When I visited Bolivia’s largest salt flat (which is also the largest in the world) four years ago by jeep I had no idea that I would someday return to cycle across it. In fact, I didn’t even know that was possible. For the first seventy kilometers we had to share the Salar with tourist jeeps which would speed by, and then flicker out of existence in a weird optical illusion sort of way. It was funny to watch all of the tourists, who looked like tiny cartoon stick figures, taking pictures on the horizon, though we were happy to have our bikes and independence in order to explore at our own speed. We arrived to an island 100km from Uyuni where there were dozens of jeeps, and since this marked the end of the road for them, it was where the fun began for us as we crossed the rest of the Salar completely alone. It took us two full days to cross the Salar, 150km of salt and about 190km of pedaling from one town to the next.
The first Bolivian village we entered into was Quentena, which stands in the middle of nowhere at 4,200m surrounded by mines which make up its main economy. A looming nearby mountain has an old road all the way up to 5,700m (6,000m peak) where the highest mine in the world use to operate, and down in the village, women in the traditional Andean attire – stockings, a pleated skirt, and a colorful vest or shawl – watch us a bit curiously as we slowly cycle into town. Though everyone speaks castillano (Spanish) to us, they speak Quetchwa amongst themselves. We eventually find a small shop which sells crackers, cookies, and some clothes, and after buying a few snacks, we continue past a few dozen more mud brick houses until we are once again all alone in the mountains.
The last few days have been rough, sort of a three steps forward, two steps back sort of deal. We had four huge climbs (4,800m- 4,900m each) to do, and in between, there were little ups and downs which made it all the more difficult. The tops of the passes were often steep, and coupled with the poor road conditions, this left us pushing instead of pedaling most of the way up. Once we got to the downhill, instead of feeling excited or relieved, we sort of just felt dread as the road was in such bad condition we hardly ever surpassed 10-15km/h (on a downhill!). Plus, we knew once we got down that we would just have to begin the next climb right away. That being said, it was absolutely beautiful and though it was tough, every calorie burned was more than worth it to be high in the Bolivian mountains.
It’s been windy, and I mean Patagonia style extreme windy, but thankfully, the winds have almost always been in our favor. It’s also been cold, -15C every night, meaning that our water bottles are frozen solid by morning so I have begun sleeping with a few bottles to keep them usable in the morning. After a day of cycling along the traditional lagunas route, where we were passed by jeeps throwing sand our way every few minutes, we turned onto a much less used road (six to eight jeeps a day, all together in one pack) which gave us peaceful cycling up and over multiple 4,700m+ passes. It was hard on the sometimes sandy, always rough road, but it sure was amazing as well! Once again, I’ll let the photos tell the story.