Tuesday, December 9, 2014

U-Turn Border Run - Chile to Argentina

Coming up on the end of our 90-day visa in Chile, we studied the map trying to find the most logical pass to cross the Andes into Argentina. We had planned on driving back and forth across the border in one day to get another 90-day visa. Rather than being a chore, it turned out to be an amazing drive along the Rio Maule on a newly paved road. We ended up spending 5 days camping and exploring the uninhabited area.

For a few minutes, the Rio Maule looked like a lava flow

The only chore was paying our $160 (!) per person entry fee to Argentina while we were near internet. It's an odd process - you have to pay for your entry visa ONLINE, only online, and print the receipt before you cross. If you cross somewhere that offers no internet (like the border crossing we were heading to), you will be turned away.

Before we started the drive, we met a local guy who told us about a secret hot spring along a tributary to the Rio Maule. I was doubtful we would find it, but excited about the possibility. He gave us vague directions, but we were able to pinpoint a possible location with our GPS. We found the parking/camping spot and even found the trail up the river to the hot springs. One problem... the hot springs were across a swollen, raging river that we couldn't cross. We tried for 3 days to figure out how to get over to the hot springs. Everyday, they taunted us with their steamy pools.

Even though we couldn't reach the hot springs we got to enjoy an amazing camping spot right next to the river. The roar of the river lulled us to sleep each night (picture below).

Camping next to the Rio Maule near the Argentinian border

When we arrived to the Chilean border post (30 miles from the actual physical border), we told them our plans of  driving to Argentina and immediately returning - queremos recargar nuestros visas. The nice immigration official told us we didn't need to drive 60 miles to the Argentinian office, and that we could simply drive around the building to get our new 90-day Chilean visa and vehicle permit. That made our day! What a relief.

Interesting formations along the drive

We drove around the building and began the re-entry process (passport stamp, forms, declarations, etc., etc.). Chile is notorious for their over-the-top agricultural rules at the border - no food (beans, nuts, cheese, meat, fruits, veggies, pet food, spices, etc.). They ask you to declare any restriced items. We were a little confused about how to handle this since everything we had came from Chile, given that we had never left. Anyhow, we declared a few items just to not look suspicious - firewood Scott had cut 10 minutes prior, cabbage, and a few other things. Despite our many attempts to explain to the inspectors that W E  H A D  N E V E R  L E F T  T H E  C O U N T R Y, they still took our stuff. Oh well, at least they didn't find all the fresh fruits and veggies that I had hid throughout the truck - neener neener.

I guess we paid $320 entry into Argentina a little early. Good thing it lasts 10 years.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Smiling in Middle Chile

I've always been really bad with world geography, but for as long as I can remember, I knew where Chile was, and had a vision for what the land must look like. The country spans the relatively small gap between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes mountains for nearly half of the South American continent. I had always envisioned Chile as this razor edge of a mountain range that fell precipitously into the ocean. That didn't exactly prove to be true, but on a grand scale, my vision certainly works. There are, in fact, stunning, precipitous mountains and massive rivers that pour into the Pacific. For the past month we've been exploring some of these regions.

We visited 3 national parks in the "middle Chile" region which doesn't get explored as much as the more famous Lakes District or Patgonia in the south. We were lucky to visit the region during a stretch of blaring, blue sky days and lots of spring snow melt. Lots of snow melt = big rivers and lakes = volumous waterfalls = greenery.

The first National Park was called Siete Tazas - literally, 7 cups [of water]. We found many more than 7 cups! The main river is called the Rio Claro (Clear River) which cuts through a narrow, basalt canyon. It's a famous river for kayakers looking for the thrill of narrow canyons and clean waterfalls.

The namesake of the park - Siete Tazas (7 cups)

We hiked to the base of this waterfall and Scott bravely took a dip - cold!

The water was so clear, and the air just hot enough, we couldn't resist swimming. When I jumped in, my chest tightened, and the icy-cold water took my breath away. Scott didn't have this reaction. He had many deliciously cold swims in the river during our exploration of the park. I was jealous, but wanted to avoid a heart attack, so I just took pictures.


Siete Tazas was the location of our first monster-bug sightings (see below).

Since spotting this tarantula, we've seen quite a few crossing the road while driving and many sunning themselves on the walking trails in the forest.

