Chile - Salt flats, Sand Dunes, and the Atacama

Eli and I continued north up Ruta 40 in Argentina through a vast array of scenery including some amazing dry deserts and endless salt flats.
Our days consisted of driving and camping with stops along the way to take in the culture and landscape. We saw some wild llamas and donkeys but not much other wildlife.
Our goal for the rest of our trip was to see some of the Atacama Desert in Chile before making our way back to Santiago to sell our car. Our final boarder crossing was coming up which would be the 7th time we crossed the border within South America. The big difference with this border was that it was located at 4500 meters (14700 ft) elevation! We arrived at the border midday only to learn that the border crossing was closed due to snow on the Chilean side. Eli and I laughed as we looked around and the lifeless desert thinking how in the world could there be snow here. We chatted with a small group of tourists that were travelling on bicycles, also waiting for the border to open. They told us that the border had been closed for 2 days already and they were stranded and sleeping in a little shelter at night. I felt so sorry for them sitting out in the cold and wind as we at least we had our car to shelter us and to drive us back down the road to the gas station. So Eli and I spent the rest of the day sitting in the cafe at the gas station. We starting thinking of plan B in case the border didn't open, but luckily after 4 hours we got word that the border had re-opened. Eli and I jumped back into to our to find that the elevation had taken it's toll on our poor "penguino". Our car wouldn't start! Eli fiddled with it for awhile but it still wouldn't work for us. Since we were in the middle of nowhere and had no idea what to do, Eli suggested a good old fashion push start to pop the clutch. I was all game for it, the only problem was we were on flat gravel (no downhills) and the car was heavy. Luckily a group of guys saw us struggling to push and they joined in. Even with the extra hands, it was extremely difficult. After what seemed like forever, about 5 minutes, we made it to a downhill and one of the guys jumped in, pop the clutch, and started our car! I can't tell you what a relief it was. No really, I couldn't speak or breath for that matter. I suddenly felt the pressure of the high elevation on my lungs as my chest began to burn. I felt like I was having a heart attack and then I started having a coughing fit. I guess that's what happens when one is sedentary driving in a car everyday to suddenly sprinting and pushing a car at 14700 ft. We made it through the border eventhough I was pretty sure they wouldn't let me into to Chile with the new cough I developed, but they did. It took a good 24 hours until my lungs cleared and I wasn't coughing anymore. Eli felt the pain in his chest too but he seemed to handle it better than I did.

The Atacama desert was not what I was expecting. When I think of desert, I always think of Arizona, with it's short shrub bushes and maybe even some cactus here and there. The Atacama opened my eyes to real desert. No sign of life anywhere, not even a plant or a fly or a critter of any sort. Nothing around but sand, rocks, and more sand. Dunes and dunes of sand!
The Atacama desert is the driest place in the World! There are spots where there has never been any recorded rainfall. We camped near another "Valley of the Moon" and it was a bit different than the Argentine "Valley of the Moon" in that it didn't have as many massive rock formations, mostly huge sand dunes.

Heading south in Chile offered much of the same landscape for a few days. The highlight of this drive for me was when we approached the "Mano del Desierto" a massive hand carving located just off of the highway.
To me it looked like something built by aliens and it made for fun picture taking.

By the time we got to central Chile, the scenery was starting to look more Arizona-like, except it included the ocean of course!
It was bizarre to see cactus right next to the water, to me they didn't go together.
Although we were enjoying our drive down, we both admitted that we liked northern Argentina more than northern Chile, primarily because it had a diversity in the landscape. I also think that I fell in love with the Argentine wine more than the Chilean, but I am still looking for the perfect Chilean wine.

After 50 days of driving and camping in our car, we suddenly found ourselves in Santiago as this was the city where we would sell our car and take a plane back to the States. Eli had heard about a hostel that was run by an American guy that had helped people buy and sell cars so we booked our room there and settled in. We splurged and opted for a private room, mostly because we had to unload our car and dump all of our stuff out in the room. After turning our room into a pigsty, our next order of business was cleaning our car and posting an ad for it. Sounds easy right? Well the cleaning part proved to be difficult. We had to drive around the city for at least 2 hours looking for a "Lavadero" car wash. When we found one, it was not self service so we had to wait in line for another 2 hours while the sole washer took his sweet time on the cars ahead of us. Luckily they had a vacuum there so we got that taken care of as well. We did a self wax and polish job and by the end of the day, our "penguino" looked brand new! During the cleaning process, Eli noticed that a ton of screws were missing and a tail light and a headlight were burnt out so he spent some time scouring the neighborhood for parts. Our friend Anibal from Punta Arenas got a call from us later that day. He gladly agreed to help us once again by taking phone calls from potential buyers as we were still not up to pare with our Spanish. We posted our car on a local internet site and put a sign in the window. Within a matter of a few hours, Anibal let us know that he was already getting calls and he planned a meeting for us the next day with a potential buyer! This is it we thought! It is really happening and fast! The next day, Eli and I woke up feeling excited and nervous. By midday, we started to worry as our guy never showed up and never called. I heard from the hostel owner that Chileans are known to be a bit flaky and that it is common for them to be late or no-shows. Eli and I tried not to be too disappointed and told ourselves that we had plenty of time to sell. Later that evening we got a knock on our door from an older gentleman who was interested in our car after seeing the sign in it's window. Eli did a great job at communicating in Spanish with him and they bargained a price. The man told Eli that he wanted to come back tomorrow and test drive the car. We all shook hands and when the man left Eli and I were encouraged again. Well, the next day, sure enough, the Chilean man flaked out on us. He was another no-show, no call. Two days in Santiago had been spent waiting for people who never showed up. We were bummed and to make matters worse Anibal had not been receiving anymore calls. 3 days went by without any takers so during that time Eli and I decided to explore the city a bit to get our minds off of the car. For the first time, we did NOT go to any books stores, as we did not need to research or buy anymore travel guides. Instead we went to a museum, saw Iron Man 2, went to a handful of markets, ate yummy delicious street food, played with some stray dogs outside of our hostel, took the subway, and walked and walked and walked.

