40,075km. It’s the circumference of our fragile planet. Since Clo, myself and Wilbur started traveling, we’ve driven nearly 65,000km. I only realized this comparison recently as I was having dinner with friends. Wow. It’s a bit impressive to step back and think we’ve traveled the distance of more than one and half times around the world on our little journey.
As we entered Bolivia, this was not exactly the main thought on my mind. I was more concerned with how we would buy gas (it’s a bargaining process in Bolivia), gas quality (it was going to be the worst of our trip), what would the food be like (cheap and good) and where we’d spend our first night (I’ll let Clo’s pictures speak for that). Of such things are our life now driven (hahah, what a pun).
Our first destination in Bolivia was Copacabana. Yes, I imagine it’s quite separate from the one in Brazil. I can safely say I am sure they have much different vibes (and temperatures). We relaxed here a few days and caught up on email, showers and enjoyed our own bathroom. Of all the things about this type of lifestyle which most people don’t understand, it’s the appreciation we have for a clean bathroom which is accessible without putting on our clothes and footwear. Why do we choose to do something like this?
Why indeed? Why does anyone do anything? This has been a recurring topic of discussion between Clo and I, and a frequent question when we are talking about our trip with others (particularly those whom aren’t doing a similar sort of journey). The reasons why people do what we do are as varied as the people we’ve met and include everything from adventure, boredom or curiosity to their yearning for the zoological.
As we left Copacabana, however, we knew exactly why we were going to La Paz. Clo’s project! The drive into the outskirts of the city was relatively uninteresting, but as we reached the edge of the cliff it became rather unique. Most of La Paz is built in a canyon and we were arriving from the plains above it. To drive down the remarkably steep and skinny (many of them one-way only) roads took two separate stops so we could cool down our smoking and stinky brakes. I was very surprised how steep it was; I’ve driven dirt roads in the middle of the Andes that were much easier.
The week in La Paz was similar to many of the other capitals we’d been in recently, albeit much higher than our last one (Lima). The cities are busy, the downtown areas are usually rather nice with a lot of cafes and restaurants and people, and I enjoy having a week of not driving. I am not a huge fan of big cities in general because there is only so much walking around and sightseeing to do, and the pollution is usually quite a shock compared to how we normally spend our time.
On the other hand, it does give me a lot of time to think, write, watch mindless youtube videos and play games a lot on my phone. That’s probably part of the reason I don’t like the cities, too – the faster onset of boredom. It’s relaxing for a while but then I really want to start traveling again!
Back to that question of why or why not. I’ve written once or twice about the way I normally look at it; I ask myself “why not?”. I think it’s much easier to think of what might be limiting me to a certain choice (the "why not") than trying to convince myself (the "why") to do something. I think “why” and “why not” both require the same amount of thought and time to decide but are fundamentally different ways of looking at a decision. “Why” means I need a strong reason to do something… which is usually easy to come up with. “Why not” means I need a strong reason to NOT do something, which is quite a bit more difficult.
So why not go spend the night on an enormous plain of salt? I can’t think of any reason! Follow other tracks to make sure we don’t get stuck in the marsh surrounding the flats, but let’s go! After we left La Paz, we spent a few days meandering our way down to the city of Uyuni. The city itself is not much more than a few streets with hotels, restaurants and tour companies for all the people who come here to see Salar de Uyuni. The other unique and quite surprising feature of this city is the overwhelming number of Wilbur’s 80 & 100-series Land Cruiser brothers. All the tour companies used them (and a few tried to buy ours, funnily enough) and I saw more here in two days than I’ve seen in my whole life. The only difference between them and ours was Wilbur was obviously a lot more pampered than most of the other LCs.
After the Salar, it was on to the “Laguna route”, a 500km route from Uyuni to San Pedro de Atacama through the moon-like environment of Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa. To say this was the worst driving conditions I’ve ever experienced would be like saying the ocean is wet; barely adequate to explain the experience. If we could get Wilbur to the moon I think I’d prefer to drive there. Our top speed was about 25kmph with many-hour-long stretches of washboard, after which we’d take a break for lunch and then continue for more hours of washboard.
In hindsight, I can think of many reasons “why not” to take this route. On the other hand, it was spectacularly gorgeous in a way no other place I’ve experience before or since. All of it is above 4000m and some gets close to 5000m. It freezes every night. The wind rarely drops below 50-60kmph. There are no trees. It really is a landscape from another world. I wouldn’t do it again, but I am extremely happy we did experience it.
And this is a great example of how I think why vs why not works so well for me. The only significant risk of this particular route was breaking down; we had plenty of food, water, fuel, power and time. But I didn’t know so much what we’d see on the drive… I am sure it would have been extremely easy to choose to do something else besides this. Thank goodness both Clo and I are on the same page in this type of decision.
It's a way to do a basic risk assessment, I think. “Why not” makes me think of the feasibility of the worst-case scenarios happening, and what I can do to prepare for them. This is a rather easy process since there are so very few dangerous things in the world you can actually prepare for or prevent. The I’m ready to go explore and see what I can discover!
