- Blog Post Master List (Newest First)
- Argentina (Escape from)
- Chile – The Long Way
- Seventeen Days in (the Plurinational State of) Bolivia
- One More From Peru
- Still in Peru
- Northern Peru
- Ecuador – Back on the Road
- Ecuador- A Road Trip, Interrupted
- One More from Colombia
- From Bogotá to Medellin- The Long Way
- Colombia with Cadence!
- Panama to Colombia
- Costa Rica
- More Guatemala
- Exploring Guatemala
- The Yucatán Peninsula
- Puerto Escondido and Beyond
- Veracruz to Oaxaca
- Teotihuacán to Tajín
- Concrete Jungle to a Lazy River
- We Visited the Monarchs!!!!!
- A Bump in the Road – Steering our Way Through Michoacán
- Scratching the Surface of Mainland Mexico
- It’s All Fun and Games Until Someone Gets Burglarized
- Further Adventures in Baja California
- Northern Southern Baja
- On the Road Again -Northern California through the North of Baja California
- Canyons and Comfort
- Parks and Pints
- Desperately Seeking Summer
- Hot and Cold and Hot
- Smoke on the Water
- Heavenly Lights and the Meatbee-asaurus Rex
- Oh Canada, How We’ve Missed You
- Final Days in Alaska
- Backpacking the K’esugi Ridge
- Slowing Down on the Kenai Peninsula
- My Mile-Long Walk of Shame and Other Missed Adventures
- Driving the Dempster Highway
- Arctic Plunge!
- Arctic Quest!
- The Adventure Begins- Northbound Pan American Odyssey- We’re On Our Way!
- That One Time We went to Thailand with My Mom and Dad (Part 4)
- That One Time We Went to Thailand with My Parents (Part 3)
- That One Time We Went to Thailand with My Mom and Dad (Part 2)
- That One Time We Went to Thailand with My Mom and Dad (Part 1)
- Hiking the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail
- So We Bought a Mini-Motorhome….
- A Chocolate Experience in Costa Rica
- Beaches of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, Costa Rica
- A Week in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, Costa Rica
It was a long time coming but we were finally in Argentina. The border was a breeze. We crossed at Paso Huemules (named for a small native deer that has cute stubby antlers) where both Chile and Argentina had their customs and immigration housed in the same building. When we entered they gave us a slip of paper with five boxes on it. We started at Window 1, got a stamp in box 1, moved to Window 2, got a stamp in box 2. This pattern followed until we had visited all of the windows. Then we pulled the truck up to the building and a guy come out under the guise of inspecting the contents of our truck for contraband. We explained to him how our solar worked and he took our slip of paper wishing us a buen viaje. The governments of Central America really need to come down here and check out this system.
Twenty yards after entering Argentina the asphalt ended. The mountains of Chile were barely visible through the dust in our rearview as we headed into the wide-open countryside of the Argentine pampas. We had about 65 miles of corrugated ripio (gravel) between us and the thin pavement of the famous Ruta 40. Upon reaching Ruta 40, we turned south and made our way to the town of Perito Moreno. Many things in Argentina are named for Perito Moreno. He was an explorer and well-loved for his role in keeping Chile from taking all the good stuff when the borders were under dispute.
The town of Perito Moreno was laid out in an orderly grid and toward the back end of that grid was a municipal campground. There we hoped to find WIFI, hot showers and a safe place to sleep. We got everything but the WIFI. All for $2.15. For some reason, the hot showers were only available between 8 and 10 both am and pm. There was also a heated kitchen with many tables and chairs for cooking and communing with fellow travelers.
We had met many young Argentine travelers over the months on the road. They invariably had some sort of handicraft that they produced and sold to fund their travels. This place had a disproportionate amount of friendship bracelet makers. I shared a table in the kitchen with a young man from Buenos Aires. I was distracted by the similarity of the braids in his beard to the knots he was tying to form a bracelet while he tried to chat with me. His accent was thick and I was not able to follow much of what he said. Eventually, he tired of my smiles and nods and switched tables to join his bracelet-making friends.
Once we left Perito Moreno, the camping spots were slim pickin’s. There was not much topography to speak of and the wind was relentless. You wouldn’t know it by looking out the window. The plants that grow there are very hardy and don’t pay much attention to the wind. The world looked motionless; lulling us into a complacency that led to the cab doors being wrenched from our hands anytime we exited the truck.
We found one place in this windy expanse that offered us shelter. It was a huge gravel pit dug into the volcanic soil. The wind that found its way into the pit swirled around innocuously but as soon as we peeped our heads up out of the pit we were buffeted with intense gusts. Home sweet home in the belly of the earth. We parked ourselves in an eddy and went about making dinner. On our backpacking stove. We were really missing the sturdiness and BTU’s of our Coleman camp stove. We just needed to make do for another 600 or so miles before we could refill our propane in Ushuaia.
Before reaching Ushuaia, we had a couple of stops to make. The first was in the town of El Chaltén. Approaching El Chaltén we were given a glimpse of the mountains that make it such a popular destination. The scenery gods were smiling on us and gifted us with a clear view of Mt. Fitz Roy. We paused on the way into town to catch a couple of glamour shots with The Joan.
Our first stop was to pop into the visitor’s center and look at the trail map of the area. El Chaltén is within Los Glaciares National Park and it has been named the hiking capital of Argentina. We decided that we would hike up to Lago Torres the following day to see what we could see. Our next stop was to get some groceries. This was a mildly horrifying experience. It started out okay. The shop was tiny and uncomfortably warm as it was midafternoon on a sunny day. We gathered up some goodies like granola, avocados, and chocolate. It was when we checked out that things turned. The lone shopkeeper paused from his labors slicing bacon on a small deli slicing machine to ring us up. He wore a glove on the hand that was pushing the bacon around and was good about not touching money with that hand. But he did not remove the glove before handling all of our purchases. Everything was glossy with raw bacon fat by the time he gave us our tally. I’m not sure if it was in my head or real but I was unable to escape that smoky ham aroma for at least three days.
We camped across the street from the visitor’s center with all of the other overlanders. It was the only area in the vicinity where overnight parking was allowed. We were able to use the bathroom in the visitor’s center but only when it was open. The rest of the time it was a scary pit toilet that was all pit and no toilet. And no light. And no latch. Anyhow there were about a dozen rigs of all shapes and sizes posted up on that dusty lot. We had a Belgian couple on one side of us and a French couple on the other. The best part was the squat armadillo who wandered between the vehicles looking for fallen scraps. For a parking lot, it was spectacular. We had clear views of Mt. Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre.
The trailhead we were aiming for was on the other side of town so we had to tack an extra mile onto each end of our 11-mile hike. That put us at the half marathon distance which is about as far as we like to hike in one day. The trail was popular but not crowded. We passed many groups of hikers taking yerba mate breaks on the way up. The trail started out steep but mostly leveled out for the last half. We knew from the name of the trail, Lago Torre, that we were headed for a lake, likely near Cerro Torre, but that was all we knew. What a wonderful surprise it was to round the bend at the end of the trail to see cheerful little icebergs bobbing about in the lake. Some clouds had rolled in and the peak of Cerro Torre was covered by the time we got there but considering the clear views we had been enjoying right up until then we felt we had no room to complain.
We made ourselves comfortable at the edge of the lake and took a wee nap in the sun. I did my best to channel my inner Wim Hof and dipped my toes into the icy water. It was so cold I almost peed my pants. I’m not sure what kind of evolutionary benefit that reaction would have but it was real. We waited for about an hour to see if the peak of Cerro Torre was going to come out and play. Eventually, we gave up and headed back down. About half an hour later we looked back to see the peak shining in all its glory. We took a couple of photos from afar and continued on our way. We were following the track of a single wheel on the way down. We speculated that it might have been from a ranger resupplying their cabin with a wheelbarrow. We were wrong. That wheel was from a cart carrying an injured hiker down the trail. The hiker was a very embarrassed-looking young woman tucked into her sleeping bag strapped to a backboard. We reminded each other to pay attention to where we were putting our feet so that we could avoid her fate and continued on.
The next day, the clouds rolled in in earnest. So, we shelved any ideas of hiking other trails, packed up our camp, and moved on to El Calafate. The town gets its name from a blue berry native to Patagonia. Legend has it that if you eat a calafate berry you are destined to return to the region within your lifetime. We were on the lookout for calafate bushes but we were a bit late in the season to find them. We camped just outside of town on the shore of Lago Argentino. A scrawny sand dune did its best to shelter us from the wind blowing off the lake but it was no match for the mighty Patagonian winds. After a less-than-restive night by the lake, we headed out to visit the main attraction in this region.
Perito Moreno Glacier. This monstrosity of ice had been calling our names since we first conceived of this trip. The toe of this glacier is three miles wide with an average height of 240 feet above the surface of the lake. Add to that another 300 feet of submerged ice and you have a lot of ice. Huge. There are boardwalks with benches across from the glacier that were perfect for sitting for extended periods of time. The best part was that in the afternoon when the ice is at its meltiest huge chunks of ice will frequently calve off and plunge into the lake below. Each time the glacier would calve we would hear the cracking of the ice reverberate and echo off the surrounding mountains. I have never had more fun watching ice melt. It was so hard to leave that glacier. It was the first time I have truly felt FOMO (fear of missing out). We were just sure that as soon as we left another big chunk of ice would fall. We stayed until the park was just about ready to close.
After staring at the glacier for the better part of a day we drove out to a free campground in the park (with a pit stop at a late-bearing calafate bush to snack on a berry!!!!). From our camp spot, we could still hear the glacier calving in the distance. That campground had the grossest outhouse of our entire trip. That is saying a lot. It was another iteration of a toiletless pit toilet except this one didn’t have a proper pit. It was a standard plastic construction-site/festival-style outhouse but instead of a toilet there was a metal frame with a toilet seat attached to it allowing for one to sit (not recommended) and hope that their deposit made it through the two feet of open-air free-fall into a shallow recession under the outhouse without taking any detours. This ablutionary abomination was not set on level ground so the likelihood of (and evidence of) depositional detours was high. We were thankful that we carried a shovel at all times and did not have to endure this particular atrocity.
On a lighter note, that campground was right next to the trailhead to hike up Cerro Cristales. The trail switched back for the first part of the hike gently carrying us up the mountain. About halfway to the top, it changed its tune and headed straight up the mountainside like a feral hog. The closer we got to the top, the steeper the trail became. I was definitely scared. I do not like steep slippery trails. Going up is okay, it is the descent that freaks me out. I decided to put off worrying about how I was going to get back down until I really needed to head down. We reached the top right after another couple of hikers. It was very windy up there. The four of us huddled behind a rock wall that had been haphazardly piled by hikers who had come before us. We were very thankful for that small respite from the wind. The other couple was from Buenos Aires. They apologized for not having any mate to share with us. They offered cookies instead. We took pictures for each other and chatted as long as we could endure the freezing wind. My thumbs were starting to go numb and I wanted to get that descent over with. It was not graceful, but I managed to make it down to where the trail resumed a reasonable gradient without falling on my rear. I looked like a nervous penguin baby-stepping my way down. Scott floated gracefully.
After hiking Cerro Cristales, we headed back to our tiny sand dune on the lake for one more night before leaving the region. That is when we got our first flat tire of the trip. It was the driver’s side rear. We were just cruising along when we heard a rhythmic swishing sound. It definitely sped up when we did. We pulled over and discovered an inch-long gash in our tread. We figured the tire had been weakened when the ball joint busted. We had since rotated the tires and that was the one the truck rested on when we dragged it onto the tow truck. Anyhow, Scott made short time of switching out the flat for the spare. All of the cars that passed us actually slowed down so we didn’t have to choke on dust while Scott diligently worked.
After a quick stop at the gomeria (tire repair shop), and another stop to shower, and one more stop to take a moment to cook all of our fresh veggies while eating all of our fresh fruit, we were ready to head across the border back into Chile to visit Torres del Paine National Park. It is impossible to drive to the bottom of Argentina without cutting through Chile so we popped over the border (losing all of our dry beans to bureaucracy) very close to the park.
We arrived at the park entrance right at closing time. We also arrived without a campground reservation. We liked it that way. Camping in Chile is too expensive. We talked to the ranger as he was locking up and confirmed that we could park next to the other overlanders in the parking lot for the night. He reminded us that although we could sleep there we couldn’t make ourselves comfortable. No cooking. No washing dishes in the bathroom sinks. Also, no washing ourselves in the bathroom sinks. It seemed like he was annoyed that we were allowed to “camp” in his parking lot. He reiterated a couple of times that it was not a campground. Cool. The soup we had made in Argentina that morning to use up all of our fresh veggies was still warm. And we were recently showered!
The next morning, we awoke to the gentle roar of tour buses arriving at first light. Perfect. We didn’t need that alarm after all. We scraped the sleep from the corners of our eyes and headed into the ranger station to pay for a three-day ticket to the park. We had originally hoped to go backpacking there. Unfortunately, most people who visit are also hoping to backpack. The popular treks are called the W and the O. Reservations to hike these trails must be made months in advance. One thing we have learned on this trip was that we are not good with schedules. They require too much planning. And sacrifice if things don’t go as planned. Plus, anyone who makes backpacking reservations months in advance has to have an in with the weather gods. Anyhow, we decided that we would be okay with day hiking in the park. The most iconic hike to see the Torres themselves can be done as a day hike. So that is what we did.
The hike started on private property where we had to snake through a gift shop to access the trail. A ranger checked our tickets at the rear of the shop and we were on our way. There were so many people hiking. So. Many. People. Scott and I wove our way between groups of hikers in our bid for continuous unfettered steps. About a third of the way up we passed by a campground that had a café and bar. We refilled our water bottle and resisted the urge to linger with the crowds of hikers lunching at the picnic tables. The trail soon became steeper and narrower. We could see the tips of the Torres as we got closer to the end. Soon the trail became single file. There was a lot of time spent standing still, waiting for the people ahead of us to navigate the rocky trail. We tried to be Zen about it. If I were Queen of the Universe I would implement a rule that you have to pull over and let people pass if more than five are lined up behind you. Like any civilized highway. On the bright side, all of that waiting allowed us time to eat some snacks. The trail opened up a little bit and we were able to get around a group or two when we hit another snaggle of people. This time it was because a man had a heart attack on the trail. There were half a dozen vacationing health care workers on hand administering CPR. Tour guides with radios were running supplies to the site and arranging for more formal emergency treatment/evacuation. We were asked to just give them space. We did. I saw him as we passed by. He looked young. Our age. He had a hairy belly and his face was so pale it looked blue. We sent out a prayer for his safety and got out of the way.
