Latest Update (as at 30/1/11):

Location: London. Back.

Total Distance Cycled: 10,325km
Days Biking: 140
Longest Day: 174km (2/12/10)

Monday 12 July 2010

Salacious Stories

We knew we were in trouble when the punning began.

We biked towards the Uyuni salt flats and the white emptiness started to stretch out before us. It played with our minds. Almost immediately we were joking about our impending assault? Would it be plain saline? Were we salivating at the prospect? How would we cope with this simply collosal challenge? And on and tragically on.
We were, luckily, hugely entertaining to ourselves. And this really was lucky because the next nine days were going to bring us almost total isolation from our outside worlds. We were heading into the heart of the remote south west corner of Bolivia, to 450 kilometres of slow roads, stretches of head spinning emptiness and a phone reception-free zone of mammoth proportions. We would emerge smelly and dust covered to Spanish sporting triumphs, new tenants and thrillingly bulging inboxes.

It was another epic adventure. Nine days of yarns and physical yardsticks, of luxury and lowliness, of thrills and spills.

When we arrived in Oruro we tore into a family size pizza (before ordering more) and stared gormlessly at the unspeakable awfulness of the major Bolivian soap opera. It was unbelievable. People were hurling themselves about in misery, laughing like hyenas minutes later, shouting, hugging, divorcing, dying. It was high drama indeed and they managed to get through so much in the space of half an hour. It made me think of the episodic nature of our recent journey and how much we´ve covered.

So, switch on your Bolivian TV, turn the volume up and make sure the colour is bright and put your supper on your lap because here is the sodium chloride of the last nine days.

Episode 1. Alka - Seltzer

After pain came pleasure. After exhaustion came rest. After agony came relief. After the extreme physical challenge of getting to Uyuni came an easy ride of 30kms to the edge of the Salar and to a long promised reward. After a hotel with no heating and with `hot water´ that led you a merry dance in an ice cold bathroom, came the salt hotel, the Luna Salada, with proper grown up facilities that all functioned.

We decided to celebrate the first anniversary of our meeting (!) with a two night mini break. In a salt hotel. I say again...A SALT HOTEL. That ladies and gentlemen, should you be in any doubt, is a hotel that is made of salt. Made of salt, with salt walls, salt floors and salt halls. There are salt tables, salt chairs, salt shelving and to our utter delight a huge salt bed with a huge salt bed head. It was so great. Obviously Phil was unable to resist the temptation to spend the first hour in the place licking every available item and announcing `Yup, that´s made of salt´ in a way that only a boy would, but it was so unbelievable that verification did seem slightly necessary.

And.. there were heaters, God love them. And fleece sheets on the bed (odd sounding but rather wonderful), a bed piled high with feather filled duvet type items that made it all bouncy and bouyant instead of the usual rather ineffectual hefty blankets that didn´t keep the heat in and crushed your lungs with the weight of their uselessness.

It was a little too much really. I nearly wept for joy.

And we were completely alone there for most of our stay. This meant that the ten or so employees dedicated themselves to us in a way that bordered on amusing. As we strolled the empty corridors choosing which hammock to sit in, which vista of the salar to take in or whether we should eat again they would pop up and attend to us in order to ensure our complete comfort. It was brilliant.

It was also amazingly peaceful. Whether it was the heavy salt bricks or the position on an ancient coral island known as `resting island´ (a stopping point on an ancient trade trudge in a time before Bolivia), no sound seemed to penetrate at all. And every view looked out over the eerie edge of the Salar. In some lights it looked like a tranquil sea, in others like a polar ice cap. The curve of the earth was clearly visible and when the sun dipped at the end of the day the colours of the spectrum would spread across the world fading slowly to black only to creep back hours later bathing us in our room in the soft lights of morning until back burst the sun to bake the salt for another day.

It was like staying on the edge of heaven and it was the perfect tonic.

