Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Fortunate and Unfortunate

It's hard to believe we left Ushuaia 18 days ago! What?! Time really does seem to fly as we travel. Sometimes reality seems to hit us hard when it feels like we were at the bottom of the world over a month ago. Oh well, onto new and exiting things! Since we have achieved the ultimate goal of our trip, now we got to check other things off the adventure-must-do list. As we travelled south we started compiling a list of things we wanted to do on the return trip. So far we have been able to achieve every one of them! 

Snowy roads as we were leaving Ushuaia, Argentina.
The day we left Ushuaia, on the first of September, we drove for a long time. We got all the way through the ferry ride, to Torres del Paine. Our main reasoning for going back to the famous Chilean national park was because the first time we had visited, we weren't able to see the peaks due to thick fog. Since most of the park was closed for the off season, we didn't enter the park to avoid paying another $50 for tickets. We camped on the shore of a lake that was near enough for us to see a spectacular view of the mountain. Fortunately, in the morning we had the clearest day imaginable to see the mountain. Check that off the list! We took tons of pictures of the mountain reflected on the lake, and many of the Jeep with the mountains as the background. We were able to drive to a look out point to get pictures of us as well. The view was better than we could have hoped for!

Torres del Paine
Mat & Emily and Torres del Paine
Seth and Torres del Paine
From there we decided to try our luck at seeing a glacier without having to actually go into Glacier National Park (it cost $65 just to enter the park!). Seth found a road on our GPS that looked promising, but alas, it led onto private property. Let me tell you, we got some funny looks from the farmers nearby as we turned around to go back. We were only able to look at the glaciers from afar and wish it wouldn't have cost so much to see them up close. That night we stayed at a campground we think was technically closed for the season. But, nothing told us not to enter and there were no signs stating we had to pay to stay! It was a very cold night, but well worth the view of the moon setting over the mountains.

Moon setting
Here is where some unfortunate things started happening. Since it was so cold out, and we were low on fuel in our propane tank (we didn't know we were low at the time) we had a very hard time cooking. Sometimes the stove would fire right up, but then sputter out a few minutes later. Sometimes the flames would be very weak, and sometimes we could only run one burner at a time. This morning we weren't able to cook breakfast :( So, we went on our way to El Chalten.

We arrived in Chalten with the intent to pick a hiking trail to do the next day, buy snacks for the hike, and buy a few dinner necessities. That morning Seth had the idea to keep the propane tank inside the Jeep all day so it didn't get cold and maybe it would run better! Then he made a nice little jacket for it to stay a bit warm while we used it outside to cook. It worked! We made double portions of dinner so we could have food for the 16km hike in the morning. However, we woke up late the next morning. Instead of hiking to Lago Torres, we decided on an 8km hike to Lago Capri, which would leave us ample amounts of time to keep driving north after we were done.
Seths' jacket for the propane tank

Mount Fitz Roy from the entrance to El Chalten

 The beginning of the trail was very steep and very windy up in the mountains, but we made it to the lake! The lake was still half iced over, with Mount Fitz Roy behind it. It was beautiful. And then Mat and Seth got the idea to hike further to Tres Lagos. Therefore turning our 8km hike, into what we thought would be 18km. It turned out to be 20km (equivalent to 12 miles total). I don't know why I agreed to it. The first 3 extra kilometers were pretty flat, but the last kilometer was a killer. We ascended 750 meters over the course of 1km. Even at the beginning of the trail there was a huge sign warning people only to continue if they were in good physical condition with no heath problems. It claimed it was supposed to take an hour to get to the top. I consider it an achievement that Mat and I made it in an hour and 15 minutes! The ascent was steeper than 45 degrees at some parts, and the last half of it was through snow.  It was probably one of the worst ideas we have had yet, but worth it nonetheless. We started the hike around noon, and got off the mountain at 7:45pm-- needless to say, we didn't drive any further when we were done. While Seth was used to ruck marches in the army, Mat and I were exponentially more exhausted. I've never had hotdogs as delicious as the ones we cooked that night. 

Waterfall in El Chalten
Mount Fitz Roy from Lago Capri
Mount Fitz Roy from Tres Lagos
Seth at Tres Lagos
The next morning we packed up camp and made it to San Carlos de Briloche. It is a super nice tourist town that basically thrives off of hotels, restaurants, and selling mountain gear. We spent that night on the shore of a beautiful lake with huge multi-million dollar homes on the opposite side. We joked that while those homes were so expensive, our stay was free :) However, again, our propane tank was acting up again. On an average night, we usually cook meat in one pan and pasta in the other, but this night we were only able to cook our meat. Its a good thing we hadn't yet eaten the pasta we had made for our hike up Fitz Roy, and we used those noodles instead. That night we realized we really needed to fix our propane tank, because none of our problem solving was helping. 

