Salt of the Earth: A Family Adventure in Bolivia

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Cycling atop the salt crust of Bolivia’s iconic Salar de Uyuni – and the more petite but perfectly formed Salar de Coipasa – is an undisputed highlight of many a South American journey. Two years ago, I traversed their high altitude, bleached white canvases. This year, I returned with my family…

Words and photos by Cass Gilbert
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For as almost as long as I can recall, traversing Bolivia’s salt flats had been a bike touring dream, sparked by images I once saw of a tribe of bearded, rag tag bike travellers pedalling across its open, featureless breadth. Two decades later, when I embarked on a mission to cycle across the length of the Americas, experiencing the Salar was the motivating factor that kept me going. And it was the place I chose to return to with my family, so they might also experience this wondrous, surreal and extreme land.

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Granted, Bolivia might not seem the most obvious choice for a family holiday, especially the high altitude Altiplano, perched at 12,000ft and above. The backroads are corrugated and sandy. The sun is relentless. Food is limited and water is scarce. And living conditions are distinctly basic.

But beneath this challenging veneer, the Bolivian high plateau is undeniably beautiful, rich in history and, despite the harshness of its environment, a welcoming place too. Wherever we’ve been, we’ve received open hearted generosity. Sage has scooped into the arms of passers by (not, to be honest, his favourite pass time) and gifted an endless supply of lollies and cookies (much to his health conscious mother’s chagrin).

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For this trip we zoned straight in on the wilder, south west region of the country, using public transport to escape the somewhat precarious driving on Bolivia’s paved highways. Our ride began in the settlement of Sabaya, gateway to the Salar de Coipasa – the smaller, more compact sibling to the neighbouring and more celebrated Salar de Uyuni.

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It wasn’t long before we had our first taste of altiplano hospitality. Amongst international cycle tourers crossing the Salar, Petrolina is a one woman institution. She runs a small restaurant in the forlorn village of Coipasa – where llamas outnumber people and dust swirls around empty streets. There, she scoops up passing cyclists, sits them down in her cozy establishment, and feeds them until they are close to bursting. As she did with us. We even stayed the night in her house and had our bellies filled the next morning – all for just a handful of Bolivianos. Not having any children of her own, Petrolina was particularly enamoured with Sage, gifting him an enormous platter of salchipapas – processed sausages and mayonnaise-drenched french fries, a Bolivian staple – when it was time for us to leave. We bought two beautiful hats she’d made from alpaca wool as a memory of our time with her. In return, she treated us to one of her best gap-toothed smiles.

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Being the cusp of winter, there was a chill in the air as we left dry land and headed out onto our first salar. The shallow edges of these ancient lakes have a spongy crunchiness to them. Under their crust they hide reservoirs of lithium-rich brine: in fact, close to half the world’s lithium deposits are to be found in this region. At present, most of the local industry is geared towards salt production, but plans to ramp up lithium extraction are in the works… who knows how this untouched land will look in the next decade. Encircled by distant volcanoes, the salar itself resembled a bleached white canvas that glittered in the afternoon sun, salt crystals paving our way like diamonds. It was an otherworldly realm we had all to ourselves – we didn’t see another soul during the day it took us to cross its expanse, reaching a dirt road on the other side by late afternoon.

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From here, the going was harder; deep sand in places and corrugation mined the dirt roads found across this finger of land, linking the Salar de Coipasa with that of Uyuni. Again, despite this challenging terrain, hospitality prevailed. When I flagged down a motorbike rider to check on road conditions ahead, we were immediately invited into his home in Ventilla, a tiny desert hamlet populated by just a few families of quinoa farmers and llama herders. That night we were treated to thoughtful conversation over a hearty serving of these wholesome, organic grains. Our host insisted we take his room, and in the morning, his wife served us up a ‘caldo’ – a delicious quinoa and llama soup – to fuel us for the ride ahead.

