When we crossed the border from Bolivia back into Chile, we had mixed feelings. Relief, as we were away from the bad roads, the dust and the cold. Happiness, as we were heading to the sun on the coast that we missed so much since we had left the Atlantic more than two months ago. And finally, sadness, because the freezing temperatures forced us to leave the northern part of Bolivia, a highlight of the country. Hopefully we will be back here on our way down. I guess this is the bittersweet magic of overlanding, leaving beautiful places behind and heading to new ones that lie ahead.
After clearing the Bolivian side of the border, we faced the Chilean customs bureaucracy. This time they searched the whole car. The result was that we lost all of our precious snacks. Dried fruit is not allowed in Chile although we had no problem sneaking it in the previous times we had entered. Did that matter? No!!! It was quickly forgotten as we headed towards “the coast” that we both love. This time it was the city of Iquique. This city is set 1853km north of the capital Santiago and 315km south of the Peruvian border. It is squeezed between the ocean and a huge sand dune that rises 600m high behind it. Barefoot surfers, paragliders, casino addicts and merchants all cross paths here, in this charming city. Located at a golden part of the coastline, the city is considered among Chile’s premier beach resorts. Beachfront boardwalk, paragliding and sand-boarding are just a few of the things travelers do here. But the big draw among the overland community is Iquique’s chaotic duty-free shopping zone (zona franca) specialized in every possible second hand car and all of their parts. It is really tempting to pay a visit but take special care because when you park your vehicle and go shopping, handy locals that are on the lookout break into your camper as soon as you leave and help themselves to your valuables.
Thankfully we didn’t experience this personally since Voukefalas was in no need of parts. Instead, we used a bus to get there and unusually for us, we didn’t shop anything else except a couple of bottles of our favorite tequila. The rest of our time there was spent mostly between our camping spot, which was literally overlooking the beach, and the city that was a short bus-ride away. Further north and after another spectacular route through the rural coast of Chile and a quick stop for Rochelle to literally run wild taking pictures in the sunset, we reached Arica. Check out the pictures attached. The country’s northern city is known to be warm and sunny year-round. Another highlight is the city’s museum that hosts some of the world’s oldest known mummies. We couldn’t miss out on that one so somewhere between a coffee and Rochelle’s attempt to find some coins to create her traveling backgammon, we did pay a visit. In addition to the things to do here, you might want to consider a steep climb to visit the cool cliff-top War of the Pacific battlefield at El Morro, and a side trip to some decent brown-sugar beaches that lie further out. With all of the above you might just stay another day or two before you head to the border with Peru, at least that is what we did.
Crossing into Peru was straight forward and although there are a lot of people using this specific crossing, the whole process didn’t take us more than 30 minutes. So Peru, the 7th country of our trip, was just lying ahead of us and a new adventure was about to begin. The wild and lonely coast that welcomed us in Iquique continued in south Peru. Sand dunes, forgotten fishing villages, verdant desert oasis, ancient earth drawings and plenty of open space for the imagination to run wild complete this barren landscape and kept us busy exploring for the next couple of weeks. Caught between the Andes and the sea, the monotony of the landscape is pleasantly interrupted by fertile river valleys that wash out their way into the ocean. It is in these valleys that most of the agricultural production of the country takes place and where wine, fruit as well as olive oil are produced. We were very grateful especially for the latter, as our olive oil from home was running low. Yes, we bought some, 5 liters actually!!! After a quick overnight in the seaside city of Ilo, with the legendary ceviche (chunks of raw fish, marinated in freshly squeezed lime or bitter orange – naranja agria – juice, with sliced onions and chilies), our adventure took us on an inland route to Arequipa, Peru’s big combo.
Here authentic historical and cultural riches of one of South America’s finest colonial cities are combined with just a few hours’ drive from the world’s two deepest canyons. You can picture the dramatic contrasts, right? Based out of a camp right at the edge of the colonial city, we felt into the ample urban distractions that can be found in Arequipa.World class food, sightseeing with some of the country’s best preserved churches and monasteries and a visit to Juanita, a mummy of an Inca maiden that was sacrificed (an Inca custom) and preserved naturally under the snow, in the shadow of El Misti volcano. Even if you put aside all of the above though, just walking around this best preserved city was a delight anyway. Going to Arequipa and missing out on the Colca Canyon is like going to Cuzco and picking not to visit Machu Picchu. So after taking it easy in Arequipa for a couple of days, we headed out and over Paso de Patopampa, where the main road ascends to 4910m, higher than any point in Western Europe or North America. We based ourselves in the village of Chivay and although effected by altitude (especially me), the next day we visited the canyon and its surroundings. With spectacular views, short visits in small villages and condors flying almost directly above our heads, we spent most of the day in this natural wonder. A word of advice: In order to experience the beauty of the canyon, get a late start leaving all the tour groups go first (they are in a rush to return to Arequipa). Then you will have the canyon all to yourself. At the end of the day, the views and the inhabitants of it, “the gigantic Andean condors”, have nowhere else to go. Here is another tip. Stepping beyond the outlines of this Gringo Trail and without knowing what lies ahead, we pushed even further and followed the road beyond the asphalt’s end, into a tar road that took us through the majestic mountains all the way to the coast, with the extra bonus of unparalleled beauty vistas all to ourselves. Just beautiful!!! Back in Arequipa, we learned about an earthquake out in the ocean that its effect had an impact to the sand dunes and rock mountains that hang over the Pan-American Highway. As a result, a whole part of the mountain collapsed blocking a big part of the highway and cutting it off in two. According to the latest updates we got there, an emergency road was made as a detour so the traffic on the Pan-American would continue uninterrupted.
