We have spent the day relaxing and preparing for the last push of our trip into Patagonia and then down to the Cape. Puerto Montt is clean, but like most port towns, has a bit of an edge and wouldn't be what you would call a typical tourist town - lots of transient people coming through; dock workers, backpackers, families from the countryside, etc.... In other words a real hodgepodge of people.
Something that seemed to concern a lot of people about our trip was our choice of license plate - the general consensus was a vanity plate that spelled out GRINGOS was an invitation to cause trouble in South America.
While I didn't share that concern, the negative reaction of people in North America to the plate got me worried that we had maybe made a bad choice - however, after over 3 weeks on the road, I can say that the plate has been overwhelmingly positive.
We get many perplexed stares, but also lots of laughs and thumbs up on the road - people will come up to us at gas stations and ask questions about the plate.
The reaction at the border has also been positive once the officials realize it is a real plate (they don't have personalized plates in South America) - we had only one incident in Ecuador, where the officials didn't think it was real. One official in Peru asked (in Spanish) why we put Gringos on the plate - I told him to look at us, we WERE gringos, no? He laughed and said "true" in Spanish.
I believe the key to having fun when you travel is to have a sense of humour, even when things aren't going right or the way you planned. The GRINGOS plate shows others that we aren't taking ourselves too seriously and that we aren't afraid to show who we are - travellers, just passing through.
We have checked in for our ferry tomorrow and actually have to present the car at the port tonight at 11:30 pm, so we will spend tonight aboard the boat as well (we have a private cabin). We will disembark at Puerto Chacabuco on Monday morning and hope to be in Puerto Bertrand in the evening on Monday. I don't think there will be wifi on the boat, so you likely won't here from us again until tomorrow night.
Also, SPOT coverage from here on in may be intermittent - satellite reception gets iffy the further south we travel, and there are gaps, so don't be surprised if the SPOT doesn't pick us up regularly...
Our longest day of the trip - almost 1,500 Kms in just shy of 16 hours! Over the last two days, we have covered 25% of the entire mileage of the trip, thanks to the great highways and some excellent driving.
When we left La Serena at 5:45 am this morning, we were still in the desert, which we had been following since entering Peru over a week ago. However, as we approached Santiago, the landscape began to change, and by the time we exited Chile's largest city at 10:30 am, we were in the breadbasket of Chile.
Agriculture was flourishing around us, including lots of varieties of fruit, as well as our favourite Chilean export, wine! Vineyards stretched out around us for the next 250 Kms, making us very thirsty - alas, we would not have time to stop and taste (we are hoping for some time at the end of our trip).
About 900 Kms into our day, the landscape changed again - while there was still some agriculture, large trees appeared, and we could see that the timber industry was thriving here.
We continued on our marathon journey as lakes and mountains began to appear - we were getting close to the gateway to Patagonia, and our destination, Puerto Montt.
Finally, as it was getting dark we arrived in Puerto Montt, exhausted, but happy to know we have a day off tomorrow to wash the car, clean some clothes and catch up on some much needed rest.
We also need to check in for our ferry ride, scheduled to depart on Sunday morning.
Until tomorrow, buene suerte!
sunset in la serena
The great thing about driving through a country is you get to actually taste the day to day lives of people who live there. This has given us great insight into how each country operates, and what their strengths and weaknesses might be.
Today was such a day - we managed to put on over 1,200 Kms in 12.5 hours, all through the desert, where nothing grows. And while I thought I knew a bit about Chile before we arrived, the last couple of days have been an eye opener.
Chile's main business is mining - we drove through mining country today (including the largest pit mine in the world and the town where the survivors of the famous mine rescue occurred) and were amazed at how everything in this region is centred around the mining industry. To put it into perspective, copper makes up 60% of all exports! That's 15% of Chile's GDP for just this one mineral. 40% of the world's copper is produced in Chile.
All we saw today were red and white mining company trucks and semis servicing the mining business. The Chileans have taken this wealth and built outstanding infrastructure - you can also see the emphasis on education and culture.
In other words, Chile doesn't really fit the mold of a Latin American country - this is why Chile is known as the "Jaguar of South America", and for good reason. It is, for the most part, a modern, first world country.
We arrived in La Serena a bit before 7 pm tonight - we have a nice spot near the beach.
We have 1.5 days to get to Puerto Montt, where our ferry leaves Sunday morning - we will decide tomorrow how far we will go (probably at least 1,000 Kms, maybe a bit more). We hope to skirt around the city we depart from, Santiago, tomorrow as well.
manuel turns 200,0000 today!
