Traversing South America in More Than 6 Months – Part 2

Unreliable mechanics, food to die for and meeting Slovenians on the way

1. Where did you have problems getting in or out of the country and how did you solve them? How would you rate your SUV (and any work and repairs you had to get done along the way) as your main type of transport which you purchased upon your arrival on the continent?
Travelling by car is great. Especially because we have a bed inside, and we can sleep almost anywhere. We have the freedom to go where we want and when we want. Of course, with that come certain concerns and obligations. As the owners of a Chilean car, we had to renew our registration in Chile, pay the insurance, arrange a technical inspection. Fortunately, all this is fairly simple and also significantly cheaper than in Slovenia.

The biggest problem we noticed were the repairs at the mechanic’s. You just can't trust mechanics in South America. They don't do their work properly. And then there we are, solving one problem for months. One such example was the replacement of the brake pads. We replaced them in Argentina at a local mechanic’s (because they were already in a very bad shape). Then we took the car to an official Toyota centre for servicing. We asked them to check the brakes and they said that both brakes and the discs are ok and that we shouldn't be concerned. We were at the mechanic’s again the same afternoon, as the brakes were making noises again. The mechanic did some small repairs and we drove off. We had trouble getting to Bolivia again because of this. This time they sharpened the discs a bit because they were a bit burnt already. We are now on our way to Peru and already looking for new discs because they have obviously not been sharpened enough. So... Yeah, mechanics are not reliable here.

In Slovenia, you take your car to the mechanic’s and, generally, things are sorted out, so you have no problems for the next half a year (or more). Unlike in Slovenia, something always comes up here. Still, we wouldn't trade our car for anything in the world. This unpleasant thing with brakes and discs was, however, a minor issue that didn't intervene with our travel. The car gives us so much freedom and in some ways it's also a luxury. You know how nice it is to lie down in your clean bed every night. In the car, you know exactly that it’s clean. We also have our things neat and tidy and we don't have to carry our luggage around, or pack and unpack it all the time. We have everything nicely sorted in drawers and boxes; everything is accessible with ease. It's really great. It really suits us.

Thinking now, we really had one such experience in Chile when they didn’t let us leave the country. We have a Chilean car but not a Chilean residence which is a problem for some customs officers. After five months of travelling and crossing borders more times from Chile to Argentina and back (and several times at that) than to Uruguay, Brazil or Paraguay, we returned to northern Chile. From there, we wanted to continue our journey towards Bolivia, but they didn't allow us. The Chilean customs officer didn’t even say good morning to us, but immediately asked: "Do you have a Chilean car?" After our yes he continued: "Do you have a Chilean residence? No? Then you won't cross the border!" And the matter ended for him. We tried to negotiate. We showed him a law stating that a residence was not necessary to cross the border with a car, but he rather relied on his (older) law and did nothing. Well, we solved the matter by going to Argentina and then from Argentina to Bolivia. We made a few more miles, but we also saw many beautiful things along the way, so the experience was not bad at all. That’s just a part of our overland trip across South America.

Also, let us mention that our car is an off-road one, with all four off-road tires. If anyone knows more about these things, we drive a Toyota 4runner, 4x4. With this car, there’s no problem getting up the steepest slopes. Also, there are no issues driving on dirt roads, muddy surfaces, or crossing rivers. Nothing can stop us. We can really reach the most remote corners and enjoy peace and quiet there, admiring nature and animals. We're really doing well.

2. Where did you have the best food and drink experience?
Rok: The best steak I’ve had so far was in El Chalten in Argentina after a four-day trekking and after successfully escaping that bull.

Katarina: Brazilian fruits! Yummy! Relatively cheap and so delicious! My favourites were fresh cocoa beans, mango, pineapple, papaya, granadilla and some others whose names I unfortunately don't remember anymore.

However, looking back, Katarina liked the pho soup in Vietnam, and Rok liked the ribs in Canada. We both adore fresh mango juice. Where was the best one? Hmmm, it was good in Brazil, and before that in Thailand, Jamaica...

