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Uyuni, Bolivia
September 13, 2004

Uyuni and the Salar de Uyuni
The road to Uyuni
Sand and a beautiful sky combine for spectacular scenery not far from Potosi
I知 well aware that the 130 miles to Uyuni is gravel, so I知 not surprised when I pay my five boliviano toll at the police checkpoint leaving Potosi, and head out on a rough dirt and gravel road. Western Bolivia is arid mountains and high desert, so the topography through which I知 about to travel won稚 be a surprise either.

What is a surprise, though, is starting at about twenty miles into the ride, the amount of sand on this road. Now I知 not talking about sand dunes here, although they do appear on the desert floor from time to time, but the many places where a few inches of sand cover the roadway.

Here痴 the deal with riding in sand on a motorcycle.I hate it. Maybe I hate it because I知 not good at it. Maybe I知 not good at it because I知 sure that motorcycles are meant not to be ridden in it; notwithstanding the fact that they annually complete the Paris-Dakar race, much of it ridden across the Sahara Desert.

The Beemer on its side from my carelessness.  No harm, no foul.Anyway, sand, particularly deep sand, drags at your front wheel until you eventually lose your ability to steer and the bike finally falls on its side as the speed decreases. So riding in it successfully is counter-intuitive. You must stand on the pegs to lower the center of gravity, squeeze the gas tank with your knees, use a fair amount of body English, gear down to keep the engine RPMs up, and give the bike lots of throttle. That keeps the front wheel in a straight line, and so keeps the bike from falling over.

Now I know all this intellectually, but unfortunately, every instinct in your body tells you to sit down and slow down so it won稚 hurt so badly when you inevitably drop the bike on the ground.

Luckily much of this sand is in short hops, twenty to a few hundred feet at a time with gravel or dirt at each end. Particularly with a fully loaded bike this size I知 very tentative, but gradually gather the nerve to stand up and power through it at 20 30mph. The front wheel wobbles a hundred times, and it takes all my resolve to increase the speed. The sand continues off and on for the better part of one hundred miles.

Minerals leaching from nearby hills bring the desert alive with colorBolivia Ruta 701 has splendid scenery. This area contains many mineral deposits (and so a lot of mining as well, although it痴 not visible from the road,) and the brown hills and desert floor have been turned everything from chocolate brown, to red, green, and white from their presence. An occasional oasis dots the landscape and brings with it poplar and willow trees as green as an Irish spring; the color even more noticeable against the brown background.

About halfway I stop to remove the rain jacket I added an hour earlier after a few minutes of sprinkles from some ominous clouds. Not wanting to dismount, I turn to my right to tuck the jacket under a bungee cord behind me, and feel the bike lean to the left. I haven稚 engaged the kickstand, and as the heavy twin leans further left, my foot slips and down it goes. I step off, the Beemer prone.

Now there痴 no damage to the bike, although the same can稚 be said of my ego, but try as I might I can稚 right it. I give it three shots with proper form (rear against the seat, lifting with both legs) but it won稚 budge; not even a little bit. A handful of trucks and buses have passed by during the previous three hours, so I decide to wait for a few minutes rather than unload. At any rate, the full weight of the bike is on the left hard bag, and it痴 full of tools, so that weight won稚 be removed anyway.

Water hazard on the road to Uyuni.  I had just stopped when this truck approached.  I found my way around the side.Fifteen minutes elapses without a vehicle in sight, then as I look back down the road, over a slight rise walks a peasant driving four donkeys. As he approaches it痴 obvious that he is Juan Hidalgo (Folgers) without the casting session or pre-photo shoot makeup. Honest, who could make this up? Even with the two of us lifting, I still need to unload about fifty pounds to right the bike.

We literally don稚 share a word of vocabulary between us, as it痴 quickly obvious that he doesn稚 speak Spanish. (Note: particularly in the rural areas, many of the indigenous people don稚 speak Spanish. Rather, they speak either Quechua or Aymara.) So as a token of my appreciation I motion to ask if needs some of my extra water. He declines but indicates that he痴 hungry. We split a roll of cookies and he痴 on his way. I don稚 believe he even understands my thanks of 杜uchas gracias.

By just after 5pm I arrive at Uyuni, taking six hours to complete the 130 miles. The tail rack excepted, the bike and I are in one piece.

Uyuni and the Salar

Salt harvesting on the Salar de UyuniAlmost thirty years ago when I was engaged in public accounting, we had a few jobs in the rural areas of Alaska; an area collectively known as 鍍he Bush. These were places with names like Dutch Harbor, Kodiak and King Salmon. The common theme is that they were very small, often Alaska Native villages, and were at the back of beyond. As accountants we had a saying about those places, and it went like this: 鍍his is not the end of the earth, but you can see it from here. Well that aptly describes Uyuni, Bolivia.

We often say that a town has a 吐rontier feel. Well Uyuni has the feel, but it is literally a frontier town as well; not that far north of the Bolivian borders with Argentina and Chile, and on the edge of the Salar de Uyuni, a vast salt plain. Although there are high hills is the distance, Uyuni is as flat as a proverbial pancake. Not one square foot of the town is higher than another. As it sits right in the desert, dust is everywhere. Walk for a few minutes and it痴 in your clothes and your hair. There痴 a hard scrabble feeling to Uyuni; the feeling you get when everyone is surviving right at the edge of human endurance. I believe that痴 true here, and on the Altiplano in general.

A few blocks of downtown are paved, but they give way to potholes and dirt well before the town runs out. The buildings, most of adobe, or brick covered with stucco, are rarely painted. Quite frankly, the little paint there is just doesn稚 quite fit it. There are way too many dogs on the loose, seeming to collectively belong to the village, rather than to any one individual. Virtually every vehicle is 4-wheel drive. What else could survive the harsh roads? The airport has neither a terminal building nor a paved runway. It is also incredibly cold because of the high altitude, and most public places aren稚 heated. I have a plug-in heater in my room, but I opt for my sleeping bag every night.

Cactus above the salt of the Salar, on Inca House IslandBut in spite of it all, there are lots of tourists in Uyuni because of the Salar. In fact, that痴 why I知 here. Without going into all the details, and thus plagiarizing Lonely Planet, the Salar de Uyuni is a dry lakebed at something around 120km (seventy-five miles) in diameter, at an elevation of 3,650m (12,000,) and filled with salt to a depth of six to eight meters (eighteen to twenty-four feet.) There is a ton of salt here in fact, ten billion tons is the official estimate.

I decide not to get lost on the Salar on my bike, although many try and a few succeed, as no roads are marked. While I carry a compass, I致e previously mentioned that I don稚 carry a GPS, and unless you have local knowledge of the surrounding peaks and islands (as I mentioned, this is an old lakebed, and there are many islands,) it痴 simply impossible to find your way. I opt for a one-day tour, which misses some of the more spectacular areas of lake colors the result of mineral deposits, visited in the four-day tours, but strangely there is no middle ground.

The salt is pure white, and the contrast with the brilliant blue sky is phenomenal. It is also blinding. Dark glasses are mandatory to eliminate snow-blindness; as is sun block to prevent severe burning. Among other stops we visit Inca House Island, some fifty kilometers (30 miles) from Uyuni, and climb the 350m (1,000) peak. The climb is some work at this altitude. But at the top, the view of the Salar alternately looks like snow, clouds or sand as well as salt, and it continues virtually as far as the eye can see.

After two days rest, on to Argentina.