The air up here

We have been in Bolivia for just over 2 weeks and have not slept at anything less than 3500m above sea level. Neither of us is designed for altitude life! The headaches and nausea are at bay, but the perpetual listlessness and shortness of breath is all pervasive. On arrival at Lake Titicaca, Bolivian side, I was barely able to carry our big bag up the stairs to our hotel room without stopping and panting like a marathon runner. Our energy levels are super low and the most comfortable thing to do is actually to ride…..it’s the easiest thing to do!

As we were sitting on the bike preparing to brave the 3 degree celsius ( there was ice on the bike saddle from the night before) start from Oruro , the hotel manager stuck his head out and asked where we were going. “Sucre” we proudly told him……whereupon he frowned and indicated that our planned route was ‘ripio con piedra y mal camino’…..this is bad Spanish paraphrasing for BAD road. Now when a Bolivian tells you that the road is bad…..believe them! It so happened that a guardian angle was looking down on us as we re-planned a route to Potosi, bypassing Sucre. A good friend of ours took the road we had planned and ended up drowning his steed at a river crossing necessitating a vehicular rescue!

The best advice for altitude ailments is get the hell down! We managed to get stuck in Potosi (4060m above sea level) with bad colds for 4 nights and couldn’t move! We eventually managed an escape only to head to Uyuni, the jump off point for trips onto the world’s largest and highest Salt Plains – the Salar de Uyuni.

Riding on the white Salar de Uyuni (salt plains).

This amazing piece of mother nature is 3600m above sea level and spans 9000 square kilometres. It is a giant, vast expanse of perfectly flat salt plain. It’s actually a lake with the upper crust completely solidified into a crust of salt able to bear the weight of a vehicle! There are a few small scattered islands on the plains, the most famous of which is the Isla de Incahausi. You can walk the length and breadth of the island in under an hour. What is striking about the island though is the prolific number, of all things, cacti!!

Gigantic cacti…. notice how big Andy is compared to the cactus

These remarkably well adapted species are apparently over 900years old! The largest are over 9m high and they cover the island!! One is able to stop off at the base of the island, pay a fee to the local and wonder in amongst these ancient species.

As a biker it is always comforting to know that you are following some sort of track or piste……on the salar it’s different. We plugged in the GPS co-ordinates ( compliments of Gilles, our wonderful French BMW friend ) and we go…..the plains are perfectly flat and you can send it! We cruised over the salt at over a 100km/hr and hardly felt the surface! It’s truly spooky riding across these plains with NOTHING in sight and no indication of where you are.

View on the Salar de Uyuni

The Isla is about 70k’s from the edge of the flats and by the time we were half way, we were totally disoriented…..endless whiteness. I think the pics and short video clip will give you some idea of what we were seeing. What they don’t show is the temperature – it was minus 1.5degrees out in the middle!!

Our luxurious salt hotel…..the walls, headboard and floor were all made of salt

After a whole day on the flats we returned to our Salt Hotel to thaw…..so we splashed a bit and spent 2 nights in the infamous Hotel Luna Salada, an exclusive hotel on the edge of the flats ( ironically only R800 for a double room with all the fancy hotel finishes!). It’s claim to fame is its spectacular and unique outlook over the flats and the fact that it’s made solely from salt bricks 🙂

Sunset over the Salar de Uyuni

Adios to the Salar and a desperate anticipation for warmer climes as we take a south-easterly dirt road 250km to Tupiza, 100km from the Argentine border. Our day started off at 0 degrees, 3600m and ended at a balmy 22deg and 2800m! We are both breathing again and slightly warmer 🙂

Getting a good clean

En route across the last stretch of the Bolivian alti-plano I was feeling sorry for the bike – she was caked in salt from the Salar…..so in the middle of nowhere we came across a small mining village where the main attraction was a car wash! One happy BMW as I jet blasted every last grain of salt off her!

It’s been another drastic landscape transformation from the bleak, dry and desolate alti-plano to Tupiza which is a small village tucked into a warm valley at the end of the plano. We went on a very affordable day’s horseback ride through the valley and were spell-bound by the beautiful and mysterious rock formations that constitute this part of southern Bolivia – I think the pics tell the story better 🙂

Horse riding between the rock formations in Tupiza

It’s been a relatively brief visit to Bolivia, but filled with weird and wonderful sights and a test of our physical endurance and susceptibility to altitude. We have had a wonderful time, but are indeed pleased to be heading back to more amenable oxygen pressures 🙂

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Categories: Diary | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “The air up here

  1. edward

    9000 KM.. big white space… !!!!

  2. Eve

    Could you taste the salt?

  3. Benine Du Toit

    wow….. your adventure just seems to get better and better. You are experiencing places we have not ever heard of!!!! very jealous. Take care. love Benine

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