The massive sand dunes of northwest Argentina, treacherous mountain passes along the spine of the Chilean Andes and severe fluctuations in climate and altitude in Bolivia await competitors in the 2014 Dakar Rally next month.

Starting in Argentina on January 5 and running to its finish in Chile on January 18, a total of 575 vehicles – from motorcycles to three-man trucks – are scheduled to compete in the world’s most famous rally. First held in 1979 as a race from Paris to Dakar, the capital of Senegal, the endurance race was moved in 2009 to South America after security concerns were raised in Mauritania.

“The aim of the Dakar is to build bridges, to create links between those who are sensitive to the beauty of wide open spaces and the image of the physical and mental challenge embodied by the drivers and co-drivers,” Étienne Lavigne, director of the Dakar rally said in a press release. “We have being pursuing this objective for the last 35 years with an unyielding determination to pass on this passion.”

Route

From the birthplace of Ernesto “Che” Guevara in Rosario, Argentina to the famed cerros of Valparaíso, Chile, the rally is bookended by port cities but racers will spend very little time as they traverse the interior of South America’s Southern Cone over 13 days.

While the trip out of Rosario is mostly on good roads, racers will begin their own version of Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries – or truck, car or quad – during stage two, when racers will spend over 60 miles traversing the tricky grey sand dunes of Nihuil.

The next five stages will usher racers through Argentina’s varying landscapes – from mountain passes under South America’s highest peak, Aconcagua, to deep canyons straight out of the West – until they make it the northwestern city of Salta, before making the rally’s first ever, albeit brief, excursion into neighboring Bolivia.

Bolivian President Evo Morales is thrilled that the Dakar rally will be making its way into the Andean nation and Bolivians have embraced the so-called "beautiful and dangerous show" by booking up all the hotels in the area and putting up temporary hostels.

After navigating through a tricky section of mazelike, mountainous terrain, riders on motorcycles and quads will bivouac in Uyuni, set on the edge of Bolivia’s famed salt flat … at an altitude of 3,600 meters. As the landscape blends into the sky, riders will travel almost 250 miles over this desolate terrain before ending their day in Chile.

From the Chilean port city of Iquique, racers will make a trip down the world’s longest country and through the brutal Atacama desert, where they will have to deal with the rally’s famed fesh-fesh - worn down, granular sand that makes driving conditions perilous and can wreck havoc engines.

If the riders survive their desert adventure they’ll be on their way to Valparaíso, the Pacific Ocean and the finish line.

Racers

While the French have dominated the race in both cars and bikes for decades, this year’s Dakar features a number of riders from Spain and Latin America – both pro and amateurs – that could be podium contenders.

About 80 percent of the rally’s riders come from the amateur ranks – out more for adventure than a top spot – but teams sponsored by the likes of Red Bull and major auto companies have invested major amounts of time and cash into the race.

Frenchman Cyril Despres claimed the top spot last year on his motorcycle, while a Mini-Cooper manned by Stéphane Peterhansel and Jean-Paul Cottret brought home the win in the car division in 2013.

If Despres has a challenger in the race it's Spaniard Marc Coma, who was out with an injury last year but has been in prime form this season. He took second place recently in the rally of Morocco and already has three Dakar wins under his belt.

“[I’m] happy with the performance of the bike and thanks to the whole KTM team for the great job,” Coma said following the Rally of Morocco. “Now it’s time to start to prepare Dakar 2014.”

The young Spaniard Joan Barreda Bort is also looking to improve on his previous performances in South America. Last year the 23-year-old racer won the Pharaons Rally in Egypt and the Spanish Baja Rally, while leading the Dakar for a day after winning the race's second stage.

“I have a lot of support in the team and I have everything to improve further,” he said, according to the Dakar Rally website. “I still lack what is needed to ride at the head of the race and manage racing situations.”

Since introducing quad bikes as a division in 2009, Southern Cone racers have dominated the top spots with Argentineans winning every year since 2010. Riders like Argentina’s Marcos Patronelli will be looking for a repeat victory come January.

Safety

Along with the excitement of the race, the Dakar Rally has been hit multiple times with tragedy.

Deaths and life-altering injuries happen frequently during the race, with over 58 people dying – 30 of them competitors – in the Rally's 31 editions. Argentinean racer Jorge Andrés Martínez Boero was killed in 2012 when he fell from his motorcycle on the second stage, and Frenchman Thomas Bourgin was killed in a road accident with a Chilean police car while traveling to the start of the day’s stage.

The lives of many spectators also have been claimed during the rally. Since moving to South America in 2009, six people have died in accidents related to the rally, including Natalia Sonia Gallardo from Argentina in 2010.

During the first stage of the rally, Gallardo was killed after she and a group of spectators were involved in an incident with the Desert Warrior 4x4 of Mirco Schultis and Ulrich Leardi, which had veered off course near the town of Rio Cuarto. Five other people were injured in the accident.

The 2014 Dakar rally begins on January 5 in Rosario, Argentina and ends in Valparaíso, Chile on January 18. For more information on the rally, visit the race’s website.

Follow Andrew O'Reilly on Twitter @aoreilly84.

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