Driving the pan american

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When we were in Otavalo, a short drive south of the Colombian border, I spotted a wool shop that I wanted to check out and then promptly forgot the following day.  Fate must have been thinking that I was in need of a new jacket because Casa Helbling, the hostel we stayed at in Quito, was directly across from the exact same store, Hilana.  Not only do they sell beautiful wool, they make a well-designed selection of wool jackets, slippers, scarves, mittens and much more.  I believe the designer is French but all the materials are sourced from Ecuador.

It was actually Tom who spotted this jacket and suggested I try it on.  The sleeves were a tiny bit short but with a bit of chatting the lady at the shop managed to get the sleeves lengthened in 24 hours.  And I came away with a custom tailored, 100% wool jacket and a couple of skeins of lovely Ecuadorian yarn for $60 USD.

Jacket from Hilana

On October 20, 2009, 20 months, 18 border crossings and 45,946 km later we arrived in Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego without a single flat tire.

The end of the drive...

Marlin, our little red battler, survived temperatures ranging from -40 to +40ºC, painfully huge speedbumps, numerous river crossings and some of the craziest roads to bring us to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world.

The end of the road actually lies within Tierra del Fuego’s Parque Nacional  – a packed, dirt road winds through thick forest taking you to the end of Ruta Tres.  And from, there, well you are going to have to walk if you want to get any further.

Wine at the end of the world

We enjoyed a picnic at the end of the road with good friends and fellow roadtrippers, Kristin and Chris.  Wine (from the end of the world of course), some nibblies and lots of laughter capped off our trip.

It is hard to believe that after all our saving, talking, planning and, of course, driving we are suddenly here.  It is quite surreal and at this moment I think we are still a bit stunned that we made it.  A few nights before we arrived I lay awake pondering our travels over the past 20 months. With the Pan American Highway now behind us, I tossed and turned disbelieving that our driving adventure was coming to a close (at least for now). So we find ourselves at the end (literally and figuratively) with our trusty little Volkswagen Golf thinking of the generosity of those we met along the way, the countries we have seen, the moments of frustration, the laughter, the learning and the knowledge that a small car and a couple of regular people can sometimes do something just a little bit out of the ordinary.

Ushuaia

The land at the end of the road

We struck up conversation with Mary in a small cafe in Copacabana, Bolivia.  As she left, minus her meal (Bolivian service is a work in progress), she parted with, “If you are ever in São Paolo give me a call!”  Well, bet she didn’t actually expect us to call…

The lovely Mary invited us into her home and we spent 5 days hanging out with her in the gigantic city of 18 million people.  Mary moved to São Paolo to teach and let me tell you, it’s a pretty sweet gig.  In fact it would be a great way to live somewhere new and fully immerse into a culture completely different from the one you know.

Hanging with Mary

Hanging with Mary

Mary and all her fun and crazy teacher friends shared a little bit about teaching for international schools.  One thing to note is that they are all extremely dedicated and talented folk who deeply love what they do.  They have to learn how to integrate kids into new classes, deal with parents who don’t speak English, plan curriculum and manage kid stuff all year long. They all said it, and we would agree, that you need to love teaching to do their job.

Teachers NEVER have fun

Teachers NEVER have fun

But, if you are interested, perks can include:  a higher salary than in Canada or the US, subsidized rent (pretty much free rent),  a monthly grocery stipend, amazing free lunches at school, free language classes, contract bonuses, a good amount of vacation time,  assistance with doctors, dentists… just about anything.  Two of the gals we met own cars and they told us that if a car needs fixing they drive it to school, park it, leave the keys with reception and Voila! at the end of the school day their car has magically reappeared fixed, ready to go in the school parking lot.  We tried to see if we could take Marlin to school too – but we couldn’t swing it.

These perks are totally dependent on the country, the school and the contract.  Not every international school is going to feed you lunch or pay for your lux apartment.  However if you are a teacher or are interested in becoming one–international teaching could be a great way to do what you love and see some of the big ol’ world.