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Onwards we rode. To break up the day, and make sure Sage isn’t always confined to the cocoon of his trailer, sometimes we stopped to play football. Or we paused to creep up on llama, noble animals that observed us with as much interest as we watched them. Or we enjoyed long, protracted rounds of chase; hopping, skipping and jumping away from each other, an unending game given the boundary-free altiplano. Or we simply walked the bikes for a while. Walking brings out conversation. At the tender age of three, Sage is becoming quite the storyteller. His arms dance and his fingers wiggle as he chats excitedly. I love hearing him link up sentences and ideas… word by word, like a tightrope walker placing one foot in front of the other.

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In Llica, the main settlement between the salt lakes, we met two young couples in the midst of long distance bike touring odysseys – one from France, on solo bikes, the other from Switzerland, piloting a tandem. The next night we all pitched camp together on the salar. The seven of us squeezed into one tent for dinner, jostling elbows and enjoying fine campsite cuisine. Our shared experiences, and our inherent happiness in being where we were, brought immediate companionship and good times. Certainly, under a night sky crammed with stars, I could imagine no finer locale to share. The next morning I stole quietly out of the tent before sunrise, and watched the salar shift from its ethereal pre-dawn glow to the long shadows of first light, catching each and every hexagonal salt tile, far into the distance.

Indeed, as world’s largest salt flat, the Salar de Uyuni feels almost overwhelmingly, a vast ocean with only occasional glimpses of land – great islands of rock that rise up in the shimmering distance. Bereft of tracks and traffic, a cyclist is free to sail around it like a ship out at sea, just like the motley crew of bike travellers who had captured my imagination so long ago.

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We segmented our traverse with a night camped behind Isla Incahuasi, a magnet for tourists visiting the area, thanks in part to its weird and wonderful inhabitants – a family of bizarre cacti that stand sentinel across this unlikely chip of land. There, we met up with Brian from San Francisco, a fellow fat biking bikepacker, who quit his job as an architect and is currently riding from Patagonia to Colombia and beyond.

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With the wind in our favour, and like a scene from a toddler’s edit of Mad Max, we sailed across this cinematic salar for our final day, music blaring from the trailer. There was an undoubted sense of relief at having completed the crossing, but also some sadness to be leaving such a magical land, despite our many hardships. It certainly hadn’t been an easy journey. The high altitude sun had cracked our lips and chapped our cheeks. It had baked the skin on our arms. And it had peeled our noses raw. But we’d made it. The sense of accomplishment, and the memories of this poetic, bleached white canvas, will remain imprinted within us long after our tired bodies have healed.