Episode 2. Salt Shaker
If you are a waiter and you work in a salt hotel you are going to find yourself with some difficulties. The floor of a salt hotel is made of what essentially amounts to salt gravel. This makes elegant walking nigh-on an impossibility. You will be resigned to a heavy footed trudge.

Serapio (not in fact that rapio) our quirky waiter performed this trudge to delirious comic effect. There was more than a little of the `Manuel´about him, as he made journey after journey through the swinging kitchen door to check every small detail with chef. He would always escape our clutches when we still had a list of questions to ask so that he would have to repeat his epic crunching quest, time and time again. The first evening´s discussion about whether we´d have vegetables or salad left us laughing for hours.

If you are a waiter and you work in a salt hotel keep a pen and paper on you and write it all down!

Episode 3. Salty Dog Stories

Myths and legends abound in odd parts of the world. The emptiness invites it.

When Serapio suggested we head off on our second morning to explore the edges of the Salar and visit a small church we could see in the far distance, little did we know it would turn into a quest worthy of Butch, Sundance, Indy and all the other Raiders of those Lost Arks and Temples of Doom.

Firstly, distance here is a bit deceptive. The church looked quite close but was in fact well over 5 kilometres away. However, the walk began chirpily enough. We saw up close the crazy dead coral morass that we were sleeping on, a lump that had once been under a huge sea and still retained its underwater shapes in sharp-edged fossilised form. It jutted out of a huge muddy plain, littered with water holes, and occupied by beautifully galloping vicuñas and wiggling eared llamas. We love these creatures. The elegant vicuñas look over at you, allow you to get so close and then run off in a perfect line, one cantering keenly after another, their slim legs seeming to move first both front then both back and their long necks making them seem like rather more glam giraffes. The llamas are much more used to humans and look at you with town gossip-like curiosity, huge woolly bodies making them look like long legged sheep and with lips gurning in a manner that makes you imagine that at any moment they´re going to turn to one another and say, `I don´t know about you Vera but I reckon those two are a little bit weird´.

Secondly, despite the groups of camelids hanging out, you can quickly feel very alone out here. Particularly when you come across a weird looking desserted village, all crumbling adobe houses, that looks almost invisible because it matches the hillside and so sort of creeps up on you. And then, even more chillingly you poke your head inside one habitation and hanging out within are six skeletons, in various states of sitting up, grinning ghoulishly at you. It was a proper `Romancing the Stone´moment. I expected one of them to loom up and roll a diamond our way or attack us with a machine gun to keep us from touching the hidden trap door. Particularly macabre was the beast slash creature thing (dog, lion, cereberus - I didn´t look over long) hanging above the door. Really did they have to? And what joker put the cigarette in the main spook´s mouth? And why oh why did the one with her back to us have to have such long, still unnecessarily attached, plaits. Pleeese.

Thirdly, things aren´t always what they seem. We made it to the church and spent ages wondering over its disused salt block state, peering attentively and respectfully at the little graves of small children who died in the early nineteen hundreds and wondering at great length why on earth anyone would build such a thing on the edge of the salt flats with no visible community to serve... only to discover from a gleeful owner of the salt hotel on our return that it had been there for precisely three months having been built by Universal as a set for their new Butch and Sundance film in which one of them survives and presumable hangs out in an odd salt church on the edge of a salt flat. Brilliant.

Episode 4. Any cyclist worth their salt...

...would love the salt flats. We reluctantly left our salt hotel haven and headed out onto them. But what a treat lay ahead.

It was utterly mindblowing to head out over this crazy paving whiteness, all crispy under our wheels, that looked like it should be snow but was dry and not even slightly slippy. It ran under our tyres like tarmac becoming firmer, whiter, weirder as we headed further onto it. The sun was blazing down, the reflection was blinding. Those mining the salt at the Salar´s edge were wearing balaclavas and sunglasses to protect themselves.

