28th of July till 3rd of August 2019.
Out in the cold.
When it is -10 C and you want to keep warm in your sleeping bag, are more clothes better or should you sleep naked in your down sleeping bag?
Once the sun sets at 18:00 temperature drops from +10 to -10 in less than 2 hours so we needed to be prepared.
A few nights earlier it was already around zero and we knew that sleeping with a thin layer in our sleeping bags would not be sufficient. Our Exped sleeping bags are up to -12 C. After following some WhatsApp discussions on how to keep warm when it is so cold, from a group that is also cycling from North to South, we tried to sleep with what was suggested. Most important is to ensure to put everything on before you are getting cold.
Dressed from bottom to top: thickest woolen socks, thermal trousers, wind stopper trousers and rain trousers (this one I could remove after a few hours), two layers of thermal shirts, our fleece jacket, our Gore rain jacket, gloves, thickest cap. Pull all the straps of the sleeping bag around head and shoulders and you are ready for a reasonable night. I was OK, but Frank was still cold and as sun sets at 18:00 and rises at 7:00 it was a long night. Even trying to keep each other warm was not working out. We only crawl out of the tent when the sun has peaked over the mountain top which is only after 8:00. Frank has had his share of being cold. With having lost weight and being skin and bones, it is hard for him to keep warm.
Nice warm coffee and oatmeal helps a lot but it takes some time before our faces are back in shape.
Expectations are not always met and the sand is not as frozen as I had wished for. So biking is alternated with pushing with respect for the century old plants. One thing for sure: we are no longer cold.
Once on the dust road at least we can bike.
Lama’s in the distance with one car passing by (chatting for a while, he explains he lives at one of the mountain villages) gives a very peaceful feeling. When using one of the smaller roads we end-up in sand. What is the fun of pushing, getting stronger arms!
After a meager 30 km we arrive in Llica (two “L” pronounced as a J in Spanish).
Dusty, altiplano village which is not swept by tourists. First hotel is even closed and when we call them they don’t bother to open for two people. Frank finds a good other place. What a remote life people live here. Small, friendly, dusty shops all sell the same basics of carrots, tomatoes and pasta/rice. Still you need to visit a few to find all described above. People are friendly and welcoming. Stocking-up with food and water for the next two days for when we will be crossing Salar de Uyuni. Only dinner we can find, as we don’t want to cook in the room, is Pollo Abrazo, grilled chicken with rice and fries. We sleep with our sleeping bags as it still around zero in the room and we don’t like to sleep with heavy woolen blankets. Breakfast is oatmeal cooked in our room 😊. At least temperature rises. Shower was freezing so full wash needs to wait for a few days.
Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world. 10,582 square kilometers. Biking over it is different from Coipasa. Where in Coipasa the bikes were covered by salt because of several wet patches we had to bike through, Salar de Uyuni starts with some salt/sand mix but still very firm and then the white open starts. Bigger, whiter, empty.
Very different structure of the salt per kilometer. Large areas where it is as if biking over old Inca roads made of hexagonal blocks, big cracks between them making it a bumpy ride, especially for Frank.
Already around noon we see an island in the distance, aiming to reach it before sundown. You can easily see for 50 km on the flats.
Your mind is getting into a nowhere land, wandering from past to present and into fantasies. Words are not spoken, riding in your own bubble. Significant headwind and the structure of the road still ensure for enough workout and prevent speaking with each other very much.
Island of wonder.
A dark, tiny cone in the distance, mapout guiding us to the right one as there are a few. It is the tip of a volcano which was emerged in the gigantic lake millions of years ago. What a wonder of nature this is. It is Isla Incahuasi, more or less located midway to Uyuni and we know we can resupply with water, maybe even sleep in a shelter, with a double feeling heading that way.
We reach it just an hour before sunset and see the last groups of tourists leave. Seems that between 500-1000 people per day visit this tiny island. Don’t know if we would have aimed to sleep here if we would have know this. Still, walking between the thousands of cacti, Trichocereus pasacana, some of them taller than 12 meters, reaching up to 18 meters is mind blowing.
