driving the pan american highway

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Ruta 40

Driving through most of Central and South America has given us some insight into Latin American border politics, so after narrowly escaping a hefty fine for trying to smuggle popcorn into Chile we were surprised to find a lack of reciprocity and much more amiable officials on the Argentine side of the border.


We crossed over from Chile to drive through the Argentine Lake District in Patagonia and to meet up with the famous “Ruta 40″ which stretches over 5000 kms – pretty much the entire length of the country… one of the largest routes in the world (apart from the unofficial Pan American Highway) along with US Route 66 and the Stuart Highway in Australia).


The land here undulates around ragged mountains and breaks quietly apart falling into deep lakes and glacial valleys. We spent a few days in Bariloche and climbed Cerro Campanario to get a stunning view of the hidden lakes. Driving further south we stopped to have a traditional tea service in Trevelin, which was founded by the Welsh in 1865 and still maintains it’s strong Welsh heritage.


We made a quick detour off Ruta 40 to check out Perito Moreno a huge Glacier fed by the Southern Patagonian Ice Field before heading out to the coastal and windy Ruta 3 which finishes in Tierra del Fuego… the end of the road.

Before we arrived in Rio, I the travel nerd, was busy reading up on all the things you can see and do in Rio.  One thing that caught my eye was a favela tour. Favela is the term used to refer to slums or shanty towns in Brazil.

It was a bit of a struggle to decide whether to partake in this type of tour.  On one hand we did not want to feel like we were on a “zoo” tour.  On the other I was curious to see what the favelas were like.  The movie Cidade de Dues (City of God) clearly portrays the violent side but I couldn’t help but wonder what daily life was like in Rio’s famous favelas.  So I called up Favela Tour (you save a few bucks if you call yourself instead of having your hotel do it for you) and booked us on a tour.

There are 800 favelas in Rio and 20% (about 1 million people) of Rio’s population live in them.  A new government project “Barrio” (neighbourhood) has received 550 million dollars from the Interamerican Bank to start providing basic infrastructure like water and sewage lines into these areas.  The goal is to integrate the favelas into the city.

A view of the favela

A view of a favela

Out of 800 favelas 4 are controlled by militia and the rest, all 796 are controlled by drug dealers.  From what we were told the only difference between the two is that the militia doesn’t sell drugs.  The drugs for sale tend to be marijuana, coke and crack cocaine.  For a potentially very violent area, favelas have a surprisingly low crime rate and robbery is a rare occurrence.  Why?  Well with crime comes the police and the drug dealers don’t take to kindly to having the police poke around in their shady business.  This does insinuate that drug dealers may take punishment into their own hands so those pondering performing criminal acts probably think twice knowing that consequences are much harsher coming from the dealers.

Rocinha is Rio’s largest favela and at 60,000 people its population is equal to that of Copacabana.  It has the most people per square meter in all of Rio.  According to our guide, living in Rocinha is like living in one of India’s slums.  That is not a very uplifting thought however, for some, it is not all bad, in fact, you might be surprised to know that all these people living in one place has actually created numerous jobs and 91% of all business in the favelas is informal business (local shops, video stores etc).  8% of the inhabitants of this favela are considered middle class earning 1000 to 2000 Reals ($550 to $1100 USD) per month.  Rocinha also has organized water, sewage (to some extent), health clinics and even a postal service without government assistance.  There are 3 large banks, local radio stations and even a community newspaper found within the favela’s limits.

Ummm power anyone?

Ummm power anyone?

So, should you take a tour?  For us, it was an eye-opening and interesting look at these neighbourhoods that envelope the city of Rio de Janiero.  They are only minutes from the famous beaches and wealth of Ipanema and Copacabana and are a huge part of Rio’s culture. You won’t go far without seeing some painting of colourful shanty homes stacked sky high.  The people who live in the favelas are like people anywhere – for the most part good, hard-working folk looking to create a better life.  However, there is serious drug dealing in the favelas, weapons are often visible and YOU don’t belong so don’t kid yourself into thinking that the favela is a safe place for any foreigner to walk into. Taking a tour is a safer way to explore this part of Rio.  Even better, the tours offered by Favela Tour help to support 80% of Para Ti a local organization that provides a place where kids from the Vila Canoas favela can go to learn, play and stay out of trouble.

Update Brazil

The thing about driving to South America is that you’re not always guaranteed quality roads. Here’s a quick update of how Marlin, our Volkswagen Golf, is doing after driving the Pan-American Highway for over 35,000 kms.


