Our days were numbered. George and I enjoy one another’s company, but the idea of spending Christmas alone was depressing. Enter Southern Tip Trip – the three sprinters were parked in Pucon at the heart of Chile’s Lakes District, so we accepted the few days we had to explore Valparaiso and Santiago before Christmas.
Taking Ruta 7 from Mendoza toward Chile took us pass the impressive 6,962 meter Aconcagua (highest mountain in the americas) and the “Inca Bridge”.
The “Inca Bridge”
Valparaiso sits on the coast of Chile and is known for it’s vibrant neighborhoods rising up on the hilltops of the city. The plan was simple – take in the neighborhood scene and eat some sushi. I had a hankering for sushi that needed to be tended to. As you work your way up hill into the neighborhoods, I was once again reminded why I let George do all the driving. Negotiating the narrow steep streets takes finesse in an overloaded pickup with a tricky gas pedal. Once on foot, we began a food and drink crawl, sustained by artisan beer and local wines.
A look up into the hills
The aftermath of our first sushi meal in a year
We balanced the extravagance with yet another night spent in the parking lot of a gas station, a surprisingly typical thing to do in Argentina and Chile.
In the morning, we braved the Christmas crowds on the streets of Santiago to experience the very large and well-stocked fish market. I’ve noticed that it is usually a small detail or moment that really sticks with me after visiting some place. For George, one of the memories of Santiago from a visit in 2010 was of steak size mussels at the fish market. I generally eat mussels and think they are delicious, but the idea of taking fork and steak knife to one rather turned my stomach.
At the fish market in Santiago, the mussels turned out to be a little smaller than George recalled (maybe off season?), and I was able to enjoy our wonderful fish lunch in the depths of the market without being disturbed by visions of giant mussels chasing me pac man style.
Fortified with a seafood lunch, we started heading south again towards a Christmas celebration with new friends.
A certain set of conversation topics inevitably end up on heavy rotation when you spend endless hours driving with someone. The beef in Argentina was one of these topics. I, as a vegetarian, silently will George to stop salivating over the idea of rib fat melting on his tongue and biting in to a juicy blood sausage to no avail. Taking the Paso Jama from Chile, we finally made it to Argentina. George could finally grill meat to his hearts content. Unfortunately for me, the availability of Argentine beef only meant that it became a daily topic instead of a twice weekly ordeal.
Heading towards Paso Jama in Chile
Crossing into Argentina
We made it to Salta Argentina in time for a police strike. Looking at the faces of the city’s residents, it was clear the populace was on edge. This made the decision even easier to hightail it to wine country.
Inexpensive and delicious wine would begin to flow in Cafayate Argentina, a base for exploring Valles Calchaquíes.
Not enough room to expand the road? No problem – paint a line down the center and call it a highway.
Power washing the remaining salt of the chassis
Cafayate is an adorable little town overflowing with temptation. Pulling into the town’s campground, we were greeted with some company to enjoy the ample wine, cheese and meats – Kyle and Joe (Patagonia or Bust) and Brooke and Tom traveling in a VW Van-Again. At Bodga Nanni, we were introduced to the Torrontes grape which made for a delicious aromatic wine full of fruit that was not sweet. I was in love.
We hopped on the iconic north-south highway Ruta 40 to head south along the andes, making a quick stop at the Ruins of Quilmes. The story of the Quilmes is disheartening at best. They resisted Inca invaders and then the Spaniards for 130 years until they were defeated in 1667. The Spaniards marched the 2000 survivors 1500 km to Buenos Aires.
Ruins of Quilmes
That night George got his grill on in Tafi del Valle. The rolling green hills surrounding the town are a stark contrast to the rest of dry and open Ruta 40. The evenings entertainment was a concert in the town center complete with gauchos (South American cowboys) on horses galloping through the center of the crowd.
Continuing on Ruta 40, we made it to Mendoza taking advantage of the ubiquitous grills in the campground. Maipu, just outside of Mendoza, is a great area for some wine tasting as well as a visiting one of the many olive farms.
Doing a little indulging in Maipu
Heading to Casa Checchin – an organic winery
Di Tommaso winery
And the verdict on wine country in Argentina? We’ll be back soon.
