Further we must go
La Paz, or better the “casa de ciclista” from Linda and Roul there, was the perfect spot for Chan to turn four. He got a real birthday party with kids to play, cake, ice cream and gifts. Chan was sad to leave that place, but once we got our package with spare parts for the trailer out of customs, it was time to ride further south. We wanted to reach the Salar de Uyuni, the worlds largest salt flat, before it got water on its surface. The rainy season had just begun and usually is wetter in the North than the South, so we might just be lucky.
Roul drove us up through the worsed part of the city and so we only had to climb up to the rim for 9km. Once back on top it was pretty flat all the way to Oruro with only one longer climb.
It took us four days to cover those 230km. There was much wind and we got into another tempest with hail. Whenever kids saw us coming, they would run to the roadside, kneel down and hold up their caps or ask for “regalos” (gifts).
We were worried about the weather. Every day we could obsereve rain and thunderstorms all around us. Was there water already on the Salar or was it still dry and crossable? We asked people on our way south and the answer was always the same: “El Salar? Seco es! No hay lluvia, no hay agua.” Neverthless, when we got to Huari, the end of the paved road, we looked for a ride in a truck. We knew that the gravel road to Salinas, at the edge of the Salar, was exceptionally bad: sandy with horrible washboard. After hours of waiting, a truck finally gave us a ride for some 70km, a bit passed Quillacas.
This was better than nothing. In the dark they let us off and we put up our tent Chan waited in the trailer. At this hour we were all too exhausted to be cooking, so we ate some carrot and cucumber sandwiches and went to bed. Chan slept within seconds. Next morning we had some different visitors: Llamas were grasing around the tent curiously coming closer and when I lifted one backpack out of the vestibule, a small white skorpion fled away and under the tent floor.
Riding wasn’t much fun for the next two days, but we had an aim: to reach the Salar in dry condition. We couldn’t turn around anymore now. Around us was dry desert pampa with no other vegetation than stringy grass and thorn bushes. We saw some owels flying away and vicuñas and for the first time emus from very far, a huge bird that runs on its two legs instead of flying.
Another night in the tent and anoter thunderstorm with hail and hard rain went by. Then another day of riding and pushing over a sandy washboard dirt track.
After 20km riding one day, we expected to get a glimpse of Salinas any moment.
But instead Flo stopped and pointed to the trailer. I couldn’t see at first, but finally I realised that the two wheels were in a weird angle to the trailer and then I was appalled: “The axis!”, I screamed, “oh no, what should we do now?” Well, Chan and I waited by the broken trailer while Flo rode off to get motorised help from Salinas. The trailer with its broken axis couldn’t be moved otherwise anymore. It was two more kilometers to Salinas, luckily no more, and Flo found a pickup and its owner quickly who came to get us. Lucky too there was a mechanic in the village who could fix our trailer for a horrenduous prise and only for the next day. It would have been the perfect day to head out onto the Salar with blue skies and no clouds at all, but we had to spend the day in Salinas, waiting.
Salar de Uyuni
There were clouds on the horizon, but above us the sky was blue and so we rolled off with a fixed axis on the trailer. Our route was beautiful. At first the path was still sandy and bumpy, but then we entered the hard pampa at the edge of the salt flat, which was very smooth to ride on.
The view of vulcano Tunapa was great and we were happy to be so close to entering onto this huge salt flat. Then the road went back onto mainland for about 10km and we were stuck in sand again.
When we passed a village, a herd of llamas was close by and one of them came galloping towards us. It almost ran Flo over. I was behind and stopped to let it go by, but it came straight for me. I wanted to move, but Flo called: “Stop, don’t move, this is perfect for a picture!” But this llama was a bit too intrusive for me and I quickly pushed my bike to Flo’s side. He was still fumbling with his camera which the llama found very interesting and put his head into everything.
For me it was too much as it pushed me into Florian and tried to climb on me. I screamed and let go of my bike. Luckily Flo could grip it, so it didn’t fall to the ground. The llama now thought it to be a funny game to chase me and while we ran rounds around Florian, the trailer and the bikes, Flo ordered us to stop and calm down. He said: “Rebekka, get onto your bike and ride off!” “I can’t, he will follow me!”, I screamed back. But somehow I managed to take my bike and take flight, while Flo got a hold onto the llamas throat and told him to get to his senses. When this didn’t work he took his dog stick and finally the llama ran away.
Shortly after this we got to another village, where we were told was an easier access to the salt flat, than from the official ramp at Jirira. They said, like this we wouldn’t have to climb over a pass on a rocky path but could rather ride around it. Nobody had told us though, that this side of the Salar was the wettest. It was a grandious feeling to be at last on this huge, flat, white land of salt!
We had made it! After only a few minutes riding we were covered in salt and looked like bike riding snowmen. We passed the salt blocks where they harvest salt and looked for the island we were told we needed to pass.
The way around was much further than we had believed it to be from people’s descriptions. The clouds from this morning were suddenly very close and we started to hurry. In our backs the thunder was growling. A tempest on the salt flat was the least we wanted to experience. So we hurried foreward and finally could make out the ramp to Jirira. The black clouds passed by our side and when we reached the only hospedaje and store in the otherwise empty village, the sun was back smiling at us. Luckily there was water. We spent the rest of the afternoon cleaning our bikes and shirts which were stiff from the salt.
