We’ve been back in the UK for a fortnight now and while our first priority was to see family, a few of our closest friends, and to find somewhere to live in Bristol, we have finally found some time to get the next post ready to publish.
Here is the first of a few posts about our third road trip, where we hired a camper van for 27 days and drove all the way from Santiago in Chile, through Chile and Argentina down to Punta Arenas. We crossed the Chile-Argentina border four times and drove 4,678km in total.
Day 1: Santiago (135km)
The plan was to pick the van up nice and early, collect supplies and make a quick dash to our next destination. Well we all know what they say about the best laid plans, and sure enough our first day with the van ended up being something of an adventure (which of course is the positive spin for “a bit of a nightmare”).
It started first thing when for some reason (most probably laziness) we were far later out of the hotel than we’d planned. We took a taxi to the Wicked office and it took us a surprisingly long time to collect the van. When I think about collecting a van I think of walking into an office, collecting the keys, checking for damage and driving off into the sunset. The reality however was a mountain of paperwork, a long and detailed explanation of what we needed to do to successfully cross a border in our rented vehicle, then of course we had to check for damage, ask about missing or broken things, and make sure everything was sorted to our satisfaction. In our case there were a few broken and missing things to be resolved, and we had to the wait while they found us a 20l jerry can in case of emergency fuel shortages (which you’ll later find was worth the wait).
Finally there was the matter of the ‘free shelf’. The wicked camper vans themselves are actually not very well equipped. It is all very well providing the basics but without a chopping board, sharp knife, spatula and a few other bits and pieces it is not easy to cook a full meal. Fine for a few days, but a pain for a full month. Many past renters had bought these things and, at the end of their rental period, had left them with the van along with any spare food. The result was a whole set of shelves full of free leftover items that we could take for the van. Thanks to this we ended up with pretty much everything we needed to fully equip the kitchen as well as lots of staple foods such as pasta, rice, tinned tomatoes, salt and quite a few herbs and spices. At the last minute we even grabbed a cheap but brand new looking pair of sleeping bags from the shelves.
Once we were finally ready I had to drive out of the Wicked car park into the traffic of a South American capital city, in a van with a clutch that felt totally alien. It wasn’t easy and I did think I was going to be hit by the oncoming traffic as I lurched onto the road, but 5 minutes later I was pulling into a petrol station. Our next stop was an out of town mall where we picked up some bedding, a cheap BBQ and enough food to last us for the first few days. We were finally ready to leave town and to head to a campsite just outside the city.
We joined the ring road and although the traffic was heavy we made it onto the motorway heading South West out of town. After a few minutes we came to a sudden stop and for the next hour we crawled along. We decided to call the campsite to tell them that we’d be late, only to find out that they were closed to check-ins at 8pm. Thanks to our delay there was now no way we were going to make this, so we decided to cut across the countryside to the main highway heading south. We reached the highway quickly but on joining the road found the traffic to be just as bad. This time there was nothing we could do except wait. After a couple of hours moving at a crawl we finally made it to a large development housing a casino. We’d been looking at our maps, apps and the roadside as we drove and worked out that this casino was one of the limited opportunities in this area for food (and for vegetarian options at that!). We stopped and had some fresh pasta at 11:30pm.
Our plan had always been to make it through the first few hundred kilometres fairly quickly, stopping at only a few places of interest, getting us away from the people and into the more remote countryside. We also knew that if we needed to, we were allowed to sleep at COPEC branded petrol stations on the highway. With this in mind we decided to press on a little as the roads were finally quiet and we had no idea what they’d be like in the morning. About 50km further on we found a nice looking COPEC (as far as service stations can be nice looking!) and since it was approaching 1am we decided to get some rest. Motorway COPECs in Chile are much like motorway services in the UK, except they don’t limit how long you can stay there and for a small fee you can use their showers. That said there was no special area for camping so we parked at the end of the car park where it was a little quieter, double checked with the guard that we were allowed to sleep there, and got out the bed in the back of the van. Plenty of other people had obviously also got stuck in the traffic and had decided to get some rest too, we got a few admiring looks as we set up our bed while other people were sleeping in their cars.
