On the road to San Pedro de Atacama

We now had only 5 days left before we had to drop off the van in San Pedro, over 1200km away. So on the day after the match, we wanted to get to the Elqui Valley for some star gazing and a tour in Mamalluca observatory.
By the time we had packed up all our things, said our goodbyes and were ready to go, it was nearly 2pm and we had a good 6 hours of driving to do. The observatory tour was to start at 8:30pm, but we had been told to get there for 8pm and buy our tickets. We were doing well for time, the motorway wasn’t too busy when everything suddenly stopped… A lorry had slid sideways after a bend and was now blocking every available lane going north. After a little while of just waiting, we saw some cars go back a little bit and take a side road. We followed some of them to the top of a hill, where an ambulance was parked saying it was very steep and narrow and they would not be going further. A line of cars formed while people got out to look at the road, deciding whether to take the risk… In the end, we decided to give it a shot. It wasn’t the steepest we’ve driven down on this trip, but this was mainly sand and there were two really, really narrow bends were it felt like we could just slide off the side any second. But we managed to get round at snail’s pace and I’m sure once the van appeared on the other side, some more cars were encouraged to try!
We joined the (very empty) motorway again a bit later, but were by now running​ late for our tour. For the rest of the afternoon, we caned the van down the motorway at 130/140 km/h and then overland to Vicuña as fast as we could. The guys in Santiago had tried to call the observatory for us, but nobody had picked up. We got to the ticket office at 8:39pm and thank god, the group had not left (they were still loading people into vans). So I very quickly bought our tickets and then we followed the tour bus up the hill and got to do our tour.
It’s a shame it was nearly full moon, as it meant that the stars were not as visible as normally in that area, but our guide clearly loved his job and kept us entertained and informed for 3 hours while we waited our turns on the telescope to see different stars. He also took pictures of the moon on everybody’s mobiles through one of the weaker telescopes.


Unfortunately, getting there late had meant that we didn’t have time for dinner in the village, and when the tour find ished at 11:30pm we couldn’t really be bothered anyway, so we just had some biscuits before bed.
The next day was nothing but driving again, 7 hours to a national park where we planned to stay the night. No accidents this time, at least! We spent the night on a parking lot by a beautiful beach and enjoyed the full moon.

 

More driving the next day – we had another 650km to cover. We decided to camp in the Valle del Arcoiris (Rainbow Valley) a bit outside of San Pedro. We got there late, in the dark, swearing about the state of the road. But how it was worth it, because this was the view in the morning:

We visited the Valle de la Luna during the day, as well as book a tour from San Pedro to Uyuni in Bolivia for Friday (we’re dropping the van off on Thursday :(…).

Our last night in the van we spent near Laguna Chaxa, where we had watched the sunset and some flamingoes. And of course, because it was the last night, we got stuck in the sand! Fortunately, some other visitors and the park guides helped push us out 🙂

So! It looks I’m finally, for once, up to date. We’re currently in San Pedro, watching Manchester United play Anderlecht; we’ve already exchanged money and done our shopping for tomorrow  (leaving at 7am); we can pick up our washed clothes this evening… Now all that’s left is get Oscar a hat (I’m trying to convince him to get a traveller fabric one – the woven kind that many hippie travellers seem to favour ;). Until next time from Bolivia!

 

Santiago

We were headed to Santiago mainly to see Camila and Gabriel, who had couchsurfed with us in London just a few months earlier during a trip around Europe. Gabriel had space for both us and the van, which was perfect… And we enjoyed sleeping in a proper bed and having access to regular hot showers!
We have been trying to watch a football match both in Brazil and in Argentina, but for different reasons it hadn’t worked out (Brazil was off season and the Argentinian players were striking while we were there). We had originally planned to stay in Santiago for a week, but in the end decided to extend by 3 more days so we could see Gabriel’s team (La Universidad de Chile) play in the local ‘clasico’!
We had a great time in Santiago. We got private tours, got driven around, played an old version of Billard with Camila’s dad, bought Oscar a new phone on a market where you could get anything from sofas to puppies, saw a street art open air museum, sat in the spot overlooking the city where Camila and Gabriel had their first date, got driven to a wine tasting (so we could finally both drink!), tried Gabriel’s homemade Cazuela (a sort of traditional Chilean stew), played many rounds of ‘Heads Up’, took a number of photos that can be used if the four of us ever decide to start a band, met Max again after Buenos Aires and Ushuaia, had ice cream in one of the top 25 places in the world (not sure if that’s true, but it was definitely very good), had many completos (a fancy version of hot dogs), went on a pub crawl with Anto who we’d met in Rio, took one of Monika’s friends who lives in Santiago on the same pub crawl and got told off by her the next day :), went to Santa Lucia and San Cristobal for amazing views of the city, went to the Museum of Memory and Human Rights about the dictatorship in Chile (very moving and thought provoking), had lots of wine, tried Pisco Sour, saw the presentation of a presidential candidate, made friends with Charles the cat who came to wake us most mornings, met Camila’s dog Freddie who Oscar tried to tire out by running down part of San Cristobal hill, went out in Bellavista, drove to Valparaíso and Viña del Mar for a day, and finally we went to watch La U vs Colo Colo.
And now we hope that Camila and Gabriel will come to London again soon!

