The village I ride into, just like the previous one, is deserted. I pick up my bike and shove it into the shade of a half-finished concrete building. It sits next to some half-finished toilets and some half-finished picnic benches and barbecue pits, presumably all part of what turned out to be an underfunded government regeneration project.
I go for a walk around, looking for a tap among the houses. Usually, when you come across abandoned settlements, you witness the gradual counterattack of nature; plants and trees eventually find a way through cracks in the concrete and reoccupy the land. But up here in the altiplano, plants and trees don’t stand much of a chance. Instead, some rooms in the occasional open building are flooded with sand, ‘high tide’ brought about t by the gale force afternoon winds.
I hop over some walls of the properties and eventually find a working tap that will keep me going until the next village where, apparently, there are people and a shop. Tomorrow I’ll be back in civilisation but right now I am the last man on earth, trawling the Mad Max-esque Altiplano, scraping a living on tinned tuna and instant mashed potato, and scavenging water from the jetsam of those that used to call this place home.
A few days later I am on another planet.
Three Hundred and sixty degrees of perfectly flat, brilliant white terrain surrounds me. The only features this place are distant 4000 metre high giants that penetrate the horizon and the hexagonal ridges the salt makes on the ground below. They create a rhythm, like that of a train, as I ride over them. Navigation on the Salar is somewhat nautical; I simply point my bike in the direction of a distant island and start pedalling. For the next 70km, almost a day’s ride, I pass nothing but this rock slowly gets bigger. Once I reach this island, the next one, my destination for the day comes into view and I pedal off in that direction. No need for maps or to follow marks made by the tourist jeeps; just pick an object on the horizon and pedal.
I close my eyes and keep pedalling, fighting the voice in my head telling me that this is not a good idea and try to keep my eyes closed for as long as possible. I manage about a minute. If I did this on a road, no matter how quiet, the next time I’d open them would likely reveal a hospital ward, but on the Salar, there’s nothing to hit and no way to get lost. I open my eyes realise that I’ve started to ride in a big circle, find that rock and correct my course.