in…

Anna and Sarah apply mud all over their bodies at the thermal pools at Pollequere, Salar de Surire, Chile

…and enjoy an all over body pack…

James, Sarah and Anna covered in mud with their backs to the camera at the thermal pools at Pollequere, Salar de Surire, Chile

…thankfully, there’s enough mud to cover everyone!

Roadsign near the thermal pools at Pollequere, Salar de Surire, Chile

Dragging ourselves away from a luxurious morning of mud wallowing, we begin our journey back towards the Bolivian border. With barely anything marked on our map and only having seen a handful of lorry drivers for days, we are surprised to find so many place names marked on this road sign…

Three bikes laid in the road near the thermal pools at Pollequere, Salar de Surire, Chile

…but there’s definitely no one around…

Anna and Sarah riding away from the Salar de Surire, Chile

…as we climb away from the salar…

James cycling across the pass between the Salar de Surire and Colchane, Chile

…and onto a lunar landscape.

Blue church door in Isluga, Chile

Signs of life return as we descend towards Bolivia and reach another pretty church in Isluga…

Detail of flowers and lock on blue church door in Isluga, Chile

…with delicate details.

Lorries queued up outside customs in Pisigia, Bolivia

Crossing back into Bolivia is quick and easy and soon we are back amongst the truckers as the sun sets over the border town of Pisiga.

Llamas looking through the door into our camp area in Pisiga, Bolivia

Keen to camp, we accept an invitation from friendly Miguel (who owns the local grocery shop in town) to camp with his baby llamas. They insist on overseeing every aspect of our routine, and welcome us appropriately back to Bolivia.

Anna also blogged about this section of our trip and you can read it here.

Route notes:

Bolivia:

Route: La Paz – Patacamaya – Sajama – Tambo Quemado
- Reached Sajama via unpaved back road which loops to north of Volcán Sajama via Ojsani and Tomarapi – recommended. Turn off level with telecom towers on hill, towards rock forest.
- Last shopping opportunity in Tambo Quemado on Bolivian side – we didn’t see a shop again until we crossed back into Bolivia at Pisiga, 5 days later.
- No fresh fruit, veg, meat or dairy products into Chile – they scan your bags to check. Peanut butter OK, honey and jam not!

Chile:

Route: Guallatire – Chilcaya – Enquelga – Isluga – Colchane
- From customs and immigration, back track a few hundred metres and take the turn on the bend signed to Guallatire – an unpaved, sandy road which climbs to a pass. 10km from customs to Chirigualla hot springs – we slept cosily inside the hut.
- Polloquere hot springs – approx 32km from Chilcaya. Follow dirt road around the east side of the Salar de Surire. At junction in corner of salar, keep right (left turn, uphill, goes back to Bolivia) – springs are on right after a couple of km.
- After springs, continue on this road to a well-signed junction – turn left towards Colchane.
- Food: roadside comedor 10km before Guallatire – also sells biscuits. Other than that, we saw no shops in Chile.
- Water: never carried more than a day’s supply – available from Customs post at border, carabinieri (police) at Guallatire and Chilcaya, and some freshwater springs on the pampa after the Cerro Capitán pass.

See our map for a route overview.

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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.

James

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.

 

 

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