Next up was a national park, Lircay del Altos, which despite being only 12 miles away, took us 100 miles of driving to reach. The highlight was a hike just outside the park boundary that climbed to one of the taller peaks in the region, Cerro Peine (literally Comb Peak). Along the entire route, we could see mountains, volcanos, rivers, lakes, and at the top, even the ocean in an amazing 360 degree view. This hike ranks among our favorites ANYWHERE. Pictures below:

The view from our free camping spot in the parking lot at Lircay

Scott's favorite mountain in the park, that you could see from many viewpoints

A short walk from the access road took us to this lookout

On the snowy edge of Cerro Peine

Lost at the top of the mountain

Our next middle Chile national park was Laguna del Laja. There are many lagunas (lakes) in the area, but almost all of them are formed by hydroelectric dams, and thus have power lines and man-made infrastructure that takes away from the natural beauty. Laguna del Laja, on the other hand, was formed when the nearby volcano erupted, and lava dammed the river. Everywere you look, rivers and waterfalls are tumbling down the mountains to make a landing in the laguna and river (Rio Laja). We found one of our favorite camp spots here next to the laguna, parked amongst the lava rocks. For several days, we had the place all to ourselves. We hiked, paddleboarded, swam, hammocked, yoga'ed, read, got sunburned (Scott), and smiled... a lot. Middle Chile made us very happy. Picture overload below:

Our first camping stop in the park before getting to the Laguna del Laja

So many beautiful waterfalls on this wall we got a neck-ache during lunch

Laguna del Laja

Holding my nose


Extreme hammocking

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Finding Some Green in Middle Chile

We're officially a little more than halfway down the long ribbon of land known as Chile. After so many months in the dry, leafless desert of the north, we were looking forward to some softer surroundings. As soon as we were just a little bit north of Santiago, things started to change. Our first stop was a national park, La Campana, containing one of the last palm forests of the Chilean Wine Palm.

Driving up to La Campana National Park

These trees can live to be several hundred years old

A green (ish) lizard - we've finally left the desert!

La Campana's other claim to fame is the large mountain that Charles Darwin climbed in 1834. The steep trail climbs nearly 5000 vertical feet in just 5 km. At the top you can see the Andes mountains to the east and the Pacific to the west. Charles Darwin was one tough dude - the hike was a doozy.

Camping in the shadow of La Campana mountain, near a large Chilean Wine Palm

At La Campana you can hike to this lovely little waterfall set among the palms and cacti

Green yoga

South of Santiago, we worked our way down the coast surfing and kiteboarding a bit, but not as much as we had imagined we would. This area has some pretty famous surfing and kiteboarding spots, but we just weren't feelin' it. The winds were stronger than we would have liked and the water was a bit too cold for me.

The sand dunes at Topocalma - this place has some crazy strong winds 

We visited a famous surf spot that had very recently been inaccessible to all but small 4WD vehicles. A developer who had bought the land was tearing through the hillside making roads and home sites. The whole thing was really hard to watch, as the natural beauty of the area was being destroyed right before our eyes. The upside was that we got to use the new roads and even camp for free right at the surf break, while the developers were trying to figure out how to deal with everyone. The free-for-all camping only lasted 5 days before we were asked to leave. Once in a lifetime at Puertecillo...

The surf wave at Puertecillo

Puertecillo will never look like this again

Into the stunning mountains of middle Chile in the next blog post...

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Atacama Desert, Chile

The Atacama Desert, the driest desert in the world, runs from Peru to the northern third of Chile for an astonishing 1600 miles. We spent many months in this vast desert, only making a short detour through Bolivia (previous blog posts), before popping back into Chile at the popular tourist town of San Pedro de Atacama. Since crossing into Chile, we found that we had to conserve water like never before. Gone were the days of finding a tap where we could fill water containers, much less fill the tank in our truck. This shouldn't have been a surprise, given that the area sees barely 3 mm of rain PER YEAR.

Mountain biking near San Pedro de Atacama - like biking on mars

This sculpture, Mano del Desierto, was constructed in the middle of the Atacama in 1992.
Unfortunately, there was a ridiculous amount of graffiti on it during our visit. 

It's a desert, but it's not flat

Occasionally, we would run across a fertile valley that contained enough moisture from the mountain rivers to support growing produce. We stopped at roadside stands to buy artichokes, plump raisins, olives, and goat cheese.  All consumed with maaaaybe a bit of wine.

