Arriving at the Salt Flats
As I boarded the overnight bus from La Paz to Uyuni with 9 hours of restless, bumpy sleep ahead, I thought to myself, “Three days and two nights in the Bolivian desert…what am I thinking…”
But, the minute our 4-wheel drive hit the crystal white salt flats of Salar de Uyuni, any doubts I had in my mind disappeared. There were 10 of us in total split between 2 cars, 1 guide and 2 drivers. We set out for a journey into the unknown in the most Southern part of Bolivia.
To prepare for the trip I bought plenty of snacks – muesli, bananas, apples, and energy bars. I packed a glucagon emergency kit in case of an emergency as we were 12-hours from any reliable medical care, but didn’t end up showing anyone how to use it. I also brought some spare insulin vials for my pump and some back up insulin pens. None of these were used during the trip, but I always feel relaxed and reassured when I have more than enough back up options. A fear of being without insulin or hypoglycemia supplies still plays on my mind even after 15 years with diabetes.
We start our adventures at the infamous train cemetery where old trains are rusting away next to the still active cargo train tracks between Bolivia and Chile. This was a good start.
Joining me in the 4WD were 3 Danish girls and a Swedish boy – all 20 years of age, and our English speaking tour guide. It took me back to my late teens and made me laugh at their sweet, naive innocence and bravery. I wouldn’t have travelled Latin America when I was 20.
Our guide was incredibly enthusiastic and helpful in explaining everything we did and passed. Although, he wasn’t too keen to talk about Bolivian politics or their current president when I asked. I love learning about Latin governments and hearing the opinions of locals!
We hit the salt flats around noon and stayed there exploring until sunset. The minute we stepped out of the car, I didn’t know what to expect. The ground was rock hard and if you touched the ground and licked your fingers, they were very salty.
We had some fun taking group photos and even making an illusion video walking into a box of Pringles.
The drivers were great and enjoyed telling us to do silly poses to take some fun photos, of course I had to squeeze in some yoga on the flats.
We had a surprisingly healthy lunch after we had a short, bumpy bike ride over the flats. Lunch consisted of quinoa and salad. I slightly under-bolused, unaware of the level of activity ahead of us for the rest of the afternoon. There was a little physical activity involved, climbing up a cactus island to what was the start of a magical afternoon.
As the sun set, it started to really cool down but we braved it out to capture the magic of the evening and highlight of the day. The sunset was like none I’ve seen before. A pink and purple hue arose while the sun set behind us.
The universe creates some things that are unexplainable and the salt flats is one of them. The evening was chilly, so we ate a quick dinner at our hostel just outside of the salt flats and headed to bed.
Volcanoes and Wild Animals
Day 2 was going to be a long one and filled with many many lagunas. We rose at 6:30am for breakfast – this is were I was grateful for my snacks and ate bananas and muesli while the table was full of bread, cheese and sliced meat.
We hit the road by 7:30am and it was a lot of jumping in and out to see some beautiful sites while listening to 80s and 90s music being blasted in the car. My BGs were on the higher side post-breakfast. I definitely underestimated the carbs I had eaten and had to give a correction dose to make up for my error. Because we were in a very remote area I felt more comfortable being on the conservative side with my insulin doses.
We stopped to see an active volcano in the distance and also used this opportunity to use nature as our semi-private bathroom (there were very limited real toilets along the way).
Next stop was to see a rare sight in the desert – flamingoes! They weren’t as bright or pink as I’d seen in Mexico but they were still beautiful to see. We had lunch and I started with a good pre-meal BG and finished with a low – that’s what can happen when you have zero fat in your meal. I had some sugary candy and muesli bars to set me straight.
On our drive we saw a few wild animals that were way more friendly than I expected. Of course we enticed them with a little food.
We bumped into a very hungry fox – I wanted to touch him because he was so cute, but the thought of scabies turned me off to it. We saw wild llamas that looked similar to deer and a rabbit-like animal with a curly tail.
We stopped at the blue and red lagoons. I had to wear a wooly jacket because it was so cold.
As we headed closer to the Bolivia/Chile border we drove straight through the driest desert in the world – Desert Atacama. The red, dry earth enclosed by huge red mountains was breathtaking.