The next morning we stopped by a coffee shop for wifi so Seth could learn everything he could to diagnose our propane problems. First we realized that, although it wasn't a big deal, we had been connecting the hose from the tank to our stove incorrectly. It needed to be in order of connected to the tank first, stove second, and tank turned on third. Also, the few times we had taken the tank off its mount outside the Jeep, it had tipped over, and liquid fuel had gotten into parts it shouldn't have, therefore causing liquid fuel to come out of the tank instead of gas. Lastly, we just simply needed the tank filled. The last time we had it filled was in Columbia, so even though we thought we still had enough fuel left, we apparently didn't. This was all an easy fix after finding this out. We stopped by a local station to have it filled, and went out to a restaurant until the shop was finished with it. It was finally nice to have a tank working, and not have to worry about if we were going to be able to finish cooking before it went on the fritz.

From there we spent a few days driving from Puerto Varas, through Osorno, and Los Angeles, Chile. This is when we started noticing our brakes making strange grinding noises. While leaving a gas station in Los Angeles, Seth took a look at the brakes and realized we needed them replaced ASAP. We looked around Los Angeles for a Jeep dealership for parts, but it was closed due to the weekend. Later that night we rotated the tires on the Jeep and Seth took a closer look at the brakes at a Copec gas station. Turns out the performance brake pads that were supposed to last the trip all needed replaced, and the drivers rear brake rotor needed to be either machined (to fix it), or replaced. This is because the pads were so bad, they had left deep scratches in the rotor that would have destroyed new pads if we didn't get it fixed. Ultimately, we decided to keep pushing north, and timed our arrival into Santiago so we got there early Monday. 

Drivers side rear brake pad
After driving to a Jeep repair shop and talking with a manager, we found out we would have to wait until the next day to get all the brake pads. We were taking a gamble on this though, because we were still not sure if the brake rotor would need replaced or if it could be machined. If it couldn't be machined, then we would have to wait another day for the part to come in. That night we returned to the Fox Hostel where we had stayed before. 
We also returned to The Pizza Factory we had visited last time, and went to the bar above it called The Red. We walked in the bar and found it to be super fancy, but in a really cool and unique way. There were real candles dripping wax on the tables, funky house music playing, and a dark speak-easy feel to it. There was no such thing as a drink menu here. For instance, when I asked for a mojito that was a bit fruity, the waiter made some suggestions for flavors and liquors that would work well together. It was delicious! No wonder this place was voted the #1 bar in Chile two years in a row! We got back to our hostel hoping for good news about the Jeep in the morning.

Our drinks at The Red
We were in luck. While Mat was getting the rotor situation figured out, Seth taught me how to replace brake pads. Turns out, it is really easy! I just either need someone to loosen the lug nuts on the tires for me, or invest in a four foot long pipe to help me out. We were able to replace all of the brake pads and install the machined rotor by noon! One day of work and $200 later, we were back in business! 

Emily wrenching on the Jeep brakes

Llama statue we found on the side of the road

In the next few days we stayed at Hostel Emilia again, just to get more Kangreburgers. We had purposely not eaten at all that day in order to gorge ourselves in the most delicious burger in the history of man kind. We crossed into Peru on the 17th and drove all the way to the city of Puno on lake Titicaca. We consider it a life achievement to say we have been to Lake Titicaca. And yes, we might have the humor of a 7th grade boy. Unfortunately, Mat had an adverse reaction and did not acclimate very well at all. What should have taken us three or four days to ascend in elevation, we did in one day from sea level to 14,000 feet. Yikes. The hostel we stayed at let us borrow oxygen for him, and within hours he was back to his normal self. 
The Kangreburger. 

We arrived in Cusco Peru today (the 18th) and we are leaving for Aguas Calientes tomorrow. We will spend one night there, and then the next morning trek up to Machu Picchu! The last few weeks have been full of trials, but all of it is worth it in order to see South America. Next things to check off our list of things to see is the Nazca Lines, and the lost Inca fortress, Ollantaytambo.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

We Love Patagonia.. And Not Just Their Clothing

We made it! We have reached the southern-most drivable part of South America— Ushuaia, Argentina! It has been a long time coming, but very well worth all of the effort we put into our adventure. On June 1st we left home, on June 17th we were at the Arctic Ocean at the top of Alaska, and yesterday, on August 30th, we arrived at the bottom of South America. On August 23rd we headed east out of Osorno, Chile, and entered Patagonia, Argentina. From there we have been heading south and visiting national parks on our way to our destination. 

The first night we spent outside of Osorno (before we crossed into Argentina) we found ourselves up in the mountains with snow three feet deep alongside the roads. At first I was nervous we were going to be in for snow the rest of the trip, but we drove further down the mountain it had all disappeared. Although I love the snow, I not a huge fan of camping in it! That afternoon we decided to check a camp on Lake Pueyrredon Mat had found of iOverlander. When we arrived we were driving through some thick fog (not uncommon here). Because of the fog, there was a very eerie feeling to the place, and a strange beauty of it all. After checking out a few spots and deciding against them, we ended up finding a 4x4 trail around 7pm. The sign at the trail head stated it was 7km long and went to Lake Parisio. We drove about 1km down the trail before deciding to call it a night. Since the trail was only one car wide and lined with trees, tall grass, and lots of bamboo, we had to cut a clearing alongside the trail to park.

