With our South American adventure sadly coming to a close in November, we also reached our first of many milestone dates….. six months on the road! This got us thinking. We keep track of so many facts and figures during our travels that we thought it would be worth sharing some of them for anyone who's interested.
So here it is, a brief compilation of a few fun and interesting trip statistics, facts and figures from our first six months of this indefinite adventure! Enjoy!
Overall Favourite Destinations = Galapagos Islands and Easter Island (Rapa Nui)
(Click the photos below to see our complete Photo Albums from these mind-blowingly awesome destinations!)
We visited the......
Stay tuned to www.wadeandsarah.com for more Stats, Facts and Figures blogs as we continue our travels around the World!
Where possible, we generally tend to avoid traveling on organized tours. It's not that we've had bad experiences or that we are against the idea, but most of the time we just prefer to do our own thing. This way we can stay in a place for as long or short as we like, do the activities we really want to do and choose accommodation that suits our wants and needs. We also find that once we weigh up the cost of organized tours, it often isn't worth the money considering we actually enjoy living by the seat of our pants and making our travel plans as we go.
There are however, times when tours not only make traveling easier, but sometimes there really isn't any option other than to book through a travel agent in order to get to the places you want to see.
Salar de Uyuni, the salt flats in Bolivia, is one such place where we decided that a tour really was our only option. Our goal was to cross the salt flats of Bolivia, into the Atacama Desert where we would cross the border into northern Chile finally reaching the town of San Pedro de Atacama. Without a car and with no clear roads through the salt flats or the desert, (which is considered the driest place on Earth) it was fairly obvious that this was one of those occasions when a tour was without a doubt, our only option.
Photo: This sculpture was created for the Dakar rally. While it has an inner support of bricks, it is coated in a thick layer of salt from the endless supply in Salar de Uyuni
After speaking to other travelers we were told that most companies offer two options for the tour. Being that English is not particularly widely spoken in Bolivia, most tours are run by non-English speaking drivers, however for considerably more money you can find a company offering English-speaking drivers. Feeling a little over confident with our terrible Spanish, we opted for the non-English speaking driver. We had been told that the drivers don’t particularly run a “tour” as much as simply driving from point A to point B and besides we figured it would be a good opportunity to practice our Spanish…… Ha!
Upon jumping into our 4wd we were greeted by another couple who barely spoke a word of English and had absolutely no interest in putting up with our terrible Spanish, therefore killing all possible conversation. At this rate, it was gonna be a long 3 days! There were 2 more seats in the car and suddenly we began to worry that we were in for a pretty silent journey seeing as the last two passengers were also listed on the driver’s paperwork as Spanish speakers.
Next stop and in jumped Alvaro and Monica. We tentatively introduced ourselves trying to suss out whether or not they spoke English. Little did we realize this couple from Switzerland, speak more languages than we’d had hot showers in the past month! (sadly, yes this is a true fact!)
They are both fluent in Spanish, French and English along with some Portuguese and Italian! Basing our feelings purely on this information, we HATED them! Our feelings of inadequacy were only increased by the fact that they are also bloody awesome people and completely made our 3 day trip yet another excellent experience. Yep, total arseholes!
Photo: Meeting Alvaro and Monica made our trip a million times better. In fact we then went on to spend 2 more days with them in San Pedro and recently met up with them again in Thailand!
Upon leaving the town of Uyuni, we headed straight to the Train Cemetery. The Train Cemetery is a bit of a gimmick once you see that its actually just a dumping ground for old trains, cars and other bits and pieces however the rusty old skeletons of trains surrounded by clear blue skies and barren mountains far off in the distance, make for some excellent photo opportunities.
In walk 50 tourists.
For some ridiculous reason, all tours departing the small town of Uyuni, begin at exactly the same time and all make their first stop at the Train Cemetery. This would have been fine, but my dear husband Wade generally just doesn’t like people, so within minutes of getting out of the car he was pouting like a little girl and making loud sighing noises every time someone walked through his photos. I found the whole scenario rather amusing but the more I told him to get over it, the angrier he became. We were still able to snap some cool photos and climb through the old wrecks of the trains though so all in all, still an interesting first stop.
