November 30, 2011 GMT
Episode IX: A brief sojourn in Bolivia, part II

Continuing with our quest to the Salar, we cycle on from San Pedro de Quemes (in Bolivia now, donīt forget!) towards Uyuni. Poor Alex is in pain from being saddle sore. His Brooksī saddle, the choice of all the cyclists we have met so far, it seems, has given him two very red, very painful looking areas on his derriere. Mine, the "gel saddle that will never last" (thank you Olivia and Robbert for getting this Dutch saddle with me) - is fan-dabby-tastic. I am not sore. I am not in pain. I have stood up though for a lot of the journey! But at least my bottom is still fairly cheerful! By the way, if you are a keen mountain biker, and you know who you are - this IS the journey for MUST try and do these two weeks. Believe it, itīs worth it...(if you are a keen mountain biker!!)

A quick list of the food supplies we took with us on our two-week journey...we WILL make it last the entire trip...and yes, it did!
4 onions
5 tomatoes
5 avocadoes
5 oranges
4 apples
11 small to medium sized carrots
3 peppers
LOADS of powdered milk (ridiculous amounts....probably a kilo?!)
1kg of porridge (!) we still have it now - four weeks later...
4 boxes of cereal
1.5kg rice (!)
800g pasta
3 tomato sauces
5 cans tuna
10 pieces bread (topped up by another 6 stale pieces...eeeek...)
6 eggs (topped up by another 8 en route...)
500g dried tofu (that was a real find in San Pedro!! Protein with practically no weight!)
Four packs of cookies
As much dried fruit as I could get my hands on....

Day 11 - San Pedro de Quemes to Salar de Uyuni (67km)
A brief stop at the "Galaxy caves" - some rock formations which look quite cool - unfortunately our poor command of Spanish means that we smile at the guide and ask to go through the caves alone. There is also human (Inca) remains around the site. I presume it was a burial site once upon a time.


We also see some "petrified cacti"...they have become solid rock over time. Strange...But you can see the landscape we are viewing behind Alex.


We finally arrive at the Salar de Uyuni! This is what we have spent the last 11 days slogging away for. Initially it is not impressive. Dirty roads make me question the sanity of doing the whole trip. We cycle on. And on, and on, and on. It is undeniably huge. 12,000 square kilometres, to be exact. Eventually it becomes white.

We see a it a tree? from a distance...we cycle up close and take a photo - later we find out that it is the inside of a cactus. It seems that these plants have a wooden core!


And at its foot there is a beautiful structure of....salt - no idea whatīs underneath though.


We are surrounded by a blinding whiteness - the sun shines on relentlessly. The ground is mostly hard. Every now and again it is a little wet. The wheels are picking up salt too.


I am utterly exhausted and we find a small "island" to camp on. The islands are outcrops of soil (how? Who knows?!) on an otherwise unblemished background of white salt. I find the whole experience a little odd.


Day 12-13 - Salar de Uyuni (23km, 26km)
We cycle on in the searing heat to try to find the Isla Pescado (Fish Island) where there are far fewer tourists. We finally see the typical image of the salar that we have seen in postcards. We eventually land somewhere that we think is likely and Alex collapses in a heap of ill health.


We start to put up the tent together and suddenly he disappears as I turn around to pick up some pegs. A moment later I find him lying on the ground under the tent, essentially unable to move for the next few hours as waves of nausea overcome him.


I sit and read. It is hot!



The next day we cycle on to the main tourist attraction - Isla Incahuasi.



Itīs impossible to figure out exactly how far it is by purely looking. The GPS helps a lot here. I still canīt believe we have finally made it to the Salar.

The ride on the Salar is quite bumpy. I feel a bit nauseous myself by the end of the ride. There are at least 10-15 jeeps parked at Incahuasi. We find a quiet place with a cave in which to camp,


have a vegetable soup for lunch (still counts, even with only 2 types of veg!),


a little snooze and then explore the island with its giant ancient cacti - apparently at least one is 900 years old.


We play with funny photos of perspective...
Noooo, Iīm going the wrong way and am about to hit the seat....

Surprise! I AM your lunch today!!!

Will she make it, wonīt she, the new ballerina for the infamous Royal Ballet of the Salar de Uyuni...

A bit of fun before retiring for the night...



Day 14 - Salar de Uyuni to Uyuni town (101km)
Knowing this will be a long day, we are up at 4am. Finally we are to leave this strange place and return to civilisation. We take the "highway" where scores of jeeps have previously passed and flattened the salar. It makes for an easy ride all the way to the edge - almost 80km away. We see deep "potholes" of clear, deep blue water where the underlying lake comes through. I am relieved to reach the edge, only to find that the real road to the town is horrendous. I fall into a bad mood again as I contemplate the next few hours of struggling. We reach a salt mine at the edge of the salar - we see that everything is done by hand.

People actually have to shovel the salt onto the trucks and pat it down. I feel like I have gone back in time to pre-Industrial age times...

