The time had finally come to leave La Casa Blanca in Potosí , a hostel sharing its name with a presidential palace in Washington D.C., yet with far friendlier and liberal-minded guests. Leaving a hostel for the open road is a lot harder than you would expect. Maybe it’s the comfortable bed, the hot shower and the solidarity from other travellers. Or perhaps it’s the fear of the unknown and wondering how our next week on the road will unfold.
Our trusty GPS app, MapOut, shows us the distances and provides us with an altitude profile which resembles a heart rate monitor. But what about everything in-between? What condition will the road be in? Will the scenery be monotonous or dramatic? Where will we camp each night? Will the villages we pass through have a basic tienda so we can stock up on water and cremositas (the closest you’ll find to Bourbon biscuits in Bolivia)?
After negotiating the rubbish-strewn streets of Potosí’s suburbs – it’s hard to imagine that in the 16th century this was the richest city in the Americas thanks to the abundant silver reserves inside Cerro Rico – we descended rapidly through a rust-coloured canyon. Any pre-departure worries and anxieties disappeared and we were straight back into the swing of cycle touring. Milla resumed her role of Queen of the Mountains – I must buy her a polka dot jersey – while I huffed and puffed, cursing my sore backside.
There were slogs uphill, followed by what I like to call value-for-money descents where we would cover several kilometres in a matter of minutes without peddling once. Around midday we would pull over, find some shade, and cook up a Michelin-starred meal (pasta with tomato sauce or ramen noodles – I thoroughly recommend the spicy beef flavour). We would then hop back on our bikes for some more pedalling and when the sun began to set at 5pm we would seek out a suitable wild camping spot. Tent up, dinner cooked (more pasta with tomato sauce or ramen noodles) and poop holes dug, we would huddle inside our humble abode by 7pm, fast asleep by 8pm, waiting for the sun to rise, warmth to reach our extremities and our tent to defrost. Wild camping in Bolivia has been an absolute joy and so much easier than in Europe. Vast and remote, we’ve been spoilt for choice, and if we have had to ask someone’s permission they’ve been more than obliging, even though they think we’re completely mad – after all, who would want to camp in the freezing cold at over 3,500 m.a.s.l?
When we described our route to Uyuni via Santiago de Huari to a lady siting on the roadside outside the village of Totora D, her response was “ahhhhh, entonces una vueltiiiiiita!” Exactly. That is to say it wasn’t the most direct route, but one that would enable us to enter the Salar de Uyuni from the north. The first part of our route turned out to be beautifully remote and full of surprises – three days of smooth tarmac alongside deep canyons followed by a day winding along a bumpy dirt track up to a pass of 4,350m (our highest of the trip so far) and then enjoying a gnarly (I’ve always wanted to use this word – done) but exhilarating descent into Santiago de Huari. So remote was this fourth day that we saw only two cars and thousands of llamas with fluffy bright pink ‘earrings’ as if they were going to a 70s themed party. “Can we get some llamas when we get back to the UK?” Milla pleaded, “they’re just so gorgeous”. I thought you wanted a dog….?
There was also the curious incident of the Aymara lady which I must recount. While having a break in the tiny village of Laco Vinto I decided to go and take an arty photo. The composition consisted of two humble mud brick homes – one with a dark green door, the other with a bright orange one – sheep and llamas grazing in front, surrounded by a ring of mountains. An old lady approached me and started speaking in Aymara, one of two dominant indigenous languages in Bolivia (the other being Quechua). I didn’t have a clue what she was saying. I apologised and said I only spoke Spanish and hoped that she too would be able to speak Spanish. But she didn’t and before I knew what was going on she had whipped my right bum cheek with the slingshot she was carrying. She grinned and laughed. I walked away bemused and embarrassed. Was this an act of flirtation, aggression – or both?!
We spent two nights in Santiago de Huari staying at Residential Huari. There we met Sergio, who was in a wheelchair. A civil engineering teacher by day and a fiction writer by night, his latest masterpiece was a multilingual book in Quechua, Aymara and Spanish about Bolivian myths and fairytales. He was desperate to find an English translator – I offered my services but haven’t heard anything back – and was interested in how he could get his book distributed in the UK. Realising we didn’t have enough cash for the next stage of our trip I hitched a lift into Challapata with llama farmer Octavio who was on his way there to sell llama meat. “I don’t have many llamas” he told me, “only two hundred or so”.
From Santiago de Huari we cycled along some extremely long and dead straight roads across the yellow – brown altiplano with dustings of salt and sprightly vicuñas. In the hybrid Indian/Portuguese-named village of Bengal Vinto we met seven-year-old Alan and his younger sister and two younger cousins. Like any older brother, Alan took on the role of group spokesman and replied enthusiastically to any question we asked them with “yo sé la respuesta” (“I know the answer”), his hand raised like he was in school. When I asked Alan what he wanted to be when he was older, he replied, “a miner, just like my father”.