 (Valparaíso)

(Viña del Mar)

 

Pucón to Pichilemu

We drove all the way to Pucón that day. It’s a strange place full of German stuff – there’s a German bakery, Omas Café, Kuchen on sale everywhere…
I was very tempted to try and join a tour to climb volcano​ Villarrica, but the weather was bad and it was also rather expensive. Instead, we decided to follow another tip the Canadian couple had given us and go to one of the many thermal pools in the area. The one we were heading to allowed you to also camp there. It was a good 2 hour drive from Pucón up the mountain on narrow gravel roads. Early on, we were stopped by an elderly farmer on his way back from the a Sunday drink and shopping, so we gave him a lift. Unfortunately, I could hardly understand a word he was saying! But I did get that after we dropped him off, he still had to do a 1 hour walk to his actual house… A bit later we picked up another old man about 10km from his home (people really do walk far!) and dropped h off in front of his house. We got invited for tea if we passed by the house again ;).
It was a pretty grey and rainy day, and once we finally reached the termas, it was amazing to sit in the hot pools. We must have spent 4 or 5 hours just sat in the warm water while it rained occasionally.


When we finally got out, we just cooked some food and went to sleep (not that there was anything else to do! We were the only people staying overnight). Next morning, we jumped back in the pool to wake up (there are showers as well, but they’re cold – i don’t think anyone ever used them) and then started on a few hours of driving.

Our first stop was a vineyard in San Javier, where we got a very interesting and private tour and of course a wine tasting (but unfortunately it was my turn to drive…).

(This is what earthquakes do to wine tanks…)

We then headed for the coast in Constitución and from there on to near Pichilemu. We stayed near a semi-private beach and had an awesome view of the sea and sunset.


A few people working in the hostel nearby joined us for the sunset and later invited us to a little bonfire on the beach. We had a spare day before we wanted to reach Santiago, so decided to stay in the area for another day. One of the people at the hostel was planning to go to Santiago as well, so we arranged to give her a lift the day after.
We spent a relaxed day checking out the market in Pichilemu and trying to find a particular kind of meat for Oscar, as he was planning to cook dinner on the fire that night. Once we’d finally found it, we watched surfers for a bit and then headed to our spot. The sky was so clear in that area that we had a really good view of the milky way and we just sat by the fire until midnight.

Patagonia

The next morning, we set off for Torres del Paine National Park. It’s got two multiple day hiking treks, but since we have the car (and no tent), we decided to just drive around and do short hikes instead. Our first stop was Lago Grey, with view of Glacier Grey (and an iceberg floating in the lake!).

Two other hikers were very lucky that Wicked had given us a jump start cable because they had left the light on (you have to have your light on at all times in Chile and Argentina) and their battery was flat. Could just as easily happen to us, because the van doesn’t warn you when you’ve left the light on…
After Lago Grey, we did another short walk in an area with strong winds (they’re not kidding when they say that, felt in danger of being blown off my feet at times!).

A ticket to the park allows you to stay for up to three days and with a van like ours you an overnight in one of the parking lots (whereever there are bathrooms). Unfortunately, we stayed near a river with a lot of mosquitos! The next morning, we did part of the walk to Mirador del Torres. With hindsight I really wish we’d planned better and done the whole hike… But hey!


In the afternoon, we left the park and crossed into Argentina (there are no roads going North in Chile at that point). We stayed in El Calafate and enjoyed our first hot shower in days at the campsite… 🙂 We also took a drive to the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares for Perito Moreno glacier. We went in the afternoon to avoid the crowds, but unfortunately it was a bit rainy. Still very impressive to see (and hear!) a glacier up close though!


Our next stop in Argentina was El Chaltén, which is actually in the same national park (but this time we didn’t have to pay stupid amounts of money like we did for the glacier). We took a hike to Laguna Torre in beautiful sunshine.

As we left El Chaltén that evening, we took two French/Basque hitchhikers who have been making their way through Argentina and Chile, playing the guitar and slacklining in bigger cities to make some money. We said we’d drive until about 9pm and then just stop on the side of the road somewhere……….. And we should have stopped when we saw a sign announcing resurfacing of Ruta 40 for the next 72km! It wasn’t fun driving across gravel and mud while it was getting darker and darker (no street lights). But there wasn’t really any good place to stop either, so we kept going and got stuck in the mud at some point (good thing we had taken those hitchhikers to help push us out!). When we finally finished the 72km around 11pm, we just pulled over and slept (best thing about the van). The next morning, we said goodbye to the hitchhikers and continued on to see the Cueva de las Manos, which are 9000 year old handprints and paintings on the side of the rock in a beautiful secluded canyon. Once again, the road leading up to and away from it were rather challenging (steep inclines this time, plus also gravel).

