8th August 2010 – Meeting in the Casa Roja for 9am, we were introduced to our fellow travellers and given a de-briefing by our leaders from Oasis Overland Tours, Kristy and driver Benny; both full on Aussie’s. After much debate throughout our travels, we had decided to book a tour through South America instead of making our own way (as we had done everywhere else). The main reason was that particularly after Australia and New Zealand, we wanted someone else to plan our days so we could take a backseat and enjoy the country’s best bits in the months we had left. We also had severe lack of Spanish vocabulary (a real hindrance in South America, particularly with border crossings), the trip also included the Inca Trail which was a must for us, and at £1,200 for 35 days including all accommodation and 50% of food, it seemed very good value!
Payments made and form filling done, it was time to meet our home for the next 35 days! Pulling up across the street this massive, yellow, beast of a truck certainly looked impressive and like nothing we had ever seen!
Clambering aboard, we loaded our bags into the huge under-seat lockers and took one of the 23 seats available. Luckily with only 10 people in the group, there was plenty of space to laze about. Hitting the road for 10am, after negotiating our way out of Santiago, we continued on up the coastline whilst chatting and getting to know our new travel mates.
At 1.30pm we stopped for lunch and our first glimpse at the huge variety of utensils and food available on board. Kitted up with tables, chairs, cookers and more appliances than Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen, it was an impressive setup! Kristy prepared the lunch of rolls, salad and fruit and before we knew it we were back on the truck, heading for our first stop – the costal resort of La Serena. At this point we must mention that there is no toilet on board and therefore, the protocol was two pushes on the internal buzzer, which would prompt Benny to pull over, where we would scarper to find a roadside spot- there were also three shovels in one of the many compartments on the truck – for those needing a hole!
Pulling into the campsite just before dark, we were given a crash course by Benny on how to put up our tents – each individually named so as not to be confused over the Tour. These 3 man tents would be our homes for half of the trip, with the other half being in hotels and hostels. Tents up, we decided to walk to the beach and take in the amazing sunset over the sea.
Back at the camp, Kristy had prepared and amazing risotto and we all tucked into the veggie dish – one of the many by our vegetarian tour leader! Deciding to go for a drink in the local bar, we all headed out and chatted over a few locals beers, before finding our tents in the freezing cold and slipping into our sleeping bags.
9th August 2010 – Awake after a restless night, we quickly realised that the tiny 2mm roll mats that we had, didn’t do much to soften the uneven ground and Rach’s Season 3 sleeping bag was definitely not warm enough in the sub zero temperatures! With the tents packed up, hot chocolate and cereal eaten and cold showers had, we hit the road for 8.30am, driving to the nearest supermarket. The group was then divided into cook groups, 2 groups of 3 and 1 of 4. It was Si’s group to cook first and given a budget of 15,000 pesos (about £18 to feed 12 people) it was down to the group to buy ingredients and make a dinner for all. Whilst Katherine, Emma and Si bought the necessaries for their chosen dish, Rach stocked up on badly needed blankets, pillows and some essential road trip necessities; beer, wine and crisps!
Back in the truck Benny drove solidly until we entered the Atacama Desert. Originally belonging to Bolivia, much of it was claimed by Chile in the 17th Century in a war, due to its vast copper content. Known as the driest desert in the world, the scenery was an unchanging expanse of cacti and sand!
With the sun setting over the desert, we pulled off the main road onto a long sandy dirt track, eventually stopping in a clearing big enough for the truck and our tents.
This was going to be 'home' for the night. With camping as 50% of our trip and some of these ‘bush camping’ such as tonight, we soon got used to the lack of toilets and running water! Quickly setting up our tents before the night and cold drew in, Si and his group started on dinner while Rach and the others cracked open the newly bought alcohol!
After a much needed warming dinner of sausage, mash and onion gravy washed down with some equally warming local rum, we sat chatting beneath the clear skies until our cold bodies could take no more and we retreated to our tents.
