Sueños del Salar.
Who?: Toby Elliott attempting to realise a long time dream of cycling the worlds largest salt flat. What & Where: The famous Salar De Uyuni in the Sud Lipez region of Bolivia.
Highlights?: Crunch of salt under tyres. Bivvying under the Milkway. Camping in a cactus forest. An icy beer in the middle of the Salar.
- Cycling the Salar is not an extreme undertaking and is an unbelievably beautiful and unique experience. However, one should not take it on unprepared. The sun and its reflection are powerful during the day and at night temperatures plummet to well below zero.
- There are no water sources on the Salar, so a good water carrying capacity is essential.
- Stay a night or two at the wonderful Casa De Ciclista in Uyuni town before or after riding the Salar.
- Make sure your bicycle is running smoothly before entering the Salar. You don’t want a mechanical in the middle of nowhere.
- Camp a night on Isla Inchasi; it’s a stunning place.
- December - March is the wet season on the Salar. Whilst you get a spectacular mirror effect the salt and water don’t always make the best combination for cycling.
- A well maintained bicycle. Nothing fancy required as you are basically cycling a flat surface for a few days.
- Good warm clothing/layering system.
- Warm sleep system that you are happy in down to around -9C.
- Water carrying capacity of at least 7L.
- Sun protection (suncream, hat, covered skin, sunglasses).
- Perhaps pick up a rock to bash tent pegs into the hard salt.
Home town: Kent, UK
Favourite activity: Bikepacking or anything that gets me out in the mountains
Favourite brew: A cold beer at the end of the day, or steamy black coffee on a frosty morning
Favourite snack: Alfajores (Delicious, sugary, chocolaty goodness found throughout South America)
Description: Toby is a pretty average guy from the UK with a thirst for adventure. Currently trying to satisfy this craving by bikepacking the Americas. Along the way he’s snapping photos and consuming an inhuman amount of pasta.
Toby has previously cycled across Europe, climbed a mountain in Morocco, destroyed his feet trail running and got drenched to the bone in the Scottish highlands.
Back when the idea of cycling South America was just a seed sprouting in my mind, I dreamed of riding across the Salar De Uyuni. I wanted to lay out on the enormous expanse of salt, under the canopy of stars and drift off to sleep. Now on the on the edge of the Salar, I was on the cusp of making this dream a reality. I’d spent around two weeks at the Casa De Ciclista Pingui in the town of Uyuni itself. The sense of community and love here had been pretty overwhelming and made it difficult to return to the road. But just 20km Northbound on tarmac and I found myself at the entrance to the Salar. The salt shimmered in the midday sun and I watched as tourist jeeps - just specs amidst the expanse of white - sped across the salt.
As my wheels touched the salt I heard the familiar crunch under tyres, my route through the Puna in Northern Argentina had crossed a few salars (albeit a lot rougher and remoter ones). At the entrance to the Salar were a few pools of water and I weaved my way around them. An irrational fear of mine when dreaming about cycling the Salar had been the navigation; I’d worried that there would be no reference points, no roads and that I would loose my sense of direction. Visions of becoming stranded in the middle had ran through my mind. The reality however was rather different. Far off in the distance I could make out some form of land, an indefinite distance away, but visible nonetheless. I believed this to be Isla Inchuasi (an island in the centre of the salt flat) and set my sights on that.
I was going to just make a beeline for the Inchuasi, but I spotted some hazy objects off to the South. They didn’t look so far, and I decided to investigate. Coming closer I realised this was a hotspot for all the jeep tours of the Salar and they’d stopped to see a large monument to the Dakar Rally, some flags and a restaurant. I didn’t hang around and soon the whole scene was just a smidge on the horizon. The sun beat down, its powerful rays reflecting off the salt onto my face, the constant crunch under my tyres as I cruised along, my breathing steady and controlled, a gentle breeze caressed me. I gazed around this surreal and otherworldly landscape, it felt strange to actually be here, something I’d dreamt about doing years previously and now here I was living it out.
