Tempted though I am to fast forward to Laguna Colorada, the story would not be complete without the “bit in between”, after we have left the Salar de Uyuni. This is a 5-day section (1 day in a 4×4) bridging the gap between the places people pay to see.
While there’s some nice scenery (Arizona comes to mind) and the sense of remoteness is palpable, the strong crosswinds, rocky climbs and sandy roads make this a gruelling ride, to be endured rather than enjoyed. I suspect there will be much more of this type of thing when I reach Argentina, so I have to be philosophical about the parts of the journey that require additional mental, as well as physical, effort.
The jumping-off point for this stage is San Juan – on paper, a decent sized town with plenty of accommodation. However, the town only really wakes up when the tourists arrive in the late afternoon and we are there just before lunch. So instead of hot food and showers, we have to settle for crisps, boiled eggs, apple juice and a bucket of cold water.
From San Juan, the route crosses a sizeable salt flat and, while the wind is from the northeast at first, it turns westward, driving sand into our faces and generally exfoliating the exposed parts of our bodies. Bizarrely enough, there is a railway line halfway across with warning signs for trains, although I couldn’t say when the last train passed through here.
After the flat comes the rise, which sees us pushing our bikes over some distance for the first time. Apparently, after flaying our skin, the sand settles on the road making progress quite tiring.
The following day is also windy with a strong westerly from the start. We begin to appreciate that controlling the bike in any sort of wind is a struggle, unless the wind is directly behind (which it rarely is). The day is also the hilliest so far with 1,100m of climbing, including sections so steep it takes most of our strength to drag our loaded bikes to the top. Although the roads are barely rideable, even on some of the flattish sections, we take comfort we are on the right path when the 4x4s start to sail past. It’s not hard to read the faces of the tourists as they stare at us through the window, although we do get the occasional thumbs up or a camera thrust in our faces.
The next day we briefly join one of the main roads to Chile before heading south again, rising up to the plateau at 4,100m where the Lagunas are to be found. The landscape becomes particularly arid and, as we seek shelter from the wind at the end of the cycling day (around 4.30pm), we come across a military base, where we are invited to use one of their dormitories. Although the temperature inside drops to -12C at night, we are grateful for the hospitality and use of their cooking facilities.
After that, it’s another tough day getting to Laguna Hedionda, but we know there is accommodation there and are well incentivised. The “Eco Hotel” is empty but we’re informed it’s fully booked. After a few minutes of dog-eyes and the intervention of the manager, a room mysteriously becomes available and we start the cleansing process, with hot showers and a vast amount of food. Although known as the “stinky lake”, Laguna Hedionda is a nice location (when the wind isn’t howling) and the flamingos do like to put on a show but, after the last few days, we want to get this section over and done with and there’s one further, long day ahead of us.
From Laguna Hedionda, one of the drivers chirpily informs us that we’ll be climbing all day. But he’s right, and our early hopping from lake to lake turns into a steady but everlasting drag up from one sandy basin to the next. Happy days! when we finally drop a short distance down to the rock formations at Arbol de Piedra (eerily quiet when we arrive) as we’re within spitting distance of our destination, or would be if we had any spit left and the wind was blowing the right way.
From here, the road drops 250m in 15km, which on paper sounds like a fun ride, but the sand and corrugated gravel ensure the distance is hard won. We are constantly dragging our bikes from one “road” to the next looking for a rideable surface.
To conclude, if you happen to be riding this section, I would recommend you use a helicopter or tractor-beam if one is available. If not, wait for a strong tailwind and follow the road-grader next time one happens to be passing. Judging by the roads, this probably happens once every 5 years. Alternatively “man up” and tough it out like we did, as what comes next makes the effort sooo worthwhile.