A Travellerspoint blog

January 2008

Chile to Argentina: The shortcut

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Check out www.haydencarlyonphotography.com for more photos from the trip.

We spent the morning getting fried and avoiding the jellyfish infested waters at the local beach in Arica, at the very top of Chilean Pacific Coast. Then started the long drive south through the Atacama, the driest desert in the world, to Santiago.

Yes Alex we actually paid $25us for this room.

First stop along the way was San Pedro. A small, green but dusty oasis town, set in a mountain plateau, at the northern tip of the Atacama Desert. The landscape in and around San Pedro de Atacama is very dramatic and looks like something you would find on another planet. There were loads of day trips to do and things to see around the town, so we decided to give ourselves a few days to check it out.

Valley of the moon

We hiked another sand dune, went sand boarding in the Valley of Death ( where it almost never rains, except of course when we were there), did a tour through the Valley of the Moon, checked out a few other tourist spots and took some much needed time to just relax.

San Pedro is a popular stop over for people coming to and from Argentina, so it’s a bit of a tourist trap but still a nice place to chill for a few days. It is also one of the best places in the world for star gazing, with over 330 clear nights a year.

Although we planned on continuing the drive 1500km south through the desert, we decided to skip Santiago and take a short cut through the Andes, into the north or Argentina. The drive through Chile to Santiago then onto Buenos Aries would have taken twice as long and cost twice as much, so after our brief stop in the Atacama Desert we headed back into the Andes for the 3rd time.
Volcanoes in the Andes. Chile

The first two times we crossed the Andes the weather wasn’t exactly great and there was a lot of low cloud, so we didn’t get to see a lot but this time we really lucked out, what an amazing drive. The weather was fantastic and the drive was absolutely beautiful. The scenery changed continuously throughout the day and the colors at high altitude were incredible.

Drive over the Andes; the Chilean side where I took the photos of the flamingos.

Flamingo lagoons, salt lakes, salt flats, multicolored mountains and valleys, grassy plateaus that stretch for hundreds of miles and thousands of what have to be the biggest cactus in the world. The best drive of the trip by far. We topped the day off with a massive steak dinner at a very chilled out, road side camping ground, at the bottom of the Argentinean side of the Andes.
Argentina Salt flats

Biggest cactus in the world

A hummingbird that was hanging around in the campinground we stayed at.
Apart from the Andes, the north of Argentina is completely flat, so unfortunately the scenery is pretty repetitive, especially when you compare it to the drive through the mountains; some grass fields a few trees, grass and more grass. But luckily enough the 130kmph express ways, the crazy Argentinean drivers and the extremely, and I mean extremely, corrupt Police officers kept us entertained.

There were a few decent cities to check out along the way, so we stopped for a night or two at some of them and took our time getting to the capital. The people in Argentina are far more Italian than Spanish, they dress, act and eat like the Italians. Pasta, pizzas, ice cream and every kind of meat imaginable, especially steak, which they consume by the pound.

When we arrived in Buenos Aires we took a few days to check out the capital and its bars, clubs and restaurants. Definitely a cool place and very civilized, my favorite big city of the trip so far. It’s hard to believe there are over 13 million living there. There are lots of things to do, plenty of parks and wide streets and a real eclectic mix of people. I’m still not sure what a typical Argentinean person looks like, or even if there is such a thing.

Local street performer in Buenos Aires
Tourist and local prices

Recoleta Cemetery Beunos Aires

With the Brazilian Carnival starting early this year (2nd of Feb), we also decided to make another slight adjustment to the trip and not make the drive to Patagonia and down Tierra del Fuego. I have heard that the drive is incredible and it was a big part of the trip but it was either that or carnival and im afraid carnival wins out this time. We may still be able to squeeze it in at the end of the trip but I doubt it. Besides Alex is starting to get home sick and wants to get to Brazil as soon as possible. So we will drive to Uruguay in the next few days or so and then onto Florianopolis for the 5 day carnival. Then continue the drive up the coast to Salvador and the Amazon.

On a slightly more comical note check this out….Just outside Buenos Aires we were pulled over by the local police at a checkpoint. The following is the actual word for word conversation that took place yesterday.

