Bolivian Altiplano, Salars.

Salt flats, Bolivian cycling classic.

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The smaller Salar de Coipasa to the north, ride off soft sand corrugations and all of a sudden the ground becomes flat, reflecting white everywhere, hard but the topmost layer away from the “highways” crunches as wheels turn over it. This southwest corner of Bolivia, nearby in Chile too, is full of salty ground. The Altiplano region is surrounded by mountains, and what little moisture there is has no way to drain away, instead evaporating and leaving behind salt. In such an environment, moisturizer (uses: human skin, and rubber o-rings on mechanical equipment) is a great thing to carry.

Once on the salt, all standard navigational rules become utterly useless. Salt extends in all directions, featureless. Ride for an hour, check a compass heading, thanks to an earlier cyclist who gave GPS coordinates to aim for, correct course, repeat until the salt gives way to sand and visible roads again. Alternatively, close your eyes and ride until the novelty of that wears off- there’s nothing to hit, no bumps to interrupt movement. One or two small lakes sitting on the top of the salt, but you’ll hear the ground consistency change as you approach.

How fast am I going? There’s nothing to see, no landmarks to pass by, nothing at all to give any sense of speed. Shift into a higher gear. This is probably what boats feel like.

Farther south, the Salar de Uyuni dominates everything around. 100x bigger than the Bonneville salt flats. Here, the topmost salt crust is less perfectly formed than on Coipasa, and away from the highways the ground raises up in short hexagon formations. Navigation becomes significantly easier; due to its vastness, and hardness, Uyuni is an ideal road linking the eastern and western parts of the altiplano, and regular traffic forms visible paths to follow. A straight shot from the western edge to the east, just 10hrs of pedaling. 10hrs, with no change in scenery. Except for the “island” in the middle, one of the few raised patches of land, which gets bigger on the horizon as you approach. Then it passes by, and once again there’s nothing but salt.

Nighttime camp on the salars, quietness pervades all. Soundless. Empty. The only people within over 10,000 square kilometers are 7 cyclists and 2 Overlanders, all spread out. Underneath the salt lies over half of the world’s supply of lithium. But enjoy the quiet. Sleep well.

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6 thoughts on “Bolivian Altiplano, Salars.

  1. Hey Sam nice pictures ! We are stuck in Trevelin 36 kms from the chilean border due to Virgile’s accident. I don’t know if you’ve seen the new but he got hitten by a F***ing 4X4 on a gravel road 2 weeks ago. He was very lucky and he has only few minor injuries. We can even think about going back on the road for the begining of january. Give some news ! Take care and have a good christmas ! Marion

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