Suspended between Heaven and Hell on the salar

The Salar de Uyuni had been on our minds for the past couple of weeks. We were excited to spend a day riding 50 miles west to east across the gigantic salt flat. Aside from the obvious pure beauty, it somehow represented to me a Rubicon, where we would have climbed as high as we would go, left the south of the continent way behind and crossed into new, totally different cultures and stories.

But first we had to get from the border to the edge of the salt.

Soon after leaving the rudimentary, friendly border crossing, we had our first taste of Bolivian life: a herd of 20 or 30 lamas blocking the road ahead, happy to take their time, clearly unfazed by human presence.

Border crossing

Border crossing

The time didn’t slow us down: we could only go at walking pace as the sandy road caused Sophie’s slim tyres to slip into deep divots, making riding impossible.

What could have been a short jaunt of around 70 miles to the salar became a tiring three days of alternating riding and pushing the bikes. The thinness of the air at high altitude and the lack of sleep due to biting cold exacerbated the feeling of exhaustion, so when we finally reached a hostel at the edge of the salar, we were ready to chow down some lama meat before hitting the hay.

Cemetery near the salts

Cemetery near the salts

Pushing past huge cacti

Pushing past huge cacti

Pushing further

Pushing further

The hostel itself was built from salt blocks: huge squares that had been cut from the surrounding landscape. The beds too were sculpted from salt, and the floors were coated in rough crystals. The novelty and ingenuity was a welcome surprise, though the dry nostrils and throat in the morning reminded us that it doesn’t make the most comfortable choice.

After our scrambled eggs and coca mates the next morning, we were ready for the flats. It’s a strange feeling when you make your first pedal stroke on the salt. Everything you’ve taught yourself in the past tells you that riding on what looks exactly like a frozen lake is dumb: you’ll either slip or crack the surface and fall into freezing water. But of course you do neither. The tyres grip tight to the crystals, making slipping impossible. There’s so much friction, in fact, that our ideas of riding 15mph were quickly quashed.

Deep into the white desert and we were pedalling through an ocean, riding on water, far from land or noise, pulling ourselves through space. And through the day nothing changed. After three or four hours on the clean monotony of the flats, it occurred to me: perhaps I was in limbo, a purgatory suspended between Heaven and Hell where there was no pain but no pleasure also; only an endless ride across the icy white under a paper thin baby blue sky.

Evening sun sparkling

Evening sun sparkling

It was late in the evening when we pulled into Colchani, our faces hot and dry from the relentless reflection. We found a room and turned in. I fell asleep immediately, dreaming of fruit salads and explosions in the sky.

Vida! Saúde! Felicidade!

Mike

As ever, if you’ve enjoyed reading these posts, or if you see value and a challenge in this trip, or if you’d simply like to support a wonderful cause, it would be great if you drop a little sum towards my fundraising goal for the Teenage Cancer Trust. Head over to https://www.justgiving.com/Mike-Edmondstone/ to get involved. Thanks :)

2 Comments on Suspended between Heaven and Hell on the salar

  1. Jocelyn Edmondstone
    July 25, 2016 at 5:54 pm

    How do you keep going?

    What does llama meat taste like?

    Reply
    • ElCaminoMike
      July 28, 2016 at 4:10 pm

      Food and mutual encouragement!
      Lama is very tasty.. a little acidic and flavoursome

      Reply

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