What a difference a week makes. In fact, really just a a couple of days…….
Throughout the Covid 19 crisis to date both of us had remained resolute that we would carry on and see this through fully expecting to be asked to voluntarily self quarantine at some point where we were. I would not describe Chile’s approach as in any way lax but it had remained very much business as usual throughout the country ( with the standard precautions ) right up until just before I posted last week’s blog ( Salar de Uyuni and Beyond). Peru and Argentina ( the immediately neighboring countries ) by contrast had taken seemingly draconian measures – particularly targeting foreign travellers, some of which were very disturbing and, in some cases, absolutely xenophobic.
Glad we had gotten out of Bolivia days before that border closed and ultimately glad we did not enter Argentina, we, along with many other overlanders, felt very comfortable being in Chile. In the ensuing days, that all changed quite dramatically and with it our original plans to tough it out for what we expected would be a “few weeks” in Chile. The warnings were suddenly coming thick and fast and from every direction. Below, in no particular order, were the changes we saw in a just a matter of days:
1. An ominous warning that it was “time to come home” from Canada’s PM. Canada’s ability to do much to help us was quickly diminishing. We knew there simply were not enough planes to get everyone back and once borders closed, and nations went into “lockdown”, returning would become a logistical nightmare.
2. Airlines started cancelling flights……en masse. Not just cancelling, but announcing that services were being cut indefinitely. One headline had it that there would soon just be 6 international flights out of Canada, likely none of those to South America. All flights to South America would cease as of March 25. That date was just days away.
3. All borders were closing and curfews were being introduced. Everywhere. Internal movement was quickly being restricted as well – this would cause a real problem for us living in a camping vehicle
4. Disturbing stories began to emerge on our primary sources of information “on the ground” in South America – the Pan American Travellers Association Facebook group, and the “Stuck in Chile” WhatsApp Forum. Campgrounds and hotels were closing to foreigners ( where would we stay ? ), initially mostly in Argentina and Peru but reports were trickling in about the same thing in southern Chile, which is where we were headed. Foreigners were denied access to ferries in some places. In other cases, in Argentina, locals were blocking roads preventing foreign vehicles from entering towns. Locals were reporting the presence of foreigners to the police who in a number of cases escorted the said foreigners out of town – heavy stuff
5. Military and police checkpoints were starting to appear and the first shortages of things were emerging. On top of this, early warnings about it likely just being a “2 week shutdown” to beat the virus, were being amended upwards to much longer periods. Reliable sources were suggesting many months at least. With winter coming on, and our window to complete the Carretera Austral closing quickly, we reluctantly followed most other overlanders in making plans to get out….while we could.
When overlanding it’s not just a case of jumping on the first flight out, even if there is one. We had a vehicle to deal with, on a temporary import permit, so needed to arrange an extension with Customs. Application submitted – approval pending. Hopefully not an issue down the road. We also sought out Customs at the airport to discuss leaving the vehicle ( it’s supposed to leave with us when we go ). No time to arrange shipping of the vehicle and in any case we planned to return in a few months and continue the trip, so the priority was to find suitable, secure, reasonably priced storage near Santiago and then to arrange flights ( if we could ).
At this point the “Stuck in Chile” What’s App Forum was a life saver. Kind hearted local Chileans and some resident foreigners who were part of the overlanding scene and who had space started offering storage. “Juan Pablo” came to our rescue and we secured the truck, rapidly unpacked it and left it with him in a town just outside Santiago. He even took us to an airport hotel so we could tackle our next challenge – getting a flight out. There were others who helped out as well, and the Chileans ( in our experience ) really stepped up – our campground host in La Serena had also offered storage if we were stuck ( thank you, Chris ! ). I include below images of a few other kind offers of help at what was an incredibly stressful time for all of us.