The light was dim, when we woke up early next morning. The sky was coverd with clouds. Flo went to ask the hotel owner for advice. He told us to ride out onto the Salar, that they would have rain that night for sure, but that it was very rare to get thunderstorms on the Salar. We should try and make the 100km to the other side in one day.
The ride on the sea of salt was a bit relaxter this time, for the sun burned most of the clouds away and the salt surface got nicer and dryer the further we rode.
But then it started to drizzle a little and the sun was hiding again. We were hurrying once more. By lunch time we reached isla de pescado, where jeep load after jeep load of tourists arrived.
We asked the local drivers about the weather and salt conditions and the southern end of the Salar. Of course they can’t predict the weather, but they adviced us to stay on the island for the night if we couldn’t make it off the Salar that same day, because there was a big chance of getting rained on that night. For the Salar that could mean getting a layer of 2-5cm of water in which we wouldn’t want to be camping. On the island was a beautiful path through cacti and from its top we had a panoramic view of the whole salt lake.
We stayed in a hut, the bikes ready to go for early next morning. It had just gotten dark, when the raindrops started their rhytmic music on the roof. Shortly after our room was lit in white light and dark again. The growling thunder added his part to the tune.
Blue skies and no clouds at all awaited us in the morning as well as a Salar turned into a lake. Flo went to check the depth of the water and found it to be only about 2-3cm deep Should we ride out or not? We had already decided to go to Uyuni in the east instead of San Juan on the southern end. In the south we would have more sandy washboard paths that by now had probably turned into mudholes.
The day was so beautiful that we started to ride. It was pretty eerie because we couldn’t really make out the depth of the water and it just looked like we were riding through a huge lake.
Also it was very hard to see the tracks of the jeeps we had to follow in order of not getting lost. There were no landmarks by which to know the directions. After about 5km the surface got dryer and was finally completely dry and easy to ride on.
Now we started to really feel the intensity of the sun, reflecting on the big white. 70km it was to the ramp at Colchani. About 3km before getting back onto land, the Salar became very wet and this time soft and muddy as well because they were harvesting salt right around the ramp. I was very upset because we got wet and salty feet so close before getting off the Salar. It is so shortly sighted not to leave a dam for the cars and busses crossing the salt flat. But then we were off it and very happy. We finally crossed the Salar de Uyuni ourselves and just in time!
Colchani was a miserable little village and there was no place to stay besides some star hotels at the edge of the salt. It was mid afternoon and we decided to keep going for the remaining 25km to Uyuni on gravel and sand.
No more rain, no more plants
We wanted to take the train to Chile.
The roads leading there are really bad and with all that rain probably almost unpassable for us. But aparently the train to Chile consists of only one wagon and you can’t take luggage on it. So we were told at the train station. We could show up at 3am, just before the train’s departure and talk to the conductor, for he would maybe let us on, we were told too. Instead of getting up in the middle of the night, not knowing, if we would get a ride or not, we prefered to take the bus. There we got space for all our bikes and we knew we had a seat.
Chile doesn’t allow bolivian busses to enter their country and Bolivia doesn’t allow chilenian busses to enter their country. Everybody has to get off in the noman’s land zone between the two countries and switch busses. We just unloaded our bikes and rode to the chilenian boarder post ourselves, while the other passengers had to wait for their bus. Chilenian immigration can take 2-4 hours if you’re in a bus. It took half an hour for us. But we didn’t know, that we couldn’t bring honey into Chile. We are sure that the immigration officer is enjoying it now himself.
Even if it was only midday, it had been a long day for us and we decided to stay in Ollague, the border village. We also had to stock up on water and food for the next three days on gravel, washboard and sand in the Atacama desert, aparently the world’s dryest place.
For 200km there was no vegetation at all, not even cacti. We were surrounded by smoking vulcanoes and boulder.
We passed another salt flat, had to climb a hill, but there was no place to hide from the sun and no place to rest in the shade. Our tent we put up in a recess of the boulder to be sheltered a little bit and hidden from the road. The next day we reached a campamiento by noon and found a store there, where we could fill up our water from the tap. The store had a few rolls of cookies and crackers, three bottles of coca cola, two cans of tuna, one can of cream and two cans of peaches. We bought coke, crackers, the cream and a can of peaches. From here the road was supposed to be better. It was only true for the next 7km, where it was sealed with salt. Then we were back on sand and a strong head wind added to the strains. We made it 50km through the desert before we set up camp in a gravel pit.
Now the road was sealed again, downhill mostly and we enjoyed a nice tail wind for about 20km. We wanted to reach Calama and ride 100km that day. Our lunch break we took in Chiu Chiu an oasis with the first green vegetation in Chile. From here we had headwind for the remaining 30km which took us 5 hours! But we were in Calama now, it was hot and one day before Christmas. We checked into a hotel for one night. They were closed for Christmas. Next morning we went to look for another one and had quite some trouble finding one that stayed open. Then we went to the supermarket to buy food for our next leg of the journey, again through the Atacama desert for 300km, over 4800m and with no water or food along the way. The store was overflowing with people There were no empty carts. People were trying to get one by catching people finished with their shopping, following them to their cars to be able to get a hand on the cart. Finally after about 15 minutes, we were lucky as well and could start our shopping.
It must have been about two hours later, when we got ourselves an ice cream and sat down exhausted in the supermarket’s own cafeteria, before standing in line for check out.
We are now in San Pedro de Atacama, an oasis two day rides east of Calama. Here we want to relax for a day or two and take a jeep tour to the wonderland of geysirs before heading out into that lonely 300km part of way into Argentina.