We like Santiago more than many of major cities we have been to as it is easy to walk around in, has good people watching, and the people are friendly, or maybe we just know that it is our last city so we appreciate it more.

We finally received another call about our car from a guy who wanted to see it "early" the next day. We were thrilled! We got up early, not knowing exactly when our guy would show up. Around 1pm we had, once again, lost hope. We couldn't believe a third no-call or no-show was happening. We couldn't take the waiting around anymore so Eli and I got in our car to drive it to a new parking spot in hopes that the for sale sign would be more visible. By this time, we were also making our Plan B in case we couldn't find a buyer soon. Just when we pulled away from our hostel, we got a call and found out the potential buyer was on his way over. Woohoo! He arrived with his girlfriend and after some deliberation, Eli and he settled on a sale price. Was this really happening? I noticed that neither the guy or the girl actually ever test drove our car. Before I knew it, we were rapidly walking through the center of the city to get to a Notaria to start the transaction of the sale. We had trouble finding an open Notaria as it was a Saturday and the one we did find, we got there 10 minutes before it closed. It was a whirlwind trying to communicate, count the pesos, and sign the paperwork but Eli managed to handle it all very well. I kind of just stood there trying to stay out of the way, or at least that was how I felt. A couple of times we had to call Anibal to translate for us, so that was a big help. Within a few hours we had the money in hand and our penguino drove away. I was suddenly so sad to see our car leaving. In a strange way it was like seeing an old friend drive away. I guess when you live, sleep, and eat in a car for 50 days one can get attached. I must admit that the whole car process was way over my head and something that I could never have imagined working out so well. Eli seemed to know from the start at exactly what to do while I secretly had some doubts. Reflecting on this, I am amazed and, as always, feel so blessed to have had that whole experience. God definitely was watching out for us. I mean of all the crazy scenarios I could imagine, like getting into a car wreck, running out of gas, being pulled over by cops, driving off a cliff, breaking down in the middle of nowhere...nothing really that terrible ever happened to us. Besides 2 flat tires and the need to push start our car once, everything went so smoothly. We did it!!

As we end our travels, Eli and I will be doing lots of reflecting and looking over pictures. Once we can absorb some of the craziness of the last 8 months, we will write some final thoughts. Please stay tuned...


Argentina - Canyons, a Shrine, and Wine

Unfortunately Pucon turned out to be a bust for us, due to rain. We only spent about 24 hours in the area, but it was raining the whole time, so after checking the weather forcast (3 more days of rain) we decided to head back into Argentina to the sunnier side of the Andes. Jodie and I are constantly struggling to plan out our remaining time left travelling by not spending too much time in one place, or hurrying to quickly through an area that we are enjoying. Not being very good planners to begin with, it gets much more difficult when we are trying to figure out where we are going next, let alone three weeks out. Looking over a map of South America and seeing that we had only travelled about a third of the way up Argentina we decided that our plans of making it to Bolivia and Peru were a bit too ambitious. We thought we might be able to do it, but it would be constant driving, and we probably wouldn't get to enjoy it much. We were having a great time bouncing back and forth between Argentina and Chile so we decided why mess with a good thing, we would just take our time and enjoy where we were.

Our next destination was Mendoza, a decent size city half way up Argentina that sits just east of the Andes. It took us about 3 days of driving to get there through some very lonesome country.
The scenery started to look remarkably like Arizona, with its dry mountains and scrubby bushes. It even smelled the same, especially in the mornings. There is nothing like the smell of the dessert in the morning, it really made us miss Arizona. We found a very cool camping spot next to a river where we decided to make an early day of it and wash some clothes and relax.
As we headed more and more North the weather seemed to get a little warmer each day, and by this time it was just about perfect temperature in the sun. We spent a couple days in Mendoza walking around town, seeing a few movies and taking in a bit of civilization while we could, but after a couple days we were ready to get back on the road again.

We drove west towards Chile to catch a glimpse of the highest mountain outside of the Himalayas called Aconcagua.
Even though you can see it from the main highway, we took a short hike up to get a better look at it. Although quite impressive, it seemed small compared to some of the mammoth mountains we saw in the Himalayas but nonetheless it was really pretty and cool to see another of the "seven summits". There were some really cool sites nearby that we checked out like Puente del Inca, a natural bridge that had formed over the Mendoza river.
The bridge was formed by a rainbow of mineral deposits from a nearby spring that has accumulated over the millenia. It was amazing to see all of the vivid yellows and oranges from the mineral deposits. That night we found a pretty unique place to camp. It was near the mountain pass into Chile so it was at about 13,000 feet. There was an old out of service railroad that passed through the area, and they had built tunnels out of metal to keep the snow drifts from blocking the tracks.
We always try to park out of sight of the road when we camp to avoid the CaribiƱeros, axe murderers and whatever else lurks in the night, so these creepy old derilect tunnels made a perfect blind to park behind. I dared Jodie to sleep inside the tunnels but I think the constant creaking and moaning caused by the wind barrelling through the tunnels turned her off to the idea. To add to the atmosphere there was a graveyard of old twisted guard rails that must have been wiped out by rockfalls over the years. It was kind of a creepy place but still really cool with all the huge mountains around.

The next day we decided to head back towards Mendoza and then continue to head North. Instead of taking the main highway back to Mendoza I saw an unpaved road on the map that looked like a shortcut so I thought why not. We quickly found out it was definitely not a shortcut, but a bumpy winding dirt road that went straight over a mountain range to Mendoza. After a couple hours of spine re-alining driving, we finally made it to pavement and stopped for lunch. Once again, as soon as we got out of the car we heard the tell tale hissing sound of our tire going flat. It seemed like a slow leak and we were about half an hour from the nearest town so we assessed the situation and decided we would try to make it to the town before the tire went flat. Thankfully we made it before it was too flat and found a "Gomeria" (tire shop) quickly. In both Argentina and Chile there is a Gomeria about every quarter mile in every town, always marked by a large old tire near the road with the word "Gomeria" painted on the tire.
They are usually very small, sometimes just a house with some tools and about twenty orphan tires. This particular one was run by a young guy maybe 18 years old that was very efficient at his job. The last time we had a flat I broke one of our most important travel rules by not asking the price up front, only to get gouged, but this time I asked before hand and got the going local rate. The hole in the tire was patchable, and half an hour later and a whopping two dollars poorer we were back on the road heading north.

