As the sunset behind the Andes with a perfectly shaped volcano strutting its amazing silhouette, Andy and I cracked a couple cans of Pacena – the Bolivian beer from La Paz — and contemplated the scenery. A sliver of a moon cast an impressive amount of light only to be reflected by the vast expansiveness of the largest salt flat — and moonlight reflector — in the world. The water began to boil on my little MSR stove as we prepared prefab dinners by Mountain High. With our tents set up, dinner brewing and beers in hand, I was finally on the Salar. To steal a face — or phrase — what a long strange trip its been.
A soft-spoken, mild mannered and very practical motorcyclist in his mid-forties with a striking resemblance to a young David Gilmour, I met Andy a year ago at the Horizons Unlimited motorcycle traveler get together in Creel, Mexico. Riding a 2000 Kawasaki KLR and at the time Andy was thinking and planning a South American motorcycle odyssey, yet we’d never thought that just over a year later we would crack beers and relish the experience of camping on the Salar de Uyuni. But coincidences and changing plans and itineraries make even somewhat impossible situations a reality. Andy had been tracking my blog for the last year. We’d exchanged emails on a few occasions. An email exchange just a couple weeks before coupled with my unfortunate accident made the possibility of meeting somewhere in Bolivia. Andy left his home in Texas sometime in June earlier this year. He made the trek trough Mexico, Central America and was well on his way to Ushuaia with a goal of getting to the bottom of the world by Christmas.
But the trip gets stranger. As I unloaded my gear from my jeep tour on Thanksgiving evening I hear a loud and familiar voice yelling from down the plaza. It’s Jeremiah. And he’s got an Asian-looking companion in tow– Ming from Corvallis, Oregon. They just returned from a 4-day jaunt out on the Salar. Jeremiah his red face competing for the ripest cherry apple contest blistered from intense exposure to high altitude sun and the massive reflector known as the Salar. He tells me Andy is in town. We agree to get together for Thanksgiving dinner at Minuteman Pizza in my Tonito Hotel. (Check out the upcoming PodCast interviews with Jeremiah, Ming and Andy).
Over dinner we review maps, share plans and make decisions. Ming and Jeremiah decide to journey through the lands I’d spent trekking in the jeep, while Andy and I will spend a few days and camp on the Salar.
The temperature rapidly dropped and layers of clothing were added. The hot Mountain High meals were surprisingly delicious. Chocolate-chip cookies and another beer made desert, while we relived our experiences of the day.
I had no idea and no expectation when it came to the Salar. But after riding the 10 miles of horribly jeep trodden wash-boarded track to the town of Cholcani which provided the entrance onto the salt flat, I finally got it. Even riding the white expanse in a jeep didn’t prepare me for the unearthly experience I was living now. At one moment I swore i was riding a large snow covered field and then an snow-frosted ice lake. It was freakish. While I had plenty of traction, it seemed like I shouldn’t. Islands in the vast distance seem to float in the air, while stratus clouds stretched across an azure sky. An occasional jeep would pass by while I kept the throttle rolled and the speedo cranking. It was a dream. Yet it was real. Andy wailed ahead of me and soon his motorcycle became a tiny spec disappearing into the sky. There was no horizon.
For the next two days we visited the remote and deserted islands. Then on the north end of the lake a large ominous volcano with an exposed crater colored bronze, silver, red and blue casts its shadow on the tiny village of which shares its name with the volcano – Tahua. We ride the rocky and dirt track past llamas, and incredibly built and placed stone walls to the central plaza. We park our bikes and quickly seem invisible to the townspeople who slowly walk by sneaking glances at the strange gringos and their beastly machines. We get directed to a small store (tienda) where we grab beers for the evening and a couple cold beverages which we downed as we watched the town walk by. At one point an elderly woman walks up to me wielding a long yellow umbrella and points it at Doc.
“Linda moto,” she breaks the silence saying she thinks my bike is pretty. “Donde va?”
I explain that we’re traveling the entire continent because we want to get to know different countries, cultures, geography and landscapes. She seems rather set on keeping me in Bolivia. Her town of less than 200 people she says has many pretty girls — who like gringos. Perhaps I shouldn’t look further and stay in Tahua. She continues ranting while waving her umbrella around, occasional interrupting our conversation to greet passersby or to direct the behavior of children that had surrounded our motorcycles. Disappointed I couldn’t convince her to let me take her photo, but her image, attitude and friendliness will likely never leave me.
By 9:30 and after trying to make sense of the sweeping stretch of stars blanketing the sky above, the cutting cold and occasional breach of wind forces us into our tents.
The Salar de Uyuni encompasses more than 7,000 amazing square miles and was once under the salt water of Bolivia’s prehistoric Lago Minchín. What remains of the lake today are the colossal salt flats of the Salar de Uyuni and its tiny sibling the Salar de Coipasa – just south of Uyuni where I had crossed in a jeep just days earlier.
Awakening the next morning the sunrise painted the surrounding mountains and volcanoes a raw orange and umber. The rustling of Andy packing up his tent awoke me to this pleasant scene and the realization that I slept well despite the biting chill contributed by whipping winds across and the nearly 13,000 feet of elevation outside my tent.
We could never cover the thousands of miles that the Salar de Uyuni comprises but that morning we focused our ride on the many islands that dot the expansive flat of salt until finally making another stop on the Isla Pescadores where ironically I met a camera crew from the Sucre television station, ATB, owned by Jorge Morato and managed by Dhery the incredible Bolivians who stored and looked after Doc for my nine month recuperation in the states. So in front of the camera Andy and I offered our greetings to the people of Sucre and I sent a personal message of thanks to my friends Jorge and Dhery – whom I’m sure will be pleased and surprised that I was greeting them from my ultimate Bolivian destination – the Salar de Uyuni.