Salar de Uyuni. A highlight on every cyclist route. With its 10.000 square km it’s actually one third the size of Belgium!
We knew it’s best to camp next to the islands to be protected from the wind, but we met some very interesting people and only got on the road by 2pm. First there were filip and niki from austria cycling for more than three years already, then we met two Belgian couples who were driving two pick up trucks from Alaska to ushuaia. Nothing extremely spectacular there, if it wasn’t for the fact that the guys are running marathons all the way! Crazy Belgians! (Follow them at ‘viapanam’). And then we met another beautiful French family cycling with kids around South America. They’ve got guts!
So we ended up camping in the middle of nowhere as we didn’t make it to the incahuasi island some 100 km away. Luckily there was no wind. It’s a truly surreal landscape making for one hell of a pretty campsite.
After passing the incahuasi island and filling up on water, we headed northwest towards Palaya.
This time, the wind was fierce and we definitely needed two pair of hands to put up the tent. “I feel like I’m in a MSR hubba hubba test zone”. Anne said. Luckily the tent didn’t get ripped to bits, but our stomachs kinda did. I had to throw up at night and Anne didn’t feel right either.
Getting on the road the next morning was tough, but we didn’t had any other options as we were in the middle of nowhere.
We got to the edge off the Salar without problem and then had 40 brutal kms (hard washboard, sandy, rocky ‘road’) ahead of us to get to the next salt flat: salar de coipasa.
For those wanting to connect the two salars, here’s the route: Palaya, chorcaza, villque, tres cruses. It’s tough, count on slow progress. But there is water in every village (and some very very basic shops sometimes. Bring everything from Uyuni or Coipasa).
Update! There should be a better alternative! Ask locals to direct you. The trail from tres cruses to llica is supposed to be very sandy though!
After crossing the Salar de Coipasa, our stomachs felt right again which suddenly gave new energy to take on the isolated region of the Isluga, Vicuñas and Lauca national park in the upper North of Chile.
We crossed the border at Pisiga/ Colchane, bought food for five days, had half a rest day, loaded fifteen liters of water on the bikes and headed out.
180 km would take four days of cycling. After six km we got off the main road towards the pacific ocean and headed north on dirt road.
We started this stretch on the first of November. When asking water at the last village, Encuelga, we were promptly invited to join their commemoration of their family members who had passed away. After a huge lunch with beers that couldn’t be refused, we joined them to the cemetery. After we made a prayer, we were handed a big bag with food and a six pack of beer. Interesting customs, lovely people.
With that much food and beer gobbled down, we didn’t cycle much more… Luckily for us, we found a great campspot overlooking the isluga volcano, which is truly spectacular as there is some smoke coming out all the time. A huge bonfire made it perfect.
After 42 km of super smooth dirt road passing Isluga and Encuelga (water in both villages), the washboard (corrugated road) started. Luckily it was usually possible to avoid the worst parts.
As we got to the Salar de Surire (yet another salt flat), we also got to the Polloquere hotsprings. These would make for a great, if not best ever, campspot. What a joy to get to a hot spring after a long day cycling!!! The dramatic sunset and flamingos turned it into an unbelievably beautiful place.
We then cycled around the eastern side of the salar (3 km sandy section. Otherwise not too bad, just some corrugation) towards the Chilcaya police checkpoint where we could luckily refill our water bottles.
Then we shared the road for 60 kms with trucks transporting borax from the salar towards the coast. The road was wider though and the drivers were considerate, making it not too bad.
In Guallatire there is a Conaf office as well as a police checkpoint, so you can get water here. Again, no shops.
Once we got the road back to ourselves (at -18.374332, -69.236347), it was truly amazing as we now seemed to be heading towards three volcanoes.
We passed another hotspring (Churiguaya) but didn’t stay. There is a small building though with hotpot where you could sleep inside!
After a last push we got to 4700m and were now overlooking the Parinacota volcano. What a sight!
The downhill to 4500m was equally spectacular (although quite sandy, climbing this part would take a decent amount of pushing). Tired we got to the Chungará lake where we could camp for free at the Conaf (Chilean nature preservation organisation) campsite.
After riding dirt roads for the last ten days since Uyuni, the restday at this campsite at the lake was more than welcome!
All in all, i had just three days left on my Bolivian visa. So it was a good idea to rest a bit and cross back to Bolivia with fresh energy.