The next leg of my journey brought me from the Bolivian Altiplano across the border to Chile into the Atacama desert.
The small town of Uyuni, situated in southwestern Bolivia (which feels like the middle of nowhere), originally served as a railroad junction in the early 1900s. Despite its desolate location, cold climatic conditions, and a rather dull character, hundreds of travelers pass through this town every week, solely for one reason: the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s biggest salt flat.
Before visiting the Salar, I took a few days rest to cure my cough and sinusitis which had been bothering me for almost a month. It took me a while to find some effective medication and figure out which restaurants and cafes had heaters in order to have a place to hang out. Most buildings never really warm up during the day. So this location with its chilly and dry climate is everything but helpful to cure such a cold. Eventually, I was lucky and felt so much better.
Many visitors exclusively come to Bolivia to visit the impressive salt flat which sits at 3,656 m elevation and expands across 10,582 SQ km. Right after the rainy season, when there’s surface water left, you get perfect reflections of the sky making the horizon disappear. When the surface is dry (at the time of my visit), the Salar is a pure white expanse of nothingness – just the blue sky, the white salt crystals and you, which is not any less impressive.
The Salar was formed as a result of transformations between several prehistoric lakes. It is covered by a few meters of salt crust, and apparently, contains 50-70% of the world’s known lithium reserves. I also read that its large area, clear skies, and exceptional flatness of the surface make the Salar an ideal object for calibrating the altimeters of earth observation satellites.
Originally, my plan was to ride my bike across the Salar de Uyuni, but due to my cold, I discarded that idea as I was going to cross other salars on my future itinerary anyway. Instead, I joined one of the commercial 4WD tours offered by countless Uyuni tour operators. It was a great day trip with a fun group and quite a diverse program with a stop at the Cementario de Trenes (“cemetery of trains”), a visit to the small town of Colchani, several photo stops and the spectacular Isla Incahuasi in the heart of the Salar. This hilly island outpost is covered with thousands of cacti trees and surrounded by a flat white sea of salt tiles (see pictures).
In early winter (May/June) the border areas of Bolivia and Chile received plenty of snowfall this year, and many passes were closed much longer than usual. Cyclists who had come from the south told me that they were not able to cross the beautiful laguna route which I originally also planned to take. Others posted on Instagram that they had to cross muddy and snowy terrain and suffered from extremely cold nights. I was about to leave Uyuni and had to make a decision. Despite the beauty of the laguna route, it was clear to me that I was not up for five nights of camping at -15 deg C, burdening myself with a dozen liters of water and facing all the mental challenge of biking alone for that long of a time. I eventually opted for an “easier” route via Ollagüe, Chile. In spite of lacking major passes and climbs, this plan “B” was still not easy but definitely also a very scenic one.
From Uyuni to Ollagüe I passed through the towns of Rio Grande and San Juan, where I spent a night each in small guest houses which were sort of a micro comfort zone. I could have a warm shower and be able to sleep in rooms which were warmer than 10 deg C. Nights were cold and it took the sun a while to reach a certain height before heating up the environment. Therefore, I avoided leaving less than an hour after sunrise.
Despite all that, it was an amazing experience to cross more salt flats while passing massive volcanoes and enjoying the absolute silence. In this awe-inspiring collection of harsh landscapes, all you can hear is your own breath and the cracking of salt crystals under your tires.
Crossing the border was not an issue at all. The Bolivian official literally stamped my passport without even checking the entry date to his country. All he said was: Chile está allí (“Chile is over there”). Haha…very funny! There was anyway only one road. 🙂
His Chilean counterparts were very friendly, too, but insisted to check every single bag of mine. Chile has very rigid importation laws when it comes to bringing in food particularly agricultural goods. Thus, I had to entirely unpack all of my nine bags. That’s a pretty annoying request when you travel on a bike and need to pack every item very wisely in order to utilise every single cubic centimetre of your bag’s capacity. Thirty minutes later, I was ready to continue. Luckily, it was only 2 km to the border town of Ollagüe. Immediately after I started pedalling down on the fine gravel, I realized: Man, this country plays in a different league. The surface is so smooth and they even have proper sidewalks. The two countries are, in fact, economically far apart. So, actually no wonder. The road surfaces in Bolivia were often very tough. Lots of bumps, hundreds of kilometers without pavement, and uncountable sections of sandy washboards.
After I had cleaned my bike to get off all the salt crystals, I bought a Chilean sim-card, water and snacks for the next day, and enjoyed a good meal at the guest house looking forward to the smooth road in the morning.
With the border crossing from Bolivia to Chile, I had also officially entered the Atacama Desert, the driest non-polar desert in the world. Its aridity is explained by its location between the Andes and the Chilean Coast Range, both of sufficient height to prevent moisture advection from either the Pacific or the Atlantic Oceans like a two-sided rain shadow.
On the following day, I left right after sunrise to make full use of the daylight for a long ride. There was absolutely nothing between Ollagüe and a small village called Lasana. I was happy cruising on a perfectly paved road again. Construction workers who stayed at the same guest house over night cheered me up when I passed them 20 km down the road. I passed some smaller salars, some beautiful lakes and even saw a group of flamingos in the waters.
There was not much climbing on this day except a short ascent up to Ascotan Station, an old railway post (3,980 m) before I would finally descend to a lower elevation. Everything was fine for about 70 km until I started riding uphill. All of a sudden a fierce wind started blowing straight into my face. It was as if someone had switched on a huge fan. I thought that I would be fine once I got beyond the pass as it was supposed to go downhill from there onwards. That assumption, however, turned out to be entirely wrong. The wind was not supposed to stop for the rest of the day at all. I still had another 80 km to bike and about 5 hrs of daylight left. So there was no reason to panic yet. It would be a long day but manageable, I thought. An hour later, when I realized that making more than 14 km/h with these headwinds was nearly impossible, my mood dropped and I became quite frustrated. I was going downhill but had to pedal like crazy even to maintain these low speeds. I only took short breaks to snack every now and then. I was lucky enough to be offered another two liters of water by a passing vehicle, otherwise, I would also have had a hydration issue. I simply had a completely different expectation of this day, and that shows how critical it is to foresee some buffer time and sufficient water in remote and dry places and that strong winds can completely change the situation.
I was mentally tired and a bit worried at the same time. Even though there was not much traffic on this road, I never liked riding in the dark. Fighting against the wind went on until thirty minutes after sunset. Finally, after nine hours of cycling, I arrived at my destination. It was not really a campground but a little farm with BBQ pits, an empty pool, and space to set up a camp. I would never have found this place unless iOverlander (an app I often use for finding campsites) would have pointed it out and given me the GPS coordinates.
I was relieved and welcomed by the owners, who were happy to prepare a huge steak with mashed potatoes and salad for me, before I passed out in my tent for a ten-hour recovery. Despite the happy ending, that day definitely ranks as one of the “worst 5 bike days” on this trip.
In the morning I felt a lot better, enjoyed a good breakfast and moved on to San Pedro de Atacama, a small and picturesque adobe oasis and probably Northern Chile’s number-one tourist draw. Hundreds of tourists from hippies to upper-end luxury travellers arrive here every day to enjoy the region’s many natural attractions. However, I liked San Pedro, and it still maintains a quiet and relaxed atmosphere, which made me stay there for three days.