From Llica it was time to cross to the next Salar, the Salar de Coipasa. While Salar de Uyuni had had plenty of jeeps on it, no traffic went past us on our way to the town of Coipasa, located on an island in the middle of the salt flat. To get there, we had some roads that were a fun mix of washboard and sand. I found myself pushing most of the time, mainly so HJ could kind of keep up. After 2 hours, we’d gone 10k, and were glad to find that the community of Challacollo was not completely abandoned. There was one guy, sat by the well, and so we could get some water. We’d not been able to fill up in Llica because the pipes for the whole town were turned off overnight for fear of them freezing.
After Challacollo we ran into two cyclists, that were riding together but also at their own rhythm so about 30-45 minutes apart. Stefan, from Germany, and Janie, from Cumbria, were both enjoying the lack of pavement where we were as they were both travelling very lightly. Even with the lack of things that he had, Stefan was saying that his bike was still too heavy. I guess as with any time you’re trying to lose weight, be it your own or your bikes, it’s hard to ever be satisfied. They had started 5 months earlier, in Colombia, and were on their way to Ushuaia. Both were full of life, and had enjoyed the Salar de Coipasa the day before, although the storm that had hailed on us had stopped them going straight off the island as it had kept blowing them east.
I had a GPS track thanks to the wonderful Pikes from AndesByBike and it suggested heading 10km further east than we were to get onto the salt flats at a ramp, but also mentioned the chance of going on earlier if they were dry. Well they looked dry, and I decided why head east when you can just head straight north? I should have learnt from our first salt flat, where we had experienced the massive difference between riding on a track and riding off-track, well it was worse on this one. We headed north, and the ground, while not wet, was sticky enough that we could ride little faster than we could walk, even following the slight tracks. That lasted for about 45 minutes, and then as the salt flat started the ground seemed more like waves as instead of being flat each of the hexagonal parts was pushed up into each other creating an impressively bumpy surface. Sometimes the parts cracked under the weight of the bike and flattened out, but other times they stood firm and you had a foot tall bump. Walking it was again. The time it would have taken us to get to the official path was more than spent getting frustrated with this, and the worst part was still to come.
After what felt like a couple of hours, we eventually made it to the flat part of the Salar, where it was easy and fast to ride. Life was good! We stopped to take the obligatory perspective shots that people take on the salar, and you can see the best ones below. I figured that it’d all be good the rest of the way to Coipasa and at the rate we were going that’d be a good while before the sun went down. I was wrong. Before the entrance to the island of Coipasa, we got to a stream. It was only a couple of metres wide, but I decided not to just ride through it, and instead to go towards the island. What a stupid mistake. If I’d gone right, or just gone straight across it, things would have been much better. As it was, I went left, ran into a strong headwind, and the stream got wider, until it turned into a mini lake. I kept heading to the island, in the hope it’d dry up, and it seemed to so I started to cross. It wasn’t dry, it was sulphurous mud, caused by the volcano that sat in the middle of the island, and my bike already being white from all the salt, got covered in mud too. My bike would sink, my feet would get covered in mud, and even when I saw 4 flamingos I wasn’t in the mood to stop and take pictures. I knew that the plan of getting to the island by sundown was gone.
We had a fine amount of pushing to the island, finding some bits that were rideable, but plenty that were muddy or the jutted-up hexagons. The wind was of course picking up, and seemed to blow into us no matter which way we went. The sun went down, and we were still 10km from the town of Coipasa. It got colder and colder, and we pushed on, eventually making it to a track on the island and off the salt. If it had been light, I’d have seen the real track, as it was we were on the equivalent of a goat path along the island, which was rocky and didn’t make the best riding in the dark. It was another 30-40 minutes before we made it to the small town, around 8:30, two hours after the sun had gone down. There was no one on the streets, and nothing open. In Challacollo, there had been no-one cos everyone was out with the llamas or seeing to the quinoa, here it was just dark and cold and who would really be out on a night like that? We got to the main square, and there was only one light on, in the school. There was a group of people from Oruro, in town to teach people how to vote, who were very friendly and organised for us to stay in the classroom once they were done talking. HJ hid inside, as I tried to clean my bike. There was of course no running water, but the men from Oruro gave me a few big bottles of water that I could use to get the worst of the mud and salt off. They also gave us some bread and sardines as there was nowhere to buy food at that time, or not that we could see. At almost 10pm, they left, and we rushed into the classroom and passed out. There was nowhere to clean up, and my feet in particular were very muddy, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to sleep.