Ground Level: Cycling Bolivia’s Salar
Originally published in WildJunket Magazine Spring 2013
hen Neil Armstrong gazed upon the earth from Apollo 11 back in 1969, his eyes were drawn to a crimped white patch embedded in the Andean mountain range. As one of the brightest marks on the earth’s crust, he assumed it was a vast sheet of glacial ice amongst the peaks – what else could it be?
Unbeknownst to Armstrong at the time, he was in fact ogling Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni, the earth’s largest salt lake, and now one of the star attractions on South America’s tourist trail.
Most travelers book a jeep tour from the nearby town of Uyuni to traverse the bleached desert that lies at a lofty and slightly hypoxic 11,975 feet (3,650 meters) above sea level. But I’m here with my friend Nicky, and as rebels in the army of tourists who descend upon the Salar every day, we opt to leave town on two wheels instead of four.
The main draw is the unparalleled freedom that comes with a bicycle. But even more tempting, is the opportunity to sleep out on the expansive salt lake. With camping gear crammed into our panniers, we head out into the venerated white horizon.
Myth and Magic
“Look! Over there!” yaps Nicky, wobbling wildly as he takes one hand off the handlebars and points towards a thin belt of lustrous white wedged between the horizon and a featureless expanse of brown earth.
My pulse quickens as it occurs to me that where the white begins, it doesn’t end for over a few hundred miles – the Salar has an area roughly equal to the size of Jamaica.
Ask a geologist and they will no doubt explain that the Salar de Uyuni is a remnant of a massive lake that dried to a crispy crust of salt around 40,000 years ago. The Aymara people, indigenous to the Bolivian Altiplano, have another theory.
Legend talks of three giants named Tunupa, Kusku and Kusina. Tunupa married Kusku, but Kusku eloped with a lover, Kusina. Grieving, Tunupa started to cry while breast-feeding her son. Her tears mixed with the milk, creating the Salar. Meanwhile, the giants themselves turned into the surrounding mountains; their summits I see now, poking above the horizon like crooked incisors.
Just over 16 miles (26 km) from town, we bid farewell to the road and invent our own route in the sand.It is slow going at first as a carpet of viscid mud smothers the terrain between us and the white streak in the distance, which grows more resplendent with every turn of the pedals.
No Sight of the End
The dirt soon morphs into an azure plain, one of the world’s most impressive optical illusions. During the wet season, the nearby Lake Poopó overflows and floods the Salar de Uyuni. Right now, in May – the transitional period between the wet and dry seasons – a portion of the Salar remains below a shallow pool of water, reflecting the sky above immaculately. We stop and marvel at the surreal view: a small cluster of clouds in a listless drift, mirrored onto the glassy surface, disappearing beneath a stationary jeep.
Farther out, snake-shaped mounds of salt appear in the horizon and on the other side of the mirror lie rows of mined salt piled up in conical mounds.
In other parts of the Salar, brine is pumped out for a prize metal – lithium. It’s a state-run operation and, to date, Bolivia has shunned most of the foreign industrialists who know the Salar’s secret: beneath the salt lies at least half of the entire planet’s lithium reserves. Like the altitude of the Salar itself, global demand for lithium is high, and is expected to triple in the next fifteen years. If the predicted boom ensues, Bolivia will be under even greater international pressure.
We pedal off towards the salt piles, meandering between shimmering islands and sometimes stopping to heave our bike tires out of the saturated gunk. Soon enough, the blue sprawl gives way to a gleaming white honeycomb, where tiny ridges of salt mark out the edges of hexagons also known as salt tiles. The ground beneath my wheels has firmed up but there is now a disconcertingly fragile feel to the salt crust, as if I were riding across the frozen surface of a lake. Our anxiety is quickly replaced by child-like mischief as we ignore both the GPS and jeep trails and head simply “across.”
It’s not long before a building looms out of the Salar’s blank canvas. A salt hotel, constructed from over 10 billion tons of salt, stands in the middle of the lake. Everything here is made of salt – tables, chairs, walls, and even the beds that guests sleep on. we As we gulp down hot coffee and press on, the Salt Hotel slowly deflates back into the hallucinogenic jigsaw of tiles. Even the most clichéd description of the terrain as pancake-flat doesn’t come close to describing the perfect level of the surface.
Salar by Night
By dusk, we are still pedaling. The full moon rides the eastern horizon, illuminating a string of tourist jeeps that are returning to town. There’s silence except for the faint thrum of their working engines. Fiery and towering tropical clouds clog up the northern sky, alight with the dregs of the day and the occasional flash of lightning.
For awhile we let our imaginations run wild and snap photos of our shadows, stretched into obscure shapes by the final beams of sunlight. The denim blue of the sky mellows under the moon as darkness claims the Salar. As night creeps in, so does the frigid wind. It’s time to set up our tents and sleeping mats, and prepare for the chilly night ahead. There’s no need to pick a suitable spot, the entire salt lake is our camp ground.
It’s hard to sleep. The cold is biting and the temptation to take another peek at the view outside my tent is too much to resist. Above us, the hazy Milky Way arcs across a cluttered sky, punctuated by thousands of flickering stars.
When morning arrives, I awake to find blinding whiteness all around me. I can hardly open my eyes with the glare, but it doesn’t take long before I regain my sight. Sadly the cold has deprived me of water – my metallic water bottle ruptured during the night by the solid ice within and its temperature is still stubbornly slumped below freezing.
To remedy my cold and stiff limbs, we are soon back on the bikes, riding farther out into the Salar. The plan is to reach one of the “islands” in the center of the salt lake – the remains of ancient volcanoes where cacti now flourish and rodents roam.
On our way there, we notice a film of water over the salt, which eventually grow in depth as we get closer. To our disappointment, it’s a little early in the year to cycle across the entire Salar.
With a heavy heart, we head back to Uyuni and leave the salt behind. Our disappointment soon wanes when we cruise past a gaggle of tourists goofing around outside their jeeps. In contrast to their short daytrip experience, we’ve been blessed with a world of freedom out here on one of the most incredible natural formations on earth.
I envy the astronauts who looked down upon our planet and glimpsed the Salar de Uyuni; although now, after journeying across it by bike, I sense that seeing it at ground level is far more out of this world.
This article was originally published in WildJunket Magazine Spring 2013.