Arriving at the base of the Torres del Paine felt strange knowing that 300 yards away a man was receiving CPR. At every moment, no matter where we are, someone somewhere is fighting for life. Giant glaciers are calving, vicuñas are grazing, water is pouring off of impossibly high cliffs. Each moment, the world is full of beauty and tragedy, simultaneously, always. Soon the majesty of the Torres erased all other thoughts from our minds. The lake beckoned us to her shore. We were happy to sit in the sun, eat our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and dip our toes in the water. We watched the other hikers take their photos while the sun cast lengthening shadows over the cliffs. We even saw some familiar faces from our time hiking and camping in El Chaltén. We all have roughly the same itinerary down here in Patagonia.
They close the lake at 4:00 pm and we wanted to beat the crowds heading down so we left around 3:00. The obstructions on the return hike were few and far between. Plus, since we were headed downhill the slow folks weren’t as slow. We stopped for a chocolate break about halfway down. As we ate our chocolate, pairs of Andean condors circled overhead. The trail was carved into the side of a deep ravine and at one point a condor swooped so close to us we could hear its wings cut through the air. We readied our cameras in case it made a second fly-by but it was a one-time thing. So cool.
After our hike, we returned to our not-a-campground to sleep again. The next morning, we drove around many of the roads through the park. The day was gray and drippy. We were very lucky to have caught the Torres on a clear day. We had planned on hiking up to a mirador that day but a combination of clouds and fatigue led us to scrap that plan and find a hot shower instead.
After leaving Torres del Paine National Park we made a bee-line for Ushuaia. We were excited to be so close to a destination we had been driving towards for the better part of the last two years. With one border crossing and a ferry across the Strait of Magellan to go, we figured that it would take us two days of driving to get there. It took us three days because we found a sweet little forest campsite that convinced us to take a break.
Aside from being the southernmost city you can drive to in the whole wide world, Ushuaia is the main hub for trips to visit Antarctica as well as being an active shipping port. There were people everywhere. People trying to get business done and people trying to have a tourist experience. As far as the tourists were concerned, it was a different demographic than we were accustomed to. The sidewalks were full of European retirees in matching adventurewear fresh off their cruise ships. As I looked out over the port at the giant cruise ships and container ships I could hear their hiking poles clacking along on the cement sidewalks that lined the waterfront. These were not the gritty overlanders we were accustomed to rubbing elbows with. We gave our fellow tourists a wide berth. All of the news had been dominated by warnings of a virus that was especially bad in Spain and Italy. We eyed the cruise ships warily as those things are floating incubators of disease. We had just crossed the border between Chile and Argentina two days prior and the only evidence of the virus was a notice that people should pay attention to their health if they had been to China recently.
Arriving in Ushuaia was not the momentous occasion we had envisioned. The months on the road were beginning to wear on us. We were more focused on being able to refill our propane and procure some groceries. Once we had taken care of the necessities we headed towards the big USHUAIA letters down on the waterfront. Exhausted or not, we had some serious picture taking in our future. The sign was very popular, but we had nothing but time on our hands. Eventually, we caught a lull in the crowd and were able to monopolize the monument to create a series of awesome/ridiculous pics.
Before leaving Ushuaia, we decided to get an alignment for The Joan. She was sometimes pulling to the right and ever since that one time when the wheel fell off the truck we lost confidence in ignoring her subtle cries for help. We spent the night at a municipal campground (free!) outside of town so that we could make our morning alignment appointment. The mechanic place was a small Pop and Son’s type of place. They offered us morning pastries and let us watch them work on the alignment. Scott felt pretty confident that he was understood when he explained that the truck sometimes pulled and sometimes didn’t. Turns out that The Joan had a screw loose! Actually, shorn in half. A big bolt in our lower control arm had broken in half causing some play in the steering. He was able to replace the bolt but things were still a bit jiggly down there so she didn’t steer perfectly but she did steer predictably and would likely do so for the next couple of thousand miles. We really just needed to make it to Montevideo, Uruguay by March 26th to get her in a shipping container bound for the USA. We had 16 days and 2600 miles to go. We could deal with anything else after we got her home.
Feeling a little bit more confident about her steering we took one more road south. Ushuaia may be the southernmost town but it wasn’t the end of the road. There was one more road we needed to take. It would terminate at a military base that is further south than Ushuaia. We planned on driving down there and having our southernmost camp. Right after the turnoff to the road, we checked in with the military. The guy at the checkpoint told us we wouldn’t make it to the end and that there was a nice restaurant if we took a different road. He also told us that he once had long hair like Scott and wished he still had it. We drove on reminiscing about how military checkpoints used to really freak us out. They have never been anything but a friendly interaction… with big guns.
As we were warned, we were unable to make it to the bottom of the road. A bridge was out and we did not have any way around it. So, we took a moment to take in the scenery at the southernmost point that we would ever drive. It was beautiful. The light was amber and shorebirds were flying around gracefully reorienting themselves to our presence. That was it. Our turnaround point. No sign, no monument. Just us and a disheveled flock of herons.
After an appropriately long moment of reflection on our journey thus far, we turned around and headed north. We popped in at our favorite little forested nook where we had slept on the way down. This time we parked so that our tailgate coffee making station would get the morning sun. The next morning, despite our well-laid plan, the sun never broke through the clouds. We made coffee in a bitterly cold drizzle feeling winter’s approach. We needed to get ourselves to a warmer latitude.
We crossed back into Chile for the last time. This time at the border we had to fill out a form self-certifying that we felt healthy and did not have any contact with any known sick persons for the prior 14 days. Everyone crossing the border filled out that form… using the same pen. We were headed for the town of Cerro Sombrero. There isn’t much there to attract the average tourist but they have their weary traveler attraction game down pat. In the center of town is a Tourist Center. There they have a bank of computers and a person employed full time to orient passersby to the attractions of that region of Chile. Plus, the whole town has free WIFI broadcast from the town square. Add to that the heated bathrooms with hot showers available for free every day and you have a weary traveler haven. The strange bit is that the giant campground they built just outside of town does not have a bathroom. It was an almost perfect setup. It felt strange to be using a public shower facility when every time I turned on my phone I all I saw were warnings about COVID-19. I looked at every surface suspiciously. I was not happy when the resident bathroom cat, who was friendly enough to try to crawl up on my lap while I used the commode, said her goodbyes to me by shredding my wrist with her teeth and claws. Great, Now I had to worry about COVID-19 and cat scratch fever (is that a thing?). I spun my arm in giant circles to encourage my wrist to bleed out any infection, washed with hot water and soap, hissed at the cat and got out of there.
Before leaving town, we purchased plane tickets back to the states. Thanks to the virus, air travel was suddenly dirt cheap. Our plan was to fly to Miami, rent a car, and go stay with my aunt up in Georgia while we waited for our truck to make its way to the States. We bought tickets for April 8th from Buenos Aires, Argentina to Miami, Florida. That gave us a week from the time The Joan would set sail from Uruguay to when we would have to be back in Buenos Aires to fly. Flights straight out of Uruguay were a couple hundred dollars more expensive. Plus, we thought it would be fun to visit Buenos Aires. Maybe catch a tango show or something. Anyhow, that was our exit plan. Our near future plan was to head back into Argentina and go visit some penguins!
The second-largest colony of Magellanic penguins breeds on a beach just over the border from Chile. There are so many birds there. These penguins are burrowing birds and they are monogamous. Apparently, each year the male of the pair will arrive first, find the nest, and call out to his mate to join him. She recognizes him from the sound of his call. They take turns sitting on the eggs (typically 2 of them). By the time we arrived, it was pretty late in the season. The baby penguins were still scruffy, but sporting quite a bit of their adult plumage. Both parents would leave for the day to go out fishing to return in the evening and feed the chicks. We wanted to time our visit to see the adults returning from the sea. We pulled into the visitor’s center but it was closed. There was one van parked in the lot. It was our friends Colin and Lucia again! They were still southbound in their journey and knew that if they waited until they were northbound, like us, to visit the penguins it might be too late. We were so excited to see them again. The four of us chatted away until it was time to see the adult penguins make their evening return. There is a roped-off walkway through the penguin’s nesting area. We sat down quietly on the walkway and waited at a spot where the penguin highway crosses the tourist walkway. I set up my phone to take video and just sat and waited. I had imagined that they would be as cavalier about our presence as the blue-footed boobies had been in Ecuador since we are not a natural predator. Nope. Us being there definitely slowed their progress back to their chicks. They would wait until they had a sizeable enough crowd and then they would all cross the path at once. We annoyed the penguins for about 15 minutes. When it became clear that they were never going to just collectively decide that we were not a threat and go about their business we left them to it.
The camping area in penguin-land is a couple of miles away from the rookery. The four of us camped out in the designated area. Our friends woke up before the sun to go back and watch the penguins head out to sea in the morning. Scott and I are not big pre-sunrise people. We slept in and had a leisurely morning before going back out to the rookery and communing with the chicks. Colin and Lucia reported that we did not miss much. It was not the wobbly parade that we had imagined. It was a more diffuse migration out to sea. We wandered through the tourist walkway again to say hello to the chicks in the full light of day. There are about 130,000 breeding pairs of penguins with 1-2 chicks per pair. That is a ton of birds! They made amusing noises, had beak wars, and pooped a lot. They had an endearing way of flipping their heads to look at you sideways. They were very cute but we had places to be. We said goodbye to Colin and Lucia (and warned them of the attack cat at the bathrooms in Cerro Sombrero) and headed back up north.
From that point on, our trip just got weird. All of the news we were getting was that COVID_19 was spreading and spreading fast. Travel to and from Europe was halted. The number of cases in South America was low but they could see the writing on the wall. They were making moves to shut down travel. It was a frantic game of Musical Chairs and we really wanted our chair to be in Uruguay. From this point on we just drove and slept. Stops were for gas and groceries only. We weren’t being really picky about where we camped. We just hoped for some protection from the ubiquitous wind. It became a tour of Argentine gravel pits. There was one that doubled as a guanaco butcher station. Guanacos are like vicuñas but less delicate. And they have a gray face. There were sun-dried guts and bits of pelt strewn about. A fox came in the night to shout at us. I think it was disappointed that we were not butchering guanacos. The next night we stayed at a gravel pit by the sea. People had been littering there for so long that there were identifiable plastic layers in the sides of the pit. The view was nice though. After that, we stayed in another roadside pit. This time there were a couple of abandoned tires but nothing creepy to speak of. The owner of the land stopped by to make sure we didn’t need any help. He was one of those salt of the earth rancher types. He shook our hands and asked us not to start any fires on his ranch. Out of respect, we waited until he was out of sight to hit the post-handshake sanitizer. It is a strange transition to go from “I don’t want people to think that I think they have cooties” to “maybe the fact that they might have cooties should be brought to their attention.” One more night in a seaside gravel pit and we were making good time.
We had learned that the exchange rate for USD was about 30% better if we sent money to ourselves through Western Union so we headed into the nearest town to pick up some cash at the local Western Union office. We arrived just before they closed for siesta and they told us that we couldn’t pick up any money until 5 pm that night. We were in a hurry to head north and didn’t feel good about waiting 4 hours for Western Union to open up. My Western Union App indicated that there was an office inside of a local grocery store as well. When we arrived, there was a line wrapping around the store because they were only allowing 50 people in at one time. We did not feel like standing in line in the bright sun to get inside the store especially since there was a high probability that the Western Union was also closed for the afternoon. So, we picked a town further along our route that looked like it might be an affluent/resorty type of place where we could stop and try our luck. We had heard from other travelers that they often don’t have enough money to pay out transfers until the afternoon and that they sometimes had very low limits on the amount. As we approached, it looked promising. We took the high-rise hotels on the coast as a sign that there might be enough money in the till at the Western Union to pay out the money I had transferred to myself. We turned off the highway to head into Puerto Madryn and got stopped at an agricultural inspection station. Normally we are waved through these types of checkpoints. Not today. The police officer indicated that we needed to pull off the road. He asked us where we were from and how long we had been in the country. We gave him a confusing answer because we were in Argentina for a while before we went back to Chile and then Argentina again and then Chile again and now we are in Argentina. He went inside the inspection station office and talked to somebody. He came back out, this time wearing a mask and latex gloves. He asked for our passports. Maybe our stamps could explain our trajectory better than we could. We were feeling naked without our passports. He came back to our truck a few times to ask us questions. Did we feel any symptoms? No, we feel healthy. Have we been to a hospital? No, we have not been near any hospital. Have we been in contact with any Europeans? No, we have been camping alone. Each time he would pop by to ask a question he was very apologetic. He gave us explanations we never asked for. He was sweating profusely in his gloves. After about 45 minutes he told us that an ambulance was on its way to come and check our health. We asked if we could park in the shade. We had been driving north for four days and the climate had gotten significantly warmer. We pulled under the shade of a tree on the side of the building to wait for the ambulance. We were trying to stay positive but our minds were reeling. What if they detain us? Where would they force us to stay? Can they put us in jail? What if they want to put us into a hotel? They have our passports, we can’t just take off… can we? The cop came back and apologetically asked us for our names, phone numbers and the names of our parents. He tried to keep his distance as he wrote down our information.
Right about then the young Belgian couple that we had camped next to in El Chaltén and seen again in Torres del Paine rolled in and parked next to us. We filled them in on the whole waiting for an ambulance thing. Great, they were going to find out that we lied about not having contact with Europeans. Technically, we hadn’t. We never touched them… They had been shunned out of a grocery store and were on their way to an Airbnb to hide out and wait for the virus to pass. At this point, all foreigners were pariahs but it was far more egregious an offense to be European than American.
The police officer returned with our passports and a deep apology that the ambulance was not going to come and check on us and that because we had not been in Argentina for at least 14 days we were not going to be allowed to enter the town. Our passports were back in our possession. We were not sad. By this time, we really didn’t want to go to town anymore. We wanted nothing more than to be free to drive to Uruguay. He let us know that there was a gas station on the highway that we would be able to use but there was no way he could let us into town. We wished goodbye and good luck to our Belgian friends and got back on the highway with a quickness.
