Tag Archives: south america

Overland Travel in South America

One of the inevitable consequences of long journeys abroad is the period of adjustment afterwards. Everything that’s been put off or ignored while you’ve been off exploring must be dealt with on your return. I’ve done these kind of trips so often that I can mitigate the worst of it, but even so it took about two weeks after my return from South America before I felt that I’d caught up with the life I left behind.

Delivering write ups of my travels was part of that catching up, and that element of the checklist was ticked off about a week ago. Still, there are a few thoughts that never quite fit into the posts that I’ve already put up. So for the sake of completeness, here follow a few suggestions for anyone who might be tempted to follow in my footsteps.


Bring a Guidebook: First off, don’t rely on my words. Get yourself a guidebook. Lonely Planet usually serves me well, but your mileage may vary. Even though the Internet has usurped many of their functions, a collection of suggestions about places to stay, sights to see, and culinary delights to sample will serve as good bus or train reading in the space between places. Lonely Planet’s guidebook for South America added a hefty lump to my baggage, but it did what I needed (except perhaps in Rio, where its broad approach was spread a little too thin).

Pack According to Your Needs: This will depend heavily upon your habits and plans, but it’s possible to minimise what you’re carrying on a long overland trip. I generally go for a daily bag containing everything vital to the trip (passport, electronics, medicine, etc.) and a larger backpack containing clothes and anything I don’t need immediate access to. Judicious trimming of what you bring will make this even more functional: I only needed to use a laundry once during my three-week-plus trip, and I kept dirty clothes separated in waterproof internal bags.

Stray Dogs Everywhere: Start in the west and travel east and you’ll notice a change from canine to feline. Chile and Argentina both have stray dogs aplenty, though most of them look as though they’re well fed, and I didn’t come across any who were unfriendly. It wasn’t until I hit Buenos Aires’ main cemetery that I saw cats in the open. By the time you reach Rio, balance has been restored, though the marmosets on the Sugarloaf are surely an outlier.

Don’t Rely on WiFi: I did without buying a traveller’s SIM card for my phone, figuring that a bit of disconnection would be good for me, and that WiFi would fill any gaps that there were. Which was more or less true: wandering around cities is better if the world doesn’t intrude on your thoughts, and there’s WiFi aplenty in public spaces. However, be aware that most of these WiFi networks are unsecured, and even in hotels, where the networks are more secure, the strength of the signal may not be the best. In short, accept the disconnection and know what you’re going to need before you go online. (And don’t use data roaming except in an emergency—the 30 seconds that mine was active before I remembered to turn it off cost me about €20.)

The Roads are Pretty Good—Mostly: After driving north and south through Chile, my ambition to some day traverse the entire Panamerican Highway is stronger than ever. Probably not all of it will be as nice as the route between Santiago and La Serena, but what I experienced was exceptional in terms of quality and views available. I didn’t have much to complain about when it came to the main roads in Argentina and Uruguay either, so renting a car for travel is a definite possibility.

Don’t be a Competitive Driver: This is more of a general rule, as opposed to something specific to South America. Drivers who overtake at high speed, dive into the tightest of gaps between cars, and are allergic to the use of indicators, are best left to their own devices. Especially when you’re a foreign driver. If there’s going to be any consequences to that kind of behaviour, the further away you are from it, the better.

Carry Cash…: Many places will allow you to use debit and credit cards, especially in and around the major tourist sites, but it’s always handy to have some cash if you’re planning on exploring further afield or if the tourist stuff holds little interest. Of course, if you’re country hopping, that means you’ll need to make use of currency exchanges, either in banks or the smaller cambios. Also, the usual rules for travellers apply: don’t keep it all in one place, and don’t flash it around either. As always, be safe.

…but Beware of ATMs: If you need cash, you’ll likely need to turn to ATMs, of which there are plenty. Most of these will be in indoor lobbies, so they’re safe enough to use, though take the usual care. The major issue is that the fees for using them are not small. Limit your usage accordingly, because those fees do add up.

Trains are good, but buses are your friend: I’m as big a fan of train travel as you’re likely to find, but buses are the better option in South America. The passenger train network is disconnected, and the one I did take was a good bit slower than the bus alternative would have been. Buses go pretty much everywhere, and the major cities are connected by coaches run by multiple companies. Do your research and you can get where you need to go cheaply.

Go for comfort…: On the coach routes, you’ll often have the option to opt for “cama” or “semi-cama” seats. These will be on the lower tier of double decker coaches, and they’ll provide you with well-upholstered seats with lots of legroom and an ability to recline far enough to provide you with an opportunity for snoozing. Pick the right coach provider and you may even be offered snacks.