It’s probably time to tell you a little more about Amanda our ‘Casa Rodante’ or camper van that we’d be sleeping in for nearly a month. Amanda is a Mitsubishi L300 van which is roughly the same size as the classic VW combi. Much like the van that we had in San Pedro she has a sink and storage area at the back for the kitchenware, food, gas stove, chairs and a table. Between the front seats and the back of the van are three large storage boxes that can either be converted to a large bed or a table with bench seats either side. This meant that we could eat outside in good weather or inside if it was raining. We later discovered that by using the outdoor table under the huge boot lid (which I could comfortably stand under) I could cook outside without getting too wet, while Alex did the preparation and washing up from inside. Our bed inside the van also meant that we had no tent to worry about keeping dry.
At the front of the van were three seats (one with a slightly awkward sitting position thanks to the gearstick) and a stereo that we could plug our phones into to play music. This really was a basic model so everything was very simple, there was no central locking but Wicked had installed an alarm which I constantly set off by forgetting to disable it.
Finally as with all Wicked vans it was brightly decorated. I was once again disappointed when I heard that the van was called Amanda, but relieved to see that it was not pink but more of a classic hippy van with a huge peace sign on one side and the slogan (in Spanglish) “we’re not Hippies, we’re Happies” on the back.
Day 2: To Santa Cruz (130km)
We woke up after a night that was as restful as it could be with the noise of the motorway outside, and the lights of the service station shining through our curtains. We grabbed a little bit of breakfast from the COPEC’s smart glass building and got back onto the road. Our aim for the day was to quickly get to Santa Cruz, a wine-growing area 100km down the road.
We got to Santa Cruz in good time, drove past lots of great looking vineyards but struggled find anywhere to stay. We had hoped for a campsite in the local area but could find nothing. We had also hoped for some help from the tourist office, but when we got there we found a locked building with a few yellowing flyers for local hotels in the window. Now somewhat stuck, we opted for our last resort. We’d seen a fairly vague note on our iOverlander app (an amazing app by the way and absolutely recommended for anyone on a road trip or with a camper) about Francisco, a local guy working in the wine industry who had found previous iOverlander users somewhere to camp. There was a phone number so we decided to give it a go. Alex called the number and got through to a guy who struggled to understand her but assured her that someone would call back. Sure enough a few minutes later the phone rang and it was Francisco, who spoke perfect English. He gave us directions to a farm nearby and we agreed to meet there in 20 minutes.
We arrived and found a tiny little camping spot carved out of a field of grapevines with enough space to park the van, plus a covered table, BBQ and a toilet. There was even power for an outside light and a socket so that we could charge our phones. It had all been constructed recently and the farmer (who we later discovered was who Alex had first spoken to) was furiously cleaning to ensure that everything was spotless for us. Francisco explained that the site had been constructed with a government grant to help local farmers diversify their income. Since Francisco was involved with the local wine industry he had lots of suggestions of where to visit and even called the vineyards for us, checking tour times, opening hours and making a reservation where one was needed. Within an hour we’d gone from having nowhere to stay to having a campsite and a fully planned afternoon of wine tastings!
The vineyards that Francisco had recommended were all within a few kilometres either side of our campsite, a little too far to walk but the route Francisco had selected meant that we visited the furthest away ones first and finished with only a kilometre to drive back to our home for the night.
We drove to the first vineyard, Las Niñas (The Girls), and had our first tasting. There was nobody else around so we had a private tasting. We then drove to Neyen vineyard for an interesting tasting. At Neyen they only make one variety of red wine, but from 120 year old vines that are the oldest in the region. Since the vineyard only make one wine we tasted different vintages which was fascinating to taste the difference caused by the different weather in those years. Our final tasting was at Montes where we had a full tour of the vineyard and tasting. This was one of the newer vineyards but had expanded quickly and as a result felt the most corporate of the three. That said their wine was also excellent and they had hand drawn logos by Ralph Steadman which gave them a unique touch.
After our final tasting we drove the very short distance back to our field and parked up for the night. There was a stream running right past us so I put a nice bottle of white that we’d bought at Las Niñas into the water to cool down and we lit the BBQ. It was a lovely warm evening so we sat around our picnic table drinking wine and eating vegetable kebabs until long after the sun went down.