A quick search of Expedia yielded a suitable flight on LATAM via Los Angeles so that was secured right away for Saturday night. Devastatingly, just hours later, it was cancelled. Back to square one. The only other affordable option was a Delta flight via Atlanta, but it was not until Monday and we feared it too may get cancelled as more and more US states were going into “lockdown”. In the end, incredibly, we got space on Air Canada using Aeroplan points and we had just enough points for two one way flights. Three more nights and this flight would no longer exist. In fact, when we left Saturday night from Santiago, Air Canada was one of very few international flights that was NOT cancelled. Never have we been so happy to see an Air Canada plane at an airport…!
I can’t begin to describe what a relief it was when we were “wheels up” out of Santiago and then again when we touched down in Toronto ! Unsurprisingly the connecting flight to Kelowna was less than half full……no one is flying that doesn’t absolutely need to.
We had effectively been in personal isolation in Chile for almost a week anyway ( aside from the airport transits and flights – the higher risk of infection there was something that worried us of course ). On arrival airport staff in Toronto reminded us to self isolate for 2 weeks once we got home. Fortunately we have a completely self contained and unoccupied suite in our home so that won’t be an issue and we should not interfere with the comings and goings of our kids in the weeks ahead. Boredom, hopefully, will be our biggest problem…!
So, our Pan American adventure is now on hiatus, along with hundreds of others in the same situation who have stored their vehicles all over the continent, but we do plan on returning to Chile as soon as circumstances allow, and to pick up where we left off. Something tells us that will be more than just a couple of months – in any case, even if it is 5 or 6 months that should give us time to enjoy a nice summer in the Northern Hemisphere and allow us to restart the journey as spring/summer arrives in the Southern Hemisphere ( October/November ). Time will tell…..the whole world has a serious virus to fight in the meantime.
Obviously I will put the weekly updates on pause for now. To our hundreds of loyal readers, thanks for following along on our journey, thank you for your comments, and rest assured we will be back at it as soon as we can. Stay safe, we will all get through this !
The Salar de Uyuni is an otherworldly place. Stark white, for as far as the eye can see, this massive salt flat draws visitors from every corner of the globe and is unquestionably Bolivia’s tourism crown jewel. Having seen it before in winter ( July ) we were dazzled ( quite literally ) as we drove it from north to south on a Landcruiser tour. Fast forward to 2020, now in our own truck/camper, this time at the end of rainy season and there are still remnants of the water that for several months completely covers the salar. It is this water that gives the mirror effect ( and blurring of the horizon ) that so many come to see – it is indeed spectacular !
Part of tradition in the Salar de Uyuni is to take “optical illusion” images using the extreme white background to mask the distance of subjects from the photographer – one can get quite creative out there !
Driving very slowly through the wet salt it was possible to limit the amount of salt ( but not stop it ) that got on the truck and within an hour of leaving the truck was put back up on the “blocks” for a thorough hose down. Hopefully our man got it all off !
Given we were still in the tail end of rainy season, taking our vehicle on the Western Lagunas Route to Chile was always going to be a challenge. Having been this way in 2003 we should simply have passed on it and driven to Tupiza in Bolivia and then on to Salta in northern Argentina. Hindsight ! Of course, being “so close” it was decided we’d take a stab at the Lagunas Route – we could always bail out part way at Ollagüe ( on Bolivia’s western border with Chilean ) if the going got rough, and take the excellent paved road to Calama and on in to San Pedro.
That, in the end, was what we did – 5 hours of bone jarring washboarded road ( I use the word “road” generously ) from San Juan to Ollagüe was more than we could bear – most travellers don’t even try it. We have never experienced sharper, deeper ruts or more unrelenting washboarding anywhere in our travels around the globe. Brutal ! We averaged less than 15 km/h and could find no combination of speed or tire deflation to defray the constant jolting. From 65 psi, to 55, to 45 and even down to 40 ( at which point, with a camper on the back, the rear tires looked flat – I dared not go lower ) we still could not not prevent the extreme shaking and on three occasions briefly lost control of the truck. Enough already ! As they say on Dragon’s Den and Shark Tank….”For those reasons, I’m out !”