…but mind the view: The one problem with those cama or semi-cama seats is that since they’re on the lower deck of the coach, you’re going to lose out on some viewing opportunities. You can mitigate these problems a bit by selecting the right seat when booking your trip. For example, when crossing the Andes from Santiago to Mendoza, sit by the right window for the best views, and sit on the left when going the other way.

Avail of “las verduras” where you can: Especially in Argentina and Uruguay, meat is a way of life. Vegetarians are going to have to put a bit of extra effort in, and vegans might find themselves restricted in terms of their dietary choices. (Well … more restricted.) That said, there are some really good verduras and frutas to be had, and if you’re not aiming to pursue a purely carnivorous diet, you should grab them whenever you can.

Brazil is different: There’s a lot of commonality across the three Spanish-speaking nations I visited, but once I landed in Rio, there was enough of a change to inflict just a little culture shock. Whatever preparation I’d done for the start of the trip went out of the window, and I was more or less starting again. Language was a particular issue, with Spanish and Portuguese far enough apart that there was little knowledge to transfer, and few people speaking much or any English. In short, put the effort in to learn a little about the country that you’re visiting. But isn’t that always the way?

It’s absolutely worth it: Sticking to road and rail to cross a continent is something that I’ve done four times now. Seeing the landscape close up is a massive improvement over staring at it out of a tiny plane window. Getting outside of the big cities, or just walking around a city from dawn to dusk and knowing that just a week or two ago you were sat by a different ocean is an amazing feeling. Every trip generates thoughts of things that you could have done or moments that you might have missed, but focus on the good memories. Trips like this will generate plenty of them.

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Chile—Santiago and La Serena

Chile was always going to be a scramble. Perhaps we should have realised how much of a scramble it would be, but it was a unique situation, so I’ll cut ourselves some slack. The Lawyer, the Doctor, and I were in the country to view a total solar eclipse (a story I’ve already told), but we were also each in the Southern Hemisphere and South America for the first time, and while we were all experienced enough at travelling, we were well outside our comfort zones. For myself in particular, while I’m used to travelling alone, travelling with friends is a less common experience.

We’d divided up the duties before arriving, with the Doctor, who was landing the day before the rest of us, dealing with accommodation and myself with car hire. The latter wasn’t too hard to arrange, but the crowds flocking into the country for the same reasons as us, as well as the vagaries of Internet booking, meant that the Doctor had a harder time of it, dividing our time in Santiago between the Luciano K and Magnolia hotels, and arranging a beachside apartment in the Agua Marina complex in La Serena.

It was a little hazy on the first day, but that cleared.
A glimpse of Santiago from the top of Cerro Santa Lucía

As the Lawyer and I flew in (on separate flights, mine delayed) to Santiago, the city wasn’t showing its best side. The morning light struggled through the clouds over the Andes and the coastal mountains that cradle the city, but the airport delivered us through customs and baggage reclaim without too much of a struggle. Our hotel had arranged a taxi to pick us up, with my Irish name replicated closely enough to be recognisable.

The drive into town took us past plenty of slices of the city, with the sights of wooden pallets stacked high, walls daubed with massive murals, and the now grey, overcast skies making me think of Belfast and the glorious 12th that it’s always a pleasure to avoid by being in a different country, and if possible a different continent.

A mural in Santiago, telling the history of the city.
Santiago is full of murals—this is one of the more official ones.

Once we’d rendezvoused with the Doctor at the Luciano K and dropped our bags, we could do some proper exploring. The Doctor had done some reconnaissance the day before and showed us around the city centre, taking us up the Cerro Santa Lucía, a sculpted peak in the heart of Santiago, with monuments and viewing points aplenty. From up there, we could see the contradictions of the city’s architecture: like most older cities, it maps its history through eras of enthusiasm and decline, with modern skyscrapers rising amid older areas both wealthy and drab, occasionally preserved but often neglected.

For the rest of that day and the next, we experienced as much of Santiago as energy and jet lag would allow. The city is easy to walk, though there’s a good metro system if you’re in a hurry, and it boasts some excellent museums. The one we liked best was the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino, which showed a full array of artworks from across South and Central America, limited though these were. It’s a sobering reminder of just what was lost when the New World encountered the Old—civilisations that were developing along parallel tracks to our own but were snuffed out and much of their art and memory lost with them, as well as the chance to ever know how they might have developed, given the chance.

A golden ear ornament from pre-Colombian South America.
A rare piece of surviving native goldwork. Most of it was melted down.