A strange religious shrine in the middle of the desert was our next destination. Legend has it that over 150 years ago a woman named Maria Antonia Deolinda Correa was walking through the desert with her infant baby and eventually soccumbed to dehydration and died. Shortly after a group of travellers found her dead body and miraculously found the infant had survived by nursing off the dead mother. Since then, she has become "Difunta Correa" a local saint with thousands of people visiting her final resting place. However you would not know any of this by the chaos that surrounds the area.
We managed to drive through on a Sunday which I imagine is much busier than other days and it was absolutely crazy. There were restaurants, little shops selling trinkets, a campground, huge tour buses, tons of people picnicking and about 1,000 people swarming the area. It looked like a cross between a really busy flea market and a carnival with no rides. People stand in line for an hour waiting to catch a glimpse of a statue depicting the dead woman and her nursing baby. They also bring homemade little model houses to leave for the unofficial saint as a sign of shelter. It was a very busy and extremely interesting experience, but we were glad to get out of the chaos.

After all the crowds of the Difunta Correa Shrine we were ready to see some nature so we made for a pair of bordering national parks called Ischigualasto and Talampaya. Ischigualasto is known as the Valley of the Moon because Ischigualasto it is so darn hard to say. And it looks like the moon in places. It was actually really cool, there was a painted desert, fossils and all sorts of rock formations including these basketball sized nearly perfect round rocks.

We were trying our hardest to understand the guide but with our limited Spanish and all of the unfimiliar geological words we couldn't make out a whole lot, but it was still very interesting. In Talampaya we took a tour in a 4 wheel drive bus up a canyon that looked straight out of Utah. My favorite spot was called the "chiminea del eco" (chimney of the echo) which was a vertical half cylinder carved out of the canyon wall that when shouted into creates a very cool echo effect.
We really enjoyed the tour, especially after they surprised every one with some delicious local wine and olives. Jodie mentioned that her dad Frank always said that all you need to make people happy is a little bit of wine and a snack. We fell in love with the local olives which neither of us had acquired much of taste for before, but these were delicious.

Driving further north through the evermore Arizona looking scenery, we stopped by in the wine town of Cafayate.
We have been anxious to do some wine tasting being that the whole middle part of Argentina is famous for its wines. We stopped at the first winery or "Bodega" we found and got another tour in Spanish that we didn't understand but endured for the free tasting at the end. It was delicious so we decided to buy a bottle and were pleased to find out it was about $3.50 per bottle.
What a deal! We have also been endulging in steak. Lots of steak actually. We eat steak about every other night because it is so good and so cheap here. We buy big delicious ribeyes for about $2 each. Wine and steak make for some luxurious camping.

Six weeks into our South America adventure we are picking up a bit more Spanish thanks in large part to some Spanish lesson podcasts called "Coffee Break Spanish" that I downloaded to my Ipod and we listen to in our car everyday. Since we have our own transportation and sleep in our car, we don't have as much interaction with the locals as we thought we would, but when we do we try our best to get some practice. I still get mixed up and say some really dumb things that I later realize, but everyone is always gracious to us and never laugh at us but sometimes laugh with us.


Patagonia - Hot Springs, Steaks, and Hikes

Eli and I are still on the road and still loving the freedom of our car, although after a long day or two of driving, we are more than ready for some breathing room outdoors. We try to get in a hike day or some sightseeing every few days so we don't feel too confined to our car. Our Easter was a memorable one. We picked up our first hitchhiker, a young kid travelling a few hours to see his family. I was embarrased at the condition of our car...stuff piled everywhere to make room for him...but he didn't seem to mind, as he slept the whole drive...and we could hardly communicate with him since he only spoke Castillano. After we dropped him off, we stopped in a town called Coihaique to refuel, get groceries, and shower. We found free showers at a hostel. A guy staying there offered to let us use his showers as the owner was away. Sweet! Although cold, a shower is ALWAYS appreciated. I have a new love for hot showers and nothing feels better than a hot shower after a week or more of cold showers. For Easter dinner we had to finish off our supply of hot dogs. We keep hot dogs on hand for those times when we can't find a decent grocery store. This time, instead of eating them in a bun, we mixed it up and diced them with eggs and avacado. Like I said, a memorable Easter!