We made it to the town of Perito Moreno in the evening and stayed in the municipal campsite, where we met a Canadian couple who’s been driving down from Canada! We were planning on crossing back into Chile to see Laguna San Rafael, but they told us the roads were really really bad (and it was quite far), so in the end we decided to keep driving in Argentina. They also suggested that we could try and get a boat from Colombia to Panama and then fly to the US from there – we were hoping to have enough money at the end to go to the San Blast islands and apparently these boats go via them as well, but for less money than a special cruise. Let’s see if that works!

Staying in Argentina meant that we would pass by Bariloche and the Lake District. But before heading there, we decided to spend the night in another national park close by (Parque Nacional de Alerces). Funnily enough, on our way there we picked up the same French hitchhikers again – which was handy, because they’d forgotten a jumper in the car (I was ready to claim it, but was also happy to be able to give it back). Plus, they gifted us a little Bluetooth speaker after having to listen to our tiny one for a while. Result!

The park itself was beautiful, full of trees and lakes. We camped near the lake and enjoyed a very starry night (also full of mosquitos though). We had breakfast near the lake, watching the sun come up…

Before driving on, we went for a little walk, hoping to see a puma (we didn’t).

On our way north, we passed by the cabin in which Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid lived after fleeing the US.

 

A rather aggressive police control later (including a sniffer dog!), we found a nice campsite in Colonia Suiza near Bariloche. The owner Ana put on the Chile vs Argentina game in the evening and we watched it together with her and some other guests, including an American couple in their late 40s/ early 50s who have “retired” to travel around the world for the rest of their lives. It’s always interesting to hear these stories and how people realise their dreams.
The next day, we did the Circuito Chico, which is a circular route around Lago Moreno. We started with a 30min hike up a rather steep hill for a view of the lakes. The rest of the day was very relaxed as we drove around and stopped occasionally, but we didn’t want to leave the car alone for too long as we had been warned that there are a lot of break ins in that area.


We got back early on and Oscar decided to try to slow cook some meat like we had eaten in the hostel in Florianopólis (it turned out well).


Next day we started driving up via the 7 lakes route. We gave a lift to a Spanish hitchhiker on her way to Chile as well. This particular border crossing is in a national park and so we had some nice views even after the lake district. Chile is very strict about what you can bring into the country and we were advised to declare stuff rather than them fining us if they found anything. We had to get rid of onions and other vegetables we had in the car, but they also pretty much took everything apart (including checking in our dirty clothes….). I don’t think the van design does us any favours in those cases!

Punta Arenas

We arrived around 7pm and had a bit of trouble finding our accommodation (the place looked like a normal house, so I decided it couldn’t be it). Our first meal in Chile was the biggest steak we’ve ever seen (for Oscar) and a mixed lasagna (for me), either of which would have fed about 3 people. Oscar almost cried at his inability to finish his steak :).
The next morning was the big day to pick up our Wicked Camper! I’d been looking forward to having a car and being able to drive and stop whenever we want to. We got dropped off by a taxi driver with plastic sheeting for a window. The first van we saw had “Femme Fatale” on the side and Oscar said “This better not be ours”. But of course it was :).


Alejandro, the person responsible for Wicked vans in Punta Arenas, took a lot of time to talk us through everything. We were planning on buying sleeping bags but there was a shelf of free stuff that other people had left, which happened to contain two sleeping bags, pillows and a woolly blanket (and since we have silk sleeping bag liners, we were happy to take them!). We were off! Straight to the supermarket where we spent the next 3 hours stocking up. Our first purchase was a Chilean SIM which, a week later, has only worked properly once. Oh well!

We decided to spend the first night south of Punta Arenas so we could test everything before actually setting off. We headed off towards Fuerte Bulnes and got lucky an hour into our drive along the Strait of Magellan – three dolphins playing in the water not too far off the coast. The drive took us through a number of small villages and past old fishing boats and we got a first taste of the gravel roads that you find in many places in Patagonia. Having reached the fort too late for entry, we continued on until the end of the road to reach the “southernmost lighthouse of the Americas”, San Isidro. Unfortunately, it was really late once we got there, so we decided to park up for the night rather than walk in the dark. We chose a nice location by the Strait close to a fisherman’s hut and tested the gas cooker and bed. Our new sleeping bags and blanket kept us quite warm and it was comfortable enough that we slept in until 10am!
We then went back to Fuerte Bulnes and explored the reconstructed fort there. Unfortunately, due to recent puma sightings, a lot of the walks were closed…

On our way past Punta Arenas, we picked up some more provisions and petrol (there are not a whole lot of petrol stations down here, so you’re recommended to fill up whenever you can) before continuing on to Puerto Natales. While looking for place to park up for the night, we drove past the Greenpeace ship ‘Rainbow Warrior’, which had apparently arrived the day before.
We spent the night on a parking lot near the sea, next to a French family who had been stuck there for a week due to issues with their van. Hopefully that won’t happen to us!