Chile - Argentina Or Argentina - Chile?
When we decided to visit Chile, our initial purpose has been to visit Patagonia and the Atacama Desert.
Both spots are very wellknown and a must-go for photographers and nature lovers like us.
Patagonia lies far in the south of Chile and the Atacama Desert far in the north. Our time schedule would have become very tight and on the other hand, the oneway-fees for the rental car have been ridiculous expensive, if we would have tried to master this 6750 KM in 35 days, without getting into too much stress.
So we decided to begin with the Atacama desert first.
Driving the Panamericana route up to the north and all the way back to Santiago, would also have been pretty boring and we thought it might be a nice idea to drive through Argentina to Chiles north.
So we did.
"The Andes, The Border-Crossing And The Altitude Sickness"
After arriving in Chile at the 4th of December, we immediately picked up our Camper in Colina, a small village north of Santiago, bought some food in a near supermarket (called "Supermercado" or "Mini-Mercado") and crossed the border to Argentina at 3900m a few hours later.
Border crossing is a no brainer, we just needed to take care to don't take perishable food with us, as it's not allowed. All documents have been prepared already by our rentalcar-company, so the crossing only took 15 minutes or so.
Once we left Santiago and drove into the direction of the Andes, a different world appeared.
We just cannot find the right words for describing the Andes.
Massive mountain ranges, beautiful passes with dozens of needle-curves as well as the "Laguna Del Inca" leaded us the way to Argentina... our adventure began and I couldn't await to test out my new equipment and shoot "some" photos.
The sky has been crystal clear, apart from some clouds here and there, but no haze or whatsoever.
Only thing we worried a little bit about was, that the air got thinner after 2500m and we expected to suffer from altitude sickness minute by minute, but we actually didn't.
How great was that?
The next day we arrived in Uspallata, not knowing that this one should be one of very less villages or cities on our way. Here we bought more food as well as we tried to get a prepaid-card for our (already registered) phones. Unfortunately nobody has been able to either find a proper plan for us, nor they didn't even seem to know, what a prepaid-card is.
Anyways... the weather has been great, it just rained a few hours and it was windy as hell, but the streets were in a very good condition, every single one was tarred and we were in a good mood.
So what else should happen, apart from lots of stunning scenaries, lots of romance, peace, love and harmony?
We couldn't even imagine, what awaited us... 😉
"Caminos Sin Nombre or Where The Streets Have No Name Anymore"
As we drove approximately 500 km north by passing some smaller villages, we got higher by every meter.
The air got dryer and thinner, the streets suddenly lost their tarmac and changed into corrugated tracks
until they even lost their names (some of them really named "Camino Sin Nombres")
"Nice", we thought... away from all this tarmac and finally a bit more offroad. We didn't know at this time, that we had to regret this decision. Fortunately we filled up our gas, as we didn't see any gas station on our way.
Then, in a small village we met Anne. Anne was a backpacker, standing in the middle of the street, waving her hands and was trying to stop us.
So we did.
She told us, that she's already waiting for several hours, but either nobody came around or just didn't
want to pick her up. We offered her a shady place in our cabin and to bring her to Antofagasta De La Sierra, a slightly bigger village in the middle of nowhere. Because of the bad, very bad streets, we weren't able to make enough progress and when the sun wanted to go down, we decided to search for a nice place for the night.
Unfortunately Anne didn't come with a tent, so we set her down in a small locality, where some locals offered kinda B&B.
We were already at 3800m and I was a bit scared to spend the night at this height, but fortunately we had just a little headache the next morning... good stuff!
We picked Anne up again and on our way she told us her story, how and where she's traveling, totally alone through Bolivia, Argentina and Chile... how amazing is that?
After a few hours, we arrived in Antofagasta, which should have been the last bigger village for the next couple of days. We dropped Anne off and filled up our gas again, until we headed further north.
The streets didn't change to the better and with every driven kilometer, we yearningly hoped, that the tarmac will come back again, but it didn't. No... the corrugation increased and our car made noises, we never heard before, apart from the fact, that every jump hurted in our spine.
Moreover it got windier and windier. Every truck which passed us, has been a pain, as we couldn't see the street anymore. The sandclouds, which the trucks pulled behind, have been hundreds of meters long... no joke!
We always had to stop the car, otherwise we would have lost the way and probably would have crashed into one of those sandy and stony walls at both sids of these tracks.
We still hadn't any problems with the height so we've been going higher and higher, passing salt-flats, dozens of smaller and bigger volcanoes and mountainous landscapes, which reminded us of the surface of a different planet. Everything has been so beautiful and colorful and we saw more and more Vicuñas... but no Lamas at all... what a pity.
After driving through the "Desierto Del Diablo", which is one of the dryest places on earth and where in "winter" the temperatures can go down to -50°C, we arrived in a small village, called Tolar Grande.
"Tolar Grande - Worlds End?"
The village has been small, but seemed to be in build-up. The market place looked brand new, even the touristic bureau looked like it has been built just a few weeks ago.
Here we wanted to fill up the water, the gas and the fridge. But there wasn't a gas station, nor any kind of recognizable supermarket.
At least, we found a touristic bureau where it should have a free WiFi access point... juhuuuu 🙂
(no tourists anywhere, though)
The bureau itself has been temporarily closed and the WiFi was very bad. We guess it has been so bad, due to the fact, that every local came to the bureau to get connected.
OK... we definitely needed gas, water and food, so we knocked on several doors and asked the locals for a gas station. This task hasn't been that easy, as nobody of them spoke only one word english. With hands, feet and in three different languages we tried to make them understand, what we needed.