Our friend Anibal from Punta Arenas suggested that we make our way to his favorite thermal hot springs near a little town called Chaiten in Chile. When we were in New Zealand, Eli and I had been wanting to experience some real hot springs but due to our budget constraints, we had not yet splurged on them. This time, we were determinded to follow through. We were very pleased to hear that these springs were only $6 each and they were nestled in a garden like setting opening up to the surrounding valley. It was a bit drizzly out but it made the hot water steam more dramatic.
We spent about 2 hours soaking up the warm water. After our bodies were totally shrivelled up, we headed North to the town of Chaiten. In 2008, Chaiten was hit by a devastating volcano and has since become an ash covered ghost-town. It was quit the site to see. 75% of the ocean town was abandoned with nothing but piles of ash and derelict houses. But then, every so often, there was a remaining perfectly spotless building amongts the debris. There were also still numerous amounts of stray dogs and people living in this town. We saw some older ladies shoveling ash, I wondered how often they do that. I assumed that the people still living there were the ones who could not afford to move. The town was so eeary and it made us thankful that we have not had to experience such devestation in our lives. That same day, we continued up the road a little ways to an area called Santa Barbara, a small black sand beach. We turned off onto a bumpy dirt road, drove by the 2 house neighborhood, and found a black sand beach that we had entirely to ourselves. We drove right up on the sand and parked just before sunset. We had read that this beach often had dolphin sightings at sunset so we were surprised that no one else was there. We also wondered if maybe the dolphins had left for the season. To our delight, as I was getting our stove ready for dinner, I caught a glimpse of a black fin in the water. Eli and I jumped and ran to the shore to find a family of dolphins swimming nearby. There must have been about 10 dolphins! Eli said the scene looked like one of those cheesy Hawaiian paintings with the mountains, sunset and dolphins.
If it had been warm enough, I would have jumped in the water to go swimming with them. They were so beautiful as the sun illuminated their fins. That night we were easily lulled to sleep by the ocean after our relaxing day of hot springs and dolphin watching. This was one of my favorite days in South America so far! Not everyday on our trip has been so rewarding but we have continually been blessed with safety and health. We never go hungry and we always have a place to sleep, eventhough each day we have to figure out where that place will be. We have definitely gone through a sort of transformation on this trip. Our priorities have changed for sure. Our daily regime not only consists of trying to see as much as possible, but we also have to consider how to make our money stretch, what we will eat, if we have enough fuel to cook with, enough gas to drive with, what's the weather today, are we driving on paved or dirt roads, where will we shower, where will we sleep, and will we be able to communicate with the people we run into. I guess with all of those things to consider, when we do have a hiccup in our day, we usually take it in stride. Good thing we've adapted because the day after our perfect day, we got a flat tire. This could have totally messed up our day, but seeing as how blessed we have been, the timing couldn't have been better. Eli was driving and we pulled over to make some sandwiches for lunch. We heard a loud hissing and discovered that it was our tire. Without hesitation, Eli and I got back on the road knowing that the next town was only 10 minutes away. We pulled into this town, our tire was getting pretty low, and right away we found an open mechanic. We made our sandwiches on the hood of the car while the mechanic merrily sang some tiring changing songs. Within 2 hours, we had our tire changed and we were back on our way. Too bad he couldn't fix our original tire and didn't have the right size so now we were driving on our spare and would need to stop in the next town to get a new spare. And he gouged us $60 to change our spare out. Oh well, Eli asked "where's a Discount Tire when you need one?"

