59 - Extra X - Crossing the Salar de Uyuni (Wet Season)

I guess I am not the first cyclist crossing the Salar de Uyuni during the rainy season, but the fact that I met many other cyclists that, following the advice of local people, did not dare to do it, plus the lack of related references on the internet, lead me to publish this specific post.
I am not a supercyclist nor a daredevil, but yes, I consider myself as more sceptical and stubborn than other people. I always prefer seeing things myself than believing what others say. And at this point of our trips we cyclists already know that nothing is as dangerous and difficult as local people put it.
Crossing the Salar when it is covered by water is hard, due to the difficulty of pedalling through water and the impossibility of resting. It can become monotonous and, definitely, if you have any mechanical problems, you are screwed. Besides, your bicycle is not going to like it at all: almost every part of her is going to be rusty and hubs and derailleurs will stop working if you do not clean them properly after the crossing. But you are her master and she will do what you command her to do, although probably complaining.

But the satisfaction of completing the cruise, the sensation of being the only (pluricellular) life form within that inmensity, and the absolute beauty of the place, make it one of the most superbe experiences in any bicycle trip through Southamerica.
Best thing would be avoiding the altiplano in the rainy season (december-march -or may, depending on the El Niño/La Niña phenomenon-). The dirt roads become a muddy hell and it rains heavily every damn day.
When I did the crossing, in mid february, the rainy season had been on for some months. Slowly the huge basin of the Salar, with no possibility of drainage but evaporation, fills with water. The days previous to my cruise the intensity of the precipitations increased, with amazingly heavy falls of rain and hail that caused, among other disasters, flooding, road blocks and a a three day blackout affecting the southern half of the bolivian altiplano. The austral summer of 2012 was the rainiest of the last 50 years.
So what I found was the Salar in the worst possible conditions.
If your departure point is the town of Uyuni, what anyone would think it's best is asking the tourist agency workers about the conditions in the Salar, since their drivers do the 4x4 routes daily. That's what I did. During my stay in Uyuni I asked dozens of people, in the hope of getting answers and tips, but all I got was negative answers, assuring that crossing the Salar was not only impossible but also deadly dangerous.
But the people in the agencies lie. And they know they lie. I still do not know why but they lie:
  • they lie when they say it's not possible
  • they lie when they say it's dangerous
  • they lie when they say that water is deeper in the center of the Salar
  • they lie when they say you can sink in the "ojos del Salar"
  • they lie when they say that the big circles can swallow you like quicksand
  • they lie when they say there are no car or bus tracks to guide you
  • and if they say you are crazy, they might be lying too
So here is the truth, all the truth and nothing but the truth.

  • flip-flops or sandals
  • bicycle in the best conditions possible. Do not attempt the crossing with that tire which is not really flat but you have to pump up every two mornings
  • some way of making your bicycle stand straight up when you stop, since there are no dry places
  • sun cream
  • orientation in the Salar taking the surrounding mountains as reference is nearly impossible in this season because of the clouds. Besides, because of being in such a flat surface, distances are very difficult to calculate by sight. GPS or compass are the best option. About the latter, previous experience in compass navigation is highly recommended.
  • waterproof panniers
  • food and water for at least two days
  • all batteries charged

To download the GPS track on wikiloc

  • Leave your bicycle outside everynight to have it washed by rain
  • Start pedalling early in order to avoid the afternoon electrical storms
  • When completing the cruise, clean, dry and put lube and grease to every moving part of your dear bicycle. If you have no gasoline to put rust away, dip at least the chain and the cogs in coca-cola. It does work.
  • In this season, with the salt covered by water, no sun glasses are needed

