The Andes region: Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina

Posted on February 25, 2012


After some wonderful holidays and some very bad roads in Colombia we were in Ecuador. We didn’t really know what to expect, it was an unvisited country for all of us and we were all excited to enter our second country in the South American continent.

What we will remember for sure is the long wait at the border to get our passports stamped before entering the country. The were many tourists, most of them Argentinians that were traveling, so after a 8h long queue we managed to get our passports stamped and started finally to drive in Ecuador. The day before we had met a very kind couple from Quito, which had mentioned some places we should visit before arriving to the capital, so with their itinerary in mind we started exploring this new country.

Out the window we didn’t stop seeing green valleys, with agricultural planes that made it look like gigantic patchwork of different green tones.

The couple mentioned above had warned us that we would drive through “the valley of the black”, which apparently was a valley inhabited by an ethnic community known to have dark skin. To our surprise for some moments we felt like being back in Africa, the whole population of one of the valleys was literally black.

After camping and resting for a night we woke up to arrive to Otavalo, known for its market, were many indigenous communities meet and sell their art crafts.

It was late but we decided anyways to enter Quito to find a cheap hostel to spend the night and be able to wake up early and explore the capital. We spent some time finding our way but finally with some help from some helpful drivers we go to the part of the city were we had multiple hosting options.

Quito is at the altitude of 2800m above sea level and you could find many people selling coca products to alleviate the “soroche”. However we were feeling very well and had no problems related to the altitude.  The colonial part is very well preserved and boiling with tourists from all over the world. We took advantage of the low prices: Ecuador has been the cheapest country visited so far!

One of the plazas in Quito

We all fell in love with the thermal waters of Baños. Surrounded by tall mountains some even with snow, Baños is a small touristic town were the main attraction other than hiking is bathing in the thermal waters. Ranging from boiling to freezing, the pools fill up both with locals and tourists that relax by changing between cold and hot pools.  It feels like you have done a good workout afterwards. It is also a very social thing to do, people enjoy talking to strangers and it is a wonderful way to meet the locals.

Now the discussion was about the rest of the itinerary of Ecuador: some people had recommended visiting the coast, and others the interior part of the country, which borders with the Amazonas jungle. We finally decided to go through the interior, which is certainly less popular among tourists. We drove many kilometers without seeing real civilization, bordering many indigenous communities that live in the Amazonas.

To get to Cuenca we had to cross the Andes and we were lost, it was raining and foggy. We finally found the shortest route to Cuenca and started driving. It was a dirt road with no light, no signs, with working machinery along it, full of curves, hardly visible at night with pouring rain and with a dense fog. We drove for about 5 minutes and then decided to overnight at the last gas station we had stopped at. That was certainly the best thing that we could do we realized the next day while we drove through that same road for about 3 hours and had to drive through mud, rivers and some tough terrain.

After hilly and green Ecuador we didn’t expect at all the vast desert we encountered entering Peru. The border crossing was one of the loneliest ones we had gone through, so it went fast and in no time we were heading towards Punta Salinas, which had been recommended by many people as a place better to stay than Máncora, a bit more south but much more busy and touristic.

We didn’t really find anything attractive about Punta Salinas, more than overpriced lodging and a very desolate town that didn’t even offer a nice beach to camp on. So we decided to try Máncora, which deceived us almost even more. We ended up staying in a camping but sleeping little due to the high music playing nearby up to early hours in the morning.

The sight through the window while driving south towards Lima on the Peruvian coast is harsh, you see the desert during hours and hours, having a break while passing the fertile valleys which are an oasis and offer some green to your eyes.

Typical sight on the Peruvian coast

After visiting the town of Trujillo, which we really liked,  we got to Lima. If you ask me were the traffic has been worse throughout our journey, I’d say Lima: people don’t drive well, they don’t give signals, the congestion is horrible and driving is certainly not the most amusing thing to do in Lima…

Walking around Trujillo

But after all we arrived to the neighborhood known as Barranco, which is the most touristic and upscale part of Lima. After so much desert it was hard to believe that big buildings, green parks could exist! We celebrated our arrival to the capital tasting the famous Peruvian gastronomy’s jewel, the ceviche and the pisco sour, which did not let us down!

After taking a quick look at the mysterious Nazca lines we started heading towards the interior of the country, towards Cuzco. That meant crossing the Andes for the second time and driving through altitudes of 4500m, meeting only llamas and some indigenous little towns.

Cuzco is a beautiful colonial town, which has a strong inca heritage as well as a Spanish heritage. We arrived there quite late but found a nice hostel to stay and be able to wake up early to visit the town.

Inca architecture perfection

Machu Piccu was so close now…. But we had to get there and the transportation options are quite limited. Firstly, one has to get to the Machu Picchu town, which is Aguascalientes, only accessible on foot or by train. However, we found out that it was possible to drive until Sta Teresa, which is only two hours by foot until Aguascalientes, and then from there to Machu Picchu you could take a bus or walk.. So we drove until Sta Teresa, through the famous Sacred Valley, crossing rivers and on very narrow roads, which had cliffs right beside us, but arrived, alive, and started to walk to Aguascalientes. Lucky enough, because it was starting to get dark and starting to rain, a little security wagon came and picked us up, saving us from a very long and wet walk.