On the other hand, thinking of “why” makes me think really hard to try and convince myself why something may be worth doing. And if it’s something I haven’t done or a place I haven’t gone before, how can I come up with reasons without having the experience yet? It’s automatically putting myself at a disadvantage before I ever start something. It’s easy to make a lot of risks for things I don’t know or understand.
All of that said, I still wouldn’t want to do the Laguna route again. It broke Wilbur. Thankfully most of the things I’ve been able to fix in some way or another (lots of tightening/replacing screws and finding ways to repair broken plastic), as there are a few that aren’t worth replacing due to the cost. Nothing that stopped us from continuing into Chile, though!
The border crossing into Chile was the first place we’ve had our vehicle searched. We also were a bit unlucky and also needed to wait nearly an hour, as we arrived at the border crossing just behind a tour bus. This is the first time we’ve needed to wait that long at a border crossing since Ecuador. It was a bit frustrating because we just wanted a hot shower and meal cooked in a warm room. The past week was spent above 4000m and much of it with temperatures at night dropping to 0c/32f or below, and us sleeping, eating and driving (very, very slowly over horrible terrain) in Wilbur. Why did we choose to do this, again?
We put these thoughts aside as we were very pleasantly surprised on our drive down out of the high Andes into San Pedro de Atacama. People here were wearing shorts and dresses! We almost got sunburns. They accepted credit cards. There was more one page to the menu at restaurants. They served bread with each meal. Water was free and was poured into glasses.
We spent a night nearby but then drove on for a few nights to a city (Calama) lower in the Atacama desert, which was larger and also less than half the price of the extremely touristy San Pedro. We had our own room, private bathroom, kitchen and secure parking place for Wilbur. Heaven. The wifi was fast, too! It was a paradise in heaven.
As it turns out, Chile itself was a bit of heaven. Even more than Costa Rica and Ecuador, Chile felt like a return to a modern, organized, safe (people used TURN SIGNALS and DIDN’T PASS ON DOUBLE LINES on the highway! HOLY POOPS!) and not-trash-everywhere-tourists-go country. It was nice. We enjoyed Calama for a few days and then drove along the coast at a relatively relaxed pace towards Santiago.
If our trip had ended in Santiago (and not gone into Patagonia, obviously) I would have called the first 1,000km of this drive (out of a total ~1,600km) one of my favorites on the trip. It was almost totally devoid of people. Nature was unspoiled. The temperature was cool at night and warm (even hot) during the day. The ocean reminded me greatly of the Pacific northwest. The roads were easy to drive. Clo and I had some very good conversations. It was wonderful.
By the time we reached Santiago, though, I was very ready for a break from driving. It helped that our airbnb in Santiago was awesome; the owner (and only other occupant) was often not there, and so we had the place all to ourselves quite often. It was close to the city center and had a nice kitchen to use, and best of all we hung out a few times with Max and Marta! They were in Santiago at the same time and it was awesome to see them again.
For the first time during our trip, we were in a city where I could see us living for a while. We have been through a number of small cities (mostly in Mexico, frankly) where I could see myself for a few months to a year, but smaller cities are definitely not Clo’s thing. On the other hand, the bigger cities with all their pollution, traffic, chaos and probably my least favorite part, the constant noise. Santiago was different; yes it’s busy, yes it has traffic, but it’s a very green city with lots of parks and public areas. The views are similar to Seattle, with mountains and greenery everywhere. And like every other place in South America, the pace of life is more relaxed and at night and during the weekend there is far, far less noise than during the work days.
I had a nice rhythm with running while we were there. I cooked a lot of food at home. Went for a lot of walks. For the first time in any big city where Clo was doing her project, I didn’t visit a single café. Normally I do this out of boredom or for wifi, but no need for that in Santiago. I really enjoyed our time there.
Eventually it was time to leave and move on to the part of the trip I’d been anticipating the most; Patagonia! Our plan was to spend nearly two months in Patagonia and it was part of the reason why we had been moving so (relatively) fast in our first six months in South America. The first week was very much like what I was expecting, too; overcast, cool and frequently raining. We did some small walks and meandered our way south towards the beginning of the Carretera Austral.
Finally we arrived in Puerto Montt, the beginning of the “real” Patagonia. We spent a couple of nights here to shower, wash our rather damp clothes and prepare for many weeks of no showering or sleeping elsewhere than in Wilbur. Finally we left and drove a bit south to Hornopiren, where we caught the 6-hour ferry to Caleta Gonzalo. It was raining when we left and I thought it would be like this for another two months… well, we were in for a marvelous surprise.
As we enjoyed the gorgeous views from the deck of the ferry, we were also very pleasantly surprised by the constantly clearing clouds. By the time we arrived on the abandoned shore of Caleta Gonzalo, it was sunny! This began almost an entire month of sunny and clear skies during the end of spring in Patagonia, which is known for exactly the opposite weather. We were incredibly lucky and appreciated it thoroughly.