Crossing to Chile was painless and we have never been so glad to see an asphalt surface !! We ended up sacrificing all our fruit and veggies to the customs folks ( which we knew was coming ), but they were super friendly and efficient ( and apologized profusely about the fruit confiscation ). A nice welcome to Chile, living up to its reputation as the most “Western”, or developed, of all Latin American countries. Same terrain as Bolivia, just 500 metres away, but look at the road surface below !
The initial plan was to revisit the delightful Chilean oasis town of San Pedro De Atacama and cross into Argentina over the Jama Pass for the long drive south. Fate, however, would intervene. Loved our few days back in San Pedro – as pretty a desert setting as any you will find, but on the day we were to cross the Andes, the Argentine government closed all its borders. Period. No ifs, no ands, no buts. Closed.
After the initial disappointment we resigned ourselves to making the long drive south via Chile’s coastal/desert highway. Not the most scenic road, and we had done it all before in a bus, but there was at least one highlight to break the boredom – the Hand of the Desert. The artist/sculptor was commissioned to do something to break the monotony of the desert drive – he certainly achieved that. In fact people now drive out here just to see it. At 11 metres high it is big !
As the days went on we heard more about the travel restrictions placed on foreigners in Argentina – in the end we were quite glad we did not enter. At least ( at this stage anyway ) we could travel freely within Chile. Based on the many comments from overlanders on the PanAm Travellers Facebook page those in Argentina were having a very rough go of it. So far Chile was pretty relaxed. So far…….
Two days of long drives brought us to the coastal town of La Serena where we established ourselves in a very nice campground. I say that because it is relevant to the next bit of big news we heard – as we arrived, Chile announced a 90 day state of emergency. At the time of writing there was no more detail provided – that will come in the days ahead I am sure -but for now we were left with the option to keep going south or stay where we were. Fully expecting at some stage to face a 14 day quarantine, the issue then became where would we want to serve it out…..? That was happening to overlanders all over Argentina and Peru so it was expected Chile would follow.
At this point I will digress and talk a bit about Covid 19 in South America. Firstly, we don’t want readers to think we are blasé about it, or ignorant ( we are not ), but secondly I have not wanted to add yet more discussion of this tragic topic to people’s lives – by all accounts ( from those who have reached out to us ), all hell is breaking loose at home. I am sure people have heard enough about it. So, if that’s you, skip the next paragraph. On the other hand if you are interested in hearing how South America is dealing with it, read on.
It’s top of mind down here too of course. Like elsewhere, borders are closing which is to be expected. While there are far fewer cases and the continent is probably a degree or so removed from the worst of it, the Corona virus has definitely hit here. That said, from what we have seen, there is not ( yet anyway ) the blind panic that exists elsewhere. Toilet paper is widely available, dry foods as well, however hand sanitizer is already hard to find. People are not fighting in the aisles nor do they seem to be hoarding. Stores are limiting access to people to minimize personal contact ( I had to line up, waiting till another customer left the store, to recharge my phone with data ) and most folks are good natured about it. Again, that may just be a “yet”. We don’t have the space in our camper to “stock up” even if we were so inclined but we are sensible and do make sure we have enough basics to get by. What else can one do ? At this point it all seems pretty civil – hoping it stays that way, but fearing it may not.
So now we sit in La Serena waiting for a bit of direction from the Chilean government on what the State of Emergency will look like – can we move freely and continue south “cocooned” ( as it were ) in our self-contained camper ? We would like to. I can say that we are both much happier to be travelling this way than by plane or bus where there is much more human contact ( and thus virus infection risk ) with others. It remains to be seen whether the Chileans will be that accommodating. Fingers crossed !
Note: As we were sitting in our camper pondering next steps, a couple pulled up beside us on two motorcycles. Their accents sounded North American so I asked where they were from. “Canada”, came the reply. “What part ?” I asked. “BC”, they said. “Where in BC ?” was my next question. And they said…….”Kelowna” !!!! Well, that’s now two couples that we have met on this long overland journey who are en route to Tierra del Fuego and who hail from Kelowna. Talk about a small world.