We spent the night in downtown San Pedro (also known as San Perro because of all the dogs) - the town is made up of low slung adobe buildings and looks like a set out of a Clint Eastwood / Sergio Leone western. There are little shops selling homemade jewellery, artisanal items and a ton of first class restaurants. Definitely one of the most unique places I have ever been!
Today we became tourists for the first time since Cartagena, and decided to book a tour to the El Tatio Geyser field.
Being the 3rd largest geyser field in the world (behind only Yellowstone and Golina in Russia) is great - the problem being that the geysers are at their strongest at daybreak, which meant we were up at 4:00 am so that we could depart before 5:00 am.
Another bone jarring 2 hour drive (in the dark) on a single lane road with surfaces alternating from pavement, to gravel, to cobblestone, to washed out bridges, all gaining altitude from 8,500 feet to 13,000 feet and we are at our destination!
We finally reached the geyser field and toured the various sections, also learning the fascinating history of the area (more on that in tomorrow's blog post). After taking a ton of photos and video, I decided to hop into the thermal pool that they dug in the middle of the field. Natural hot springs fed directly into the dugout, and about a hundred other people joined me. Problem is, you needed to be close to the hot spring inlet - while the pool was large, it was cold unless you were close to where the springs entered. Cue a crazy picture where all 100 bathers are crammed into one small section of the pool, fighting for some warm water!
We then got back into the bus for the journey home - however we were fortunate enough to see llamas, vicunias (a high altitude form of llama), flamingos and desert foxes! Back in our room by 12:30, we enjoyed a rare siesta.
We aren't done yet - at 5:00 pm we took Manuel to the Valle de la Luna, a national park just a couple minutes from our hotel that looks exactly like the moon. We hiked up the dunes and took in the astonishing views, the perfect way to end our stay in the Atacama desert.
We were going to stay another day, but looked at the map and realized we need to MOVE to check in for our ferry ride in Southern Chile on Saturday. Tomorrow is our most agressive driving day of the entire trip - we are going to try to put on 1,200 Kms, over 400 Kms more than our best day so far! Early to bed, with a lot of snacks stockpiled in the car (Daniel and Robert will be happy to know that Sour Cream and Onion Pringles are popular here!).
Stay tuned to our Spot to see if we can make it all the way to La Serena!
After blazing through the Chilean desert for 7 hours and 700 Kms ( a land speed record) we have arrived in San Pedro de Atacama, just 40 Kms from the Bolivian border.
As mentioned yesterday, the Chilean roads are in great condition - what we didn't mention is that the roads are virtually empty. In areas where there is a steep grade, the climbing direction usually has a passing lane, which allows us to move quickly without being stuck behind slow trucks. The roads are also incredibly straight - we can see up to 10 Kms ahead at some points.
San Pedro de Atacama is a surreal place, geographically and demographically. It sits in the driest valley in the world - the driest portion of the valley gets 0.6 inches of rain per year.
The landscape is unlike anything we have seen - it is the place on earth that most closely resembles Mars - in fact this area was used to test the landing module for the Mars rover!
As for the people who visit here, they might as well be from Mars as well. There are a boatload of hippies that have come to the desert to find themselves, there are your type A backpackers, and there are the well heeled staying in 5 star resorts that rival any place on earth (they are just located down a dusty one lane road behind giant walls). This place has been featured in countless travel magazines as a world holiday hotspot (go figure!).
My son, Daniel, recently learned a piano piece called Atacama Desert - Daniel, I could hear you playing that piece as we moved through the desert. A really cool connection with home when I'm a world away!
We are taking a shuttle downtown to eat tonight (we are staying 1.5 Kms from the action) and tomorrow head for the Tatio Geysers, which at 12,800 feet are some of the largest and widespread steam geysers in the world (eat your heart out Old Faithful!). Apparently, our guides will cook breakfast for us over the geysers!
Buenos Noches from Chile!
On a trip like this, flexibility is key - something is bound to go wrong, and the key to an enjoyable time is just rolling with it.
At 8:00 am Sunday morning (Bob's birthday) I set out out to climb El Misti (19,100 feet), an active volcano that towers over Arequipa. This endeavour would take 1 night, putting me back around 1:00 pm today. After a 3 hour bone crushing truck ride, we were at the trailhead which was approximately 12,500 feet.
