Cycling the Salar De Uyuni!: Uyuni to Oruro (with Leroy)

Cycling days 140, 141, 142, 143, 144 & 145

Uyuni to Salar de Uyuni (camp 1)

We had arranged to meet our new Australian cycling companion, Leroy, outside our hostel at 9:00, before hitting the paved road towards the Salar de Uyuni as a threesome.

This was the first time in 8 months that we had arranged to cycle a portion of the trip with another tourer and, to be honest, we were a little surprised it had taken this long to encounter a willing cycling buddy. We hadn’t taken it personally though, putting it down to other cyclists’ differing schedules and route plans, rather than their apprehension of pedalling with us two. We made sure to inform Leroy that he would be the test-case (‘patient 0’ if you will), and that he could back out now if he had any concerns. Nevertheless, he was still keen to take the plunge and the ‘RidingItOut-Saventuras cycling collective’ was born!

A little more info on Leroy: he is (was) a mining engineer from Western Australia and is cycling from Ushuaia to Cartagena, Colombia (plus maybe a little extra in the States). He has a blog here.

Exiting Uyuni was a breeze and we soon left its dusty, littered streets for the flat, paved (and littered) route north that led to the Salar. It was so nice to be back on pavement and the three of us enjoyed chatting together as the kilometers ticked by. There was a little headwind but nothing compared to the last section of the trip.

Before long we reached the village of Colchani on the eastern edge of the Salar and took a quick snack break. We then rode the bumpy dirt access track until we emerged into the enormous white expanse of the salt flat. At the edge of the Salar, there were a few hotels made of salt. They looked pretty shabby from the outside, but apparently are much more glamorous inside.

Soon enough our tyres hit the crunchy salt which was at first disappointingly merky and brown. Within fifteen minutes of riding, however, we had travelled away from the edge and the salt became perfectly white, just as we had envisaged.

We donned our sunglasses as apparently the bright white salt reflecting the intense sun at this altitude can damage your retinas.

We headed straight to the ‘eyes’ a small area of holes in the salt which just looked like puddles from afar. As we got closer though, we could see the puddles were bubbling. Leroy, a little thirsty, tasted the water – unsurprisingly eggy apparently.

 

We left the ‘eyes’ and began cycling due west, into the heart of the Salar. The surface of the slat flat varied a lot – sometimes very bumpy with large, hard salt crystals, sometimes silky smooth.

Not far in was the Dakar monument and the international flags. It was here that first lunch was taken.

We then continued straight towards Inkahuasi island, a bit of a tourist destination and one of several cactus-covered islands located within the salt flat. We couldn’t see the island (around 60km away) but we lined ourselves up on one of the jeep tracks that headed in the right direction, locked our arms straight, and just kept pedalling. With no traffic or corners to worry about, we could just switch off and appreciate our surroundings. It was a bit surreal – mountains in the distance looked so close but were in fact miles away and even as we kept pedalling towards them, they they never seemed to get any bigger.

With nothing to bump into or fall off, we played games like ‘who can cycle with their eyes closed for the longest?’. It was quite unnerving – especially when you reopened your eyes to discover that you’d veered wildly off course without realising.

We were about 30km from Inkahuasi island when we passed a large white van parked up a few metres from the track we were following. Music was playing and a couple sat in deck chairs absorbing the view, beers in hand. They invited us over for a drink and a chat – fancy bumping into people and making friends out here in the middle of nothing!

Luke (a South African) and Rosie (an Australian who has lived in South Africa for the last 4 years) were incredibly friendly and plied us with beer and wine. They had converted an old ambulance they’d bought in Santiago, Chile into a motor home for a trip through South America.

We had intended to get closer to Inkahuasi island that day, but Luke and Rosie were so nice, conversation was flowing, and with it getting a little late, so we decided to camp next to their van.

After the most incredible sunset that just kept on giving, Luke made us an amazing dinner and we sat around chatting for ages.

It was a beautiful, peaceful (but cold!) night in otherworldly surroundings.