Conversation with one of the many Corrupt Argentinean Police officers:

Dodgy Police officer: Drivers license and temporary import papers please.
We showed him our papers.

Dodgy Police officer: Do you have the original title.
We handed him a copy of the title.

DodgyPolice officer: Ok, do you have insurance?
We gave him a copy of the insurance as well.

Dodgy Police officer: Hmmm (he scratched his head as his dodgy, ant sized, scheming brain started to tick over and spluttered into life )… Ok… do you have a tow rope?

Alex: A what? A tow rope? What for?

Dodgy Police officer: Well in Argentina by law you must carry a tow rope, in case you break down.

Alex: Ah, sorry, no we don’t…

Dodgy Police officer: Ok, come with me, I have to write you a ticket.

Hayden: Ah hang on a minute; I forgot, yes we do have a tow rope, it’s in the trunk under all our luggage. Do you want me to get it?

Dodgy Police officer: Ah ..No.

Dodgy Police officer: Do you have a road triangle?

Alex. Huh?

Dodgy Police officer: You know, a reflective triangle, to put on the road in the case of an accident or break down.

Alex: Ah yes somewhere. I think it’s also in the trunk with the tow rope, under the luggage.

Dodgy Police officer: (Pauses and thinks for a while…). Ok then. Do you have a large white blanket?

Alex/Hayden: WTF? (In English of course…)

Dodgy Police officer: A white blanket, to cover the dead bodies?

Alex: The dead bodies??? Oh I get it “in case of an accident”.. No we don’t.

Hayden: I have a beach towel and I’m pretty sure it’s big enough to cover a dead body if we need it to.
…At this point we are both trying our hardest not to laugh as we follow him across the road to his portable office/bribe room…

Dodgy Police officer: No a towel won’t do, it has to be sheet that is used specifically to cover dead bodies.
-we didnt bother to ask where one would purchase one of the aforementioned dead body blankets.

Alex: Well in that case no we don’t. And Im sure we can’t be fined for that. Maybe we should call our embassies.

Dodgy Police officer: Call whoever you want, we are the police, we are in charge of the roads and we can do whatever we want.

This went on for another 5 minutes or so and in the end he gave up trying to fine us and just asked directly for money. He asked for $30US so he could buy him and his friends some coffee. We gave up fighting, paid him $3; he called us “cheap” and were on our way.

I really hate paying bribes, especially for no reason, but police corruption seems to be a way of life here, besides it was worth the $3 purely for the entertainment.

I would like to say it was the only time it happened but it wasn’t. It happened 2 more times that day. Less than an hour later we were pulled over again, by yet another corrupt Argentinean police officer and we went through the same crap again, we paid $3 “gas money” this time and were on our way again.

Posted by hayden111 14:38 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

Peru to Bolivia The 10,000 Mile Mark

sunny 18 °C
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After spending another freezing night in Cuzco we drove further east to Puno, on the edge of Lake Titicaca, the highest elevation lake in the world at around 3800 meters. By that time the altitude was beginning to take its toll and when I had to carry my 20kg suitcase up 4 flights of stairs at our hotel in Puno, I started seeing stars and nearly passed out.

Later that night we had a few beers and some Lama steaks at a local restaurant and planned our escape from the cold of Peru. The next morning we drove to the Peru- Bolivian border crossing, which is in the middle of nowhere, at the far end of Lake Titicaca. By far the most casual border crossing yet and it was Sunday which made it even more relaxed. A few forms to fill out, a small bribe to pay and we were on our way.

Local Ladies at the Border crossing
Drunken Sunday after church picnic in Peru

Next stop Copacabana, a lake side tourist hotspot jammed with hippies and Brazilian and Argentinean tourists. The Bolivian side of the lake was a lot more scenic, the food and accommodation was ¼ the price and the people were friendlier.

We only planned on staying for just one day before driving to the capital La Paz but there were some political issues in the capital and the roads in and out of the city were blocked with trucks and boulders and guarded by rock throwing Bolivians.