From Rainbow Mountain it was only a few hours drive south to Puno and then on to Bolivia via scenic Lake Titicaca. Arriving in Puno with time to visit the Uros islands we hopped on a short “tour” of the Uros (floating ) islands. Home to an indigenous group that for centuries have lived on islands made of reeds ( they also construct boats of the same material ), it’s a highly “hyped” attraction but has become extremely commercialized with much more focus on selling trinkets than providing anything close to an authentic experience. I suppose once in a while you have a “fail” – this was one of ours…!
Staying just outside Puno before the Bolivia crossing, as luck would have it we bumped into a couple of fellow Canadian overlanders we had last met in Mexico – John and Kayoko. They have been on the road almost exactly the same period of time as us and travelled much the same route, so we had some serious catching up to do – it was great to connect again.
Bolivia beckoned and we were genuinely excited to be back – not just because we were happy to exit Peru but because we had such fond memories of it. It’s definitely an overlander favorite and easy to see why. Previously we had entered from Chile in the south and travelled north via Uyuni, detouring to Potosi, Sucre and Cochabamba and on to La Paz. This time the plan would be a more direct route, south, crossing via the resort town of Copacabana, on to La Paz and then directly south to Uyuni – the primary aim for us in Bolivia would be to travel the Salar de Uyuni and then likely take the Western Lagunas route to Chile in our own vehicle. Much preparation would be in store ! Backup plan would be to enter northern Argentina through Tupiza in Bolivia, Tupiza reportedly being the location of the final shootout of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
But first we had to get to La Paz and Google Maps had given us a tortuous route through the city that put us in the middle of a Sunday flea market where roads were closed. Not the first time it has led us astray. Getting out of that was no fun, in fact, it was one of the most stressful city drives we have had to date. The rerouting and heavy traffic had us traversing downtown La Paz in the dark, something we avoid at all costs as a rule. No fun, but we survived !
After resting up in La Paz at the excellent Camping Las Lomas and getting some sage “Salar” advice from our host Marcos ( who has travelled the Salar extensively ), we set off for Uyuni. The drive south was uneventful, Oruro being the only major city en route ( and not noteworthy in any obvious way other than being the only city where we have seen traffic lights in a roundabout ! ). As we neared Uyuni the terrain became more scenic with what looked like acres and acres of farmed flowers.
Uyuni is famous really for one thing – the legendary salt flat ( “Salar” ) that bears its name and at 10, 582 sq kms, is the largest in the world. It is a truly incredible sight and was one of the standout natural wonders from our initial trip to South America. Well, that, a “train cemetery” and some truly eclectic Marxist looking street art I should say – check out the images below. Other than that it is pretty much a rough and tumble, dusty frontier type town.
Beyond the Salar, Uyuni is the jumping off point for a famous, remote and fairly rough road known as the Western Lagunas Route – named for the beautiful high altitude lagoons you pass on this mountainous back road to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile.
Taking a vehicle involves much preparation since it is almost 500 kms of high altiplano desert, constant washboarding with no services to speak of en route. Many travellers take the trip in 4×4 Land cruisers as we did in 2003 – this time we would be on our own. Our time in Uyuni was thus spent researching routes, stocking up on supplies, and ensuring the vehicle was in good mechanical shape. Given that most travel the route via the Salar, a thorough undercoat of graphite oil is first applied to limit the impact of wet salt getting where it shouldn’t on the car’s underbody. Having seen what effect “Salar salt” could have on disc brakes we opted for the full treatment, including a high pressure wash off after driving on the Salar. Hopefully that will do the trick.
Watch for a full report on the Salar trip and our exit from Bolivia on our next blog !
You never like to leave a city you enjoy, and while we could not get through Lima fast enough, Arequipa was another story. It’s beautiful Plaza de Armas, it’s smaller size, it’s snow -capped volcano backdrop and it’s unique sillar stone buildings make it a place one could easily linger longer. But with much to see in the days ahead, and a break in the rainy weather forecast at the Colca Canyon we decided a shot at seeing the Andean condors up close on a clear day was too good an opportunity to pass up.
