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The Uyuni Salt Flats to Chile Pt. 2

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From the minute we drive off the Uyuni Salt Flats we’re on extremely bad gravel roads, sometimes doubting the existence of a road at all. Every few kilometers the surface changes, keeping us on our toes. At various times we encounter deep sand, rock slabs, powder-fine dust, shallow river crossings and the occasional small salt/hard mud flat. It doesn’t take long before Rob is sweating profusely trying to keep the Harley upright and inevitably he drops it in the sand, deep enough to wrench even the Jeep. Even with most of Rob’s gear in the Jeep, the Harley is still too heavy to pick up single-handedly, so Warren and I dash over to lend a hand.

jeep_sand

Sand everywhere

We soon develop a rhythm whereby whichever vehicle is closer jumps out to assist Rob as the Harley topples over time and time again in the deep sand, or else gets beached on the home-made skid plate. Following the most obvious track and trusting the occasional sign we miraculously arrive in the little village of San Juan, a great rest stop. Just twenty minutes out of town the Harley repeatedly loses power, to the point it’s unridable. Over the course of an hour and many false starts we diagnose and tighten a loose battery connector, to get the monster roaring to life once again. Since sunset the road has become unbearably cold and windswept and even after I put on all my thermals and 5 layers my extremities are numb, and I have a bad case of windburn on my arms, face and legs.
Likewise for the others.
We head back into San Juan and get a warm hostel for the night, exhausted and excited at the same time.

rob_harley_sunset

Rob and the mighty Harley

The morning is crisp and clear and we leave town in a different direction than yesterday, on the advice of locals. The salt flat of Chiguana is a great relief after the horrible roads and we can move along at 60km/h on even the worst parts. After posing for photos with the heavily armed military guys in Chiguana we take their advice and turn South, quickly realizing we’re on a tiny track that is seldom driven. There can be no doubt, this is a desert, complete with sand dunes, crazy rock formations and extremely little vegetation in the baking hot sun.

jeep_rock_formations

Crazy rock formations in the desert

Using my map and compass I’m pretty confident I can navigate us around and feel like the 6000ish meter mountains surrounding us correspond with the map nicely. When we arrive at the sizable village of Copacabaña, confidence in my navigation drops, and not for the first time in Bolivia I have absolutely no idea where we are. Incidentally, I’ve still never seen that village on a map and have no idea where it actually is. Again, our faith goes to the locals, and again we drive through, in and around an enormous desert, this one packed with rock towers and bright red dirt, reminding me of the national parks of Utah. With little confidence I conclude we’re driving on roads that are not on any of my maps, and we’re happy to pass a few Landcruisers packed with tourists going the other direction – a sign we are probably (hopefully) on the right track.
Late in the day we arrive at Laguna Hedionda, packed with pink flamingoes, and hope that a few abandoned rock huts will provide enough protection for camping from the frigid wind whipping around us.

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Younger white flamingo

pink_flamingos

The older ones turn pink from eating shells

The temperature plummets overnight and I’m not surprised to find all my water bottles are frozen solid, as is the washer fluid under the hood of the Jeep. Early in the morning Rob and I get separated from Warren and Sara and after waiting almost an hour I drive back the 10km, and start to get a little nervous about gas. After scraping over a rock, Warren has found oil leaking from the transfer case and is rolling around in the dust trying to figure out what’s going on. A driver from one of the tour companies assures us it’s just the breather venting a little oil because of the seriously cold night, and we move on, keeping a close eye on things.

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Serious isolation

Our days begin to blur, moving from one flamingo-covered lake to the next, crossing sandy, rocky and then pebble strewn barren deserts, all the while at around 4500m in elevation. Highlights include a stop at the rock tree, the stunning orange & white Laguna Colorada and camping at a hot spring on the side of the road. The nights are now excruciatingly cold and the sun blazes during the day, causing ever increasing sun and windburn. The exhaustion and stress begin to tear at us as we’re all anxious about our quickly depleting drinking water, food and gasoline supplies.

