Bikepacking Across Salt Flats
by Abe Ramirez
We were cycling across Bolivia on a bicycle heading straight to the Atacama Desert in Chile.
After our summit up Huayna Potosí, we set off to ride through the Bolivian Salt flats: about 10,000 square kilometers of flat and dense salt near the driest region in the world. Passing through the large mining town of Oruro, Christian Wuflestad, a close friend from home who decided to sell his car and join me for a few months, and I both knew this would be our final contact with civilization for the next few days. We were heading toward isolation and the thought of being far away from any cars, roads, or people excited us.
We met two American bicycle travelers who decided to drop their route and join us through a rugged backcountry road toward the Salt Flats. We rode 50-80 km at a time, on average, and about four to five hours without seeing a single person. But when we did cross through small towns and villages, we were reminded of the kindness people had in these lesser-traveled places. We entered to what seemed to be the largest town we would pass through, San Martin. About five square blocks of mud brick houses, a town square, an old beaten up church, and one small tienda to bring the whole place together. Christian and I paused beside what seemed to be a mud brick daycare with a few kids no older than 10 sitting on the curb eating candy. I stripped my hat and shades off my face as I wiped the sweat off my brow and looked at those kids. They looked back at me in awe. To them I might as well have been a spaceman heading to the moon with my steel frame, 29-inch tire rocket ship. The kids progressively made their way toward us and before we knew it that small group of kids turned into about 25 crowding us, touching our bicycles, panniers, and asking us questions about our route, where we came from, and where we were going. We exchanged smiles and laughter and eventually continued down the dirt road to the Salt Flats.
The pavement ended and the dirt roads were often blocked with dunes. The headwind made us feel like we were stuck in quicksand and the windy nights pierced right through every bit of clothing we wore. We had finally made it to the Salt Flats after a week of riding and we were excited to learn that the salt was so dense it felt like pavement again. We were an hour in when all of the sudden the clouds above us turned to grey and it began to hail. And to make things worse, Christian’s back rack snapped off his bicycle. The hail continued to worsen and I thought of the only possible solution to get us out of this mess: duct tape and zip ties. We proceeded to stick his rack together to avoid it hitting his cassette as I bungeed both his back panniers to the back of my bicycle. Already holding about 70 kilos of weight, I added another 30 and we set off to our shelter for the night, a cactus island in the middle of the Flats.
Upon waking the following morning, we opened our tents to find two alpacas and a guanaco headed straight toward us. A guanaco is a type of camel native to South America. It stands between one meter at the shoulder and weighs 90 to 140 kg. We assumed that they would not walk any closer, but these animals were not afraid of us. They continued to get closer and I snapped a quick photo hoping the guanaco was not a llama and would not spit on my face. The animals hung around our campsite for a few minutes, bold and unafraid. We packed our things together and headed 130 km toward the closest town with a bicycle shop to repair Christian’s bike.
I have been on this bicycle adventure from Nicaragua heading straight to the continental end of South America for the last year. We have tested the elements and pushed our bodys’ limits to make it to where we are today. If there is one thing I have learned, it is that most things in life aren’t worth their value unless you put in the work to get it. I enjoy the moments I get to share adventure with old and new friends alike. I am here with an open mind and heart to learn and experience something new.