As for nightlife, we weren’t the most active partakers. We became fans of the restaurant Holy Moly and the nearby Opera de Catedral bar, with burgers and beer at the former and pisco sours (and more beer) at the latter. Despite it being the heart of winter it was still worth enjoying the rooftop bar at Opera de Catedral, but we probably enjoyed being in the cellar of Holy Moly more, especially when the Copa America quarter final was on, and we were treated to a penalty shootout between Chile and Colombia. (A return trip to watch the semifinal between Chile and Peru after the eclipse was sadly less successful for our adopted team.) The Doctor and I also ventured across the river to the Cerro San Cristobal and to the Gran Torre Santiago at the Costanera Center in Santiago’s financial district. Both offered incredible views of the city and the mountains surrounding it, with the tower in particular worth visiting for the well-designed viewing floor and skydeck.

When the time came to drive to La Serena, our base for the northern half of our trip, my car booking proved to have been a solid one, though the car we were given was an odd Chinese brand, with Tesla trappings in the form of a massive LCD control panel, but little of the Tesla refinement (a delay of a few seconds when trying to use the screen, assuming it responded at all). Still, the five hour drive north was pleasant enough, with a single stop at a crowded filling station enough to refresh and refill us. As driver, I didn’t get the full benefit of the often stunning views as this section of the Panamerican Highway moved from mountainous terrain to rocky coastlines, but the Lawyer and the Doctor certainly enjoyed it, and the road was never too crowded, even at the regular toll booths.

The beach at La Serena, Chile, just before sunset.
It’s not Baywatch—that job was left to the helicopter that buzzed the beach after sunset, reminding surfers to get out.

We arrived in La Serena early enough that it wasn’t yet jam-packed with eclipse watchers. Our apartment, while chilly, was right beside the beach, so we did get to stroll along the sands and enjoy a Pacific sunset, in between which we were interviewed by a Brazilian reporter—one of many present for the event. Decent burgers but slow service were had at Bastad & Burger right beside our apartment, and we had an early night for the early start we were expecting the next day.

Of the actually eclipse experience I’ve already written, so for the morning let’s just say that we were well organised and ahead of most of the crowds, getting out onto Route 5 (the Panamerica) and climbing into into the mountains of the southern Atacama desert along several switchback sections. We’d read our instructions well and followed the signs to the La Silla base camp rather than the eclipse party camp that the normal road would have taken us to. A fleet of minibuses took us up to the mountaintop, where we joined hundreds of others in waiting for and enjoying a close-to-ideal eclipse experience.

A mirrored dish and telescope dome at La Silla observatory, Chile.
Even without the eclipse, it still would have been a pleasure to visit La Silla.

Descending in the darkness and driving back along the 5, things got a little more tricky. The switchback sections of the road were navigated without too much trouble, but long before we hit La Serena we hit a tailback. One that went on and on, keeping us stop-starting and crawling for an hour and a half before we reached the lane closure that was the partial cause. That and the numbers of cars leaving the eclipse viewing sites were a warning of what the next day would bring.

Our last day in La Serena saw us trying to get around some bank and card issues that had been only partly sorted out during the car hire experience. This entailed leaving the beachfront area of the city behind for the commercial centre, crossing the dirt-tracked area in between, and navigating the city’s one-way system before we could even begin to deal with the banks and get the funds we needed for our accommodation. Still, we managed it in time and had one last look at the beach before getting in the car and setting off at around noon. A little later than planned, but a five hour drive and eight hours before the car was due back was plenty of leeway, right?

Sunset over the Pacific again, seen from somewhere north of La Serena.
I didn’t get to see the sunset while driving—this at a rest stop we took was the best I could manage.

Wrong. The Panamerican south to Santiago was a nightmare. The one sensible thing we did was to fill up the car as early as we could, as every subsequent filling station featured ever-longer queues. Every toll station along the road south now resulted in a massive tailback as everyone quit the area of the eclipse for the capital and/or the airport. None of the tailbacks were as bad as the one we’d endured the night before, but together they added up, and it was long after dark that we found ourselves at the outskirts of Chile’s capital, trying to follow the signs for the airport. (On our trip north, we’d missed a turnoff and ended up heading south through the city instead, eventually restoring ourselves to the right direction through guesswork and drama.)

After some tense moments, we finally pulled into the car rental site with ten minutes to spare and gratefully returned our off-brand Chinese SUV without any more scratches than it had when we got it (but quite a bit more desert dust). A shuttle to the airport and a taxi into town at last brought us to the Hotel Magnolia, by far the most luxurious of our lodgings. We had just enough time to venture out to Holy Moly for one last round of beers and burgers, as well as Pisco sours before and after in the hotel bar.

A queue to board a coach in Santiago’s Terminal Sur.
All aboard for those of you who want to cross the Andes in genuine comfort.