As we tore off in a cloud of dust from the Train Cemetery, we once again unwillingly joined the convoy of 4wd’s cruising across this great open space. We started to worry that the next few days would be just one big convoy, with each car stopping at identical locations on a fixed itinerary. However, the further we drove, the more apparent it became that with such a vast landscape and no signs or roads visible to the untrained eye, a single degree of difference in direction would send two vehicles on completely different paths and within an hour, we had all but lost every other sign of human life.
It's almost dream-like when you finally reach the world renowned Salt Flats. The horizon becomes a hazy blur and everywhere you look is a sheet of white. The glare from the sun reflecting off the pure white expanse beneath us makes it almost impossible to look at without sunglasses. The salt crunches under your feet as you walk and yet it is rock hard to touch.
All sense of perspective is lost and it is only upon scanning 360 degrees that we can see the faint hue of mountains on the horizon East of us. The "road" is merely a set of tyre tracks that our driver sporadically switches between sticking to and creating his own path.
Once the car comes to a halt another of Mother natures incredible works of art becomes apparent. The salty earth is patterned with large hexagons side by side like tiles as far as the eye can see. The edges are defined by a ridge of salt so straight and perfect that one struggles to believe that this is the work of nature rather than a team of labourers with long rulers! It's magnificent, thought provoking and mysterious. It blew my mind and confused the hell out of me all at once. I loved it!
Now look I’m no scientist and most of you probably don’t care why this happens so rather than me regurgitating someone else’s explanation, lets just appreciate this phenomenon for the natural, marvelous occurrence that it is.
Photo: The hexagonal pattern across Salar de Uyuni becomes a white blur when speeding past, but once you stop, you can truly appreciate this natural wonder
Just when we thought our driver had joined the rest of us in a state of complete disorientation, an island began to appear in front of us. No, this was not the first stage of insanity, the closer we drove, the clearer this cactus-covered island became. Isla Incahuasi as it is known is an ancient island of fossilised coral. The cacti that sit upon it like pins in a pin cushion are up to 1000 years old and stand some 9-10 metres tall. I was suddenly grateful for the lack of a chatty English-speaking guide as this adventure was surprising me at every turn. We had no idea this place even existed!
We spent an hour clambering over lose rocks and stone paths, squinting and craning our necks to see the top of some of the worlds tallest cacti. We took the obligatory cactus-penis photos, stood in awe of the view at the top and then made our way back down to the car for some much needed shelter from the unrelenting sun.
Photo: Isla Incahuasi (sometimes also known as Isla del Pescado) is covered in some of the tallest cacti in the world, making for incredible views and also providing the perfect opportunity for a cactus-penis photo!
As the sun began to set, we were once again driving along a non-existent track to an unknown destination. It turned out that this time our driver was in the same boat as us. The tour company doesn’t actually make bookings for our accommodation, as small “Salt Hotels” are scattered throughout the region so it is merely a matter of showing up and asking for a few beds.
Three hotels down and no luck, the six of us began to joke nervously as we all hoped we wouldn’t be sleeping in the same car we had spent most of the day. Finally, our guide came back to the car with a smile, he had scored us three rooms in a real “Salt Hotel” for the night! By the time we checked in, we didn’t even care that the walls were crumbling and revealing that it was in fact just a brick building coated in salt to please the tourists!
Photo: So much for a "Salt Hotel"! Even though the floors, walls and ceiling were coated in salt, the chunks crumbling off our wall revealed that it was simply a coating and not entirely built from salt bricks as some places in Salar de Uyuni are
Morning broke on our second day and it was damn cold! As we took our places in the car, we noticed that the scenery had changed significantly. No longer were we surrounded by the blinding white of the Salt Flats, instead it was now a harsh and dusty scene created from an entirely brown colour palette. There was suddenly an excess of dust and jagged mountains and a serious lack of anything living.
Our driver had promised beautiful lagoons today, but watching the landscape rush by outside the car, I wasn’t convinced this place had ever seen life or water for that matter. I’m not gonna lie, after half an hour of driving through presumably never-ending desert, I closed my eyes and slept solidly for the next two hours. If the scenery did change during this time, I was none the wiser, but judging by the blank stare on Monica’s face when I woke up dribbling on her shoulder, I’m pretty confident I didn’t miss anything. Well, other than our friendship reaching that “dribble on the shoulder” level.
