Thursday, August 28, 2008

INTO THE WILD part II. Cycling the salares of Coipasa and Uyuni (Bolivia)

DAY 9 43.1
km Highest point 3724m
Overnight camp 3644m
From Sabaya to the "island" of Coipasa.

Finally back on the road and without major obstacles. Yesterday we managed to get a good quantity of food and 14 litres of water, that we think is sufficient for the crossing of the first salar.

It was a pleasure to ride on the washboard roads without having to push the “burras” over sand dunes. We went through several abandoned villages on the way to the entrance of the salar, located shortly after the village of Villa Vitalina (km 27). From there we could see the huge salar that we will cross tomorrow.
From the Villa Vitalina’s “Terraplèn" (access Platforms), until the island of Coipasa were 10 easy km, sometimes cycling on the gravel road, other times over the salt surface. We setup camp on the island of Coipasa with fantastic views over the salt flats.

The landscape was surreal; I had never seen anything like that. The salt flats of Uyuni and coipasa are part of an old sea that was trapped when the tectonic plates of the Pacific shocked with the South American continent creating salt lakes. With the subsequent creation of the Andes, the waters evaporated creating the salt flats. Every year the rainy season floods the salt flats creating a lake 30 to 40 cm deep. The strength of solar radiation in the summer months dries almost all the surface of the lake, creating a vast mantle of white so strong that, in a sunny day, it is difficult to observe without the protection of sunglasses.

DAY 10 47.7 km
Highest point 3678m
Overnight camp 3629m
From the “island” of Coipasa to the middle of the Salar.

Today we finally entering the salar, another dimension of cyclo-tourism, an unrivalled experience that is difficult to describe. It was like pedalling on a flat planet where the only colours that existed are the blue of the sky and the white of the earth.

We left the campsite late, as we always do up here in the altiplano, shortly after we stopped by the small village of Coipasa to buy some more supplies and fill the bottles from the village’s well. The entry of the salar is well signposted and one could easily see the car tyres marked on the surface, but few kilometres after the marks disappear and we found ourselves in the middle of the salar without any traces of them. But orientation didn’t look too difficult, since south of us we could see several peaks to which we made an azimuth.

The salt flats are flat indeed but far from been a smooth ride. Many crusts of salt popped up on the surface and made for a rough cycling. It was like a violent massage to the body. About 10 km further we found again the marks of car tires, and followed them once they continued south. Joana loses her jacket somewhere in the route, but we decided to move forward. Our progress south was halted late afternoon by something unexpected: water!

An elder man back in the village of Coipasa had warned us that some areas of the lake were not completely dry and suggested an alternate route further West and closer to the Chilean border. We didn’t take him seriously partly because his suggestion was a much longer route. And here we were surrounded by water on all sides and not knowing what to do. Joana decides to take off her boots prepared to continue. I watched her in disbelieve. Although the mountains are clearly visible ahead of us, it was impossible to estimate the distance we were from mainland or the depth of water. The sun was about to set behind this strange world and the freezing water and high salt content would certainly be felt on our bodies. The risks of hypothermia were high, we wanted adventure, but not to put our lives at risk. Holding the tip of my foot on a salt crust, I balance the bike and look at the scenery around me. It was of a surreal beauty, but beauty, can also mean danger.

- "Joana, we should go back."
- "I think we should continue, she said, we can’t be that far from the mainland."
-"No, we must return to dry salt, is too risky."
I was feeling uncomfortable with the situation. We decided to cycled several kilometres in the opposite direction to get back on dry salt and setup camp under a magical sunset.

We were completely alone. Us and that infinite world of white. That night the thermometer went well below zero and the cold coming from under the salt flat went straight through the tent and sleeping bags freezing our bodies and minds. We questioned ourselves what would have happened if we decided to move forward. Would we have made it?

DAY 11 18.4 km
Highest point 3697
Overnight camp 3647m
From the middle of the salar of coipasa until after Tres Cruces.

I got up shortly after sunrise, and grabbed my camera and binoculars, and went in search of Joana’s jacket. It was bitterly cold but I felt guilty to have persuaded her to leave it behind, and in the obligation to found it. Despite yesterday we cycled almost always at random, it was not difficult to find a dark blue jacket in the middle of that sea of white. When I got back at the base camp Joana had already cooked half a dozen of delicious pancakes.

