DAY 685 - SALAR DE UYUNI
Day 685 - Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia - 14633 km
Long before I started this bicycle journey, images of Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt lake in the world, grabbed my attention and made me dream about travelling the high planes of South America. It’s hard to grasp that I finally made it here by bicycle to the one of the most extraordinary places on earth.
Some places make you wander if you’re still on planet earth, and this is one of them. Being here, cycling and spending the night here, is a different game in many aspects. I had some long days of solitude behind me on the silent freeways of Bolivia and when I saw this vast sea of white for the first time, I cringed a bit. A sliver of fear to enter this void. But at the same time I felt excitement to spend a few days in this dreamlike infinity. Perhaps it comes the closest to heaven, for whatever you might imagine of it. Pure white salt until the horizon, nothing else that distracts. If you appreciate the solitude and being alone in nature, this might be the purest version of it.
The night before I’m in a hotel in a hamlet called Tahua at the north side of the lake. It’s a high-end resort, entirely built out of salt. A room is 130 dollars a night, ten times the usual price of a room, so I’m here only for dinner. It’s the only place around with internet. Once on the lake I will have no connection for a few days. The fire place warms the restaurant and the windows show a view on the lake in the moonlight — beautiful and haunting at the same time. The hotel is an odd paradise at the edge of civilisation. The hamlet looks apocalyptic, a mix of abandoned ruins and mud brick houses, where a hand full of local people live. There’s no vegetation, everything is dressed in volcanic dust.
In the morning I set foot on the lake which at this time of the season is entirely dry. A totally different scenery than in rain season when the lake has a few centimetres of water. The surface is rough. The crystals change shape and texture as I make distance. It’s a slower than I expected. Although it’s flat, it’s far from smooth. You could compare it to cycling on a rocky dirt road. Loudly the salt crackles underneath my tires. After about 10 kilometres I take a break to acclimatise to the surroundings. It’s eerily quiet and the brightness and heat makes me dizzy. To not faint I have to unpack and do things very slowly. In contrary to the flat desert roads, there is no wind at all. I boil the eggs I just bought before they break by the shaking of the bike. I can leave the salt in my bag, from the ground I crush some salt in between my fingers, which leave small cuts.
The sky looks like a painting and demands all the attention. The volcano behind Tahua still looks close. Without gps it’s impossible to know where you are. There’s nothing but salt, a flat horizon and the sky. I’m heading to Isla de Pescado for the night, which is 30 km off shore. It’s easy to navigate. Even if I don’t look straight forward I see the small little bump on the horizon, which if I look at it doesn’t seem to come closer. Nothing changes around me, it’s like riding in a dream. The only things that move are the salt crystals underneath me.
The first night I camp at the edge of a small island, near the larger Isla de Pescado. From here I can see the sun set and rise. I’m surprised to see some viscachas (rabbits with squirrel-like tails) in between the rocks with cacti. The night is chilly but not too cold. I sleep badly because my body is burned by the strong sun. Through the reflection of the salt I’ve burnt parts that never see sunlight, like the underside of my nose, eyes and legs. Early in the morning I get disturbed by a phone call from French tourists who are in front of my (Airbnb) apartment in Amsterdam and can’t find the keys. It takes a moment before I understand what’s going on. I ask them to call the house cleaner. Then I discover I have a flat tire. A few days ago I got a big puncture, which the sealant could barely fix. When I take out the tire it’s entirely dry. Luckily I still have the spare tube, which I put back in. Despite the salt, the drivetrain is doing well. I had put some extra lube on the chain to prevent it from rusting.
The second island Incahuasi is 25km ahead. Again I focus on the small stain on the horizon for a few hours. There’s a restaurant, water and a small store where I can stock up. When I arrive there are many tourists, that come here via organised tours from the town Uyuni. People marvel at the bike and find it hard to understand that I’m here by bicycle. Another cyclist from Spain greets me. He camped on the island, but will take a bus back to Uyuni, he’s seen enough salt. After a chat I continue. It’s another 70km and a night on the salt before I will reach Uyuni, the town.
The salt stretches out like a giant white snake skin. There’s no anchor point anymore heading east to Uyuni. I use my shadow as a vague guide of direction. Progress is slightly faster when I’m on the car tracks that have smoothed out the surface. The second night I spend on the salt. The light is incredible as the full moon rises and the sun sets. An icy colour spectrum I’ve never seen before. After dinner I read for a few hours. At 11pm the moon is high in the sky and the clouds form an epic movement. It’s incredibly beuatiful. In the far distance a car passes by. The roar over the ice reached far, which sounds like a jet engine. The white / red car moves fast accros the horizon, then dips behind an island for a while and appears again. It looks like a small rocket in a Star Wars scene. I go for a run to warm up. The tent and the bike look like a tiny speck on the horizon from a few hundred meters away. If I would run for a few minutes with my eyes closed I might never find my tent back. I shiver by the thought. Later I fall in a deep sleep and when the alarm goes the moon sets when the sun rises.