We spent the next five days in Bariloche, Argentina. Yes we crossed the border again. I hope my passport doesn't fill up so I can still leave the country! Eli had spent about a week in Bariloche 4 years ago and has always bragged to me about there delicious steaks, home-made ice cream, and his "favorite hike of all time!" I couldn't wait for all of this. First order of business was finding showers. We found some hot water showers at a hostel, it was well worth the $2.50 each! We also paid the hostel owner to watch our car while we planned to do the 3 day hike. Eli warned me that this hike was difficult but I was eager for the challenge. We set out for our 3 days with perfect weather and plenty of food. I packed extra fruit and snacks for this long hike which made my 20 pound pack feel even heavier. Eli offered to take some of my weight but I was stubborn. Day 1 took about 7 hours of hiking up and down through steep rocky ledges and valleys. Halfway into this day, we skated down a "scree field" for about 15 minutes with our hiking shoes and trekking poles. It was really fun but exhausting. I didn't realize how tired my knees were until we started descending down steeper, bigger, loose rocks. I told Eli that I felt like a newborn horse trying to learn to walk since my knees were so wobbly. Sure enough, right after I spoke those words, I tripped, took a couple of tumbles, and landed very akwardly. Luckily a big rock broke my fall as my chin smacked against it. There was some blood and some tears but Eli did a good job of bandaging me up and showering me with sympathy. I managed to muster up the courage to continue down...No way was I going back up! By hour 7 we made it to flat ground which should have been easy sailing with just a few yards to go. But my legs were still weak and shaky as we walked through some mud. I thought I cleared a log sticking out through the mud but my toe tripped me up and I body planted right into the mud and scraped my shin on the log. Eli once again came to my aid as I was crying and laughing at the same time while I asked "are we there yet?" It was quite humerous with the mess I was making.
We finally made it to a campsite, I washed away the mud and my hurt feelings in the cold stream and felt better. Eli then told me that day 2 and 3 were going to be more difficult and longer. He also let me know that there was an easier hike out through a valley if I wanted to leave. I told him I needed to sleep on it. The next morning, I woke up feeling like I had been hit by a car and I got really nervous thinking about taking another fall. I didn't want Eli to have to rescue me or call a helicopter to lift me out so we decided it would be best to walk out. Plus the weather was changing and we didn't want to be hiking in the rain. Ok, so I swallowed my pride and took back my self proclaimed rating of "expert hiker" and we left. It was still 7 hours out of the valley but it was not as difficult. Since we had left our car in town and took a bus and a ski lift to start our hike, Eli told me that we might have to walk a little ways to get to another bus back. He didn't realize that the valley would end at a dirt road that was about 6 miles from a main road. Arggg. That added a little more time on our day and my pack was starting to get heavy and my feet were telling me I had some blisters forming. Funny how 12 days hiking in Nepal I was blister free but 2 days hiking here was causing me so much grief. Half a dozen cars drove by us on that dirt road but nobody stopped for us even though we were sticking our thumbs out. This was my first time hitchhiking and I was not impressed. I told Eli that I had a new respect for hitchhikers and I vowed to pick more up if they weren't scary, homeless, male, or escaped convicts...that probably rules out all hitchhikers in the USA. After about 2 hours on the dirt road, we made it to civilization. We ran to catch a bus heading into the center of town. I was so thankful to have a ride, I barely noticed how smelly, dirty, and blood stained I was. Only while I was standing, holding onto the handrail with my arm over a girl's head, I began to notice the uncomfotable odors. I was embarrased but tried not to think about it and instead I focused on our next priorites. In this order our priorities were ice cream, showers, then a steak dinner! Notice in the picture below the bandaid on my chin.
I promise by my description it was alot more traumatic than it looks. Hahaha! That night for dinner, we ate at El Boliche de Alberto's, known to have the best steaks in town. It did not disappoint! Eli ate a sirloin the size of 2 fists and I ate a tenderloin. This was by far the best steak I have had in my whole life.
Our steaks, mashed potatoes, bread, pesto dip, and bottle of wine was a total of $35. Outstanding! Eating steak was much better then spending a night in a tent on the side of a mountain! After stuffing ourselves silly, we drove out of town a little ways to find a good place to park our car to get some sleep for the night. Our plans for the next 2 days would keep us in Bariloche getting our new tire, doing laundry, connecting to internet, and eating more home-made icecream.
Bariloche was a great little touristy town and we managed to get everything done that we needed to do. Bariloche was as far as we had planned and we had no idea were our next destination would be. Generally we wanted to head north and Eli had read about a place called Cochamo Valley. There wasn't much written about this place in any of the books we read but online it claimed to be "the Yosemite of South America" so we knew we had to go there. We crossed back into Chile and got a complete shake down at the border as we were asked to empty out our car. This was the first time the border crossing had been so thorough so we were a bit frazzled trying to lay out all of our personal belongings and handmade bed for the border patrol. We passed the drug dogs sniff test and luckily we weren't smuggling any Argentine fruits, so we were given the all clear to pass. Whew.
After a couple of hours of messy dirt roads, we made it to the town of Cochamo and found a another dirt road that we hoped would leave us to the entrance of the valley. Since it was getting late, we slept at the end of the road not knowing if this was the right way, in hopes that in the morning we would find our way...finally a real adventure. Yes we were feeling like we hadn't been very adventerous until now, strange I know.
We woke up to beautiful sunshine with plans to spend 3 days hiking to and around the valley. The trail wasn't labelled and there was a questionable bridge leading to a trail that was being guarded by a fearless looking bull.
Luckily 2 Chiliean cowboys on horses came along and informed us that we were heading the right way. After we scrambled through a few barbed wire fences to avoid the bull, we were on our way. The trail was another challenge in itself. Never before have we walked through so much mud and muck.
Since this trail was covered with a dense mossy canopy of trees, it never saw sunlight, and was primarily used by horses and cows, it was pretty sloppy. I didn't have any major falls this time. but a couple of times I was grumpy and was wishing we hadn't started this adventure. But I wanted to keep going because another cowboy along the way promised there was a "Refugio" campsite not too far ahead. Plus, we were excited to see what this valley really had to offer. It took Eli and I about 6 hours to tread through the mud but once we arrived, it was totally worth it! It was like Yosemite! The campground was deserted, except for some cows and a little building made for campers if it rained. There was a massive pasture of green grass surrounded by large rock faces all around and through a small forest there was a beautiful stream.
We set up our tent, cooked our hot dog dinner over a fire pit, and we were visited by a guy from Nevada that was living up there with his wife and 5 year old child. He had been taking care of the campgrounds during the camping season for the past 6 years. He was a nice guy and gave us some ideas for day hikes. We went to bed when the sun disappeared. That night was exceptionally chilly and we woke up to a frozen tent. Once the sun came out and everything thawed, Eli decided to go off exploring some of the trails the guy had mentioned while I napped in the sun. It was a great day! The next day we got up early, as we were warned that a rain storm would be coming, and we started our hike out. I don't know if the mud was less or if we were just super hungry, but we managed to make it out of the valley in half of the time it took to get in. I promised Eli a big bowl of guacamole when we got to the car and it was like a carrot dangling on a string for us the whole way. It worked! Yum, we cannot get enough of the avacodos here. We eat 1 or more each day. We made it to our car just in time for the rain to start. We were filthy so we headed off to find showers. We had heard that we could take showers at certain gas stations. We found one that cost $1 each and it was pure heaven. They were clean and hot! I never would have guessed I would be one to shower at a gas station, but I swear by them now. For camping that night we parked not too far off of the interstate, not our usual choice for sleeping but it was getting late. I was so tired but couldn't fall asleep. I must have sensed a possible disturbance coming. Finally around midnight I must have dozed off because at 2am Eli and I were startled by flashing lights of the Carabineros (police). It is hard enough to get in and out of our car on a good day but imagine Eli trying to get dressed, squeeze out of the car in the rain at 2am with the police hassling him. They didn't seem to happy waiting for Eli to scramble out of the car and they told us we had to leave and couldn't park there. They did let Eli know that we could drive 1 km down the road to a truck pull off and sleep there. I was still under the covers while all of this was happening. Luckily we were able to get some more sleep in our new designated parking spot. We would be headed to another Chiliean town the next day, Pucon, that was recommended to us. We are hoping that the rain will let up and we won't have anymore hassle from the Carabineros!

By the way I have become a sucker for stray dogs. I was able to avoid eye contact with them in Asia but they are more persuesive here. Especially the puppies or the mommy dogs. I sometimes have to sneak them a few bites of tuna fish or crackers. We always know when it is lunchtime as every town has sirens that they blare at noon and the stray dogs all begin to howl.....


South America - "El Pinguino", Guanacos, and Torres

Ahh the joys of having a vehicle. It has been 10 days since Jodie and I left Punta Arenas and we are overwhelmingly thankful to have our own vehicle and the freedom that it brings. We always feel sorry for alll the poor suckers that we pass on busses between the well beaten backpacker stops. Now whenever we want to stop and take a picture, we pull over. Or if we see a cool side road, we don't hesitate to see where it leads. Or, if we need to go to the bathroom... well you get the idea. All things that can't be done when travelling by bus. We also get to hand pick some beautiful places to camp, usually out in the middle of nowhere with no sign of people in sight. We feel very blessed to have a car and we are trying to make the most of it.
Shortly after leaving Punta Arenas, Jodie and I christened our car "El Pinguino" (the Penguin) after both the first drive when we took in it out to the penguin colony and the name of the local newspaper. It just seemed fitting. So if our car is El Pinguino, then the coffin-like space we sleep in must be "La Cueva del Pinguino" (The penguin cave).