The largest salt flat in the world, the Salar de Uyuni in the southwest of Bolivia, stretches 10,000 square kilometers across the Altiplano to form one of the flattest areas on our planet. 12,000 feet above sea level the massive salt desert was created by the uplift and evaporation of the giant prehistoric Lake Minchin.  In Bolivian mythology the Salar is actually a collection of evaporated tears from nearby Mount Tunupa forever mourning the loss of her kidnapped son.

A vastness of salt, blindingly white and bloody cold at night the Salar de Uyuni is a formidable place and after hearing horror stories about drivers getting lost and people dying we decided to hire a local guide to show us around… apparently some of the minerals make compass readings unreliable.

Roberto was a sprightly, gap toothed ex-minor from Potosi and claimed to speak 7 languages, our tour was in Spanish. He told us that the Salar is believed to hold half of the world’s reserves of lithium but the only thing it yields right now is salt, about 25 thousand tonnes annually. He gave us a pretty good tour condensing a three day trip into a comfortable days drive. We ended the day giving Roberto an impromptu driving lesson …his first time driving and up to 80, not bad.

We had both been looking forward to driving into the Salar and after battling some of the worst roads so far, Bolivia finally offered up a salty smooth tarmac twenty five times the size of the Bonneville Salt Flats. See below for Kels’ celebratory kung fu rock kick.

Salty Kung Fu

Dragging ourselves out the hotel door at 6am we clambered, sleepily, onto the van waiting to take us to the start of 3 day/4 night Lares trek.  The Lares Trek is an alternative route to the famous and insanely crowded Inca Trail.  Hearing good things from a couple we met in Quito we thought it sounded about our speed: between 3 to 6 hours of hiking a day, all meals included, the highest pass was 4400m above sea level and we only had to carry our daypacks.  Wanting to do out best to promote sustainable and fair tourism we looked around at a few tour companies and settled on Qente, a long-standing tour operator in Cusco.

We weren’t disappointed.

Craggy hills and low-lying clouds marked our ascent into the Andean highlands.  Our tour guide, Kari, introduced us to the native plants, explaining how the land is farmed as well as sharing an encyclopaedic knowledge of Inca history and mythology.  Dedicated to her job and intuitively aware of the trek and it’s impact on the locals Kari encouraged us to buy a big bag of bread explaining that bread is like cake to the highland kids. Unused to sugar the bread is less harsh on their teeth than packaged treats, and with the lack of dental care, fresh bread is the best option.  Personally I am still unsure about foreigners offering treats to the local kids as I think it encourages begging and the expectation that foreigners will always have something to give.  However when little kids started popping out behind rocks bellowing “GRINGOS!” and running down hills to meet us along our hike it was pretty nice to have something suitable for them.

We spent two nights camping, our first site at 3800m above sea level and the other at 4200m.  My god, was it ever cold. So cold that I think all of us had every imaginable layer of clothing on. So cold that were dreaming of hot showers, extra blankets and those long johns we didn’t buy.  Bed was right after dinner as the sun had long since disappeared taking the heat with it.  Curling up in our sleeping bags we waited, through bouts of icy sleep, for morning and the warm rays of the sun.

Lucky for us our last night was spent in a lux hotel in Aguas Calientes, complete with hot shower, before heading to Machu Picchu.  We rose the last day at 4am to get in line for the bus by 4:45am with hopes of getting a fairly exclusive ticket to climb the mountain directly across from Machu Picchu. Only 400 people per day are allowed to climb Huayna Picchu, where you can see the ruins from a bird’s eye view.  Stunned by the amount of tourists ahead of us we anxiously got on our bus and prepared ourselves to run to the ticket booth as soon as we got into the grounds.  Tickets and passports checked we followed Kari as she expertly wound her way  through the ruins to the ticket booth.  Coming in at numbers 385 and 386 we made it by the skin of our teeth.  Word to the wise, if you want to climb Huayna Picchu and if you are going to get up at 4am anyway you might as well get to the Machu Picchu bus line-up at 4:20am

Machu Picchu is truly amazing.  However by about 1pm the ruins are swarming with tourists, taking away a little of the specialness and making clean photo ops few and far between.  But it was quite a sight from Huayna Picchu and we were left uncertain about what this place really was… a city, a refuge, a place of chosen women?  It’s secretive location and lack of definitive explanation makes Machu Picchu a very mysterious, albeit heavily touristed, locale indeed.

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