2015: Our Year of South American Travel in Review
2015 marked the fulfilment of Yasha’s deepest desire: to be back on the road – full time! After ten months of teaching English in Santiago de Chile, we left there just before Christmas 2014, and have been travelling since.
From Santiago we drove south in Chile, mostly following the coast. We took several detours inland to visit National Parks, but we always came back to the ocean.
We still vividly remember our difficulties visiting the Nahuelbuta National Park to see the araucaria trees. Don’t get me wrong: the park is beautiful, but it wasn’t a good place to go with a vehicle as big as our Berta. Had we have known how many of these stunning living fossils we would encounter later on in Argentina, we might have skipped that one.
Our last stop on the coast was Valdivia , which we loved. Then finally, we left the coast for Chile’s famous Lake District. We fell in love with our camping place, right on Lago Ranco , because, for the first time, we had grass underfoot. You wouldn’t believe how special such a small detail is, until you’ve been missing it for so long. Chile is generally quite a dusty, dry place!
In late January we crossed to Argentina’s Lake District , which is directly across The Andes. This proved to be an excellent decision: by travelling in Chile most of January we missed the peak holiday season in Argentina, and then we spent most of February in Argentina, which is the main holiday month for Chileans. So we missed the huge crowds of holiday makers in both places. Meandering through this area from south to north, we met some other overlanders, and were welcomed and helped by locals.
Then we headed north, staying close to the mountains. The scenery we found was truly rewarding: unspoilt rivers, lakes and water falls, lovely camp sites, some snow-capped and active volcanoes as a backdrop, and countless araucaria trees!
We had to return to Chile at the end of February to collect Juergen’s new passport from the Australian embassy in Santiago.
Undecided as we often are, we went north to La Serena, as we had heard that it is a lovely city. We took an inland route, avoiding Ruta 5 and its tolls. We weren’t disappointed with the route, or the city.
While we were in La Serena we decided to cross Paso Agua Negra back into Argentina. First we spent some time in Valle de Elqui, famous for its small hamlets with vineyards, and its clear sky. Finally we were ready to take on the pass – that’s when disaster struck and wiped out our plans.
Due to the devastating floods in Chile, we had to wait in Valle de Elqui and then La Serena while roads were cleared and repaired. Ruta 5, Chile’s main highway north, was interrupted. We were finally able to leave La Serena at Easter in the direction of Antofagasta.
Along this stretch we came face to face with the devastation that descended on places, and the people who call them home. By comparison, our difficulties became small and almost insignificant.
From Antofagasta we turned inland once again, through the Atacama Desert, to take Paso de Jama into Argentina. But first we revisited San Pedro de Atacama , which is known as Chile’s second most important tourist destination (after Santiago/Valparaiso).
There are good reasons for this: the dry Valle de la Luna; the Salar de Atacama (Chile’s largest salt flats); and the colours of the mountains are simply stunning.
Back in Argentina and we were retracing our steps from 2008! After some time around Purmamarca and San Salvador de Jujuy, we drove south towards Salta.
From there we went west towards Cachi, and south on the Ruta 40 to Cafayate. We had driven this route in 2008, but this time around we were even more fascinated by the roads and the landscape, with its colourful and strangely eroded rock formations, fertile fields and vineyards, all surrounded by dry shrubs and cacti.
Once we left Cafayate, the famous wine region, it was all new to us. Our first new discovery, the ruins of Quilmes , was an interesting bit of history.
Winter was coming, with frost most nights, and we were still driving south. We hadn’t planned it that way. But the month of June was filled with many highlights, almost too many to list!
Again we stayed close to the Andes. We explored the Shincal ruins, a southern outpost of the old Inca kingdom; drove the Ruta del Adobe towards Tinogasta ; explored the sand dunes near Fiambala (made famous by Dakar rally cars racing across them); took an amazing day trip up the Paso de San Francisco ; visited a second Valle de la Luna, the World Heritage listed Ischigualasto Provincial Park .
And, since we had photographed so many shrines dedicated to this regional saint, and happened to be nearby, we visited Difunta Correa’s main shrine .
Late June saw us back in Chile – something we had not even foreseen earlier that year…
Several things had led to this decision; the frosty nights in Argentina were only one reason.
Another was that a good friend from Australia was coming for a visit. We did our best to show him as many interesting sights in and around Santiago as we could fit into his 10-day-stay.
Of course we included Valparaiso – we could return time and again and never be bored by this quirky city. Pete is also fascinated by street art so, based on our previous visits, Juergen took him on a tour to see many of the StreetArt highlights , which are away from the town centre.
As far as ‘overland travel’ is concerned not much happened during August. Yasha flew to visit family in Australia (our final reason for returning to Santiago), and Juergen hung around in Chile waiting for her.
We were all (Yasha, Juergen, Berta) re-united and eager to leave Chile for what we think is the final time – although it is not the first time we have thought that. It had been snowing heavily on the mountains and we were lucky to find a narrow window between two weather fronts to cross Paso Libertadores into Argentina.
Our plan was to meet up with German friends in Uruguay in October, so we crossed Argentina from west to east. Typically we hadn’t planned or read much in advance, and didn’t take the direct route… Of course, we discovered some real gems along the way. One of these, Alta Gracia (a real surprise to us), led us to explore the Jesuit estancias around Cordoba . The Alta Gracia story became our most popular post of the year!
Uruguay is our third country for this trip to South America. We spent some time in Montevideo – we needed a visa for Brazil. While waiting for it to be processed, we wandered the streets of the city. The old Art Deco architecture and the street art fascinated us.
After receiving our visa we met up with our friends, and left with two trucks to Brazil. We soon noticed that that our ideas about “slow travel” differed, so we said a friendly good-bye to our German friends and returned to what we do best: slowly exploring a region, taking secondary or tertiary roads . We headed into the mountains and were overawed by what we saw, including Canyon Itaimbezinho.
We also discovered that being over 60 had its advantages: in Brazil you don’t pay to enter national parks!
We travelled further west through Rio Grande do Sul and continued to feed our fascination with things Jesuit by visiting the mission of São Miguel , before crossing to Misiones province of Argentina to visit 3 more missions.
Our plan at this point was to continue through Misiones and re-enter Brazil at the Iguaçu Falls. But plans are made to be changed! It had been very humid and rained a lot in Brazil, and this had continued in Misiones, so we decided to head south instead.
[Now we have another reason to be glad about this decision, as the entire region was hit by devastating floods just before Christmas.]
Surprisingly, we are back in a city we once swore never to return to. This is now our third visit to Buenos Aires (not counting Juergen’s drive through in 2014 on his way from Uruguay to Chile). And on both return visits we have found a little more to like about it.
… and 2016?
Well, you’ll just have to come back and see what we’re doing! However, we do have some loose plans: in January we have a volunteer position on a farm in Uruguay. Sometime after that we want to return to Brazil and see more of that amazing country. We are hoping that their rain season will come to an end by mid-March. And later in the year, we would like to add Bolivia to our South American experiences.