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.