Next morning we took the bus to Machu Picchu. It’s extremely hard to explain with words the impression of getting a first glimpse of what one has seen many times on TV or magazines…. Especially when the clouds clear up and the sun comes out and you are standing there looking at 15th-century inca site.

Kristian at Machu Piccu

Mona, Alex and Caro

Øyvin and Mona

After a guided tour we started hiking up the Machu Picchu Mountain to get even a better view of the surroundings. After hiking for about 1 hour we had an amazing 360 degrees view, which was well worth the hike!

At the top of Machu Piccu mountain

The lake Titicaca was the other big highlight in Peru, and we got the first glimpse of it in Puno, a small ugly town. The view was quite deceiving but however we tasted delicious trout by the port.

Entering Bolivia was quite easy despite the arguing with the customs officer about entering the car without having car insurance for Bolivia. After arguing about the fact that it is quite hard to have had purchased one without having been in the country before and there no being any agent selling them at the border, he let us pass with the condition of purchasing it once we got to la Paz. Later we got to know that, as we had assumed, it was totally fine to enter the country without one if you were going to purchase it as soon as possible. The officer most probably was looking for a bribe.

Our first stop in Bolivia was Copacabana: a beautiful port but a extremely touristic place, full of handcraft stores addressed to non-locals. The festivity of the Copacabana virgin was coming up soon so we got the chance to see some of the preparations being done and many women and men dressed up in their traditional garments.

After some hours driving by the Titicaca Lake and taking a ferry, which more than a ferry, was a big wooden plate driven by the force of a little motor and directed by big wooden pedals, we arrived to la Paz early in the morning. The car needed a service so we headed towards the Toyota service center after having purchased the insurance. We were lucky to get the car in and decided to get two cabs that would take us to the city center.

We visited the main monuments and attraction, we got to see the miniature fair, Feria de Alasitas in Spanish, where all sorts of miniature figures which have been told to give good luck are sold. We each got one and even got them blessed by a shaman.

Shaman in action

Delivering of the blessed goods

Miniatures stand

Bread stand

Childhood memories

Oruro was our next stop, and I had contacted an exchange student from there, which I had met in Oregon while I was an exchange student myself. She had told me she would be pleased to host all of us, and so we met her and her mother at the entrance of the city and they guided us to their place. We had a wonderful time together and we are all thankful for their hospitality. The next morning they even showed us the mining museum, Oruro is famous for its tin mines, and showed us a little around the city before we had to take off. It was incredible visiting Jaqueline after so many years and in her country!

The reunion

Our plan while exiting Oruro was to get to Uyuni in one day, but it’s never wise to plan too much… We got lost and had to drive a whole other day until getting to Uyuni. Once there we had to off course visit the world known Uyuni salar. It was really an amazing place. It almost looked like as if we were on a huge snow field, but was all salt. It had been raining a bit lately so there were big water patches. That is also why it was not possible to cross it to get to Chile; there were some places the water was as deep as one meter. So, in order to get to Chile we had to drive around the salar. We wanted to go past some beautiful lakes as well, but ended up at the border, taking another road without realizing until it was too late…

The border crossing between Bolivia and Chile was almost nonexistent, it was hard to imagine that it was a border, but there was immigration and customs office and that was all we needed to be able to cross to Chile.

Full rainbow

More shocking was the huge contrast between these two countries, the living standards and the infrastructure as well as the economic development… Arriving to Chile was like arriving to Europe!

We had been thinking quite a long time now about the itinerary south form there, towards Buenos Aires. Time was pressing and we would have liked to go down until Santiago, as well as see the lake area of Chile but we had decided to cross to Argentina soon and drive south on the other side of the Andes.

So we now associate Chile with San Pedro de Atacama, where we stayed only one night. We crossed the border through the Paso de Jama, were we drove at the highest 4800m above sea level, over the Andes, for the third time, with some stunningly beautiful scenery. The drive was not short so we arrived just on time to find a campsite in the valley of the colored mountains.

Paso de Jama

Mother and daughter

The colored mountains

We talked to some very nice campers that suggested an itinerary to Buenos Aires, which went through Salta, Cordoba and el Rosario. So we followed their recommendations and arrived finally to Buenos Aires, after visiting briefly Córdoba, Salta and Rosario. We were as well in Cafayate, known for it’s wineries, for some hours, where we tried the famous wine ice cream, which was perfect for the sunny and warm day.

Trying the wine ice cream

Buenos Aires impressed all of us: it’s striking to see the strong Spanish heritage impregnated in the culture as well as the arquitecture. We stayed in the Palermo neighborhood and enjoyed walking to center and around, feeling just as if we were back in Barcelona.

We met Cami, Krisitian´s friend from his exchange year in Boulder and we enjoyed eating delicious Argentinean peaches and empanadas.

Walking around Buenos Aires

Mar the Plata was our southernmost destination in Argentina, as well as a well-known place to go during the summer holidays and where Santos and Jeanne were living. So we spent there two nights while we enjoyed the sun, the beach and got the chance to meet the newly wed couple.

I took a plane back to Spain after that, and am in Norway working. My decision of taking off was taken when I was offered a job and the South American part had almost ended. I decided that the Asian leg of the trip I will do in the future.

8 months, nearly 24h everyday surrounded by siblings and parents is pretty intensive and I’m glad to say that it was an amazing experience and that I can’t even grasp the enormous luck I have to have done this voyage with my family.



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