I was not quite sure what to expect from our crossing from Argentina to Bolivia, as I had never crossed a border on the land. Just planes and ferries for me, but it all went smoothly. Usually I tend to get some raised eyebrows when border control see my latvian passport (you would think latvians never travel anywhere, eh?), but no such thing happened in Bolivia. They did not seem to care much about us apart from checking that all the bike documents are in the order.
New stamps in the passport!
I was still weak and recovering from my recent illness as we entered Villazon, the Bolivian border town. It was surprising to see what a difference there was to our surroundings. Everything was colourful, chaotic, loud and messy. There were lots of traditionally looking bolivian women about (with long braided hair, colourful skirts and scarves and big hats). These same women were sat everywhere just on the streets selling literally anything – fruit, vegetables, juices, tourist trinkets, you name it. If the buildings might have looked slightly shabbier than in Argentina, they compensated for it with lots of bright, bold colours.
We had nothing to do in Villazon so we were quickly on our way to Tupiza, our first stop on the way to Uyuni. Near Tupiza we encountered what seemed to be locals protesting, so the road was blocked with rocks and big branches of trees stopping any possible traffic. Apparently this is something that happens often and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office advises travellers not to try to ride through a roadblock. People sitting on the side of the road did not seem particularly vicious though, there was some music playing, everyone seemed in a good mood and it felt more like a summer fete. As I was dying to get to the loo, we managed to get some sympathy and were allowed to ride through.
One of the streets in Tupiza
Tupiza was just a small town with nothing much to see, but we had to stay for 2 nights instead of 1 as planned, because I had a sudden bout of my illness again and I was in no condition to ride anywhere. After a phone call to our insurance provider, we were advised to seek out medical advice in the nearest hospital, but as Carl went to our hotel reception to find out where it might be, it turned out that the hotel has its own doctor. He was a kindly man who spoke quite good English. He checked me and quickly prescribed me some medicine which we could get from the pharmacy down the road. And this was all for free.
After I made a recovery, we got on our way to Uyuni. What we did not know at the time was, that the route we chose was possibly the worst one we could have encountered. 200km to Uyuni what would have taken us few hours on a normal road, took us 2 days through a corrugated dirt road, through dry sand, wet sand, crossing streams of water, almost falling off and getting as dirty as possible. There was no tarmac on our way whatsoever and due to the time it took us, we had to wildcamp in the mountains half the way through. We were rewarded with some beautiful sights though, but the night was still cold and windy, and next morning we had no food and still half the distance to make. Luckily the remainder of the road was (still bad) slightly better so we made it to Uyuni by lunchtime.
At first the road looked hopeful and surrounded by beautiful landscape
We had read that Uyuni is not a great place – well, you cannot find a single person saying much good about it, but I had probably never been more happy to see some civilisation and smell some food. After wolfing down some food we found the hotel Carl had noted down earlier. It was pretty basic, no heating, an old bed with 3 blankets (Uyuni is constantly windy and the nights are freezing), but it had wifi and a parking for the bike (apparently these were the priorities – i was not quite sure).
The 3 blankets did their job and after a relatively good nights rest we were uo and ready to see The Salar. Salar de Uyuni is the worlds largest salt flat spanning over 10000 square meters and has formed as a result of geological changes in several prehistoric lakes. What used to be great lakes surrounded by volcanoes, now is miles of flat salt surface with the salt layer thickness ranging from ten centimeters to few metres. Under the salt there is a layer of brine containing, most importantly the highest reserve of lithium in the world. Bolivia has not been tempted to sell this out to various companies interested in mining it, but have decided to mine it themselves. No mine exists at the moment, but will be interesting to see what happens in the future.
Apart from all the lithium, Salar attracts numerous tourists, eager to see this natural wonder themselves and it also is part of the Dakar race (although last year lots of bikes failed in the wet salt).
Before going to Salar we visited the Train Cemetery located about 3km from Uyuni – an area full with abandoned trains from the times when the mining industry collapsed. We took few pictures, but it was not particularly exciting.
I was not quite sure what to expext from the actual trip to the Salar and somehow did not feel too excited about the prospect of camping on the salt flats as Carl had planned for us. I thought to myself, well, it is just a big piece of flat land covered with salt, what is the big deal? I did not know that I will be mind blown by it in a way, where I would be proud to tell anyone that I have been there and stayed the night.
Being on the Salar feels like being on a different planet. Everywhere you turn around, it is just miles and miles of white salt with few islands looming on the horizon (the islands are the remainders from the historic lakes). Once you get through the few touristy bits – some salt piles and something that looked like a hotel, it is just you, the never ending whiteness, blue skies and the wind (very strong wind). We certainly used the opportunity to ride around as fast as we could, as there are no real roads on the Salar apart from few routes used to access the islands.
One of the main islands on Salar is Incahuasi island which is teeming with large cacti. The island also has a tourist centre, a little restaurant where we had some lunch and a purpose-made pathway to get to the top of the island for some panoramic views of the salt flats.
Incahuasi island covered in large cacti
Carl looking deadly serious
We decided to camp near the next island – the Fish Island (named so for it’s shape resembling a fish). Once we got there, we played about in the salt – taking some videos of Carl riding the bike, taking the usual perspective shots people do on the flats and then it was the time to set up the tent. It turned out we had some company around 50m further – two American guys, also motorcycle riders, travelling from the United States down South.
Our humble camp
Oh no, Carl is going to squash me!
As the evening set in, the sky changed from blue to an array of colours and we took some more pictures while it was still relatively warm (well, it was never warm, but the nights are freezing), then it was the time to cook the usual camping fare of some pasta and make a little fire from some dry weeds we could find on the island. It was not too long until millions of stars appeared, but by that time it was so freezing, I had to do star jumps around the tent to warm myself up so we decided to get some sleep.
The amazing landscape around our camping spot
The next morning we woke up bright and early at 6 to make our way back to the hotel. As the saying goes – the early bird catches the worm. As we were passing by a big ‘Dakar Bolivia’ sign, I urged Carl to take some photos with me and just at the same time the actual Dakar organisers truck pulled up with three french guys clearly scouting for the route for Dakar 2015 race. They seemed interested in our trip, had a look at our bike and Carl chatted with them about the race. Even though, I have watched Dakar only for the past two years (courtesy of motorcycle loving boyfriend), I was rather excited about the meeting and now cannot wait to possibly catch the end of the race in Argentina, in early 2016.
The perfect photo – Salar, Dakar Bolivia Sign, Dakar car and the bike
All in all, Salar has probably been the highlight of our journey so far. Our next destination is Machu Picchu in Peru, but that will take us a while to get there so we will see what trouble we get up to on our way.