We stopped for a short break with incredible views over a distant volcano before piling back into the car, fearful that being forgotten out here was a guaranteed recipe for death.
Upon finally arriving at the first lagoon, Laguna Hedionda, my only thought was stretching my aching body and getting some fresh air. Fresh air was hit-and-miss, as the Spanish translation for the lagoon is “Stinking Lake”, however as soon as I was standing next to our now very dusty chariot, I was mesmerized by the view before me.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of flamingos danced gracefully amongst their own reflections in the still, glassy water. Across the other side of the lagoon it was impossible to make out the shapes of the flamingos and yet the pink hue glowing across the surface in the distance was proof enough of their presence.
Photo: Flamingos on Laguna Hedionda
I watched them from the edge of the lagoon, fighting to hold myself back from walking beyond the "do not pass" sign. Their beauty and grace astounds me as such a lanky and disproportioned creature can somehow still embody elegance.
After a quick lunch that our driver magically whipped up in the back of our 4wd, we took the opportunity to walk ahead while our driver finished packing the car. As we turned to check whether our driver was coming to collect us, an awesome tunnel of wind formed right before our eyes. This apparently lifeless landscape had more surprises than I ever could have imagined.
Photo: Whirly wind being whipped up from the dust as our driver comes to collect us at Laguna Hedionda
Within minutes we were back in the car, and once again surrounded by barren rust-colored mountains. If you didn't know Laguna Hedionda was there you would've driven straight passed it and been none the wiser.
The scenery was mesmerizing and yet apparently so mesmerizing that after another hour in the car I was once again asleep on Monica's shoulder. If we weren't friends before, we sure were now!
Our final (and slightly gimmicky) break for the day was at a rock formation known as “Arbol de Piedra” or stone tree which has been created by centuries of howling, sandy winds whipping past and grinding the stone into a rough tree shape.
When we pulled up to our accommodation for the night and stepped out of the car, the wind pierced through every layer of our clothes. The 4300m altitude was now apparent through our strained breathing and the freezing air. But man was it worth it! Our destination, Laguna Colorado, was laid out before us like a painting. The red glow of the lagoon had to be seen to be believed and when we reached the viewpoint, we once again sat in awe of the magnificent places this adventure has opened our eyes to.
Photo: Simply stunning, Laguna Colorado. The algae gives the lagoon a red glow which apparently changes from blood red to a bright pink hue depending on the season and water levels
After a wretchedly ice-cold night in a powerless brick building, we were back in the car before sunrise to continue climbing to a peak altitude of 4800m. When the pungent smell of sulphur began to leak in through the air conditioning and pillars of steam could be seen ahead of us and we knew we had arrived at the geysers. Bubbling up from the ground from deep crevasses in the Earth’s crust was boiling hot, toxic steam. Remembering that this is Bolivia, there are no railings, few signs and every chance of the ground caving in at any moment, it’s quite the experience!
Photo: This photo doesn't do it justice but all around our feet were small holes bubbling with boiling hot water coming up from the Earth's core
We could’ve taken a dip in the nearby thermal pool, but something about 30 half naked strangers crowded into a bath-tub sized pool along with the token selfie-stick wielding tourist, said no. Just no. Instead we marveled at the streams running from the hot thermal water into the adjoining lake.
The air at this altitude was so cold than within 15 metres of the piping hot thermal pool, the water had once again cooled down and formed a layer of ice across the lake. Such extreme contrasts in such close proximity was yet another nod to the power of ol’ Mother Nature. It also totally justified the 5 layers of clothing I was wearing unbeknownst to my fellow travellers!
Photo: (Left) Hot tub anyone??
(Right) the water surrounding the thermal pool was freezing within 15 metres of the 40 odd degree thermal pool
Our guided tour ended when our driver waved goodbye to us and our belongings, at a non-descript immigration station on the border of Bolivia and Chile. We could only wait and hope that there was some sort of transport from here to San Pedro de Atacama because this was the most rustic set-up we had seen so far in all of our five previous border crossings!