10th August 2010 – After Si’s group had prepared breakfast, we were on the road by 8am to much more of the same sandy scenery. With another driving day scheduled, we knew we would be spending most of the day in the truck. Our first stop en route to San Pedro was the ‘Hand in the Desert’; a giant hand carved from rock which stood prominent in the clear desert.
With the sun slowly setting after a day’s driving, we pulled over to the dramatic scenery of the Valley of the Moon. This crater-filled landscape seemed to never end and looked spectacular with the light fading behind it.
Arriving to our campsite in San Pedro just after dark, tents were erected and dinner prepared and cooked by Cook Group 2. With temperatures dropping dramatically to well below freezing, we quickly built a fire and huddled around it, grilling marshmallows on sticks and listening to one of the group; Jimmy, on a guitar.
As the fire embers died out, we headed to our sleeping bags with our ‘beer jackets’ well and truly on (the best defence against a rocky floor and freezing night temperatures!).
11th August 2010 – Awake early with the sun filtering through our tents, we awoke to banging headaches and decided to blame the high altitude – 2,440m, instead of the copious amounts of alcohol consumed the night before!
With a day of exploring in San Pedro scheduled, and left to our own devices we headed into town to wander the cobbled and narrow streets of this quaint desert town, which felt like a wild west town of old.... apart from the locals were armed with menus and activity lists instead of guns and knives!
First up, we visited the San Pedro church in the market square with its doors and ceiling made from cardon cacti.
Next we headed to the indoor market and finally the Museum, showcasing the origins of the Atacama desert and its people.
After grabbing a quick churrasco for lunch, we headed back to the campsite to find our tents had been blown upside-down in the strong winds and everything inside covered in sand! Si and the lads spent the afternoon on the camps' climbing wall, whilst Rach and her Cook Group 3 prepared a warming stew for dinner.
With the majority of the group off for a star gazing tour due to the incredibly clear (and cold) desert nights skies, we decided after our great experiences in New Zealand, we would give it a miss and nurse our hangovers with an early night.
12 August 2010 – Waking up and shivering in our ice covered tents, we devoured some warming tea and toast; smothered in Dolce de leche (Si’s new found friend – a caramel spread very popular in South America). Soon we were making our way East into Argentina and after an hour were at the border where our Truck was meticulously inspected, while we filled in forms and got our passports stamped. Leaving the Chilean border, we then had three hours of driving through a barren ‘No Man’s Land’ before reaching the Argentinean border and through security.
lunch shetering from the desert sandstorms
It wasn’t long before the scenery started to change and we were soon driving through deep canyons and huge cacti fields.
Pulling off the road, we drove down onto a dry riverbed and after 5 minutes we reached our bush camp stop for the night.
Feeling like we were in the middle of nowhere and surrounded by cacti, it was becoming a real adventure!
With no fresh ingredients on the truck due to the border crossing restrictions, we did the best we could and Si’s group cooked up a delicious pesto pasta followed by toffee popcorn.
With another cold night, we begged Kristy and Benny to let us eat in the truck and play some cards. Sadly at only 8.10pm we were sent outside to our cold tents so they could sleep.
In our tent, we laughed at Alex’s screams nearby; after thinking her walking boot was a wild animal, before dozing off to the sound of Frankie’s loud snoring! (ha ha Sorry Frankie!).
13th August 2010 – After breakfast and a few juvenile photos with the cacti, we were back on the road heading for the City of Salta, passing through many more large red Canyons and various Alpaca and Llama farms.
with cacti growing 1cm a year, we worked out this boy was over 500 yrs old!
Arriving into our campsite at 11am we were allocated pitches around the enormous but sadly empty swimming pool – the largest in the Southern Hemisphere.
After some luke warm showers (at best!) shared with the stray dogs trying to get warm under the bathroom heaters, we spent the afternoon relaxing in the van and playing cards over a few beers. Taking taxis into town, Kristy had booked us into an Argentinean steakhouse for the evening. Spotting the 750gm ribeye steak, there was only one option for the boys, with the girls opting to share one of the beasts!