The Jeep on our way to the 4x4 trail.

Camp on the 4x4 trail.

In the morning Seth went to scout the rest of the trail while Mat and I made breakfast. Seth returned with news that the trail ended at a gate, but there was a river crossing to continue driving the trail on the other side. Of course, any time Seth and Mat get a chance to do a river crossing, we must. So, on the trail we went and crossed the river. However, the trail was no longer drivable only a few hundred kilometers further. Instead, we had more than enough time to kill for the day and decided to hike it! After another brief scouting trip, Seth and Mat said we simply had to do it. There was a sign stating 3.7km to Lake Parisio, but the hike seemed longer. Our surroundings and views were stunning. We felt like we were in the Forbidden Forest from Harry Potter and Rivendell from Lord of the Rings all at once. After hiking up hill for about two hours, we made a steep descent down to the lake. The lake was beautiful. The fog was thick, the water was completely still, and the trees were dripping from melting snow. Our surroundings were so quiet and so still that it seemed almost surreal. There were no animals or birds making sounds in the forest, and the wind died down as well. Although we had warmed up during the hike, we quickly grew cold while taking in the view, and turned back towards camp. 

The river crossing.

A dried up waterfall on the hike to Lago Parisio.

Seth hiking on the trail to Lago Parisio.

Forrest on our way to Lago Parisio.

Lago Parisio

In the morning we made our way back to the main roads and crossed over into Argentina. The crossing was easy because Chile does’t care what you take out of the country, and Argentina does not have a list of items we are not allowed to bring in. This means that we simply get stamped in, and then on our way after a brief stop at the aduana! Plus, there were no entry fees! We had been told it would cost us roughly $150 per person to enter Argentina, but we had no fees! We spent the night camping under a tall bridge and Mat was able to make a fire for the first time since we were in Colorado. 

Mountains views during our drive.

On the 26th we drove further south along Route 40 and got to take in a lot of the Patagonian beauty. Although a lot of the land looks like tundra, there are many mountains and lakes to see along the way. On the first day of driving in Patagonia, we wondered what sort of animals lived there since the land seemed so desolate. It turns out there is all sorts of wildlife-- just not what we where expecting! Imagine lots of sheep, horses, and cattle-- not too interesting, right? Now add in emu, llamas, and flamingoes. It just became a lot more interesting! After driving for several hundred miles, we found an awesome campsite at Arco de Piedras.  Although it took us roughly 80km off course through teeth rattling bumpy roads, we had one of the quietest nights ever. No one was around for miles, and the nearest town was at least 10km away. We camped up on a hill overlooking the lake, which had a huge rock formation in the shape of an arch. Further beyond the lake were beautiful snow capped mountains. You could say we were spoiled with amazing views at this camp. Later that night, like every night in Patagonia, the wind picked up around 9pm. However, we were parked with the wind hitting the passenger side of the vehicle, causing strain on the sides of the roof top tent. We needed to reposition so the wind was coming straight at us. 

Now imagine this scenario. It is 10:30 pm and we are all tucked in for sleep, but the wind is coming at us and we need to move the Jeep. I was laying inside the Jeep on the sleeping platform, while Seth and Mat were in the RTT. Seth jumps down in his army thermo long underwear, volunteering to reposition the vehicle quickly. Then, after piling the bags from the drivers seat on top of me, he starts to reposition. And then gets lost. He's all turned around and doesn’t know which way we were facing, or which way we need to go. Literally driving in circles. And then after a few circles asks 'Where the hell am I going?!' And we lose it. We all start laughing at the hilarity of what we must look like with Mat in the roof top tent, me laying inside the vehicle with three bags stacked on top of me from the drivers seat, Seth driving in circles, and not having any clue of what direction we are pointed. It was a full on, wheezing, coughing, ohmygod I can not breathe, dad-style laugh (anyone who has seen Knute Aasen laugh so hard looses his shit and you think is going to die, imagine that). It was probably a mix of tiredness and being food-drunk from the insane amounts of pasta we consumed a few hours earlier. 


Arco de Piedras

In the morning we packed up camp and took some amazing pictures of the Jeep... and drove through a few mud holes :) Again, we drove a few hundred miles to Chalten, Argentina. It is a small community which thrives off tourism from the amazing mountain views. We spent the night at the trail head parking in a dirt lot on the outskirts of town. Although we are not equipped to hike long trails such as these, we still plan on going back to check out the town more.

Mat filling our water purifier from the lake at Arco de Piedras. The water is so clear!