From that point on we decided to stop futzing around with the Western Union; there were plenty of ATMs around. No stops unless it was for food, gas, or sleep. Many countries were closing their borders to foreigners and we were racing to Uruguay.
We were aiming for a city park that was listed on iOverlander for the night. The reviews mentioned a park guard and a 2am closing time for certain sections of the park. Right before the turnoff to the road that would take us there I asked Scott to pull over so we could rethink our night’s sleep. Our interaction with the police that day had me feeling like I didn’t want to stay anywhere with rules and guards. If we took a different road to Uruguay (same distance) we could wild camp at a lake about a mile off of the highway. We both agreed that the lake sounded like a better idea so we altered our course and headed for some lakeside slumber.
About five miles before we got to the turnoff to the lake we encountered our first peaje (toll booth) in all of Argentina. This was not good. Because we had anticipated getting money at the Western Union we had used up all of our pesos at the last gas stop. We made a U-turn and headed back to the last town we had passed, Trenque Lauquen to find an ATM. We were very paranoid that there would be a police check to get into town. We practiced how to explain that we just needed money and would leave as soon as possible if we were to get stopped. Thankfully, we passed through town unhindered. The second ATM we tried worked like a dream. Now we had some pesos for the peaje.
Our next stress was the peaje itself. What if the police had commandeered the booth and were using it to control foreigners passing through their jurisdictions? Well, we weren’t going to sleep on the side of the highway, so we were about to find out. It was not worth our stress. 70 pesos and not a second glance at us. Pfwew! By this time, night had fallen and we were staring intently into the dark to find the turnoff toward our lake. We found the narrow dirt road exactly where it should have been and turned right into the tall grass. We crossed a bridge and turned off that narrow road onto an even narrower road. We stopped at the first wide spot and set up camp wondering what the landscape would look like in the morning.
We woke up to a very different reality than the one we fell asleep in. Word on the traveler’s pages we follow on the internet was that the border between Argentina and Uruguay was closed. We were only seven hours away. We discussed driving up there and trying anyway. We couldn’t find any official proclamation of the closed status. I was looking into a safety net for that option. Finding potential places to stay if we got up there and couldn’t cross the border. It was slim pickin’s. Airbnb was not an option. The hosts I messaged let me know that they would be fined if they rented to foreigners. Campgrounds were being closed and the people in them were being kicked out. Finally, we found official information. The border was officially closed. It was a one-way valve for residents to return to their home countries and nothing more.
We looked around at our little lakeside camp spot and decided it looked like a good home for now. We didn’t want to find ourselves stranded in the city. Everything we were finding online indicated that we needed to shelter in place until we had been in Argentina for 14 days continuously without symptoms. Then we might be able to move about more freely.
To do this we would need supplies. We packed up the truck with the intention to return to Trenque Lauquen to stock up on groceries and then come back to the lake and settle in for the long haul.
We renewed our stress about the peaje. A lot can change overnight but it was still business as usual there. Back in Trenque Lauquen we headed to a familiar supermarket chain called La Anomina. We waited in a spaced-out line to get in. We didn’t talk to each other. In Argentina, we blend in pretty well until we open our mouths. I watched through the glass doors of the supermarket as the people before me in line entered. There was an employee in gloves but no mask just beyond the doors. I saw her greet the entering customer with a hug and kiss on the cheek. Seriously? I mentally filed her away as a person to avoid. Eventually, it was our turn to enter. Never had grocery shopping felt more like visiting a library. Everyone was quietly minding their own business. Scott and I were whispering about whether we wanted red lentils or green when the gloved kissy employee asked us loudly if that was English she heard us speaking. We backed away from her as she honed in on us. Apparently, she loves English and knows about three words of it. We got away from her as soon as we politely could. Scott thought she was going to report us and get us kicked out. The rest of our shopping trip was uneventful. Our cart was loaded. We hadn’t bought so many groceries at one time in the entirety of our trip. We also bought bottled water. The water in the lake where we were planning on making our home was salty. Our filter is powerless against salt. We had prided ourselves on not buying single-use plastics for water on this trip. We cut ourselves some slack. These were special circumstances.
Once our groceries were loaded up we made one more stop at the gas station to fill up the tank and the extra tanks. Back in Ecuador, when the country had essentially ground to a halt due to nationwide protests, we learned that full tanks of gas provide peace of mind. Scott and the gas station attendant performed a graceful refueling dance making sure neither of them had to touch any surface that the other had touched. It was quite elegant and we could tell the attendant appreciated it. We also filled up our extra water bottles there. We were fully loaded for two weeks of isolation.
One more uneventful passage through the peaje and we were turning back onto our narrow dirt road. This time we drove a little further out toward the end of the road to get a touch more privacy. We parked up under a tree, angled ourselves diagonal to the prevailing wind, and went about setting up camp proper.
We were constantly second-guessing our decisions. Were we doing the right thing? Should we have tried to go to the border and cross with a sob story? I was feeling slightly unhinged. Had we made it into Uruguay, we were going to camp at a place that had WIFI, hot showers, laundry, roaming horses, and fresh-baked bread in the mornings. I was really looking forward to that level of civilization and the disappointment I felt about missing out on that experience was immense. Our tranquil lake was lovely. There were flamingos, roseate spoonbills, cormorants, herons, parrots, and funny little groaning jays keeping us company there. It was beautiful and natural and yet I still had to ask Scott to remind me that everything was going to be okay. Amazingly, the words, “everything is going to be okay,” are just as soothing when uttered upon request as when they are unsolicited.
We reached out to home to let everyone know our location and situation. We got in touch with the shipping company and the friendly Canadians we were to be sharing a container with and let them know that we were not going to make our shipping date. We let that great campground in Uruguay know not to expect us. We were put in touch with friends of friends in Argentina just in case we needed any help while we were navigating our way through this time.
One of those people was Mono. He communicated with us via voice messages on Whatsapp. He sent us reassuring messages. Something about his voice made us feel deep in our hearts that everything truly was going to be just fine. There were a couple of times when we were feeling particularly unsettled that we would re-listen to his messages. They were medicinal.
By this time all of Argentina was on lockdown. The only allowable excursions were to the grocery store and the pharmacy. Our first night at that campsite, a couple of men drove by with a floodlight. They didn’t shine it at us, just along the shore. The next day they returned and told us that we were not allowed to fish at the lake and that we shouldn’t drink the water. No problem. We were surprised later in the day when a truck with two men and two young boys showed up to go fishing. I was annoyed to have the company. I was just about to go swimming when they parked blocking access to the beach. I was even more annoyed when they stayed the night. There was not a lot of cover for taking care of personal business out there and having four dudes frolicking on the beach didn’t help the situation. I kept staring at them trying to will them into packing up their tent and going home. My attempts at mind control didn’t work but the police arrived and told them they needed to go home. So that was good.
We had been expecting a visit from the police and were relieved to finally get it over with. They took our names, passport information, names of our parents, and our phone number. Apparently, we picked a good spot to be. They liked us there. They told us not to leave and that somebody from the hospital would be by to check on our health. They asked us if we needed anything. We told them we were fine for now but would eventually need water. The water we filled our tanks with at the gas station turned out to be salty. They told us they would bring us some sweet water. We emptied the salty jugs and gave them to the police. We figured they would bring them back to us the next day but they returned an hour later with jugs full of delicious water. They gave us a phone number to call if we needed anything and let us know that they would be back to check on us daily.
We did get a daily visit from the police. Every two days the faces would change. They were all very kind. Not all of the police officers knew where to get good water. Our next refill was salty again. So disappointing. We were pretty far from the ocean and surrounded by sugar cane fields. I had a feeling the salts were from fertilizer infiltrating the wells but was trying not to think too hard about that. We never got a visit from anybody from the hospital but we did get a visit from four police officers at once. They had us sign some papers saying that we would stay where we were for fifteen days starting on the first day that the police visited us. We told them that we had been there for two full days before they showed up but they didn’t care. It was a good thing they were bringing us water because we had now signed papers saying we would be there until April 4th. We had been thinking that we just needed to isolate until we had been in the country for 14 days. We were anticipating freedom on the 26th. I was feeling very disappointed at this turn of events. Scott told me everything was going to be okay without me having to ask. We were becoming accustomed to our new reality.
On the whole, things at our little lake were pretty good. Until they weren’t. Mosquitoes hatched and ruined everything. I have only experienced mosquitoes that bad one other time in my life. That was when I spent a summer working in Everglades National Park in Florida. The mosquitoes in the Everglades are legendary. These were just as horrible. When the wind was blowing with enough strength we could stand outside. But we would have to rotate ourselves because the mosquitoes would accumulate on the leeward side of our bodies. Getting up to pee in the night meant that we would have to have a mosquito murder session upon return to the tent. It was impossible to rid ourselves of them before crawling through the tent flaps. Each morning I would wash the blood splatters off the walls of the tent with vinegar. Not only to clean a disgusting mess but it made it easier to find them and murder them when they couldn’t hide amongst the carnage of their fallen sisters. After it became clear that the mosquitoes were not going to abate we dug deep into the truck to find the screen room we had brought. It zips onto our awning and we had been hauling it around for over a year without ever using it. When would-be overlanders would poll the Facebook groups for packing advice asking what you brought that you didn’t end up needing I would always list the screen room. It is big and bulky and we never used it. I take back every disparaging word I have ever said about that thing. It is gold!
Every couple of days we would brave the mosquitos and go swimming in the lake. Well, splashing in the lake. It never got deeper than our knees. The lakebed was smooth mud and once the depth exceeded six inches we would lose sight of our feet because the algae was so thick. We washed ourselves and our clothes in that lake water. Then we would run the gauntlet of mosquitoes waiting in the grass back to camp and zip ourselves into our screen room as fast as possible.
Our food supplies were holding out but just barely. We would cook a big pot of soup in the pressure cooker and eat it for two days. That way we would save on propane. Our propane bottle could not be refilled just anywhere and the nearest place that we knew was about 100 miles in the wrong direction. Soup and coffee. That was our life. We were feeling paralyzed by circumstance. We would start to work on things like writing this blog or making a video and would find ourselves unable to focus. We kept wondering if we were frogs in a slowly boiling kettle. I would hate to find that I was peacefully writing a blog post when I should have been plotting our escape. So we spent too much time watching the internet using frustratingly patchy cellular coverage. I got daily emails from Copa airlines asking me if I wanted to cancel our flights to Miami we had scheduled for the 8th. I ignored them. Eventually, the flights were cancelled by the airline.
We had registered with the embassy. They had much bigger fish to fry than a couple of self-sufficient overlanders camping by a lake but they were able to provide us with a personalized letter encouraging the police to let us drive on the highways to Buenos Aires when the time came to go home. There was a flight to Miami on Eastern Air. We didn’t take it. We were thinking that we would stay at the lake until the isolation period we had agreed to with the police was over. Then we would work on getting home. After that first Eastern Air flight had gone we got a personal email from the embassy. They basically told us that we should have gotten on that last flight and that there was going to be only one more flight direct to the US and if we didn’t get on that flight we should plan to stay in Argentina indefinitely. That is a big word. Indefinitely. It lit a fire under our butts.
We stayed up late trying to book flights home. We couldn’t book online and our phone service was not reliable enough to make the booking over the phone. Scott’s parents made the reservation for us. The people at Eastern Air said that if the police stopped us from making the flight we could get a refund. That was a good assurance because we did not have the police permission to travel when we bought those tickets! As soon as we got those confirmation emails we knew we were making the right decision. We were flying home at 8:30 am on April 2nd. Only six days earlier than our canceled flight. I got in touch with a guy outside of Buenos Aires who was offering up his service to store vehicles for overlanders. He confirmed that he still had space for us and also said that he might be able to ship the vehicle for us when the ports opened again. The plan was coming together.
The next day we started to pack. I already had an extensive packing list of things we would want with us while the truck was being shipped. It didn’t change much with our new circumstances. Most of the things we had in the truck we could live without for the foreseeable future. It was a big task but I was so excited to have a plan I could act on.
The biggest hurdle was that we needed a permission slip from the police to drive on the roads. If we had stayed the full 15 days we would have had the isolation certification. This was a big ask. Scott texted the number they gave us just in case it was a mobile number (texting in Spanish is far easier than talking on the phone in Spanish). Then he called it. A woman answered and when we asked for the police she hung up on us. Then Scott got a response to the text. The woman asked who we were trying to reach. When we told her the police she apologized for hanging up. She thought we were crank callers. She called the police for us and told them that the gringos out at the lake wanted to talk to them.
It took about an hour for the police to arrive. We explained that we needed to get to Buenos Aires to fly home and that we needed a salvo conducto (safe passage certification) to be able to do that. The officers called their boss. They chatted back and forth for a while without coming to a consensus. We kept hearing that we had not isolated long enough to get a salvo conducto. We impressed upon them that this was likely our last chance to get home. They told us that they had to go back to the office and would return with an answer in a couple of hours.
Those were very long hours. We had to continue packing. If they said yes then we would need to leave first thing the following morning. If they said no we would be all packed up with nowhere to go. We were nervous but moving forward. Almost three hours later the police returned. They said that we were going to need to follow them to the clinic to get a health check and they would give us permission to drive. We were elated! This time we asked them for a couple of hours. We were just about to eat and needed to put away the tent and screen room before we could drive. They didn’t mind waiting. They gave us a cell phone number to call when we were ready. This time we checked to make sure it was the right number before they left.
Putting the tent away was horrible. It was sunset and that is when the mosquitoes are at their worst. We put on long sleeves and beanies to protect ourselves from the hordes swarming around us. We worked fast and loose. We didn’t bother zipping the tent cover closed, just tied the straps. When we called the police to meet us they were there within ten minutes.
It felt so good to be driving. Scott behind the wheel and me in the passenger seat felt like coming home. It was our happy place. We followed the police into the town of Beruti. It smelled like dairy country. When we arrived at the clinic it was fully dark outside. There were about one hundred toads congregating under the lights outside of the building. We were led inside and waited for the doctor to see us. We were trying to give the staff their space. They didn’t seem concerned with maintaining social distance. We got a little nervous when the doctor asked us for the isolation form that we signed before. She seemed confused that we were asking to get a health certification without it. The police officer explained to her that we were given special permission to drive without having isolated the full term. She seemed doubtful but wrote us a note that said we seemed healthy enough to drive to the airport but she included the phone number to the police station on the back. I guess if anyone questioned its validity, she didn’t want it coming back to her. We were just happy to have an official slip of paper from her clinic with her stamp and signature on it. It was actually happening! We were so excited!
