Suck it up, Buttercup: Biking the Uyuni Salt Flats

Aside from my somewhat failed trail run half-marathon last year, it’s been a while since I’ve wanted to quit a physical activity. But, that’s exactly what happened when we set out to bike across the Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia.

After visiting the Atacama Desert (in Chile) and doing a 3-day driving tour through the Bolivian desert, Glenn, Chris (Glenn’s brother) and I joined up with a larger tour group organized through BikeHike, an adventure travel company we’ve done some other trips with in Ecuador (read about those here, here, here and here!).

Darlene, Chris’ partner also flew down from California to join us. BikeHike is developing a new trip offering for Bolivia and we were lucky enough to join the company’s owner, Trish, and a few other return customers to beta test the trip.

The first day we rode bikes through an old mining town called Pulacayo and got to see the last train robbed by Butch Cassidy and the Sun Dance Kid.

Glenn, Darlene and me, ready to begin our first bike ride in Bolivia.

You can find bullet holes in this train, the last one allegedly robbed by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

The cemetery in the mining town of Pulacayo. It stretched for as far as the eye could see. The life expectancy of the miners is very short. Such a hard life, but the potential for making (comparatively) good money is a strong lure.

It was a fun, but windy bike ride at over 14,000 feet in elevation.

Coming down the trail filled with loose rock was a harrowing experience. That’s me in the purple and Glenn is at the back of the pack.

Some of us fared better than others. Here Glenn gets his knee patched up following a slo-mo trip over his handle bars. Darlene, the nurse (in pink) supervises the procedure. I thought we should amputate, but I got overruled.

Chris and Darlene making their way down the old abandoned railroad track.

By the end, I was pooped but looking forward to riding on the Uyuni Salt Flats the next morning.

Everything started out great on the salt flats.

The start of the salt flats bike ride…Glenn and I were sporting our matching BikeHike Adventures jerseys (second and third back, left side).

But after about an hour of riding into a strong headwind with no landmarks on the horizon – a very disorienting experience because you feel like you are making no forward progress – I was over it. My butt was killing me, likely from the jarring cathunk-cathunk-cathunk-cathunk-cathunk of riding over the evenly spaced cracks in the salt.

I was surprised at how bumpy the salt flats were on a bike. The evenly spaced salt crack ridges made a constant jarring rhythm that got to be quite the pain in the butt…literally. Darlene, pictured here with Chris, mastered the “stand up and pedal” position to relieve some of the discomfort.

I ended up walking a fair bit of the ride, getting more and more frustrated by the minute.

After I just couldn’t take it anymore I started walking my bike – into the nothingness. Darlene (right) was gracious enough to keep me company.

By the time I finally saw the support truck on the horizon I was whining like a spoiled kid in my head and to anyone within hearing distance. Although biking the salt flats was a once in a lifetime experience, the monotony of the scenery, the constant headwind and my aching butt turned me into more than a bit of a wimp.

It’s been a long time since I’ve wanted to give up on an outdoor activity because I wasn’t having fun.

The next day the group rode on the salt flats again and I decided to ride in the support truck instead.

My ride on the second day. A Land Cruiser with padded seats, full suspension and, oddly, American movie ballads (Titanic, Robin Hood, etc.) blaring out of the stereo. 

I should have sucked it up, as they say, and gotten back out there.

I instantly regretted my decision. I had made up my mind that biking on the salt flats wasn’t any fun based on the previous day’s experience. I wasn’t willing to give it another try and I missed out as a result. Those that decided to ride flew along the flats with grins from ear to ear, the wind at their backs and smooth salt under their tires. They had a blast…as I watched from the truck.

Chris and Darlene enjoying their second day of biking the salt flats. I could have…should have…been out there too.

In hindsight, I think I was also going through a bit of culture shock.

Glenn and I had just spent close to a month by ourselves in a country (Chile) where really no one speaks English. A very isolating experience. Suddenly I found myself in the company of 8 other people, most of them strangers, and my inner introvert had a bit of a freak out.

Our tour group…all lovely people!…but, a little overwhelming for me at first since I had become used to being somewhat solitary. (Pictured from left to right: Debbie, Trish, Chris, Darlene, Willow, Matt, me, Glenn and Ryan)

I found myself pulling away from the group (e.g. riding in the truck instead of biking, skipping the evening group activities such as star gazing, eating at a separate table with a few people instead of the big group, etc.). It was an odd experience to desperately crave the company of others I could talk with and then seclude myself once I got my wish.

I eventually got my groove back and settled back into being a reasonably social person ready to take on any adventure or activity.

Me, Darlene and Matt riding around one of the cactus and ancient coral covered “islands” of the salt flats called Inkawaski

The flat, endless horizon created a prime opportunity to play around with perspective!

Glenn and Darlene doing a little Gulliver’s Travels remake on my chest.

Run! Glenn, me and the rest of the BikeHike gang were lucky to survive the salt flats.

The Uyuni Salt Flats were fun and spectacular, and provided me a good lesson in always giving things a second try. I have no doubt my time on the salt flats would have been even more memorable if I had just gotten back on the “iron horse” and rode with the group on the second day…instead of being a lump in the truck. Lesson learned, lesson learned.

4 comments on “Suck it up, Buttercup: Biking the Uyuni Salt Flats

  1. Pingback: Travel reboot in Thailand | A Life More Extraordinary

  2. Pingback: Biking Bolivia’s Death Road | A Life More Extraordinary

  3. It sounds like a wonderful experience. I’m glad you are able to experience self realizing experiences while you are traveling and partaking in so many fabulous activities. Continue to enjoy and absorb.
    Wishing you the best!

  4. Always learning new things about yourself! Proud of you. On another note – a clue in my crossword puzzle was “Dry as the Atacama”. Thanks to your adventures I knew the answer was “arid”.

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