19 October, 2012

Day 105, 322km: Salar de Uyuni

There are some weeks on the trip where I know I'm going to visit some really cool places. Wyoming, Utah, Nevada (USA) was one of these weeks. And now Macchu Pichu, Salar de Uyuni into Atacama.
Amazing places, one shortly after the other. These kind of weeks are definitely the ones I'm looking forward to.

So waking up in Potosi, I was very excited at the idea of getting to the Salar de Uyuni. In the hostel's garage I met two more Argentinians who were having trouble with a bike (KLR) that wouldn't start. Gave them a hand thanks to my La Paz-sourced toolkit. I was happy to put it to use so quickly!

Potosi downtown
Once I couldn't help further (and we pushed their bike to the next door's garage) I went into downtown to refill on critical supplies: cash and gas. Gas I always find a way to refill. Cash on the other hand is definitely on a downhill curve, haha!

Leaving Potosi to Uyuni
A few kilometers after leaving the town, I saw a motorcycle in front of me. Considering the place we were in, there was only one possibility, another rider headed to the Salar de Uyuni. I caught up to him and we stopped to say hello.

Two bikes on the way to the Salar!
 So I met Julian, a 31yo Argentinian on his way from Buenos Aires to Macchu Pichu and back. We would spent the next two days riding together. It was great finding another young motorcycle rider!

Also great having someone to help with the pictures :-)
 It was a short ride from Potosi to the Salar, across beautiful landscapes that somewhat reminded me of Utah. Dry, vast and colorful. We took our time, each glad to have a riding buddy to talk and take pictures with. Plus Julian spoke English which was a great relief for me.

The road condition was excellent, so was the weather
 We wandered a bit off-road, never far from the road, just trying to get to the spot with the coolest view.

Going down a dry riverbed
 After two hours of lazy driving across these beautiful valleys, the town of Uyuni was in sight.

The town of Uyuni, the Salar 30km behind it
 There wasn't much in the town itself. We did a quick fuel stop, wondered whether we should have a beer before or after seeing the Salar and headed directly towards it as we were both excited to see it.

Panorama of the view going down to Uyuni
 At this point my GPS told me to get lost, and there were simply no more roads no trails indicated. Julian had a map, without much information either. We knew there was a 30km dirt road from Uyuni to the Salar itself and asked people in the town for directions.

Well, they didn't pick the easiest route for us
 There were two or three dirt roads leaving the town north towards the salar and we happened to pick the wrong one. The dirt road turned into a trail, then turned into nothing. Soon enough both our bikes were stuck in the sand.

Julian was in for a bigger challenge with his street tires
Pulling out the 300kg monsters out of the sand at 4000m of elevation was a fun moment. Once the bike were free and we caught our breath back, we went back on our tracks to try and get to a better dirt road.
Luckily there was one. In pretty bad condition but ride-able as long as we kept the speed low.

The Salar de Uyuni naturally starts with salt mining
This place is simply enormous. As the dirt road ended, the vastness of the Salar beyond us caught us both by surprise. We stopped in front of it, hesitant. I felt like the first time I entered the deep end of a swimming pool. First wheel goes in. We're good. Second wheel goes in. Still good. The surface is solid. The world hasn't exploded.

Let's go!
 And then, wow. It was simply amazing. Completely surreal. We started driving, without any direction.

Getting the best shot was obviously high in the to-do list
I was absolutely amazing being there, driving on my friend Bertha. Thinking about all these thousands of kilometers we drove together to make it here. It all came back. All these emotions, people, places, experiences of the past three months. I was laughing, cheering and crying in the same time, totally submerged by the intensity of it.

Hero of the journey: Bertha
Assistant: Guillaume
On the outer edges of the salar, there were a couple "tracks" on the salt, routes used often by 4x4 carrying tourists to the interesting spots on the salar. I found myself driving on one of these at some point. Realizing that I was almost instinctively following other people's tracks, like cattle, I took another direction and headed into the vast emptiness, towards a track of my own. That was surprisingly scary, then absolutely exhilarating. Those who know me won't be surprised if I say I'm a rather reserved, shy person. Well, driving absolutely randomly on the Salar de Uyuni, I was shouting under my helmet. Cheering with joy between uncontrollable bursts of laughter.

It was an incredible experience. Freedom has a name, that's Uyuni.

I wish everyone could experience this once in their life. I guess something similar would be sailing solo, alone in the middle of the ocean and able to take whatever direction you wish.

Salt as far as the eye can see
360 degrees view of Bertha on the Salar
 As we drove around, still totally amazed by the salar itself and the thrill of driving on it, the sun started coming lower on the horizon and it was time to find a place to stay.

An hotel made of salt
We saw a couple 4x4 and what looked like a building on the horizon and headed there, hoping to get some information on where we could stay for the night. The place was closed and we were told to drive 60km towards some mountain on the horizon, where there would be "plenty of hotels".

Tunupa volcano, Salar de Uyuni
 Well, the 60km turned out to be closer to a hundred but I driving on the salar was so much fun that I wouldn't have minded 200km.

The bikes however didn't really like the sand. It got everywhere.
As we neared the volcano, the "island" as people here rightly call rock formations in the middle of the salar, the salt became wetter and wetter. The surface started to become crusty and soon enough both our bikes were stuck in some kind of brine. We managed to pull out mine's relatively easily but Julian's bike was in much deeper.

The other side of the Salar de Uyuni!
Luckily we were near the island and people staying at a hostel there came in to help. Using my luggage straps as a makeshift rope, we managed to pull the bike out, only after having turned the whole area around it into a black, muddy, sticky, smelly mess pictured above. We were knee deep in this to push the bike out onto firmer ground. Fun times!

Oh so that was the road we were supposed to drive on
 Being dumb tourists, that's only after we got stuck in the brine that we realized there was a road just 20 meters away built especially to avoid getting stuck. Ahem. The more you know.

Finally parked
 We cleaned the bikes as best we could, shared dinner with the participants of a tour who were using the island's hostel (and I'm glad they were there otherwise I'm not sure we would have been given any diner, thanks guys!) then headed outside to have a look at the night sky.

Of course the camera doesn't do it justice
And it was absolutely amazing. We could make out the milky way perfectly. There were more stars that I have ever seen in the sky. Breathtaking. Looking up, the vastness of the sky and innumerable stars gave me vertigo. And yet, I was feeling so close, as if I could grasp them.

All in all an absolutely amazing day, bordering mystical.
We went off to bed early, tired after this long day but happy and serene.

Cheers everyone,

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