This is Part 1 of the Chile Overlander Series. To read about how it all started and how we came across our Toyota 4Runner, “Old Grey”, see here!
Buying a car to Overland Chile was one of the wisest decisions we could have made traversing South America. Just after a few days here, we were surprised at how expensive things really are here, and how complicated it must be for backpackers to navigate!
With our own vehicle, we’re now free from public bus rides that could cost up to $100 USD per ticket, and can take as long as 24 hours or more in one ride. Domestic flights between Chilean cities aren’t reasonable either, and can be as high as $600 USD one way.
Since we have a place to sleep in the truck (built-in beds in the back), we’ve dodged pricey accommodations in Chile costing $60-$150 USD per night – for even the most basic rooms. To top it off, having our own cooking equipment and food has saved us from buying low-quality restaurant meals at $10-$20 USD per plate.
Chile may be the most developed nation in South America, but we’d rather rough it. As we make our way south through Chile in its winter months, Overlanding has been a completely different style of travel than we’ve ever experienced. Here’s how we’ve been adjusting to our first couple of weeks of life as Overlanders, driving the famous Pan-American Highway towards Patagonia.
BUT FIRST, THE OVERLANDER Q &A.
We’ve said goodbye to double beds in hostels and basic hotels (mostly). Instead, we camp pretty much everywhere we go!
Where Do We Sleep?
Just a bit of background: there’s a whole culture of Overlanders in Latin America (and elsewhere), who travel unlike backpackers or luxury travelers. They drive the Pan-American Highway in their own vehicles or big rigs, stopping to camp in the wild or in established campgrounds, all the while being as self-sustaining as possible. The greatest resource that has come out of this sub-culture of Overlanders is a free app, called iOverlander.
This app has become one of our most important tools as we drive the Pan-American highway. The layout is simple. It consists of a map, that users can place different types of pins on top of as they go. These pins are publicly visible by any other person who uses the app.
Overlanders can add all sorts of useful information points they encounter on the road, and let other brave travelers know what resources are available in any given area. We mostly use it to find camping spots, showers, and mechanics.
This app includes the location of established campgrounds and how much they cost, where there are places to pull off and stealth camp, where to get potable water, and where there’s wifi access or good restaurants.
Special alerts can even be added by users – giving other travelers a heads up on bad roads or dangerous places that have a lot of break-ins.
This app has lead us to several amazing camp spots so far – from a beautiful deserted beach where we stayed for two days, to a river oasis in the middle of the Atacama Desert. We’ve even found a couple of our own wild camp spots, and have added them on the map for other drivers.
The best part of Overlanding is being free. We can wild camp pretty much wherever we wish, and have awoken to some truly breathtaking landscapes in the morning. There’s just something special about having the freedom to camp where no one else goes, and where there’s hardly any other human beings for miles. The solitude, the natural beauty, and the thrill of wild camping just may have us hooked for life.
When it’s time to settle for the night, we simply pull off the main drag and locate a hidden spot, or we find a camp spot on the map. We set up our beds, cook some dinner, and maybe after a beer or a cup of wine (or three), we settle in to sleep – gazing at the stars through our handy moon roof.
We’re well equipped to stay warm at night, though the desert can get frosty as do our windows in the mornings from time to time! As it turns out, the northern Chilean winter during the day feels like a mild summer back home in Colorado.
How Do We Keep the Pit-Stank at Bay?
The iOverlander app has showers listed on the map. It even tells you whether they’re hot and if there’s a fee. We’ve had regular showers since we’ve started, and mostly hot (yay for that).
But, we’ve surely had our fair share of freezing cold showers at a couple of campgrounds. Some truck stops here in Chile have full facilities with free hot showers, restaurants, and bathrooms. They’re also extremely clean. It’s always a nice score to find those along the way.
Still, it matters not to us whether the shower is hot or cold, private or public. We just want to be clean when we want to be clean. And we don’t want to stink each other out more than we already do! [Insert scrub-life hashtag here].
What’s Our Diet Like?
There’s plenty of grocery stores around, and even as newbie Overlanders we feel that familiar sense of annoyance when wandering up and down the store isles, filling our cart with goods. It takes us back to our old life at home and the dreaded weekly shopping trips – standing in obnoxious lines and budgeting out a list.