Day 3: To Siete Tazas (140km)
We woke up the next morning, made breakfast and got ready to leave. We were still only a couple of hundred kilometres south of Santiago and were determined to get some distance under our belts. First we had to pick up some food, so we drove into Santa Cruz and on our way into town stumbled upon a huge market that had completely closed off one of the main streets. We stopped and picked up loads of great fruit and vegetables for the next few days.
We left Santa Cruz, made our way back to the main highway and started heading south. Fairly soon we realised that we were going to pass the turn-off for the Siete Tazas (seven cups) national park. It was a 100km detour (50km each way) but we’d heard good things about it. We decided to take the detour but were slightly disappointed when after thirty kilometres the paving ended and the road became a poor quality dirt road that, as we got into the national park, had a few steep hills and deep puddles for us to drive through. It was slow going but a good test for Amanda. We eventually made it to a campsite that was deep into the national park and close to the Siete Tazas themselves. We were able to find a good spot a long way from any other people where we enjoyed a nice quiet evening, complete with BBQ’d corn fresh from that morning’s market.
Day 4: Siete Tazas and Driving South (340km)
After breakfast we went to see the Siete Tazas. They are actually a series of seven small waterfalls in a deep gorge that have carved ‘cups’ into the stone and make a pretty sight. It takes a little imagination to see the cups but we spent a couple of hours taking a pleasant walk alongside them and finished by walking a few hundred metres down into the gorge to see ‘El Salto de Leon’ waterfall. Since we’d started pretty early we had the walk to ourselves, only seeing other groups arriving as we headed back to the van.
We started driving back towards the main road and saw a couple of hitchhikers, we’d already seen loads in Chile and it seemed to be an accepted way to travel. They were a young Chilean couple with big rucksacks and a few miles to walk before they hit the edge of the park and the bus that would take them home, so we stopped to pick them up. The girl jumped into the front in between us and the guy had to sit in the back. It’s not especially comfortable sitting in the back and although I drove a lot more slowly and carefully than normal, he still had to hold on to everything he could so he didn’t bounce around in the back of the van. They turned out to be a really nice couple and as I drove Alex practiced her Spanish with them. We ended up taking them out of the national park to a town right by the main highway. When we dropped them off they were really grateful and we both got hugs before continuing back on the highway south.
Since we hadn’t actually managed to make it very far south the previous day we were determined to make up for lost time, so we drove all afternoon stopping only briefly for a snack and fuel. We’d found a collection of campsites near to the road, along a river by a waterfall called Salta del Laja, this looked promising and meant no big detours. When we arrived we realised that being near to the highway and therefore easy to reach equates to being popular with the locals. The first few campsites were all rather Butlins style affairs with lots of people and loud music. We drove a couple of kilometres to the furthest campsite away from the highway and found a much quieter place which had no hot water, and was somewhat overpriced, but allowed us to find a spot close to the river away from the people.
We’d finally put some miles under our belt and in one more good day we would catch up to where we needed to be, so we rewarded ourselves with a homecooked Mexican feast by the river. Unfortunately we were not quite far enough up the river to be out of earshot of the pounding music at the holiday camps downstream, but it was a beautiful if not peaceful location and thankfully the music stopped before we went to bed.
Day 5: To the Chilean Lake District (336km)
We woke up to hear the Butlinsesque party had started back up downriver. We could hear a DJ whipping up crowds of children in excitement, which was really quite impressive for 10am.
We got up and had breakfast burritos made from remains of the previous night’s feast. We set off and drove all morning to get to Villarrica, a town in the mountains on the edge of a lake. Villaricca is also the name of the huge, active volcano that towers over both Villaricca and the nearby town of Pucón. As a result of the volcano, the lake, and the national parks that surround them, the town of Pucón is a mecca for adventure sports and a huge holiday destination for Chileans as well as backpackers. The whole area is part of the beautiful Chilean Lake District. Unfortunately we’d arrived on a grey day with low cloud cover so we could see nothing of the town’s volcano namesake.