We did the obligatory immigration checks, added another stamp to our passports and eventually, a bus did appear out of thin air, to take us across the border into Chile.
And just like that, we were back in Chile. The same country where six months earlier this whole crazy journey began and where in 10 days, this incredible South American adventure would come to an end.
Little did we know, that in many ways, we had saved the best for last!
We were sitting at gate 22a in Santiago airport in silence. Wade playing on his phone and me silently flicking through the pages of my Lonely Planet guide pretending to read up on our next destination. Every now and then I'd look up and see yet another confused tourist scratching their head, glancing at their boarding pass then staring at the mixed bunch of people seated in the waiting area. Part of me wanted to help them. Part of me just couldn't be bothered.
You see, for two people that don't often fight, Wade and I had just come out the other side of an epic airport argument and were now in part 2 of said argument - the silent treatment. In our defense we were running on 6 hours sleep, a 2.5 hour flight at 7am, an "oh shit I've lost my bag" moment (false alarm) and had now been sitting in Santiago airport, waiting, for 5 hours. Yeah an argument was gonna happen at some point, in fact i won't rule out that one of us probably started it just out of boredom!
Then on top of all of this, we checked in for our much anticipated flight to Easter Island and were told to go to gate 22. When I tried to ask the girl behind the counter a question, she rolled her eyes called the next person forward and freakishly lost her ability to understand my terrible Spanish or English for that matter.
Now, technically, Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui, is a territory of Chile, thus making the flight domestic. However, on the other hand, Easter Island is 6 hours west of Chile, isolated in the Pacific Ocean, halfway to Australia, and geographically a part of Polynesia. Oh yeah and it's also the most isolated inhabited island on Earth. So in many ways, it wouldn't have been all that surprising if the flight departed from the international terminal either.
So what's even more confusing then is that gate 22 - the gate on our boarding passes - is in the international half of the airport and don't ask me why, but the next gate - 22a - is separated by 3 security checks and a series of locked glass doors as is it in the domestic half. I mean, really Chile? Since when do airports add a cheeky "a" or "b" their gates?!
So for a "technically" domestic flight, we were being directed to boarding gate 22, in the international terminal.... Confused? Now you know how we felt!
It was around this time when all hell broke lose and we began arguing. It started with the argument over whether the flight was international or domestic but somehow ended with me losing my shit over Wade spending our last $15 on a sandwich. Come on, don't pretend you haven't been there!
We somehow managed to agree that the flight "should be" domestic and meant going to gate 22a however Wade was still inclined to follow our boarding passes which clearly indicated gate 22.
In the end it was easier to get to gate 22a and required less time going through security screening so we decided to suss that option first. If that failed then we would face the music and go in frantic search of gate 22 at the last minute.
My heart sank when we arrived at gate 22a and the TV screen above the door had our flight number but a destination of Isla de Pascua. Where the hell is Isla de Pascua?? Surely Easter Island aka Rapa Nui doesn't have third name!
I quickly and not-at-all stealthily, snuck around peeping over the shoulders of waiting passengers in an effort to read their boarding passes. By the time I had seen four boarding passes clearly stating the destination as Easter Island, I was quietly confident that we were in the right place. Ten minutes later and a quick Google could've saved an argument when we confirmed that Isla de Pascua is the Spanish name for Easter Island. Of course it is. We finally slumped into empty seats at the boarding gate, exhausted and yet not willing to accept that we were probably even on the argument scorecard with points for and against each of us.
Slowly the lone confused tourist scratching his head, became an angry mob of 30 shouting at an airport staff member through the glass doors separating gate 22 from gate 22a. If Wade and I weren't in the middle of a silent argument, we would've been thoroughly enjoying the whole saga, alas our stubbornness meant we had to sit in silence and snigger, quietly to ourselves.
The angry mob continued to enlist lone confused tourists searching for answers, while those of us who were seated, sat in smug silence pretending we knew exactly what was going on while secretly hoping our once in a lifetime flight wasn't going to leave without us.
Finally, the mob chose their leader and a booming angry voice shouted to no one in particular, "For Gods sake! Which damn gate do we go to for Easter Island??"