Tips for family bikepacking in Bolivia

  • The ride took us 7 days in total. We broke up a few longer days with a couple of really short ones, so Sage had plenty of time to stretch, run around, and be a toddler. More info on the route to come, or check out Andes by Bike in the meantime.
  • Bring broad rimmed hats – like Sunday Afternoon – high SPF suncream and good quality sunglasses.
  • Ride from Sabaya to Uyuni to be in the best direction for the prevailing North Westerly winds.
  • Thule Chariot trailers, like the Cougar, are great for this kind of varied terrain. With its plush suspension, Sage sleeps through the bumpy stuff. We time the majority of our riding with his naps.
  • As we didn’t have room to bring a child seat, we adapted our trailer so Sage could stand too, in places we deemed sufficiently safe to do so. There’s not much in the way of traffic on the Salar!
  • Tunes and audio books came courtesy of the incredibly small yet hardy Outdoor Tech Buckshot.
  • Dehydrate some veg beforehand. Jerky is good for adding to campsite quinoa soups too. Local provisions can be relatively basic. Pack vitamin supplements and rehydration tablets like Nuun.
  • Bring games to play on the Salar – a football, a frisbee etc… We bought our football locally for a few dollars.
  • Layer up! It gets super cold at night, below freezing depending on the time of year. La Paz and Uyuni have a great selection of locally made, woollen items to supplement technical gear. At night, we wrapped Sage in a cosy Milk and Honey down sleepsack. We lavished Sage with a wardrobe of Patagonia clothing, just because they make such great kids outdoor gear.
  • Bring a tent that can handle strong winds and cold temps for camping out on the Salar.
  • Although bottled water is readily available, best to pack a filter to save on trash. We love the easy to use Platypus Gravity Works, backed up by a USB-powered Steripen Freedom.
  • Have plenty of capacity for H20. We hauled up to 12L between us – MSR Dromedary bags are great for family use.
  • For off the bike adventures, the Onya Baby carrier was well worth having. 3 year old legs get tired… This harness is comfy and relatively light.
  • Uyuni’s main plaza has an incredible, two story high slide, the social gathering point for kids in town. The train cemetery is wonderful for exploring too, if a little precarious.
  • We picked up flights with LAN from LA to La Paz for $550 – bikes (and the trailer) go free.
  • To get to the start point of this route, catch a bus from La Paz to Oruru (3-4 hours). Then hop on another bus to Sabaya (3.5 hours). It’s generally not a problem to shoehorn bikes into the belly of the bus. Hotel Floryda in Oruru is a great place to stay to break up the journey.
  • Although I was pulling an awful lot of weight – the trailer, Sage and water alone weigh 40kg – for the most part, the terrain is very flat, which makes this trip very do-able.
  • A mid or full fat is really useful for Bolivia, especially if you aim to stray off paved roads. Expect sand and corrugation.
  • When you’re done, enjoy the all-you-can-eat buffet breakfast at Minute Man Pizza in Uyuni. It’s incredible!

With thanks

To Surly for dreaming up the mid fat platform – so well suited to backcountry touring in South America – and the awesome ECR, which Nancy has been thoroughly enjoying. To Daniel Molloy for creating the supremely versatile, Rohloff-driven Tumbleweed, which has both slayed trails and hauled a Thule Cougar loaded to the gils with gear, supplies and toys. To Hyperlite Mountain Gear for lending us a featherweight Ultamid 2. And to my local bike purveyor, The Broken Spoke, Santa Fe, for sponsoring me spare parts for this ride.

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42 Comments
  • irakvscss

    Pure inspiration.

    I have 2 kids and this is so inspirational.

    Thanks.

  • Cass Gilbert

    Thanks! It was a tough trip, so we took it at a gentle pace. I think we all got a lot from it.

  • irakvscss

    I have questions for you if you have time.

    The kid never bored?
    How many miles ride per day?

    One of my problems is my boy, have 1 year and i think he gonna bored so much in the trip.

  • Cass Gilbert

    As I mentioned, we tried to break up the day as much as possible with ‘off-the-bike’ activities, and do most of our miles when Sage was asleep. The great thing about the Salar is the complete lack of traffic and its flat terrain, so Sage could stand much of the time, and interact with us. Trailers are great, though in my mind, they’re no better for the body than sitting in the back of a car – so we try to limit the amount he’s in it each day. And break up the riding with lots of days off. Inevitably here are some longer stints – it’s the nature of touring, and the unknown that it entails.

    i think one year olds are the easy ones! They sleep so much of the time! We took Sage to Chile when he was 1.5. In some ways that was more straightforward. Toddlers have so much more energy, and want to be outside exploring, interacting, getting up to trouble…

    I’d like him to be on a tag-along for the next trip, and just use the trailer when he’s napping, or if the weather turns.

  • irakvscss

    Thanks so much.

    This is inspiration to me. Me and my brother make our first trip a few months ago, but i wanna take my family the next so im looking for tips and stuff like this.

    Thanks so much, cheers.

  • Tobie DePauw

    Brilliant and wonderful. Thanks for sharing, Cass.

  • nate

    Great trip Cass! I didn’t know they had such amazing Cacti down there. Are those some type of Saguaro and what was the elevation there?