  • Your first contact with the Salar, near Colchani, can be a bit discouraging. Water is knee-deep and the bottom is sandy, making it very difficult to pedal through. This situation is common in all edges of the Salar, everytime you enter or exit it. Fortunately, almost every village on the shores has a road specially built to skip the worst part.
  • After two or three km the water is much shallower and the salt in the bottom becomes harder.
  • In some parts of the shore, the salt crust breaks and cuts like glass. Watch out when walking.
  • After 7 km is the Hotel de Sal (quite an ugly hotel made of salt bricks). Around it there are three dry places where you can pitch your tent. Only one of them is sheltered from the wind, although it is the lowest one, barely a few centimeters above the water level. In none of them is it possible to pitch the spikes, so you are forced to tie the tent to heavy objects you may find around.
  • Food in the Hotel is only served to the people sleeping inside. But they sell beer and candy.
  • The staff in the Hotel are very kind. They invited me to sleep inside and gave me dinner and breakfast for free.
  • From the Hotel de Sal on, the consistency of the bottom is perfect, as hard as a paved road. And the depth of the water decreases to ankle deep, being in some parts only toe deep.
  • In usual rainy season conditions the mornings are quiet and beautiful, but shortly after noon big and violent storms with lightning start sweeping the Salar. But any metheorological combinations you can imagine can occur.
  • Slight variations in water depth imply big differences in pedalling effort.
  • Dark salt is tougher to pedal, while whiter is best.
  • The big circles are hard to pedal, but they do not swallow you (of course not).
  • The water is cold in the morning, but nice and warm after noon.
  • There are plenty of car and bus tracks. It is more comfortable and mind relaxing following one of them instead of constantly checking the gps. Making sure they go in the right direction is the only problem.
  • These tracks are one or more centimeters deeper than their surroundings.
  • Half way to the island, the "ojos del Salar" ("eyes of the Salar") start to show up. They are very deep, but in most cases smaller than your foot. The rims are hard as concrete. So, absolutely no possibility of sinking.
  • The hotel in the island is closed during this season. It is guarded by a not very nice and not very talkative person. It is provided with a solar panel (broken when I was there) and drinking water.
  • There is a stone floor by one of the buildings. Do not camp there if it rains because water accumulates in it.
  • Between km 15 and km 25 there is a very bad part in which the polygons drawn by the salt are much higher than the junctions. Pedalling through that is extremely hard, similar to riding a cobblestone road with half of the stones missing or a 10 km road with continous speed humps. It caused a cramped shoulder and the breaking of three spokes (both previously weakened by other causes).
  • In Tahua there are no places to eat, only one shop and three very expensive luxury hotels (more than 60 € a night). But talk to the major and she will let you sleep in the Alcaldía for 25 bv (2,5 €). No shower.
  • From Tahua there are two dirt roads towards Salinas de Garci-González, with one or two daily buses to Oruro. One road heading west is good and almost flat (turn right at the crossroads 4 km after Kakena). The other road heading north from Tahua is pretty bad, with steep uphills but very beautiful, crossing tiny and charming villages and with superb views over the Tunupa volcano.

From Tahua I spent some days in Oruro, seeing the Carnaval. Some unexpected issues made me stay there for 10 days. In the meanwhile the weather changed and when I arrived to the Salar there had been a 3-5 day (depending on who I asked) period of no rain at all and strong insolation. The water layer had contracted and the shores had turned into a salty dough very difficult to cross, even by foot. Besides that, the bottom of the whole Salar was covered with salt flakes, probably drifted from the shores by the late strong winds. Tough ride.

  • The northern shore of the Salar has many entrances. As I told before, there is always some kind of road to avoid the worse part. But they do not always skip it completely. According to locals in some entrances the water is deeper. Ask them.
  • In Kakena there is a small shop, but no places to eat or sleep.
  • 4 km west of Kakena there is a big building under construction (future salt processing plant) perfect for sleeping. It seems that it is going to be under construction for a looooong time.
  • 3 km west of this building (turn left at the crossroads) there is a very nice and talkative family. Water, conversation and info.
  • There is an entrance to the Salar just a few meters away from their house, but it is supposed to be a deep one, only used by the salt trucks.
  • 3 km to the west of the nice family there is the Cueva Chiquini. It is worth a visit. Ultra thin (almost like paper) limestone formations.
  • Right in front of the Cueva there is an entrance to the Salar. The next one is quite far.
  • The best way to enter the Salar is heading south, perpendicular to the shore, looking for good ground, and then turn west, even if this implies doing a big curve or an L-shaped track. Otherwise, you will be riding the sandy bottom for many kilometers.
  • There is a very bad part with the extruded salt polygons, same as between the Isla and Tahua.
  • The more you aproach Llica, the shallower is the water.
  • The last few kilometers are bad because of the soft bottom.
  • From the shore to Llica there are 10 easy kilometers.
  • Llica is quite a big village, with many shops, restaurants (do not expect anything else than pollo con arroz) and cheap places to sleep.
  • From Llica one road heads west and south to Cancosa, the first village in Chile. This is an excellent option if you want to skip the fine for a more than 90 day stay in Bolivia. Another road heads north from Llica to the Salar de Coipasa and a main border with Chile.
  • There are only 10 permanent inhabitants and 10 carabineros in Cancosa. But no shops, no places to sleep,no nothing. The carabineros are quite nice and might invite you for lunch. Their chief officer has done some bicycle trips in the past and is nice and talkative.
  • From Cancosa there is a road to Colchane with a 5200 m col. To the southwest a quite good 250 km dirt road with some steep uphills goes down to zero m level, in Iquique. The upper parts are beautiful and totally deserted. The lower parts cross a sandy desert through a paved road with frequent afternoon frontwinds.

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