How to cycle across the Salar de Uyuni

Based on my experience in 2005

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The reason that many cyclists come to Bolivia is to ride the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt lake. This isn’t as difficult as others might have you believe but it does require some planning and reasonable experience to make it safe. It is particularly important to be able to fix any mechanical problems you might experience as you will ride some very minimally-travelled areas. Help may very well not arrive and so it is sensible to ride with others.

There are a number of potential routes depending on where you are intending to get to but the most logical would seem to be:

  • Uyuni to San Pedro de Atacama
  • Quillacas to Uyuni

I rode the second route, choosing to head for northern Argentina rather than Chile. You do miss out on the additional sights of the Laguna Verde and so on but there is plenty to make up for it.

The first thing to note is that the Salar is not always dry. From around January, it is covered in a shallow lake of brine. Whilst this makes for extraordinary reflections, it would play havoc with a bike and I would really not recommend trying to ride through it! The ubiquitous car tours still run from Uyuni in the wet season so you could experience it this way (albeit with hoi polloi).

The route

Riding south from La Paz to Oruro is paved, flat and easy. This altiplano landscape, 4000 m up was once covered by giant lakes, remnants of which form Lake Titicaca and the salt lakes.

Oruro has a reputation for robberies although I escaped unscathed; take care. South from Oruro takes you past the road to Sucre and on to Chalapata; it is after this that things get really tricky from a navigation point of view.

For some reason known only to them, Bolivian town-namers (if there is such a thing) decided to call the four towns around one of the road junctions: Huari, Santiago de Huari, Quillacas and Sancturio de Quillacas. To make matters worse, our maps had them muddled and the locals just dropped the first part of the name. For instance, those in Santiago de Huari insisted that they lived in Huari.

Isla Incahuasi

Waking early, I had Isla Incahuasi to myself for an unforgettable hour.

How to do it

  • Ignore the map once you get to Santiago de Huari – it lies. In fact they all lie.
  • Take the main road south from Santiago de Huari. Ignore the promising looking right fork just out of town. Continue on the main dirt track as far as Santuario de Quillacas, and turn right towards Quillacas (see how it’s becoming confusing?).
  • You can get water and supplies at Quillacas, but you may have to visit several shops to get enough.
  • Continue on the road you entered Quillacas on, taking the left fork just outside town. This will eventually take you to Salinas de Mendoza. You’ll pass some huge meteor craters – you won’t miss them but they are marked in the wrong place on the map. You can stay the night at the unsurprisingly spartan Hostal Salinas in Salinas.
  • The road towards the volcano is the correct one, take the left hand fork about a mile out of town. The road starts off quite good, but degenerates into sandy misery after a while.
  • Carry on past the abandoned village onto the lowish pass to the east of the volcano. At the village at the bottom of the hill you may be able to buy stuff. Maybe not – depends if the (reasonably up-market) place is open. You can now see the Salar, head due south to get to the Isla Incahuasi, where there is a cafe, restaurant and dorm room that can be used. You don’t need a GPS, although it is reassuring and will tell you how far you have to go. The tyre tracks lead you to the right place so have faith!
  • There is someone on Isla Incahuasi (also called Isla Pescadore) year round and you will be able to get food and water. From Incahuasi you can travel east on the obvious track which will take you back to the road to Uyuni.
  • Additional points: Look for the little tracks at the side of the road. These are often better to cycle on than the road itself. Follow the Bolivians… We took four days from Oruro to Salinas – camping once before Huari, at Santuario de Quillacas, and some way past Quillacas. It could be done in three at a push but the roads are really bad, and you will be slower than normal.
  • The salar itself can be remarkably bumpy, windy, hot or cold. Don’t expect an easy ride. I would definitely recommend staying on the island for a night (it is beautiful) and then camping out on the salt. It is almost impossible to get pegs into the salt and it reached -5˚C inside my tent, but it was well worth it. There is nowhere else like this on earth.

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