Our last stop for the day as we drove into the National Park was the Rock Tree. Cold and windy outside, I jumped out of the car for a photo and straight back in.
Tonight was our second and last night sleeping in the desert. We were roughing it slightly in a hostel with no heating, no hot showers and no toilet paper! Luckily we had bought our own. As the evening set in we sipped on lots and lots of tea to keep warm before our dinner of soup, mashed potatoes and vegetables. My BGs had being pretty stable all day and then decided to go a little haywire post-dinner. I didn’t carb count accurately for the mashed potato and was way off! Hello BG of 350!
To prepare for the drop in temperature overnight to -10 degrees Celsius, I slept in 2 pairs of pants, 3 layers on top, in a sleeping bag under 3 blankets! I wasn’t going to wake up cold in the middle of the night. I fell asleep listening to a meditation and reflecting on what I’d seen over the past two days and how grateful I was to be able to experience this natural beauty.
Final Day in the Desert
I was excited to return to La Paz and have a long, hot shower, but I wanted to savor the last moments in the Bolivian desert and capture some more memories. We were up at 5am to hit the road and beat the sunrise to an active volcano by 6am.
It was still -5 degrees outside and my body was not happy! My BGs were a little high again after breakfast – when you bolus as you’re eating, doesn’t leave much time for the insulin to start working before the 2 bananas and a sugary hot chocolate hit your system.
Next stop was a view of the highest volcano in Bolivia, standing at a very tall 5650m above sea level. It was a sight I couldn’t take my eyes off. Many people hiked the volcano from the Chilean side, which would be an incredible feat and experience. Half the volcano was in Bolivia and half in Chile.
There was a lot of driving to get back to Uyuni around 5pm but we managed to sneak in a quick dip in a natural hot spring. When it’s just above freezing outside and 30 degrees Celsius in the hot springs, it’s like relaxing in a warm bath but with an incredible view surrounded by nature.
For most of the day, even though we were pretty inactive, my BGs stayed in range, apart from the expected post-lunch high were I consumed what seemed like 10 pounds of white rice. Once I have one mouthful I’ll eat whatever is in front of me — it’s so delicious. Luckily with a correction dose and temp basal I got my BG back into range within 2 hours.
Our final stop on our magnificent journey was a secluded lagoon squeezed in between volcanic rocks. I was a little tired and not that motivated but the view was worth the 20-minute walk.
Nearing the End of My T1D Adventure
The long 4-hour drive back across the Bolivian desert was reasonably quiet as half the car was asleep. I did my best to stay awake and absorb in the last moments of our trip. We had a quick pit stop with a flat tire, which was changed in a matter of minutes!
As we got back into Uyuni, I thought about the night bus I was catching at 8pm back to La Paz. This adventure was the perfect way to end my time in Bolivia and essentially Latin America. I had so many life-changing experiences in the past 8 months and this was at the top.
My journey back to Australia awaits me and is a long one. I stop via Ecuador for 24-hours to see my boyfriend, stop over in Miami for a quick peek at the beach and then arrive in my 2nd home NYC for a week to see some dear friends who I will miss being so far away.
There aren’t a lot of words I can put together that can easily explain my experiences in short. They’ve been incredible, challenging, beautiful, magical and things I will never forget. My diabetes management during these months has been a bit of a rollercoaster. But, it has taught me the importance of patience, positivity, and resilience!
This is a guest post series from Amy McKinnon, a One Drop user and 28-year-old ex-advertising executive who recently swapped her NYC apartment for an oversized backpack to explore the streets of Latin America for six months. Amy has lived with type 1 diabetes for 15 years and tries her best to balance blood glucose levels, marathon training and a high-carb raw vegan diet. Now she has thrown travel into the mix. EDITOR’S NOTE: Amy is a performance athlete and consumes a high-carb diet. At One Drop, we believe that a low-carb approach to food reduces the risk of high and low blood glucose incidents and can effectively reduce blood glucose levels overall. However, we want to share a variety of personal experiences so we can all learn how other people live their lives with diabetes. Always consult your doctor before making changes to a prescribed regimen.