With a thousand smart arse comments piling up in my head, I finally burst into a rambling fit of laughter.
"I TOLD you it wasn't just us!"
It's hard to believe that it has only been one week since we left the comfort of Australia and began this crazy journey through South America! Since arriving here last Wednesday, we have already covered over 1500km as we made our way from Santiago, Chile to the wine making region of Mendoza and we now find ourselves in the capital of Argentina, Buenos Aires (you can follow our route on Our Map).
I suppose I should start this blog back in Santiago where we left off.
Santiago has the potential to be a beautiful city. The people are lovely and the way the snow capped Andes frame the city makes for some truly picturesque views. Sadly due to the geography of the city and the fact that it is grossly over populated, the view is almost impossible to see on most days due to severe pollution. We were lucky in that it rained on our first night in Santiago. For anyone who knows our history with rain, you would know that normally I don't consider it to be very "lucky"! However, when it rains in Santiago, the smog is suppressed for a short period of time and the view from the many hills in the city becomes priceless.
We took the funicular - a small train that runs up a 45 degree angle - to the top of Cerro San Cristobal. The view was beautiful as we had made the trip early in the morning after the previous nights rain, but even in the short time we spent there, the smog started to move in as we wandered around the many stairs and walking paths that cover the highest point in Santiago's city.
After an intense two days in Santiago, it was time for us to embark on the first of many long distance bus trips we will be taking and also deal with our first border crossing. This eight hour journey covered some of the most incredible scenery we have ever seen. The road weaves up through the Andes where in only a few short weeks, the road may become impassible due to heavy snow. It just so happened that there has not yet been enough snow to affect the roads, making our journey that perfect compromise between snow covered mountains but dry roads. The fact that the bus was like a business class flight also helped the cause, with a meal and snacks being served throughout the trip on our almost fully reclining leather seats!
The view from our bus window. It was much more beautiful than this photo gives it credit for!
Crossing the border from Argentina to Chile was much quicker than we had read in some online forums so we were super impressed with the efficiency although somewhat confused with their bag handling procedures. Being a customs/immigration point, X-ray bag checks are necessary before continuing the journey. As the bags are unloaded from the bus, men walk around with a small styrofoam cup shaking it for money. Wade and I stood in awe wondering if this was some sort of trick because if we did this at any Australian airport , I'm pretty sure it would be considered bribery! It turns out that every time someone touches your bag, they expect a tip however it did seem mildly convenient that the non-tippers were also the people whose underwear was soon on display while their bags were searched!
After a long journey we arrived in Mendoza, the wine making region of Argentina and one of the top regions in the world for the variety of red wine, "Malbec". We decided there was only one way to mark this occasion so we went out for an all-you-can-eat parrilla (Argentinian BBQ) accompanied by some delicious Malbec. Now I blame the fact that the waiters had us drinking wine out of tumblers rather than wine glasses, but somehow four empty bottles of wine ended up on our table that night..... oh the shame!
Luckily we had Sunday to recover from the previous nights festivities - does eating too much meat give you a wicked headache and the urge to hug the porcelain??
On Monday we did the obligatory wine tour around the region, tasted some incredible locally made olive oils and had a delicious lunch of empanadas (small meat pastries), a local dish similar to shepherds pie and a sickly sweet dessert filled with dulche de leche (a local caramel used in just about every dish).
We spent the day with a Canadian couple who were the only other English speakers on the tour but also happen to have multiple stops on their journey that will also coincide with ours. Gerry, the dude, is actually going to the same FIFA match as us in Rio so we are hoping to meet up again soon.
So after spending a few days wine tasting and strolling the beautiful wide streets and park-like plazas of Mendoza, we caught an overnight bus to Buenos Aires. Tonight we are recovering from the uncomfortable bus-sleep by having a quiet night in our apartment - booked through Airbnb - and enjoying a few beers, a movie and a home cooked meal.
We have heaps of sight seeing and touristy activities to do while here in Buenos Aires over the next week so expect an action packed blog next time you hear from us! Make sure you check out our most recent photos in our Argentina photo album!
Enthusiastic but Useless Traveler.