San Pedro de Atacama may seem like a tourist trap to some with it’s higher prices and ample restaurants, but after ten days in the Salar and Sur Lipez Province, George and I needed a few days of hot showers, restaurant meals and internet. While I dined on massive pieces of salmon, George toured his way through the town’s parrillas (grills). We managed to work in a few sightseeing activities including visits to Valle de la Luna (famous for the sunsets) and an observatory. Seeing planets and stars in more detail along with an astronomy lesson was unexpected and surprisingly satisfying. Funny enough, from the 12 telescopes that were set on different stars, planets and moons both George and I most enjoyed the closeup view of the moon. There is something special about seeing the character of the circle of light ever present in our day-to-day lives.
With so much build-up and planning, could Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni (salt flats) and the wild area south of the flats (Sur Lipez Province) deliver? F$#K YEAH it did.
Because of limited fuel options, many independent travelers visit the salt flats for a few nights and then make a pit stop back in Uyuni (town on the east side of the flats) to fill up before heading south to the Sur Lipez province (the southwest circuit). George wasn’t having it – no pit stops. Instead we added 3 jerry cans for a total of 6 jerrys.
The extra gasoline and practical tips from a helpful Swiss gentlemen (Marco) at the tourist office in Sucre, Bolivia inflated our confidence. With 48 gallons of gasoline, 30 gallons of water plus 20 days worth of food and extra rice, garlic and cocoa leaves to trade with locals in case of trouble, we were ready to tackle what was to come. And no, in our day-to-day lives we are not preppers.
Day 1: Uyuni’s train cemetery to Isla Pescado
Night #1 – Isla Pescado.
In our typical fashion, we were running late and didn’t head out on to the salt flats until the afternoon after a obligatory visit to Uyuni’s train cemetery.
The 2014 Dakar would be routed through Bolivia for the first time.
First stop was a salt extraction operation where George quickly broke the first of Marco’s rules, “stay away from areas where there is water on the salt”. We drove right through the slushy middle of the operation to snag some photos.
Driving on the Salar is like being on another planet, drive fast or slow, turn left or right, it doesn’t matter. We had some of our best fuel mileage on the ultra flat Salar.
No Bulgarian flag…no problem, George makes his own.
This could be dancing.
Getting to our selected camp spot, Isla Pescado, we broke the second of Marco’s rules, “the flats are the thinnest around the islands and at the entrances/exits – do not drive there”. We promtly drove right onto the island to set camp for the night, and would be all alone for our first night.
Day 2 – 3: Coqueza to Isla Incahuasi
Nights #2 & #3 – Isla Incahuasi
The next morning, we visited nearby Coqueza. Each step up to the the mirador to get a better look at Volcan Tunupa was a struggle because of the altitude. After the hike, we made it to Isla Incahuasi, another obligatory stop because of the dense cacti growing on the island. This island is overrun with tourist groups during the day, but it calms down in the evening and was serendipitous stop for us.
Entrance into Coqueza
A land bridge into Conqueza
George was able to scratch his sports itch playing football with some locals the first night.
After befriending the fellow players, we were able to purchase 5 more gallons of gasoline the next day. That evening, the wind picked up enough for G to mountain board. Finally, we were gifted with a surprise encounter when Southern Tip Trip and Patagonia or Bust rolled in.
Day 4: Salar de Uyuni to Sur Lipez
Night #4 – south of the Salar near a condor reserve
Tearing ourselves away from our friends and the warmth of our bed the next morning, we bombed away from Incahuasi in the depth of pre-dawn darkness to catch a sunrise in the middle of the flats.
It was then time for our ‘funny pictures’ and my opportunity to finally tower of George. I will clutch on to the memory for the rest of my life.
The Salar exit point that we took was a little slushy, but Vida piled on through the muck and delivered us to Gruta de last Galaxias to see a grotto filled with petrified algae. We then managed to purchase another 5 gallons of gas in San Juan from a local business woman who had the dried goods and gasoline markets corned. Although we paid her a little more than we should have, it was nice to see how excited she was to make the sale. We celebrated the gasoline purchase with a cold beer, a real luxury at that point.
Heading further into Sur Lipez province, we camped out near a condor reserve in our ground tent and worked on perfecting our tent cooking technique.
Day 5: To Copa del Mundo
Night #5 – Copa del Mundo (World Cup)
In the morning, we unsuccessfully tried to spot a condor. George went exploring, and believing he heard a nest of baby condors, misguidedly left his flip flops behind to approach unnoticed. The nest was no nest, but some other lone baby bird crying. He promptly very uncomfortably hot footed it back to his shoes.
