April 14, 2010

The Bolivian Salt Flats

Fernando of Madness Adventures and the lady who runs the Cafe Bistro Boliviano in Copacabana both said that I must see the Salar Uyuni Salt Flats.  OK, from Coroico go to Oruro, then Oruro to Challapata, Challapata to Salinas Garcia Mendoza, and ride the salt 125 km give or take to Uyuni, ¡No problemo! 

The ride to Oruro was long but straightforward.  This is the first thing I saw entering the City.  Any guesses what Oruro's claim to fame is?  a hint, it ain't oil.

Somebody should send this to Fort Mac, very cool.   The next picture was taken in the central square in Oruro, look carefully at the trees, yup, the leaves are turning.
It is fall south of the Equator, and it definitely feels like early September in Alberta here in the Alto Plano.  Oruro was a nice place to spend the night. My next destination would be Salinas de Garcia Mendoza, via Challapata and Huari.  And that is where the fun began. 

Unbeknownst to me Bolivia has embarked on a massive road upgrading program.  Challapata to Salinas was supposed to be unpaved, but it was even worse than that.  Desvios (detours) veer me off in the desert in loose sand, the road is torn up by trucks and equipment, the 'dirt' roads are paved with sharp rocks.  Up till now the only time the KTM had been on its side was when the sidestand broke in Vegas.  Between Challapata and Salinas I must have dumped it about 5 times, and I got stuck in sand, which required me to unload the bike, pull it out and put everything back on again. 

Needless to say I was not in a cheery mood when I pulled into Salinas at sundown, having travelled a whole 250 kilometers in about 9 hours. Fortunately there was a nice hotel when I got there, all made out of mud bricks, a whole cabin with two bedrooms and six beds and a bathroom all to myself for 45 Bolivianos (about 7 dollars), continental breakfast included.

The next day I was looking at another 38 kilometers of atrocious road to the salt flats and about 125 km on the flats to Uyuni.  I checked the bike, patched up some damage to the luggage and left about 11 AM.  The road in is on the short list of most horrible roads I have encountered in my Northern Canada trips, mostly first and second gear, 16 to 30 kph.  I took a wrong turn and ended up looking at a huge salt lago (lake), S**T, it's all flooded, now I gotta go back all the way to Challapata!  Fortunately a local Jawa owner pointed me to the right road and about 10 klicks later I was looking at what could have been Slave Lake in February. 

Now my job was to navigate the world's largest salt flats and somehow find Uyuni.  No vehicles, no sign of life.  Sur! were my instructions.  Fortunately I am wearing a watch for the first time in 30 years, as I was losing track of time, days of the week, months, everything.  My watch has a calendar and a compass (old school GPS), so I could keep track of where Sur was, but I did get side tracked a few times following old tire tracks to nowhere.  At least the salt flats were billiard table smooth, allowing me to go any speed I cared to go.  Don't think I set any records though, I was too worried about not being able to find Uyuni to enjoy the ride. 

Bolivians and tourists from hot countries may be impressed with the salt flats, but for this Canadian it was an all too familiar sight he had taken this trip to get away from.

Keeping the 'coast' to my left and heading 'Sur' I eventually came across the tourist SUVs out of Uyuni to where I exited the flats, to another 20 klicks of primitive track to Uyuni.  By now the KTM was encrusted in salt, so job one was find a car wash.  It turned out to be truck wash.

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