Week 73 - Uyuni & The Salt Flats
The road to Potosi was all tar, but fortunately full of lovely curves. It was only a couple of hours to get from Sucre into Potosi and thankfully the place we would be staying was on the Northern side, which we’d also be leaving from in a couple of days. I say thankfully because Potosi is filled with narrow, one-way streets and lots of traffic, so there’s not a lot of opportunity to filter and it’s slow going.
We arrived at the AirBnB where Kirsi had reserved us the last available room. It was great to see her and Jack again plus in Sucre we’d found a Superman (superdog) outfit the perfect size for Jack so we’d got it for him as a present. We couldn’t wait to give it to them. On arriving we realised the parking situation would be a bit more challenging than any of us had realised. It’s quite time consuming to get the panniers on and off, so we were hesitant to do so and the room for the bikes was on a high curb through a single doorway on a slope with a 90 degree turn. With a lot of effort and four of us heaving we managed to get both bikes in, just! They definitely wouldn’t be coming out again until we left!
We headed into the city after a bit of a catch up and found a nice cafe for coffee and cake. The city was quite nice in parts. It wasn’t my favourite but it wasn’t that bad either. We went shopping for some supplies so that I could cook us some dinners. Having a kitchen I was keen to cook some proper stuff so we got all the ingredients to make a decent curry and a spaghetti bolognese. Mmmm, mmmm! The first night would be curry complete with Chapatis! Ooh, and wine! It was a good evening and the next day, Kirsi and I went off on a mission for a few supplies. We wanted WD40, octane booster, a washing up bowl, fuel canisters, some food and drinks. Although it started off slow, we actually managed to find nearly everything we needed at a small market. We were super happy with our finds and just about managed to squeeze onto a small minibus with our stuff to get back to the hostel. It wasn’t the easiest, especially with two 20 litre jerry cans, but we managed with a few odd looks. It was then off to the food market, followed by another yummy dinner and a bit more wine!
The next day it was time to leave, and it took a while to get the bikes out and also put on Kirsi’s roof-top tent which had to be removed to fit in the garage. I have to say though that the outskirts location and price of the place outweighed the parking issues. We headed North West out of Potosi and through some really beautiful winding roads with a stunning view over a huge valley before hitting the straighter, far more boring roads. We ended up in a small town called Challapata and found a hostel that was happy to have Jack called Residencia Marian. It was quite a large place and parking was just opposite. Kirsi’s car had a bit of an issue starting, however after a while it did. Very strange. We got to our rooms and then had a late lunch of pre-cooked chicken with ketchup and mayonnaise! Mmmmm! We went for a little look around the town which was quite quiet and the people were definitely quite shy and it was odd because some of them put their hand over their mouth when they walked past, which we hadn’t come across before. No one was rude or unpleasant though and the people at the hostel were lovely, I just don’t think they were that used to gringo’s.
The next morning we went to get our vehicles out of the parking lot. Everything fired up well however when we finished getting ready Kirsi’s car wouldn’t start again. It seemed like maybe it was the battery so we found a battery shop and headed there once she managed to get the car going again. We also went on the hunt for some oil as it was a little low, although the dip-stick for the Toyota FJ Cruiser is the worst one I had ever seen, verging on completely useless. The lady at the battery shop tested the cells and said that there was one that was a little bit dodgy, but not completely useless so they topped it up and recharged the battery. Kirsi also bought a new battery as we would be going off into the middle of nowhere and next was Argentina with a lot of desolate areas, so it was probably a good plan. After an hour or two getting everything sorted we got on the road in the direction of the Salar. Kirsi’s car was sounding much better. The roads in this area were long, straight and quite boring, the only thing adding any excitement being the dirt devil’s which often were quite dense and span right up into the sky.
We’d decided to go this route in order to see the meteorite crater looking area that was to the north of Uyuni in Jayo Cota. When we got there we pulled off the road and went to have a look. It was actually quite cool and a bloody huge crater! We had a quick lunch of oranges, cereal bars and other snacks stuff before cracking on again. We reached the dusty, small village of Salinas de Garci Mendoza and filled up the vehicles with gas, luckily not at the full Gringo price, but the guy kept the change as a tip, which is common. We then went to check out the Suk’Arani Eco lodge which fortunately had rooms, liked dogs and wasn’t stupidly expensive. It was at the top of the town and in the distance you could see the Tunupa volcano.
Making our way into the plaza we decided it was time for a cold beer and as luck would have it, right on the corner of the plaza was a bottle shop. We then went to a little tienda and the old lady serving had these huge, teddy dog slippers on her feet. We got some snacks, food, drink but no wine…she couldn’t remember the price, however on returning the next morning she could and we were then able to buy some. We sat with our small beers in the main plaza, which was really quiet but then the kids came out. School must have finished. They swarmed around us and two little girls asked for their photo with Kirsi, Jack and I.