Our final crossing of the salt lake that I feared so much yesterday was only 5 km and the water was never more than 20 cm or 25 cm depth, but were the most magical five kilometres of all my bike touring experiences. The sky reflected in the waters of the lake, gave the feeling of being cycling over the clouds, at the centre of a three-dimensional painting of Dali.

I felt privileged to be there and be able to share those moments with Joana.
Back on the mainland we were also back at our biggest altiplano nightmare: sand!
We arrive at Tres Cruces after several kilometres of pushing the “burras” through a sandy path. We ask a few people in the village what’s the best way to Llica.
- "Look at this bike," said a local pointing to the only motor vehicle in the village. "Llica it comes from, just follow the tracks of the tires". Taken by the local advice, sometime later we were again pushing our bicycles through sand.

After pushing and dragging our bikes for several hours we setup camp by the side of the road with only 18 km made. But mileages have little importance in the Bolivian altiplano; the conditions of the roads are so bad that sometimes travelling 20 km can be equivalent to a full and exhausting day of cycling.

Day 12 27.9 km
Highest point 3767m
Overnight camp 3753m
From after Tres Cruces to after Challacollo

Nothing better to start the day than to push the bicycles though the sand! The road was so sandy that we were making an average of 3 km an hour.

It was obvious that we were lost. We could see some tire marks on the sand, but we were not sure that they were from "our" bike. Maybe the biker had made a short-cut through the sand? Perhaps there was a better road.
- "No! Not again! "I did not want to repeat the sand dunes crossing of Sabaya”, I shouted. I had another one of my “altiplanic” attacks of frustration. Far in the distance, near the salt flats we could see a vehicle moving at good speed.
- "There must be a better road," I said to Joana, "this is crazy! This is not cyclo-tourism, is cyclo-masochism!“
Joana shared the same felling, though she didn’t showed it. We did an azimuth from the sand to the salt flats and one hour later we were pedaling on a path that, despite been sandy, was in an acceptable condition. At the end of the afternoon we arrive at the village of Challacollo, lost in the middle of this vast and windy highland desert.

Joana asks to one of the few residents the way to Llica. "In one kilometre there is an intersection, do NOT go the right," said the resident of that semi-abandoned village. We arrived at the intersection and stopped, opened the maps and compass. Nothing made sense. We decided, once more, to follow the local’s advice and finish the day in another sandy path that seemed to go nowhere!

We decided to camp right there and think what to do the following morning. We were exhausted!

DAY 13 13.6 km
Highest point 3754m
Overnight camp 3711m
From (after) Challacallo to Llica

In the early morning a man and his son passed through the camp on their way to his land plot and told us that we're on the wrong track. Back to the junction we follow the road that was more marked with car tires, and promised ourselves that we would do always that from now on. On the altiplano there are so many tracks and no signposts that’s very easy to get lost.
Llica is located between the salares of Coipasa and Uyuni and its the village of utmost importance in the region where there is enough trade to have several well stocked shops, and even an Internet cafe, the first we saw since we left Oruro 13 days ago. Joana was felling sick and without energy, and both were tired of pushing the bicycles through the sand. We needed a rest, so we spent the rest of the day staring over the hotel window.

DAY 14 59.7 km
Highest point 3711m
Overnight camp 3673m
From Llica to Isla Del Pescado.

Soon after leaving Llica one can set sight to the Salar of Uyuni, the largest salt flat on the planet with an area of 10,500 square kilometres, equivalent to twice the Algarve region. It would take us three days to cross it. We cycled for about 10 km skirting the salt flats until we reach a "terraplén", the access platforms built with gravel mixed with salt, which allow for a safe vehicles access. The margins of the salt flats can be sandy and muddy and it is possible that a vehicle sinks in it if you do not use the appropriate entry points, obviously for our bicycles that would not be a problem.

Far on the horizon we could see Isla Del Pescado, the largest island of the salar. We "sailed" through this endless white lake following the car marks left by the vehicles that cross the salar, and by late afternoon we arrive to Isla Del Pescado,the fish island, named after its shape that resembles a fish.