Giant guardians overlooking the white nothing. Realizing they only grow 1 cm per year, they must have seen quite a few people come and go.
Lava tunnels and coral structures, black rocks and sand.
Stars popping up in the sky after sunset. Still don’t know how to take a decent night photo.
The strange museum.
As bikers we only have to pay the locals entrance fee (tourists pay double). And they offer us an empty room in the empty museum. As Frank has been so cold yesterday we do except this kind offer. We just use our mattresses and sleeping bags and regret not putting up our inner tent as during the night we hear several crawling creatures. Dinner and breakfast are cooked inside the room. Almost like camping as there is no electricity or running water.
The island is maintained by 10 people who live here on a 10 day on/off basis, only one family lives here permanently, the lady has seen a lot of changes.
Jobs are keeping the toilets clean (all waste is transferred to mainland), cook/serve in the small restaurant and guard.
Way down in the hole.
Next day we awe again on the vastness of the Salar and discover holes in the salt. Seems that there is a layer of salt on top of water. The layer is a few centimeters to meters thick. In some places there is no water underneath, in other places a few centimeters to several meters deep. We check a few with our stick and sometimes we feel the bottom and sometimes we feel nothing in the deep blue. Scary shit and it hits me that if the holes are big enough we could drown. Am I starting to bike faster? One thing is for sure that on this stretch you need to look in front of you to spot the holes. During the current season (dry season) the holes are not such an issue as you at least see them. In the rainy season cars can get stuck when they hit one of those bigger holes, which are then under water.
The whiteness is so bright, the sky so blue, the wind so cold that it is a bit like winter sports in the Alps. We still have MapOut tracking our route, as the jeep tracks are going all over the place and we want to be sure we are heading the right direction. In the morning I did not follow the tracks for a while, only looking at the salt, not in the distance and before you know it you are several degrees off track.
Slow progress, as I decide that I will oblige to the unwritten law that as a long distance biker you do bike without clothes and post them on Instagram. It was hilarious, liberating and not cold. Skin being kissed by blistering sun, chilly wind when biking around. No risk of being discovered as you hear and see cars coming from miles away. During the whole day we only passed a few cars within face recognizing distance. This only happened when we were close to the island and when we arrived at the Dakar monument. For those special photo’s have a look on Instagram at @spinningsouth
The big wide white is so impressive we decide to not push to the small village but spend one more night on the Salar, in the second salt hotel constructed, next to the famous flag statue.
This is not one of the fancy recent salt hotels, with sauna, swimming pool, massage and 5 course meals. If you are longing for those you need to push a few miles further to the shore. This is one has pit toilets, no running water and no electricity.
Romantic one candle night and spaghetti with a fried egg. But fun to sleep on blocks of salt between blocks of salt. In total quietness as we are the only guests and our hosts leave us alone. I remember Floortje Dessing sleeping in one of those basic hotels and putting it on my bucket list: check! 😊.
Our last day on the Salar would only be 30 km of which 20 on an asphalt road so we decide to try to bike on salt as much as possible and try to find our own way. No, we have not learned from our mistake of two days ago and yes we need to push again, but not so long. We even find some spots on Uyuni which still have water on the surface.
Lunch food is finished so we cook our last dinner food as we will not use this when we are in the town of Uyuni. Dirt roads parallel to the asphalt road keep us in raw nature as long as possible.
Arriving in Uyuni we are torn between staying at the Casa de Ciclastas or spoiling ourselves.
Best thing in town.
Spoiling ourselves with the best place in town, yes with swimming pool and sauna for two nights. This is the benefit of travelling when you are older and have saved. You go rough, you watch your budget but when you want you can stay in a better place. Stills feels like cheating (for me, Frank does not have any problems with it.) The Jardines de Uyuni has small rooms and tiny bathrooms. But no noise or dust from outside, heating in room and bathroom! Fireplaces, but no wood, so no fire. Giving a feeling of an oasis, nested in the dusty town of Uyuni. When you find chocolate on your pillow and the very friendly lady of the reception gives you a town map and provides all the info you could need without asking, you know you have reached the right place.