Cooking on our own saves lots of money, and we cook better food than you can get at any typical restaurant here in Chile. (Sorry Chileans, ya’ll need some trained chefs!) However, we do eat a lot more pasta and a lot more soup now that we are typically miles away from civilization as we travel.
Our diet is simply more camp stove friendly now. Lots of potatoes, carrots, beans, and corn with some occasional chicken or chorizo. Lunch is usually something like ham sandwiches or quesadillas. Breakfast in the mornings is just like Mom used to make in camp – eggs over toast, mini breakfast burritos, or just some simple cereal or oatmeal.
The truth is, it is rare that we eat out since we began the Overlanding lifestyle. There’s simply no need to spend the extra dough, nor put up with the extremely long waits that are normal in this part of the world. Plus, if the food isn’t good we’d not only be wasting money, we’d be bummed (and a bit ticked) that the meal made us sick later on down the road!
We like to call this this little self-sustaining, self-cooked meals aspect of our new life an Overlander bonus.
NEW ADVENTURES OF THE ROAD – FROM ARICA TO LA TIRANA, CHILE
We’ve had some flattering adventures so far here in Chile – from the downright awkward to the jaw-dropping amazing.
The Hippy Commune in Arica
Arica, the southern Chilean border town just below Peru, was an off-kilter sort of place, yet it was beautiful – misty in the mornings and bright sunsets at dusk. Though the famous Humboldt Current makes the Pacific Ocean extra cold around this coast, the perfect waves make it a year-round surfer’s paradise. Cinched between tall sand dunes and the ocean, the cheapest accommodation we could find was at a vegan-only hippie commune just outside town.
We must admit, the place was gorgeous. The huts were made of natural adobe, and farm animals like llamas and kittens roamed the grounds. A cute little schnauzer dog, Cheeky, befriended us and she followed us around everywhere we went. She even attempted to jump in the truck with us the day we left.
The showers were wonderfully hot, and in the morning the fog that hung over the dunes around the commune was spectacular. Especially in combination with the colorful singing birds all around. Staying at a hippie commune also means there’s rules, though. No meat was allowed, basically no foreign food products, and no alcohol. This meant no beer! So shocking – how can people live like this?!
There was a small restaurant on site, where the “villagers” would cook vegan-only meals. It was pretty much required that we eat there, since they didn’t really allow outside food. It ended up causing some awkward confusion when we were charged at check out, since they did not keep written records or receipts.
Staying at this little commune for 5 days did have its awkward points… the men seemed a bit tense and unfriendly for the hippy type, and the language barrier was amplified since we weren’t used to the Chilean dialect yet. We left with a bit of relief and mixed feelings about the place, but appreciated the experience.
The first thing we did was grab a juicy burger on the way out of Arica!
Beach Camps and Ocean Cemeteries in Pisagua
Heading a few hours south along the Chilean coast, we reached the tiny little fishing village of Pisagua. After witnessing just how sketchy the campground was that we had planned to stay at, we decided to seek out our own solitary camp on the beach. After heading down a horrendously scary road, we finally reached a deserted beach at dusk.
Like the headstrong and sometimes idiotic travelers we are, we headed down the hill towards the beach with Old Grey, nearly getting ourselves stuck in the disastrously loose sand on our way down. After some digging and sheer panic that we might be stuck miles away from civilization for a few days, Old Grey successfully pulled us out of the slump.
What was supposed to be one night on the beach turned into an entire weekend. We just couldn’t get enough of the deserted beach landscape, and it was the first time either of us had ever camped right on the coast.
No one was around except some cackling seagulls and a small fishing boat out on the waves. Plenty of washed-up driftwood fueled our campfires at night, and the moon was so full that it was the brightest we had ever witnessed. It was an incredibly tranquil experience.
When it came time to go, luckily we were able to find a 4WD road leading out of the valley, away from most of the loose sand patches. That shit is like quicksand for vehicles. Had we not made it out, one of us would have had to hike to the village for help (easily a 4-hour trek one way) while the other stayed behind with the car and gear!
