Cycling the world’s largest salt flat

Since our last update we spent two magical days on the Salar de Uyuni, which has the distinction of being the world’s largest salt flat. The salt flat is the remains of an ancient (and massive) lake, and it provided perfectly flat riding on a lovely surface. It also warps your sense of perspective and scale, allowing for some fun and hilarious photo opportunities. For the most part, this post is just a good excuse to share with you some of the pictures we took during our ride on the salt. Of course, we also spent a magical night on the salt, explored a desert island in the salty expanse, made our own path back to land, rode through a llama field and a mud flat, and had a couple of adventures in small Bolivian towns. First, the salt!

The Philtrons as tourist attraction.

The Philtrons as tourist attraction.

The first part of the salt flat was packed with tourists in jeep tours. They all run out of the jeep to take perspective photos, and then when they see us they freak out and swarm. We had to answer the same questions umpteen times, but a few were new. One woman from New Jersey asked us if it was flat all the way to Ecuador! The answer is a resounding NO, for the record!


We rode away from the salt hotel and other tourist spots near the edge of the salar and headed towards the middle. About 40 miles from ‘land’ we stopped for our own photo shoot, since we had reached 13,000 miles! We are still riding with Emma and Debbie, the New Zealanders, so we were lucky to have someone else take our photo for once! Here are some of the photos:

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Did I mention we finally made it to 13,000 miles??!


Apr27_024That night was camped on the salar in the vast expanse of nothing but hexagons formed by salt. We watched the sunset, which seemed to happen in slow motion, and then after dark we watched distant lightning storms in the mountains. It was a wonderful night.


Apr27_021Apr28_005The next morning we reached the Island Incahuasi, which is another huge tourist draw. Lucky us, we had the whole place to ourselves since we are on a different schedule from the jeep tours. We hiked to the top of the island, saw many many cacti, and enjoyed the peace. From there we rode on the salt again, straight towards a towering volcano. It was a completely different experience to be off the jeep “road”, and to simply choose our own path. We decided to ride around the volcano on the salt, and then head for land on the far side. Sometimes the salt surface got soggy, and we had to race across it to keep from sinking! Even when we did reach land we had to cut through mud flats and across fields before finally finding a track to ride.  The track led us through fields of llama and quinoa before it led us to town.


Apr28_014 Apr28_011 Apr28_017Apr28_019 Apr28_020Apr28_023That night we stayed in the town of Salinas, which was a charming place with a beautiful plaza, friendly little kids, and very nice women selling fresh bread on every corner. We stayed in a hotel which was clearly not up to earthquake code, but luckily we made it through the night anyhow.






After Salinas we made fast time across the flats on good roads. We wanted to stay in more small towns, but the lodging options were abysmal or nonexistent so we had to camp. One night we had a wonderful campsite next to a river, and the next night we had a desperation sort of campsite along the road.

Quinoa statue!

Quinoa statue!

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You see, we had planned to stay in the mining town of Poopo (funny name, right?). Poopo claimed to have a resort-style hotel next to a semi-olympic swimming pool, so we headed in to town after a long day of 70 miles riding into a headwind. We arrived at 4:30, but no one was at the hotel. A nice guy on the street called the number on the door for us, and learned that the attendants were watching a soccer game and would arrive in an hour. That sounded ok to us, so we just waited around for a bit chatting with the Kiwis. An hour and a half later… no movement. We got another nice guy to call for us, and the attendants said they’d be there in an hour. Uh oh. At this point it was starting to get dark, and we really didn’t like the sound of things. We asked the ladies at the pool if we could camp there – NO. We asked the city government people what to do, they said we should just wait. We asked the police if there was another safe place to camp, they told us to put the tent up in the street in front of the hotel!

A hotel we don't recommend.

A hotel we don’t recommend.

We were shocked and a bit sad that no one would help us, so we just got on our bicycles and rode out of town. It is never fun to set up camp in the dark, but we managed. It helped that there were four of us. We found an out of the way spot and settled in. Remarkably, it was a quiet night, and no one bothered us a bit. New rule: if we’re not in the hotel by 5:00 we move on and find a good place to camp! It gets dark around 6:15 here.

Now we are in the big city of Oruro. Our guidebook warned us that it was a gritty place without any good food, but we have found the opposite to be true. The streets are full of life here, and we spent all morning wandering around huge street markets. They are very different from the markets in Mexico: much quieter, with less yelling and a lot less food. We are learning to bargain a bit, but mostly just gawk at everything and everyone. In three more days we’ll be in La Paz, which is legendary for its markets. We are very excited!

Now, a few more photos that didn’t make the narrative:

Small town in Bolivian Altiplano

Small town in Bolivian Altiplano

Quinoa, up close and personal.

Quinoa, up close and personal.

Us and the Kiwis!

Us and the Kiwis!

5 thoughts on “Cycling the world’s largest salt flat

  1. Mom in MD

    WOW the salt flats are really something; beautiful on their own. I laughed aloud at your ‘perspective’ photos. Congrats on 13,000 miles–extra special photo!

  2. Peggy Willson

    Wow! Who knew about those fantastic salt flats. You all are better than National Geographic. I really enjoyed the pictures from this section and congrats on reaching the 13,000 mile mark.

  3. millie

    Were there any breaks in the salt crust? Apparently it is maybe a foot thick and brine below. It looks all dry in your photos. Awesome photos as always. Congratulations on passing the 13,000 mile mark. Be safe! Millie

  4. xiomara

    Hola, chicos. El lago de sal ha sido especialmente alucinante, con esa sal podremos cocinar todos toda la vida. Los paisajes son alucinantes, Leonor dice que ella quiere ir por ahí. Yo, por lo pronto, sueño con ese viajecito a México que nos vamos a hacer juntas Daisy. Muchos besos.

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