It was very easy to follow the tracks left by the hundreds of 4x4´s that ply the route and take tourists on a salt flat circuit, and those that passed us cheered and waved and hung lenses out of the windows to take photos of the loonies biking it. But we felt like the lucky ones. We were cycling along at one moment and a hundred flamingos flew right above us in perfect 'V' formation, their pink wings lit up from underneath. When we pulled up we were alone in a bright white wonderland. We sat down to have our lunch in probably the surrealest lunch spot ever. It was so counter-intuitive not to locate ourselves by any object at all. Usually one seeks out a tree or a rock or some other marker. We were in the middle of the largest white picnic rug ever.

We took the requisite silly photos of ourselves by oversized objects and we wondered, and we wondered, and we wondered.

It was like biking on the moon. It was like biking on mars. It was out of this world.

Episode 5. Lot´s wife

Lot´s wife was warned. She was told. She knew. DO NOT LOOK BACK.

We spent a whole day drinking in the salt flat playground before breezing in 75 kilometres later to the Isla Incahuasi. This was another dead coral island like the one our salt hotel had been located on, but found right in the middle of the Salar. We had heard that there was somewhere that cyclists could stay and so we planned to try and stay the night there or camp if necessary.

When we got there it was rather overun by 4x4 daytrippers who sweetly swarmed round us and asked all the usual questions. Phil went off to find those in charge and try and negotiate our shelter which turned out brilliantly to be a room with four walls, lots of school like chairs, a pile of mattresses (bonus) and a massive window overlooking the Salar. An `emergency´refugio...which we could have even though there wasn´t strcitly and emergency. Not yet anyway.

All was good. We set about getting settled. Phil took my bike up to the shelter, I followed on.

And then the error. I suddenly worried that we´d left his bike behind and I decided to look back.
Do not look back.

I have no idea how I ended up on the ground, my ankle throbbing, my hands throbbing more. It was one of those peculiar moments when pain registers itself slowly and you know you don´t want to look so you just kind of make odd sounds and flapping movements to distract yourself.

My advice should you fall over on a coral island is don´t let your hands slide down the coral. Ow, ow, ow, ow, ow.

It was pretty exciting though. Enzo, one of the island´s employees came running. After an inspection, he beavered off for salt water and cotton wool and tweezers and all sorts of other horrid instruments of wound cleaning horror. Oooh I couldn´t look.. and clearly neither could he since he kept his sunglasses on throughout the whole experience!

Then we got out our high powered medical kit and having emptied it all over the floor found the artificial stitchy type things and 40 mins of drama later two clean hands were bound up in bits of stuff and we could catch our breath. And the bike I´d been trying to protect sat there innocently and unmolested the whole time. Hey ho.

What was obvious was that I wasn´t going to be cycling the next day since I could put no pressure on my hands. Plan Bs started taking shape.

Episode 6. Seasoned travellers one.

Whilst I was still sitting nursing my wounds, into the refugio in came Petr carrying his bike. From the Czech Republic, Petr was 35,000 kms into his journey from NYC to Rio and was also going to crash at the island overnight. It is a mecca for cyclists who know by word of mouth that the special room exists.

Don Alfredo and his wife, the first people to settle on the island 15 years ago, have kept several books of comments from those visiting on two wheels over their years there. Like Petr, there were so many who had gone so much farther, longer, tougher, madder than us sharing their stories and often their philosophies in these books. It was fascinating to leaf through. Holding forth on paper doesn´t suit everyone and it seems that the two wheeled fraternity can become a bit smug about the purity of their pursuit, but many of the comments were charming, funny and fascinating. The tales ranged from inspiring to alarming, there were names we recognised, most we didn´t. It was an extraordinary collection. We were chuffed to be part of their biking fraternity and availing ourselves of their kind hospitality.

And so began twenty four hours of socialising. We had a candlelit dinner with Petr and Enzo that night (no electricity) and chatted about routes and tales and the whys and wherefores and then hung out on the island for the whole of the next day.