jeep_mountains

Crazy beautiful mountains

amigos_tree_of_rock

The amigos at the rock tree

Without a doubt this is the kind of adventure I’ve been searching for my entire trip, maybe even my entire life. There is no safety net, no room for error – seriously far off the track, rolling with the punches, thinking on my feet, living it to the fullest.
By far the most full-on, out there adventure of my life.

three_trucks_desert

Three vehciles in the desert

sky

Beautiful sky

On the sixth and final day we’ve all hit our limit, physically and mentally. The last liter of water is shared out between us, and all gas containers have been empty for days. Everybody we ask is certain of the distance we still have remaining, though none of them agree. The fear of running out of gas is too great, so we buy more from a guy on the side of the road. Rob doesn’t have any Bolivian money remaining, so I lend him all I have, closing down my options fast.
Further South at Laguna Verde the wind torments my ragged state of mine and I can only stand outside the Jeep for 10 seconds, long enough for one photo. I become fixated on the enormous Volcán Licancahur (5760m), sitting at the far end of the lake and marking the border with Chile.
Almost there.

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Freaky Laguna Colorada

jeep_sand_road

Roads of sand

After a stupid debacle where the trucks are separated from the motorbike, I end up driving back around the entire lake, yelling and screaming to myself about the 35km of gas wasted the whole time.
Eventually we find Rob waiting at the border, and we all manage to grin and laugh when we realize we’ve done it. We’re there.

hot_spring

Amazing views from the hot spring

jeep_laguna_verde

Laguna Verde, with Volcán Licancahur (5760m) in the background

Almost.

-Dan

(A note to anyone attempting this – From the last gas station in Uyuni to the Chilean border we drove 570km with minimum back-tracking and screwing around. It’s another 45km to the first gas station in Chile. Driving at extremely high elevation and crawling through sand and rock deserts decreased my usual gas milage by 25%-35%)

8 Responses

  1. BodesWell says:

    How often did you use the 4WD during this drive? Do you think it can be done in a VW van (2WD)?

    thanks and safe travels,
    jason

    • Dan says:

      Hey Jason,

      As with my entire drive from Alaska->Argentina, I very rarely used 4×4, and even then it was only because I wanted to, or did something silly (like stopping the middle of a sand dune).
      I know people that have done this trip in very heavy IVECO 2wd vans and made it through – keep moving in the sand is the advice I was given :)
      In a 2wd vehicle, I personally would want another vehicle along for the support, I was very glad to have another for my crossing.
      -Dan

  2. Juliette says:

    Outstanding! What a great description of what looks like an amazing journey. You sound excited and passionate and full of adrenaline!
    Glad you made it. Thanks for the great photographs, they really add to your vibrant writings.

    Good luck on the next leg of your trip.

  3. Coen says:

    We’ve been there twice now and thinking of going back another time…. But with the Cruiser completely rebuild now…

    Great shots. Abraço
    Coen

  4. Frank says:

    Hey Dan,

    what an awesome trip. I was there three years ago, doing the “normal” jeep tour from Tupiza to Uyuni. It was a fantastic experience but yours seems much more intense. :) Great to read that you had no major problems at all.

    Enjoy Argentina and Chile.

    Have a safe journey.
    Frank

  5. john kiker says:

    hiya dan. excellent stuff man. i just discovered your blog a couple weeks ago and have been reading it with great interest ever since. i love your stories and pictures. but this leg of the journey really got me excited. epic. the dude on the motorcycle has got to have balls of steel lol. but it got me yearning even more to finally set out on my next adventure which will be via motorcycle, more than likley solo. which will be a big departure from my last one in a chevy van with a girlfriend. im ready to go NOW but as usual money is holding me back. are you still travelling at the moment or settled down for awhile?

    • Dan says:

      Hey John,
      I’m not surprised this section of the bigger adventure really hooked you in – I honestly believe it’s still the biggest, all-in “mini” adventure of my life.
      Unbelievable memories :)

      Absolutely go for it on the motorbike front. There are so many guys riding around, you will find plenty of info and support on the web.
      As for me, I’ve settled down right now. I need to recharge my batteries, and my bank account could use a recharge too.
      I’ll post about it soon.

      All the best, good luck on the big adventure!
      -Dan

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