One more night and morning in the mosquitoes and we were out of there. I don’t know if I have ever been more ready to leave a place in my life. We got an email from the airline telling us that our flight was delayed until the 3rd. We didn’t change our plans, it just meant one more night in a hostel. It was Scott’s birthday. Heading home was probably the best birthday present he could have asked for. We had about three hours of driving ahead of us to get to the place we were going to drop off The Joan. We padded our drive time by two hours. We needed to make sure we had enough time to go through any checkpoints on the road. We were nervous and excited. All of our paperwork was at the ready. Letters from the embassy and flight confirmations on our phones, passports, and medical certification in my purse. It took us four hours and we went through no checkpoints. We did see police stationed beside the highway restricting access to the towns along the road but not stopping highway traffic.
The truck drop-off needed to be quick. Cristian, the man who was going to be looking after The Joan, had left me a message detailing the drop-off protocol. We had to arrive exactly on time as the taxi would be waiting. Luggage and passenger (me) would wait on the sidewalk outside his compound. The driver would enter with the truck. Park. Keys and payment would be inserted into an open Ziploc bag. It had to be quick so that the neighbors wouldn’t complain about all of the disease-ridden foreigners hanging around his place.
We were an hour early. I texted him to see if we could move our appointment. He confirmed with the taxi and it was a go. The drop-off didn’t go exactly as outlined but it was pretty close. We both entered the compound. There was minimal chitchat. The keys and money went into the Ziploc. We grabbed our bags and left. The taxi was waiting. Once we were rolling, I asked the taxi driver for an estimate of the cost. He quoted us 3200 pesos. That was when we realized we had left our wallet with our pesos and debit cards in The Joan. Oops. We turned around, I texted Christian. At least we had our spare keys with us so we didn’t need access to the Ziploc.
The taxi driver took us to a hostel close to the airport. At this time in Buenos Aires most hotels and hostels were closed. There were a few open and they were only allowed to accept guests who were preparing to leave the country. The drive into the city took over an hour. We passed through four police checkpoints. Our suspicions about the peajes were confirmed. Every single one had been converted into a police checkpoint. Most of them were checking on the credentials of the taxi driver. He had to have a special certification to drive during the lockdown. There were hundreds of cars parked along the side of the road that had been impounded when drivers were caught on the road without permission. Only one stop required that we produce our documents. We showed them our flight confirmation on the phone, our passports and our health certifications. The police officer only looked at our documentation. He touched nothing. That was nice.
When we arrived at the hostel, check-in seemed almost normal. They told us that we could have food delivered or walk down to the corner market for food and use the kitchen. It was quiet. There were two other families staying there. We went into our room and hid out. We had brought couscous, canned vegetables, instant coffee, and our electric kettle with us. We wanted to minimize our mingling with the other guests. The bathroom was shared but we had plenty of hand sanitizer with us.
Things were pretty mellow until a minibus full of Germans arrived. The neighbors did not like all of the foreigners milling about and called the police. Pretty soon there were about five vehicles form three different branches of government parked outside the hostel. We had a room facing the street and got to see all of the action. The officers were dressed in full hazmat gear. One of them was even wearing a backpack sprayer and was sanitizing the sidewalks. Police cataloged each of the Germans. Photographed them, their flight confirmations, and their passports. Neighbors milled around taking video of the excitement on their cell phones. We stayed tucked into our room. The hostel workers let us know that we were not allowed out of the hostel to go to the store anymore. The police told them that they were not allowed to accept any more guests.
The police came to our hostel daily. Eventually, they cataloged us as well. Photos of our passports and flight confirmations were taken. We were killing time in our room, watching Netflix, and hunting the single mosquito that had been plaguing us in the night. The police seemed to like that we were keeping to ourselves. They seemed to appreciate that we wanted to limit our time in the lobby and avoid all of the chaos. Our flight got delayed again. We were running out of food. Our couscous supply had run out. We had a large bag of prunes and a little bit of peanut butter.
The hostel couldn’t or wouldn’t help us arrange a taxi to the airport. I texted Cristian and asked for the contact of the driver who brought us to the hotel. Unfortunately, that driver’s credentials had expired and the website to renew them was down. I was on a group text on Whatsapp for overlanders stuck in Argentina so I asked the masses for advice. I got a number for another driver. He was busy but connected me to yet another driver. Bingo! Third time’s a charm. Once we had shared with him our flight confirmation, social media handles (maybe to see if he liked the look of us?), and our health certifications, our taxi driver, Gabriel, was happy to get a fare. In normal times he ran tango tours in Buenos Aires. First thing when we got in his cab, he sprayed our hands with sanitizer from a repurposed Windex bottle.
Our flight was delayed from 8:30 to 11:30. At least the date hadn’t changed again. We were told that the delays were to allow more people time to get to Buenos Aires from out in the provinces. We arrived three hours early for our flight. There was a line snaking around the terminal. Ours was the only flight leaving that day. None of the concessions were open. The vending machines were unplugged. We still had a half a bag of prunes. The line was moving so slowly, there was no way we were going to be leaving on time. Once we had gone through security and were waiting to board the plane we learned that Scott’s cousin’s cousin was on our flight. Small world! She and her boyfriend were actually in the seats right behind us.
Around 4:30 that afternoon we finally departed Argentina. The plane was probably older than me. There was no in-flight entertainment. No movies, USB ports, nothing. We could see where the ashtrays used to be in the armrests. It was a 9-hour flight and we were on our own to entertain ourselves. The man in front of Scott immediately reclined his seat and had a habit of scratching his head for emphasis when he spoke. Unfortunately, he had a dry scalp and was frequently emphatic. There was not enough food for everybody. They ran through with mini bags of chips and threw them out to the passengers who yelled the loudest. We did get a creepy ham and cheese sandwich similar to those sold in blister packs at truck stops. We tried to separate the bread from the ham and cheese. It was permanently bonded and I ended up just shredding the bread. We ran out of prunes.
We had high hopes of procuring some food at the Miami Airport. We had heard that the governor of Florida wasn’t taking the virus very seriously so the odds of restaurants being open in the airport were good. We arrived just after midnight. I assured the man at customs that I had traveled to neither China nor England and he welcomed me home. Due to the late hour, there was nothing open. At least the vending machines were plugged in. Two overpriced granola bars and a bag of chips later we laid claim to a swirly red metal bench and tried to get some sleep. A succession of fifteen-minute naps ensued. The morning was elusive.
Finally, enough time had passed that we could check-in and pass through security. Behind security, the world was far more comfortable. The seats had padding, the cold wind from the parking garage didn’t blow through, and Starbucks was open. We comforted ourselves with soy lattes and croissants. Twice.
Crossing the US was a dream. We had all the amenities one would expect on an airplane in this day and age. Our flight was about 10% filled and little baggies of chips and cookies were abundant. We layed over in Atlanta. There we found burritos. Big, giant, veggie burritos with all the hot sauce we could want. They were our first belly-full of food in almost two days. We slept off the burritos while crossing the continental US. San Francisco greeted us with a rainbow.
As a welcome home present, Scott’s folks got us a hotel for the night and dinner delivered to our door. We took an Uber there. The driver gave us paper masks. I’m pretty sure he sprayed them down with Axe Body Spray or some other equally noxious substance. Our hotel room was big enough that we could lose each other if we weren’t careful. The bed was large enough for both of us to sleep diagonally without touching each other. We washed the air travel off of ourselves and slept the sleep of the dead until checkout.
We borrowed a car from his parents as well. They met us at the hotel with the car. We followed them back to their house so we could share a driveway moment. They sat in their car and we sat in the car we were borrowing and we chatted across the driveway at a safe distance. This was nothing like the homecoming we had previously imagined but it was the homecoming we got. They had loaded the trunk with groceries for us so we got to go straight to our little house in Chico without having to subject the world to any of the crazy cooties we may or may not have picked up on our epic journey from Argentina.
So, that’s a wrap. 40,949 miles driven. One year and ten months well spent. What next? We’re going to sit still for a bit and wait for the next big idea to come along.
We entered into Chile at a remote crossing sitting at 15,370 ft in elevation. The border guards were kind and smiling as they searched our truck for fresh fruits and vegetables. In Chile, there is an extra layer of things that are not allowed in. This time they were on the hunt for seeds as well as the fresh stuff. We had a Costco-sized bag of chia hiding in plain sight. Our biggest worry was that they would raid our tote of spices. We had a jar of dehydrated Scotch bonnet peppers that we were especially attached to tucked far in the back. We lost a couple of cloves of garlic to bureaucracy. Judging by the ping-pong and foosball tables set up in the inspection building, it seemed like they enjoyed their quiet high-desert post there. Once we were done with the business of border crossing we headed downhill into the desert town of San Pedro de Atacama. Very far downhill. As we descended the elevation dropped 7370 ft in twenty minutes. Approaching town had us shedding layers and popping our ears at an alarming rate.
Chile felt like California. It had been one year and three months since we last stood on United States soil when we entered. We felt like we were transported back to the USA. It was like we were getting a little precursor to the culture shock we expected to experience when we got home. Suddenly, the gas stations accepted credit cards, the highways had thick pavement, and the construction was industrial and angular. The cost of everything was almost as high as California as well. It was quite a shock.
San Pedro de Atacama was a cute hippy town blooming in a vast desert with a reputation for petty thievery. We were still traveling with our Spanish friends. Hainoa stayed with the vehicles while the rest of us ventured into town to find an ATM. Once our pockets were sufficiently lined we went out in search of camping. We were all looking for the same thing. Hot showers and strong WIFI. We found it at a place that specialized in renting out dome-shaped rooms. It was hot there and the pool was off-limits to campers. We sat in the WIFI zone, listening to dome dwellers splash in the pool and planning our trajectory through Chile.
We were still sleeping in the back of the truck ever since the rain fly of our tent started falling apart. It made it easy to go to sleep at night as the bed was already made but it was a bit like sleeping in a coffin. I had to press my face to the window to stave off the waves of claustrophobia that plagued me as I wriggled my way into bed each night. It was not optimum. It was also impossible to seal it up against bugs. The mosquitoes in San Pedro were horrendous. They were fast, and they bit hard! The bites blistered and lasted much longer than any bites we had experienced. We were sleeping in a coffin full of mosquitoes. We had to get out of there. Plus, it was expensive. We were paying 15 UDS to sleep in a parking lot.
We said goodbye to our Spanish friends and headed out through the desert towards the coast. Warm summer days would soon be in short supply so we did our best to stay focused on driving south without too much dillydally. We slept in a trucker rest stop. There were warning signs about UV radiation. It was like the dial often used to indicate high fire danger but this one was about the solar danger. It went to eleven. Apparently, there is no ozone over Chile. On a good day, it is dangerous to be outside without sleeves and a hat. But when somebody puts a giant hand in the middle of nowhere it would be irresponsible not to dillydally just a little.
The coast of Chile was dry and sparsely populated. Most of the people living there were in the business of harvesting seaweed. They invariably had a shelter made of wooden pallets and tarps with one scrapped car in the yard. Seaweed was flaked out on the beach to dry in the sun. Most of the traffic on the oiled dirt road consisted of old trucks piled high with dried seaweed.
We drove from secluded cove to secluded cove as we made our way south to Santiago. In Santiago, we made it our mission to fix some of the things that had begun to fall apart on The Joan. We were toying with the idea of selling The Joan instead of shipping her home. There were a handful of issues that we could have ignored but might have hindered a quick sale. Santiago was the best place along our route to make some fixes. We met David, the magician of sewing, and commissioned a new rain fly for our tent. While he was busy sewing, we went to the automotive section of town and got a new windshield, new door latches, the AC fixed, and a couple of new headlights.
Santiago also had one of our favorite things in great supply. Vegan restaurants. It was on a foray into town to fill our bellies that The Joan was violated once again. Someone had popped the lock on the driver’s side and snatched a handful of goodies that we had neglected to remove from the truck before driving into town. We felt stupid because it is common knowledge that Santiago is an unsafe city to park in. We lost the drone that we never used and some music recording equipment. We were most bummed that we had lost my camera with the zoom lens that I used to stalk the wildlife. Thankfully, I had just emptied the SD card so all of my pictures were safely tucked in my computer back in our hotel room.
Anyhow, we were given the opportunity to have the lock fixed the next day at a mechanic shop that was also replacing our sway arm bushings and gear shifter mechanism. I am not a big fan of maintenance. Santiago was a stop that was heavy on maintenance. I was very happy to get out of that city.
Leaving Santiago, we made one pit stop at a Honda motorcycle dealership to refill our propane bottle. Side note: The threading on propane bottles varies by country. We had been lucky up till then to find places that have proper adaptors to refill our North American tank. Many places used to be able to refill the bottles but it seems that Chile is moving to a universal bottle swap system so most of the places that could refill the bottles in the past are no longer offering that service. We have a 10 lbs. tank and it usually lasts us about 6 weeks. Anyhow, we headed back out towards the coast to continue our trek south.
The first stop was at a place called Playa Trinchera at a municipal campground. This was a campground that had wooden shelters and real flush bathrooms on the beach. The crazy part was that it was free. Owing to its great price and fantastic location, all of the sites were taken. So, we staked our claim to an isolated corner of the parking lot for the night. Unfortunately, that corner turned out to be a favorite with folks too lazy to walk 100 yards to poop. Humans are deplorable. On a positive note, since we had a brand-new rainfly, we were able to move back upstairs into our rooftop tent. We had been sleeping in the back since the Lagunas route in Bolivia.
We spent one more night on a beach right next to a toll plaza (not peaceful) before angling The Joan inland towards the town of Pucón in the Lakes District. Chile was the most affluent country we had been in since leaving the United States. Driving through Pucón felt like we were back in California, driving around Donner lake. The roads were crowded with vacationers and the beaches were packed umbrella to umbrella. Chile has a very strong camping culture and campgrounds were abundant. Unfortunately, most of them cost more than we were paying for a decent hotel in Peru and Bolivia so we did our best to protect our budget and seek out wild camping options. We stopped at a very cute vegetable stand to stock up on essentials and headed out of town to find a place to sleep for the night.
