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EXPLORING UYUNI, THE WORLD’S HIGHEST SALINAS

Salar de Uyuni is a 10,582 square kilometre salt desert that sits at an elevation of 3656m in the southwestern corner of Bolivia. A major breeding zone for flamingos, and home to 70% of the world’s lithium reserves, it is the landscape that I have been most excited about visiting since first planning my adventure through Latin America. And it didn't disappoint.

Salar de Uyuni is immense. When you are riding through its heart, all you can see is a white line that lies stationary on the horizon, broken intermittently by the gentle, sloping crests of ancient volcanoes. At the desert's centre lies a rocky island named Incahuasi, covered almost entirely in cacti and acting as the focal point for the 4WDs, motorcycles, pushbikes, quad-bikes and all other manner of vehicles that people have brought to roam across the salt flats.

Katharina and I visited in the dry season, which meant that although we missed-out on the mesmerising reflections that Uyuni is most famous for after a spell of rain, it did mean that we could cross the flats at a mind-blowing pace. In-fact, to my surprise, salt flats seem to be one of the best riding surfaces around - compact and grippy, yet soft enough to still kick up a satisfying white mist when ripping across its surface. 

 

But beware. Uyuni is high. If you are traveling through Latin America from the South, like I was, this may be the first real test of altitude for your carbureted motorcycle. Unfortunately for me, this led to my first big breakdown of the trip, the bike stuttering to a halt in the oxygen-starved atmosphere, leaving us stranded in the middle of nowhere, with nothing around us but an immense plain of white.

 

Without getting into too much detail, a motorcycle engine requires a certain ratio of fuel and oxygen to produce the tiny explosions that makes the rear wheel spin. The key factor here is the ratio between fuel and oxygen. If you put a motorcycle in an environment where there is far less oxygen (eg. a 4000m high salt desert), then the ratio will become 'rich' with fuel, preventing the oxygen from entering the combustion chamber and triggering the small explosions needed to keep you rolling. 

To fix this problem, you therefore need to correct your ration. The part of the motorcycle that manages this ratio is the carburettor which has, at its heart, a small channel that regulates the amount of fuel entering the engine. By making this channel smaller (in my case by simply inserting a tiny piece of wire), you can decrease the amount of fuel entering the engine, fixing the ration and viola, you are ready to go again, all-be-it with a little less power. 

 

Whilst this may sound like a pretty simple fix, it's a hell of crisis when you're in the middle of a cold, windy desert as the sun is slowly setting. It certainly wasn't pretty, but we got it done.

Despite this setback, Uyuni certainly lived up to its reputation, and was everything I had hoped it would be. During the week we spent exploring this arid desert, I was constantly mesmerised by its extreme, other-worldly landscape. And despite the (significant) hiccups, it is still one of my fondest memories from my time so far in Latin America. Whilst its remoteness makes it a challenge to get to, it is well worth the journey to experience this incredible wilderness for yourself.

I'm George and this is my blog.
I'm currently exploring Latin America on my motorcycle, traveling to some of the world's most remote communities to work with local nonprofits and share their stories through Grassroots Collective.

More from George's blog

Exploring the Amazon

Building a RTW Motorcycle

Surviving Death Road

THE ADVENTURE OF A LIFETIME

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