Being such ridiculously long countries, and our crisscrossing back and forth on our way south it seems easier to divide these 2 between north and south – although we are embarrassed to admit that only spending 48 hours in northern Chile means we barely do the title justice.
We arrived at the national park exit for Bolivia almost exactly at 1pm, somewhat frustrating knowing that immigration and aduana take nice long two-hour lunches from 1 til 3. Worse than that, however, we soon realised that the aduana (customs where you have to hand in your TIP, temporary import permit) was in fact closed that day and wouldn’t open until Sunday (Easter Sunday at that) (go figure!). In theory we should therefore drive 84km back to ‘near the geysers’ where there is another aduana. These places don’t have any published or fixed opening times and basically you just have to hope that someone is there. (Friends ahead of us had the guy at the NP aduana go completely insane and want to confiscate the car as they had already handed their TIP in at the geysers). Lack of fuel, and general stubbornness if we’re honest, meant there was no way we were turning around so as we dug out our kindles for the wait a chap appears from a restaurant in civvies (with an ‘immigration’ baseball cap) and announces that he will stamp our passports and give our TIP to the aduana man when he opened up the next day. Not entirely legit but passports stamped so we have legally exited – and we aren’t bringing the car back! At his suggestion of receiving a tip for doing us this service we handed over the eggs, honey and cucumber that we knew we couldn’t take into Chile and headed off down the road. 10 mins later we come to the gate where said chap is supposed to be – and let ourselves through! The Chilean office was a joy to behold… system, order and friendly officers – welcome to the other side!
Arriving on this route into Chile is amazing; from well over 4500m you drop (down a perfect paved road – happy days!) more than 2000m to the flat plains of the Atacama Desert. That morning we had been building snowmen, by the time we were in San Pedro it was 27 degrees and we were peeling off layers as fast as we could. Oh, the bliss of being warm again! We found a cashpoint, WIFI and headed straight to a recommended campsite that is no doubt going to become one of the ‘must stay’ places of the route. Andean Nomads, opened 3 months ago and was out of town (away from the hordes of tourists that we have usually managed to avoid) with all the facilities you could need after the rough and readiness of the Lagunas route (essentially – a hot shower!). We met a lovely Dutch couple in the same rig as us and spent that evening with them in the Valle de Luna admiring rock formations as the sun set.
Having at last reached our penultimate country, I think the realisation of our race against winter really has kicked in… everyone we know that is still trying to make it south is ahead of us. So, with that in mind, we had a morning’s organisation and set off into the desert for the night towards the Argentinian border. We originally had all sorts of plans to make the most of the stargazing at one of the world’s best spots – but the moon was full and frankly as light as day most of the night. At least it makes those midnight forays out of the tent easier!
Up into the mountains again the following day to cross into Argentina… we took the scenic route (aka the gravel roads) which was definitely worth it and arrived in Salta to find a camp for the night. This was the point we realised camping is BIG in Argentina… pretty sure this site would be horrendous in peak season… but it suited our needs just perfectly. Having had 2 people throw comments about the ‘Malvinas’ at us within hours of arriving we were a little worried that this was going to be an ongoing problem but eventually we found out that 2nd April (the day we arrived) is Malvinas Day. A couple of days later we were greeted with hugs and kisses by a lady in a canyon when we said we were English so all good!
Having spent an extra day in Salta whilst the car was given some TLC we drove through the Quebrada – more beautiful rocks – to Cafayete, the most northerly of Argentina’s wine regions where we tasted accordingly and also managed a brief catch up with Chunche and crew who we last saw at the CR/Panama border. I sometimes wonder, especially in the fancy wineries, whether they realise that their customers are basically vagrants living in their car in whatever field / layby / gravel pit they can find!
Another day of big driving – I think around 800km this time – took us towards Mendoza, our next planned stop (are you seeing a theme yet?) where we had a couple of recommendations, firstly a vineyard you can camp at, then we found the Norton vineyard and blew our day’s budget in their restaurant and lastly Mendel, a recommendation from a friend in the know in the UK. We had a lovely afternoon with their host where we covered every topic from education to politics to family – and yes, of course, wine.
And still we continue south… next stop the lakes region. To have covered the northern 2000km of these beautiful countries in a matter of days is a real shame, but we’ll be back… (I think we have said that somewhere before!) While this is definitely the ‘other side’… credit cards are accepted, supermarkets are amazing, police don’t pull you over for fun and there is a distinct lack of potholes… blimey is it expensive again!