The next week we spent slowly traveling through the spectacular scenery of northern Chilean Patagonia. We hiked almost every day. Most of the camp sites were free since it was still off season. There weren’t many people around. We saw glaciers. Schools of dolphins. Huge trees, thousands of years old (third oldest species next to sequoias and bristlecone pines). Volcanoes. Waterfalls. It was better than I expected, and I had high expectations.
Finally after a week or so of slowly driving through the Chilean fjords and small towns of northern Patagonia we arrived in Villa Cerro Castillo. The last 10-15km of drive to this town has the most spectacular scenery of any village/city/town/etc I have ever had the privilege to visit. It’s was like we were driving into a fairy tale castle city in the middle of a range of snow-capped mountains on all sides… and that’s exactly what it was. It’s impossible to describe accurately with words.
Why were we here? Well, why not?! Okay, to be totally honest, we were here for the beer. Back in Puerto Montt we had met a guy who was coming to do a workaway at Cerveceria Caiquen in this little town (village? It was tiny). As we found out, the Cervaceria was made up of a guy and his wife who had been brewing beer out of their home for nearly seven years. Our friend Swain was here with one other workawayer, a French girl, and they would both be working here for a month.
We spent a couple of nights in this incredible city, mainly because the first day we arrived we ended up spending all day and evening with these two and drinking a LOT of beer. We were in no shape to drive anywhere the next day, so decided to relax and watch a few movies in the comfort of our home in Wilbur. It was a good couple of days.
Then we crossed over into Argentina! Our seventh country in South America, and the beginning of a much different type of Patagonia. It was interesting how Clo and I had much different expectations on what the landscape would look like. We spent a few days driving through the middle of the plains before turning west and heading towards El Chalten and the stunning Andes once more.
El Chalten was wonderful. I almost wish we came here last, so we would have known how special it was. It was certainly touristy a bit, but not that much. The scenery and trails were spectacular and free. We met up with Bryan and Alaina again! It was awesome to catch up with them, not having seen them since we were in Lima a couple months ago. We parked near each other the whole time we spent in El Chalten and hung out every day.
After nearly a week here, we continued south together (mostly… Wilbur is a bit more speedy) towards Calafate. This was a nice town, but bigger, much more touristy and less interesting to me; we still spent a couple of days here to see the Perito Moreno glacier (incredibly spectacular) and celebrate Thanksgiving with Bryan and Alaina (incredibly fun and delicious).
After this we left Bryan and Alaina and continued to Torres del Paine. We had big plans for Torres del Paine, ones involving a lot of walking with large packs on our back. To make a long story short, it didn’t work out. We were told one thing at the visitor center about which reservations we needed, and day two into our hike we found out it was the opposite. We weren’t able to continue and finish the “O” trek, so we angrily hiked back and did 2 & ½ days of hiking in one day. We did make it back to Wilbur but the next day we were destroyed and didn’t do anything which required functional legs.
While I am rather annoyed we didn’t get to do the “O”, it was something we were prepared for from the beginning (since we decided not to make reservations months in advance as most people do). The more frustrating part was being told something different after we had actually started our trek and needing to turn around. That was dumb. Clo and I both had a very good attitude about it, though, and we laughed about it more than anything else.
Anyway, we spent a few more days in Torres del Paine, doing smaller hikes along part of the W circuit. I also did a full day hike to the namesake of the park, which was quite a lot of fun and extremely gorgeous. For all of this was I was so happy we had Wilbur to live in, since camping in Torres del Paine is rather pricey and there are so, so, so many tourists here! It was crazy how crowded the place was, though not altogether so surprising.
After we left Torres del Paine we stopped for one night in Puerto Natales. We still had about a week before we would arrive in Ushuaia, but we were desperate for a hot shower and sitting upright in a warm room. We ended up at a really wonderful hostel and thoroughly enjoyed our first night outside of Wilbur in nearly a month. Besides being a very comfy, warm and clean hostel, we got to know two French girls who were working at the hostel. They were very nice and after chatting with them a while, we came to know one of them was a flamenco dancer and she invited us to an exhibition later that evening.
Why not? Couldn’t think of a good reason to say no! The exhibition turned out to be in a café & wine shop sort of thing, and there was free wine! And free food! The lady was quite an accomplished dancer as well, and the first time I’d personally seen flamenco performed outside of television or movies. It was quite an unexpected and fun evening.
We left the hostel quite late the next afternoon, after enjoying a relaxed breakfast and our 2nd day of wifi in about a month. Then we continued on to Ushuaia, another five-ish days of exploratory driving away. We were not in any rush. There wasn't much to see and most of our sleeping plans involved looking for protection from the constant 60kmph winds. Always feeling like our three & half ton home was close to be blown off the road was never comfortable.
It was rather surreal to finally arrive in Ushuaia. From looking at the map to see how far we’d come, to realizing everything (well, mostly) from now was north, and the majority of duration of the trip was certainly behind us. Now it felt like for the rest of our trip we were going back.