We are now adjusted to sleeping in the confined space, but the first night proved to be a little clastrophobic as we awkwardly tried to climb up and slide in onto our bed being careful not to elbow each other in the face or bang our heads on the roof of the car. It is quite comfy, we are using our camping mattresses, sleeping bags and our newly purchased pillows. Definitely more comfortable than some of the questionable hostel beds that have ancient mattresses shaped like canoes. The platform that I built is working quite nicely at keeping us from falling through onto all of our food and the stuff stored underneath. Jodie even added her touch by making some curtains out of a sheet that she hang up so that people can't see in at night. Another added benefit of the bed platform is we can make a table out of it by sliding half of it out of the back and resting one side of it on the bumper and hanging the other side from a rope connected to the tailgate. El Pinguino has become our little home and we love it.
Our first stop with our new wheels was Torres Del Paine National Park about five hours North of Punta Arenas. The Paine Massif is a group of mountains that contain some spectacularly shaped peaks. The most unique of these are the "Cuernos" or horns and the "Torres" or towers. The Cuernos are beatifully colored mountains with the bases of them almost white, and then close to the tops they suddenly turn very dark so they almost look like a vanilla ice cream cone dipped in chocolate. The Torres are three huge granite teeth that rise out of their bases and turn fiery colors when the they are first hit by sunlight at sunrise. All of this is surrounded by glacially fed aquamarine lakes that add to the splendor. We were originally planning on doing a 4-6 day trek in TDP but when we arrived the weather was not great so we opted to do a short day hike and wait and see if it cleared up. We hiked along one of the lakes to get views of a nearby glacier and some of the iceburgs that had broken off the glacier and floated down the lake. This part of the world is famous for its wind and crazy weather and this day was no exception. We stood on the lakeshore and couldn't believe how strong the wind was. We were getting blown side ways as we walked so we had to lean real hard into the wind to keep from blowing over. It was crazy and the beginning of our interesting relationship with the Patagonian wind. We camped that night and awoke the next morning to more bad weather so we nixed the hiking plans and decided just to drive around and maybe get some nice views if the weather decided to clear. We drove around and watched guanacos (lama looking creatures),
condors and nandus (flightless emu type birds) as we took in the scenery. We camped next to a beautiful lake where the Torres were masked in the clouds behind. Over night the weather cleared and we awoke to a spectacular sunrise.
The Torres glowed pink then red then orange as the sun made its way over the horizon, it was amazing. We ate our breakfast of cereal and yogurt as we watched the show. Having our fill of the scenery we drove the two hours to the Argentine border on our way to our next destination.
The whole buying a car in another country was very nerve racking, and with that process over my next fear was that we wouldn't be able to cross the border with it. Even though I had done my research, I had a fear of the Cabineros at the border sifting through our pile of papers and saying "Sorry gringo, but you can't take the car out of Chile". Thankfully this was not the case, and other than my near drowning in the sea of Spanish, the border crossing was uneventful at both the Chilean and Argentine side. I thought the Argentines would want to rumage through our car and make sure that we weren't smuggling drugs, dogs, fruit or Mexicans, but they didn't even bat an eye. Maybe they wanted to get back to the exciting game of Nintendo they were playing when we walked in.
Within two minutes of crossing the border we were lost. Apparently road signs are not any sort of priority in Argentina. There was no town to get lost in, just a couple of intersections that we managed to drive through about five times before we figured it out. Part of our confusion came from Ruta 40 which is the main artery that runs North and South along the Andes from the top of Argentina all the way down through Patagonia. I have heard that it is not a busy road, and is pretty remote in places. This particular section of Ruta 40 was nothing more than a one lane dirt road. Sure it was wide enough for two lanes, but when about 10 cars pass on it per day, everyone drives in the middle of the road so it looked like one lane. I said to Jodie "THIS can't be Ruta 40" but sure enough it was and we were on our way.
Although Patagonia has some spectacular scenery, about 90% of it is pretty barren, consisting of dry rolling hills with short grass and tough looking shrubs. Its not ugly by any means, its rather pretty, just not all mountains and glaciers like you might see in pictures. This is what we found ourselves driving through most of the time, everyonce in a while broken up by a herd of guanacos or nandus sprinting off the road. The scenery reminded us of Arizona and even made us a little homesick.
Since I had been in Patagonia four years ago, I knew a bit about the places to see and where to hike. Our next stop was the town of Calafate where we would stock up on some groceries before heading to the Perito Moreno glacier. While leaving the grocery store we were stopped by a parking guy who said we needed to pay two pesos (about 50 cents) to park on the street. I had spent my last pesos on some gas earlier so I told him I needed to run to the atm while Jodie packed the groceries into the car. Five blocks later I found an atm that was out of order so I kept searching and shortly found another one. After taking my money out, the ATM decided to keep my bank card. The bank was closed for the weekend, so I tried everything I could think of to get it back with no luck. Now I had a dilema. Jodie and parking meter guy were waiting back at the car for me, but I didn't want to leave for fear of someone else coming to use the ATM and it spitting my card back out at them and then they decide to go on an ebay shopping spree courtesy of myself. I decided to go get Jodie and the car and hope that no one would use the machine in the meantime. I sprinted down the streets back to our car, paid the parking meter guy, jumped in the car and quickly drove back to the bank. We stopped the first person who used the ATM, they got their money and card no problem but no sign of my card. I copied down the help phone number and went to the nearest tourist business to find someone who could help me call the bank and translate. I found a guy who got ahold of the ATM company who said to call my bank and cancel my card. Because there was nothing they could do until Monday. Bummer. I called up my bank and luckily they could put a hold on my card without cancelling it, so we would have to come back in two days to see if the bank could get my card back.