El Misti is covered in volcanic ash (it's last major eruption was in 1985), so we hiked over the sand fields for three hours until we reached base camp at 16,000 feet. From here we could see the remainder of the trek - a little over 3,000 feet of hiking in 4 hours. From what I was told and what I could see with my own eyes, this is probably the easiest hike to 19,000 feet in the world.
I lay down for an afternoon nap, and when I woke up I felt awful - my stomach was doing cartwheels and was continuously cramping up. My appetite was gone.
I caught a bug somewhere in Ecuador and had been fighting it with some success over the past week - my appetite was erratic, and I had to keep drinking fluids as I was getting dehydrated. Bob caught the same bug a couple of days later, and while it was an inconvenience, it hadn't changed any of our plans. Until now.
For the next 10 hours I was hunkered in my tent trying to keep to the Golden Rule of mountaineering - never spill a drop of bodily fluid on the inside of the tent! I was successful in that endeavour, but I could not so much as sit up in the tent for fear of breaking the Golden Rule.
Morning came, and I had to tell my guide I didn't fancy risking my entire trip trying to climb one sand-encrusted volcano. El Misti 1 - David Banman 0.
The one good thing that came from this is that after another 2 hour spleen destroying 4x4 trip back to the hotel, we decided to leave Arequipa and head to Chile.
We hit the border at 5:15, checked out of Peru, checked into Chile, and by 8:20 (there is a 2 hour time change in Chile) were driving into the port town of Arica.
The difference couldn't be greater - we are now in a 1st world country, with infrastructure (and prices) to match.
Tomorrow we head to the driest place on earth, the Atacama desert, where we will continue our adventure!
We missed a day blogging because we ended up staying in a place on the beach that had no wifi or cell service. Puerto Inca was rustic, but amazing - a hotel set in its own bay 100 feet from the ruins of an Incan village, we could see the ruins from our balcony!
We left our hotel at 8:30 yesterday morning and headed an hour east to Huacachina, which is an honest to goodness oasis set in the middle of the desert (see the picture above). This town is on the "Gringo Trail" and has seen better days, but its claim to fame today are the dune buggy rides over the dunes at high speeds, as well as the opportunity to snowboard down some of the dunes.
We took one of these tours and had a great time bouncing up over and across the dunes - it was truly amazing! I also tried "sandboarding" down one of the dunes, but evrntually settled on riding down face first - the grit of the sand really slows down the board...
After our tour, we headed south to Nazca, home to one of the true wonders of the world, the Nazca Lines. Flying over Nazca in 1939, a private pilot discovered all sorts of shapes seemingly carved into the landscape. These shapes included a giant condor, a parrot, a tree and a pair of hands, some over a kilometre in length but proportionally correct. Turns out, the Nazca culture started making these shapes in the earth 700 years before Christ, and continued for several hundred more years. There are hundreds of figures and shapes all over the valley floor.
The only way to really see the lines in person is to get aboard an airplane - so we chartered a Cessna 172 with two pilots (Bob was in his glory) and took a 45 minute flight over the Lines. Definitely a highlight of the trip so far!
After that we drove another 200 Kms to the aforementioned Puerto Inca, where we spent the night.
This morning we were up at 6:00, and drove another 350 Kms to Arequipa, where we plan to stay 2 nights.
Starting tomorrow, I will attempt to climb El Misti, a 5,800 metre peak (19,100 feet) over the next two days. I'm not sure how this will go as I have been sitting in a car for the better part of a week not really acclimatizing, but I'll do my best and we will see what happens. I will bring the SPOT with me so you can track my progress (or lack thereof).
As I will be on the mountain tomorrow, it might be a couple of days until the next blog post. However, a big Happy Birthday to my two favourite Roberts - my son Robert turns 7 today, and my travel companion has his birthday tomorrow (his birthday has a 7 in it also, but that's all I'm saying!).
What a difference 12 hours makes - we left the dusty, rather scary port town of Chimbote at 6:30 am, and drove through alternating landscapes of sand, sand and more sand, punctuated by hundreds of poultry farms (no supply management here), a few fertile cornfields, and lots more trash, before we reached Lima at 12:00 pm.
With a population of 10 million people, Lima is the third most populous city in the Americas, behind only São Paulo and Mexico City. Navigating through this metropolis would be our most difficult adventure to date.
If you asked us what Lima looks like, we would have no clue. Our eyes were peeled on the road, opposing lanes and GPS, and for an hour and a half we navigated through the city at speeds ranging from 100kms to a standstill.