 

Salar de Uyuni (camp 1) to Salar De Uyuni (camp 2)

It was so weird opening the tent and seeing the white floor all around – it looked like snow.

It was crackers and spreads for breakfast before we tackled the unexpected conundrum of where to poop on a flat expanse of white with no visual barrier for us or our leavings. It almost felt wrong to defile the pristine surface but when nature called white turned brown (sorry Salar).

After a morning perspective photo session, we bid farewell to Luke and Rosie, who were staying put for the day so Luke could do some PhD work (quite the office!).

It wasn’t long until the three of us reached Inkahuasi island which slowly rose out of the salty horizon. The island itself is rocky and covered in cacti but has a restaurant/hotel on one side and has become a stop-off for passing jeep tours. Luckily, there was nobody there when we arrived and we took our first lunch stop – Leroy has two lunches; one at 11:30 and a second at 13:30. Being lovers of food we have followed suit.

Leaving the island, we headed northwards towards Volcan Tunupa – a beautiful volcano that had been looming within sight at the northern edge of the Salar for the a last day and a half.

After about 20km, around halfway, we stopped for second lunch the obligatory naked Salar ride (photos available on request – if you think you can stomach them – haha). This is a tradition amongst touring cyclists started by English adventurer Alistair Humphreys. Who are we to break tradition?!

As we reached the base of the volcano there was a large pool of water on the salt. We watched a friendly tour group from Texas (every other word was “y’all” – lol) do a range of reflection pictures and of course copied the best ones.

Larger pools bordered the edge of the salt and there were a few flamingos hanging around in them. They really gave us an epic display – lots of taking off, flying and splash landings. It was hard to peel ourselves away, but the sun was starting to set and we needed to find somewhere to camp.

We didn’t go far until we found a nice bit of salt to pitch our tents on. We had another peaceful night on the edge of the Salar – with limited wind again (hurrah!).

As the sun set that evening, the lights came on in the small hamlets at the edge of the Salar and it really felt like we were camping on the edge of a frozen Ocean. It was quite strange.

 

Salar de Uyuni (camp 2) to Salinas +14km

Leroy felt bad about pooping on the immaculate white salt a second time (and he’s normally ready a bit early than us) so he pedalled off to a nearby island to do his business while we finished packing up. We caught up with him a little after nine.

That morning, we decided to skirt the edge of the salt flat around the volcano instead of taking the more hilly dirt road option. Unfortunately, the wind was up and right in our faces, so the morning’s riding was tough going.

Before we left the Salar, we passed a large salt mining/excavating area. The ground was much softer and wetter as a result and our bikes ended up covered in wet salt. It looked a lot like snow and got everywhere!

Eventually we left the Salar and the road turned to compacted mud. Knowing we needed to wash the salt off our bikes, Leroy and Freddy waded into the first pool we passed and began splashing their bikes clean. It was a pretty nasty, boggy pool that absolutely stank. Sarah, a little unconvinced that the water wasn’t saline, decided to postpone her bike’s cleaning session until a more reliable water source was found.

As we circuited the volcano, the road soon became sandy and we had about 25km to the town of Salinas. With the wind up and the road surface poor, it wasn’t the easiest cycling and we were very low on water by this point. We really just wanted to get to the town, so we skipped second lunch and eventually arrived at Salinas just before 15:00.

We raided the local tiendas for food supplies and water, settling in the square for a belated salty cracker lunch. We even found a quinoa bakery that sold epic pieces of iced cake – yum!

There was a water tap in the central square so Freddy and Leroy rinsed their bikes, while Sarah gave hers a very thorough clean. We left Salinas at around 16:00 and let out large whoops when the road became tarmac. With the wind at our backs, we blitzed 16km before camping in a field just on the roadside. We normally like to be hidden from the road, but Leroy convinced us it would be fine – and it was!

It was a slightly warmer than normal in the evening and we expected a less frosty night – how wrong we were!

