Our days in Uyuni were windy. Old people were blown over in the streets, market stalls didn’t open, and as, like always, it was coming from the north west, it didn’t bode well for our chances of cycling across the famous salar. The following afternoon we found ourselves in the middle of a world of white, huddled behind our bikes. We were sat in the centre of the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s biggest salt flat, unable to advance any further into the gale. It’d taken 90 minutes to get the 7km from the salt hotel, but we’d now ground to a halt. Unable to put the tent up, we turned round and were back at the hotel in 12 minutes. Without pedaling.
The next day the storm was worse, but on the third morning there was an eerie silence when we woke at dawn – the wind had stopped!
We were soon off and whizzing across the perfect salt surface, enjoying its crunch beneath our tyres, and headed for Isla Incahuasi. It was a fun few days getting to Llica – cycling on a white lake, with only the distant mountains to add some colour to the scene.
A few days later, and on the Salar de Coipasa, we enjoyed an even more magical cycling day. The salt was a different texture and sparkled in the sunlight, as though a million sequins had been scattered on its surface. We saw no-one or nothing all afternoon, and, slowed by the wind once more, crawled into Coipasa village well after sunset by the light of a full moon.
Our route planning has taken on new dimensions since we entered Bolivia. Apart from main roads and towns, our 4 Bolivian maps are all very different. Villages tend to have more than one name. Roads on some maps don’t appear on others. This has made navigation on the small unpaved roads we’ve taken a challenge. We’ve spent hours on Google Earth before setting out to remote areas, getting coordinates for villages, junctions and river crossings, so we can navigate with our GPS.
When we set out from Sabaya local people gave us varying accounts of the route to Sajama, and with few people to ask on the route we began using our GPS to direct us to waymarks. This had worked in the past, but soon we realised a straight line isn’t always the quickest way between altiplano villages. It took a couple of ‘shortcuts’ which led down llama tracks, sandy tracks, into marshes or to impassable rivers before we learnt to stick to the ‘main’ track. This led us through quiet villages that rarely see a tourist, but all of which were furnished with the obligatory basketball court and full sized football pitch – including all hamlets not big enough to even put together a team.
Guided by the mountains (the triplets of Quimsachata, the Payachata twins and big old Sajama) in the distance we made it to Sajama Village, where we’d hoped to climb some of the volcanos. We ran out of time however and changed our plans – rushing to La Paz to meet Peter with a view to returning to Sajama National Park to climb with him.
After over 1,000km of gravel Bolivian roads, from near Sajama it was all paved road to La Paz. This gave us the chance to average over 10kph for a change, but the traffic was pretty terrifying. We came across one massive crash between two lorries, and spent 3 days nervously cycling in the hard shoulder.
Then we were in El Alto; the flat altiplano disapeared and the ground gave way to a canyon heaped with houses. We joined the hordes of minibuses cruising down the autopista – down down down into the vortex of La Paz. Then suddenly we all came to an abrupt halt, surrounded by feathers, sequins and brass bands. We had joined the back of the carnaval procession. Welcome to La Paz!
Days getting from Ollague to La Paz – 20
Distance – 1,035km
Time cycling – 84hrs
Cycle days – 16
Rainy cycle days – 0
Maximum speeds – 48.1kph (N), 47.0kph (H)
Unpaved roads – 746km
Longest day – 105km
100km+ days – 2
Punctures – 1 H(9), 0N(7)
Total amount climbed – 5,508m
Maximum altitude reached – 4,398m (Alto Tomarapi)
Most climbed in one day – 710m
1000m+ climb days – 0
4,000m passes crossed – 2
Steepest climb – 15%
Number of cycle tourists we met – 3 (all French)
Accommodation – 16 beds, 0 camps, 4 wild camps
Bolivian beers drunk – Lipeña, El Inca, Huari