View over Copacabana Bolivia

Apparently the way to protest in Bolivia is to block the main roads into the capital so that no traffic can get through and throw rocks at anyone who dare try to drive around them. The government had just doubled the yearly insurance fees for all truck, bus and taxi drivers and they were really pissed. Fortunately the police cleared the road blocks every couple of days or so, so we would be able to get through we just had to wait a day or so.

We left Copacabana very early on Tuesday morning to avoid any possible complications ( we figured it would be too early and too cold for any protesting) and headed south to Uyuni and the Bolivian salt flats, bypassing La Paz just in case. A crazy 6 hour drive with snow, rain and hail, over a mountain, across a lake and through a desert.

The scary ferry crossing on our way to La Paz

We drove as far south as Oruru and jumped on an 8 hour train to make the last part of the journey. The view from the train was really beautiful; flamingo lakes, herds of wild Lamas and some very rural villages, definitely a great way to see the country side. There was even a dinning car so you can watch life pass by as you eat your $2 steak meal.

What paved roads there are in Bolivia are in fantastic condition, it’s unfortunate that there aren’t more of them. The secondary roads and some of the main roads consist mostly of one lane dirt tracks, which turn into mud tracks in the rainy season, intersected by several rivers with out bridges. Too much for our Honda to handle and to be honest I think most 4x4s would struggle on some of the roads in the south of Bolivia.

We arrived in Uyuni late that night and crashed at a local hotel. Luckily enough our room came with polystyrene ceilings, beds that sagged all the way to the ground and of course my favorite, the electric shower. Fortunately we didn’t get electrocuted by this one. We got up early the next day to organize a tour to the salt flats. Because it was the rainy season and some parts of the salt flats were inaccessible, even by 4x4, we opted for a 1 day tour instead of the usual 3 day tour. After a few very boring mandatory stops; including the train cemetery, a bunch of old rusted out trains dumped in the middle of a desert and the local salt museum, we started the drive into and across the salt flats.

The salt museum built from bricks of salt

Train Graveyard

Now I wouldn’t be exaggerating when I say that the Bolivian salt flats are absolutely incredible. For me personally it was the most beautiful place I have ever been to in the world and by far the most incredible thing that I have ever seen.

The incredible Salar de Uyuni


The salt flats are up on a mountain plateau in the middle of the Andes and cover an area of over 12,000 square km. In the rainy season they are covered with water and it turns into a massive mirror. We took over 100 photos in the few hours that we spent there and to be honest they don’t do the place justice; it really was hard to capture just how beautiful it was. At times it was difficult to tell where the sky ended and the earth began.

Salt mounds on the salt flats
It was also the first time I ever saw someone walk on water. We had a picnic lunch (another steak dinner) out in the middle of the flats and spent the rest day driving around on the roof of our jeep in what has to be the most surreal place on earth. What an incredible place.

Salt flat picnic

The lady that walks on water

The little boy that walked on water
One of the 4000 other tour groups on the flats....Bloody tourists
The bottle perspective

That night were continued our whirlwind tour of Bolivia and headed back to Oruru, by bus this time, to pick up our car. It wasn’t quite as much fun as the train ride down and with over 70 people crammed into a 35 seater bus, the 10 ½ ride along the bouncy muddy roads was torture. At one point there were five small children sleeping around the driver’s seat. As Alex politely put it, there was definitely a delicious potpourri of smells floating around the bus. The people in Bolivia are really cool but unfortunately for the people on our bus showering was not as popular as you would hope.

We finally made it to Oruru at 6:30am the next morning, jumped in the car with almost no sleep and headed south west to the Chilean border. After driving for about 2 hours the main highway turned into a dirt road and shortly after that came to an abrupt halt at a 2 feet deep river without a bridge. There was no way around it and it would have been one of many more rivers along the way. We had no choice but to turn back.

We couldn’t believe it, the main highway, one of the few main roads in Bolivia was a mud track all the way to the border. We had no choice but to turn around and drive north to the only other border with Chile, which we were promised was paved.

Thankfully it was and 6 hours later we were in the Chilean Andes at what has to be the highest border crossing in the world, just under 5000 meters. We crossed the border and started the long drive down hill through the fog, rain, rock slides and flamingo lagoons, into Arica on the pacific coast. From freezing temperatures at over 5000 meters, to over 30 degrees at sea level. More than 40 hours of travel in 3 days. What a week..