We cycled past villages with names like ‘Playa Verde’ except there was no green beach, and ‘Aromas 10’, but did that mean Aromas was 10km away or the village had 10 different aromas? You tend to mull over inconsequential things like this when you spend the whole afternoon in the saddle. The tarmac ended in Salinas de Garcia Mendoza – “Capital del Quinoa Real” – we went for lunch in one of the pop-up eateries in the square, and found – of all meals in the middle of Bolivian nowhere – lamb shank! And this is where we met Gary from Bristol – “Well, actually, I’m from just outside Bristol, closer to Weston-super-Mare” – who told us how his wife Jeanette had been taken to hospital in Oruro whilst crossing the Salar. “We’re not having much luck on this trip” he said, “as Jeanette was hit by a car in Brazil too”. He then went on to say “In fact, I don’t think Jeanette is having much fun at all on this trip”.
The 32km after lunch to Tahua were tough as the road became a wash board, including a 2km stretch pushing our bikes through sand where Milla had a bit of a melter. The only saving grace was our view of Tunupa volcano whose summit was the shape of a jagged quartz crystal and the colour of a red and brown marble effect. Eventually though, after four hours of pain and frustration we finally had our first sighting of the shimmering and magical Salar (salt flat) de Uyuni. We had planned our whole trip around the salt flats and Patagonia, and here we finally were. “There she is” we both commented before descending into Tahua for the evening.
At 10,582 km² the Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world and unlike any place I have ever been. A pristine white dreamscape of hexagonal salt crystals spread out like badly-laid crazy paving. Isla Incahuasi, our destination for that day, constantly changed shape and appearance: from a distant island to a pancake to a gun turret on a warship. Tourists flock to the Salar, criss-crossing it in Toyota Land Cruisers, but they’re like airplanes flying overhead – you occasionally hear their engines but you can’t necessarily see them, such is the vastness of the place.
Isla Incahuasi, one of eight islands on the Salar and covered in cacti that seem to be sticking their middle finger up at you, was a bit of a tourist trap. We signed the cyclist guest book in Alfredo and Aurelia’s tienda exclaiming “we know this person!” after reading the messages left by Swedish Emma, German Jochen and Dutch Roel, whom we had all met at the Casa del Ciclista in La Paz. We camped on the eastern side of Isla Incahuasi on a raised platform just big enough for our tent, and enjoyed a wonderful light blue-peach-pink-purple-dark blue sunset before lying on our backs and admiring the star-filled sky like someone had sprinkled glitter all over it. We wanted to stay up all night and savour this incredible camp spot, our best of the trip so far, but alas it was so cold we retired to the warmth of our tent.
The following day we cycled 70km east to Colchani, a town on the edge of the Salar. And, just like that, our time on the Salar had finished without us being able to process it all. The glistening salt crystals were replaced by a bleak, brown-coloured no man’s land. The open horizon was disturbed by expensive and ugly hotels such as Palacio de Sal (“The World’s First Salt Hotel”) and Cristal Samana which felt more like a conference centre. The only positive about arriving in Colchani was the chance to have our first hot shower in nine days, even if we did have to pay an extra Bs10 per person for the privilege.
Colchani is like a lot of these dusty and unremarkable towns on the Bolivian altiplano. They appear quite unwelcoming at first, especially once the sun goes down, the street lights flicker on and everybody heads inside to escape the cold. But behind the closed doors are friendly and helpful characters like the warm-hearted Doña Maria. who owns a rather chaotic tienda-cum-restaurante. After a chicken, chips and rice dinner we started chatting away. She knew we were either travelling by bike or foot because the jeep tours never stop in Colchani. When we told her we were getting married next year she offered to come over and do the catering. It was a lovely gesture but I think our guests will thank us when they don’t see luke-warm sopa de maní and pollo picante on the menu!
We have spent the last 6 days staying at the Casa del Ciclista Pingüi in Uyuni, founded in October 2018 by an Argentinian cyclist. And, just as in Potosí, it will be very difficult to leave. After all, who wouldn’t want to spend an extra day lying in the same hammock where you followed Crystal Palace’s first ever win at Old Trafford and Ben Stoke’s astonishing Ashes innings? We’ll leave tomorrow for Tupiza but then again we did say that last night!
Google Maps won’t quite let us outline the whole route, as it says some of the roads are unnavigable! But we’ve got much better at using our tracker, so you can see where we’ve been and where we our now on our tracking page – just remember to click “View all tracks” on the top right of the page.