 

Salinas +14km to Touchy man’s pit (route 1 camp)

Last night was freezing! One of the coldest of the trip. Outside, 2 litre bottles froze solid and there was ice on the tent!

We had decided to try and leave an hour earlier than normal at 08:15, and it was still horrendously cold at that time. It wasn’t until about 9.30 that our extremities started to thaw out and we regained some feeling in our hands and toes. Leroy was adamant that we wouldn’t be repeating another such early start!

There was a headwind for most of the morning, but we cycled closely together to lessen it’s impact. Within the hour we had completed the 20km-ish to a roadside meteorite crater. We had a quick look, but it was a little disappointing​.

The rest of the day was pretty uneventful. The road undulated but the climbs were very manageable.

The largest climb of the day was into Quillacas where we stopped for lunch. This village was very badly stocked and we struggled to find things for lunch for the following day. Some cute kids sat and chatted to us while we munched on sandwiches and crackers. By this point we had done 80km.

After a very short descent, the road was then pretty flat as it crossed a wide valley floor and joined up with route 1 (which heads North-South). Once we had reached the other side of the valley we had completed over 100km for the day and we decided to look for some camping opportunities.

There was a selection of promising-looking abandoned houses and we cycled over to investigate. Leroy spoke to a man that lived there but he didn’t like the idea of us camping nearby and said we should find a hotel in the next town.

We were pretty tired by now and really wanted to set up camp before it got dark. We continued on and entered a much more ‘lived-in’ village. Freddy and Sarah spoke to a much more friendly elderly gentleman who said we could camp in the middle of the village in a pit. So that’s exactly what we did!

It was instant mash again for dinner which we enjoyed between inspections from the friendly villager. He was very interested in all our gear, especially Freddy’s bike. He liked it so much Freddy joked that it might not be outside our tent in the morning.

Once the sun set it got very cold very quickly, so we made some hot chocolates (spiced up with a little mint liquor for added warming) while Leroy pointed out star constellations.

 

Touchy man’s pit (route 1 camp) to Poopo

It had been another freezing night – ice had formed in the corners of our tent and on the fly sheet. The elderly gentleman, who guided us to our campsite yesterday, appeared and found the whole thing very funny. He was a rather inquisitive chap, but luckily for us, Leroy kept him busy while we got ready. Leroy later told us that the man had touched practically everything in his possession and was especially enthralled with his e-reader.

Rejoining the main road (which would take us all the way to Oruro), Sarah got distracted by a puppy and wheeled her bike over to give him a stroke. Unfortunately, by some cruel twist of fate, she immediately got a puncture. Luckily, Freddy was just behind so he could provide a spare inner tube and mechanical assistance and, after removing the massive embedded nail, we were on our way again.

By this point, quite a large gap had formed between us and Leroy, who was waiting 5-10km up the road. While he lounged on the roadside he saw an ambulance pass with its sirens blaring and pondered the possibility that we were inside. He got a little worried – but not enough to move. Luckily for him and his conscience, we appeared not long after.

We bagged some supplies in Huari before rolling up to a road block with a massive line of traffic at the edge of town. We weaved our way to the front of the queue and spoke to the police. They kindly let us pass so long as we kept to the far right of the road. We didn’t find out why the road was closed, but Leroy was convinced we were cycling into a hostage situation, a drugs raid, or something dramatic.

We were enjoying our unexpected closed road cycle and there was no sign of it coming to an end or the reason behind it. Soon though, we spotted a group of cyclists coming from the other direction, as they got nearer it was clear that they looked a little bit professional – the road was closed for a cycle race! A group of 20 or so riders whizzed passed us as we cheered on. We couldn’t believe they had closed the main highway for such a small event on a weekday. Before long, the cyclists were closing in on us from behind – they had turned at the roadblock outside of Huari – and we were soon part of the race (or at least we liked to think so). The peloton engulfed us before quickly overtaking – gosh they were quick on their unloaded bikes!