Jeep at Arco de Piedras.

Mud holes. 

Mountain views during our drive.

Mountain horns of El Chalten

In the morning we made our way to El Calafate for lunch and to get gasoline before crossing back into Chile. The route we are taking to Ushuaia crosses between Chile and Argentina numerous times. This is the night we made it to Torres del Paine! We found a camp and spent the night alongside a lake that was supposed to have amazing views in the morning of the famous mountain horns. When we got there, the camp was supposed to have showers and bathrooms available from a private owner on the National Park, but all of the buildings were locked up. We went to a nearby ranger station to inquire about this, and found out not only was this section of the park was closed, but we had completely missed the ranger station to pay our entrance fees! They let us stay at the spot, but without the accommodations. We went to bed planning on exploring the park in the morning.

Sunset on our way to Torres del Paine

The stars in the southern hemisphere. Can you see the southern cross?

Too bad it was raining when we got up! We went out in search of the nearest place to pay our entrance fees (we found out took a back road into the park.. oops). Since we paid, but could not see the mountains, we the opted to see a few waterfalls instead. We saw Waterfall de Rio Paine and El Salto Waterfall. They were both glacial waterfalls with water that was the bluest we have ever seen! The falls were huge and water was roaring over the cliff into the river below. At noon we made our way out of the park with intent to return on our way back up north in a few days (we gotta see those mountains!). We drove to Puerto Notales and stopped for groceries, gasoline, and lunch. We got back on the road and made it to the ferry that would take us to Tierra del Fuego in the morning. We parked in a lot that had bathrooms and showers available for public use. 

Waterfall de Rio Paine

El Salto Waterfall

El Salto Waterfall into Lago el Salto

August 30th we woke up and took the first ferry of the day at 9am. The ferry ride was only short--20 minutes long. There were three cars, and five semi trucks on board. It only cost us $ 25 for all three of us to get to the other side. Once across, we were on our way to Ushuaia! We stopped quickly to exit Chile and enter Argentina, and a few short hours later we found ourselves up in the mountains surrounding the famous city nicknamed 'The End of the World'. We poked around town for a little bit and stopped at the tourist center for some free wifi before checking out some hotels and hostels. We decided on a hostel which only $45 for the three of us. 

Ferry to Tierra del Fuego

Sign on the road after exiting the ferry.

Filling the gas tank in the wind!

Mountain views on our way into Ushuaia.

Patagonia has been one of our favorite places to visit so far in our trip. Although it is very windy and the temperature does not get over 45 degrees, the mountain views are the best we have ever seen. The views alone makes all of our daily effort worth it to get here. Knowing we took the ‘Ruta de Fin del Mundo' (Route of the End of the World) to the southern-most drivable place after being at the top of Alaska only 75 days ago, is one of the best feelings of accomplishment. 

Entry into Ushuaia.

Ushuaia-- End of the world!

Sunday, August 21, 2016

South America in a Nut Shell

I'm finally writing another post! I know, I know, I should do it more often. One sucky thing about the trip is that we only get decent wifi about once every four days... hence, the lack of posts. Anyway, we officially arrived in Columbia, South America on July 31st. Since we had to ship our vehicle from Panama to Columbia, we spent our first four days in South America just figuring out how to get our vehicle back (I'll do a separate post about that headache later). Since then we have been making south bound progress daily and we have made it to Santiago, Chile in 22 days! Each country is different than the next, but nonetheless, each has been a wonderful experience. So now I will do my best to put our South American experience into one post!

When we flew into Medellin, Columbia, we only spent one night in a hostel before taking an overnight bus to Cartagena. From what we were able to see, Medellin was a super nice city. It was located in a valley between mountains, so driving down into the city offers excellent views of the whole place. After arriving in Cartagena at 7:00am, we had to take a taxi directly to the company, Enlace Caribe, who helped us take our vehicle off the ship. This company was a life saver, and without them, we probably wouldn't have been able to do the work ourselves. Like I said earlier, this whole process took four days, but required very little of our help. The only thing we had to do was show up everyday, and depending on what was going on with the unloading of the ship, Seth got to run around the city with one of the workers signing documents to get our Jeep back. In the mean time we got to walk around Old Town Cartagena. 

Now, Old Town Cartagena was cool. It was a whole walled in city right up along the coast that used to defend the city within the walls. Within the walls there are tons of vendors (who aren't as annoying as the ones outside old town), shops, and restaurants. The old town was just a five minute walk from our Hotel (Casa Mary B&B) and we ended up visiting it three times to check out restaurants. The city seemed safe, with all sorts of people out late at night. As usual, we just didn't put ourselves in bad situations. 