We decided to go to the glacier the next day and then come back through town on Monday to stop at the bank.
The Perito Moreno glacier is a huge river of ice that slowly inches its way down to the lake Lago Argentina where it breaks off (called calving) in house size chunks violently splashing into the water below. The face of the glacier is three miles wide and over 150 feet tall. The glacier causes a very unique phenomenon as it moves forward. Every couple of years the glacier advances enough to cut off one arm of the lake from the other. This causes an ice dam that makes one side of the lake rise faster than the other side. Eventually the water melts away at the ice dam until a pathway is made through the ice for the water to run, creating an ice bridge. The huge bridge slowly erodes until finally the whole thing collapses into the water below creating a spectacular scene. When I was at the glacier four years ago, that ice bridge had collapsed 2 days before I arrived. This time the bridge had not yet formed again but the glacier still managed to amazed us with huge chunks of ice calving off every 10-15 minutes. It was addicting watching and trying to predict where the next piece would fall from. Every time a piece fell you would hear a load cracking sound like thunder, then you would have to quickly turn in the direction to try and see it before it hit the water. It was hours of entertainment.
We found a spectacular free campsite that overlooked a beautiful lake and some impressive mountains. The next day we went back into town to stop at the bank. I barely had said anything to the teller when he asked for my passport then pulled out a stack of about half a dozen bank cards that the ATM had eaten. A moment later I had my card back, and was very relieved. We then headed North to one of my favorite places, El Chalten to do some hiking. El Chalten is a dinky little tourist town that sits right in front of some unbelievable mountains.
Cerro Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre are my favorite mountains because they are so steep they almost look fake. Snow can't even stick to them they are so steep. We arrived in El Chalten in the afternoon and within an hour we were on the trail with our packs to spend three days hiking in the area. We camped at a campsite near the base of Cerro Torre.
We ate our dinner not to far away at a glacial lake that sits at the foot of the mountain. It was stunning. There was a full moon that night so I got up and walked to the lake for some more great views. I tried to take a few pictures but my trusty little camera doesn't take long exposures well so they turned out a little out of focus, but still cool. The next two days were plagued by cloudy weather so we could not see the tops of the mountains like we had hoped but it was beautiful none the less. On the trail we ran into the German guy who had stayed at our hostel in Punta Arenas the night we had the big dinner and drinks.
It was good to see him again and its always funny running into fellow travellers that are heading the same direction as us.
We got back on the now paved Ruta 40 heading North to cross back over into Chile. Before too long the pavement ran out and we found ourselves bumping along on the dusty and increadibly windy road. At some times the wind would blow so hard that the car would actually slide sideways towards the ditch as we were driving. Good thing we would only pass a car about every hour. I felt really bad for the crazy group of people who decide to ride their bikes down Ruta 40. We saw one poor lady going the opposite direction who was walking her bike, because it was too windy to ride. Actually the bike looked like it was walking her as she fought with it to stay standing. We asked her if she needed any help but she said she was fine so we kept on going. At the intersection of our road into Chile we stopped at a gas station. We were warned by our friend Annibal to always gas up whenever we could along this section of road because there weren't very many gas stations. Nobody came out of the store when I pulled up so I went inside and soon found out that they were out of gas. Now we had to make a decision. We could either head North and make it to the next town in Argentina, then cross at a different border, or take our chances and cross into Chile from where we were and hope our 3/8 of a tank would last us. Being the optimistic under-estimator that I have discovered that I am, I said "Sure we can make it, no problem". Jodie had her doubts but trusted my judgement. Little did I know that the road we took was pretty bad and we could only drive about 15 miles an hour. Not good for gas mileage. From our map we totalled up the kilometers between where we were and the next town in Chile that had gas. It was about 100 miles and the only thing between us and the next town were a few remote "estancias" (ranches). We slowly made our way towards the border with some beautiful lakes and mountains all around us. After about 2 hours I decided to count the cars we passed along the road, so far zero. We camped for the night and at about 8 o'clock the first car passed us going the other way. One car in about 5 hours. Then one more in the morning. We crossed the border with no problems and we thought the border police must get pretty bored out there, 100 miles from anything and maybe three cars per day passing through. As we crossed the border we were about half way and our gas gauge was a hair above the E. We had thought ahead and bought a spare gas tank that holds about two and a half gallons, which I had figured we would have to use at this point. Miraculously we made it to the next town about 2 hours later without using the spare fuel. We couldn't believe it.
We were now in Cochrane Chile, along the Carratera Austral which is the Chilean version of Ruta 40. Except in southern Chile, its the only road, your options are the CA or boat. We were happy to be in a town again, after twenty four hours of slow bumpy dirt roads. We decided to make camp early so we found another breathtakingly beautiful lake, parked, cooked some hamburgers topped with avocados, watched a movie then went to bed in the Cueva del Penguino.
Originally we were going to head South further down the CA before heading back North but we were getting tired of the horrible roads so we decided to start heading North. The scenery was different now that we were closer to the pacific, there were trees and lots of mountains, rivers and lakes, and no wind. It was all very beautiful. We kept to our 15-20 mile per hour pace as we climbed steep roads around cliffs and lakes. By lunch we had made it to Lago General Carrera, the second largest lake in South America after Lake Titicaca. Its kinda funny, in Chile its Lago General Carrera, but part of the same lake also lies in Argentina where it is called Lago Buenos Aires. It took us 3 hours to drive its windy southern shore, and it has been one of the more beautiful stretches we have driven. We stopped in the small border town of Chile Chico where we lucked out and got there just in time to catch the ferry across the lake so we could continue on the CA without backtracking the three hours back down the lake.