This in our heads meant simply that we were free to continue with our route north as planned. Well, when we reached the starting point of the detour and asked a local driver if we could go ahead, he replied: “Si, pasa como normal”, in other words “Yeah, no problem, it is normal, go ahead”. To cut the story short, the “normal” took us nine hours of hard core off-road driving, 120km inland, on one of the worst routes we have ever crossed. The route’s menu included a steep ascend, a moon like landscape plateau, a scary, sharp turn, a tiny mountain road descend and another drive in a riverbed. (We have gotten used to those by now). When we reached the coast again, it was late at night and we were exhausted, so we found somewhere to camp and called it a night. The next day, we reached our originally planned destination in Puerto Inca and its decent beach, with freezing cold waters that we didn’t even try to swim in. Up next was Nazca. It’s hard to say the word ‘Nazca’ without relating it immediately with the word ‘lines’. This is a vast part of desert where someone can see ancient geometric lines that crisscross the Nazca desert, as well as the enigmatic animal geoglyphs that accompany them. Like all unexplained mysteries, these strange geoglyphs on the pampa are thought to have been made by a pre-Inca civilization between 450 and 600AD. There are still questions about how they were made and by whom. The answers are often: aliens, prehistoric balloonists and others. What did we do? We illegally flew our drone over them and as a real pioneer explorer, Rochelle decided to accidentally climb a mountain and oops, also step on them. We almost got arrested by the Ministry of Culture and our car’s number plate made it to the list of blacklisted tourists with photographic proof. Yeah, go overlanddiaries, go!!!
While not as famous as Nazca, our further northern destination, Huacachina, is an aesthetically perfect desert oasis 4km west of Ica. It’s a firmly established stopover on Southern Peru’s Gringo Trail and with a very good reason. Imagine. It’s 6pm and you’re sitting on a giant wind-sculpted sand dune, watching the sunset over a landscape of golden yellow and rusty red sand dunes that lie as far as your eyes can see. Two hundred meters below, lies a dreamy desert lagoon, ringed by exotic palm trees and furnished with a clutch of rustic but elegant hotels. Ladies and gentleman, welcome to Huacachina!!! As real overlanders, with the healthiest, sportiest shape, after three days in the oasis, we finally attempted the climb mentioned above. It took us an exhausting 45 minutes to reach the top of the lofty vantage point. Was it worth it? Absolutely!!! And to celebrate the event of reaching the top, we opened a bottle of wine and stayed up there till sunset. It was an experience truly unforgettable!!! PS. After the wine, the way back down was quick and easy!!!
With our visit to Huacachina completed, it was time for the country’s capital, Lima. This sprawling metropolis is the second-driest capital in the world (Cairo is first, according to Lonely Planet), rising above a long coastline topped by crumbling cliffs that are only visible when the fog bundles. High-rise condos, built alongside pre-Columbian temples, fast Pacific breaks rolling toward noisy traffic streets and funky neighborhoods are just a few of the capital’s characteristics. Luckily for us, we stayed in an urban camp oasis in Miraflores, a lovely modern part of the city that seems to have avoided sharing the chaotic standards that the rest of the city has. Here we met Josh and Jenna form travelamateurs.com, Ernesto and Taisa from Overland the Americas, and Bryan, the lonely BMW rider/“fanatic” Facebook user. All of them were veteran overlanders, for more than two years on the road and with plenty of adventures to tell. We shared our experiences and hanged out together telling stories almost every night. Great times really!!! With no timetable and no schedule, the limits expand and this is one of the most important factors that makes overlanding unique. I was here almost 14 years ago and I must admit, I wasn’t impressed back then. But this time it was different. With great company and time on our hands, we explored in depth the centre and its suburbs that are shrouded by history, are gloriously messy and full of aesthetic delights. What is our opinion now? Don’t even think of missing this city. Fancy museums accommodate the country’s treasures, galleries display edgy local art, parks gather elder locals dancing the night away under 19th century music, crowded nightclubs dispense tropical beats and lastly, the gastronomic revolution boosts world class affordable cuisine of every imaginable part of the world. This is Lima!!! To be continued…