The Bolivian Altiplano: Back in our high, dry, happy place

We try to use our brief time in the relative metropolis of Oruro to download podcasts and kindle books. Digital entertainment is running dangerously low but the wifi is predictably shit. But happily we stumble upon a health food store near the main plaza and it’s like finding Willy Wonka’s golden ticket, only instead of chocolate it is filled with mouth-watering delights like peanut butter, local honey, varieties(!) of nuts and dried fruits, granola, calorielicious peanut bars, and the ever elusive olive oil. Great wads of Bolivianos fly from our wallets, and we leave slightly giddy and loaded up with treats in preparation for tackling the Bolivian Altiplano. They’ll need diligent rationing to last us to the border with Chile (about two weeks away) and not a moment longer – Chile won’t allow any of these goods across the border and they’ll pry that last spoonful of peanut butter from my cold dead hands before I willingly sacrifice any leftovers to a customs rubbish bin. It’s amazing what a cyclist’s hunger will do, I didn’t even like peanuts before this trip.

Paved and flat, but pleasantly quiet, from Oruro to Sabaya
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We make for Salar de Coipasa, the famous Salar de Uyuni’s lesser known little cousin, taking the fast way. It’s flat and paved, and though not our usual choice of terrain I admit that I don’t hate that it is laughably easy riding for a change. Tailwinds too! We have it in our heads that the rainy season is approaching (we’re riding it in late September/early October), and we’re hustling along a bit, hoping we can make it through this tough section without the added difficulty of poor weather.

These high desert plains sit at an average of 3,750m, it’s cold, barren and extremely dry. And goddamn it is beautiful. The salt flats are otherworldly. Blindingly bright, dry and crunchy, like the crispy skin of a perfect baked pavlova. When we stop in the vast expanse of Coipasa to set up camp it’s still and completely silent. Not a whisper of the roaring winds we’d heard about. Andy pulls out the rock carried from the shore (there’s nothing but salt for 30km in any direction) and spends some time bludgeoning the tent pegs into the salt. They go in a cm at most.

Camping on Salar de Coipasa
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The sun disappears peacefully behind the distant volcanoes, but it takes any sense of peace along with it, as the wind picks up and howls solidly until the early hours. The tent fabric flapps ferociously, the poles bend inwards on top of us while we cower inside with earplugs in and attempt to read, instead of dwelling of the fact that if this breaks our tent we’ll be in a spot of bother (quite fucked). Thankfully the Big Agnes tent puts in another night of solid service and survives the beating. I’m up for sunrise, which is not a thing I’ve been known to do, but it’s incredible. On departing camp we debate for some time about all-time best camp spots and agree Salar de Coipasa has taken out the number one spot.

After a night in Llica to restock, it’s an easy 80km dash to Incahuasi, the island in the middle of Salar de Uyuni. It’s loaded with jeep tours and curious onlookers, asking if it wasn’t terribly difficult to ride all the way from the shore. The truth is it’s probably the easiest day of riding Bolivia can dish up.

Alfredo – the island’s only (?) resident – seems like an awesome guy, and we spend the busy part of the day having a few beers at his little tienda. He has kept guestbooks of cyclists since ’94, filling 7 books. The one we write in is only 5 months old and half full already.

As the tour groups tear off to their salt hotels we go for a stroll and pedal around the shore to find a beautiful bay for the night, glad to have the shelter of the island this time.

Coipasa to Salar de Uyuni and Isla Incahuasi and some salty shenanigans
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The islands on Uyuni appear like mirages, the reflections making them float just above ground. Distance is imperceptible. We see people a few hundred meters ahead, only for them to morph into islands many kilometers away. After four days of salt riding I’m convinced it wouldn’t take much longer for one to start losing their mind.

We avoid the town of Uyuni and head south to San Juan. Dust storms blast through the streets as we potter around, looking for a place to stay. As often happens, everyone is still out working in the quinoa fields and it’s hours before they return. After acquiring beers and snacks we nestle against a wall to shelter and wait. This is the last reasonable chance for a well-stocked rest stop, so we take a day to take stock and restock for the next stretch. From here it’s an 8 day journey through the famed Lagunas and on to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. 

San Juan to the lagunas
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Through this eye-meltingly beautiful stretch the insane headwinds and occasional sand-blastings scare us out of bed in negative degrees at the crack of dawn each day. This does, however, have the benefit of riding in the sublime morning light, providing some much needed distraction and spirit-lifting from painfully cold fingers and toes. It’s a direct trade off between how many hours of biting cold we can take in the morning, versus how much headwind we can handle in the afternoons. There are times riding through the Lagunas where I just have to choose to laugh and shrug off the absurdity of the conditions. Mashing the pedals while riding downhill and, due to the sand and headwinds, maxing out at 5kmph can be demoralising. It’s usually fixed with a quick lie down and some chocolate (seriously, bring a lot of chocolate).

As always, the good times and vividly beautiful impressions will remain long after the pain has faded and the blood has returned to all extremities. Is this a special kind of memory loss afforded to cyclists?

Being around other humans had its benefits, and despite eating jeep dust at times (quite a few of them), we enjoyed the comraderie of the few cyclists we met, the drivers, tourists and Refugio workers. Over the week or so we were gifted the rare treat of fruit on three occasions, a free dinner, chocolates and lollies from drivers and leftover food from a tour group. Clearly everyone knows the way to a cyclists heart is through their stomachs.

Colourful lagunas, epic camp views and a well-timed hot spring
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Sheltering from the winds and a last push into Chilealtiplano-4243altiplano-4244altiplano-4250altiplano-4247altiplano-4262altiplano-4265altiplano-4266

The eventual descent to San Pedro is swift on that vaguely familiar feeling smooth tarmac. It’s so easy. The temperature rises to something quite pleasant, then beyond pleasant, and we know we’ve arrived in the Atacama desert. Gorging on San Pedro’s delights entertains us for the next few days as we prepare to ascend into the mountains once more. If only we could bottle up some of that sunshine and warmth for the chilly times ahead.

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