Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat, located in southwest Bolivia at an elevation of 3,656 meters above sea level. With spectacular landscape and memories that will stay with you forever, Salar de Uyuni is one of the highlights of South America.
Salar de Uyuni seemed really interesting to me when I started reading about South America. I was amazed by the pictures I saw and I knew this is not a place to miss out.
We decided to go for a 3 day trip from San Pedro de Atacama (Chile) to Salar de Uyuni (Bolivia). I read a lot of scary warnings regarding this trip. From altitude sickness, to horrible accidents, so I chose ‘Cordillera Traveller’, the agency that was most recommended for this tour.
On the first morning we met our jeep driver and the rest of the group. In total we were a group of 6 people plus the driver/guide in the jeep. We were so happy to have wonderful people with us in this tour, as we were about to spend 3 days with them. We crossed the Chile- Bolivia border and the surrounding landscape was gorgeous.
The first day of the tour was incredible. We visited some amazing places, including Laguna Verde, Laguna Blanca, Laguna Colorada , geysers, and hot springs. We enjoyed the stunning nature of this trip, some of the most beautiful landscape we saw during our travels.
During the first day we drove from San Pedro de Atacama, at elevation of 2000 meters above sea level, to the area of Laguna Colorada, our last stop for the day, at elevation of 4800 meters above sea level. We spent most of the time in the car, driving from one amazing spot to another, and did some short and easy walks in each stop, so most of the time the altitude wasn’t so bad.
We got to the sleeping area, not as good as a hostel, but decent enough for being in the middle of the desert. Each group had a shared room and we had a little rest. When dinner time came, I felt a horrible headache due to the altitude. I felt a bit of nausea and dizziness, but most of all, the headache was very annoying. Everyone went to the dinning room and I stayed a bit longer in the room. When I went outside to try and have some food, one of the Bolivian guides saw me. He saw that I’m suffering from the altitude and gave me a medicine. I asked him what is it and he told me not to worry, it’s medicine for the headaches of altitude sickness and he gives it to tourists all the time.
I took the pill. Not knowing what a horrible mistake I did…
15 minutes after taking the pill I started to feel weird. I set with everyone and tried to eat dinner. I started to feel my heart pulse tingling inside my mouth. I felt a weird, uncomfortable itches inside my mouth and throat. Strange, right?
That’s when I knew. I’m having an allergic reaction to the pill he gave me, that contained aspirin.
I was nervous. I started to ask people for antihistamine. No one had. We tried to look for antihistamine with other companies that stayed near us. I told the driver I’m having an emergency issue, that I have to see a doctor or go to a hospital, that my life is in danger. I explained that I’m having an allergic reaction to the medicine I took from one of the guides. All the guides told me to go to sleep, that it’s from the altitude and in the morning I’ll be fine.
I started to feel my throat closing more and more. I couldn’t breath normally. My eyes and mouth got swallowed. I took some Loratadine pills, it is an antihistamine, but mostly used for sneezing allergies. I felt that it stopped the allergy from getting worse, but I still felt a lot of pressure, the throat was still almost closed and the swallow didn’t get any better. I was crying and started to panic, realizing I’m in a horrible situation, in the middle of nowhere, no phone reception, the nearest hospital is in Uyuni, 6 hours drive, no emergency plan, and I am barley breathing. The panic didn’t help, only made me weaker. I was so lucky to have Oded with me. He did most of the talking for me, as I could barely speak. All the group tried to help convincing our driver to take me to hospital, everyone were worried about me. It didn’t help. I was shocked. I felt so hopeless, felt like my life is depending on someone else who doesn’t care about me, who obviously just wants to sleep after having a long day. I was so scared of not knowing what’s going to happen next, not knowing if the allergy will get a bit worse and then I won’t be able to breath at all…
After a long argument with the guides, at almost 23:00 PM, we were finally able to convince our driver to take me to Uyuni. We had to pay him 400 USD (!) a ridiculous amount (more than 3 times the cost of the whole tour) but off course my life is more important than any money. We didn’t have this amount of cash with us, so our amazing group helped us so we’ll have the cash to leave immediately. I’ll be grateful forever for their help and caring.
We drove almost 6 hours to Uyuni in the dark, and it was not an easy drive at all. We were actually as scared to have an accident as much as we were worried about my breathing. When we got closer to Uyuni I started to feel a relief. The pressure in my throat wasn’t as bad and the swallow as well. We went down a lot in elevation, as Uyuni located at 3600 meters above sea level, so the altitude sickness was also better. We finally got to a small hospital that didn’t look modern or inviting…we consulted with a nurse about my case and she said that if I’m feeling out of danger than I don’t need an injection. She advised us to sleep in the hostel right next to the hospital, so in case of emergency I can reach there quickly.
I was so relieved when I started to feel ok. Oded and I were more relaxed and realized that the worst is behind us. I was lucky enough to stay alive and by next morning I felt much better.
After realizing the nightmare is over, the pill is out of my system and I can learn from my mistake and move on, I was sad that we had to skip the most beautiful part of the tour, the actual salt flats. We didn’t give up and signed for a daytrip from Uyuni to the salt flats, and I’m glad we did it!
Our first stop was the graveyard for old trains, pretty cool. Then we finally got to the amazing salt flat! And it was even more incredible than what we imagined…
The salt creates an endless white desert, so unique and beautiful. We took some funny pictures in the Salar playing with perspective.
When we got back to Uyuni we met again our group that just finished their tour. They were all so happy to see that we’re ok. We were shocked to hear that our driver that took us 6 hours to Uyuni and then drove 6 hours back to the desert, also kept driving our group during the second day of the tour without sleeping at all! Our friends were obviously scared about it but eventually everyone got to Uyuni safely!
Will we recommend ‘Cordillera Travels’?
I think so, but it definitely wasn’t a flawless tour.
The good side: Food and accommodation were really OK. Our driver was nice and drove safely in a place where you hear about lots of accidents, so I’m thankful that he saved me by taking us to Uyuni, I truly appreciate his effort, he did drove crazy amount of hours because of that incident, but he also got a LOT of money for that and it took him a long time to agree…
The bad side: The guides spoke only Spanish, I understood and could speak few words so it was fine with us. The guides didn’t have any idea what to do in a case of emergency, and in that altitude it’s not so rare to face emergency situations. No one really cared for me being at real danger, they realized they can take advantage of this situation and only after we were waving with cash in front of them they agreed to move, and it took critic time to convince them. It was an irresponsible decision to send our driver back to the desert instead of contacting someone in charge from the agency to arrange another driver for the rest of the group. Also another group that went with another driver (same agency) told us he was completely drunk on the last morning, he shouted at them in the middle of the night and could barely drive…but for some reason drunk drivers are reported from all agencies so it’s just a matter of luck…
We had an amazing time in this trip to Salar de Uyuni, despite my almost death experience. Yes, we had some horrifying hours, but the stunning and unique landscape made it worth it. We truly recommend experiencing this great trip to the salt flats. We enjoyed it after all, and I felt so lucky to be alive, in one of the most beautiful places in the world. So next time you go to the middle of the desert, consider carrying some antihistamines, just in case. It might save someone’s life.(=