We ended up in a gravel pit on the side of the most active volcano in Chile. We were in Parque Nacional Villarica. It was definitely illegal to camp there. We waited until after dark to set up our tent just in case a ranger came by. We were mostly out of sight. The snowcapped Villarica volcano was glowing in the night and the Milky Way shining bright. I was feeling thankful that my camera was stolen in Santiago because it was very cold out and I would have been compelled to play with long-exposure night photography. Instead, I got to cuddle up in the tent and stay warm. Every cloud has a silver lining.
The next day we attempted to hike to some volcanic craters. After about 15 minutes of hiking, we were second-guessing ourselves as to whether we had locked up our computers properly. The recent burgling had us on edge. We abandoned the hike and headed back to the truck. Neither of us really felt like hiking that day anyway. We were both attempting to rally for the sake of the other. We opted instead to drive around in the park and find a better place to lay our heads for the next night.
We headed deeper into the park and found an abandoned picnic area. It was definitely illegal to camp there. We, again, waited until after dark to build our house (set up our tent). In the morning we put the tent away before making coffee. That was a big deal for us. From there we headed up to a trailhead to a glacier. This time we were excited to hike. The trail started in a forest of monkey puzzle trees. They are a conifer native to Chile and are unlike any other we are accustomed to seeing. We exited the forest abruptly and made our way towards the glacier on Villarica volcano. We just can’t seem to stay away from smoking volcanoes. The trail ended at the toe of the glacier where muddy water was trickling out from under the ice. It was a bit anticlimactic. So, we went around the “danger” sign and walked up onto the ice. We were lured on by the hints of blue peeking through the dirty ice. We did not venture deep into the caves because neither of us felt especially like dying that day.
Leaving the park had us driving over one of the worst roads we had encountered on this trip. People had tried to fill some of the deep ruts and holes with sticks and rocks but it was very rough going. We passed many people walking up the road having given up driving before reaching us. We hoped that was not a sign of even rougher roads to come. As we bounced and swayed our way out of the park I made us snacks. I have had a lot of practice making snacks on bumpy roads. That day, the snack menu was crackers with hot sauce, prunes, and peanuts. It sounds weird but it was delicious.
The Lakes District proved to be highly fenced. That is to say that there were very few opportunities to wild camp. Most of the land was spoken for. We drove around for the better part of a day looking for camping before we resigned ourselves to the fact that we needed to pay to camp. I found a campground that was on a river that had a hot spring. If we were going to pay to camp we might as well have a hot spring to go with it. The reviews on iOverlander indicated that it was small and sleepy. When we arrived, the place was totally full of weekenders. It was Sunday afternoon and there was no parking anywhere, much less a place to camp. The manager promised that it would empty out by 8 pm when they closed to day-trippers. We took his word for it and changed into our swimsuits. The river had hot water seeping through the gravel of its banks and there were two formal swimming pools that were filled with fresh hot water each morning. There was also a sauna that was fed by a natural steam vent. I peeped in for a moment. It was very dark and smelled like a good place to acquire a moldy lung infection. Also, the wooden door was so swollen and misshapen that it felt like the likelihood of it jamming was very high. I was in there for maybe three seconds. It was three seconds too long. I felt like I barely escaped with my life. We made individual pools for ourselves on the shore of the river by rearranging rocks. It was tricky because the hot water was unpredictable in volume and too hot to touch. The cold water was very cold. At no time were we relaxed. After 8 pm the place did clear out and we were among very few other campers. It was peaceful.
From there we continued south. Always south. We found a wide stretch of land where a river met a lake. Many families were camping. We drove to a far corner past all of the other campers by a couple of trees and felt very much like we had found paradise. It was a warm sunny day and we were reminded of so many other river camping spots we had visited on this trip. Immediately we settled in to stay a couple of days. We deployed our awning, set up our table, put our chairs together and commenced relaxing. It had been a while since we had spent a whole day in one place without driving.
Towards the evening the clouds began to gather. We went to sleep that night feeling grateful that we had a brand-new rain fly on our tent. While we were sleeping a proper storm rolled in. Complete with whipping winds and pouring rain. Our tent was not designed to sustain strong winds. It is very flappy and loud. The flapping woke Scott in the night. He sat up and put his hand in a puddle of water that had formed on my sleeping bag. Our new rain fly was failing. Water was pouring in from the seams. It was bigger than our original fly and therefore flappier. It flapped so hard that the poles that held it in place were forcibly thrown to the ground. Our bed had become a pool and the tent was whipping in the wind. It was then that our awning folded itself in half. It was not designed to fold. It was the middle of the night and we were out in the rain rolling up our awning, gathering towels to soak up the water in our bed and feeling generally grumpy.
Thankfully, the sun returned the next day and we were able to dry out our tent. The awning was not broken, just bent. We were not well-rested but that is not a big deal when you have no job or responsibility. We put a fresh tube of silicone on our shopping list to seal the seams on the rainfly and hoped the rains would hold off until we could find some.
We didn’t linger as long as we had first hoped at that lake. The sun had returned but the wind had also stayed. The weather was cold and a swarm of biting horseflies had moved in. It was less fun than we had anticipated. We continued south to the town of Quellón.
Quellón had two things that we were interested in. One being a ferry to the town of Chaitén. The other being the southern terminus of the Pan American Highway. At the end of the road, there was a big monument to the Highway. We had lost so much time that day searching unsuccessfully for waterproofing for our tent that we arrived in the dark. We had early morning ferry tickets so visiting the monument was going to happen in the dark or not at all. We haven’t really spent much time on the Pan American Highway. It had just been a general landmark along the way. A couple of times we found ourselves on it and would chuckle about how our Pan American Highway adventure was so rarely on the actual highway. I guess it was fitting to give the monument just a sliver of our time.
If you look at a map of Chile, the further south you go the more it seems like the country is entirely made up of islands. There seems to be more water than land. We left the Pan American Highway, hopped on a ferry and four hours later found ourselves in search of our next big road. The Carretera Austral. Before getting on that road we decided to seek out some help with some funny noises our truck was making. Scott called it a howl. I thought it was more of a soft moan. Sometimes a squeak. We googled and found that we might have been a little behind on our chassis lube schedule. By a little behind, I mean that it was recommended every 5000 miles or so and we had never done it. So, we found a guy with a grease gun and were then on our way south again.
It was a drippy gray day. Rain is the norm this time of year on the Carretera Austral. We pulled into the visitor’s center at Parque Pumalín to see if there was camping availability for the night. Parque Pumalín was a private park founded by the American, Doug Tompkins. Recently the ownership had been transferred to the Chilean government. When we arrived, they were still in the process of working out how they were going to manage it. So, for the time being, it was free! The park had a very manicured country club feel to it. The roadsides were impeccably mowed, the road surfaces were smooth, and the signs were ornately carved from local hardwoods.
We drove to the upper campground that was only accessible by four-wheel-drive vehicles. Each of the campsites was named for local mountains and came with a private gazebo with a picnic table overlooking the Ventisquiero Glacier. We chose one that had level-ish parking for our truck and commenced relaxation. We planned to hike to the glacier the next day. Lucky for us, the skies cleared and we had a beautiful sunny day for our hike. The trail was mostly flat, following a braided glacial river. Towards the end, the river forced the trail up into the forest. Then things got muddy and steep. Eventually, we emerged from the forest at the base of the glacier. We could hear the ice cracking and thundering. We waited patiently, facing the cold wind blowing off the ice for a glimpse of movement. We were rewarded by one tiny hourglass of snow and ice pouring off a corner of the glacier. Most of the time when we heard something there was no corresponding icefall. It took will power, but we finally tore ourselves away from the glacier and headed back to camp.
That night the weather turned. Torrential rains poured down. For some reason, our tent did not leak. We were thinking that the wind direction must have been in our favor as the rain fly flapped so violently that there was never any accumulation. Anyhow, we remained dry. We spent the day in our gazebo watching the rain blow sideways across the meadow. Large tree branches cartwheeled in the wind. Our glacier view was completely obscured. Park rangers came by to let us know that the park was officially closed. Trees had fallen on the roads and we were to remain in place until they opened the park again. By noon the next day, everything was sunshine and rainbows, the roads were back in tip-top condition and we were free to leave.
Our next stop was in a town called Puyuhuapi. We found a campground that had hot showers, WIFI and a relaxation space that was heated with a wood stove. We found it and so did every backpacker within a 50-mile radius. It was almost empty when we arrived but by dinner time it was full. It was a good thing I called home when we first arrived because that was the last time we had enough bandwidth to do anything. We ended up staying there for three days as it started raining again and it seemed like a comfortable place to wait for a break in the weather. Plus, the woman running the camp made amazing bread that she would sell each morning. Every place we go there seems to be a regional carbohydrate of choice. In this part of Chile, it was pan amasado– homemade bread. Every third house had a sign outside advertising pan amasado. We were hooked.
When the sun came out we packed up, bought an oven-load of pan amasado and headed for our hike. So did everybody else (not the bread part). We wanted to hike the trail to the viewpoint for Colgate glacier. We paid an exorbitant entrance fee, found the last parking space in the park and headed for the trailhead. There were a ton of people just hanging around the trailhead. We made moves to go around them and realized that they weren’t loitering. They were waiting in line to hike. What? There is a suspension bridge at the beginning of the hike that has a limit of 4 people at a time. There was a line on either side. If we had not just paid the exorbitant entrance fee we would have just left. We found our place in line and marveled at the crowds while we waited. We were behind three sunburned Russian guys wearing polished loafers, brightly colored skinny jeans and too much cologne. When we finally crossed the bridge, we enjoyed half of a moment of solitude on the trail before we caught up to the first group of fellow hikers. It was difficult to pass people. There did not seem to be any sort of etiquette about letting people go around you. It was a little taste of what it must be like for a foreigner to visit Yosemite in peak season. In the end, the glacier view was spectacular. There was a reason for all of the crowds.
After the crazy Disneyland of a hike, we were happy to find a deserted stretch of river to camp beside that night. We watched a beautiful moon slide behind a cliff on the other side of the river while we listened to nothing but wind and water passing by. At that camp, we found a colony of really wild looking beetles. We later found out that they are called Darwin’s beetles. They were iridescent and had great horn-like points on their heads. Wild. We would have lingered and enjoyed the solitude but the funny truck noises we had tried to lube away in Chaitén had not disappeared so we were headed to Coyhaique to visit a well-reviewed mechanic to see what might be the problem.
The mechanic, Sergio, was a bit of an Overlander Angel. He allowed us to camp in his back yard while he made time in the shop schedule to check out our truck. We weren’t the only overlanders there either. Our friends Colin and Lucia, who we had first met in Guatemala, were camped there renting shop space to fix some things on their van. It was a reunion! Once The Joan had her time on the lift it was determined that she needed a new center support bearing for the driveline and a set of U joints. I guess that delayed lubrication schedule didn’t really work for her. While we were in the automotive maintenance mode we figured it was a good time to get a bit of welding done on the truck. Because we carry so much weight in the truck some of the supports for the bed had collapsed which caused the camper shell to knock against the cab when we went over bumps. We were constantly going over bumps. Sergio recommended a guy named Victor to be our welder and set up an appointment for us.
Victor was a little hungover when we arrived but he seemed really nice and the fact that he was willing to work on our truck on a Sunday was great. In order to get to the spot that needed welding, he had to drop the gas tank. Unfortunately, we had just filled up and that sucker was heavy! Victor welded while Scott stood on a ladder with a bottle of water ready to extinguish any fires that started in the back of our truck. We had removed most of our belongings but there were some bits of cabinetry that were permanently mounted which were in danger of igniting.
When it came time to replace the gas tank Victor had to siphon the gas out of the tank in order to be able to lift it into place. He didn’t have a suitable container handy. He scrounged up a plastic barrel that used to hold who-knows-what. He rinsed it out with hose water, a quick follow-up rinse with some gas and with a quick suck on the end of the hose proceeded to fill it from our tank. Once the tank was reinstalled (with a lot of head-scratching as to which hose goes where) he used the siphon to refill our gas tank. All the while I was googling what the ramifications of water in our gas tank or contaminated gas might be. Certain death was not in the search results so we figured we might have a rough running tank of gas but would be okay after we filled up again.
We were feeling remiss for neglecting The Joan’s lubrication for a year and a half so we asked Sergio if he thought there was anything else we might want to address before heading further south where mechanics and services are few and far between. It was then that it came to our attention that we were about 5000 miles overdue for a timing belt/water pump service. He also let us know that there was a design flaw in the ball joints for these trucks and they have a tendency to catastrophically fail every 40,000 miles or so. Sergio recommended that we not use any of the locally available parts. The parts needed to be shipped from the United States. We talked about ordering the parts and having them delivered to a mechanic further south for installation. The problem was that we couldn’t find a reputable mechanic in any of the southern cities. Not to say that there aren’t any good mechanics in the southern reaches of Patagonia, just to say that we couldn’t locate one. We did some calculations and figured that we had roughly 4000 miles left to drive on this trip. We decided to grit our teeth and try to make it home before having this service done.
We were feeling good enough about our plan and headed out to see what there was to see in Chilean Patagonia. Our spirits were high as we anticipated a night camped out in nature contrasting with the prior nights spent amidst broken down vehicles. We were about a half-hour along when The Joan started coughing. We rolled our eyes and blamed Victor for contaminating our gas. We powered through her hiccups and coughs. The smell of unburned gas started to fill the truck. She would run smoothly for a bit and then have another coughing fit. We confused a few hitchhikers when she cut out in from of them. They thought that they had lucked into a ride. We waved them off and restarted the engine. By the third time she cut out, the fumes were really intense. The next time she died, we pulled off the road onto the gravel shoulder and immediately saw that gasoline was raining down from our undercarriage.
Scott grabbed the fire extinguisher from behind his seat and we gave The Joan a wide berth. We watched as gasoline poured onto the gravel beside the road. It was coming from the frame of the truck. The rain of gas soon became a light drizzle and finally ended. We were baffled as to how the frame of our truck had become full of gas. I tried to call Sergio. My cell phone indicated that there was service right there. Unfortunately, my cell phone is often a little liar and those three bars of Claro were purely decorative. We stood beside the road staring at the truck for quite some time before a nice Argentine man pulled over to see what our problem was. We explained the lluvia de nafta (rain of gas) as best we could. He wanted to see for himself. We were very reticent to turn the truck on being fairly confident that gas would start pouring out of every orifice followed shortly by a massive explosion. He seemed sane and insisted the truck would not explode. Whatever. Scott turned the key. I hid in a ditch, just in case. The Joan turned over and ran just fine. No rain of gas, just a horrible smell of stale gasoline. Scott and our new friend poked and prodded for a while to no avail so we decided to try to make it back to Coyhaique to see if Sergio could give it a look. I rode with the fire extinguisher on my lap. Our new roadside friend followed us all the way back to town. We parted ways with a honk and a wave as we turned up the road to Sergio’s shop.
