Chile – The Long Way

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.

Gimme a hand.

            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. 

Hwy 1 in Chile.
Pretty urchin on the coast of Chile.

            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. 

David, the magician of sewing, hard at work fixing our zippers.

            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.

Severe Scott.

            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.  

The monkey puzzle forest.
Monkey puzzle bark.
Volcano bound.
The toe of the glacier.
That glow…
I would name them pillow-puff flowers.

            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. 

Hot water pools beside a very cold river.

            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.

Waking up from a very long, windy, rain-soaked night. We worked hard for that rainbow.

            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. 

Not bad for free camping!
This guy is violating the standards of decency pertaining to appropriate stinger length.

            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. 

Cute little trail rounds.
The trail was quite flat.
Glaciar Ventisquiero.
This is as close as we got to the glacier.

            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.

My happy place, cuddled up to a wood stove.

            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. 

Colgate Glaciar.

            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.

Home sweet home.
Darwin’s Beetle.

            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. 

I think that might be a little leftover salt from Bolivia on there…

            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. 

Yes, the front wheels are chocked.

            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. 

What could go wrong?

            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. 

Cerro Castillo in the distance.

            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 shore at Puerto Sanchez.

            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. 

The island was ringed with caves.
Tenuous connections of marble.
Lago General Carrera is the largest lake in Chile. It is shared with Argentina. Across the border, they call it Lago Buenos Aires.

            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.

Rio Baker, looking luminous.
Rio Neff murking up the waters.
The confluence of Rio Baker and Rio Neff.

            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. 

Cruisin’ the main drag in Caleta Tortel.
Garden boxes abound.
Less than seaworthy vessels.

            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. 

It was a relief when we realized the truck stopped because it was out of gas. We thought we had broken something.

            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 made it to the end of the road!!!!!
And we were gifted a rainbow for all of our efforts.

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. 

Salto Pérez offering free cold showers to all who stand too close.
Lago Christie. I bet she really shines on a sunny day.

            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.

Not our worst campsite by any means.

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.

Hmmmm…. that doesn’t look quite right.

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. 

We climbed up on a hill to avoid being run over while figuring out our next move.

            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. 

Walleyed Joan. She doesn’t really like that nickname.

            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.

We are so happy to be rolling again!

            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.

Seventeen Days in (the Plurinational State of) Bolivia

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.

The shore of Lake Titicaca, Copacabana style.

            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. 

Traffic jam in ferry-land.

            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.

Maybe a bit touristy these days.
A gentle reminder to stay left.

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. 

Coca plantation.
Children playing among the drying coca leaves.

            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.

Roadside chullpares dotted the landscape.
Bits of the power elite.

            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. 

My attempt at vicuña, flamingo, and mountain picture.
Flamingos pretending to be swans.

            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.

View of our camp from the hot spring.
View of our camp from the hot spring, version 2.
Fence visibility is not a problem in these parts.
I don’t know if there is a term for it but the vicuñas like to poop repeatedly in the same place. These dark spots are the result of many visitations by many animals.

            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. 

This is where a meteor met earth.

            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. 

Steampunk Scotty.

            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. 

A sunset like none other.
Feeling very aware that we are the tallest thing for miles around.

            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. 

Travelers bring flags from their home countries to post up here.
Taking a moment to reflect.
The road less traveled.

            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. 

A high point in the sea of salt.

            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. 

Bird’s eye view.
This is what we came to see…
Just another interesting salt texture.

            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. 

Commuters gotta commute!

            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.

Last gas in Bolivia.

            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. 

We played around on these rocks for a while before another bone-jarring day of driving over washboards.

            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. 

Rock formations along the Lagunas Route.
The viscacha has resting sleepy face. Always. This one was on high alert.

            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. 

It is rough being a passenger on a southbound road trip. The sun is intense, especially over 14,000ft elevation!
A vicuña taking a not-so-private private moment.

            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.

Hiding out from the wind.

            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.

Laguna Colorada in all her glory.
Flamingos taking off!

            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.

Goofing around on the Altiplano.
Sol de Mañana geysers.
I might have gotten a little too close…

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. 

View of the Dali Desert in the distance.
The Dali Desert.
I think there is a wormhole connecting the Bolivian Altiplano to Mars.

            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.  

Laguna Blanca. Aptly named.
A trifecta a beauty. Licancabur volcano, Laguna Verde, and vicuñas.
Laguna Verde. If she were an interior paint color I would call her “Bay Laurel.”

            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!

And we’re off! Thank you Bolivia! iHola Chile!

One More From Peru

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”

Northern 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”

Ecuador – Back on the Road

            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”

From Bogotá to Medellin- The Long Way

After having a wonderful time exploring Colombia as a trio with our friend Cadence, we were back to a duo and really excited to camp again. Well, I was excited to camp again. I think Scott was enjoying the luxury of the soft beds that didn’t involve a ladder for midnight potty breaks. After some less than exciting time at the auto shop getting The Joan all of the fresh fluids she could possibly want we headed north (I know we are supposed to be going south).

Continue reading “From Bogotá to Medellin- The Long Way”

Colombia with Cadence!

We got our first (potentially only) visit from a friend! My friend Cadence was on her summer vacation from her job teaching Spanish and came to visit us in Colombia. She flew into Bogotá and then took a wee hop up to Cartagena to meet us. The plan was to travel together for about three weeks and we would end up back in Bogotá in time for her to catch her flight home. Scott and I were fresh from our adventures in truck shipping bureaucracy and ready to have some fun. 

Continue reading “Colombia with Cadence!”

Costa Rica

Leaving Nicaragua and entering Costa Rica was easy peasy. Maybe we were just getting good at borders. More likely, we had border burnout and neglected to be firm when we told the helper that we needed no help. He was persistent and ended up making things go pretty smoothly. He probably saved us about 15 minutes of confusion. Leaving Nicaragua is a little different than leaving other countries. Continue reading “Costa Rica”


We stayed in a hotel the night prior to crossing the border into Nicaragua. We did this so that we wouldn’t have a bunch of life maintenance to deal with in the morning and could get to the border nice and early. Best laid plans… We hadn’t counted on finding a channel on the television that had movies in English. We were faced with the choice of arriving at the border early in the morning, beating the afternoon heat or watching Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. Since one bad choice usually leads to another, we opted to stick around for The Terminator as well. As the Terminator was doing his damnedest to wipe out the human race, I was becoming more and more caffeinated and anxious about our border crossing. I finally asked Scott to just tell me how it ended so we could get on the road. Continue reading “Nicaragua”


Before we cross any border, I read up on what it is going to take to get ourselves and our truck across with as little hassle as possible. Was it G.I. Joe who always touted, “Knowledge is Power?” Or was it, “Knowing is half the battle?” I don’t remember. It’s not important. What is important is that the other half of the battle is actually using that knowledge. Continue reading “Honduras”