On the fourth day at noon we got the Jeep back, and started our journey south. We decided to take the mountain road, but it was slow moving. The road was Columbia's version of an interstate winding through the mountains, except there was only one lane going each direction and lots of semi trucks along the route (when building the road they didn't think to have two lanes going uphill). This led to many trucks getting stacked up behind each other going up the hills, and cars passing them on the winding roads. We were surprised we didn't see any serious accidents on the roads. We decided maybe this is because all the drivers have to be constantly alert as to what is going on around them. Also, in Columbia they have a large portion of their motorists who drive motorcycles. In a country that already has very loose driving laws, we could count on the motorcycles not to follow any rules at all. They would lane weave, speed, pass, and carry four people on one cycle whenever they pleased. Columbia wasn't a great country to drive through, but the mountains offered breathtaking views from above the clouds.

From Columbia we crossed the border into Ecuador. This was a relatively painless crossing, because both sides of the borders had organized buildings to pass from immigration to the aduana easily. Nobody bothered us at any time, and only gave us genuine help. When we got into Ecuador there were immediate changes in the infrastructure of the country. The roads were better kept, there wasn't as much trash on the sides of the roads and throughout cities, drivers followed the traffic laws, and there were signs nearby construction sites that said how they were improving Ecuador. The people were very friendly, and three times we had strangers tell us 'Welcome to Ecuador!' while driving down the road. It was easy to purchase things and understand the value of items, because they use the U.S. Dollar. Although they use the USD, things are still cheaper there than in the states. We took the mountain road again and saw some of the most beautiful sights, as well as many many many volcanoes! Our GPS app listed the names and heights of all of the ones over 1,000 meters tall. Although we only spent two days in Ecuador, we all decided we liked the country and would love to spend more time there.

On August 11th (the day after our anniversary!) we crossed into Peru. The crossing was a bit more confusing, because at immigration we had to to up to the only window with a worker (who was trying to enter/exit everyone) and ask for the necessary paperwork to fill out while in line, then get to the window to get our passport stamped. Once we got out of Ecuador, we had to do the same thing on the Peru side. The lines were very slow moving and it was only made worse by having the worker interrupted by others every time they needed paperwork to enter the country. Luckily, a very nice official came up and started doing our vehicle entry paperwork for us before we were finished with immigration. For some reason he let Seth skip to the head of the line! We surely weren't going to complain or ask questions... Once finished with immigration, I sat outside while Seth and Mat finished with the aduana. While I was sitting, there was a wonderful family waiting for the aduana to get into Peru as well. Although I don't speak spanish very well, and their grandmother didn't speak english, we somehow had a conversation about where we were from and where we were going-- she even asked me if I had breakfast that day and offered me food! When Seth and Mat came out of the office, she was excited to meet them and gave a round of hugs before heading out. 

Once in Peru we decided to take the coastal road instead of the the mountain road. This may or may not have been a mistake. Although the roads were pretty straight, meaning we could drive faster, it was also a complete desert. The smaller cities looked like time had claimed them long ago, and only the large cities looked anything close to functioning. Plus, there are loads of rubble and garbage on the sides of the road, and whole cities of buildings abandoned in the middle of construction. It is odd to drive through knowing at one time there were people here, and now its completely abandoned. Peru was different in the fact that it was apparent there was a lot of political issues going on. There were many advertisements for people running for president or congress painted on buildings everywhere. Yes, you read correctly, painted. No billboards, no posters, no yard signs, the campaign runner name and slogan was hand painted onto the sides of buildings. Now, don't get me wrong, they were very well done and included a whole design for the nominee's 'branding', but the plans were executed very differently from what we are used to in the U.S. 

While in Peru we stopped for two nights at Frogs Hostel in Huanchaco. Huanchaco is located on the coast right next to Trujillo, a large city. At first we only planned on staying one night, but after going out to dinner with a whole bunch of Americans and Germans, we got talked into going salsa dancing. It was a 15 minute walk to get to the bar, called Jan Pix, and there was a one hour salsa lesson starting at 11:00pm. I will admit, I am horrible at it... along with half of the hostel who had come along to the bar! The next day we woke up and immediately knew we needed to stay another night. Mainly because our hangovers didn't allow us to wake up until 11:00am, and partly because we had finally stumbled across an awesome bunch of people at our hostel. 

Later that day, Mat and I decided to go try surfing lessons with a German couple we had gotten to know. The owner of the business, Tito, picked us up at noon and took us over to Onechako, Escuela de Surf. After somehow getting a wetsuit on (those things are so tricky!) and a half hour indoor lesson, we found ourselves with surfboards in our hands, walking down to the beach. Now let me tell you, the hardest thing of all, was paddling out. My arms were dying immediately. After getting acquainted with where we were supposed to position our feet on the board when we attempted to stand up, it was go time. Adriana (our German friend) and I were the first to paddle out, with Mat and Martin following a few minutes later. Tito and his assistant got us into place and once the right wave started coming, they pushed us off and started telling us to paddle with the wave. Once they yelled "up!" we had to do the four-step maneuver to stand up on the board. Surprise, surprise, the first time was a complete failure. Getting my left leg up in front was the single hardest part of it all. The silver lining was when I got up on my third try! And I didn't just get up, I rode it out too! Then I didn't know when to stop! The shore was coming closer! So, I just kind of flopped into the water after awhile just incase I was about to go too far. Out of the roughly 10 tries I had, I got up twice! Not bad!
Onechako Escuela de Surf

