I’ve been away from a connection for a few days so presenting this as a day by day diary flavour of entry… it just means I have to remember what day it is today and count backwards… it’s a long post too.. hope you are sitting comfortably ;-)
Tuesday 6th… leaving Uyuni was something of an emotional experience… for the lady we stayed with… with hugs and kisses and waves as we rolled off down the road I think she must have quite enjoyed having us to stay, she even helped me find the numerous perforations in my tyres from those thorns along the railway line. A really nice memory.
Our destination was the Salar de Uyuni… 25km or so distant along a poor road to Colchani, one of the few places where you can get onto the Salar without bogging down completely in the soft salt around the edges…
Before I write any more I’d better put this post in context for the folk who don’t know… the Salar de Uyuni is the worlds largest salt flat at 12,106 sq km… so quite big really and venturing onto it is somewhat intimidating.. let alone venturing onto it on a bicycle. We were headed to a tiny island called Isla de Inca Huasi (Inca House) way out on the salar… James is a surveyor by trade and travelling with a decent GPS so I just kept old fashioned map & compass in my proverbial back pocket.. but still had a feeling of trepidation as we ventured out onto the featureless salt on a bearing of about 271 degrees (true) aiming for an invisible speck some 80km distant… :-)
It was pretty hard going for much of the day, any expectation we had of racing across smooth salt was soon dispelled as the surface turned out to be still quite soft and wet, and very lumpy so soon after the end of the wet season… At times we were reduced to a mere 11km/hr as our tyres sank into the surface… but not all the time, in places the salt dries into large hexagons with small ridges of 2cm or so between them.. then we were flying… sort of, it’s still almost 3700m up and with deliberately soft tyres 20km/hr was quick.
James’ navigation was spot on, after about 50km on the salt riding towards an empty horizon a tiny blob appeared on the boundary between salt and sky…. and grew painfully slowly as we cruised across the lumpy surface into a cross headwind… This is all sounding a bit negative isn’t it… hahaha, nothing of the sort – riding across the Salar is one of the most incredible experiences I can remember… just endless blinding white salt and an enormous deep blue sky with just the faint shadows of mountains on the distant shores… so no apology for loads of photos, it was amazing. I have some video too but stay tuned for that, will probably post it in La Paz.
The island itself is tiny, can ride right round it in 10 minutes, but beautiful, an ancient coral outcrop where, after 100km of riding (80km on the salt) and a lot of sugary crap consumed, we spent a peaceful night camped among the cacti with the fabulous southern night sky overhead :-)
Up shortly after dawn the island peace was broken by the arrival of hordes of tour groups in their 4x4s… mostly without exception a motly bunch of young folk wearing weird shit that I’m probably not cool enough to appreciate… and with the exception of just one Dutch girl all of ’em too trendy to even acknowledge our presence beyond the occasional stare despite packing our tents just a couple of metres away, lol! I caught the Dutch girl trying to take our pictures without us noticing… but I smiled and she says “wow, you are like heroes to me cycling out here…” so clearly hero has a different meaning in Dutch to English… means “twat” or something I suspect….
We were packed and on our way by 9.15am by which time I counted 15 landcruisers parked up.. That means there must have been 90 folk mucking about out on the salt all making their novelty photographs and comparing ankle bands, stripey knee socks, teacosy hats and so on…. oh so pleased to be on a bicycle and able to just leave without being told “10 minutes people….” :-)
Our destination was happily not on the tourist trail.. directly north towards the bulk of the Tunupa volcano, or rather slightly to the west of it where hopefully we’d find the village of Tahua after 50km or so…
We did.. find the village I mean… which at times seems like a miracle, between us we have four maps of Bolivia and the Salar and every one of them is different… Getting off the salt was difficult, very soft edges to the Salar transitioned to very soft volcanic sand and then very soft pasture with grazing llamas.. but we made it by 1pm and found a suitably scruffy place to stay for a few $ with a hosepipe in the yard… an essential luxury with bicycles and gear completely encrusted in a thick layer of rock-hard salt.
Not much to Tahua, a collection of crumbling adobe buildings beautifully situated on the slopes of the volcano with a very friendly but very tiny shop selling the usual essentials like beer and sardines but precious little else :-)
Also plenty of llamas wandering around the outskirts of town and a tiny church down by the shores of the Salar. Doorstep camping tonight as we cook pasta in the yard outside our room :-)
Leaving Tahua started with a minor argument over whether the left or right fork was the correct track to take (maps no use at all in this situation as many of Bolivia’s ‘roads’ are just random jeep tracks)… I chose the right hand fork based on the greater wear from 4x4s and J chose the left fork based on.. something.. anyway, I half expected to meet him 10km up the road smugly sitting on a wall waiting for me having found a shortcut… but I didn’t so when it became clear that I was on the right track after 5km or so I sat on a wall and waited smugly instead… for 15 minutes or so until he showed up having had to backtrack… but laughing :-)
The track from Tahua to the village of Salinas Garcia Mendoza 35km away was very bad but very beautiful. Technical riding past tiny pueblos around the huge bulk of the volcano, the flanks of which were carpeted bright red with quinoa ripe for harvest.
