The Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat, covering 10,500 sq km of south-western Bolivia with salt to a depth of 120m in places. It contains 7% of the world’s lithium reserves (Elon Musk, listen up!) and is one of those must-see places on the must-see places list you read about in magazines. This is not only because of the strangeness of crossing 120km of what is, effectively, a blinding-white chequerboard, but when it rains (and the wind isn’t blowing) the surface turns into a giant mirror, which is great for photos if not for cycle-touring.
The Salar is also a bit of a Mecca for adventure cyclists, offering an opportunity for a two-day crossing via the Isla Incahuasi, a cactus-covered island conveniently located in the middle of the flat.
Most tourists have the good sense to visit the flat by car from Uyuni in the east, often as part of a 3/4-day trip to the Salar and the Lagunas region further to the south (for which see later blog). However, as we’re in the pain and discomfort business, we choose to cycle from north to south, starting in Tahua and finishing in Tanil Vinto (named after a drain cleaner?). This is an 80km trip taking us slightly over a day and a half to complete, depending on winds, road surfaces and drone activity.
Having crossed the Salar de Coipasa, we have some idea of what to expect (flat, white, salty), but are secretly hoping the tourist vehicles have left a highly-polished surface resembling tarmac (a distant but fond memory). It’s a sad part of cycle-touring that we spend so much of our time fantasising about road surfaces only to be disappointed again and again.
After several days of camping, we arrive in Tahua and check into the Hotel Tayka de Sal. This is a rather posh-looking place on a rise on the edge of town. On closer inspection, it is a little worn around the edges but fulfils our need to transfer dirt and dust from ourselves (and our gear) elsewhere.
We pop out for supper at the best (and only) place in town and arrange a generous breakfast for the following day. Come the morning, the restaurant is closed and breakfast is not to be had, so we go to the baker to buy bread and persuade her to boil us 8 eggs (which she’s happy to do, but reluctant to charge for). A little later than scheduled, we are on the Salar wrapping ourselves up warmly as the cold air sits on the Salar, like a frosty blanket, first thing.
Helpfully, the beginning of the flat is marked with posts and a blue puddle of water which we skirt before heading down the track. As not many vehicles come form the north, the track is clear but not heavily used. This is not a problem, as it is smoothish to start. Later we discover that even salt turns into dreaded corrugations if enough vehicles go over it.
Andy has to fix his bar-bag (as the rivets holding it together are coming loose) and I have to take some drone footage (because otherwise Dronio gets upset). I’m hoping I’ll be able to upload video to my blog but, if there’s a way of doing that, I’ve not yet worked it out. The wind is north-westerly again (long may it last) and we make reasonable progress, although the road starts to get lumpy and the little blue triangle on my Garmin Explore slows down after promising early progress.
On the subject of hexagons. As a lawyer, I’m not qualified to comment on geometry, but the fact is that the surface of the Salar is covered in hexagons that tessellate. I would assume that these form from an otherwise smooth surface when the salt flat is covered with water. As the surface dries, the salt shrinks and pulls apart along lines of least resistance. This leaves hexagonal shapes (mostly) with shallow depressions around the sides. I would also speculate that the tyres of the ubiquitous 4x4s flex as they pass over these depressions causing them to get deeper (rather like the way corrugations form on otherwise smooth roads). The result of this process is, I fear, pain and misery for cyclists, plus ca change! I would be very happy though to be corrected, by any budding hexagonologists out there, if any of my assumptions are wrong.
Around lunchtime we arrive at Isla Incahuasi, where a cohort of tourists are having lunch at salty picnic tables, or luxuriating under silver marquees out on the flat. The wind is blowing strongly now and my envyometer is barely registering as we seek shelter. It can get pretty cold at night, so we decide to camp near the island and forgo the classic “tent-with-light-inside-against-salt-and-starry-backdrop” photo I had been thinking about for the last few days. We bump into Bruno and Sophie again, who have already nabbed one of the best camping spots. We shoehorn our tent in the space next-door, wedged between a couple of cacti.
A quick circuit of the island, by bike, yields a selection of silly photos involving pots, pans, bottles and bike equipment (see below). I had thought about packing a giant inflatable T-rex just for this occasion but, fortunately, common sense prevailed.
Having paid our fee, we climb to the top of the island to get our sunset photos. We are then ushered into a nice clean room by the “boss” of the island, where we cook and generally enjoy the view, the beer, and Bruno and Sophie’s company/superior cooking techniques.
The next day we continue south on roads that start badly but end well. So well, in fact, that we set a new Bolivian land-speed record of 15mph (yet to be verified). Apart from an unscheduled right hand turn into an irritating north-westerly (which leads to a causeway taking us off the Salar) the rest of the day is plain sailing and records tumble (including the longest day – 45 miles). We also beat our all-time empanada-eating record shortly after lunchtime (8).
What did we take away from the experience? First, use plenty of sunscreen and cover up if you are of a pale disposition. Second, it feels like you are cycling uphill a lot of the time even if you are not, which is weird. Third, check the wind direction before leaving and adjust your expectations accordingly. Fourth, enjoy the moments of solitude when all the tourists have gone. Five, take a giant inflatable dinosaur, preferably two.