The top of the Bolivian Andes

Finally back to the beach and warmer weather…..but not for long….

Posted by hayden111 14:35 Archived in Bolivia Comments (0)

Ecuador to Peru

overcast 5 °C
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Check out www.haydencarlyonphotography.com for more photos from the trip.

After spending a relaxed Christmas day at the beach in Montanita, feasting on chocolate cake and chicken pastries, we drove south along the Ecuadorian coastline to the border of Peru.

A typical border crossing between Ecuador and Peru. The car is parked somewhere in the middle of all that.

I imagined Ecuador to be a tropical paradise, with palm fringed beaches and turquoise waters but the drive through Ecuador was surprisingly desolate. Apart from a few dusty roadside towns and a scattering of mediocre beaches, it was pretty much a deserted wasteland. After crossing the border into Peru we continued south along the pacific coast.

Peru is a country that is hard to describe; it is both incredibly beautiful and hideously ugly at the same time. We drove down the Pan-American Highway which winds its way down the pacific coast to Lima, through a massive 1400kms of desert, that starts at the border with Ecuador and seems to go on forever. The beaches along the pacific coast were beautiful and the drive through the desert was for me, the best drive of the trip so far. But the small road side towns along the way were horrible, grey, dusty holes littered with trash.

View from our hotel room in a desert town on our way to Lima.

The 1400km drive took 3 days and although it was mostly desert it was a really fun drive. We made it to Lima on Friday afternoon, checked into our Hotel and went for a walk around the city. We stayed in Mira Flores one of the wealthier areas of Lima close to the beach.

Lima is a really cool city and a great place to spend a few days before heading up into the Andes. With lots of bars, restaurant and cafes it’s definitely a great city to go out in and it certainly rivals Costa Rica for the most beautiful women award. Alex spent most of Saturday night in another world after drinking some tea given to him by a local herbalist. I won’t go into details, but it was pretty entertaining.

Sand dunes a few hours north of Lima

On Sunday we continued the drive south to Nasca. A small tourist town in the middle of no where, that is famous for the Nasca Lines. A series of massive ancient drawings in the desert that can only be seen from the air. Alex took a flight over the lines in a small 6 seater plane, while I took the safer option and hung out in town. Later that night we spent New Years drinking and dancing salsa with the locals, out the back of a roast chicken restaurant. It was a pretty cool night.

On Tuesday we finally left the desert and headed east up into the mountains. Another incredible drive, through beautiful mountains and valleys and every possible weather condition you could imagine, even snow.

The roads and the scenery change around every corner.

We found this guy crossing the road on our way to Cuzco.

We arrived in Cuzco yesterday; a beautiful city in the Mountains, 3400 meters above sea level, where the altitude makes you feel like you are 60 years old. It has been raining since we arrived and it is absolutely freezing. From shorts and a t-shirt to 4 layers of clothing and a woolen hat. It’s hard to believe its summer.

Today we took a train 4 hours north along the Inca trail to Machu Picchu. An ancient city in the clouds, with a stunning mountainous backdrop. We spent the afternoon walking through the ruins taking pictures and hanging out with the incredibly chilled out Lamas that wander around the ruins eating the grass.

What a beautiful specimen and a great smile.

The Famous Machu Picchu

This was one of the places on the trip that we were both really looking forward to seeing and while Machu Picchu itself is really beautiful, it is a complete and utter rip off. There is only one way to get there (unless you want to walk for 3 days) and that is by Peru Rail train, a government owned monopoly, that charges over $100US for the return trip. Then there is the $12US bus ride to the gate and the $40 entrance fee to get into the site itself.

It’s a shame that so many tourist destinations around the world are getting so expensive that the average traveler just can’t afford to visit them anymore. As picturesque as it was the over inflated prices definitely soured the experience for us.

Peru truly is a facinating country to travel through; a real land of contrasting beauty. From the beaches and the desert to the mountains, the landscape is forever changing. It has been an incredible 2500km drive through what has been by far the most interesting scenery of the trip.

Next stop Bolivia.

Posted by hayden111 07:37 Archived in Peru Comments (0)

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