I would liken cycling across the Salar De Uyuni to being on a treadmill. Your pedals turn and turn, you cycle for hours at a decent pace and yet the objects on the horizon never seem to get any closer. After a few hours of pedalling I stopped for a snack. I chewed on some stale bread and enjoyed a few chocolate bars and alfajores my friends Emma and Stefi had given me as parting gifts in Uyuni. Propelled by this delicious sugar hit, on I went. I stuck in my headphones and listened to some dreamy folk music that made me feel like I was in some sort of music video.
The sun was getting low in the sky and my shadow was growing long. Tonight was the night. I planned to sleep out on the salt, bivvying under the stars. It wouldn’t take long to setup camp, so I enjoyed cycling for a little while longer. It was a case of choose a spot, any spot. I laid out my mat and sleeping bag, and got to cooking dinner - a hearty helping of quinoa and veggies. Then I ran around like an excited child for a while snapping photos. All too quickly the temperature plummeted. I fled to my sleeping bag. It was too cold to read as that meant my hands would have to be outside the sleeping bag. I listened to some podcasts as my eyelids grew heavy.
The stars begun to show themselves. First just a couple of dots twinkling, then before I knew it the sky was ablaze. The Milkyway was visible in all its glory. I took out my headphones and let the overwhelming silence engulf me. My mind raced, typical feelings of humanities insignificance in the universe. The beauty of life and our little planet, the unreal and insanely unlikely series of events over endless millennia and eons that led to life here and our existence. After spotting the fifth shooting star I stopped counting, satellites drifted steadily across the expanse of space, I was tired and at some point must have fallen asleep. I awoke and the sun hadn’t yet risen, it was colder still, I cinched the hood of my sleeping bad tighter and rolled over.
Roughly two hours later the sky started to brighten. It was a spellbinding sunrise. However, the sun didn’t seem to bring much warmth with it. I decided to have a lay in, after all it wasn’t far to Isla Incuhasi and how often do you get to snooze on the worlds largest salt flat? Eventually, feeling a little warmer I made some breakfast and was soon cruising along once more.
Today the island somehow seemed much closer. Before long Isla Inchuasi rose up from the salt like a fortress. It’s battlements manned by hundreds of cacti of all shapes and statures. A few jeeps drove past waving enthusiastically and taking photos of me. Recaching the island I arrived at a cluster of sturdy stone buildings. One was a restaurant and I chose to have lunch here. There were a couple of tables overlooking the Salar outside and I sat here enjoying three courses. No-one else was around and between courses I ordered a beer, it was pretty unique spot for a meal. I sipped on my lager and pondered the formation of the Salar; it’s strange to think that around 40000 years ago there were lakes here that over the ages dried out to form this insane spectacle.
I headed off to seek out a nice spot to spend the night on the island. It didn’t take me long. I hauled my bike up a steep slope and found an unbelievable natural balcony overlooking the Eastern half of the Salar. I spent a lazy afternoon wandering the island, reading and eating. In the afternoon jeeps came whining by the island in increasingly large numbers. They make a tremendous noise, shattering the silence, sounding more like jets than cars. Once the last of the jeeps had departed it felt as though I had the whole island to myself.
The sun silhouetted the cacti and cast lengthy shadows of the island upon the salt. I had the best view on the whole Salar and didn’t even have to leave the comfort of my tent. Once things were dark I watched a film on my laptop before turning in for the night. For some reason things were considerably warmer this night on the island and I got a fantastic sleep. This unfortunately meant I pretty much snoozed right on through the sunrise.
My final day on the Salar, and I just had 40km to its Northern edge. I took my time, enjoying riding the endless expanse of white. A lone motorcycle rider came past in the other direction, he stood up and saluted me from the bike - a gesture I returned in kind. This interaction made me laugh, and on I pedalled in high spirits. Come afternoon my tyres left the salt for the final time and the crunch that had been the soundtrack for the past couple of days abruptly ceased. I sat for some time gazing out across the magical plateau of salt. It felt great to have realised this dream and also like a fairly significant landmark in my journey up the continent.