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3. What has been your biggest challenge so far and how did you overcome it?
Rok: Driving down the kilometre long muddy path to Ibera Park in Argentina. I had never experienced such mud and I had no experience driving on such terrain. The car and the two of us were so close to swimming in the nearby swamp among the crocodiles. I somehow managed to stop the car. I turned it around slowly and then slowly but steadily made it to the end. It sprayed all over, I had to turn on the wipers as the windshield was so dirty that I couldn't see anything through. Luckily, we were able to cross that muddy stretch and get into the beautiful national park that we still remember today as one of the nicer locations of this trip.

Katarina: Saying goodbye to our grandparents and our pets at home. The last days, before we left for our half-year trip to South America, were horrible for me. Tidying up the apartment, knowing we were no longer going back, giving up my furry pets to their new owners... I felt I was in some way rejecting them. Without a doubt, I was worried about my grandparents, I was hoping nothing happens to them during our absence. How did I make it? Um, I don't know, I took a breath, held back tears, and thought about going on a journey of my life where I was going to have a great time. As soon as we sat in the van, which took us to the airport and drove us to Venice, it was easier. Then the journey started to unfold, and I started enjoying it. My grandparents are fine for now, same with Rok's grandparents, and my cat and bunny are, too. So, it was worth getting over that crisis.

4. Which place that you visited would you say was overrated and which one surprised you more than you thought it would?
The Chiloé Island in Chile was certainly overrated. We heard so much praise about how beautiful it was that people didn't even want to leave it. Frankly, when we were on the island, we didn't know what to do. We booked a hostel there for New Year, but nothing was happening in the island’s largest city. The island was probably beautiful, but it just wasn’t for us. We prefer action, mountains, and dramatic views.

Another overrated thing was the Laguna Route in Bolivia. It’s about 500 km of a very bad road where you can admire the diversity of Altiplano in all its grandeur: lagoons, volcanoes, funny rocky structures, geysers... We had experienced it all a few weeks earlier in Argentina, where the landscape was similar. The difference between the Argentinian and the Bolivian side was that, in Argentina, we were almost alone. In Bolivia, on the other hand, we were practically driving in bumper-to-bumper (they were all overtaking us with their tourist jeeps which all have the same route and the same stops).

We were most impressed by the said Argentinian side of Altiplano, called Puna. We have never experienced such crazy landscapes, the roads were not as bad as in Bolivia, and there weren’t really any people there, and the ones who were there were extremely friendly and happy of our visit. Wonderful indeed. We crossed several “salares” (dried salty lakes), saw many lagoons of all colours (red, white, turquoise blue etc.), admired the volcanoes and even climbed one, drove through the red sandy desert, and visited the white rocky landscape, full of unusual stone structures, some even ten metres high. Really mind-blowing!

We were also impressed by Argentina's Ibera Park. It's a swamp full of interesting animals. We saw hundreds of capybaras, caimans, a special species of deer and even macaws. On top of that, the park was free of charge, as were the campsites in the park, and the park was also beautifully decorated and clean, and there was electricity and water, and also neat toilets. Just perfect!

We could mention many more amazing sights, but here are just a few of them: The Maraú Peninsula with probably the most beautiful, pristine beaches in all of Brazil. Carnival in Rio! Oh, all those rhythms and colourful costumes. It was unforgettable. Last but not least, we were delighted to climb up to the lagoon below Mt. Cerro Castillo in Chile. The colours were there to die for: a turquoise-blue lagoon, a white glacier above it and on top a pitch-black mountain. Phenomenal. We collect nice memories and we try to forget the bad things quickly.

5. How are you getting along while travelling? I assume there are probably also days when you don't get along much? Have you learned anything more about each other on such a long trip?
So far, yes. In the beginning, we changed our environment and perceived our lifestyle differently and we often had fights. Usually, because of irrelevant things. It was all just the result of our irritation of being in a different state. It's easier now, we're more grounded and we have some sort of divided roles about what each of us takes care of.

Let's say, Rok does most of the driving, and Katarina is in charge of navigation. Rok also takes care of the car, repairs, and maintenance, while Katarina takes care of finances. She has an overview of how much we have spent so far, who paid how much, where we keep the cash, what the exchange rate is, etc. Rok is almost always in charge of haggling, and Katarina does all the trip planning, while Rok then finds some hidden spots that turn the whole trip upside down. Usually, those spots turn out to be the most beautiful and unforgettable sights.

Um, did we really learn anything? We don't know. It’s more so that when travelling together twenty-four hours a day, we notice more specific characteristics of each other. For example, Rok is extremely inventive and can fix a lot of things. These are, of course, such sudden and temporary solutions.

