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Vast amounts of nothing to Wild West Country: Salar de Uyuni to Tupiza and Maragua.

It was hard leaving Sucre. We changed our plans and procrastinated for a few days until we decided that the only way was to buy a bus ticket back to Uyuni and then we had to leave! It was the usual faff of getting a bus with the bikes but it was preferable to the alternative which was ride the five days back to Uyuni on the road we had already ridden previously (and there’d be some big hills to climb back up to the altiplano). Once back in Uyuni we went back to the same cheap hostel, ate at the same chicken restaurant and felt as though we’d never left.

After the easy daily route of working, studying and socialising in Sucre it took us a little while to get used to being back on the bikes again. We did ease into it though with a five kilometre round trip to the “train graveyard” just outside of town on the day we arrived. It’s a bit of a tourist trap, with all the 4×4 groups stopping there on the way to the salt flats but it was a really interesting place, if a bit eerie and out of place in the desert.

British engineers arrived in Uyuni during the 19th century to help build the rail network, bringing the trains with them and with Uyuni’s location in the south of Bolivia it made a useful transport hub for transporting minerals from the mines to the Pacific Ocean. But as with most rail networks in South America, the plans were abandoned and the trains were left to slowly corrode away in the middle of the salty desert. We spent a few hours exploring the carriages and engines, drinking mate and we were happy that it was warmer than the last time we were here.

Although Uyuni was currently experiencing mild weather, it had snowed in the area four days before we arrived so we asked a few tour groups and other tourists about the conditions on the salt flats, which confirmed what we thought. The lagunas route, which we couldn’t do from San Pedro due to snow 6 weeks ago, was now under 4 metres of snow in places and impassable, but they said the salar would dry out over the next few days. We decided we would still make a few days of it by riding a loop out on the old train line, then cross to Isla Incahuasi in the middle of the Salar de Uyuni before heading back across over 60km of salt flat. It was a good plan and was set to be a nice ride, but we barely made it 10km before running into problems. The usually hard ground around the disused train tracks leaving Uyuni was saturated and the claggy mud/salt mixture clung to the tyres and stopped the wheels dead. We did struggle on for a bit, riding the old train tracks for a while and trying to stick to any dry looking ground, but it wasn’t fun and at this rate would take us days extra, so we retraced our steps and went back to the hostel.

After the disappointment of not only being unable to ride the lagunas route but as we also couldn’t ride the route around the salar that we wanted, morale was low. This wasn’t the way we wanted to restart riding again. We were ready to give up on the idea of riding on the Salar de Uyuni and just take a jeep tour instead, but it felt like a rite of passage and we would regret not doing it by bike. So we checked the weather which showed we would have one day of good conditions with no wind the next day before it got crazy strong for a few days. We were also feeling a bit under the weather (we were coming down with a cold, probably from the change in climate between Sucre and Uyuni) but it was now or never. We decided to go for it.

We left the next day and rode the 20km on the main road to Colchani where you take a dirt road to the edge of the salar. It’s funny that for being such a touristy place there is no tourist infrastructure there. If it was Europe there would be a gate with a park ranger collecting entrance fees, a museum or some sort of educational building, and food and souvenir outlets. Being Bolivia, there was none of this! We reached the edge and it looked like a lake, not what we were expecting. We must have looked confused because a local bus driver pointed us in the right direction to avoid the metre or so deep trench that the jeeps go through and we followed the path he described. It was a bit wet at the start, to say the least, but once we were on the salar proper it was amazing!

The Salar de Uyuni is the biggest salt flat in the world, at 10582 sq.km (4086 sq.mi). Formed when an enormous prehistoric lake dried up, the Salar has a crust of salt several meters thick but underneath is a pool of brine. Surprisingly 50-70% of the worlds lithium reserves are found in this brine solution found under the salt (thanks, Wikipedia!).

Riding through vast expanses of white in every direction was really strange and we kept thinking it was snow, especially when it was a bit softer and crunched under the tyres. It’s also so huge! The surrounding mountains and islands way off in the distance don’t change size, even after riding over 30km, they were still miles away. Because of the sheer size and disorientating vastness we used the compass that Ben’s dad gave him before we left to check which direction we were heading, which was more use than our phone gps!

After riding for several hours in a dead straight line, heading for Isla Inchausai, the salar began to get a bit wet with ever bigger puddles on the surface so we backtracked to find a dry place to camp. It didn’t take long until we found our own patch of salt and stopped for night in middle of nowhere. Cycling out to the salar was a great decision and we felt so lucky that it was a calm night and not too cold, as it is notorious for being both. It was a perfect evening to sit outside, cook, eat and watch the sunset.

The sun went down at 6pm but the night was ridiculously bright with a full moon illuminating the salar with a strange blue-whiteish glow.

The temperature reached -5 in the tent but with our awesome sleeping bags and mats we were cosy and warm.

Sunrise was equally as spectacular as sunset, with the sky making all sorts of colours and it was nice feeling the day slowly getting warmer. It was amazing being the only ones there (as far as we could see) and spending the night on the salar felt incredibly special.