We only had a limited time in the area and we’d only started to realise where we could take the van. When you are backpacking your destinations are limited to those places that can be reached by public transport and have some kind of infrastructure to support backpackers (namely hostels, cheap places to eat and drink, and tours so that you can see interesting sights without independent transport). Now that we had our own transport and accommodation we no longer needed any of the backpacker infrastructure. Furthermore, it is far less pleasant and safe to park in a town for the night than to find a beautiful spot in the wilderness. Our outline plan for where to go with the van had been a backpacking route with a few extra stops on the way. We now realised that to get the most out of the van we’d need to go back to the drawing board.
Sitting in the van in Villaricca we re-planned our route and decided to skip Pucón and drive out to a campsite on the edge of a national park where, if the weather improved, we’d be able to go walking the next day. We quickly stopped near Pucón to stock up with supplies and carried on out of town, away from the crowds and into the wilderness.
We’d found a nice little campsite by a river and when we arrived we were greeted by a friendly old guy. He showed us around and seemed really proud of his place. His campsite only had about ten pitches but each one was on the edge of a river surrounded by trees and had a light and power, a BBQ and a picnic table. We set up and had a wander round. The owner obviously had an interest in the environment and had solar showers, recycling (something we hadn’t seen in a long time), and in pride of place on the back wall of the toilet block, a letter from the Chilean environment ministry stating that they’d assessed his business as having no environmental impact.
We took a short walk up the river and were just getting back to the site when the heavens opened. It carried on raining all evening so I cooked outside under the cover of the boot lid while Alex did all the preparation inside. We were using the power to charge our electronics and I had to concoct a system of plastic bags over everything keep it all dry. For the first time we ate inside and fell asleep with the sound of the rain drumming on the roof of the van.
Day 6: To the Termas de Panqui (60km)
The rain did not let off during the night, or even the next morning, and we carefully avoided getting wet while dashing out the back to get breakfast ready. The weather was even worse than it had been the previous day and we decided to skip walking in the national park as the ground was sodden. I went off for a shower and when I came back I found an old American guy had engaged Alex in a long conversation about life. Apparently he lived in some kind of shack nearby and made enough money to survive with a few odd jobs including cleaning the toilets for our campsite. He was a funny old guy and was a classic washed up hippy, harmless but more than a little odd!
Once our new hippy friend had wandered off we set about getting out of the campsite. Thanks to the rain our spot was now pretty soaked. Luckily when I’d driven in I’d carefully turned the van around to make it easy to leave. I started to pull up out of the space up a bank and between some trees, but about halfway up the ground underneath me was too wet and I got stuck. All I could do was reverse a little which put me very close to a tree. I was still pretty stuck but with a little careful manoeuvring I eventually got the van up the bank and onto the flat. I had a quick look back at the path to check how big the tyre marks were and noticed some paint on one of the tree branches. I checked the van and realised that at some point when I’d slipped backwards I’d knocked the back corner of the van into a tree which had left a nice little dent. Luckily the tree hadn’t scratched through the paint and it hadn’t hit the back window so it was only cosmetic damage but a shame nonetheless.
Since we weren’t going to the national park we decided to proceed a little further along our route towards the Argentinian border then veer north to the ‘Termas de Panqui’. They were a long way off the main road along a dirt road that got narrower and more hilly as we proceeded. Eventually we took a turning into the 3km access road which was even narrower and rougher. Had we not already proceeded so far from the main road we would have turned around and found somewhere else, we were seriously beginning to doubt whether anything could be at the end of this tiny track and wondering what on earth we’d do if we got stuck (which was looking more and more likely by the minute!). When we were just about to give up we finally found the entrance.