It is a very special place in the middle of the Salar and it was wonderfully fortunate that my fall gave us the prompt to stay. We climbed to the top of the island and got a 360 degree view, we walked all the way round it, we went back up at the end of the day and watched the sun go down. The coral is covered in ludicrously large cacti and has long tailed vizcacha rabbits kangeroo-hopping all over it. It is popular with tourists and is a standard stop off on the 4x4 tours - at one time in the middle of the day there were thirty plus vehicles parked on one side. But at night they left us to it, to wander out onto the Salar and look at the extraordinary stars completely surrounding us.

On our second night a 4x4 appeared late in the day and parked up looking like it was planning on staying. Tucking into our dinner, we were joined by `Overlanders´ Des and Antionette from Roscommon in Ireland and Emily their Brit friend. What a jolly evening ensued. As the temperature plummetted we battled it with beer and banter and had a grand old time.

Episode 7. Curative properties

Twenty four hours on the island had restored me and left my hands in a state where, bound up like a boxers, they could be gently cajoled into steering my bike. We parted company from all our new buddies and set out again across the salt. We headed straight towards a the Volcan Tunapa that some lovely guys from Colorado had climbed the day before and which we would circumnavigate and see for the next week.

For all the difficulties that cycling in this landscape holds, it is utterly jaw dropping, extraordinary stuff. The blinding white dried lake is dotted with islands that loom up as suddenly as the earth´s curve allows. Huge mountains around it are like the edges of a massive saucer, some snow capped whilst others are the creamed rust, ochre, beige and grey of dead fire mounds. I remember a visit to the Geological Museum in London when I was younger where they showed the earth forming, all molten and shifting and lifting and burning. It isn´t hard to envisage here. And so, when one is struggling with the bike, you stop for a moment and look up and your mind is stretched and your heart is so soared that you can forget the sorenesses and the struggles of our brief sojourn.

Those who live in this beautiful bleakness permanently face a tough challenge. The village of Jirira, where we arrived next, was home to five families and clung to the edge of this nothingness with brutal basicness in the main. A plaza, church and bandstand that looked as if they had just been ravaged for parts by a conquering army - and as though their next act was going to be to collapse to the ground, blowing with litter in the late afternoon sun, as the world´s tiniest lady brought her sheep back in from the steep mountain sides with their daringly positioned dry stone walls.

And yet there was yet another haven to be found in the form of a small Posada, that has ambitions for its magnificent view, where we found a room to provide some safety from the sub zero night temperatures.

A room and more Europeans! Ainsley and Valerie had decided that the sunny climes of a Maldives type honeymoon wasn´t for them and were on a trip round Bolivia. Keen cyclists there was lots of geek chat (from the boys) and yet more cold defying behaviour management with beer! A gentle day that was yet more restorative.

Episode 8. Take it with a pinch of salt.

Anyone in Bolivia who tells you ANYTHING about a road (about its condition, about its length, about its topography) should be listened to with a massive dose of scepticism.

`Two hours by bike to Salinas de Garcia Mendoza´ claimed a pretty whizzened old chap which, whilst it never seemed that likely, did raise our hopes a bit for a shortish day.

Cut to 2 minutes into the journey and we were already off the bikes and pushing. This state of affairs lasted for most of those two hours and was followed by delicious combinations of sand pits and snakingly lost tracks.

We passed `Atlantis´ on this journey. Many experts have claimed that the hills hovering oddly in a mirage on the horizon are that lost city. Another one to take with a pinch of salt I think!

When we made it to Salinas we were a tiny bit `over´ Bolivian roads. We were in truth, as we hauled our bike bags into another freezing room and then discovered that there was no bread to be had in town at all, a tiny bit `over` the travelling struggles of Bolivia in general, with several days of hard roads yet ahead. The low moments on the trip are sometimes difficult to enjoy since we´re here by choice and it is amazing, but hunger and cold can warp your view.
There is always something wonderful round the corner though.

Episode 9. Smelling Salts.