We meet New Zealander Matt and his family, who just started their world tour and are travelling with their 11 year old son. Environmentalist, real-estate agent and pilot to be results in some nice exchanges during our stay. We wish you safe travels! What a program you have planned!
Evening is not so fun as the expected exquisite cuisine looks good but is cold and we are both tired.
Great breakfast buffet, stuffing ourselves till we burst. Working on the blog, some shopping for reading glasses (which you almost can’t find and are very poor quality, people only do prescribed glasses), while Frank cleans the bikes after they have been washed. Getting sweaty in the sauna and cooling off in the swimming pool.
Evening we hike to the best pizzeria in hostal/resto “Minute Man” which meets our expectations. Setting looks like a tourist trap but pizza thin and crusty with just enough topping. Wolfing down two large pizzas.
Oops and then Frank has loose filling of a molar. What to do now. No pain but a big hole. Next day we try to extend our stay, so we can visit a dentist but the fully booked hotel cannot not offer a solution. As there is a newly built, just opened hotel across the road with plenty of space, we decide to move there, much easier to carry everything across the road than gear-up and start looking for something which is maybe 10 euro cheaper. We got some addresses of dentists and start our search. A few are closed and the one we find can only do a temporary filling. He says that in Uyuni there is no place that can do a permanent filling in a molar, is this the reason why most of the poorer people miss a lot of teeth? The temporary filling needs to be replaced within 1 month. Paid 5 Euro to get this fixed.
Uyuni is the hub to visit Salar and the Laguna route and there is also a casa de ciclystas. Wanted to go and check if there are people there, but we do not just want to visit to talk to people and then return to our fancy hotel, so we don’t go there.
During the past few days we had our first long disagreement on which road to travel from here. Recently I have been reading about the Laguna Route. Being now at +3,600 m and between 2,800 m and 4,800 m during the past months has put some physical burden on us. Especially Frank with hardly any body fat and having been sick a few times is fed-up with the cold. He is longing for some normal nights, biking in short sleeves. Taking a cold shower and still being too hot, rather than not showering and still being cold. Not wanting to be in the cold any longer than needed, the decision is taken to continue South and not even do a jeep tour of 3 days.
Saturday we try to leave early but the promised breakfast starts much later and is not as great as the previous two days. It will be hard to get used to the road life again.
At least we have found a new water heater! Crucial if you need a coffee or like oatmeal to start your day (if you have electricity that is).
We follow an empty road to Atocha. Wind in our favor, more cars towards the Laguna Route then following our road. Happy that it is not as bad as I expected. After some searching we find hotel Wilkafer, offering a very basic but clean room. As there is no kitchen we opp for the usual and only: chicken with fries. Closure of an epic week! Will we get warmer next week?
Info on Salar de Uyuni from Wikipedia.
The Salar was formed as a result of transformations between several prehistoric lakes. It is covered by a few meters of salt crust, which has an extraordinary flatness with the average elevation variations within one meter over the entire area of the Salar. The crust serves as a source of salt and covers a pool of brine, which is exceptionally rich in lithium. It contains 50% to 70% of the world’s known lithium reserves. The large area, clear skies, and exceptional flatness of the surface make the Salar an ideal object for calibrating the altimeters of Earth observation satellites. Following rain, a thin layer of dead calm water transforms the flat into the world’s largest mirror, 129 kilometres (80 miles) across.
The biggenst threat of this precious gem is the potential harvesting of Lithium. We want do drive electrical cars or bikes but for these strong batteries nature will be destroyed.
Interesting read and beautiful images:
Llama are everywhere and we can’t resist them. Seems that llama’s still need to drink every day, not as much as a cow or a horse but still in this environment you wonder where they find fresh water. Fun fact on llama, click here.