The ‘Termas de Panqui’ are a set of thermal pools run by an eccentric old American guy (the area seems to attract them). He’s spent many years building the pools, accommodation and a restaurant all in the middle of nowhere. Unfortunately they don’t get enough visitors to run the restaurant and most of the guests seem to be day visitors. We enquired about the camping that was included free with entry to the pools and a girl, who we think was the owner’s daughter, jumped into the van to direct us there. She led us back out of the entrance and up a track that was even steeper, bumpier and narrower than any we found so far. I wouldn’t have even attempted it except that before we left the owner told me that he had a 4×4 and would pull us out if we got stuck. We nearly got stuck before we had even begun when we struggled on the first hill, but we just made it up and a few hundred metres around the side of his property before dropping down into a field at the top end of the thermal pools. We had the camping field all to ourselves and the girl proceeded to show us around. There were seven pools in total ranging from warm bath temperature to burning hot. Since we were staying overnight we could use the pools at any time and we were told that the only rule was the slightly vague “don’t be naked if there are a lot of other people around”.
We decided to immediately go for a soak and quickly realised that although there were a few groups using the pools, we managed to almost always have a pool to ourselves. We spent the afternoon relaxing in the pools then had some dinner and went for a late night dip. We had hoped to be able to see the stars but in actual fact it was still raining so we sat in the near pitch black (we’d found a candle and something to shield it from the rain) and enjoyed the warm water for a few minutes with a glass of wine.
Day 7: To Argentina (Junin de los Andes) (130km)
The first thing I noticed when I awoke was that it was no longer raining, or at least was not raining hard enough to hear it landing on the metal roof of the van. After our late night soak we’d been in bed after midnight and since it was cold I was happy to lie in for a while. We eventually got up and used the last of our eggs to make scrambled eggs on toast. Since we needed to use up the fresh food before our planned border crossing, we also had a yoghurt and leftovers from the previous dinner. Determined to get the most for our money we went for one last dip in the hot springs and then ate an early lunch of salad made from the leftover fresh food.
Throughout the morning it had slowly become warmer with less clouds and more sun and as a result our wet clothes had dried out, but more importantly so had the grass around us. When we were finally ready I slowly edged the van out of the field while Alex opened and closed gates for me. Although still not an easy trip, I managed to get the van back to the entrance without needing the help of the owner’s 4×4. We said thank you and hit the road, bumping down 15km of dirt roads which were immeasurably more pleasant in the drier conditions. We hit the border town in good time and stopped for one last errand before crossing the border. We’d decided to extend the van rental for two days which, although easy enough, required the printing of a new document that formed the van’s passport, allowing us to take Amanda to Argentina. Unfortunately when we arrived in town the only internet cafe was closed. I’d already saved the document onto a memory stick so we decided to ask directions across the road at the police station. Once again the police came through for us, directing us into their office and quickly printing off two copies without us even asking for it. They didn’t ask for thanks or payment and in 30 seconds saved us at least a 2 hour round trip back to the last major town.
We celebrated with an ice cream and headed out of town and to the border. The drive was beautiful, passing up over the mountains and right next to the impressive snow capped Volcano Lanín and before we knew it, we were at the border. We parked at the Chillean emigration office and joined a short queue to get our passports stamped and then to customs where they stamped Amanda’s passport. We then jumped back in the van for the 1km drive to Argentinian immigration.
The border was marked with a sign welcoming us to Argentina and an abrupt end to the paved road. Fifty metres later we hit the end of a queue of cars that snaked out of sight. We pulled up the back of the queue and waited. Ten minutes later engines started and we pulled forward by about 10 cars. This was slightly worrying as we knew the Argentinian immigration post was still nearly a kilometre away and it was now after 6pm. The border closed at 8pm so we started to wonder what we’d do if we didn’t make it. We were now officially in no man’s land, technically in Argentina but with passports that showed us leaving Chile but not entering Argentina. Luckily being in our van meant that our bed was only just behind us and we always carried enough dry food so that we wouldn’t go hungry in these kind of situations. The queue slowly edged forward and at about 7:45pm we finally reached the border post and were allocated a space in their car park.
We entered the immigration building and quickly got our passports stamped. Customs was not so easy however and by the time we got through it was after 8pm. The last step was the inspection, we’d seen cars ahead of us being forced to remove all of their belongings from the car while they received a search. Being in an obvious camper van covered in graffiti including the giant peace sign and hippy slogan didn’t fill me with confidence. The guards stopped us and asked me to open the back of the van. They asked me if we were carrying any fresh fruits and vegetables so I showed them the now nearly empty coolbox. After seeing our two lemons and a cucumber the guy decided he’d seen enough (possibly in disgust) and waved us on. We couldn’t believe our luck and hit the road as fast as we could.