The 3 hour drive took us northwest of Arequipa through small villages, high mountain passes and hundreds upon hundreds of the various South American “camelids” – the general name of the camel family that includes llamas, alpacas, vicunyas and a few others. Seeing them all, out in the open, with snow capped mountains in the background is just such a quintessential South American image in my mind.
To think, even for a minute, that we actually considered NOT visiting the Colca Canyon is almost frightening. One of the deepest canyons in the world and spectacularly beautiful in its own right, the Colca Canyon is home to the Andean condor. Of course they are found elsewhere in South America, but not as reliably and not, as far as I know anyway, where they can be seen up close in their natural environment. The Cruz Del Condor mirador ( viewpoint ) at the deepest point in the canyon, an hour west of the town of Chivay provides just that opportunity – we were very glad we made the effort to go !
We almost didn’t because it was over 3 hours out of our way, had been rainy and cloudy in the area, and the big birds don’t always come out in those conditions. Two couples who we’d met earlier had little luck when they went and both also complained about the stiff admission fee to the park – actually more so about the racially based fee structure than the fee itself. See the picture below – it is blatant racial discrimination, and sanctioned by the Peruvian government no less ! To put this in perspective, it’s akin to giving preferred entry pricing to the Grand Canyon to US citizens, doubling that for other Caucasian folks, but then almost tripling that price for non-Caucasian foreigners. It would be headline news. Apparently not an issue in Peru.
I’ll let the pictures below tell the rest of the story but to say it was one of the best days and experiences of our trip so far would not be a stretch. Simply amazing ! A word of caution – between shooting many of the birds (mostly while moving) through a long telephoto lens and then having pixel size restrictions on the website, there is unfortunately significant quality degradation on many of the condor images below ( our originals are better ! )
Watching them soar and fly by was thrilling but they sometimes come to land near the Mirador as well. Our lucky day – not only did one land nearby and sit for quite a while, he/she put on quite the show spreading its wings before taking off again. An unexpected delight !
Probably one of our greatest wildlife viewing experiences, certainly of the avian variety. If you are in the area and even THINKING of visiting the Colca Canyon, just do it. Absolutely worth the effort.
Leaving Colca, there was no direct road to Cusco so our route was somewhat circuitous, involved a couple of hours of rough dirt track and took us up over 15,000 feet twice. Always a bit eerie when you’re in those areas, up that high, traversing very barren landscapes and seeing no traffic at all. Not a place you would want a breakdown. To our complete surprise, in 7 degree weather, we drove through an area of snow and hail – not what we expected in “summer” in Peru, but there it was !
Cusco is legendary – no question about it. A UNESCO World Heritage sight, capital of the Inca empire, and a highlight on every South American travelers itinerary. While we had explored the city, nearby Macchu Picchu ( in our mind still THE most amazing of all the world’s seven man-made wonders ), and the Sacred Valley with all its amazing sights during our first South American trip, we were still excited to revisit Cusco – it’s the kind place that has a magnetic appeal and attracts people from all over the world – it consistently makes the list of the Top 10 world tourist attractions. This time we simply soaked up its ambience, wandered its many backstreets, connected with other overlanders and had some necessary vehicle servicing at the local GM dealer.
While it was wonderful to revisit Cusco and do a bit of the “tourist circuit”, a key reason for coming was somewhat more “technical” in nature – it was necessary to have the local GM dealer reprogram the Electronic Brake Control Module on the truck. Turns out there had been a recall notice issued a couple of months back and since it affected brakes it was not something that could be ignored.
Easy fix if we were back in Kelowna, but GM Canada’s vehicle coverage does not extend to South America. After telling them we were with our vehicle in Peru, and some pleading with their client service centre in Toronto, a GM dealer was identified in Cusco, Peru ( the aptly named “Inca” Motors ) who, it seems, had the diagnostic equipment to handle it. Also convenient since the 84,000 km general service was due and the front brakes were almost worn out. The truck spent a full day in their “shop” but now we should be good for another 12,000kms or so ( amazing how quickly those intervals roll around when you are permanently travelling).