Rok: Katarina is always energetic and takes a positive approach to just about everything.

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6. What are the costs of such a trip, or how much do you think it will cost you altogether? What is the most expensive, where can you save more money? I suppose the expense of buying the car was the greatest in the beginning. But if it serves you well, that's great. I assume you apply for visas one at a time?
The greatest expense, of course, was buying the car. We expect that we’ll get at least some of this money back when we sell the car. Before going on the trip, we read a lot of blogs of people, who went on such long journeys, and tried to get a clear image of how much it would cost us. It's hard to compare because everyone has their own style of travelling, a different car, or has been to different countries. Somehow, we estimated that we should spend about 1000 euros a month per person. We are somewhere there right now. One month we maybe spend more, the next one a little less. However, each month is specific.

Initially, there were many costs due to the car because we had to adapt it a little. Now our biggest costs are entry fees, guided tours, plane tickets (to Easter Island, for example) and so on. The biggest monthly cost so far has been petrol, except in Peru. The country has the most expensive entry fees on the continent. But, oh well, Peru does have many interesting archaeological diggings and remains, as well as national parks.

Most of the time we save money on accommodation, since we either sleep in the car, which is the case most of the time, or we camp. We also mostly cook our own meals. However, we haven’t needed the visas so far, since almost all of South America is really easily accessible to Europeans.

Rok adds: More than looking at how much we spent, we need to look at how much we saved with this trip. If we were to go on many short trips, say for a couple of weeks to Patagonia, then to Peru, Bolivia, Brazil and so on, then each trip would cost us about 500 euros per plane ticket per person, plus car rental etc. Therefore, a long trip as this one may end up being even cheaper than a few short ones.

7. And to conclude, what would you like me to ask you that I didn't, and please go ahead and answer it yourselves. ;) Do you have any other message you’d like to pass on to our readers? After all, you’re quite experienced travellers, and I have no doubt that you’re full of wisdom, tips, and stories that you’ve acquired in all this time.
Well, we have a lot of those. We don't even know where to start. Travel isn’t a goal, but a journey, at least in our case. We try to travel affordably and it's not always easy. If you stay out of resorts and guided tours, you experience the destination differently, in a more authentic way. Traveling by car is also special. You can reach hidden spots and inaccessible villages. We also get an insight into the country, which we wouldn't be able to get if we were travelling by bus.

In Bolivia, for example, there are two prices for petrol – one for the locals, which is ridiculously low (3.7 bolivianos or 0.5 euros), and one for the tourists, which is quite high for a bad fuel quality (8.9 bolivianos or 1.2 euros). We found out that it's possible to haggle over the fuel price. Of course, public transportation also has its charm, but the car was our obvious choice.

We also love local markets and like to shop for fruit there because of the bargain prices and the many different things that are for sale there. We just bought, for example, avocados at a price of 0.13 euros a piece, and a whole pineapple for 0.3 euros, as well as granadillas and a bunch of bananas for the same price. Being able to eat fresh tropical fruit at low prices is a really great part of the trip.

Another interesting thing was that there aren’t that many Slovenes overall, but surprisingly, we always seem to bump into them on our travels. Here in South America, for example, we happened to meet a Slovenian and his partner from Spain who were on a four-day trek in Argentina. An average of 20 people do the trek per day, of which three were Slovenes that day. What a coincidence! We also recently met a Slovenian woman on the border between Bolivia and Peru. We noticed her because she was walking around with a Slovenian passport and we immediately fell into conversation.

These were purely random encounters and there were quite a few not so random ones. We’re really glad when one of our friends or acquaintances finds out via internet that we’re traveling across South America, and then contacts us. We grab a drink together, bake pancakes, talk a little, share our experiences. So, if anyone else is travelling to Peru, Ecuador or Colombia in the upcoming months, you're warmly welcome to contact us. It’s always nice to have Slovenian company.

Despite the fact that the Slovenian nation isn’t that big, Katarina and Rok have met quite a few Slovenes along the way. As foreigners, they are often met with double standards. Especially when it comes to prices. But they’ve definitely become more connected as a couple. They both agree that this "big" trip has given them really a lot, and that it was worth overcoming whatever difficulty they experiencing at the time.

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