It’s been a while since I’ve been on the back of a bike and, at 650CC, the engine of this yellow and black Suzuki DR650 is a little – well, 13 times – bigger than I’m used to. “This one’s got a bit of oomph, so be careful,” Robin, a Dagenham-born Bolivian citizen, understates as he hands me the key. I turn it in the ignition and listen to the satisfying purr of the motorbike’s engine. It takes a powerful lurch forward as I pull away and I stall a couple of times. I take it around the block to get the feel for it, then Robin and I set off from the Bolivian town of Uyuni for what has to be one of the most unique landscapes on Earth.
Most backpackers I’ve spoken to during my travels around South America have put the vast salt flats of Bolivia as their number-one highlight. The Salar de Uyuni has 10,500sqkm of brilliant white, almost Arctic landscape, with an estimated 10 billion tonnes of salt standing in for ice and snow. It’s 20km on a bumpy road from Uyuni to the salt flats, and the outer edges of the flats are slushy as it’s been raining – a shallow layer of surface water perfectly reflects the clear, light blue sky. Men with shovels load trucks with perfect pyramids of collected salt.
We pause while Robin tells me the local legend for how the Salar de Uyuni was formed. “They say the lake was created by Tunupa, the mountain goddess,” he says. “She had a love affair with Oruso and they lived happily and had a child. But another mountain goddess came along and wanted the attention of Oruso. She seduced him and ran off with him. Tunupa cried when she found out. She was breastfeeding at the time. The salt tears and milk from her breast mixed together and formed the salt desert.” (There are a few versions of this legend – one involving a Jeremy Kyle-esque paternity row over a baby volcano – but Tunupa’s tears and milk always form the salar at the end.) The feeling as I witness the great pure white and blue of the salar open up in front of us is exhilarating, the bike roaring beneath me as I open the throttle. Any hint of dirt or dust from the land disappears as we ride deeper in. The landscape sparkles. In fact, its very luminescence presents a problem. As well as helmet, chunky boots and jacket, Robin has kitted me out with a good pair of sunglasses, an essential piece of safety gear.
The gleaming scenery, with light bouncing around in all directions, has been known to cause sun-blindness, headaches and other health problems for visitors. There are high rates of early onset blindness among the people who work here. Psychologically, the terrain is strange for a biker – it looks so much like ice and snow, it seems crazy to be riding at 120kph across it, as if the bike will slip and slide at any moment. Actually, it’s quite firm. “You think it’s going to slide,” Robin says. “But it’s more like riding on concrete than ice. There are some bits you have to power through, where there’s some water on the surface, and other areas where it’s smooth or even crunchy. The ground’s always changing.”
We pass a salt hotel, the original and only remaining one on the salt flats. Due to the venues polluting the salt lake, building on the flats is now forbidden. The newer salt hotels are built around the edges.
The 80km from the hotel to Incahuasi island – a rocky spot in the middle of the salt flats that is covered with cacti – is pure pleasure as we open the bikes right out. There are no roads, only faint tyre tracks from tourist vehicles that converge close to the island. Local drivers navigate using markers such as the Tunupa volcano and other peaks surrounding the flats. We do the same, picking a freestyle route that heads loosely in the direction of the dark mass of land far ahead, just an hour from the border with Chile.
Pulling up at the island, where tourist jeeps are parked, other visitors eye our bikes enviably. One of the fun knockon effects of doing the Salar de Uyuni by motorbike is how undeniably cool it looks compared to the standard 4×4 tours. “You feel alive on a motorbike,” Robin tells me over lunch. “But here you also get the experience of the vast openness. It’s spectacular riding, but pretty easy, too.” There are no roads, few tracks and no other vehicles all afternoon as we head out into the open salar where other tourists don’t tend to go. The immense landscape is ours alone and we make full use of it, riding in big swooping lines across the great, wide-open desert. There are times when Robin’s just a dark speck on the horizon, other times we loop around and cross each other’s tracks, like two lone skaters on what feels like the world’s biggest rink. Other than big salt eyes – holes in the ground caused by the salt expanding and contracting with change in temperature – there’s no real danger, even at this speed.
If there was anything out here to hit, we’d see it from miles away, the only non-white object on the entire landscape. We reach the slushy shore and leave the flats, riding along the edge to the train cemetery outside Uyuni – a famous attraction where rusted trains languish, 3km from town.Distracted by the scenery, I don’t see a corner coming, hita deep patch of sand and get thrown from the bike. I climb back on and keep riding, with pain in my left thumb (from the handlebars) and a bleeding right elbow. I nearly come off again when another deep ridge of sand on the uneven road makes it difficult to keep the front tyre straight. To top it off, a car screeches to a halt at a crossing in town, missing me only narrowly.
We arrive, in one piece, at the train cemetery as the sun sets behind a silhouette of hulking rusted trains, abandoned engines and carriages covered in graffiti. “This is a bleak and desolate place,” Robin says. “I think they’re a bit beyond restoration, don’t you?” The train yard, Robin explains, was the birthplace of football in South America. British engineers came here in the 19th century to design and build Bolivia’s trains and rail network, bringing ‘the beautiful game’ with them, which spread quickly across the land.
I climb up on to one of the engines to get a better angle for a photo and nearly fall down a deep manhole, my fourth near miss today. I’m starting to think today might be ‘my time’ and that Death is, Final Destination-style, trying to catch up with me. I hope not. Although as last days on Earth go, this has been a pretty good one. After dropping the bikes in town, I take a taxi to the hilltop Luna Salada Hotel. There are less expensive places to spend a night in Uyuni, but if you’re only passing this way once, a stay in a salt hotel makes for a novel experience.
The walls of the grand, almost castle-like hotel, inside and out, are made entirely from blocks of creamy salt cut through with brown veins of mud. The interior feels light, airy and natural. Rooms are comfy, with gas fires and hot showers. Beds, strewn with thick blankets, are carved from salt. The floor in the bedroom is a kind of crushed salt gravel, which continues down the hallways too, where there are relaxation areas: the walls, arches, tables and chairs all also created from salt. But it’s not until the following morning that I realise another of the hotel’s big selling points. I’d arrived after dark, but over breakfast, in a dining room made of salt, I sit close to a wall-length window that looks out from the high hillside and take in the scene. There’s a clear view of the jagged crater of Tunupa to the north, while right in front of the hotel is a grassy slope where llamas graze. Beyond it, gleaming whiteness that stretches to and beyond the horizon, the desert of milk and tears.