After managing to devour the best steak we had ever eaten and slurped back some delicious Merlot (all for well under £10), we walked to the main plaza and found ourselves a bar to continue the evenings consumption!
Finding a karaoke bar nearby, Alex sneakily put our names down and along with the rest of the bar singing a dodgy 'Spanglish' backing, we performed a very bad rendition of Queen; I want to break free.
Feeling it was time to move on, we headed to Salta's nightlife strip full of pumping clubs and bars checking some out, before finding ourselves on the dance floor, eventually staggering home just after 4am.
14th August 2010 - Awake in time for lunch, we were given some bad news – due to the political protesting and subsequent road blocks in Bolivia, our route to Southern Bolivia (scheduled for tomorrow) was no longer possible. Instead, we would have to either go back into Chile or wait in Argentina to see if they stopped. Bitterly disappointed at the prospect of missing out the Salt Flats of Uyuni, the Potosi Silver Mines and Tupiza – the setting of the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Kristy quickly organised some additional activities for Argentina including horse riding whilst we waited on the outcome.
Knowing that we may be unable to do the scheduled horse riding in Bolivia, we signed up with some of the group for a mornings' ride in the countryside. We then got a taxi into town with Jimmy and Fi and explored the Old Town and its picturesque Main Plaza.
Back to the campsite, we were just in time for a meaty feast BBQ, cooked by Benny.
15th August 2010 – Up at 7am, we were whisked off in a dodgy, rickety 4x4 jeep and taken an hour outside of Salta into the countryside and to the Estancia. After tucking into our second breakfast (it was far too good to turn down!) we were being paired up with our horses for the day.
The next 3 hours was spent riding through fields and small villages taking in Argentinean life.
Rodrigo riding his horse standing up!
Awaiting for us back at the ranch was an amazing Argentinean BBQ and bottles of delicious red wine; produced by the local monks.
With the wine slipping down, the sun shinning and our return to Salta booked for 3pm, we asked if we could stay longer at the ranch - at £4 for 4 hours it was a no brainer!!
Sadly the extra drink time was too much for some of the group and it wasn’t long before Alex had her head buried in a bucket!!
7:30pm and our amazing day had come to an end and we were whisked back to our campsite in a considerably worse state than when we had left 12 hours earlier!
16th August 2010 – With the road blocks still in place and therefore no way into Bolivia, Kristy took the decision to pack up and head back through the desert of Chile and travel north to the border at the top of the country. Immensely disappointed to have missed out on this part of the trip and in particular the Salt flats, we hit the road trying to make up the lost time. Coming across a smaller salt flat in the ‘no mans land’ between Argentina and Chile, we took the chance to explore and try some trick photography.
Reaching San Pedro by dusk, none of us were in the mood to cook, so we went out en mass and found a lovely, if expensive, open air courtyard restaurant and tucked into gourmet pizzas whilst being entertained into the night, by a traditional Chilean folk band.
17th August 2010 – Back on the road early, we had to make up for lost time to get as far north as possible. With a limit on the driving games we had to play we amused ourselves with games of Pictionary and charades.
The driving was broken up with a couple of stops, including a deserted run down town with a church used by thousands every year for a pilgrimage. As darkness started to set in, we pulled off the road and drove into the sparse desert to set up our tents.
Si and his group cooked up some well needed warming Chilean chilli con carne as the desert temperatures plummeted.
18th August 2010 – With an early start, it wasn’t long before the desert costal town of Iquque came into view, sprawled around the dramatic Cerro Dragon sand dune dominating the town.
The purpose of our visit was for one reason - some of the best paragliding in the world! After driving along the impressive seafront with modern boardwalk, we made our way through the more rundown parts of town to find the paragliding school.