That evening we found a choice camping spot behind a big rock for some wind shadow. We had unknowingly parked ourselves under ‘Copa del Mundo’ or the ‘World Cup’, a stop from many of the tour operators. We would be in their photos the following morning cooking eggs for breakfast.
Night #6 – Volcan Caquella
After ruining a few tourist photos and finishing our eggs, we headed north to meet up with the road that would take us through Valle de Rocas and to the lakes district. The road started to degrade here requiring high clearance which meant creeping along at a snails pace for the next day and a half.
We camped in our ground tent that evening on an open plane under the impressive 5947 meter Volcan Caquella. It was our second night cooking in the tent. To someone who hasn’t had a roof over her head in the last year and a half, cooking inside the tent turned out to be nice and toasty.
A storm moving in
Night #7 – Arbol de Piedra
Our first stop on day seven was Laguna Canany. You may call it the stinky lake. We followed the route of other travellers off the main road forcing us to navigate through a handful of ravines. We realized that the road we were on was no more when George jumped in the ravine we were facing and I could barely see the top of his head. We agreed that finding another way was our only choice. My vote was to turn around, but George used his driver privileges to navigate us down a steep hill to the Laguna. He was smiling ear to ear on the way down reveling in the adventure while I was containing the game-ending scenarios my mind was concocting.
Exiting the car, the air wafting towards us was ripe with the smell of sulfur. We made quick stops at Laguna Chiar Khota and Laguna Honda before deciding to do a little more exploring on a slanted auxiliary road flanked by dirt banks. Turning around proved difficult, so we were forced to use the rear diff lock for the first time.
The road to the Arbol de Piedra (a stone tree sculpted by the elements) was an absolute sand pit. We balked at some bikers we saw in the distance struggling through the thick sand. Half of me can respect anyone who has enough gumption to cycle through Bolivia while the other half of me thinks they must be off their rocker.
Lunch at Laguna Canany
Arbol de Piedra
Night #8 – near Laguna Colorado
Day eight promised to be a good day since we would be crossing into Reserva Eduardo Avaroa (Lagunas Park). The ranger station at the park entrance sits on the west side of Laguna Colorado that was impressively jammed with what I can only guess was hundreds of thousands of flamingos.
That evening we snagged another beautiful camp spot in the belly of a canyon hoping to hide from the unrelenting wind and celebrating with another toasty fire.
One dirty air filter
Piedra de Arbol
Night #9 – Dali’s Rocks
By the morning of day nine, I was reaching the breaking point on number of consecutive days without a shower. Adding in the beating sun, sand blasting wind and cold nights, George decided we needed a distraction in the form of a mountain of crepes. While he cooked, I practiced some knots.
After a brief visit to the Bolivian Aduana at 5020 meters situated next to a borax mine, we stopped by Geiser Sol de Mañana and then headed to the thermal baths situated near Salar de Chalviri to wash away some of the nine day dirt build up. Thankfully, we managed to arrive at a time when there were not tour groups. The family who runs the hot springs took advantage as well of the down time. No sooner had we jumped into the pool then a four year old was passed to us to look after until her older siblings got into the pool. George and I quickly bonded with the five children.
We found a choice camping spot in the midst of Dali’s Rocks for the night. Truthfully, it took us over five attempts to make it up the steep sand hill but George persevered.
Geiser Sol de Mañana
Bolivian Aduana at 5020 meters
Sun setting on Dali’s rocks
Our last day in Bolivia began in epic style with a 360-degree view along with coffee and crepes on top of Dali’s rocks. The decent down from the rock we were perched upon was equally as memorable because of a close call (we’ll leave it at that). We had the truck packed and ready to go when two park rangers drove up and let us know that we were not supposed to drive anywhere near Dali’s rocks and hadn’t we received and information packet? Well, no we didn’t. The park still has some administration kinks to work out, but from George’s observations they had already made many positive changes since his last visit in 2010.
We rounded out the southwest circuit with a visit to another set of breathtaking lakes (Laguna Verde and Laguna Blanca). Enduring a few more miles of dirt road, we finally made it to the beautiful paved highway that would deliver us down nearly 2500 meters into San Pedro de Atacama Chile.