The next days after Frogs Hostel were a whirl-wind of finding places to camp for the night on our way to Chile. 
Frogs 'Chill House' Hostel VW bus

Exiting Peru, and entering Chile was the easiest border crossing we have ever had. There was just a simple form the fill out to have the vehicle leave the country, a few stamps on the paper and in our passports, and bam! we were out! However, entering Chile is a bit more labor intensive. We had to park in a line of cars, go get our passport stamped, then fill out a claims form, then have our bags scanned, while Seth was getting the Jeep inspected, and then meeting him on the other side in order to get the Jeep permissions at the aduana. All in all, it took us only a half hour! It was so easy and well run, that we immediately knew Chile was a great country. 

Although Chile only has one road going south throughout the country, it is very well maintained, and some parts are under construction to allow more traffic flow. There have been many signs along the side of the road saying 'Chile Mejor', declaring a better Chile. We have been camping on beaches for the most of Chile, with only stopping at two hostels along the way. At our first hostel, we went out in search of a restaurant late at night since we hadn't eaten yet. Thats when we met the Kangreburger. The best burgers we have ever had. Not simply because we were hungry, but because they were just hands down amazing. Our first impressions told us Kangreburger was just a corner store advertising cheap food, so we went for it. Little did we know we were about to eat like kings. We ordered three burgers that had a burger patty, slice of ham, tomato, lettuce, and cheese, while mat had one that added fries and egg onto it too. Then we ordered two sides of plain fries, and one that had meat, onion, and egg on top. The goodness was too much to bear. Everything was home made down the hand peeled potatoes for fries, mayo dished up from a serving bowl, and patties squished and cooked right in front of us. So many food safety violations, so worth it. 
Chilean Desert

From there we have been camping our way down to Santiago where we found our current hostel. Things are pricier here, and a hostel costs about $75USD instead of the average $45, and there isn't much we can do about our necessity for restaurants, but we have found some winners among this cool city. It is very clean, just like cities in the U.S. and there are super cool complexes for shops and restaurants to group together within a city block. The weather has been similar to fall in Wisconsin (after all, this is Chilean winter time). We have some errands to run here, and then on Monday (8/22) we will be on our way south again into Argentina!
Hand of the Desert, Chile
Hand of the Desert, Chile

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Border Crossings and More Border Crossings

For the first leg of our trip down to the bottom of South America we are trying to get there as fast as possible. From there, our plan is to slow down and take in the sights on our return trip. So far we have travelled six countries in 13 days! We started in Mexico, moved on to Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and now Panama. In the smaller countries we were able to pass through in a day! It has been quite the culture shock in Central America and quite interesting with the language barrier. The phrase "Mi español es muy malo" has become a staple in our conversations with locals. 

The biggest learning curve was when we crossed the Mexico-Guatemalan border. With our only previous experience coming from the borders at Canada and Mexico (which were painless in comparison) this was, to quote Aladdin, a whole new world. But not a very good one... The Mexican side was pretty straight forward. At the border into Guatemala we needed to cancel out Temporary Vehicle Importation Permit (TVIP) and cancel our Tourist Cards. It all happened at one office with a woman who spoke some english and there was very little confusion. Then, we went to the Guatemala side. The immigration office was in a poorly labelled shack with no actual office to walk into, just windows to walk up to. After filling out a little form with our basic info, we got our passport stamped. From there we had to find the Aduana to get a new TVIP and insurance for the vehicle. This was a trick. We found it, then found out we had to find a different establishment to make copies of various documents for their records (vehicle title, registration, passport, license, etc). Then go back to the Aduana to finish the paperwork. Oh but wait! Its lunch time! Meaning that all of the offices close for a full hour. After waiting for them to open again, we were finally able to get everything done and we could be on our way. All of this took four hours from start to finish. 

It doesn't seem to bad... But mind you that this whole time we are being hassled by people walking up the the cars selling things, busy roads, language barriers, and the scammers trying to 'help' us cross, and try to make a buck off us. First of all, the scammers are in no way affiliated with the actual border officials and they even go as far as making fake name tags in plastic holders slung around their necks to try to convince you. But, we noticed they were obviously printed at home, and everyone has a different design on each tag. They spotted our car pulling up to the border and immediately jumped into action. They rushed us into the immigration office and try to tell us the steps of how to do everything. Don't be fooled, they tried to scam us four times. The first time it was for entry into Guatemala, they said we had to pay $5 to just get past the cones they put in the road. We did end up paying that one, but it was a small loss in the grand scheme of things to get things moving. The next was that we had to park in a certain lot for $20 USD while we did our paperwork. This lot was made to look like it was being used and that people actually paid to park there, but it was all broken down cars when we looked closer. And they required our license plate number for some reason? Needless to say, we skipped that, and opted to have to move the vehicle every time a shop owner told us we were in the way of his storefront (like four times). A small price to pay, really.

