After Valparaiso we decided we needed three things:
- To start heading to Argentina (Sam’s sister was visiting us in Patagonia for Christmas and we had a LONG way to go).
- Free camp and cook our own food to get us back on budget.
- Get back into nature, we had our city fix for a while.
Chile is great for wild camping, we never have problems finding free places to camp. As we headed along the coast we would see a long beach that looked appealing, air down the tires and drive onto the sand until we found a spot we liked and camp for the night. No one ever seemed to care, and fisherman would always give us a friendly wave if they happened to pass by.
Camping on the beaches of Chile was nice because it was so cool (and bug free) at night, unlike the sweltering nights we spent on the beaches of Central America. One night at one of these beach camps we had the most spectacular sunset of the trip. The ocean turned orange, then purple and then totally red. I will never forget the scarlet waves crashing on the ocean that night.
After a few days on the beach we headed inland to hit Parque Nacional La Campana to get in a few hikes before we headed to the Argentinian border. We also wanted to buy a CONAF pass here (a yearly pass you buy to get into all the national parks in Chile, much like the one in the US).
As we entered the guard shack I asked the guard in Spanish if I could buy the pass there since we knew our friends bought one at this very place. The response came out so fast and unintelligible I looked at Sam to see if he understood anything. He did not. We had been struggling with Spanish since we got into Chile. Chilean Spanish is super fast, full of slang and they drop many of the ends of their words. It was extremely challenging for us to understand unless the person speaking was used to foreigners who spoke limited Spanish. After twenty minutes trying to communicate with our park ranger we were getting nowhere. I kept asking him to slow down and he just couldn’t. We would try to ask very simple yes/no answers and then he would give us a three minute response in rapid fire slang.
In moments like these I desperately wished I spoke more Spanish. I studied French in school, Sam German, not the most practical languages for a two year South American trip. We always try to speak Spanish, even if the person speaks English, but in Chile we were secretly relieved when a person spoke English to us.
We had no such luck with our park ranger, and we ended up playing an impromptu game of pictionary to figure out where we could camp, where the hiking trails were and a few pictures we never really understood what they were for (bird on a dotted line?). The park ranger was super sweet to have the patience to deal with us and make sure we understood where to go through pictures. We left his office with a hand drawn map that looked like something out of The Goonies and drove into our first US style campground since well, the US.
If we can choose, we prefer to wild camp, but inside national parks campgrounds are necessary and when they are like this one, well I am all for a little amenities. The space between the campsites was huge, each one had a picnic bench and nice fire pit, we were surrounded by trees and wildlife, it was super nice. We were coming from Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru where campgrounds with lots of space in nature just did not really exist, so it was strange and fun to start traveling in countries with more of a camping culture again.
There are many hikes in this park. The most famous one is Cerro La Campana, hiked by Charles Darwin in 1834, where on a clear day you can see both the Pacific ocean and the snow capped Andes. We chose to do a five hour hike our first day to see the Chilean palms, one of the only places in the country where you can still see these giant palm trees. We also saw an eagle on our hike, which I think might have been the bird with the dotted line picture on our map! The next day we were going to do the “Darwin” hike but it was rainy, so instead we spent a day cooking soup, watching movies and reading books.
From the national park Sam and I drove across what turned out to be one of our favorite border crossings of the trip into Argentina, La Cumbre Pass. We left the dry, desert like ecosystem of the park and within a few hours the landscape morphed into pine trees and aqua blue snow glacier rivers. It is like we drove from California through Utah into Switzerland in just a few short hours. Kind of blew both our minds.
This pass to Argentina has two options, a tunnel through the mountain that 99.9% of people take, or a crazy, steep dirt switchback road that goes to over 13,800 feet to a statue of El Cristo Redentor that straddles the border to Argentina and Chile. I had decided that we were going to take the crazy dirt pass, I just had not let Sam know yet. As we pulled up to the small little road up the mountain to the pass I wanted to take Sam just started laughing.
He said “I know you, you want to go up that crappy road don’t you instead of taking the perfectly good paved tunnel?” He does know me well and my former life in sales has made me very good at selling my position to him, also, he likes to see me happy. I talked about adventure, the road less traveled and how boring it is to take the easy roads and the next thing I knew we were in 4 low going up some really tight switch backs. SWEET!
About half way up the mountain we realized it was getting way too late to cross the border so I decided we should camp up in the snow for the night. I did not realize we were well over 11,500 feet when I made the call. Having just come from sea level it is not the ideal campsite, zero acclimation. We were fine, we just drank about 3 liters of water each, did not move around much and did not drink alcohol, the secrets to surviving altitude.
This campsite was one of our coldest of the trip. There was snow around the truck and it dipped to around 20 degrees during the night. Without our toasty heater we would have frozen, we are so spoiled. While I was laying in bed around sunset reading a book something crazy happened. I heard a loud thump on the top of the XP and looked out our sunroof, a giant condor had landed on top and was walking around. These birds can have a ten foot wing span and I was watching this huge black beast walk over our sunroof a few feet from my head, it was amazing! They basically look like giant vultures, not very attractive up close, they are much more majestic flying around the snow capped peaks.
Our friends took this pass a few months later and there was no snow, not even on the top of the mountians. I am glad we got to see it with all the craggy peaks covered in white powder, it was a beautiful few days drive and still one of my favorite border crossings of the trip even if we had to backtrack down a crazy switchback dirt road.