The next day we were in no rush to leave the surreal landscape so we savoured the moment and took lots more photos.

It was fun using how flat the salar is to take some funny perspective photos, though Ben did have to jump really high to grab hold of the mate straw!

The ride back was just as bumpy as the day before, which is definitely not what we had expected. Whilst there are no roads on the salar there are many jeep tracks which have been driven thousands of times throughout the dry season so we followed these when the salt was particularly rough, though in places they too were bad so making our own path was the best way.

We returned to hostel after two exhausting days but we felt so glad that we made the decision to go, the wind had picked up on the ride back and was already blowing sand in all directions. Glad we weren’t camping on the shelterless salar that night! We washed the salt off of the bikes using a bucket of water outside the hostel and then asked at a local gas station if we could hose them down. After two hours the bikes were cleaner than they had been for many months and Ben was glad there was no more salt on them!

From Uyuni we didn’t want to ride back to Sucre on the same main road and crossing the salar then heading to Chile wasn’t going to happen, not after the recent snow storm, so we chose to ride in a south-westerly direction to Tupiza. We had heard from a number of people that the scenery is different to anywhere else we’d been, so we planned a route that would be mostly away from the main roads. It would take us on small dirt backroads, on a ridge line and over a few 4000m high mountains to Tupiza.

It was yet another good decision as the roads were pretty quiet on this route and the scenery… it was something else! We loved every minute of the ride, not always at the time, but looking back it was a great ride (#typetwofun anyone?). One such time was riding the ridge line that would take us to the highest point on the route at 4660m and the wind was fierce, it was hard sometimes to even stay on the bike and to do so involved riding as though you were constantly trying to turn right but it was the only way for you to ride forwards!

After the ridge line we reached the town of San Vicente which is famous for allegedly being the last resting place of Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. It is now a mining town with the Canadian owned PanAmerican Silver Company generating most of the town’s income and employing most of the few hundred inhabitants.

It was a place with really friendly people and we asked over half a dozen for somewhere to stay but with no accommodation in the town, nobody had any idea where we could go. We didn’t much feel like asking at the one place that could have been a possibility, the sports club, as it was blaring music and really busy, and we wanted an early night. We refilled our water bottles at the local school where Ben was asked to dance by some of the local girls and then posed for their photos, before climbing up and out of town.

We found a good wild campsite 15km away from the town in a dry river bed. We have had lots of luck on this route as all rivers were dry (winter is the dry season here) so we have always found a flat place for the tent. A river bed is great because it’s sheltered, soft and sandy, but only when it’s dry!

Our favourite campsite wasn’t overly hidden but it was in an amazing location, under a huge cliff with interesting rock formations. We also had an audience whilst we were putting the tent up from two small rabbit-like creatures sunbathing at the entrance to their cave in the cliff face. It turns out that they were Viscachas but we didn’t know that until we googled it the next day!

The most spectacular part of the ride was the descent into Tupiza which was over 20km long. This in itself was awesome but with the added bonus of having some of the most stunning scenery we have seen all around us, we were so happy to be here. There were rocks in every shade of red, orange and brown and in all sorts of weird shapes and sizes.

The area known as El Sillar has tall rock formations known as fins, formed as the rocks have eroded over thousands of years and being composed of different quantities and types minerals accounts for the many variations of colours.

We had a few days off in Tupiza to do our laundry and replace the food deficit, as well as to rest the legs. Also staying at our hostel were an American/Ecuadorian family of four, Carlos, Stephanie and their two lovely children who were 4 and 5 years old, and they were travelling around the world in a 4×4.

We went together to Puerta Del Diablo and Canyon Del Inca in their truck, which was such a novelty for us. We climbed some large rocks and had the place to ourselves, which was a lot of fun.

We could have stayed longer here because there was a lot of hiking in the surrounding valleys, but time is pressing on and we are well aware that the dry season won’t hold out for many more months so we continued onwards to Sucre (We left some of our gear in Sucre because the bikes being lighter helps when there is a lot of climbing and we can’t send it back to the UK until we get to Peru, where there is a better postal service, so it was a legit reason to go back… honest!).

The main road was a good surface and would be the quickest way to get back to Sucre but we had already ridden that once, plus we didn’t want the fastest or easiest way this time, we wanted to see more of the real Bolivia that we had experienced between Tupiza and Uyuni. So leaving Tupiza we rode for four days towards the main Sucre road but rather than take the exit to the capital, we took the dirt road north, deeper into the mountains for the next three days.

The road was barely ever flat, it varied in surface a lot from baked-hard dirt to loose rocks and we always had an incredible view.

The landscape changed from the quite barren, brown vista of the altiplano to the lush mountains in the central valley region of Bolivia. We even saw grass and other vegetation again… and it was so green!

The weather wasn’t always favourable though with one afternoon of grey skies and stormy weather. We had climbed half way up one of the biggest climbs when we heard the thunder and saw the lightning starting over the next hill. It was too late to turn back and with nowhere sheltered to camp we continued to climb and hoped that the weather was moving away from us. It was a tense few hours and we were exhausted when we made it over the mountain, but the storm stayed just far enough away from us.