With 6 of us wanting to jump, we made our way with the instructors to the summit overlooking the city and got kitted up.
With the lightest jumping first, Rach, Fi and Jimmy were the guinea pigs, which was much to the embarrassment of Kristy who would be jumping in the second round with Tom and myself! The procedure would be the same for both groups - once paired with your instructor and strapped in, you waited for the right gust of wind and ran straight off the edge of the mountain where you would be instantly whisked upwards by the strong thermal currents.
Climbing higher and higher as your instructor rode the thermals, we soared over the city for almost 30 minutes, taking in the spectacular sweeping views over the coastline and eventually landing down on the beach.
Although it was nowhere near the rush we had from skydiving and bungeeing, it was great fun and we all came away buzzing with adrenaline!
Meeting back with the others at the truck, we drove back out into the desert and stopped at the ghost town of Humberstone. This deserted nitrate town built in 1872 was a long way from its former glory and was a very eerie place to visit.
Hummm, these cold be useful for the truck!
After a couple of hours exploring this shell of a town, we continued on our way until we reached the Giant of Atacama - an 83m high geoglyph of a shamen, carved into the side of a mountain; the largest of its kind in the world.
Arriving to the coastal town of Pisagua, we carefully made our way down the steep and winding Cliffside track to the shabby town that lay below it. Entering into this sleepy town, we were instantly met by the (probably bored) local police who escorted us to the ‘camping area’, which in effect was a deserted building site on the sea front.
Spotting another truck similar to our own, we realised that Dragoman a rival overland company, had also been forced to take the road less travelled to get into Bolivia. Setting up camp amongst the rubble, we scoured the area for firewood and built ourselves a campfire to provide much needed heat. Inviting over the Dragomen passengers, we spent the night huddled around the fire swapping stories and adventures over several drinks!
18th August 2010 – 7am wake up call and after the heavy night, we were all feeling it. Deciding to take a closer look at the town, we ventured through the empty streets.
Pisagua was once a lively Port in the nitrate boom, but dwindled when the boom ended and at this time it became a detention centre for political prisoners. It was here that General Pinochet, early in his brutal dictatorship, murdered many prisoners and left mass graves strewn around the village outskirts. With plenty of vultures sniffing around on every corner, there was a strange undertone thought the place.
After being shown into the old theatre by the caretaker, we made our way as far as we could down the desert road to the site of the graves.
Finishing the last 30 mins on foot, we arrived to the isolated and morbid site of the cemetery and mass graves, created in Pinochets' dictatorship.
Scattered with crosses and broken coffins (some with limbs prevalent and hanging out), we walked around in silence.
Back on the road, we continued our way north through the desert, arriving to Azapa, where we stopped to see some of the worlds oldest mummies.
At 7,000 years old, they predate the Egyptians by some 2,000 years!
Arriving into the large coastal town of Arica, we checked into our hostal and with it screams of delight rang out as it was our first proper bed for 12 days!!
Finding a local place for dinner, we tucked into the biggest churrasco we had ever seen and back at the hostel, we used the internet to send some well overdue emails home, before retiring to our comfy beds.
With a real mattress beneath us it wasn’t long before we had drifted off for our best nights' sleep in a long time!
20th August 2010 – 6am alarm and we peeled ourselves out of the snug comfort and into the truck. We had another long driving day so were back on the road and climbing steadily from sea level to around 4,500 meters above.
Driving through the Lauca National Park, we were stunned by its beautiful and dramatic volcanic and lake scenery.
With the endangered Viscunas (a relative of the llama), alpacas, llamas and flamingos roaming the lands, we pulled over for some photos, instantly feeling the effects of altitude on our bodies and becoming almost instantly breathless.
Llama greeting at the border
Continuing through the National Park, we arrived to the Chile - Bolivia border and after a brief pause to eat up all the forbidden fresh fruit (oh what a shame!), we finally; 8 days later than planned, made our way into the poorest South American country, Bolivia!