Then when we sat in the centre of the plaza another group of young boys came to chat. It was so funny and they were very smily. They messed around, danced, sang, and asked for photos which we gladly took and then they queried about what the thing was around Jack’s neck. It was a poo bag holder. They were so intrigued! The next thing we knew we were surrounded by a tonne of kids, all wanting a poo bag each. Kirsi got one pack out and gave the kids one each and taught them about why and how to use them. If just one of them cleans up after a dog it would be a miracle, it’s not something that’s really done here, but you never know and it’s good to educate. The group of boys finished up with some silly dancing and then disappeared, as did we. We were hungry and the hostel lady had said she’d make us dinner so we were looking forward to it.
The next day was Salar day! We left the hostel, Kirsi’s car still sounding strong, and headed along a dirt track about 25km or so to the salt flats. It was a great ride, and we saw quite a few Llama’s on route with the Tunupa volcano behind.
Then we came over the top of a hill and saw the salt flats in all their glory ahead of us. It was nuts. I didn’t see it to begin with, it looked like a lake and clouds but then my eyes adjusted and it was incredible. We could see islands in the distance and to our delight, other than the small lake on the edge away from the entrance way, the salt looked dry. We headed down to the entrance, through a dusty, deserted looking village and out along the runway type road. It was awesome however we could no longer see the islands in the distance. The curvature of the earth and the distance to them meant that as we came down to the level of the entrance, they had all disappeared below the horizon line. Also, the GPS was deciding not to route so I got my phone cover out and mounted it on the RAM mount with maps.me loaded. I don’t use it a lot to actually navigate however sometimes, like now, it was handy. We all drove onto the flats, trying to avoid the random puddles of water and slushy salt and then it was flat and dry. It was beyond spectacular to drive on. It wasn’t slippy at all and the hexagons were a real thing of beauty. Once we’d driven a little way we stopped to just take in the vastness and beauty. Photos obviously had to be taken and Kelvin had a lick of the salt, which wasn’t to his taste!
We headed to Isla Inkahuasi, the main island where the tourists tend to flock. Fortunately when we got there it was quiet and we also bumped into an American guy also travelling by bike (Kawasaki KLR). We’d met him briefly the night before at the hostel, however this time we had time for a bit more of a chat. We paid the fee to do the walk around the island and use the toilets. We went for the walk and it was quite hard going in bike kit with the sun blaring down and the high altitude. We got to the top and the view was quite cool. Being near the centre of the salt flats you could see for miles in each direction. We rested and just admired the view before heading back down. Jack was loving all the climbing, I think he was having the most fun!
We stopped for a lunch at the restaurant, which turn out to be a rather huge meal, I could have just done with the soup, but we all just about found space and it meant no need for cooking dinner… wine and rum would suffice!
We headed out in the direction of Isla Pescado, another large island, however there was a lot of water around it. We sent Kelvin off as a guinea pig and he decided that the car may struggle and we didn’t want anyone to get bogged down in the middle of nowhere. Just nearby was another much smaller island, Isla Tortuga, and Kelvin went to scout it out. One side was lovely and dry so we followed him in and found a lovely spot on the east side of the island. Sadly it meant losing the sun earlier but it was also a bit more wind protected. There was a small beach type area and you could see where the salt had dried after it had last been super wet. We got out all our stuff and set up camp before discovering the best bit…someone had built a wall on the island right near where the camp was, plus left firewood and charcoal! Get in! The place was serene, and actually the wind died down quite early so it wasn’t bad at all. We all went for a walk around to the west side of the island to watch the sunset, including Jack in his little booties which made such a funny noise when he ran along the salt. He ran in really fast bursts, then stopped to look back and beckon us to hurry up! The booties were a must because the salt was very harsh, and even with thick soles it wore through them quickly and Kirsi had to make some repairs during our stay to keep Jack’s feet healthy.
The sunset was stunning to say the least. The hexagons on the salt were really standing out at that point and just made the view incredible. It’s one of those moments I will never forget, just pure natural beauty. On returning to camp we decided to go and get the fire lighted. We’d already set up the ‘camp bar’ so things were going well! The fire was much needed as once the sun disappeared the temperature dropped sharply. We had a good chat around the fire and Jack was a little on the chilly side so Kirsi wrapped him in blankets and put him on her lap, which made Jack much happier. We all drank a little too much, even me, and to be honest I’ve lost my ability to drink much these days….premature aging or maybe the sloth force in me is getting stronger?! Ha ha. We all enjoyed it anyway, and later we helped Kirsi up into her roof top tent before poring ourselves into bed in one of the quietest surroundings I’ve ever witnessed. It was so, so tranquil!!
The next day we all emerged, and Kirsi was already on the coffee and prepping breakfast. Amazing! This was definitely a perk of having a car…more space for goodies! I have to say it was a real treat. The coffee was brewed and then Kelvin set his cooker as well for round 2…Bacon, banana pancakes and syrup! Oooooh heaven! I was marvelling at the bacon sizzling away on Kirsi's cooker when suddenly it decided to go Kamikaze and fell off onto the salt. We quickly dove in to rescue it, brushed it off and got it cooking again. No way were we wasting the bacon! We all decided, after a lazy, extended breakfast, that we would stay a second night. I looked up how to take photos of the stars and also messaged Michnus to pick his brains. We also tried to do some perspective shots on the salt, which is one of the most popular gimmicks of being on the Salar. We got a few good ones, however we struggled as our props were a little too small, but we did quite well and I even managed to get one of Kirsi reaching up and touching Jack’s nose, which was the best one of the lot I think.