That was more or less it for me though. While the Doctor and the Lawyer had another full day in Santiago to shop and explore, I was heading for the bus station the next morning, after eating my fill at the Magnolia’s excellent breakfast buffet. Farewells were said and I was off, first on the metro and then (after an hour’s delay) on the bus heading east into the Andes, where tunnels, valleys and switchbacks took me above the snow line and into Argentina, my last view of Chile being down a narrow rocky valley into the sunset land beyond.

Black Sun Odyssey

It’s that time of year again. (It’s not—that time of year would be September, if I hadn’t skipped it last year, for reasons.) The travel itch has overtaken me. (The travel itch never really goes away—what does overtake me is available money and time.) I’m about to go somewhere I’ve never been, see something I’ve never seen, and tell the story of it all here. (Those bits are true enough at least.) So sit back and let me explain what’s going to be.

A bit more than a year ago, one of the podcasts I follow, the ESOcast, flagged up something interesting. A total solar eclipse was due to pass over Chile in 2019, more specifically directly over one of ESO’s mountaintop observatories in the Atacama Desert. More relevantly, they were going to sell tickets to this event. My travel plans for 2018 having fallen through, the combination of viewing an eclipse, venturing into the southern hemisphere for the first time, and getting to visit and perhaps cross South America was too tempting to resist.

From darkness into light. A tale of two mountains.
A map of my own folly.

This time though, I did something unusual for me when travel planning. I reached out to a couple of friends who I knew to be astronomy buffs and suggested a joint trip. When I got positive responses, I booked three tickets. A year ahead of time, I was locked into a big trip. It was the longest lead time I’d ever had for a trip like this. The only question is what shape the entire trip would take. The result is the shape on the map above.

Santiago in Chile is the starting point, where myself, the Doctor and the Lawyer will congregate. Chile’s an awkwardly shaped country, thin as a ribbon and stretching across a good portion of the world’s latitude, north to south. The eclipse event is due to happen at a mountaintop site called La Silla, at the southern end of the Atacama Desert, so we’ll be driving (or to be more precise I will) five hours north, first to La Serena on the Pacific coast and then a further two hours north on the day itself to La Silla. As the Atacama is one of the driest spots on earth, this is as close as possible to a sure thing as regards eclipse watching, but either way it’ll be a unique experience.

After this, things don’t get any less interesting on the trip. Another night on the Pacific coast and a few more in Santiago, and then the Doctor and the Lawyer depart for European shores, whereas I go on my merry way. Once again, road and rail are my carriers, but South America’s rail system being as disconnected as it is, there’s only one rail section of this trip, from Cordoba to Buenos Aires in Argentina. To get there, I’ll be hopping two buses, crossing the Andes to the wine district of Mendoza before reaching Cordoba itself.

Buenos Aires comes highly recommended, so it should be a highlight on the trip, and I’ve set aside several days to explore it. Plus, it’s only a ferry trip away from another goal on this journey—the less-visited country of Uruguay and its capital of Montevideo. Like Moldova and Mongolia on earlier trips, Montevideo is an inexplicably personal requirement for a place to visit. Maybe I have a thing for locations starting with “Mo”?

Anyway, if things were otherwise, the trip might end there. I’ll have crossed another continent to add to Europe, Asia, and North America (and I have plans for two of the remaining three), and Pacific to Atlantic would be enough for me. Except that when I was booking flights, departures from Montevideo or even Buenos Aires were prohibitively expensive. So I made a somewhat rash decision that gave birth to the ludicrous-looking line on the map that runs north from Montevideo to the metropolis of São Paulo.

It’ll be the middle of winter when I hit Brazil, but a 29-hour bus trip will drop me into heat matching anything that an Irish summer can muster. For this last part of my trip, I don’t know how much time I’ll spend in São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro (from whence my relatively cheap flight departs), but for my mum’s sake I’ll at least try to climb the hill overlooking the city to visit the Christ the Redeemer statue.

So that’s the plan. Another continent-spanning, mostly land-based odyssey, with a lot of freedom to improvise around some pre-booked fixed points. It’s been too long since I’ve been on one of these trips, and it’s going to be a novelty to be kicking it off in company for a change. My Spanish being as limited as it is, and the prevalence of English speakers being probably less than you’d find in Europe, I’m expecting to face a few more challenges than I have before, but challenging myself is part of the reason why I like to travel solo. You don’t learn anything new by doing the same old thing, again and again.

As always, I’ll fire up travel highlights here as often as I can, and more detailed travel journals will follow in their own good time. There’ll be photos and maybe even some videos, especially of the eclipse. I hope you enjoy it all. I know I will.