After stopping at immigration so that we were allowed into the country, Seth had to venture out to try to get the Guatamalan TVIP. No doubt the scammers were hot on his heels the whole way. Although we tried many times to have them back off, they were persistent. Too persistent. At one point while Seth was at a booth working with an official, one guy took him to the side and said he had to pay $300 USD in cash so he could go onto the next step of the 'paperwork'. Good thing Seth also noted that the man had taken him to a place outside of the security cameras, wanted cash, and the guys' story was that Seth had to specifically hand the money off to him (not an official) for more 'paperwork' that didn't exist. Um, no. Nice try. 

Eventually after hours of trying to figure out where to go, who to talk to, and dodging two more scams, we finally were on our way! That border left a bad taste in our mouths, but it was a good learning experience. Since then, all of the border crossings have been much more successful and much less stressful. There haven't been as many scammers at the rest of the crossings we have done, and the sure as hell aren't as persistent as in Guatemala. It was probably for the best that we had that experience right off the bat. Now we are better prepared to handle scammers and notice the tricks they will try to play. 

Some of the border crossings are pretty easy (such as going into Honduras), some are more complex (like going into Panama), and some are just down right hectic (like going into Guatemala). It all depends on how well the crossing has been set up. Some crossings require us to go to five different locations and talk to many different people, while some only require two buildings where we can go from immigration to the aduana all in one stop. All of them are different, so there is no way of knowing what to expect other than our one reference- ioverlander. Ioverlander is an app where people have marked waypoints for hotels, gas stations, food, good places to go and places to avoid, and info about boarders. It like a google maps review page with everything you'd want to stop at nearby. It is seriously amazing, and we aren't quite sure what we would do without it! It has saved our butts on a few occasions. 

The crossings sound impossible, but with a whole bunch of perseverance and energy, it all works out. From here we are shipping our vehicle from Colón, Panama, to Cartagena, Columbia! Stay tuned!

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Driving and Killing Time

Since returning from the Dalton Highway we knew we needed to head in the general direction of south. After running into some hiccups along the way including seth losing his wallet and me and Mat's bank freezing our debit cards every transaction, we found ourselves needing a few 'adulting' days. While figuring all of this out, we realized we would have to take our sweet time getting to Los Angeles, CA to wait for new cards and Seth's new ID to show up at a relatives house. 

On the way down we decided to take the Cassiar Highway as our route south in Canada. This road was honestly kind of disappointing. It was described as being wonderfully scenic with narrow windy roads. The winding hilly roads got annoying after awhile, and the scenery was just like driving the ALCAN. Some people told us it was dangerous because of the turns and road conditions, but after driving the Dalton, it was a cake walk. We can't even take 'Bump' signs seriously now after experiencing how bad they were on the Dalton. It took two days to finish the Cassiar Highway since we were able to drive long distances at a time. After the Cassiar, we decided to drive on a Canadian interstate.

After a couple hundred miles, we decided to take a scenic byway just to get off of the monotonous view of the Canadian interstate. It was a had a really awesome view of mountains and then deep canyons alongside the road. We made camp for the night alongside a river. In the morning we decided to take a 120km long 4x4 trail equivalent to being the scenic byway of the scenic byway we had already been on. The trail started out great! It followed along another river with many waterfalls joining into it with spectacular views of the mountains. About half way through the trail started splitting off into a whole bunch of different routes. Yikes. We were originally trying to find some hot springs we had heard of from a local, but we never did find them. Along the way we found out that there was a huge logging industry here and the road we were taking went right through some the places they stacked the wood. 

Mountains on 4x4 trail in Canada
Waterfall on 4x4 trail in Canada
Waterfall on 4x4 trail in Canada

This is about when things started getting hairy... We had driven about half way through when it was no longer discernible which way we would take. All paths looked equally wrong. One route was a dirt path only wide enough for a skinny vehicle with four foot tall plants growing in a field into the woods, the other route ended at a dam, and another route went up a big hill, only to end abruptly after less than half a mile. So, we gambled and took the dirt path thinking we were probably going to have to turn back. Apparently it was right! We kept looking for kilometer marker signs, and after missing them for about 10km, we finally found one! Although it was written on a styrofoam plate and stapled to a tree, we then knew it was the right path. This happened three more times where the trail would  split and become quite interpretive. In all it took us about 6 hours to drive only 120km. The views and scenery made it worth it. That night we drove into Vancouver and rested at a hotel. :)

Bridge into Vancouver
After crossing the Canadian boarder the next day, we drove into Seattle. Here we stopped for food and went to the Chihuly Garden and Glass. It was my heaven. Unfortunately, I can't post the pictures of his work, but it was amazing. Breathtaking. Inspiring. The way he used bright color and shape to create pieces inspired by the sea or gardens was pure genius. From there we went to the Space Needle only a few hundred yards away. 