We were keen to head on from Salinas the following day. We set off with 100km hopes in our hearts, with bits of tarmac promised. They never materialised, although the rocks and sand pits did.
We accepted that we might make it through 48 kms. However, after 35 we came across the most extraordinary sight. A massive meteorite crater. A perfect circle bent into the earth´s crust by some enormity falling from the sky. It was amazing.

We stood in awe.
Then we needed to head on, but a couple of hundred yards up the road we came across a tiny village on its edge. It had an eerie tidiness compared to most rubbish strewn places we had encountered. We decided to pull in and see if there might be somewhere to stay.

What a treat awaited us. The key village folk emerged, and after some deliberating and checking that we had camping equipment they led us to a very smart looking new building on the crater edge. It will soon be their new snack place for passing tourists. They were happy to let us sleep in the basic structure `if that would suit´.

If that would suit? Four walls, a dry floor and two huge windows looking straight over the crater. We were ecstatic. Truly. Just the lift we needed.

Episode 10. Fleur de Sel.

The crater stay was the Waitrose of our accommodations over the last few days. The care these charming villagers had put into their communal project was inspiring. They had made neat pathways for enjoying their crater, picnic areas, a view point and they have real dreams and plans for it.

We sat watching the sun going down, surrounded by the collective llamas and the water birds, sitting in this cosmic phenomenon.
In the morning we saw the sun come up after a cosy night inside. All the village luminaries came to meet us. We talked development and Evo and all things Bolivia and, filled with warm human spirit, we went on our way to the last day of truly awful roads.

Episode 11. Saltire.

Everywhere in South West Bolivia we see painted on the walls of buildings the blue and white of Evo Morales' MAS party. His win in the December 2005 presidential elections has changed Bolivia. Not loved by the richer area of Santa Cruz, he is seemingly the idol of the rural poor. Our village hosts told us that he is a lot less corrupt than the previous incumbents of his role who mined both literally and metaphorically the unbelievably rich resources of this land locked nation, surrounded by stronger coastal countries with access to the sea. He is doing things, getting roads paved, electricity supplied. Our hosts have had electricity for two years now.

There is plenty to do to improve the level of infrastructure. It will be fascinating to see what has happened here in a few years time, as the young leave the subsistence life for the towns. We have passed lots of ghost towns. Eerie spots with buildings still standing but bushes growing down the streets and the occasional die hard toughing it out alone.
I hope that the blue and white spells real hope.

Episode 12. Rubbing salt into the wounds.

The road that last day without tarmac was as utterly awful as you can imagine. I fell off into a pit of dust, we both pushed regularly. And then, just when we thought it could not be any more awful, a special brand of shaky surface emerged which shook us within an inch of our lives. In the end we just could not bike it any longer, we were shredded, dusty, hurting. We started to walk. The sun was boiling us. We were just at our wits end about how it could get any harder. Bolivia was laughing at us!

Episode 13. Salvation.

And then suddenly the afternoon began to close in. The light became golden. And the road became manageable. Actually bikable for the first time since our first day in Bolivia. We felt we could smell the tarmac coming.

We biked into Quillacas as the light was going and we sensed that we had broken the back of it. A rudimentary lodging and quick meal and we slept like the dead to wake in the morning to the prospect of definitely getting onto a smooth road surface before the end of the day. We were keen to get going.

Episode 14. Pass the salt.
But we needed to be fuelled. Our hosts could give us nothing. Then Phil remembered that he had seen a little cafe down the road. A short negotitation later and we were promised a Bolivian fry up.
Now, a Bolivian fry up. It is magic. Rice, chips, fried egg, salad and llama steak graced our plate. It was great. Who knew that no breakfast is complete without llama?
In fact it was a day of triumphs on the food front. Phil managed to find bread in the village. This should not, one imagines, be as hard as all that but bread in these rural areas is something akin to contraband. His mission had a real stealth element. His sixteen block hunt ended after endless twists and turns with a conversation with one old man who told him to look for the house with the truck outside and then see if the bucket in front of the door was upturned or the right way up. The right way up and you were in. And it was. And he was. Breeeeeead.
The promised road arrived and sooner than expected we were in Huari, the brewing town of Bolivia. Here the sweet smell of hops was supplemented by smoothies and cake. Civilisation was coming.