  • Cass Gilbert

    Thanks Tobie!

  • Cass Gilbert

    The elevation on the salar is around 3700m or so. I’m not sure if the cacti that grow on these islands are a relative of the mighty Saguaros. But they’re certainly big – apparently, they grow up to 9 metres high!

  • Sten Van Leuffel

    Waw Cass…. Your trips get under my skin, as always! Have to discuss this with my wife, let’s see if something like that could be in the future planning :-)

  • John

    Hey Cass

    How did the ultamid perform in the salar? Can you recommend it for the salar and also for the laguna Route further South?
    Didn’t you run into problems with Wind and Sun?

    Thanks

  • Cass Gilbert

    The Ultamid performed really well on the salar – it’s super stable in high winds, and really spacious. No flapping around at all. Generally we found protected spots, but I’d have no hesitation pitching out in the open. Given how dry it is here, we didn’t have any issues with condensation, which you might normally get when you pitch a single skin tarp low to the ground.

    The only concern – and this goes for all non free standing tents – is making sure you have strong enough tent stakes, and a handy rock, to pitch it taught on the salar. The Ultamid doesn’t come with any of its own, and several of mine (an assorted collection of brands and styles) ended up bending. I even had to pick up some 6in nails from a hardware store to replace them with.

    I haven’t taken it on the Lagunas route, but I did use it for 20 days during a bikepacking traverse from Bolivia into Peru. It was all high elevation camping. Even in mixed weather, the Ultamid instils a tonne of confidence. The build quality is incredible, which you’d hope for given the price…

    I’ll be writing up a full review before I (sadly) have to return it…

  • Cass Gilbert

    Thanks Sten! I’m not going to claim it’s an easy ride, but I think it’s eminently do-able as a family ride, with the right gear and attitude.

  • Paul

    How would you compare the Plus tires to full fat for riding in this region? Does one have a distinct advantage over the other? Thanks.

  • Jeremy Burlingame

    Did I miss it, how many miles was this?

  • Cass Gilbert

    Not sure… we weren’t keeping count. Check out Andes by Bike (link above) as they have a similar route to the one we rode.

  • Cass Gilbert

    There’s a lot of overlap, of course. But for the places we’ve been riding as a family, I’ve been very happy on Plus size tires. The more adventurous/off grid you get, the more full fat makes sense…

  • Jeremy Burlingame

    is that a WALD front basket?

  • Cass Gilbert

    Yes! 139 (via Rivendell). I love it for dirt road riding. Less so for techy singletrack, as it throws the weight forward.

  • Charlotte March-Shawcross

    Hi,
    Love the standing up alteration you did for the trailer. Exactly what did you do? We have the same trailer and it would be a fun addition. Thanks

  • R

    Hi Cass, what do you have for grip on your handlebars? It looks like some kind of fabric textured tape? I don’t like how slippery my rubber ergon grips are when they get sweaty and am trying to think of something to tape them with.

  • Lewy

    What a great trip. I am thinking of taking my 14mth son out on an overnighter and alternating between a wee ride and croozer trailer. Just not sure how he will go.

  • Travis Heim

    Hey, can I ask what lens your using? Multiple or do you have a typical?

  • Cass Gilbert

    We like trailers because they’re good for napping, and inclement weather. But front seats are certainly better for interaction. I’ll be tempted to run both…

    Hope you have a great time!

  • Cass Gilbert

    I usually carry 3 different lenses – though the pics above are just two I think. 24mm, 35mm, and 70-200.

  • Cass Gilbert

    I’ll post a picture when I next get the chance.

  • Cass Gilbert

    Not too sure – they were a gift from a friend. I prefer a nice padded handlebar tape over Ergons for the Jones bars, as it encourages me to use more of the bar’s length. Otherwise, I’m a big fan of the Ergons.