We went for a walk around the island we were on, Isla Tortuga, and then went for a walk to the next small island, which was a lot further away than it appeared. Everything is so vast on the salt flats. We searched for wood on our little island, without great success, but enough for a little fire later. The day actually zoomed by quite quickly however the wind really started to pick up later and little grains of salt were flying everywhere. We had to take down the tarp and the side bits on Kirsi’s roof top tent, plus we put away the table as everything was starting to blow away. The other thing was that the temperature dropped a lot more, I think to about -5 centigrade, so it was definitely chilly. When the wind had a bit of a lull Kelvin attempted to fly the drone and almost lost it…bad plan! It wouldn’t behave because of all of the magnetic interference and the wind further away from our island, however after a small panic he managed to find it quite a way away. Needless to say, the star shots were out the window! Too cold, too windy and too much flying salt.
The next morning all was calm again and we slowly packed up. We headed back to the main island for a decent breakfast only to be informed that they weren’t doing breakfasts at the moment but they would be opening for lunch in an hour ish. We decided to stay and wait. We then bumped into Robin, a guy who ran a tour company out of Uyuni with a fleet of DR650’s. He was super nice and offered to wash our bikes for a fee at his workshop. It was much better than taking it to a place with the super powerful hoses as normally they didn’t take much care and actually missed the really important bits. He also offered for us to use his workshop if needed. After lunch we headed in the direction of the Salar exit, a few km north of Uyuni. Something in the lunch hadn’t agreed with me and I ended up having to make an emergency stop on the Salar. Fortunately Kirsi had a shovel on her! It wasn’t my best moment and I have to say I’m glad this kind of moment has been a rarity on our trip! Red face.
We reached the huge Dakar monument near the exit and stopped for the obligatory photos as well as one next to all of the colourful flags. I didn’t actually realise the building next to it was a salt hotel so I didn’t go in, but later Kirsi showed me photos and I realised. Doh! Not sure what I was doing! We found the exit and meandered our way off the Salar through the maze of puddles and slush.
We rode into Uyuni and Kirsi stopped to get her car washed. We went to find the hostel we wanted to try, Hostel Liliana, and luckily they had space for us all and Jack. Then we took our bikes to Robin to be washed. He was actually English and a really lovely guy who’d lived in Bolivia for the past 11 years I think. He much preferred the slow pace of life, working to live and the low cost of living. I so don’t blame him. The next morning, after an awesome breakfast at the hostel, we took the bikes back to use the workshop and do a little bit of TLC. My valves were still sounding ok-ish but I reset them anyway, as next up was the Lagunas route. We did a few bits of essential maintenance and then Kirsi came to say hi. Robin’s group had cancelled that day due to rider injury, but they’d already arranged lunch, so we were treated to an awesome lunch at the workshop, complete with wine! It was really tasty and it was so nice for Robin to share it with us. His group for the next day also cancelled, which was a huge bummer as the additional guide was already on route, so he invited us for a day out on the bikes in the surrounding mountains. Sadly it was bikes only, so Kirsi wasn’t invited along, but it was an opportunity not to be missed.
The next day we met Robin and his trainee guide Windy at the workshop and got on the road. It was a quick ride along the main road out of Uyuni travelling at about 115kph, and we were used to doing about 85 with fully loaded bikes. Luckily they were now completely unloaded.
Then we pulled off the main road onto a small dirt track where we stopped. Robin gave me some advice about riding in sand and told me there was a sandy stretch up ahead. Basically arse back and blip the throttle! Robin and Sandy went off ahead but then waited at all the key points or turns, which worked well. I didn’t do the best in the sand but I didn’t fall off and I think it was my most successful attempt ever at not putting my feet down!
It was a great day and he showed us a fabulous red lake, a rainbow mountain, a 300 year old church, an old mining town and we even had a dip in a thermal bath in the middle of nowhere. A local lady came to use the nearby bath to do her washing and she was delighted when we gave her some Oreo’s…the smile said it all. I don’t think they have much around here. The views were stunning, and the wildlife we saw was beautiful including many birds and also lots of lively Vicuñas. The day flew by and before we knew it we were back in Uyuni.
One of the best things about this dusty town was the pizzas. Minuteman pizza in particular was exceptional plus they had hot cider with fresh ginger. Mmmmm! Sadly after the first visit we got another guy at the door and he would not allow dogs in even though Jack was impeccable. We then found another place called Pizzeria Doña Isabella, which also had great tasting pizzas and quite a bit cheaper, plus they loved dogs!
The final mission of our Uyuni stay was supply hunting. We needed lots of fuel, water and food! Most of the food, wine and rum we bought in advance but the fuel and water we got on the day of our departure and was a bit of a waiting game delaying our Lagunas route start, but worth it for the money saved! Find out about our Lagunas route adventures in the next blog!