Desert Dash: following the Dakar rally trail.

At 7.30 am, after a crappy nights sleep thanks to the other “guests” at the hostel and yet another party night, we grabbed our stuff and headed outside to await our pickup for our 3 day/2 night tour to the Bolivian town of Uyuni. We met two hilarious American girls waiting outside where we discussed the downpoints of our hostel (see my review on Trip Advisor) and how they were hoping they wouldn’t be collected for their tour (to Bolivia) as they had not realised they would have to pay $160 US to get into the country and they didn’t have it on them.  A short time later our pick up arrived; we collected the last of our group and just down from their hostel we arrived at the Chilean immigration office. The queue was enormous and nothing seemed to move for ages while our driver/guide and the other drivers were running around with forms to various windows. Eventually it was moving and 10 minutes or so later we were at the window with our driver and his list of our details and we got stamped out of Chile in turn, a quick toilet stop and then back on the bus for Bolivia!

Our bus to the border contained us, a girl from London, a German chap, three Isreali guys and four Spanish girls.

The road to the border was also the road to Argentina but at a certain point you turn off onto a dirt road and up the side of Licancabur Volcano. The border was at 4500 m or so. I had been furiously drinking my lemon water and watching our altitude increase on while watching for symptoms and popping my ears every 2 minutes (yeah that’s how fast we were going up).

On arrival at the border, our bags were unloaded and we were directed to the passport control office for our stamp, the Israeli guys got given a wad of paperwork to fill out for their visa which they were still doing after we had arrived back from queuing for our stamp. A quick breakfast and we met our Bolivian driver (Mccain- at least that is what it sounded like) and our 4×4 for the next 3 days. Our rucksacks and water were placed on the roof and moments later we were off! Our buddies for the trip were Dimple (the girl from London), Tal, Mtan and Ital (the Israeli guys).

The border! For us it was easy peasy just a stamp and out- everyone else seemed to be having to pay money…
Breakfast was beside the van..
.. then we had to gather our gear to transfer to the 4x4s who had just brought people from the 3 day trip from Uyuni to go to Chile.
First stop was Laguna Blanca, this was after we paid the entrance fee to the park (and a toilet trip- top tip here is go whether you need to or not as you never know when you’ll be caught short…)
Dimple kindly took this photo of us, the Laguna Blanca is a borax lake..
Adventure, yeah!
There were a few flamingos here..
Next up was the Laguna Verde..
And the convoy continued on a string of 4x4s.

After the first two lagoons there was quite a drive across the desert, stopping off at one more little lagoon and then on to where there was some hot springs. We were given 30 mins to pay to enter….


A little bit later than McCain wanted and were back in the thick of the convoy again, at this point we realised we were actually travelling with a second car in a two car team. Advisable given the remoteness of the desert.

Tearing across the desert, passing quite a few jeeps that had already broken down, flat tires are common and by the looks of some of them it is only a matter of time before they would go- there were many bald tires, not the best considering how many steep dunes we ended up going over! The next stop was the Sol de La Mañana Geysers, on the other side of the mountains from El Tatio and at over 4900m we were approaching the highest point on our trip. Like the last field you were free to wander dangerously close to the steam vents and boiling mud pools.

It was now lunch time and we were all getting a bit tired, after the geysers we all had a sleep (except Gav who decided taking photos of us asleep was more fun). Our digs for the night was a refuge, it was basic but fine-better than we expected actually. There was no shower and food was nothing to right home about but given there was nothing for miles they did the best with what they had and we chilled out for a bit.

After some food and serenading from the guys (if we stopped for more than 5 minutes the guitars came out, it was great!) we felt refreshed and ready to go. Luckily the refuge was right next to the last stop of the day the Laguna Colorada; in the end this was my favourite place on this part of the trip.

So how did out first night sleeping at almost 5000m go? Well other than all of us waking up during the night feeling like we had no air at various points not bad, in fact we had no need of our sleeping bags as plenty of blankets were provided (we used them anyway, as you know, we had bought them for this!). The Next day Tal and Mtan weren’t feeling great, Ital grabbed them the remaining breakfast they had an hour or so later at our first stop. Alas a flat tire delayed our departure, though this was a better time to get one than in the middle of nowhere.

After lunch we had a quick stop at a valley, no idea what the name was but it was quite cool.

After lunch Mtan started to feel quite poorly and steadily got worse, spending most of the horribly long drive to the salt lodge (past quinoa and lamas in a lush valley) in the car. Even when the lead car (from the two for our company) had a flat, he stayed asleep in the back while the rest of us got out for air.