Heading over the more traveled road that hung above the beach and away from our beloved beach camp, we then stumbled upon an 1800s-era graveyard with its back against the sea.
The place was so eerie and strange, and wandering about its clusters of dry wooden crosses we couldn’t help but feel like we were stepping back in time. Old monuments crumbled at the edges, hardened sand piles heaped up over the ground at the burial sites, and silken flowers sat dusty and forgotten within grave markers.
The sound of the waves breaking on the rocks behind the graveyard gave it a calming sort of feel, on the other hand. The beating sun above made it feel a bit lighter, but the place was like a forgotten clip straight out of a spaghetti western.
We later found out that Pisagua was once an old mining village with a controversial past. Sadly, a mass grave was found near here years ago. It was believed to contain the bodies of unidentified mine workers, and no one was sure who was responsible – but it was most likely the mining bosses.
Now a tiny and quiet fishing village, the ocean-bound cemetery is merely a reflection of a darker past in the village of Pisagua.
The Dancing Beasts of La Tirana
By sheer coincidence, we found that on our next Overlander stretch to the south, we’d be passing by a village with a massive festival going on. In the tiny village of La Tirana just outside of the city of Iquique, one of the largest festivals in Chile was about to take place.
Our handy iOverlander app showed a cluster of good campgrounds around the area, so we headed there next, eager for a sink to do laundry in the Scrubba! Little did we know, the festival we were about to witness would be one of the most interesting celebrations we have ever encountered.
Wandering into the small and crowded village, past a long row of street vendors, the timing couldn’t have been more impeccable. As we rounded the corner, the parade of the day exploded all around us, and we found ourselves standing in a sea of choreographed dances and elaborate costumes.
The Catholic Festival de la Virgen del Carmen was erupting in full swing, and we were right in the thick of one of the booming festivities.
To represent both sinful influences and the innocent, women in traditional sequined dress twirled around men dancing side to side in bizarre horned masks. The entire city was a crowded, massive parade. Pockets of marching bands were beating on drums, playing flutes, and blowing into baritones all over town. Troupes of dancers all in different costumes danced in large groups everywhere we turned.
Rather than one long parade down the main drag, there were parades and performances going on down every street, and down every block. Processions were everywhere to be found, with men carrying heavy wooden altars on their shoulders. Each altar displayed statues of the virgin. We learned that for seven days straight, the dancers perform in the festival every day!
We sauntered around a large market, put up specifically for the festival. The stalls seemed to go on forever in a massive, winding maze through the village that was already bursting at the seams with people and fiestas.
There were endless street food vendors, carnival games, and booths selling everything from kitchenware to used flip flops.
As we left the village, full of street food and worn out from walking, there was an endless stream of cars coming from the nearby city of Iquique for the festival. With traffic backed up for a few miles out of town, we were even more content that we had seen the festivities at the perfect time.
That night, we found a wild camp in the desert, and gazed at the stars hanging over the hills before turning in to bed. Our ears were still buzzing from all the excitement by the time we drifted to sleep.
THE FIRST ADJUSTMENTS TO OVERLANDER LIFE
Without having to plan around bus schedules, and sold-out accommodations, we’ve been able to just go. We cannot believe the adventures we’ve already had and where the road has taken us in just these short two weeks.
The Overlander life is quite an adjustment for us in the fact that we’re not just hopping from city to city as time and public transport permits. As Overlanders, we truly have the independence to choose anywhere we want to go next. That is, if we think we can make it.
Though we haven’t quite got a good handle on it yet, we’ve been picking the next destination as we go, and working our way there on the weekends. This way Carly can work her freelancing gigs during the week. That’s been hard to plan, especially with our biggest chunks of driving time coming up soon.
Luckily for us, we’ve found a prepaid wifi stick that can be used on the road, and it’s the best invention by man in history! Thanks to this, we’re even more mobile than before, and can share this journey with you as it unfolds – piece by piece, and adventure to adventure.
We still have two-thirds of Chile to go, and all of Argentina left to see on our Overlander adventure. What experiences will the road show us next? There’s no way to tell, but we’re sure it will be an epic and wild ride. If there’s one thing guaranteed in travel – overland or otherwise, the excitement never ceases to exist!
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