At last, we can also get rid of the rock that I have been carrying to bang the tent pegs into place on the hard surface of the salar.


Finally we reach Uyuni and I breathe a sigh of relief. Itīs a new record, over 100km today.
I am surprised to see that Uyuni looks a desolate, dusty and unloved town. By now I am completely spent and am glad to follow Alex and his GPS to a lovely, expensive hotel (30 pounds, the most we have paid this trip so far!). We shower and wander out in search of sustenance.


I donīt like the town much, a bit touristy, but generally with a neglected feel. Funnily enough the detail that remains with me is that I spotted 5 dental practices in the time we had to walk around time. Five. Thatīs a lot! I have to say though that I didnīt notice a huge difference in the teeth of the Uyuni Townies...We end up having what appears to be standard fare - roast chicken, rice and chips and stumble back to the hotel for a well-earned rest.

Day 15 -18 - Uyuni town to Santiago (Uyuni - Calama 460km, Calama - Santiago 1566km)

Almost as soon as we have arrived in Uyuni, are we plotting our way out of here. We spy a sign for an airport and are super-excited....only to find that it is really an airport-in-progress as the tower is still being built, and the personnel only arrives when the plane arrives (i.e. at least another hour later). We wait and hear a rumble in the distance that we take to be the plane landing...full of excitement we look out and see...


We decide on getting the bus back to Chile, but the next bus to the border leaves at an ungodly 4am. We sigh and wander around the sights. This is seen from the back on market day...


Alex has a fight with a lady who owns the internet cafe when he tries to tell her that her computers need a bit more protection than...well, none really (i.e. antivirus etc). She takes immediate offence and charges us each for the hour, despite us having only been there for less than five minutes. We scarper out of there and find another place. All places have a rule of allowing no USB connections. It means that we have to wait for the photos to upload back in Chile.

We gladly escape the town at 4am, our bikes being stowed into the luggage compartment of the bus.

(this is Alex taking the bikes out at the end of the journey)

We were worried about the size of the bikes, but then as we queue up at 3am, we realise that most people have far more luggage. They appear to be taking things to sell at a market. This indeed is correct and at 8am we arrive at the borders, stamp our passports out of Bolivia, and are taken to I guess a no-manīs land area where everyone promptly starts to set up camp for a bustling market. This is before it became busy...


More buses arrive and people start to gather. We patiently wait for the next bus to take us into Chile only to be told that it will be a four-hour thumb-twiddle. Finally the bus is ready to leave as the driver hoists up our bikes onto its rickety roof-rack whilst we look anxiously on.


Another six hours and a bumpy (though again beautifully scenic) bus ride later, we finally arrive back in Calama, Chile. We celebrate by having an empanada (totally starving by then) and ride off to find a campsite for the night. Whilst setting up the tent we meet a couple from Germany who look to be in their sixties-seventies who tell us that they have been travelling around the world for the last twenty years or so in their Unimog. We are in awe and spend a happy couple of hours sharing wine and sharing adventures. So this is what we have to look forward to!

Leaving Calama the next day, we head west and are picked up by three mechanics out on a trip to fix a broken-down truck for about 80km. We are not complaining...that would have taken us a full day at least!

Next we are lucky enough to meet Carlos, a trucker with an 18m truck who throws our bikes into his empty truck and tells us that he is going to Santiago.


We hop on and quickly realise that it will be a noisy and bumpy ride. The truck is much older than the previous one we were in and Carlos is constantly adjusting the steering to make sure that the truck goes in a straight line. It looks exhausting. He also seems slightly superhuman, driving from 7pm to 3am with the minimum of breaks, whilst we are unable to control ourselves and one by one drops off to sleep.

We manage to get a proper few hours rest in the back of the truck when he finally stops for the night.


The rest of the way to Santiago is dealt with from 9am to 11.30pm in one fell swoop. Do we look tired?? We have just had four hours sleep and are having a cereal breakfast (powdered milk, hoorah!) in the back of the truck...


We have a little short stop to look at what looks like a little zoo...


And another to get some sweets for the family before he arrives home.


On learning that we are reluctant to cruise around this big city at night on our bikes, he offers the truck again, giving us the keys before disappearing off into his house (just round the corner) for a well-earned rest. I wonder what his neighbours think of a big truck appearing every now and again on their street...



So there it is. We have arrived in Santiago, having left Bolivia less than 48 hours ago. It is quite incredible. It took us three months to get there in the first place.We are really sorry that we have not been able to re-visit our friends along the way like we wanted to, but our time in Chile is getting shorter by the minute. Today we have booked our flight home in January. A sad moment indeed. In the meantime, our thoughts are turned towards the south. Everyone we speak to in Chile highly recommends it, beautiful scenery, wonderful people. We are really looking forward to it and will be carefully documenting our time there.

Until the next time, ciao!

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Posted by Alexandros Papadopoulos at November 30, 2011 02:39 PM GMT

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