Serving olives from a 60 gallon drum - that's how we like it!

We were lucky to visit the desert in the spring when the brown landscape was accented with some color

The best part of our desert traveling was taking advantage of the clear skies and brilliant show of stars every night. Due to it's high altitude, dry air, and lack of light pollution, the Atacama is one of the best places in the world to view the night's sky. There are dozens of observatories dotting the mountain tops - most of them closed to the public. Before our nightly star-gazing, we started with dinner by the campfire - a fun, rare occurrence for us. By the time the stars appeared, the coals were ready to keep us warm.

The view from one of our camp spots in the Atacama

One evening, while camping at a lookout in the Elqui Valley, we sat outside lamenting the non-existant sunset that was hidden by the unusual cloud cover. In an instant, the sky turned from greyish-brown to this:

Elqui Valley alpenglow

We madly ran around trying to gather the camera and proper shoes to climb the hill behind us. It was so spectacular and unbelievable that I felt a lump in my throat during the short 10 minute show.

Multi-colored rocks and steep switchbacks near Elqui Valley

The coastal portion of the Atacama was also quite memorable. It was sparsely populated, which made for easy camping, but the weather was relatively extreme. Most mornings a thick fog cloaked the coastline. If and when the fog lifted, a cold ocean wind would start blowing. We spent many days and nights all alone on dramatic beaches, watching penguins, sea lions, sea otters, and sneaky little foxes. As if the sea otters, foxes, and penguins (all arguably the cutest animals in the world) weren't enough, we also shared a campspot with a great horned owl - they really do say "who-whoooo, who-whooooo". As for surfing, it's official, the water here is really cold.  It is so cold that I am lucky to last an hour in the water.

Camping somewhere south of Antofogasta, Chile 

Camping south of Huasco, Chile

We had multiple encounters with curious and sneaky little foxes hoping to get some scraps of food (or maybe water).
They were not particularly shy.

We definitely enjoyed our travels through the desert, but truth be told, we are ready for some non-pokey greenery.

I only poked myself a little bit trying to pose for this picture

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Southwest Circuit of Bolivia

After the Salar de Uyuni, our next destination was the "southwest circuit" of Bolivia. It's well known for it's Mars-like landscape on a very high-altitude plain around 15,000 feet (4500 meters). The southwest circuit was everything we expected - bad roads, volcanoes, crazy rock formations, odd-colored lakes, hot springs, icy winds, DUST, a bazillion stars, llamas, and lots of flamingos.

Asking a local for directions

One of the awesome camping spots we found during our drive

Hot springs at 14,000 ft - blissful

The circuit lived up to it's legend with horrible roads and the feeling that we were really out there. It no-doubt tested the structural integrity of El Tigre as well as our bodies. Sleeping at 14,000 feet was still a little difficult, and we had to be careful to drink tons of water and not consume too much food or alcohol. Where's the fun in that?

Sandy, washboard roads as far as the eye can see

We also struggled with the freezing temperatures. Every evening we parked the truck facing due east so that we could pop the hood in the morning and warm up the engine block. Scott was very pleased that the truck easily roared to life every morning. We also switched bedrooms - from the poorly insulated top bunk to the warmer sofa bed. We drained the water heater every night, and opened our cabinets to expose the plumbing to our body heat. Normally, we collect our shower water to wash the truck in the morning, but that was impossible with a 6 inch block of ice in the bucket.

Eating up some sunshine

Laguna Colorada is the most famous and picture-worthy destination on the circuit. It is a shallow, pink lake (due to algae) flanked by large mountains and covered with flamingos! Very picture-worthy indeed.

We had to take a side road up (and I mean UP) to 16,500 feet at the Bolivian customs office. It was 45 miles from the actual border. So weird.

Laguna Verde - green due to suspensions of arsenic and other minerals 

Just as we were exiting Bolivia near 15,000 ft (at the crossroads between Bolivia, Chile and Argentina), we saw a guy BIKING up from Chile. I couldn't believe that he was about to do what we just did ON A BIKE with A TENT! How in the...? I would love to chat with him about his life and adventures. We did get a picture of him (below), to remind us of how lame we are.

Stefan writes a blog at www.showmetheworld.net