For the first 30 minutes, Bob tucked behind a diesel spewing passenger bus - the bus driver was a close cousin to Dale Earnhardt, as he wove his way through the lanes of traffic. We lost him after a toll booth, however, so we were on our own for the duration of our ride. After another hour of superior driving by Bob, we came out of the south end of Lima unscathed, heading for Paracas, 3 hours south.
Paracas is known as the Galapagos of Peru - there are more species of marine birds here than any other place in the world! We splurged for a 5 star hotel and are now safely tucked into our lodging - the first time in nearly 2 weeks we have had air conditioning! A quick dip in the pool, a couple of Pisco Sours, and a ceviche dinner - all is right with world.
Tomorrow is sightseeing day - we plan on taking a dune buggy ride through the desert, snowboarding on a sand dune, and hopping on a plane to see the Nazca Lines... Stay tuned!
typical view of our drive today
Today we broke our distance record - 770 Kms in a single day! That may not seem like a lot for those of you in North America, but since we began in Colombia it seems like halfway to the moon!
Peru is a very different country than Colombia and Ecuador - it is not blessed with the temperate climate and fertile agricultural lands of these other countries, and therefore is economically disadvantaged.
We drove the entire 11.5 hours today through desert, with people just trying to eke out a basic living in these harsh conditions. Every once in a while, we would come upon a place with water - crops would be planted and the surrounding communities would be more prosperous.
The biggest issue, though, is garbage - I have never seen so much refuse strewn around as I have today - the entire desert was one big landfill!
This isn't really funny, unless you know Bob - he has always had a thing for order and cleanliness, so today drove him nuts! People were throwing garbage out of their car windows, there were piles of dirty diapers everywhere, and building rubble was piled up at the entrance and exit of every town with full plastic bags 10 feet high piled next to it... Every time we entered a town, Bob would get more and more frustrated with the piled up garbage - who would have known that he was an environmentalist at heart. David Suzuki eat your heart out.
We were also stopped by the Peruvian police 3 times today, once for over 15 minutes. The police and army presence has ramped up as we have headed south.
We reached the sketchy port town of Chimbote just before dark, as the military patrols were starting. We are staying in a gated community in a beautiful hotel (Hotel Brillia) and won't leave until the sun rises tomorrow, when we hope to make it to the desert oasis of Huacachina.
the view from Bob's room in maNcora
We are now on the Pacific, soaking up the final rays of sun as it sets over the horizon with Pisco Sours in hand.
Our day started at 5:30 am as we managed to get out of Quito rather easily (except for the driving rain). We drove through the Avenue of the Volcanoes, as Cotopaxi and Chimborazo loomed above us the entire journey. The roads were once again excellent, as we made great time, going from 9,500 feet in Quito up to almost 12,700 feet before descending into the Guayaquil valley at 900 feet!
The scenery was again astounding - Ecuador has to be the most naturally beautiful country on earth - the large volcanoes and lush green valleys combine to form a truly unique landscape that is awe inspiring at every turn.
After descending into the southern lowlands, the landscape remained green, but the fertile valleys gave way to miles and miles of bananas and a lot of poverty. This area of the country is definitely not as fortunate as their northern comrades.
After an early lunch of chicken fingers and fries at a gas station restaurant, we continued on to the Peruvian border. The great thing about this border is both countries are housed in the same building - you walk up to the counter to get stamped out of the country, then go to the next line to get stamped into the next- sounds like something the US and Csnsda should try, no?
We had been warned that the first thing we would have to do was go to a different complex to turn in our Ecuadorian car permit and get it stamped - this was about 5kms before the actual border. Every single blog I had read said they had missed the building, reached the new customs building in Peru, and were sent back...
One look at our Spot track today shows this is exactly what happened - we were turned back, and then to add insult to injury, the Ecuadorian officials didn't think our GRINGOS plate was real. After lots of talking, touching the plates and shrugs, we finally got this sorted out, went back to Peru, checked out of Ecuador, into Peru, and got our car permit, all in the space of an hour!
We then moved into Peru (and their inferior highways), and were soon looking at the beautiful Pacific Ocean - we are now in the desert, and will be for the next week and a half.
We stopped in the backpacker resort town of Mancora, found a hotel on the beach, and will sleep soundly tonight after almost 14 hours on the road. We have decided to skip Lima, as big cities are so hard to get in and out of. We think we will try to make it to Trujjillo tomorrow (maybe further).
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”
- Mark Twain