We called our automotive lifeline back in California, Scott’s brother Dan. He sent us pictures of the correct configuration of the tubey thingies that attach to the gas tank. Apparently, we had been pumping gas into our evaporation lines. How that gas made it into the frame of the truck will have to remain a mystery. With the truck up on the lift, the botched configuration was rectified and we were good to go.
This little squall in our otherwise smooth-sailing life made us think twice about making it the last 4000 miles without the timing belt/water pump service. We decided to stick with Sergio. We made a plan to order the parts and continue our exploration of the Carretera Austal while we waited for delivery. Once we reached the bottom we would turn around and head back to Sergio’s for installation. The Carretera is often driven as an out and back as the road ends at a town called O’Higgins. If you don’t have a ferry ticket for onward travel (which we didn’t) then we would have to return north to cross into Argentina. Our plan added about 200 miles to our overall distance. In the big picture that was nothing.
Once again, we are headed south and feeling good about the prospect of sleeping in the wilderness. We saw a lake on the map and decided to head there. It looked like the road did not connect with any other roads so the chances of solitude were pretty high. We drove for a couple of hours past many small lakes before we found a spur off into the forest. It looked like someone’s forgotten wood-cutting lot. Perfect. We tucked in for the night and ended up staying for two. We didn’t discuss it. We just both neglected to make any motion towards packing up in the morning. On night two the rains came and inspired us to keep moving.
The next day, as we drove to reconnect with the Carretera Austral, we came across Colin and Lucia. Great minds! It was nice to see them outside of the mechanic’s shop.
We were advised that Carretera Austral is in the process of being paved and that the road is closed between 1 and 5 pm south of Cerro Castillo (Cerro Castillo is a BEAUTIFUL mountain/park with a prohibitive cost to enter). Timing is not our strong suit. We rolled into the line of stopped cars around 3:00 pm. No biggie, we don’t really have any place to be except Montevideo, Uruguay on March 26th to organize shipping The Joan back to the States and that was six weeks away. So, we found a wide spot in the road, assembled our kitchen and proceeded to make a late lunch/early dinner. At 5:00 pm they opened it up and all the cars passed the dusty construction zone at once. With all of the traffic, the dust became so thick that we often could not see the tail lights of the car in front of us. We were just thankful that we were passing this route in a truck and not on a bicycle. All of the cyclists we passed looked miserable.
Our destination was to visit marble caves on the shore of Lago General Carrera. There are two options for seeing marble caves. Puerto Sanchez, where a motorboat takes you to see the caves or Puerto Rio Tranquilo, where you can kayak to see the caves. Normally, we would opt to kayak but the kayak option is very popular and thus very crowded. We opted to go to Puerto Sanchez. After a very confusing conversation with the woman in the tourist office, we headed down to the docks to see about lucking into a tour. It worked. We met a group of four traveling from Santiago and asked if they minded if we joined them. They checked with their boat guide, who was happy to have two more fares, and we were off!
The boat ride to the caves was very short. We rode over to a small island off the shore of the town and nosed our way into the mouths of many small caves. Interesting shapes were pointed out: a whale tail, a sitting deer, etc. We learned that Lago General Carrera is 590 meters deep and was once a kilometer deep. The finale of the tour was a walk through one of the caves. They gave us helmets with headlamps on them and led us through a windy reach of the cave. Very cool. On the way back to shore we were thankful that we were not in kayaks. The wind had kicked up as wind is wont to do in this area of Chile and the lake was covered in whitecaps. We had to zig-zag our way back to shore to avoid being swamped.
It needs to be said that this area of Chile is full of ridiculously luminous water. As we drove the Carretera Austral south we kept rounding corners to see vistas of jaw-dropping colors. Lago General Carrera could possibly be described as Cerulean blue. The next lake we came across was Lago Negro which, as indicated by its name, was black. Apparently, it got its color from minerals in the mountains. According to a man named Saturnino, the minerals were safe. Which is good because we filled our drinking water jugs from that lake. Beyond Lago Negro was Rio Baker. The waters of Rio Baker were crazy blue. The river looked like it was illuminated from within. Downstream the electric blue of Rio Baker joined with the opaque green of Rio Neff and continued on a murky turquoise color; still beautiful but less dazzling than Rio Baker.
Our next stop along the way south was Caleta Tortel. Caleta is the preferred Spanish word for cove in Chile. I think it sounds classy. Caleta Tortel is unique in that it does not have any roads in the town. A road leads to a big parking lot on the edge of town and after that, it is all wooden walkways and stairs. The town hugs a rocky cove and is surrounded by a wooden walkway suspended over the water. The water’s edge is littered with old retired boats being reclaimed by nature. Where a captain once stood, daisies were blooming. The town was really cute, but it has been discovered by so many tourists like ourselves that it didn’t have the magic I imagine it once did. We took a walk along the water and continued our southbound journey.
We were lucky that we didn’t linger in Caleta Tortel because we rolled up to Puerto Yungay moments before the last ferry of the day across the water to Rio Bravo. Once we got off the ferry I felt a sense of urgency to find camp. I was just sure that everybody on the ferry was angling to get to the camp spot we had picked out from iOverlander. It was the best-reviewed one close to the ferry. We were the first vehicle off the boat and we got to our camp spot no problem. None of the other cars that came after us even slowed at the turnoff to our spot. Even though the competition was all in my head and nobody else seemed to want our spot, we won. First place for best camp spot, undisputed. It is the little things.
The southern reaches of the Carretera Austral were beautiful and blustery. Waterfall after waterfall passed by our windows. We were warm and cozy inside the cab. We made a couple of stops to take pictures of especially scenic viewpoints or exceptionally charismatic swans. And one more stop because we ran out of gas. Oops. We were carrying an extra ten gallons in jerrycans on top so it was not a big deal. Just a cold refueling experience… for Scott. I waited in the warm cab. There was a gas station down in O’Higgins to top up before our return north.
The days were still very long as we were very far south in the austral summer. I think it was close to 8:00 pm when we reached the end of the Carretera Austral. The sun was low and the mountainsides were glowing. We found a place to park so we could visit the commemorative signs for the end of the road. When we returned to our truck to begin the return leg of our journey we were sent off with a beautiful rainbow that followed us for miles.
We paused in O’Higgins for gas and groceries before heading off on a spur road up into the mountains. The road ended on the shores of Lago Christie. We had envisioned camping at Lago Christie but upon arrival, it was clear that we would wake up transformed into windswept popsicles if we were to stick to that plan. We doubled back and found a protected nook in a forested patch next to a placid river. It was just the type of place we would normally have spent a few days enjoying. Not this time. We needed to head back up to Sergio’s for truck maintenance. Sigh.
It only took us two sleeps to get back up to Coyhaique. We hadn’t had any contact from Sergio since he texted to let us know the parts had arrived. We didn’t want to camp in his backyard again without an explicit invitation so we headed outside of town to a little park with parking next to a polluted river. There was a van occupying the best spot when we got there so we parked up on a rise closer to the road. It wasn’t our most peaceful night of rest but we got the job done.
When we got to Sergio’s he set us up with a place to park inside his back shop. Where Colin and Lucia had been parked the last time we were there. It was nice and warm in the shop.
We were looking forward to cooking without the wind for once. We didn’t have wind but we also didn’t have propane. We watched the flame slowly die, heaved a sigh and dug out our little backpacking stove. We had four small canisters of gas that would hopefully last us until we were able to refill our propane in Ushuaia, a mere 1000 miles to the south.
A young guy named Mayckol did the timing job for us. Scott had also noticed that the steering had been acting funny on the Carretera Austral. When he turned the wheel to either side it did not want to return to center. It wasn’t acting like it had when the power steering went out. There was no whine or howl… maybe a whine. Anyway, after Mayckol was done with the timing belt, water pump, and this and that we had Sergio look at the steering. One of his other mechanics drove it around and agreed that the steering was not behaving as it should. Everyone figured it was probably the power steering pump. We decided that we could live without power steering for the rest of the trip and we wanted to save some money. We asked them to check out our ball joints too. We had ordered new ones when we got the timing kit just in case they failed. They shook our tires and said that things looked fine. That being said there aren’t a lot of visual cues that ball joints are failing.
I was feeling really impatient to get on the road to Argentina. Sergio mentioned that he knew of a guy who might be able to refill North American propane tanks but he wouldn’t be around until Monday or Tuesday. It was Saturday and I was not keen on hanging around any longer than we needed to. Plus, I didn’t have a lot of faith that the propane thing would work out considering we didn’t have an adapter for Chilean threads. My hopes of heading straight to the Argentine border were dashed when Sergio suggested we drive around a bit to see if the timing belt job felt good before leaving the country. Fine. Whatever.
We headed out to camp at Lago Atravesado. The lake was about thirty miles outside of Coyhaique. We almost made it there. We had crested a hill and were heading around a blind corner when we felt a thump and ground to a stop in the gravel. We looked at each other in disbelief. Yup. Busted ball joint. The wheel was still attached to our truck but in no useful fashion. What a great opportunity to use the triangle reflector kit we had been hauling around for almost two years. We set out the triangles to warn oncoming traffic of our presence and set ourselves to trying to figure out how we were going to get out of this pickle. I knew there was no version of our future that included us living out our golden years on the side of the road in Chile, but I was definitely curious as to how this was going to play out.
This time my cell phone was pretty honest about the fact that we had no service. We knew that Sergio offered a towing service. We also knew that it was Saturday afternoon and he had likely left on his camping trip already. It was worth a call though. We have a Garmin inReach that we can use to text people. So, we tried reaching out to Scott’s brother and Stepfather to see if they could call Sergio for us to get a tow. We couldn’t text Sergio direct because you can’t add new contacts to the Garmin without internet service. While we waited to see it that plan would work (which it didn’t) a guy rolled up in a boxy blue car and offered to take us to the nearest town with cell service and call a tow. Scott hopped in the car and I stayed behind to guard The Joan. A quick kiss goodbye and would I ever see him again? I jotted down the good Samaritan’s license plate number and description of his car just in case. Many cars passed while I waited for Scott to return. Two cars stopped to try to help. A half an hour passed before I saw that boxy blue car round the corner. Scott never got cell service but our new friend did and he called many tow trucks on our behalf. The fourth call was successful. Now, all we had to do was wait for a half-hour to forty-five minutes. Sure enough, about a half-hour later we see our tow truck.
Our tow truck driver, Cristian, became our new favorite person. He worked hard to get The Joan onto his flatbed tow truck. It was not easy because that front wheel refused to get with the program. It had completely forgotten how to roll. In the end, The Joan had to be winched up the ramps backward. I collected our triangle reflectors and we piled in with Cristian for the trip back up to Sergio’s.
Coincidentally, Cristian and Sergio knew each other. Small world. When we couldn’t get ahold of Sergio, Cristian offered to take us back to his place and fix the ball joint for us the next day. The only catch was that we would have to go with him to meet his girlfriend so that he could help her hook up a trailer to make a dump run. No problem! The trash trailer was at a building site where he and his girlfriend were building a house. She is the architect and he is the labor. The house was almost finished and really cool. If felt like Frank Lloyd Wright and Picasso met for drinks in Sweden and designed a house.
After picking up the trailer we went back to Cristian’s house. He introduced us to his mother and his nephew and left with his girlfriend to go to the dump. We set up our ground tent in his yard because we could not deploy the rooftop tent the way it was parked on the tow truck. And we couldn’t get The Joan off of the tow truck without first fixing the ball joint. The best part was that he let us use his shower. We were really, really, really ready for a shower. I guess he knew that since we did ride with him in his tow truck for an hour. Anyway, the shower was heaven. We both slept like logs only to be awakened in the morning to the sound of Cristian banging on our truck.
We crawled out of the tent and he sent us inside to have breakfast with his mom, sister, girlfriend, and nephew. We enjoyed morning coffee with avocado bread and bananas. Before we knew it, our truck was fixed and we were on our way.
We needed to kill some time to wait for Sergio’s shop to open the next day to replace the other ball joint so we went on a tour of beautiful lakes. I didn’t want to sleep down by the river in Coyhaique again so we drove an hour out to a beautiful hobbit-like forest to camp. The next morning, we drove into town and got the second ball joint replaced. Amazingly, the steering problem we were having went away.
The guy who was trying to fill our propane tank came to the realization that he couldn’t do it without an adaptor of some sort. Surprise, surprise. He didn’t figure that out until it was too late in the day for us to try to cross a border so we ended up staying at my not-favorite spot down by the river. That night we shared that spot with three other vans while a crew of graffiti artists did some touch-ups on their art under the bridge.
Finally, it was time to cross into Argentina.
We crossed the border at Kasani just outside of the town of Copacabana on the shores of Lake Titicaca. It was Christmas Eve. We didn’t know what to expect as far as Christmas festivities. We usually hunker down around the major holidays as travel can be difficult. Last Christmas we were in Guadalajara, Mexico taking a travel break at an Airbnb. When we were in Antigua, Guatemala around Easter it was impossible to drive anywhere in town with any surety as the streets were periodically closed for processionals. The only sign of Christmas in Copacabana was the large number of local tourists chilling out on the beaches. Our hotel had no decorations. All of the businesses on the tourist strip were operating business as usual. Luckily, we were able to facetime with my family in Oregon and see their beautifully decorated tree in the background and see the pictures from Scott’s family’s Christmas Crab Extravaganza.
We enjoyed our room in Copacabana very much. It had blue felt carpet, orange walls and a window facing north (they get a lot of sun down here in the southern hemisphere). Plus, it had a towel for each of us, a hand towel, and a bathmat! We were feeling very pampered. The tourist strip that ran perpendicular to the shore was full of restaurants, bars, souvenir shops, and bus ticket vendors. The shore was lined with about a dozen identical trout restaurants. These folks were crazy for their fried trout. Before leaving town, we located the fresh market and stocked up on everything. We had cleaned out our refrigerator and pantry and given all of our fresh fruits and veggies to the proprietors at our hotel in Puno in anticipation of having it all confiscated at the border (the border officials never even looked in our truck). We stocked up on all of the usual suspects and branched out to try some of the giant puffed corn we had been seeing piled high in the markets. They were the consistency of popcorn but the shape of corn nuts and about an inch wide. We were surprised to find that they were glazed in sugar. A fun treat, but not one we wished to repeat.
