Mustering every ounce of strength, I clamped my right hand around the back of my seat and with my left on my handlebars, I pulled with all my might. My Achilles felt like they were about to snap and my knee twisted in an awkward position. A barbaric grunt emerged from my belly as I heaved my bike up and over one single rock.
In an hour, we had only advanced several hundred meters up this road, rock by rock, designed for creatures with hooves and cars with four-wheel drive, not for idiots traveling the world by bicycle with their dog. We still had five more kilometers to go.
And this was the “good” road, according to the Bolivians.
On the verge of tears, I gently threw my bike down and screamed to the nearby llamas and alpacas, who were munching unsuspectingly on the remnants of the previous season’s quinoa harvest, “Who the fuck calls this a road?!”
They peered up at me and stared, as llamas and alpacas do, and then went back to their lunch, ignoring my cries.
Adventure in the Salt and Sand
Cycling across the Bolivian Salares de Coipasa and Uyuni certainly granted adventure. Well aware of the sand roads, strong headwinds, and frigid weather, we thought we knew what we were getting into, but that was only a snippet of the escapade to come.
After crossing the border from Chile into Pisiga, Bolivia, I spent 45 minutes locating produce and bread in the town with maybe 10 roads. Each person tells you something different and you have to knock on a lot of doors before finding what you need. It’s a bit like a scavenger hunt.
Directions to the Salar de Coipasa, some 12 kilometers from Pisiga were provided as such from the military post on the road:
“Head down this road, at the corner, turn left and then you’ll be on the sand for awhile. You’ll see an abandoned stone house and then another one later, turn onto the Salar shortly after you reach that second house.”
Right. Got it. The roads in the villages aren’t exactly designed into square blocks, so we made a little loop around the neighborhood before deciding where exactly our left turn arrived.
After our “turn,” we soon learned that sand, deep, wheel-sucking sand requires the bike tourist to push more than pedal. We may as well have been pedaling along a beach. Eight kilometers and a couple hours in in, we called it a day with the setting sun.
Arriving to the Salar de Coipasa
Early on Day Two, we arrived to the Salar de Coipasa that glistened like diamonds. Giddy to arrive to a flat, stable surface, we took to the salar with sheer glee. While we found the cycling more manageable than the sand, riding across the Salar de Coipasa felt something akin to cycling through freshly melted snow. Sticky and thick, we dug and pushed through the muck with each revolution. The salt sprayed into the air like confetti and matted itself to every crevice on our bikes, accumulating in between our fenders and tires, rendering cycling even more taxing. Regardless, it was preferable to the sand.
An hour later, we arrived at a seemingly abandoned island. The stone houses were half crumbled, with no roofs and missing walls, mere skeletons of what once was. We noticed two fellas ahead, and running low on water, approached them. Only one spoke and both stared at us intently. The other wore a black mask covering his face, all but his eyes. He did not speak. They gave off an eau de get-the-fuck-out-of-here. But water. The strong sun reflecting against the white surface evaporates the water right out of our skin. We were dehydrated and had a long way to go before calling it a day.
The man who spoke informed us there was no water to be had, so we continued on a few hundred meters down the road to a sort of military outpost. Bolivian flags fluttered in the winds and it was the only edifice on the island that looked habitable. A cat meowed from behind a wall.
A man took our name at a makeshift patrol stop, with painted water bottles acting as cones and a rope across the road as a blockade. We asked for water and he brought us a jug. As Dave filtered, I asked about the patrol.
“Do you work for the government?” I asked?
“No. We just live here.”
The two fellows from earlier, who said there was no water, joined their friend. The man with the mask had yet to utter a word and they stared as we filled our bottles. The cat tried to break into Sora’s trailer. My skin tingled with nerves as these boys stared at us. If they didn’t work for the government, why were they taking names of passing vehicles? I willed our filter to trickle more forcefully.
No Bathroom Here
As dusk set in, we arrived to the village of Coipasa, where locals directed us to the blind shop owner, who enthusiastically led us to a spare room behind his home. His wife showed us the simple room with two single beds whose wooden planks punctured our backs upon rest. After inquiring about the toilet, we were informed there was none, that the town had no running water. Nighttime pees were no problem, in the morning, however, bladder evacuation required wandering early around town, wondering why everyone else was also awake, and keeping an eye out for a wall or other obscure area to stealthily pop a squat.
Poo, that was a whole different story.
Dave and I willed our moaning bowels to stay shut for a full hour as we packed, embarked on the 20-minute quest to find pan (bread), and then finally departed on the 10-minute journey to the peninsula where we promptly dropped our bikes, grabbed some toilet paper, scrambled up the side of the hill, and located a secluded-enough pooping spot.
Feed Me, NOW!
This particular section of the Salar de Coipasa was much more firm than the previous day. We glided across the large skating rink towards the sliver of land on the horizon ahead.
Distances in the Salares are seemingly endless. We may be able to spot our “off ramp,” and while it appears close, two hours later, Dave’s map indicates that we are still 20km away.
I became victim to hanger with our land destination in near sight, where Dave wanted to picnic (sitting on salt is rather…coarse). Yet, despite the ferocity with which I pedaled, the distance never diminished. Dave tried to convince me that it would only take 10 more minutes, but I was so overcome with hunger, I stared him in the face with demonic eyes and declared “I AM HUNGRY. NOW. I’M HUNGRY. I’M HUNGRY. I’M HUNGRY.”