One of the great sights of Peru we wanted to catch this time was Rainbow Mountain ( known as “Vinikunka” in Peru ) an incredible multi-colored mountain south east of Cusco. It’s high, at 5,036 meters and you can’t drive all the way but it is a spectacular sight…..the colors are stunning and make the strenuous hike to the top well worthwhile.
One of the great joys of travel is the interesting people you meet. As we walked back to the truck after the hike to Rainbow mountain, we struck up a conversation with a young American fellow. As always the conversation got around to what you did “back home”. “A little theatre”, was his initial answer. Curious, I probed a little further. “Anything famous ?”, I asked. Now, anything to do with Broadway, in New York, I would consider quite noteworthy, but when the guy you are speaking with is Clinton Greenspan, who had just finished a season playing Aladdin, in Aladdin, you are in the presence of theatre royalty ! Below is a link to a review with his picture in costume and below that a picture of him hiking with us on Rainbow Mountain.
Our cool, scenic respite in the Peruvian Cordillera was to be short-lived. From the stunning beauty around Huaraz, Highway 16 wound across a high mountain plateau before rapidly zig-zagging down to sea level and joining the main coastal highway heading south. Sadly, for the next few days, it was mostly mile after mile of boring desert ( and badly littered ) highway. Fortunately the days were interspersed with with some great camping “finds” and re-visits to a few old favorite spots on the Pan American route.
This litter thing is so bad in Peru that it actually becomes a qualifier on any discussion with other overlanders about the country. We, like most others, find it very hard to overlook and, frankly, are amazed that in 2020, after what must have been decades of education about environmental awareness in the schools, people are still just throwing trash on the streets and highways. It is truly shocking to see.
Lima was not on the list of places to revisit as we traversed the Peruvian coastline, this time going north to south. The two hours we spent just getting through its brutal traffic was more than enough stress and we both breathed a sigh of relief as we got to its south side and out into the beach communities along the coast.
Following a night in Hamacas beach, the sand dunes town of Ica was a great place to rest up for a few days; Ecocamp Huachachina was a great location, and the pool was a welcome relief after the heat and sweat of walking/sliding in the sand dunes. Always a delight to catch up with another overlander and it was a very pleasant surprise to bump into Tina there ( she was camped next to us in Banos, Ecuador ). Sadly, she was in the final days of her South American odyssey and about to ship her bike ( and herself ! ) home from Lima.
The Nazca Lines are always worth a stop and the new, taller, mirador provided a much better view than the old one that was available back in 2003. There is a great story on the background history of the Nazca Lines and current scientific theory as to why they were carved – read about it here:
The serendipitous rendezvous’s did not end in Ica. Proving there really is a “gringo trail” of sorts down here, later in the week we pulled into Puerto Inka ( just south of Nazca ) – right beside us was “Christoph” and his family – the very same Germans camped beside us in Quito and who had given us such great tips for the Galápagos.
Arequipa is famous for its historic Plaza de Armas, beautiful triple volcano backdrop (often snow-capped) and unique white buildings ( they are constructed from sillar, a white volcanic stone). A far more visitor-friendly city than Lima, it’s easy to get around, smaller and simply (due to its architecture, history and physical backdrop) much prettier. Traffic was not bad, the sun was shining so we took full advantage of both the re-explore the city for a couple of days.
There was a bit of “strategy” in our route here as well. Coming up from sea level, Arequipa at 2,335 meters made for a perfect graduated ascent on our way to the Colca canyon, Cuzco, Lake Titicaca and Bolivia in the weeks ahead where we will be continuously in the 3,500 ~ 4,500 metre range. Tough to exert oneself up that high – got to get acclimatized !
We are Lois and Jeff, of Kelowna, BC, Canada. A mid and late 50’s couple, recently retired with a serious travel bug, looking forward to hitting the road in May 2019. Our plans are open-ended but North and South America are first on the list and we will determine what comes next after we see how we do in the America’s.