Arrived at the salt hotel, nice private room, hot shower, salt floor. Mtan very ill (he didn’t even leave his room) chilled out for a bit and then had a lovely evening with the guys and German guy, Sebastian joined us. Rather randomly we had Bolivian wine with dinner (Kohlberg).

Early start 4.30 am so we had an early(ish) night. Unfortunately at 1 am, I woke up with the sinking feeling that something was wrong, lying there trying to settle my stomach but to no avail and from 1.30 pm until it was time to get up, I was up and down every 20 mins to the bathroom. I ended up having to take three loperamide to try to manage one problem so I could at least travel. Mtan still very bad, the poor chap was like a zombie. I was feeling awful as we packed up and got going to the Salar to arrive at the Isla Incahuasi for dawn. I was feeling horrendous and though the route through the moonlight over the wet saltflat to the island was delightful; with the moonlight and the brightening sky  and the reflections of the stars on the still water; it didn’t distract me from concentrating on not throwing up.

The Uyuni Salt Flat (Salar de Uyuni), is the world’s largest salt flat, which was part of a massive lake during the Pleistocene which has dried out over time leaving salt flats and smaller lakes. Large parts of this area were also under the sea at one point before the Andes uplift, with the Pacific almost meeting the Atlantic across the centre of the continent.

We pulled into the parking in front of the island and Gav was taking an age to get out of the car or give me cash to get my ticket. Eventually I got it and ran for the bathroom which was being cleaned. Once the smell of the bleach hit me I threw up right in the centre of the place…right in front of the cleaner and security. So embarrassing, luckily they were very nice about it and the security guy who if I wasn’t feeling better that there was medication available for altitude sickness. Gav headed up the hill to view the sunrise, I tried but I didn’t make it up the hill, got half way but the view was still nice though (photo 3 below is one of mine).

After I made my way back down from the side of the hill, it was straight back to the bathroom to throw up again. I felt horrendous. At this point I wasn’t sure if it was altitude or food poisoning and took up the offer of help kindly offered by the security guard. It is so hard to speak spanish when you are feeling terrible but I managed it and was handed two Sorojchi pills! I was sceptical of this random “cure” but I had nothing else and it was worth a go. So down the hatch they went.

Breakfast was a sweet cake so I had a tiny bit and a cup of tea, probably should have just had the tea as 10 mins later I threw up again! But suddenly I snapped out of it and felt fine! Enough to jump around like a mentalist for the obligatory photos, which was great craic altogether. (Unfortunately Mtan was still out of it no amount of coaxing could get him out of the car even for a group photo).

After jumping around for about 40 minutes we piled back into the car and headed off in the direction of the Museo de Sal. The pills may have been quick to act but they were also quick to wear off. I ended up having to get the car to stop enroute quickly to throw up again.

After all this it was the lunch stop, which no one was really up for, Mtan was still out of it, I was still feeling like death warmed up and now Ital had started to feel ill. Was it altitude or food poisoning?- we are not sure. Tal, Gav and Dimple were still fine so maybe it was the altitude? Anyway I was hankering for the one thing I thought would fix everything-the Irish cure- flat 7Up (or Sprite if the 7Up was not available). Gav disappeared off and a while later returned with a bottle of Sprite. A frozen bottle. I was delighted to have it but a solid block of ice was no good for anything (much to Gav’s amusement)! It took 30 mins to start to defrost enough to drink and we continued towards our last stop and final destination.

The last stop was the train graveyard, a strange spot. Also I got out of the car and after two seconds immediately regretted it, unfortunately McCain had gone off to change his tire with Mtan and Dimple. I was left to try find some shelter and a place to sit- my pashmina and a spare rock served these functions while Gav went off to take photos.

Then we were brought to lunch..

(L-R): Me, Ital and Mtan. This pretty much sums up how we felt at lunch, I couldn’t even look at the food so ended up laying on a bench in the shade and tried to sleep.


… I was assured that the food was delicious though.

Our trip was now at an end, we were dropped around to the tour office. The tour guide in Chile strongly recommended not staying in Uyuni as there was nothing there and Gav went to see about bus tickets to our next stop of Potosi (lunacy considering it was at an even higher altitude than we were at! Uyuni was at 3,700 m but Potosi is one of the highest large cities in the world at 4,090 m. The cure for altitude sickness is to drop altitude. That wasn’t happening anytime soon).

It was 1 pm, there was a bus leaving at 1 but we had no cash left. Luckily they were running late and we managed to catch it for the historic UNESCO city of Potosi! Hurrah!



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