Leaving Copacabana, we were headed for the hills. The countryside was dry and grassy with a few groves of eucalyptus here and there. About every half a mile we would pass little kids with their hands and hats out asking for money. We would see their mothers on the side of the road as well, usually hiding out under the shelter of a piece of cloth tied between two sticks. Some families had little tents. The kids were making a game of it but the parents were not happy. The road wound back down to the shore of Lake Titicaca where it ended at a ferry dock. The boats we encountered there were high on the list of sketchy ferries. I’m sure they had a system but it looked like mayhem. There seemed to be a two-vehicle limit to each boat and only one of those vehicles could be a fully loaded bus. I was thankful that we shared our boat with a sedan bearing a family of four and one lone woman. We were propelled by a 40 horsepower Suzuki outboard. The space for the second motor was empty. We weren’t the fastest ferry but we made it across.
After disembarking the ferry, we said goodbye to Lake Titicaca and headed east. There were snow-capped mountains in the distance and we aimed to camp among them. Getting there involved many tiny dirt roads and paying “tolls” to women with so much coca tucked into their cheeks that it was a miracle we could understand how much money they were asking for. We drove deep into the mountains, past llama pastures and mining operations. The road ended in somebody’s front yard on a tiny lake. It felt a little strange to camp in their muddy yard so we turned around and checked out some other potential campsites we had passed on our way in. Everything was wide-open, exposed and windy. We decided that it was not in our destiny to camp among those snow-capped mountains. It was our destiny to get back in our warm truck and drive to Coroico instead. Following my recent pattern of not reading the warnings in iOverlander, we took a route that skirted the north end of La Paz before heading out to drive a highway that was under construction a few years ago and has since been abandoned. The stretch of La Paz that we drove was creepy. There had been months of protests leading up to us visiting Bolivia and there was evidence everywhere. The roads were scarred at every intersection from the blockades of burning tires. The neighborhoods were deserted and we saw effigies of people hanging from the light posts. It didn’t help our spirits that we were listening to a podcast featuring a first-hand account of a man who survived being a Tutsi in Burundi in the early nineties. We were relieved when we left La Paz but soon became disconcerted by the lack of signage on our road. The roads we were on were not on any of our mapping apps and a thick mist had rolled in. Save for one motorcycle, we were alone on that road for over an hour, hoping that it reconnected with the roads we were aiming for. It eventually dropped us off on a piece of heavily-trafficked asphalt. We felt much better. Then it got dark. We try very hard not to drive in the dark. Neither of us has night vision as a superpower. This time, the main downside to driving in the dark was embarrassment. There was a hairpin turn that we couldn’t find for the life of us. Which would have been fine if there wasn’t a police checkpoint at the turn. We checked in with that policeman three times before we found our road. Once in Coroico, we spent another hour or so looking for camping with a gate high enough for our truck to fit under. When we finally found a place to camp, the owner warned us not to get too comfortable as he was fully booked for the days surrounding New Year. Ah, the holidays.
We weren’t planning on lingering there anyway. We were there for only one thing. To drive the Death Road. Back before the newer, more sensible highway was constructed, this was the only way for folks from this area and the jungles beyond to get to La Paz. It is narrow, winding, and the drop-offs on the side of the road are unforgiving. Now, the only people traveling this road are adventure-seekers like us. Most people travel the Death Road on bicycle. Tour operators take them to the top and follow them back to the bottom. We opted to drive the uphill direction both to save our brakes and it made for less doubling back. The Death Road has its own set of rules. Most prominent is that you have to drive on the left side of the road. This is so that the driver can look out of his window and see exactly how close to the edge the wheels are. There are reminder signs at intervals along the way but that didn’t stop bikers from threatening to run into us at every turn. We honked for every blind corner and the more responsible tour operators equipped their riders with whistles to use to warn other riders of traffic. Our phone was playing music at random from Scott’s collection. We had it set to randomly shuffle all of the songs. It did not seem too random as Paul Simon’s “Slip Sliding Away” was followed by Tom Petty’s “Free Falling”. Aside from the sheer drop-offs threatening death at every turn, it was a beautiful and tranquil drive. High consequence, low risk. In places, waterfalls would pour directly onto the road and jungle vegetation lined the cliff walls.
When we emerged at the top of the road we found ourselves on the highway that was built to ensure that no one would ever have to drive that road again.
Our first order of business was to get gas. This would be our first fuel stop in Bolivia. There are two prices for fuel in Bolivia. A price for locals and a price for foreigners. Locals pay 3.50 Bolivianos (Bs)per liter and foreigners pay 8.70 Bs. In terms of US dollars and gallons, it is $1.89 per gallon for the locals versus $4.77 per gallon for us “extranjeros”. They have a system where they enter the license plate number of the vehicle into their computer. Some of the fuel stations are equipped with cameras to help keep everybody honest. Sometimes the stations don’t have the technology to sell to foreigners. Sometimes the fuel attendant is amenable to a bit of bargaining. In the absence of a receipt, we might find a middle ground on the gas price and the attendant is able to pocket the difference. This first gas station we rolled into was not modern. Scott was nervous. He did not feel right about trying to weasel a lower price for gas out of the attendant. I was the voice of peer pressure in his ear. “Come on, Babe. Everybody does it. What is the worst thing that could happen? She could tell you no. Come on, you have to at least try.” Scott told the woman that we were looking to fill our tank. He asked how much it cost… without a receipt (sin factura). She paused, narrowed her eyes at him and said, “Cinco.” Scott quickly agreed to the price and she went about filling our tank.
It was a really good thing that things went our way at the filling station as we did not have enough cash with us to fill our tank at the foreigner price and gas stations in Bolivia did not take plastic. After we filled our tank we were left with 120 Bs which is worth about $17.50. Our route would take us through a number of towns so we were not too worried about finding an ATM.
We were heading east to a national park on the border with Chile and we were taking the scenic route. One thing we learned from our jaunt through the outskirts of La Paz was that we did not want to go to La Paz. So, we chose a route through the mountains instead. It was definitely not the most direct route but it promised to be much more tranquil than driving through the heart of the Plurination’s capital.
Once we left the Death Road, there was ample room for two cars to pass each other. The jungle vegetation was broken up by blue blankets of hydrangeas. The only downsides were the dust (all of these highways were dirt) and the dogs. Every time we would pull over for a nature pee, dogs would appear from out of nowhere. At one point, Scott had to stand guard for me with a big stick to fend off a motley pack of mutts. This periodically tranquil road led us to a chaotic town where we were hoping to sleep for the night. It is often a challenge to navigate through the small towns because our map app doesn’t know which streets are closed for markets and definitely does not know how to go around them. We are constantly trying to figure out if we are on a one-way street or not.
We eventually found our way to a hotel that we hoped would have room for us to camp for the night. With the New Year looming we knew it was a gamble. Luck was on our side and we pulled into a dirt parking area behind a hotel which would be our home for the night. We had to share the space with rolls of cable and piles of glass transformers, and we couldn’t use the pool, and the toilet tank in the lightless ladies’ room took two hours to fill, but the price was right. 20 Bs for a safe space to sleep after a long day on the road.
Everything was going swimmingly until the middle of the night when it started to storm. Rain quickly filled the parking area where we were sleeping and turned the dirt to mud. Also, the air was filled with the scent of sewage. We both claimed innocence. That horrible smell was definitely coming from outside the tent. We buried our heads under our blankets and went back to sleep. But not for long. Before sunrise, a truck full of workers showed up to start their workday by loading some of those cables and transformers we were parked beside into their truck. They must have been quite taken with our tent because they spent plenty of time looking at it with their flashlight and shouting at each other. We bade them a “buenos dias” and hoped they would be quick. Nope. They spent about an hour shouting and reversing their truck (with the backup beep for safety).
The actual morning saw us leaving with a quickness. We were not inclined to linger amid the fecal mud surrounding our truck. It was a challenge to get into the truck without any of that mud attached to our shoes. Scott took his shoes off at the door, I took them to a puddle surrounded by grass and washed both of our shoes, then he picked me up from the grassy spot. A pain, but so worth it.
From our camp in poop soup, we headed out into the countryside. We let our mapping app guide us on circuitous routes through the heart of Bolivian coca fields. Throughout our drive through the Americas, we have seen so many different things drying on tarps in people’s yards. Coffee beans, cacao beans, hot chilis, and corn have been commonplace. Now we can add coca leaves to the list. It seemed as though every flat space was occupied by drying coca leaves. Bolivians have a strong relationship with the coca leaf. When chewed it produces a mild stimulant effect that aids them in digestion, dealing with the altitude, staving off hunger and smiling with stuff in their teeth. I think it would be naïve to believe that all of this coca was going to be chewed. Bolivia is number three behind Colombia and Peru for cocaine production. It was definitely interesting to see so much coca without any of the trappings of a clandestine operation. I think my image of coca fields was largely influenced by what Hollywood has provided over the years. Maybe where they process the drug is full of scary people armed with machine guns wearing camouflage garb. In the countryside, it is grannies on porches watching the leaves dry while sleepy dogs nap in them competing for the prime sunshine spots.
Our long drive through the coca fields took us to the town of Quime. There were no really good camping spots around so, despite our dwindling funds, we opted to get a room. We had 100 Bs and a couple of coins to our name. We anticipated that we would find an ATM the following day. The stress of being broke was ameliorated by the fact that we had half a tank of gas and plenty of food. No problem. Well, only a little problem. The gal who was running the only hotel with secure parking that day wanted 110 Bs for a room. Thankfully she was open to giving us a wee discount. We now had 3.50 Bs in coins equivalent to about 50 cents US. As long as there were no unexpected tolls we would be okay until the next town with an ATM.
It was about an hour into the drive the next day when we hit a toll stop. It was one of those little ones where they charge for the privilege of driving through their town. 2Bs. No problem, we had that. Our purse then had 1.50 Bs. Deep breath, there would be ATMs in the next big town.
There were ATMs in that town. Five different ATMs and not one of them would give us any money. They were either for customers of that specific bank only or they were out of service. And it was Sunday so none of the banks were open for us to exchange any of the US dollars we keep stashed for just such a rainy day. The town we were in was not the kind of place where it would be okay to deploy the rooftop tent and wait for Monday to come. Also, we were running low on fuel so we couldn’t drive to where we could camp. We were left with one option. Drive into La Paz and find a working ATM.
We had been driving for three days in our effort to avoid driving through La Paz and now we had no choice but to head straight there. We turned our wheels toward La Paz and saw before us the last thing we wanted to see. A toll booth. Oh boy, we were in for it now. At the toll booth we explained that we wanted to pay the 8 Bs toll but we did not have any money, and the ATMs wouldn’t work, and it was Sunday, and, and, and. The woman in the booth told us to pull over up ahead and talk to the police. Yikes. We parked on the side of the road and I got out to try to sweet-talk the police. I couldn’t find the policeman and ended up telling our sob-story to a toll worker on her break. She chatted with our original toll lady and let me know that we could go and just pay the next time we go through. I thanked her profusely and we headed on our way. We were about 12 miles from the heart of the city and traffic was already stop and go. The wide-open countryside transformed into a wall of bricks. Twilight was looming. People were everywhere. It was loud. It was colorful. It was chaos. I spied a bank amid a bus station/ vegetable market. We pulled in so that I could give the ATM a try and avoid going into the city proper. The clouds parted and the angels started to sing in four-part harmony. The ATM gave me beautiful crisp Bolivianos! We were so relieved. I pulled out the maximum allowable amount. Twice.
Now we needed gas. We pulled into a station and Scott got nervous about bargaining for gas again. I gave him another peer pressure laden pep-talk and the gas jockey scowled and told us no. He wouldn’t even sell to us at the foreigner price. He told us that we wouldn’t be able to buy gas until the town of Tholar. We parked outside the gas station and drained the last of our spare gas from a jerrycan on the roof into our tank and hoped we would make it to a station that would sell us gas.
We were so wiped out by the time we made it to the town of Tholar that we used some of our new Bolivianos to get a room and put off the gas problem until the next day. It was a sad room with a saggy bed. It smelled like mold and was about two feet wider than the bed. Shared bathroom down the hall. Dinner was in the attached restaurant. We had the vegan special; French fries and salad. Mmmm. This day was not one of our finest in this Pan-American adventure. The best part was that it was now behind us.
We were able to fill up our tank and the jerrycans the next morning. Scott negotiated a price of 5.50 Bs/liter. He was getting good at this negotiation thing. We were happy to have a full tank of gas and a full wallet and were ready to hit the open road.
Parque Nacional Sajama is named after Bolivia’s highest mountain, Nevado Sajama. She stands a majestic 21,463 ft above sea level. We watched her get closer all day as we drove toward the park. The landscape was stunning. Eroded red rocks formed badlands as far as we could see. Adobe funeral towers called chullpares dotted the landscape. They were tall red-mud constructions with windows that faced the rising sun. Inside were the remains of the nobility of the Carangas people who ruled the area between 1200 and 1500 CE. We stopped and peeked inside the first set of these towers we came across. One of them still had the bones inside. The rest of the towers we saw were enjoyed from a distance.
Once inside PN Sajama, the road took us on a tour around the mountain. We stopped at a lagoon where we got to see both flamingos and vicuñas cohabitating at the water’s edge. We walked around the lagoon hoping to get a picture that featured both animals with the mountain in the background. The pictures looked better in my mind’s eye.