Since then we visited Portland, OR and went to a really cool outdoor craft market, the worlds largest bookstore, ate wonderful Italian food, and then outside of the city we hiked a short distance to a waterfall. The next morning we went to Haystack Rock on Canon Beach, WA. The rock formations along the beach were incredible and we had fun searching the tide pools for creatures of the deep. Later  we drove to Medford, OR to meet up with a friend of Seth's. We met up at a cool Irish bar called The Four Daughters, then went back to his house for drinks. After leaving Medford in the morning, we decided to drive through the Redwood Forest. The Avenue of the Giants takes you through some of the most lush green forest with the tallest and widest trees you can imagine. There are many places to stop, look, and hike to these huge trees. We posted some pictures of us standing in or beside the trees on our Facebook page already. 
Haystack Rock (right)
Rock formation at Canon Beach
Star fish in a tide pool.

From there we kept driving on Highway 1 along the California coast. This has beautiful views of the ocean below, and stops through any small towns with cute gift shops and restaurants. On the 29th we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, but as usual, it was too foggy to see more than 50 feet up in the air. We decided to stop for food at the Golden Gate Grill and Tap. This was located on the third floor of the building, with a tap room on the second floor. It had hundreds of different beers, a few games, and delicious food. We decided we would definitely go again. 

After this we went on to Pismo Beach. Pismo is a city where people can drive out onto the beach and camp. It was only $10 to camp for the night with no specific time to be out the next day. Since the holiday weekend was coming up, it was rather busy, and we had to drive miles down the beach to camp. More inland were dunes where many dune buggies, and ATVs could go have fun. 

Once in LA, we found out we had more days to waste before our things would arrive in the mail. Mat got to tour Icon Collective (the school he's going to in January). It was located in a building that used to be a real production studio 15 or more years ago. The previous studio did recordings for artists like Beyonce, Nine Inch Nails, Earth Wind and Fire, and Marvin Gaye. We spent one day walking the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and then bought tickets for the Wax Museum, World Record Museum, and Ripley's Believe it or Not! for only a $30 bundle price per person. Why not? We saw some cool stuff! The next day was spent at Six Flags Magic Mountain. Thank you to Chris for the season passes so Mat and I got in for free! We only had to pay for Seth to get in! We went on a whole bunch of rollercoasters, but our favorite was called Full Throttle. I can't ruin it for you, but it's so fun. Later that night we went to an EDM show at a club called The Exchange. On the 4th we drove to Laguna Niguel to visit family and get our important mail. A big shout out to Uncle Jerry and Auntie Rene for letting us use their address! Thank you! It was pleasant getting to see them for the first time since middle school. It was a nice relaxing meal with good company. 

That night we decided that we needed to go to Colorado to get the title for the Jeep. Earlier in the week we had found out that we would need the title for boarder crossings and shipping the vehicle across the Darien Gap. We made it to Las Vegas and stayed in a gas station parking lot. Never in our lives have we seen so many fireworks going off in all directions for the Fourth of July. From there we crossed into Arizona and Utah to get to Colorado.

Our day spent in Colorado was mainly just to get the title and figure out what we might need for the upcoming cross into Mexico. After running errands and eating, we made our way toward the Alpine Loop outside Lake City, CO. The Alpine Loop is a 4x4 off road trail that warns against any vehicle without a lift kit and 4WD. We drove up Cinnamon Pass at 12,600 ft elevation and then up Engineer Pass at 12,800 ft elevation. It was a 40 mile trail usually only wide enough for one car, and in many places there was a cliff on the other side. We also had to navigate over large rock formations in the trail and drive through small river crossings. It was a fun time and great experience. I drive a short distance at the beginning, climbing a few rocks and crossing a river until it was Mat's turn. Mat drove a long way up steep hills, passing other vehicles on precarious ledges, and navigating around tight switchbacks. Seth took over for the last leg and finished out Engineer Pass. Along the way we saw abandoned mines and ghost towns from when the mining industry failed in those areas. It was Seth's third time doing the Alpine Loop, and our first. 
Alpine Loop trail
Summit of Cinnamon Pass

Summit of Engineer Pass
From there we made a mad dash south to El Paso, TX where we plan on crossing the boarder into Mexico. We decided to get a hotel for the two days prior to do more research and planning for what is to come. Our cell phones will not work outside the U.S., so we will only be able to update our Facebook and this blog when we have wifi. We will get a Trac phone to make short calls, but we will not be able to use it much. We will update when we are in Mexico!