We were running pretty late and wanted to find a campsite in the light. Although our target for the day had been San Martin de los Andes we knew that there were a few campsites in a town slightly closer, Junín de los Andes. As we arrived at sunset we decided to stop at a campsite called La Isla which had big pitches on a large island close to the river. We found a good spot with a BBQ and a power socket that we could position the van next to.
Within minutes of arriving the guy from the next pitch had come over to ask us a question. As soon as he realised that we weren’t as hippy as our van indicated he was very friendly, telling us about his 1 year long road trip with his family. He was Argentinian but his name was Patrick Jones as his grandfather was Welsh. We had an interesting chat about both our trips before he had to return to his van to help his wife put the kids to bed. The people opposite us were a little more odd. They seemed to be a young couple who looked a little hippylike, he had long hair and a beard. What was odd this that for the majority of the evening that just seemed to be looking at us, never coming over to say hello but always looking in our direction. At about 11pm he pulled out a guitar and started playing. It felt a little like we were being serenaded but also a little creepy. After we’d eaten (pasta and sauce as we didn’t have time after the border to stock up) we went to bed and drifted off to the sounds of him playing the guitar, probably whilst still staring at our van.
Day 8: Junín to Lake Nahuel Huapi (166km)
The plan was to get out at a reasonable time and hit the road. The weird couple at the campsite opposite got up a little after us and before long he seemed to be alternately staring at us and playing his guitar again. We made a reasonably quick exit and headed into town. Having had to run down our supplies of fresh fruit, veg and dairy before the border we had very little to eat so the first stop was the supermarket.
We also had very little cash so on the way we stopped at the only bank in town. Although it did take my card, it told me that every amount I selected was invalid. We headed over to the supermarket and picked out enough so that we could pay with cash if we needed to. When we got to the till we were delighted to see that they took cards, however when I gave the lady my card she disappeared to another till for nearly 10 minutes while a huge queue built up behind us. Eventually she returned, our transaction had been successful and we still had our reserves of cash which was lucky because the next stop was the petrol station. In the next town, San Martin de los Andes, we found a petrol station and spent our remaining cash.
We drove into San Martin and found the bank, only to find a sign on the door saying that the cash machines were not working, but from looking in the window it appeared that an engineer was on the case. We decided walk around the corner to pick up a few things that we hadn’t been able to get at the first supermarket (it had very few fresh vegetables) and luckily they again took card but again disappeared off to a different till for 5 minutes while a queue built up behind us.
When we returned to the bank one of the two ATMs was back in action. I took out extra money to celebrate (and by now realising this may continue to be a problem in Argentina!) and we once again hit the road.
We were now ready to start the day’s drive (despite it being early afternoon) which was billed as one of South America’s most beautiful drives on the Camino de las Seite Lagos (the route of the seven lakes). This is a long route through the lake district and specifically seven beautiful lakes (although there were actually many more). The road was winding although not especially challenging since it was paved. Every 20 minutes or so we’d come across a viewpoint with a view over a beautiful blue lake, fringed with forest and encircled with mountains, not as high or as impressive as some that we’ve seen but still extremely beautiful.
Our aim was to get close enough to San Carlos de Bariloche (our next stop, known as Bariloche) to make it a quick drive in the morning, but far enough away to be able to find a quieter and cheaper camping spot as Bariloche is a big tourist town popular with locals and backpackers alike.
About 70km short of Bariloche, 20km or so outside of a town called Villa la Angostura, we found a little campsite on the edge of Lake Nahuel Huapi, the largest lake in the area, and found a lovely spot under a tree with a firepit and picnic bench. We bought a wheelbarrow of wood (we had no idea what we were buying, not knowing the Spanish for wheelbarrow) which the owner delivered to our pitch and stacked by the firepit. We sat enjoying the fire and the nearby lake with the sound of the waves lapping onto the beach only a few metres from us.
Our next post will cover more road trip adventures, in which we’ll be picking up our Dutch friend Stella and all heading further south to Patagonia.