  • mikeetheviking

    WOW, BEST POST EVER! WOW WOW WOW! EPIC PHOTOS AND EXPERIENCE! Thank you for sharing!

  • Robert Kerner

    What a wonderful gift you’ve given your son! The gift of exploration and being outdoors. My kids can’t tolerate being away from a WiFi signal but once I get them outside they settle in and enjoy it.

    How did you balance kid stuff versus grown up stuff? Traveling with a kid necessarily involves carrying extra stuff that you wouldn’t take for yourself, yet it looks like you carried some better quality camera gear. Were you tempted to leave something at home in an effort to save weight? When I pack up the DSLR is inevitably the first thing I put back on the shelf.

  • Travis Heim

    Beautiful shots!! Thanks

  • GPaudler

    Great article and a beautiful family!

  • http://nomadiclas.blogspot.pt/ Nomadiclas

    Beautifull and inspirational pics.

    As a proud father of a 18 month old girl and a onwer of a Thule Chariot similar to yours I’m intrigued by a couple of things.
    What sort of wheels do you use on the trailer?
    What adaptations did you on the Cougar? Like the bar so Sage could stand… in the pics it appears to be made of wood.
    And the orange bag fixed to the handlebars. Didn’t it affect the balance of the trailer + bike system?

    Thank you. :)

  • fido

    Your basket appears to be mounted to a rack. What rack did you use and how is the basket attached?

  • Saguache

    Hey Cass,

    Thanks for the story and the awesome pictures. My eldest son (19) and I are riding a pair of Surly fatbikes (I’m on a 2011 NecroPug and he’s got a 2015 Wednesday). We’re going to be exploring the PNW this summer and we’d be able to get out a lot more often if I could bring my youngest along as well (he’s five).

    I have a Thule Cougar CX and have monkeyed a solution to get around the protected dropouts on our bikes, but I’m curious how you guys overcame this interface challenge. Maybe you’ve got a better solution?

    Would you mind posting an image of the hitch attached to the bike so I could see and compare?

  • Michael Lowther

    As a new father with a 1-yr old, this trip is so inspiring. Thank you for sharing so many details from your trip!

  • Michal

    tag-along bike – I was also wondering about it. I was thinking to get a lightweight kids bike and a trailer. it definitely depends on traffic and age of kid but it looks like more interactive option. I do not know yet. I would need to wait for another 2-3 years for real life experience because wife is in her 5th month now ;)

  • Perubybike

    Cass Gilbert, nice experience in Bolivia. Congratulations.

  • Brian Lugers

    came for the fat bikes, stayed for the writing. Thanks for the great story. We are dreaming of returning to the Salar with our children one day. Our twins are seven now, looks like we have to wait till they’re big enough to ride their own bikes.
    One thing, the only thing I can think of adding to your list of essentials is a good tent or at least netting to sleep in EVERY night. Chagas disease is endemic in that region. As you know, Chagas is a bacterial infection spread by cone nosed kissing bugs. If not treated within the first few weeks of infection there is no cure. Millions die every year in Latin America, especially Bolivia.

  • Brian Lugers

    Correction. Thousands of people die with Chagas disease every year. Millions are infected, and most don’t know it. Sorry to be such a downer! Pack your mosquito repellent fat bikers!

  • Cass Gilbert

    Thanks for the comment and thoughts, Brian.

    We were cycling on the Bolivian altiplano, up at 3700m+, with nary a bug to be seen (winter too, which is the dry season). From what I’ve read, the Chagas disease is common around Sucre and Cochabamba, which are relatively low lying regions. Even so, the tarp we used featured a mosquito liner to keep potential critters at bay.

  • Cass Gilbert

    A pleasure, Michael. I hope it gives you ideas!

  • Dan Clark

    The Salar de Uyuni is a magical place. Your photos bring back a lot of memories from a trip we finished in the same place. Put it on your list if you haven’t been there! Footage at: https://vimeo.com/131756763.