The finish line was in nearby Challapata where there appeared to be some kind of sports day going on. Here locals crowded the street and many cheered for us as we crossed the line, soaking in our applause – but some funny guys started tapping their watches – we were WAY behind the racing cyclists!

We stopped to buy some more food supplies in town and were then tempted by a some llama meat that was being fried up on the street. It was tasty (if a little tough) and came with large corn and massive black beans.

With very full bellies we got back on our bikes. It had been a very stop start morning, so we were all determined to get some serious kilometres done in the afternoon. It was a lovely stretch of flat road and with limited wind quickly we soon arrived in Pazna where we got some water and bananas. This village had a barrier blocking the main road, stopping the traffic and almost forcing drivers to buy sweets from the local vendors. We could slip by though!

As we left Pazna we turned right and got a glorious tail wind. We were going at 20km/hr uphill! We continued to be pushed along to Poopo completing about 90km for the day. Here we stopped and found a gravel pit close to the train line to camp in. It was a pretty nice spot and got the sun untill late into the evening (6pm anyway).

 

Poopo to Oruro

We had 57km to go until we would reach the city of Oruro. Over breakfast and while packing we talked about what we were looking forward to most when we reached out first Bolivian city. We were all pretty excited to have a shower as we had not washed in 6 days (not as long as the Laguna route which was 10 days).

On the way we were passed by Luke and Rosie in their van, who we had met on the Salar de Uyuni. We stopped for tea with then on the roadside and they explained how traumatic their last few days had been. Their van had got stuck in some slushy salt on the Salar! They had tried to free themselves by digging around the tyres and using the wooden planks from their bed – but it hadn’t worked. They then had walked around 6 kilometres to the edge of the salt (lucky they were so close) and found a man with a digger who said he would help by pulling the van free, but only at night so his boss wouldn’t find out as the digger wasn’t his. The digger almost got stuck itself so that plan was abandoned. In the end, the man, his friend, Rosie and Luke dug the van out with the aid of a jack and it had taken 35 hours to free themselves. They were in surprisingly good spirits and were off to Oruro to get their van cleaned before heading to La Paz. We bid Luke and Rosie farewell as it was sadly very unlikely that we would see them again on this trip.

After tea, we had about 30km left to Oruro and as we homed in on the centre of the city, the traffic and pollution slowly increased. After some nasty urban riding, fighting for road space amongst the hordes of minibuses, we finally arrived at Hostal Graciela where we treated ourselves to a private room and a shower.

We took a walk around town – a far cry from the sleepy villages and towns we’d encountered so far in Bolivia – it was sensory overload! There were people and activity everywhere!

That night we found a busy local restaurant serving huge chunks of llama meat and beer. We could hardly refuse.

Day off in Oruro

The next day we took a rest day and visited a nearby mine (Leroy loves mines). Mining of silver, lead, and zinc has been historically important to Bolivia’s economy and, with statues everywhere, it seems that miners are greatly revered here. However, we’d heard that the conditions that the miners work in are pretty horrific and their life expectancies are scarily low, so we braced ourselves for a eye-opening experience.

Unfortunately, the tour was a little disappointing as no one was working that day (it was a Saturday) and the guide refused to take us down to the active mining tunnels. So really, all we did was awkwardly shuffle through some narrow, old tunnels and there was not much to see.

The highlight of the trip was probably learning about El Tío – believed to be the Lord of the underworld. There are several statues of this devil-like spirit in the mines and it is believed that he rules over the mines, simultaneously offering protection and destruction. The miners bring offerings such as cigarettes, coca leaves, and alcohol for the statues and believe that if El Tío is not fed, he will take matters into his own hands. The miners also ritually slaughter a llama and smear its blood on the entrance to the mines. The statue we saw was kept in a pitch black cave that was uncomfortably hot and filled with extremely dense strong smelling air. It was a pretty creepy place!

In the afternoon we went to the sprawling street market to collect supplies for the road to La Paz.

We quite liked Oruro. It was a lively, gritty city and the market especially was a highlight. Cheap, good food and friendly people.