One lady told us, that Tolar Grande hasn't any gas station, but she will make a call to another lady, who might have some gas in her garage. In the meanwhile we've found something like a small store, where we wanted to buy some water. But the lady there didn't wanted to sell us 6 liters of water. She said, she needed to ask her husband first. So she did and after a while, we got 3 bottles a 1.5 liters. We also bought some food... well... something which looked like food, but tasted horribly old.
We finally also got some gas, filled up our tank and headed west, as we found a border control online, still 200 km away from Tolar Grande.
Driving these bad streets hav been so stressing, that we just wanted to get away from all this storms, windhoses, sand and dust. So we decided to drive directly to the next border to finally get over to Chile now.
"Cable Fire At 4329m And A Shortcut, Which Actually Wasn't One"
After driving for further 70km through a huge salt pan, called "Salar de Arizaro", we got up to a height of about 4329m and entered the "Camino A Socompa" when I wanted to let my drone fly.
When the drone was in the air - approx. 300m away and at a height of 110m - Sonja suddenly yelled from behind.
White smoke came out of the right back of the cars cabin.
As it has been quite windy and I needed to take care of the drone, I didn't realize in the very first moment, what really happened. I pressed the "home"-button on the remote control for letting the drone coming back to the starting position.
I've opened the cabins door and realized, that the cabin was totally full of white smoke. WTF?
Thanks to Mum and Dad for their "survival-genes", I kept calm and cool-headed and asked Sonja for getting the fire extinguisher.
I tried to extinguish the fire and drained the extinguisher totally, but the fire didn't stop. It sizzled and crackled all the way and the heavy smoke didn't go away.
Then I closed the doors and windows to avoid more oxygen getting inside the cabin and waited for a couple of minutes.
In the meanwhile I took my Walkie-Talkies and tried to get help, but of course, nobody answered as we've been totally alone in this area (apart from the fact, that Argentina probably is using differend frequencies, which I later on realized 😉 )
I again opened the doors slightly and smoke still came out of the cabin, so I instantly decided to rescue water, food, all the beddings, as well as our clothings. With 3 liters of our drinking water (out of 6), I again tried to eleminate an upcoming fire.
I disconnected the gas bottles, detached the front battery from the back, pulled all fuses and took all the bigger electronic equipment, which we placed a few meters away from the car.
In this case I needed to jump in and out the car several times, forth and back, as I havn't been able to keep the breath for long enough, due to less oxygen, but lots of dry air.
Again we closed the doors and thought about a master plan for the next couple of hours or days, as we didn't know, if the cars electronics has been involved in some kind of damage.
So we have had two choices:
Either waiting for some human being or trying to fix the car, if possible. My fear grew every second, as the next village has been 150km away and the border to Chile lied 50 km ahead.
We decided to try to fix the car and to totally disconnect the cabin from the main battery. We thought it might be better to reach the border to Chile the next day and just stay for a further one night in the car, until we'd get to some kind of workshop.
"The Border To Chile - Only For Pedestrians"
The next morning we drove further west, heading to Chiles border. What we didn't know at this point was, that this border is only for pedestrians, as the officer later on told us.
The border control hadn't a telephone line, but a very, very weak internet connection and we desperately tried to install WhatsApp on our smparthones for getting in touch with our rental car company in Santiago. With no success, as WhatsApp wanted to send us an SMS for the activation, which - of course - wasn't possible. (I still know, why I hate WhatsApp)
So, we asked the officer, where the next border control is and he mentioned, that we needed to drive 450km back to the " Sico Paso International". WTF#2?
Again, back through the salt pans, the "Desierto De Diablo" and Tolar Grande, with less chances for getting food, water and gas?
You know, how it feels, when your balls are shrinking down to the size of peanuts?
But what else could we have done? Nothing!
So we drove all the way back in hope, that we could at least get some water and gas in Tolar Grande.
The good thing has been, that on our way back the surroundings looked so different than on our forward run, that we had the feeling, we never have been there before.
Even if the long way has been much too stressing for us, because we just couldn't stand the roads in Argentina anymore, we've been so glad, that we (and the car) survived this questionable adventure in the end.
All's well that ends well?
"Well then... Good Bye, Argentina - Our Conclusion"
After we swollowed all the things, which happened so far, we drove back to Tolar Grande, gathered some food, water and gasoline and headed to the next Chilean border.
So, what we're thinking about Argentina?
Argentina is the first country in south america, we visited so far and its west part has been amazing, beautiful, calm, wild, windy, sandy and rough.
Once we left the zivilisation, Argentina showed its pure beauty. Nearly no tourists, less traffic and millions of things to see around the Andes area.
Even if it has been a very hard time for us and even if we couldn't find an argentine Steak anywhere, we just love Argentina - it needs to be on everyones bucket list.
If you guys ever plan to come to this part of Argentina, be prepared and try to follow the tips below.
"Tipps For Staying Safe And Comfortable In Argentinas West"
- Rent a proper car. The roads into the Andes are very demanding.
- Check the spare tires, brakes and fluids before hitting the roads.
- Pay attention to the car and always do a "quick turn around" from time to time.
- When reaching areas above 2500m, drink a lot and make enough rests.
- If you're feeling sick, do not climb more than 500m a day.
- Do NOT take medicine, when you're getting hypoxia. Headaches are an alert you need to pay attention too.
- Use EVERY chance to fill up your gas.
- Get an additional petrol canister and have it always filled.
- Use every chance to buy enough food and water.
- Plan your way and avoid driving directly through the salt pans.
- Have good clothes. Weather can change rapidly and be prepared of heavy winds.
- Always have some money with you. Credit cards aren't always accepted anyhwere .
- A satellite telephone is always a good choice. There's less mobile and internet connectivity.
- As a photographer have a wideangle lens with you. You'll need it 😉
- Flying with a drone is no problem at all (apart from the wind)