30 November 2014

Pisiga to Uyuni: sinking and surfacing in the salares

Back in Bolivia after our brief stint in Chile, we headed for one of the most iconic segments of any cycle tour in South America, the chance to cycle across Bolivia's salares (salt flats). We would first take on the smaller and less touristy Salar de Coipasa, and then move on to the big kahuna, the largest salt flat in the world, the Salar de Uyuni. Apart from arriving in Ushuaia, it is probably the single most common place for cycle tourists in South America to visit, and with good reason. Riding a bike across the salares allows you to experience them in full, delivering an experience that is unmatched by any other method of transportation -- plus, it makes for some pretty cool photos.

Apart from contemplating the vastness of the universe, seasoning your food with the ground you are standing on, and wondering whether you´re the only one who finds the salt a little bit monotonous, there are two other rites of passage that every salar cyclist must undertake: taking perspective pictures and riding in your birthday suit. Readers can rest assured that photographic evidence of the latter will not be shared (unless, of course, offered a big chunk of money...)!

Our first attempt on the Salar de Coipasa is a bit of a fail, as we attempt to shortcut directly onto the salar from Pisiga instead of going via the town of Coipasa. The salar in this area turns out to be full of unrideable salt-mud. We push for a few hours anyway, expecting it to get better if we just push a little bit further. 

Finally, after half a day of pushing, we decide to turn around and head back to shore. On our way back we hit the worst surface yet, pushing our bikes through (bike-destroying) salty water and occasionally sinking in a bit too deep.  The worst nightmare a cyclist can ever have in Bolivia.

But then we miraculously find the good stuff - flat, smooth, hard salt. 

So this is why everyone rides the salares! Left side is Lucy, then Alicia and Quique

Our good luck continues as we spot a lonely house on the edge of the salar. The young family living there (the father works on the salar) says we can sleep in their small huts made of salt.

Tourists pay good money to sleep in salt hotels!

The family even give us some water to give the bikes a good washing.

The family helps direct us to the road through the salar, and we enjoy a great morning of salt-flat riding.

We try another ´shortcut´on the way out of the Salar de Coipasa, heading for the town of Llica. Unfortunately it results in pushing our bikes for 11km through deep sand in stifling heat. 

It´s exhausting.

...and our skin suffers the effects of altiplano riding 
It takes all day, but eventually we get to Llica, where we down a liter of cold Coke each and sit in the shade for about three hours. We then set off early the following morning on to famous Salar de Uyuni, where, surprisingly, we found some signs...
Having thoroughly learned our lesson on Coipasa, we stick to the roads this time......getting into the routine of riding on salt, for many many km. It´s actually very grippy, even though our minds keep thinking it´s snow and slippery
When the riding becomes a bit too monotonous, we take breaks in the baking sun...

...or play with the cameras and perspectives. The unchanging white scenery occasionally gives us the feeling that we're running on a hamster wheel...

Within striking distance of Isla Incahuasi (which will allow us to fill up on much-needed water) we decide to camp for the night on the salt instead. It turns out to be a great decision, certainly one of the most special camps of the trip
After a visit to Isla Incahuasi for water the next morning, we continued on in the direction of Uyuni

That day it was surprisingly hot on the salar, and shade was hard to come by...
And so those of us with a more delicate skin have to apply severe measures. Sun reflection is no joke in the salar!
We closed our eyes and wished for a swimming pool, but it didn't appear...
...instead we found this sulfur-smelly holes all over the road

We eventually grew tired of the perspective pictures...
...so decided to find the only shelted spot in the whole salar: Quique and Alicia´s tarp!

Rather than pressing on to Uyuni, we opted for another night on the magical salar - which meant again using the rock we had brought from Llica to hammer the tent stakes in to the salt.  

Our two little tents vs. the vastness of the salar at sunset

The following morning, after a quick route check, we set off for the road to Uyuni (the town) and said our goodbyes to the salar
 ...and just like that, we were in Gringoville, otherwise known as Uyuni! Despite being utterly uninteresting it was a fine place to spend a few days relaxing after having had neither days off nor showers since La Paz. Then it was time to plan our next adventure and our exit after an all-too-short stay in Bolivia. 

Route notes:
- Pisiga to Llica: We recommend taking the roads to Coipasa to enter the salar and taking the road to Tres Cruces in order to leave it, which we clearly didn't do ourselves!
- Llica to Uyuni: We used the excellent Tour.TK guide to cycling Southwest Bolivia which has all relevant information. 
- In Uyuni we stayed at Hotel Avenida for Bs 80 for a double with shared bathroom. There may possibly be cheaper options outside of the center, but we found this to be reasonable considering it´s Uyuni and the prices are much higher than anywhere else on the altiplano (including La Paz)


  1. Amazing pictures. What an incredible adventure you guys are having!

  2. Awesome stuff!! Keep the adventures coming......

  3. Impresionantes fotos!! Me imagino lo duro que habrá sido...Menos mal que nuestro amigo de Madrid no se decidió a ir...!! Os habéis ganado un ceviche a mi cuenta...y un lomo saltado para Lucy!

  4. Thanks guys! Hope the UK winter isn´t treating you too bad and you are still getting the miles in :)

    Madre, no es tan duro como parece, era sólo el calor y a veces el aburrimiento de pedalear casi 200 km planos, todo blanco...Pero te tomamos la palabara...visita a Las Brujas cuando acabemos en Ushuaia...lástima que pilla un poco lejos!

  5. It is truly a unique experience and I love the obligatory perspective photos!. I remember I was in a part of the Salar that had strange cactuses and oasis looking areas, which taking in the whole scene reminded me of a strange Dali painting.