From here we will head North and continue up the Carretera Austral before crossing back into Argentina at Futaleufu.


South America - Hostels, Car, and the "End of the World"

Eli and I landed in Buenos Aires (or B.A. as we call it) Argentina after an overnight flight from Madrid. We were rested and ready to get started on our next adventure. Upon arriving, our spirits were temporarily shot down as we were ushered to a special line for "US citizens" in order to pay an arrival fee. Turns out, as of Dec 28, 2009, US citizens were reqquired to pay an entry fee of $130 each person! Ouch! We couldn't believe it. $260 gone just like that, just for arriving. Next step, finding a taxi to our hostel. We thought we would only have to pay about $30 but it was more like $40...eww another extra cost. Not fun. We arrived at our little hostel around 8am, tired from our flight, hoping to get a quick shower and a morning nap before exploring the city. To our dismay our hostel told us that there were still people sleeping in our beds from the night before and that we couldn't check in until 2pm. Aghhh! No showers, no nap...but at least they let us eat the free breakfast of bread and cereal. After helping ourselves to extra bread, we managed to muster up some energy to walk the city for the next 6 hrs. B.A. was another typical bustling city. The weather was very nice, especially coming from chilly London. The people were friendly, not many spoke English as Eli warned me about. Most of the people out and about were very good looking, I could tell that appearance was a big deal there. I instantly felt different from much of the women walking around in there fancy clothes and high heels, as I was dressed like a backpacker who just slept on a plane. I realized that this was the first time in a long time where I felt out of place in term of fashion. In SE Asia and Nepal I felt out of place because my skin color stood out, whereas in B.A. many people are light skinned, so it was like I fit in somewhat but was out of touch with style. Who really cares though, my priorities on this trip have not been about my appearance!
Our time in BA consisted alot of walking for many miles a day around the city. Since we had been in cities for the past few weeks, we were a bit worn out from musuems and monuments so we went to 2 movies. It was fun trying our hand at Castillano (Spanish) ordering movie tickets, popcorn, etc. Instead of telling a lady "I don't understand" I accidently told her "she doesn't understand" but didn't realize it until later. In the city, we did the usual search for used books stores. This time we were on the hunt for a South American travel guide. We must have walked to and gone into 30 books stores in the 3 days we were in BA (yes the city has that many). We were not successful at finding a good used book store but instead opted to buy a new guide book that cost more than it would in the States. For us, every city is a challenge for us to find the best book store. By far, Kathmandu, Nepal has been the best place to buy books. Who would have ever thought that?! We kicked ourselves for not buying the South American guidebook there that was only $4!

Our next destination after B.A. was Ushuaia, (in Tierra del Fuego) the southernmost city in the World! It reminded Eli of a little coastal town that he visited in Alaska. It reminded me of Astoria, in Oregon with the cloud coverage and chilly air. In Ushuaia, we went for a short hike up towards Glacier Martial which didn't last long as the wind picked up and the fresh snow made for a not so fun time. We didn't even make it up to the glacier. You'd think we were expert hikers by now after our 12 days trek in Nepal but we knew that we would be seeing more glaciers throughout our time in South America. After a couple of days in Ushuaia, we decided to move onward to Punta Arenas, Chile. We took a bus, 14 hours, crossing over the Straight of Magellan into Chile and arrived at night and made our way to another hostel. We didn't have any plans for treking or for siteseeing in Punta Arenas as our only goal of this destination was to buy a car. The bus scene was getting a bit tiresome and we were itching to have the freedom of a car so we were determined to make it happen. Eli had been doing some research for the past few months about the car buying process and figured out that this town was "tax free" and was supposed to have cheaper cars than other parts of Chile. The only thing standing in our way was finding a car, communicating with someone who doesn't speak English, test driving, getting a mechanic to look at the car, getting a tax ID number, negotiating a price, and of course, doing the massive amounts of paperwork. This was looking impossible.

But miracles do happen. We met an amazing local fellow named Anibal, through couchsurfing, that was a Godsend for us.

So within 2 days of arriving, we met up with Anibal to talk about cars and suddenly we found ourselves driving and negotiating a price for the one and only car we checked out. Anibal found this car for us while translating the classfieds in the paper. He also went with us to testdrive, he translated for us with the owner, he negotiated a price, and he even made us an appointment with a mechanic. In addition to all of that we had to go with the car's owner to the notary 3 times, the bank twice, and the registration office to get the paperwork taken care of (the paperwork is complicated for foreigners). Even with that stress, the whole transaction was unbelievably smooth. We couldn't believe that a guy we met 2 days ago was offering so much help for us. I know he sounds too good to be true but he is for real. He is the most generous stranger we have ever met. And he was not asking for anything but for us to pay it forward someday. Yes! We will remind each other of this kindness and do our best to pass it along.

So, we are now holding the keys to our '98 Nissan Pathfinder. The first thing we did with the car was drive 30 minutes north to a penguin colony. There we saw about 20 penguins that remained, most have already migrated for the winter. So cute!

The car drove wonderfully! It is newer and probably nicer than any car Eli and I ever owned :). And we can sleep in it! Eli, being the craftsman that he is, is building a platform for us to sleep on that will allow for storage underneath. How cool is that. No more hostels! Oh and we won't miss the buses either. Good thing we got this car, our last few experiences in hostels have not been so pleasant. Lack of sleep from roudy shared rooms and inconsiderate roomates have gotten under or skin. I guess we don't really fit in with many of the travelers that are only staying for a few weeks and are looking to party. I will add a postive note about the hostel we are currently staying in. There aren't many guest and the ones that arrive have been very pleasant. It's the fellow who manages the place that makes it special.
He took an interest in Eli's carpentry and even helped out with the sawing and nailing of the platform. He doesn't speak any English but he has managed to use lots of charaddes to communicate with us. He is totally hilarious. Last night we were invited to have dinner (in the hostel dining room) with him and 3 other local friends of his.
We were blessed with an amazing meal of chicken, sausage, king crab soup, mussels, and wine. After dinner we polished off the wine and were offered a taste of "Pico Sour". Pico Sour is a Chilean mixed drink consisting of lemons, powdered sugar, Pico (grape liquor), and a raw eggs. I was hesitant about it, thinking to myself about all the seafood I ate for dinner and about that raw egg I saw mixed in, but then the wine told me...When in Rome. Turns out it was sooo delicious! A few hours later and 3 batches of this yummy drink, Eli and I were laughing in hysterics along with our new friends. The charades got more intense and the jokes got better...who needs to speak the same language when there are drinks involved.

Tomorrow we are packing up the car and heading to Torres Del Paine to start some camping and trekking!