As the sun sets behind the Andes, silhouetting a perfectly shaped volcano, Andy and I crack open a couple of cans of Pacena—the Bolivian beer from La Paz—and contemplate the scenery. The nearly full and brilliant silver moon casts an impressive amount of light which reflects upon the vast expansiveness of the largest salt flat in the world. At this moment, it’s also the most massive moonlight reflector in the world. The water boils on my little MSR stove. We prepare prefab freeze dried dinners by Mountain High. With our tents set up, dinner brewing and beers in hand, I am on the Salar—the Salar de Uyuni. Finally. To steal a face, or phrase, what a long strange trip its been.
Watching the sunset from our campsite on the Salt. Soon the stars revealed their glory and the chill forced us inside our tents.
The unique shapes of salt reflect the setting sun on the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia.
A soft-spoken, mild-mannered and 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, Andy was planning a South American motorcycle odyssey. I was a few months into my around the world expedition. We both never thought just over a year later we would crack beers and relish the experience of riding our motorcycles and camping together on the Salar de Uyuni.
Yet coincidences, changes to plans, and itineraries, often transform impossibilities into possibilities. Throw some serendipity into the mix, and here we are.
Andy’s been tracking me through my blog for the last year. We’d exchanged emails over the past month. Just a couple weeks we thought we’d miss each. Then the unfortunate accident on the railroad tracks outside Santa Cruz, which I would hardly call a serendipitous event, changed my schedule and made the possibility of meeting somewhere in Bolivia a reality.
Andy left his home in Texas in June earlier this year. He made the trek through Mexico, Central America and now was well on his way to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. His goal? To make it to the bottom of the world, Tierra del Fuego, by Christmas.
We met these Dutch bikers on our way out to the Salt. They plan to offer tours in the Netherlands for adventure motorcyclists to be.
The gas station in Colchani was closed. Amazingly we could buy gas on the Salar. Andy fills his KLR for our two-day journey on the salt.
I reflect further on how we got here.
Check this out, there are even more strangeness and coincidence. On Thanksgiving evening while still in the tiny outpost of Uyuni, I hear a loud and familiar voice yelling from down the plaza. It’s Jeremiah. The fellow Colorado motorcyclist who was with me many months ago when I crashed and crushed my leg on the road to this place. He was with me a few weeks ago when I crashed again on those railroad tracks. And here he is again. This time he’s traveling with Asian companion. Ming is from Corvallis, Oregon, he’s taking a hiatus from his job at a tech company there.
They returned from a 4-day adventure out on the Salar. Jeremiah, with his red face glowing so much it could win a ripest cherry apple contest. It looks terrible, blistered from intense exposure to high altitude sun and that massive reflector known as the Salar. It’s he who tells me Andy is here in Uyuni. So we agree to get together for Thanksgiving dinner at Minuteman Pizza in the Tonito Hotel.
Over dinner, the four of us review maps, share plans and make decisions. Ming and Jeremiah choose to journey south toward San Pedro de Atacama in Chile while Andy and I will head west and spend a few days riding and camping on the Salar.
So that’s how we got here.
The temperature drops quickly, so we add more layers as my stove cooks. The Mountain House rice and chicken might not win any culinary prize, but for this brisk night under the moonlight it was perfect. For dessert? A couple of chocolate chip cookies and another beer.
Though it took years of dreaming, a broken leg and over ten miles riding over a painful jeep trodden, wash-boarded track to reach the salt, I did not understand how I’d feel when I got to this massive chunk of salt.
But within minutes of rolling my tires on the salt flat, I finally got it. Nothing could prepare me for the otherworldly feeling I experience now. At one moment, I felt as if I was riding over a vast field covered in snow. The next, I wondered if I was cruising over a snow-frosted icy lake.
It is freakish. While I have plenty of traction, it seems I shouldn’t.
Islands in the infinite distance seem to float in the air. Above, stratus clouds stretch across an azure sky. Then in a moment, a 4×4 zooms past me. I kept my throttle rolled on. Faster and faster, the needle on my speedometer pushing higher and higher. It IS a dream.
Yet it’s real. Andy tears ahead of me. Soon his motorcycle is a tiny spec. It disappears into the sky. There is no horizon.
For the next two days, we visit remote and deserted islands. On the north end of the lake, we explore a tiny village that sits below an ominous and foreboding volcano. The colors of its exposed crater glow in the sun, bronze, silver, red and blue. It casts a dark shadow on the village which shares its name with the volcano—Tahua.
We ride off the salt and onto the rocky and dirt track. We pass llamas, and ride along an extraordinary stone wall, thousands of rocks perfectly placed. It looks solid. In the village’s middle, we park our bikes on the central plaza. Many people are milling about, but no one seems to notice us, nobody looks. It’s weird. I wonder if while riding on the salt we fell upon a spell by an extra-terrestrial that made us invisible to these townspeople
We find a small store (tienda) where we restock our beer supply. Finally someone notices. An elderly woman, wielding a long yellow umbrella stops, looks at me and then aims her umbrella, pointing at my motorcycle, Doc.
“Linda moto,” she breaks the silence announcing that she thinks my bike is pretty.
“Donde vas?” she asks where I am going.
I tell her I’m exploring the world. Different countries, cultures, geography, and landscapes.
She shakes her head. She seems set on convincing me to go no further than Bolivia.
In her village of fewer than 200 people she says, “we have many pretty girls who like gringos.”
Perhaps I shouldn’t look further and stay here in Tahua. She continues preaching while waving her umbrella around, occasionally interrupting our conversation to greet passersby, or to scold the children who’ve gathered when they get too close to the motorcycles. She won’t let me take her photo, but her image, attitude, and friendliness will stay with me.
Photo by Andy Tiegs.
What a strange sensation riding the world’s largest salt flat. (Tiegs photos)
Later that night, after trying to make sense of the sweeping stretch of stars blanketing the sky, the wind kicks in, with it and the cutting cold forces us into our respective tents.
“Good night Andy,” I dip into a meditative trance as the wind flutters the walls and roof of my tent, making it sing and dance.
The Salar de Uyuni encompasses over 7,000 amazing square miles. It was once under the salt water of Bolivia’s prehistoric Lago Minchín. All that 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 just days earlier.
Leaving the tiny town of Tahua on the North end of the Salar. Tahua volcano hangs motionless as a backdrop.
The next morning the rustling of Andy packing up his tent wakes to a stunning sunrise that paints the surrounding mountains and volcanoes in a deep orange and umber. I slept well despite the biting chill and the constant whir of whipping winds that have nothing on this massive salt flat sitting at an elevation of over 13,000 feet.
It would take months to explore the thousands of miles that encompasses the Salar de Uyuni, so today we focus our ride on the many islands that dot the expansive flat. On one island, Isla Pescadores, I meet a camera crew from the Sucre-based television station, ATB. The gentlemen who looked after and stored my motorcycle while I recovered from my broken leg owns this station. The station is managed by Dhery who helped me service and prepare the bike for the second phase— post-broken-leg—part of my adventure. So, at the suggestion of the camera crew, I address the camera, sending greetings to the people of Sucre and a note of thanks and hello to my friends Jorge and Dhery. Both of these guys will be surprised, and pleased to get a message from where they knew was my ultimate Bolivia destination: the Salar de Uyuni.
The horizonless and vastness of the Salar makes for optical illusions and trick photography. Perspectives are as they are – no photoshop.