We landed on the East coast of the island and climbed a small hill where we set up camp. Camping on the East corner of the island allowed for a great sunset and also for the first sun light next morning.

The island is a strange place with fossilised rocks and marine animals reminding us of the time that this immense desert of salt was submerged by the ocean, giant centenary cacti stood still on the horizon as sentinels of time. Here time stopped thousands of years ago.

DAY 15 37.6 km
Highest point 3683m
Overnight camp 3671m
From Isla Del Pescado to somewhere in the middle of the Salar Uyuni.

We continue our cycling through this white sea of salt, enjoying the peace and absolute silence around us, broken only by the sound of the wheels crushing the hexagonal shaped salt crusts that pooped up the surface. A curious process created by cracks in the crust of salt and the strong sunlight. Unlike the salar of coipasa, here we could reach 20 km an hour without major physical effort. The world around us was absolutely flat; in fact it is the flattest surface on the planet. So flat that it’s the place of choice for artificial satellites calibration. By mid-afternoon we saw a black dot on the horizon that we thought it was another jeep full of tourists that cross incessantly this part of the salar. But little by little the black dot began to take the form of a bicycle. Herve is a Swiss cyclist who is travelling through South America for several months and was at the end of his trip.We decided to camp right there on the middle of the salar.

Herve (visit its website here), an experienced touring cyclist, left his homeland one day towards Africa and never returned. After two years cycling the African continent, he found work as a safari guide in Namibia where he took residence, a place from where he finances his bike trips that he makes around the world. Undoubtedly an inspiring and interesting story. Who knows a future trip, around Africa on a bicycle? That night I left by mistake Joana’s hot water rubber container (don’t know the proper name in English, but that thing to warm up your feet!), in the front part of her sleeping bag and she smashed it as she enter the tent. The mattress and everything around was soaked in water. It was just what we needed! We were in the middle of this huge salt flat, where temperatures at this time of year can reach minus 25 degrees at night. We had no choice but to sleep the two of us inside my, already small, sleeping bag, a real test to our relationship!

DAY 16 63.4 km
Highest point 3698m
Overnight camp 3678m
From the middle of the Salar to the salt museum in Colchani.

Yesterday was a very cold night. We couldn’t fit inside the sleeping bag and every movement, for small it was, had to be coordinated simultaneously. Herve left heading north, leaving with us a Swiss chocolate - classic! We promise him to eat it only at the top of the Uturunco Vulcan at 6020 meters, where we expect to push our bicycles to its top, further down the journey. The access road to the volcano is considered (by some) as the highest road in the world and would be the culmination of all our challenges during this long stage of 47 days without seeing the tarmac.

The final part of the salar was the least interesting of the crossing. During the day several jeeps full of backpakers passed through on the way to Inkawasi, a small tourist island in the middle of the salar, where we decided not to stop. We arrived in Colchani late afternoon. We just finished doing a total of 240 km cycling on salt.
Colchani, a small dusty village on the East banks of the salar, whose population lives off the extraction of salt and tourism, has a small museum dedicated to salt that offers accommodation in a house entirely made of salt. We were the only guests at the hotel and the owner decides to hand us the keys and go home leaving us alone.

DAY 17 23.3 km
Highest point 3712m
Overnight camp 3705m
From Colchani to Uyuni.

After 23 km of uneventfully washboard roads we arrive in Uyuni, the big twon in this part of the altiplano. Uyuni is an uninteresting touristy town and the gateway to the salares and the south-western part of the Altiplano, used by hordes of backpackers. It’s a cold place and there isn’t much to see or do in town, but somehow we got stuck and ended up spending over a week there.

In the next blog, we enter the third part of our extensive journey in Bolivian’s altiplano entering an area of higher altitude, more isolated and inhospitable landscapes. Our next destination: Cycle the highest road in the world. But another accident with the bicycle, cyclonic winds, and yet again, difficulties in finding water and food would hinder all our travel plans and even change them.

Nuno Brilhante Pedrosa

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hell Yeah....
Looks incredible. I can´t wait to get to Bolivia.
We are LOVING Colombia right now, though. GREAT GREAT COUNTRY.