A little further down the road, we stopped at a small adobe house. There we met Ines. She lives in the house and allows people access to her private hot spring in her back yard for 15 Bs per person. That access included one of the best camping spots of our trip. It took her a while to unlock all of the chains she had blocking her driveway. She directed us to follow the road back and we could camp in the wide parking area. She was concerned about when we were planning on leaving because she was going to go into town to celebrate the New Year. To take the stress off we told her we would stay through the holiday and promised not to leave before she got back. That first day we had many visitors as people were getting their baths in before the big festivities. The conservationist in me cringed at the amount of shampoo going into the river. After the first day, the only other bather was Ines. For the next couple of days, it was just the two of us with about 100 llamas. We could have stayed indefinitely but mother nature kicked us out. All it took was one snowstorm and we were packing up to leave. Ines popped by on her way to her daily bath and asked for a ride into town. It worked out perfectly, we were warming up the truck when she returned from the spring. I scrunched into the space behind the seats and gave Ines my Navigator’s Chair. She smelled of tiger balm. We dropped her off in the town of Sajama and continued on to visit a geyser field. This one was missable. And it had begun to rain. We were ready to move on.
The Salar de Uyuni has been on our radar since the beginning of planning this trip. It is the largest salt flat in the world. During the dry season, you can drive across it at top speeds without much to worry about aside from getting too close to an island and falling through the salt. Camping on the salar with nothing but white in every direction had been a goal from the outset. We missed that season of freedom by three days. The salar was dry right up until three days before our arrival. This was disappointing. I had planned for us to drive onto the salt from the north and exit to the east in the town of Uyuni. Spoiler alert, that did not happen. We spent the night in the self-proclaimed Quinoa Capital of Bolivia, a town called Salina de Garci Mendoza. That night it rained torrentially for hours. Our hopes of finding dry salt were dashed. We still tried to access the salar, knowing we would have to drive no more than 5mph over the salt should we get there. Mud from the prior night’s rainstorm thwarted our efforts. We decided on a change of plans. We would drive around the salar to the town of Uyuni and try to access it from there. Most of the tours of the salar start from there so we figured we might have better luck.
Arriving in Uyuni, we found it gritty. The streets were flooded mud affairs and the intersections were piled high with garbage. We camped in the outskirts of town at the Cemetery of Trains. Retired bits of trains are stockpiled together and it has become quite the tourist destination. We joined the hordes of tourists and wandered around the most charismatic of engines. I was nursing a headache so Scott wandered the rest of the grounds solo. We made dinner and were watching another storm brewing on the horizon when we saw another overlander roll up to the graveyard. Yay! Camping buddies made staying out there so much less creepy. It was a couple from Spain, Unai and Hainoa, that we had not met formally but had crossed paths with two times in Peru. We made plans to team up to visit the Salar and also stick together for the Lagunas Route after. It was fun to have travel buddies for a while.
We agreed to run errands independently and meet up at the main road to the Salar in the afternoon. We needed to stock up on the basics plus extra. Running out of water or gas on the Salar was not an option. Also, we needed to pretreat the undercarriage of the truck with oil to help protect it from the salt. Scott and I were running late (of course). In that time, Unai had befriended a couple of the guides and gotten good information about where we might find dry salt to camp upon.
We drove out onto the salt following those who had gone before us. We passed by a salt hotel and a monument to the Dakar rally. There were people everywhere. We wanted to get out far enough to get away from all of the people. Driving over the salt flat was one of the coolest experiences of my life. It was otherworldly. The dry salt formed a pattern of hexagons that stretched as far as we could see. When we came upon the flooded salt we could still drive on it. Slowly. It was important to minimize the amount of saltwater splashing up under our truck. We stopped and took some pictures and then returned to an area closer to the salt hotel to camp. We were alone out there but could still barely see the hotel and monument in the distance.
The next morning, Scott and I drove back to the hotel to answer nature’s call (there are no bushes to hide behind on the salt flats) before we met back up with our new friends and drove out to the island at the center of the flats. It took us about five hours to drive the 40ish miles to get there. It was a surreal day. The water was only about three or four inches deep but periodically we would pass over potholes in the salt that looked like they wanted to suck us in.
When we arrived at the island the wind was very strong. It was blowing waves across the shallow water and hitting the parking area of the island head-on. We had planned on camping there but were thinking twice about it. There is a hike on the island that took us through a cactus garden and through a fossilized coral arch. It was especially unique after spending a whole day surrounded by white.
We drove around the backside of the island to find a less windy spot for the night. I was feeling paranoid about falling through because the salt gets much thinner closer to the islands. We kept a safe distance. Even though we were protected from the wind by the island it was still very windy. Thankfully, our new friends were generous with their space and invited us to eat inside their camper with them. It became a tradition that lasted throughout the week. It was fun to hang out at the neighbor’s house and share stories of the different routes we had taken down from California. Throughout the evening we noticed the water encroaching on our patch of dry salt. We were pretty sure we were going to wake up in a sea of water. The wind was blowing it right at us. Scott put a rock at the shoreline to monitor its progress. At one point in the night, the water had passed the rock and was about 20 ft beyond it. By morning the water was long gone from that side of us and quickly encroaching from the opposite side. It was an unpredictable place to be.
Interestingly enough, the drive back to Uyuni the next day was almost completely dry. We figured that the wind had sent the water to the other side of the Salar that day. We had spoken to the people who live at the island and they ensured us that we would not fall through the potholes so we drove with much more confidence on the way back. Also, we had seen huge commuter buses crossing the wet Salar at high speed. If they can do it so could we. But slowly to protect our undercarriage.
Upon returning to dry land, the first order of business was to get the salt washed off our truck. Car washing is a big business in Uyuni. First is the pressure wash, then the soapy scrub, then the second pressure wash, then they re-oil the undercarriage. It is a process, but definitely necessary. After the carwash, we returned to the train cemetery to camp for the night before getting ready to head out on the Lagunas Route.
Ah, the Lagunas Route. We had been anticipating this almost as much as the Salar de Uyuni. Also called the Southwest Circuit, it is a high-altitude track that weaves between lakes and mountains. The roads are punishing and the climate can be extreme. About 400 km of washboard road at times breaching over 16,000 ft in elevation was on the horizon and we were so excited. Before leaving Uyuni, we topped up our fuel tank and made sure the jerry cans were full as well. We were counting on really poor fuel economy as the majority of the drive would be over 14,000 ft and short on precious oxygen. We had one final opportunity to buy gas at the tiny whisper of a town called Alota. We purchased 30 liters from a woman in town. It was not a formal filling station and she, being the only game in town, got away with charging extortionate prices. 10 Bs/liter. We wandered the length of the town looking for someone else to sell us gas to no avail. We did meet a local guy who confirmed that the price wasn’t too far off. She charged the locals 8 Bs/liter. It was critical to start this journey with full tanks so we shelled out the dough and she started the siphon.
Our first night we made it as far along as a really cool rock garden. The rocks were off the main road and afforded us with shelter from the wind. It was a spectacular place to wake up in the morning. We took our time drinking coffee and had fun exploring the rocks.
The washboard roads took us to our first lagoon of the drive followed shortly after by more exciting rock formations. We got to see vizcachas close up. They are rodents that look like a cross between a rabbit and a squirrel. Very cute and with a perpetually sleepy visage.
Driving along the route involved a constant search for the smoothest track. The washboards were unrelenting. Sometimes we would find a side track that was just a hair smoother. Often, we would be riding the fluff on the shoulder just for a moment of relief from the constant jarring. We drove all day and arrived at Laguna Colorada just before the sun dropped below the mountain tops. It was incredibly windy so we opted to drive up into a canyon to hide out from the wind for the night and return to visit the laguna in the morning.
Scott was almost done leveling our truck for ease of sleeping when I requested that we give it a 180-degree spin. We were initially pointed to the mouth of the canyon for a quick getaway should a flash flood occur in the night. It was sound logic but I was banking on a dry night. I insisted that it was more important that the morning sun begins warming our coffee making station as early as possible. Scott agreed to reorient the truck reserving full “told-you-so” rights should torrents of water wash us out of the canyon in the night. The next morning’s coffee was a warm delight.
Once we mobilized, we headed back up to Laguna Colorada so that we could commune with the flamingos that lived there. This time of year, there are three types of flamingos sharing space in the lake. The Chilean, Andean and James flamingos can all be found foraging and flapping in the shallow waters. The wind was almost calm and the sun was warm. It was a great day to sit on the shores and watch these beautiful birds wander by.
From Laguna Colorada, we headed on to visit a hot spring. We were looking forward to soothing our battered bodies in the warm waters. On the way, we visited the Sol de Mañana geyser field. Typically, people try to get to the geysers at sunrise to watch the sun peek through the steam. We are not sunrise people. It was lovely in the afternoon.
We first stopped at a free hot spring hoping to camp there for the night. The locals had emptied it for cleaning and told us it would be full again in a few hours. Scott felt the water and reported that it was tepid at best. I like a really hot soak so we moved on to the Sol de Mañana hot spring a few kilometers down the road. We camped on the side of the road in front of the spring. When we arrived, there were about 20 people bobbing around in the water. We opted to prepare our dinner and have a soak later counting on it clearing out.
Our plan worked. We had the spring almost to ourselves. Only a couple of tour drivers were taking advantage of the warm water while we soaked. After we left the pools feeling refreshed and relaxed the other tourists returned for their late-night soaks. We felt lucky to have gotten that window of quasi-solitude.
When we awoke around 6:30 in the morning there were over 40 Land Cruisers in the parking lot. The pool was full to the brim. I had imagined myself having my morning coffee peacefully in the hot spring. I was sorely mistaken. Maybe if we had stayed at the tepid springs down the road. With time, things mellowed out and we had a really nice soak before heading off for the day.
Shortly after leaving the hot springs, we came across what they call the Dali desert owing to the surreal nature of the rock formations dotting the wide-open landscape. We followed a track that took us closer to the rocks. It was a fun adventure as our traveling companions needed a bit of a boost up one of the hills. It was our first time towing another rig on this trip. The Joan was happy to help.
Next, we went in search of an abandoned hot spring between Laguna Blanca and Laguna Verde hoping to prolong our soaking experience. We found it but there was nothing inviting about it. The water was on the hot side of warm but still not hot. Thick swaths of algae billowed in the shallow flowing water. Soaking in that spring would have involved a lot of flopping around to stay warm and submerged. Also, the algae were home to biting bugs. Not inviting. It was abandoned for a reason.
We could see the border with Chile from there. Apparently, wild camping is not allowed in that area. Something about smuggling routes through the mountains and safety. We had read reports on iOverlander of people being ousted from their camps by rangers making them go and sleep by the hostels. We really wanted one more night in the wilds of the Bolivian Altiplano so we drove away from the border station to find a spot both protected from the wind and out of sight of the road and the rangers.
Our last night was spent in a low spot in the topography protected by large volcanic black rocks. In the morning we cooked up all of our fresh food in anticipation of the border crossing to Chile. They are notorious for thorough searches. All fresh fruits and vegetables, honey, and seeds were going to be taken. So, we used it all up in what we called “Kitchen Sink Soup.” It was fantastic. Potato, cabbage, broccoli, way too many hot chilis, way too much garlic, way too much ginger, all of our sesame seeds… Delicious. We also put the last of our extra gas in our tanks as Chile does not allow gas to be transported in. Very picky.
When we got to the border the customs office was closed. They told us to just go to the immigration office about 5km down the road and they would call someone for us. Okay… When we got to the immigration office the customs guy was hanging out there. He took our Temporary Import Permit for the truck and then we went in to get stamped out of Bolivia. The immigration officer tried to charge us a bogus 15 Bs fee for leaving the country. We had read that he would try to do this. Our traveling companion nipped it in the bud when he told the guy that there was no fee. The officer backpedaled, pretended to look something up on a different computer, and then agreed that we did not need to pay the fee. Freedom! We were now in no-mans-land between countries. Another 5km and we would be in Chile!
We had been in the mountains for our whole Peru experience thus far. Now, we were heading down to the coast. Purposefully aiming more south than west we missed Lima (the nation’s capital) entirely. Cities are huge money-sucking machines that we try to avoid if we don’t have any specific need to visit. We dropped from just over 11,000 ft to sea level in about two hours. We found ourselves high on oxygen and overdressed for the warm weather.Continue reading “One More From Peru”
Sometimes the navigation apps on my phone send us along some crazy routes. Luckily this time, some nice locals were on hand to A. laugh at our folly and B. direct us to the correct route to our destination. We were muscling up a washed-out switchback that, in hindsight, we had a pretty good chance of making it up. Like a strong 50%. We heard some whistling and caught sight of a group of men on the road above waving at us frantically.Continue reading “Still in Peru”
I feel like my favorite country of this trip is always the one I am in. Seriously, I get so wowed by the moment that the previous countries start to meld together into a pretty cool memory, but not as great as the place where we are. Well almost, Belize and Panama felt pretty miss-able to me. Right now, Peru is my favorite country. Time will tell how long it can retain that status. Continue reading “Northern Peru”
The speed that we saw Ecuador return to normal after the “Paro” was surprising. The only evidence of the protest we saw were the scars on the roads from where tires had burned melting the asphalt and occasional smoldering tree trunks on the side of the road. Most of the tourists who were not bound by having vehicles in the country had fled. Once the roads opened, many of our fellow overlanders headed for the border as well. We had more of Ecuador to see and were betting on peace for the next few weeks.Continue reading “Ecuador – Back on the Road”
Crossing into Ecuador was too easy. Like, really. They need to tighten up their ship. Colombia let us go with no fanfare. They stamped us out with a smile and once we handed our temporary import permit for The Joan over to a disinterested official we were free to go to Ecuador. In Ecuador they didn’t ask us any questions nor did they look at our truck. I showed them pictures on my phone of our truck. They took pictures of the pictures and sent us on our way. No questions, no peeking inside. We could have had our camper-shell stuffed full of contraband and we would have been home free. We must have honest faces because I heard from some other travelers that they got thoroughly searched at the border. Not that they didn’t have honest faces. I do live a charmed life. Pretty sure we only smuggled in a wilted cabbage and some less-than-turgid potatoes.Continue reading “Ecuador- A Road Trip, Interrupted”
We had been planning to visit Medellin all along. We were excited to hear the double L pronounced as a jjjj instead of a shhhh. We were excited to feel the energy of a town best known for its gangster violence. Medellin was hot on everyone’s Must Visit list. In the end it turned out that it felt very much like a lot of cities we had visited. Culturally interesting but mostly a maelstrom of money sucking. We are happier in nature. La naturaleza. We are more comfortable in tiny towns on the edge of the wilderness. Happier without the sounds of honking horns wearing at our serenity and the pervasive exhaust fumes blackening our boogers. We had grown accustomed to the rural soundtrack of barking dogs and crowing roosters and were very happy to get back to it.Continue reading “One More from Colombia”