Dave should really have learned by now not to deny my call to hunger.
Completely ignoring his request for a more comfortable lunch spot, I plopped my bike on its side, tore through my food bag like a kid on Christmas, located the bread and peanut butter and devoured several sandwiches in a matter of minutes.
The Curious Children of the Villages
Feeling much more chipper on a full belly, we arrived on land shortly after and found a decent stretch of packed dirt road. We entered the village of Tres Cruces after pushing our bikes 6oo exhausting meters through five-inch deep sand for an hour. The sand was so thick, we had to push our bikes together, one in back and the other steering in front. While inquiring about an indoor place to sleep, we were swarmed by the village children. We fielded question after curious question.
What is your dog’s name?
Can I pet her?
Where do the pictures live in your camera?
Where do you come from?
Where are you going?
While endearing, it was impossible to change my clothes in privacy, despite explaining to them my desire to be alone for a few minutes. I sent them off with Dave to find the “market” so I could have some peace.
The Best Road out of Town
Upon departure the following morning, and after interrogating several individuals as to the “best route,” we were assured the road towards Chorcasa had the more favorable road. One man informed us, almost enthusiastically, that we’d only have to push our bikes for five kilometers and then we’d arrive to the pampas (typically indicating miles of nothingness, but generally packed dirt roads). Of course this route involved the rocky path mentioned in the intro to this story.
Pushing. Always pushing.
We pushed so long that, despite having left around 9:00, our bellies growled with hunger by the time we achieved 2/3 of the distance, three hours later. Anticipating the pampas and with the end literally in sight, we dined in a quinoa field with the llamas and alpacas and pushed on, filled with calories. Upon reaching the pampas, we enjoyed one glorious kilometer of cycleable road before reuniting with the insufferable sand.
In four hours, we had proceeded 15 kilometers. Too feeble to continue, we searched for a place to sleep in Chiarollca. Locals directed us towards the school, where as in Tres Cruces, the schoolchildren, ranging in age from four to 12, mobbed us, greeting us with choruses of “buenas tardes tía!” and “buenas tardes tío!”
They followed us into the room where we would sleep. They followed us to the market. They followed us to our bikes and back. They followed us to find water. They followed us to take Sora for a pee.
Dave engaged in a game of soccer with the children while I set up camp and scoured the village for a suitable place to pee. I ducked around a corner obscured by a wall and the town trash pile, only to be followed by two ratty terriers and a tot scooting around on his trike mid piss.
The Salar de Uyuni, At Long Last
We set off the next morning after awaiting the sun to thaw the outdoor spigot to filter our water. The roads were surprisingly decent and we boarded the Salar de Uyuni shortly afterward. Much firmer than its neighboring salt flat, we cruised across the sparkling surface.
The largest salt flat in the world, the vastness of the Salar de Uyuni is unreal. Unless mountains rise above the horizon, perfectly-shaped hexagons span as far as the eye can see. The blinding white and the powerful sun are so intense that even Sora had to wear sun protection. We carried 11 liters of water among us all. For days, we lived on a white diet of rice, pasta, and potatoes. If we found vegetables, it was because I discovered them in the backroom of a market and had to press the proprietor to sell me one. The lack of food meant setting up the camp kitchen in the middle of the salt flat and cooking pasta or potatoes in the perfect quiet of the vast landscape. I flavored our meals with a swift scrape of the ground below.
Traversing the Salar de Uyuni on two wheels, the cyclist can ride with her eyes closed without fear of bumping into anything or going off course. With hardly a soul in sight, we could pedal anywhere we pleased. Our wheels crunched over the terrifically flat path for hours, the only barrier being the wind.
A bit mundane at times, we entertained ourselves by keeping our eye on the horizon for dots. Dots meant cars, a tourist attraction, the Salar the Uyuni was riddled with zooming 4×4 vehicles, taking visitors to the Isla de Incahuasi, located some 75km from mainland.
Sometimes dots meant beer cans discarded by careless visitors and only once did it mean a cyclist. Still, the experience of pedaling across the largest salt flat in the world – a marvel that spans 10,582 square kilometers (4,086 sq mi) and sits at altitude of 3,656 meters (11,995 ft) above sea level was surreal. To think, we’re riding our bicycles across a lake!
Cycling Across the Bolivian Salares: An Experience to Remember
A remarkable and unforgettable experience, crossing the Salares certainly invoked a wild excursion. If not pedaling on the salt flat, you’re pushing through sand, or up and over rocky paths. Vegetables are essentially non-existent, and food options are limited – regardless of your dietary preferences. Temperatures drop below freezing at night and the winds numb your toes and hands by day. No toilets exist within the villages of the Salar de Coipasa (your best bet is to simply observe the villagers seemingly walking around aimlessly in the morning and take note of where they disappear). Don’t bother asking about a shower. It won’t exist, and if it does, the water is frigid. Prepare to spend five to seven days without a shower, with sand and salt sticking to every crevice on your body, and understand that the hardship is worth the effort to pedal in this magical place.