We powered on past our originally planned destination, the promise of warmth driving us.

We finished the day in the thermal bath town of Pazña. What a delight. Another tidy town with....SHOPS! We met near one a wonderful 90 year old man, Alejandro Gutierrez, who greeted us in English. Interested, welcoming and utterly charming he is living out his days caring for his blind wife of 91. He was off to prepare potatoes for her, and because of his responsibilities he was sorry that he could not join us on our ride tomorrow.

We were skipping about with good feeling. We stocked up in the shops, we tucked into our dinner and we played silly cards in a state of high excitement to fight off the cold. We even had a warmish shower. It was all becoming too good.

Episode 15. Seasoned travellers - Two.
The next day the biking was eeeeasy. We had both forgotten how good tarmac feels. We were on target for an early arrival into the city that would see us rest for a few days and wash absolutely every item of clothing we possess.
We were pushing on to make 60 kms before lunch when round the bend came a young man on a bike with tell tale kit. Ed is from Islington! He has cycled from Canada to Bolivia alone and is going to finish soon in Buenos Aires. We ate together, we chatted. It was like being in the pub back home only with much much less glam outfits and an extraordinary amount of sun. We swapped advice, we traded more tales. It is so much fun when we meet others doing something similar.

Ed....Suerte. Thanks for a lovely lift.

Episode 16. Salt Lake City.
Oruro popped up just after we said good bye to Ed. It is a mountainside city on the edge of a salt lake, invented for mining. It seemed to shimmer with glamour from far away, it was the destination we had talked of for days.
It was a long time finally coming. The last 20 km seemed endless, but at last we were in its smoggy embrace - mopeds, trucks, humans and llamas vying for road space. We wanted a hotel with heating!! In the end we found one with heaters which seemed good enough and we fell into it with gusto. We tore off our clothes (socks so stiff with mud they stood up on their own) for a very unromantic reason: if we didn´t take them off people simply would not talk to us!
We have washed and washed and washed again. We have sent emails, made calls, gone to the bank and slept without needing our sleeping bags under the blankets as well. We have marvelled at the chaotic, hilly urban scene. We have sat still and had coffee. We have watched international TV. Oruro is the only place in the world where I have seen a 24 hour funeral parlour in operation. I´m really not sure at all what that means.

Episode 17. Condiments.
And so our salt quest is over. We are thrilled to have done it. It was properly tough, but when I close my eyes my brain is fizzing with images. It was a really full ten days.
If you´ve read to the end. Thank you for sticking with it. Our condiments to you.



  1. Sorry! The Formattting went wierd. You´ll have to imagine lovely gaps and paragraphs! x

  2. Im missing the salt flats already - but this weekend Valerie and I will be cycling in the GREEN, slightly DAMP Chilterns. We will have a beer for you at the pub. Cheers, Ainsley

  3. Gosh I have missed reading your adventures! Our pathetic visit to Mexico just seems so bland (probably in need of salt!) in comparison. Though I am sure that Kirsty will tell you about a HUGE scorpion she found - and avoided!
    Keep safe and keep writing!

  4. Hi Guys

    Loving loving loving the photos.

    Living the Dream.

    All our best Tracy, Andrew and Henry
    x x x

  5. Wow guys, it is so amazing to read about your journeys. Do you ever think back to your starting point in Ushuaia? We tell people of your journey all the time. Best of luck! ~Mike & Suzanne

  6. Hey guys! We are the french crazy and reaaallly slow walking travelers!!

    Just wanted to say...Pity you did not choose :"Pedalling South!". Would have been easier with the wind ahahha :-)

    Abrazos and take care,

    Our blog again:

    Wish you all the best and see you somewhere in Europe

    Thomas and Jeanne