Salinas turned out to be a beautiful little village where we sorted ourselves with a very good and very much needed lunch in a little hosteria on the plaza.
Onwards from Salinas the scenery changed dramatically .. transitioning from the mountains on the edge of the Salar to a bleak, flat, windswept wilderness populated with wild vicuñas… we managed another 35km before running out of steam and pitching camp on a patch of dust hidden from the road but with a terrific view of an extinct volcanic cone and thunderstorms raging to the north-east.
This evening as we assembled a weird dinner of rice, lentils, tuna, sardines and crackers (pretty much all you can buy out here) we first watched a tornado moving across the landscape probably 40km distant while thinking “oh shit, could be a windy night….” and then as the darkness settled great forks of lightening dancing across the horizon… It was a peaceful night however with just a light frost… phew :-)
Today was a bad day for me… riding past a great meteor crater soon after breakfast was cool but after that a deep fatigue really set in… and then the main load-carrying bolt on the drive side dropout that holds my rear rack sheared off… all those bad roads over the last few thousand km finally took their toll. I swore a lot and managed to bodge something with wire and zip ties before continuing my tired trundle across the altiplano…. I also ran my rear tyre as soft as possible to reduce the shock on the rack mounts which slowed me even further.
James will tell ya I was not good company most of the day… tired, hungry and concerned about whether or not my rack would hold up… oops, just one of those days…
The few tiny pueblos we passed through couldn’t help… no-one had a drill to get the sheared bolt out so we just plodded on until finally arriving at a windswept pueblo called Quillacas after only about 65km… it was a cold, windy, stormy evening with sand whipping through the dusty streets between the crumbling buildings.
The place unexpectedly did have an alojiamento (a mega basic place to stay) however, rather than camp in the dust again it was well worth the £2 for a sagging mattress and bucket of cold water to wash with :-)
The landlady cooked us a fried egg and plate of rice each before I went off in search of someone with a drill who could have a go at that sheared bolt… Found a bloke with a drill, found a baby llama too in his yard, but his drill bits wouldn’t touch the stainless steel bolt…
I spent so much time running around after that it was almost dark and less than 10 degs C by the time I remembered to chuck a bucket of cold water over myself in the yard outside… Oh, almost forgot… little shop in town had a tin of peaches for sale… yay! A special treat indeed :-)
a beautiful morning, the stormy feel of the past couple of days gone to leave still air and clear blue skies. A smooth, hard-packed road out of town too… a new building project not yet open to traffic… cruised along this section in peace while the motor vehicles were confined to the very soft, dusty sand track nearby :-)
It was also here that James and I agreed to part ways, at least for the riding bits.. James is stronger than I am and seems able to cycle for days at a time on little more than cracker crumbs.. and I just don’t recover as well from hard days so was slowing down. We had a good run from Abra Pampa but in the end there’s a reason that many cyclists travel alone… differing strengths and so on. We’ll meet again for sure though… that much is certain :-)
The town of Huari about 30km from Quillacas is where the dirt ended and the asphalt began… hooray, after some 650km of off-road riding since leaving Argentina I pumped my tyres up and cruised happily along the road… until the centre of Huari… market day and a heaving mass of humanity.
I was too tired to care so negotiated my way through the crush only to bump into James again stopped up the road sucking nothing worse than an orange :-) I also followed a bus down the road here that was so badly out of alignment it was crabbing along the road at angle of around 15 degrees off straight… hilarious, vehicles have a hard life here and a lot of people die in accidents…
Rode as far as the town of Challapata after just 52km for the day, found a pretty crappy place to stay for £2 with a bed supported on old paint cans and a lump of iron … no showers or anything but too tired to care (again). Market day here also.. went out for lunch, came back, went to sleep, woke up and found James’ bike parked by mine, lol.
Good company for the evening and a dinner of “something with rice”.. and beer. I also had another go at my rack mount… the rack is steel and pretty tough so deformed it slightly and made a pinch-bolt kind of affair with widgets bought at the market such that the dropout is taking the load with washers each side to hold the whole thing in alignment…
… today :-) I am in Oruro at about 3700m altitude, my first Bolivian city… not a tourist destination – just a gritty hardworking sort of a place where the rail line runs right down the main drag…took me by surprise to see two great engines pulling ore wagons down the road… I like it here, bustling and colourful. It’s a place where old women in traditional dress with bowler hats and huge bundles on their backs mix it with sharply dressed youths and the occasional suited businessman. The adobe´burbs creep up the mountainsides behind the densely packed downtown core and the whole place is thick with cooking smoke, vehicle fumes and bad music…
Bolivia’s altiplano is hard going for the cyclist, in particular the last 2 weeks have been incredible, so here I have treated myself to a lush hotel room for an extravagant £16/night with movies on cable TV and a hot shower…. fab… I’ve shaved and cleaned under my fingernails, hehe, and dumped my filthy riding gear off to be laundered… it’s ace. A great place to eat fried chicken and chips, beer and icecream.. and rest up completely for a couple of days before making my final push for La Paz :-)
p.s someone also left me a nearly new bottle of glitter nail polish in my room here… special night out tonight for me then ….