I'm sitting in a bar in Villazon, Bolivia. The Argentinian border is a mere 6 blocks away and there's still plenty of sun left in the day, but Bolivia will keep me for one last sunset. This isn't a country of many great comforts – the internet barely works, the roads hardly deserve such a title, and hot showers are not easy to come by – but it is cheap. And so I'll enjoy this liter of beer and chicharron de pollo as I sit surrounded by half-a-dozen drunken men, all shouting at the TV in the corner displaying the Costa Rica - Greece match.
I've spent nearly a month in this country now, but I've only been on my bike for about half of that time. La Paz held onto me for 12 days, and I can't explain exactly why. It's not a spectacular city, although it does sit in a bowl guarded by some absolutely gorgeous mountains. I think it's more that cities re-energize me, and at this point in my trip, I needed a bit of renewed motivation and energy. Lately I've found myself questioning the ultimate purpose of this adventure in a more concrete way, and the time to just sit and relax away from my bike for a spell was necessary.
I left La Paz on a Saturday afternoon amid an enormous city-wide celebration. Its purpose wasn't clear to me, but the city was PSYCHED. I had decided to take a bus to Oruro to save time and sanity – the southbound road out of La Paz is notoriously dangerous, often unpaved, and full of bus and truck traffic on a highway without a shoulder – but I couldn't even get to the bus terminal across the street just six blocks away. The mega-parade and its flanking grandstands limited my mobility entirely to the near side of town, and cities built on mountainsides and in valleys aren't known for their ease-of-access when it comes to maneuverability. I hailed a cab.
It took more than an hour to drive those six blocks to the terminal. With my bike tied to the roof of the station-wagon taxi, the driver wound his way to the southern end of the valley in which the city is situated and then took sidestreets all the way back north. It sucked, and it cost 60 Bolivianos (about $10). My bus fare for the four-hour ride to Oruro? A mere twenty Bolivianos. Such is the nature of traveling in strange lands, I suppose.
I arrived in Oruro late in the evening on Saturday and sought out a hostel for the night. Luckily, I had quite a selection, as the terminal was surrounded by businesses offering beds of various quality. I took a spot for about $10 per night and settled in. I ended up staying til Monday, still mired in an off-the-bike malaise. The Game of Thrones season finale and a bevy of freshly purchased groceries kept me company through the weekend.
At last, though, I set off for what I was sure would be one of the most memorable routes of my trip. My wheels were pointed towards the Salar de Uyuni, and my excitement at the thought of crossing the world's biggest and gnarliest salt flat gave my legs an enthusiastic boost of strength. This was going to be cool.
I intended to ride west to Sabaya before off-roading it south across the Salar de Coipasa, eventually linking up with the far-northwestern shore of the Salar de Uyuni. I'd spend two or three days crossing the Salar, camping on its glistening white surface, surrounded by nothing but the wind and distant mountains.
The route to Sabaya was not easy. It took two and a half days and 125 miles to get to the village, a distance I could easily cover in a day and a half under proper road conditions. Bolivia doesn't mess around with “proper” road conditions, though. Even though I spent the entire 125 miles to Sabaya on a “major” highway – the kind demarcated by a thick yellow line on Google Maps – about half of those miles were unpaved and sandy. And not just smooth, beachy sand. Bolivian dirt roads have a unique washboard property, which is fine for 4-wheel-drive SUVs and enormous semis, but is absolutely maddening from atop a bike. The roads keep progress to about 6mph maximum, all while they rattle your teeth from your skull. WELP.
After eating a quick lunch of aji de fideo (chili noodles, more or less) and refilling my water bottles, I was off in search of the dirt tracks that would take me south to my first salar: Salar de Coipasa.
As the pavement squirmed westward toward the mountains on the Chilean border, I noticed a pickup truck in the middle of the sandy expanse, off of the paved road, about a mile to the south. I guess that's where I've gotta go, I thought.
I found a shallow, easy exit from the elevated highway and made my way for the worn dirt tracks that would take me to the salar. The landscape – although flanked on 3 sides by massive hills – was completely flat, making it easy to follow the SUV tracks as they snaked their way southward. They seemed to split off at nonsensical intervals, which was initially frustrating until I realized that it'd be basically impossible to get lost out here. See that mountain in the distance? Yeah, just keep riding that way, I told myself.
After two hours of bumpy but not awful off-road cycling, I began to notice the earth beneath me change its appearance. The sandy, dirty browns and yellows of the altiplano gave way to the sparkly, reflective shimmer of the salt I'd seen in so many photos online. I'd arrived to the shores of the salar!
Spurned on by the new terrain but limited by the approaching evening, I pulled up to a patch of crackly, salty shoreline and set up camp for the night. The sunset was one of the most spectacular of my life, descending in colorful layers behind the patchwork of mountains to the west. As soon as the sun dipped behind the earth's rocky shoulder, though, the evening chill set in and I made towards my sleeping bag with haste.
The morning came quickly, and I packed up my camp and continued on as soon as the sun had warmed the day enough for me to comfortably emerge from my sleeping bag. In less than two kilometers, I’d reach the Salar de Coipasa!