BIG adventures on

the worlds BIGGEST salt flat

We expected the route to the salt flats to be boring. Flat, dry. But the mountains in the distance, some small villages and crossing llamas make it a pleasant trip. When we arrive in the first village on our route, around 8:00 in the morning, life is already in full swing there. Or actually still in full swing. People are having a barbecue in front of the church and throwing beer cans and bottles around. Some drunken men wander across the street and we meet other (less drunken) men in colorful carnivalesque clothing. It turns out: there is a party going on that started the previous day and will end this morning around 9:00 with a ‘grande spectacular’! We sit on a wall and prepare breakfast while we are amazed at the different states of drunkenness we see passing by while some children in immaculate school uniforms move in the opposite direction. Suddenly we hear a cacophony of pan flutes. You can recognise a melody of about four bars that repeats and repeats itself. A group of colourfully dressed men comes dribbling around the corner. They dribble through the village at a walking pace, whistling. A drunk with a referee whistle seems to have joined the group and whistles sharply and monotonously along with the bubs. A second pan flute corps appears in another corner of the square. They meet in a corner of the square and circle around each other while blowing their pan flutes. There is some dancing… we wonder if this same ceremony might have looked and sounded better the day before. Yet it is clear that we are witnessing a special local tradition. When after a while they leave little by little (I hope towards their beds) we also get on again. One flutist happily poses for a photo. From a shopkeeper on the edge of the village we hear that it is a local traditional festival that is a combination of a celebration from ancient culture and the Christianity brought by the colonists. A festival that is only celebrated in this village.

The next morning we ride onto the salt flats. This is what we had hoped for when we cycled into Bolivia! What an impressive sight it is. An area of almost 11,000 m2. Salt as far as the eye can see. More than a quarter of the surface of the Netherlands. The plain was created from a prehistoric lake that evaporated due to climate change, leaving behind a crust of several meters of salt. It houses 70% of the world’s lithium supply and it may only be a matter of time before this white world is destroyed by the greed for lithium. After all, we ‘need’ that to provide all our wireless devices with batteries. But for now… it’s still there! In the southern summer the plain is covered with rainwater, in the dry winters it becomes passable. The salt at the edge is bumpy but we can follow the tracks left by cars. We are soon overtaken by a motorcycle with two riders, who are also the only people we will see up close these days.

We have faithfully fulfilled the tradition of bicycle travellers on the Salar de Uyuni! We quickly put on the socks and shoes and the rest because the salt is as cold as ice. When we get back on the bike we see some ‘wakes’ in the salt. They are filled with water up to about 20cm below the edge. It’s hard to see how deep they are. In some you can see beautiful salt crystals on the walls. After the trip I read on the internet that the space under these small openings is often meters wide and deep. They are caused, among other things, by the exchange of heat and cold and the ingress of salt by fresh (rain) water. The local community calls them ‘ojos del diablo’: eyes of the devil. Especially when there is a layer of water on the Salar, they can be quite treacherous when you drive across the plain.

The salt is not of the same nature or quality everywhere on the plain. While cycling we sometimes follow a car track and sometimes we drive straight across the untouched salt flat. In some parts it is full of hard bumps. Cycling over that is not an option. In other places it is almost smooth and you only hear the crunch of the salt under your wheels as if it were snow. In other places it divides itself into areas of about one meter in diameter with soft raised edges. We pitched our tent in such a place the second afternoon. We quickly wash ourselves while the sun is still shining brightly and because we stopped early we play a few games of Claim (card game) in the afternoon sun. Our sunburn-deprived skin hidden beneath long clothes and buffs.

When it gets cold and dark, Paul crawls into the tent and I go on my evening ‘walk’; an attempt to warm up my feet before crawling into the sleeping bag by walking, stomping, dribbling and dancing around. This is certainly not a punishment this evening because I am treated to beautiful colours in the sky and the appearance of the first stars. When I finally crawl into my sleeping bag, with lukewarm feet, we listen to a podcast together. Then it is Paul’s turn to go out into the cold for a while. Because a photo of the beautiful starry sky with the Milky Way and our tent underneath is a must. Our own 1000-star hotel!

2 thoughts on “BIG adventures on the worlds BIGGEST salt flat”

  1. Mooi verhaal en foto’s weer! De link naar de NL versie van dit blog klopt niet, want die gaat over Chili, Torres del Paine. Leek me goed dat even te melden.

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