Vacationing in Pucón Chile and an introduction to monkey puzzle trees

I want to clarify something. What George and I have been up to is not a vacation, it’s a lifestyle choice. We thank our lucky stars most days for the opportunity to explore, but we’re not lounging around every day either. Whatever you are up to, it seems to be human nature to keep busy and find new things to stress about. For us there is the daily routine of packing/unpacking, making meals on the tailgate and hours/days spent working through the laundry list of things to fix on the truck, planning what the heck we’re going to do next, and more recently shipping the truck home.

So, sometimes it is nice to have a tiny break from the ever present feeling to move on to the next thing. When George and I got settled in Pucón Chile, I think we both took a big sigh of relief. There was water, sun, sushi, many barbecued dinners and most of all great time hanging with los Juntos!

After the holidays, we backtracked a little to visit Conguillo National Park in Chile known for the very active Volcan Llaima which erupted in 2008 and the Monkey Puzzle Tree (Araucaria Araucana). I didn’t really think about the curious name of the tree until arriving in Conguillo. One look at the tree and it is clear that any monkey that attempted to climb one would be puzzled by the spiky branches.

The park was simply outstanding though with lakes, great camping and wonderful hikes.

Continually driving with someone means that you quickly exhaust your preferred available music and start to explore the underbelly of each other’s tastes. We made it to deep into the bowels of George’s musical tastes on our second night in Conguillo. As I prepared dinner, he selected some Megadeath which made me want to scratch my eyeballs out. I vetoed metal in the car after that night.

I think this is the point that we started to rely heavily on podcasts to get us through the long drives. Podcasts were a very welcome change because we were heading to the beginning of the Carreera Austral and 770 miles of mostly gravel road.

Leaving Earth – Bolvia’s Salar de Uyuni and Sur Lipez Province

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

First camping spot - 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.

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.

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

Second camping spot - 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.

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

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.

Day 6:


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.

Day 7:

Camping spot #7 - Arbol de Piedra

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.


Day 8:

Camping spot #8 - near Laguna Colorado

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.

Day 9:

Dali's Rocks

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.

Day 10:

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.

The Overlander’s way to Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu was the finale of our trip through Peru with our friend George M. Being overlanders, George I. and I found the most inexpensive way in. Our team of three drove through the Sacred Valley to Santa Teresa. Santa Teresa is the jumping off point for a 3-6 hour hike into Aguas Calientes (town next to Machu Picchu). The drive through the Sacred Valley was…windy, up and down and back and forth. We were rewarded with vibrant villages and beautiful vistas for our efforts.

The stop at Moray was a highlight. From what we understand, Moray was a crop testing area for the Incas and included 3 pits that plunged up to 100 feet. We read that the temperatures differs by as much as 15 degrees celsius from top to bottom.

Arriving at Cola de Mono Canopy to park the truck before the hike, I discovered the best toilets on the entire trip. Okay, maybe a little dramatic, but part of overlanding in a pickup is giving up the luxury of your own toilet. So, bathroom facilities become a very distinct part of our day. Back to the toilets though, three clean and spacious ones facing the river. All of the toilets had three walls so you were greeted with a picture framed scene of a lush river and the soft whisper of the water flowing by as you went about your business. Perfect.

Getting our act together, we opted to shorten the hike by three hours with a taxi ride and spare ourselves a dusty road full of traffic. The next three hour we spent sometimes in the rain hiking along the railroad track to Aguas Calientes with a short stop over for lunch. The scene in Aguas Calientes was a little chaotic having the serendipity to arrive on the town anniversary, but we soon got settled.

The next morning we were in line and on the second bus from town up to the ruins. After a little hustle and bustle at the gate, we were in. We did a quick look around and then headed the the Waynapichu line (the peak over Machu Picchu). The hike up Waynapichu was less than an hour but meant jibing for placement between the tour groups and occasional pulling yourself up over steep slipper rocks. The views from the top were definitely worth the dance we did in Cuzco to get tickets.

Conclusion after a day in Machu Picchu? I’m glad I saw it, but it’s probably the biggest tourist trap we visited on the entire trip. I won’t be back, but would love to hike in to some of the lesser known ruins close by.

Cuenca Ecuador – The waiting game and rodents on spits

We had a plan for Cuenca Ecuador, a colonial town becoming popular with retirees from North America and Europe. We would get the second round of tent parts shipped there while we checked out the city for a week or so. We grabbed a room at Hostal AlterNative, a sparkling clean and well-run hostel about 15 minute walk from the center. George immediately stuck a pin in the hostel’s world map, the first Bulgarian to visit. A day later he met the second Bulgarian to visit. George gets a special kind of excited when he meets another Bulgarian, so he quickly flew up to our room smiling ear to ear to share the news.

A week of waiting quickly turned into two as our parts got held up by customs and FedEx employee laziness.  Waiting for anything can quickly put a bitter taste in your mouth, but we kept things in perspective and explored Cuenca and the surrounding area.

Cajas is a wonderful national park just 45 minutes outside of Cuenca. Hikers are greeted with hundreds of lakes and lagoons (most have lake trout), llamas, and stunning views. The weather was pretty shit temperamental when we were there, but the chilling rain didn’t detract from the scenery. We drove through a blue-skyed Cajas again on the way out of Cuenca. That’s highlands weather for you.

Thankfully, we had some company (Aaron and Linda) in Cuenca to drown our waiting blues in drinks and visit the Sunday markets and hot springs in the surround villages. The first order of business was for the guys to try the cuy (roasted guinea pig). A whole cuy will set you back about $10 – $12 USD, luxury eating in Ecuador. The verdict? Apparently it tastes like chicken 🙂

Our parts finally cleared customs and we made a run for the border, excited to be heading into Peru.