The local people are all out of the house from dawn to dusk, tending to their land with crops or livestock, and always gave us a smile or a wave of encouragement as we passed.

It was incredible to see fields being ploughed using cows and the traditional Incan method of terraced farming being used on the steep sided valleys. They were successful in growing a lot of their own crops this way and the fertile soil was evidently being helped by the quite recent irrigation channels that have been built by the current government.

It is no wonder that many people in the rural areas of Bolivia support Evo Morales and his government, with “Evo, Si” and “Tenemos futuro con Evo. Vota Si” graffitied on most walls, buildings and rocks.

Our chosen route would lead us to the small town of Maragua, 50km from Sucre and famous for it’s crazy geology and giant crater, but first we had the small obstacle of a river crossing to contend with. We had scoped it out on Google Earth and there looked like there was a foot bridge, but there were also 4×4 tracks across the river bed so we were sure we would be able to cross but as we got closer we found that Google was a bit outdated. They had started to build a road bridge across the river which meant they had diverted the water and now there was no way we would cross the deeper torrent of water, or if we did we would get stuck in the mud that was the now rest of the riverbed.

We spoke to one of the construction workers and he said the footbridge was still passable and when I asked if it was “demasiado delgado para los bicis?” (Too narrow for the bikes) he assured us it was “ancho” (wide) enough. Yes, it was wide enough to walk with the bikes but where they were building the new bridge they had dug away the final part of the path from the small bridge down to the road. This meant a tiring 30 minutes of slowly lowering the bikes down a sheer 3 metre drop and hoping the ~40kgs of bike didn’t fall on Steph’s head. Luckily Ben was feeling strong and was able to hold on to the back of the bike until Steph grabbed the handlebars and helped put the bike down safely. We were both knackered after… then we had a steep 6 km switchback climb to do in the baking midday sun!

A local man had asked us the day before why we were heading to Maragua, did we know the place? What was there? We told him that we had heard it was nice so we wanted to see it and he was really confused by us, but cycling down into Maragua was such a relief after the amount of climbing we had done to get there and the scenery didn’t disappoint. The town of Maragua is in a crater but it wasn’t formed from anything striking the Earth, it is a natural geological formation from millions of years of erosion and tectonic movement.

After descending into the crater we knew that we would need to climb back out but the ascent was much longer and had way more switchbacks than we had ever imagined. We climbed for over two hours, gained 1200 metres of elevation in 10km (more than the height of Snowdon from sea level) slowly grinding our way up the red dirt road being passed by minibuses, lorries and motorbikes all cheering us on as though we were in the Tour de France. It wasn’t all bad though because for each switchback turn we rounded we were rewarded with better and better views over Maragua and the surrounding valleys.

We made it back to Sucre only 6 hours after leaving Maragua and it’s fair to say that we have got our cycling legs back. We now have a few days of rest, planning and sorting out kit in Sucre (at the same hostel, obviously) before we start heading north again. We are both really excited to be back on the bikes now and after this recent three week adventure we have grown quite fond of Bolivia. We hadn’t expected to stay here for as long as we have but with it’s beautiful landscapes, friendly people and with how easy it is to live on a small budget, Bolivia has been fantastic. However we have nearly used all 90 days on our visa so we need to get moving. Onwards to Toro Toro and even more remote and mountainous cycling.

Until next time,

Steph and Ben

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4 comments

  1. Glad to hear that you had a good experience of being back on the bikes, after your unexpected reluctance to move on! As ever, it is good to hear about your adventures and it is clear that you have seen some even more amazing and unusual scenery on this leg of your journey. You have some really good photos of the salar too – and it is great that you got to see it from a different perspective to most tourists/travellers. We enjoyed Bolivia when we visited too but you have definitely got to see a more rural and remote side to the country than we were able to, despite our fair share of wild camping. We’re very envious of the couple who are travelling with their kids in a 4×4 – that sounds like great fun, and much more flexible than some of the travelling we did with Solana last year.

    We are now the proud owners of a 16-year-old camper van! We picked it up from friends and went off on 2 weeks holiday in it straight away. We were just travelling around England, heading South, then back North, spending a couple of days here and there along the way. Solana fell in love with the van immediately and she loves the “big girl” status of sleeping in a top bunk! The love took a bit longer to develop for Laura and I, as it is quite different from camping, a bit old and rickety and hard to drive, but also a lot of fun, has an ideal set up for the 3 of us and provides great freedom. We’re planning to go away in it again next weekend, perhaps to the coast. Got to make the most of the 2 weeks that are left of Solana’s first school Summer hols…

    Looking forward to your next instalment,
    Julie, Laura & Solana x

  2. Ah, the ‘train graveyard’ – the Barry Scrapyard on steroids! Being a lifelong, and unreformed, trainspotter and railfan, the train graveyard has been on my list of places to visit for many years! Wonderful photos of the salt flats and the wild country, also! Back roads really are better!

    1. Yeah the train graveyard is an interesting place to see when in Uyuni for sure. If you get the chance we’d say it’s a must to camp on the salar too, it’s just something else.

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