This route very roughly tracks the advice given on the Andes by Bike website by Neil and Harriett Pike. The shortcut mentioned onto Salar de Coipasa was taken and is NOT recommended as it’s a very soft and muddy route. You can find their full route information here.
On paper the ride across Salar de Uyuni and Salar Coipasa is an easy one, in principle I guess it really shouldn’t be so difficult. What I’ve now found out is that one Salar is most definitely not an indicator for another, even if the two are close together.
Riding out of Uyuni was a joy, after spending a few nights there I was aching to be back out on the bike, Rudy was cleaned up and looking good and just aching to roll her wheels. The first 20 km’s were paved for the first time in a while, and on approach to Colchani the track turned back to a mix of gravel and an obviously once paved approach to Salar de Uyuni.
Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world, and although there are rough tracks that crisscross over the top, they seem to act as an indicator only, and the tourist jeeps that flood the surface just pick a heading and go. Wanting to get away from the traffic I quickly ignored the paths, took a heading off a flanking volcano and a speck in the distance that I assumed was an island, and rode.
I made only 40km over the salt before I decided to make camp for the night. I had a large rock with me, anticipating the difficulty in getting tent pegs into the salt, and more than aware that the wind out on the flats might be strong. Although it’s technically illegal to sleep out on the salt, the shear size of the Salar meant I was more than happy to take my chances. Darkness seemed to approach more quickly than in the mountains, which felt counterintuitive, and just before closing my eyes I registered the canopy of stars outside with the moon yet to rise. For the first time in months the sleeping bag was zipped all the way up as opposed to being used as a blanket.
The following day I all but chewed up the rest of Salar de Uyuni, stopping for lunch in the middle of the flat on Isla Incahuasi, which charged a proportionately outrageous sum of money to enter the island and confirm from a higher vantage point that, you were, indeed, surrounded by salt. Because they also monopolised the toilet situation in this part of the country, I reluctantly paid, recognising that a dump in the middle of the Salar would be entirely conspicuous. The Island had presumably every French tourist in Bolivia on it at the time, though the only company I had after the Island was a truck that was going the other way.
I kitted off and rode naked for a bit because I could, and because this might have been truly the most isolated I’ve been for the whole trip.
I knew that after Salar de Uyuni there was likely a rough push for 40km’s or so to reach the next salt flat, Salar Coipasa, so again I bedded down on the salt after almost 100km and decided to tackle the land the following day. What a decision!
I made it to a small town called Llica in time for a four course lunch with some locals for the princely sum of $2 Australian, and set off only partially digested to push my bike all afternoon through sand for 17km’s before camping behind a shack in an abandoned village. The following morning I realised it wasn’t abandoned when a small Bolivian woman came hollering at me to check that I wasn’t moving in for good.
Heading off late I met a French walker going the opposite direction, his advice was that the track was really no good and that I should take a shortcut onto the Salar as quickly as possible. This ended up being the silliest piece of advice I’ve taken, and coupled with some errant stupidity on my own part very nearly got me in serious trouble.
I entered Salar Coipasa and quickly became bogged in mud, sinking halfway up my boots. After heaving my bike out I found some tracks and skirted the salt for a while before a 4WD trail led finally towards the salt. I followed the tracks and made it 4 km into the trailing’s of the salt when I decided I was committed now and that it would be silly to turn back. The way deteriorated further and alternated between loose or wet salt, mud and sand.
I’d brought enough water for one day of simple riding, which I anticipated would be enough, though by the end of the day I had pushed my bike perhaps 25 out of 33km, and all but finished my supply of water. It had taken all day to reach what the map highlighted as the start of the actual salt. Perhaps in a display of exhaustion and searching for more energy, I had mixed my last 750mL of water with a sugary raspberry powder, only realising after that I needed clean water to cook any dinner with. Couple this with a miscalculation in my bearing and wandering 5 or 6 km along the edge of the salt instead of bee lining for a large island in the centre and when I finally went to sleep I was without water and snacking on peanuts for dinner and breakfast.
The Salar’s sit at around 3700 masl and since it’s the dry season now there is more or less 0% humidity, your mouth goes completely dry in about 15 minutes, and I knew the following day I had about 30 km to make it to the first major settlement. I also understood at this point that Salar Coipasa couldn’t be compared to Uyuni, and was likely much softer and wetter, more difficult to ride.
I saw rain in the distance and rigged up a system of pots, pans, plastic bags and a cup to try and collect water running off my tent and hoped for the best. Though it did rain overnight, it wasn’t enough to collect anything with the droplets drying on my tent. I woke early the next day, aware of my predicament, and set off at around 7am, trying to avoid the heat of the day that would be my downfall. Surprisingly the riding was good, and after 15km I hit the island but was dismayed to discover that where I expected to find an estancia to fill up my bottles, there was instead only a large hill. I collapsed near the shore to wallow for a little while before trudging off in search of a well near an abandoned outpost, no luck and I returned to my patch of dirt to eat directly from a large sausage of mortadella I was saving just in case (recognising the inherent moisture content, not realising the inherent salt content), a low point. In the meantime the local Llama’s came over to watch me, presumably they wanted food also and were hoping I was expiring, I forgave them in this assumption since all of the flies had made home on my body.
Finally summoning some energy to continue on, and realising no one was out here to come and find me, I rode 2km more around shore before finding an actual farm with what had all the signs of habitation. I really can’t stress the situation here, I’d had a little less than 3L of water in the previous 24 hours, and had pushed and heaved my bike almost 30km through mud and sand in a very dry environment. As I climbed the hill towards the farm I was more than aware of an energy deficit, and kept misplacing steps and rolling my ankle. Halfway to the house I found a supply of drinking water in old pepsi bottles in a shady spot. I didn’t bother asking for permission and sat down to quickly gullet a litre or two.
I continued up the hill and found a pickup truck with a dog resting underneath, he looked as forlorn as I did and couldn’t even muster up the strength to be angry with me for being on the property. I never found anyone at the estancia, but helped myself to more water and lay down under the truck with the dog. It was a nice shared moment, and I would reckon I was in worse shape than he was. After about 2 hours, realising I wasn’t going to find anyone, I stumbled back down the hill to my bike and quickly rode the last 15km’s to Coipasa on (for the first time) a good riding surface. It’s amazing what rehydration can do when you really need it.
I was offered the local primary school to sleep in and attempted to make camp. My plan was foiled when every kid in the village turned up to play basketball and ask for the English translation of various words. A favourite moment was when I gave them the English translation for pollo (chicken), thus ruining a little mate’s evening when everyone started chasing him and calling him a chicken. Last I saw he had climbed a tree to try and get away from them.
My bike was filthy, covered in a gritty combination of salt and mud and making all sorts of horrible noises. So I spent as much of the evening and then the following morning cleaning it from top to bottom before setting off towards the closest large town of Sabaya, where I rested for a few nights to muster new resolve to continue North towards Nevado Sajama to hike and soak in hot spring’s for a while. As luck had it, it was the 57th anniversary of the establishment of the department, so instead of resting I partied with the rest of the town.
Before leaving town I hurriedly put together a short video of the Uyuni crossing which you can find here.