Rio I think I love you

Rio is intoxicating.  The vibrancy of the city, the diversity of the people and the laid-back feeling have created a delicious energy that sinks into your veins making you crave more.  Its addictive quality has me seriously thinking about how we can spend more time there again… soon.

John and Nina, of the fabulous Rio Dolphin Inn, made us feel at home in their cozy bed and breakfast.  Not only do they run a great inn but they are both passionate about Rio and have tonnes of tips and ideas on what to do when you visit.

We took 5 days to explore some of what the city has to offer…really you could spend at least a month, perhaps a lifetime exploring Rio but here are a few of our highlights:

Hanging with the beautiful people on Ipanema
Ipanema is where it is at for sun-worshippers.

Thong time Break out your umbrella, grab a coconut water, your itty bittiest bikini (or teeny weeny shorts for the men) and settle in for some serious people watching (my fave activity anywhere).  Or, for the more active, jog along the boardwalk, play beach volleyball or surf. This is winter in Rio… it’s a rough life.

Ipanema in Winter

Visiting a Samba School
Carnaval is months away but for those involved behind the scenes it actually starts about 8 months earlier.  One of the first things that a samba school needs to do is choose a song for the upcoming Carnaval.  Songwriters have a chance to submit original works of music to their school.  The songs are then performed and a long process of choosing “the” song begins.  We went down to one of the biggest samba schools in Rio for their first night of song selection.  Being typical westerners we arrived around 11pm but the party didn’t really begin until 1am.  Insanely loud music, sassy samba dancers competing like preening peacocks and loads of drinking kept that party going all night long.

Samba school gets ready for Carnaval from Kels M on Vimeo.

Checking out the madness at Selaron’s steps
“The Great Madness”,  215 ever-changing tiled steps, is Chilean artist Selaron’s life’s work.  Starting in 1990, he began to tile the steps in Brazil’s national colours as a tribute to the country’s people. He kept on even when he couldn’t pay rent or utilities and now, 20 years since he started, numerous photoshoots, magazine interviews and thousands of tiles later Selaron is still working on his masterpiece.  Tiles have been sent from all over the world and you can find one from just about every country. We stopped by for a look and found Selaron hanging out on his steps, not much of a talker he did agree to have a photo taken with us.  He has said, “This crazy and unique dream will only end on the day of my death” and so he can usually be found working most days exchanging old tiles for new.

Selaron's steps

Partying with the locals in Lapa
On Friday nights the place to party is the Lapa district, close to the Rio’s old aqueducts.  Our taxi left us there around 10:30pm and the streets were packed with hundreds of people, all waiting for the night to begin.  After buying $2 caipirinhas from a street vendor we heard the seductive pounding beat of drums and headed over to investigate.

Lapa time!
A full bateria (the drum section, the beat behind the samba) was playing on the street, and they had everyone moving to the groove, before long the group turned and marched into a club with the lively crowd following.  Not wanting to miss out we joined them and busted some dance moves of our own though we were definitely put to shame by the Brazilians who seem born with an innate ability to move well.  We finished the evening off with maracuja (passionfruit) caipirinhas at a small club listening to sultry bossa nova .

Partying in Lapa from Kels M on Vimeo.

Seeing the classic “Rio” view from the Sugar Loaf
High at the top of the Pão de Açúcar (Sugar Loaf) you can enjoy a drink and check out the view of Rio de Janeiro and the Christ statue.  Built in 1912 and rebuilt in the early 70s the cable car takes visitors high above the city. The awesome view is so iconic it is definitely a must-see.

Sugar Loaf

Concerned about which way to enter Brazil we started asking all the Bolivians we came into contact with what the roads to Paraguay (option 1 to get to Brazil) or to the Bolivian / Brazilian border (option 2) were like.  The response was that the roads were good but that the road to the Brazilian border was better than the one into Paraguay.  Perfect, now we knew which road to take.  We continued asking around and when we were about to leave Sucre we asked our lovely hostel owner if the road was really ok…

Si, she replied, si es transitable.

So we headed east.

The road from Sucre to Saimaipata was bad, the road from Samaipata to Santa Cruz was worse and the road from Santa Cruz to San Jose de Chiquitos …. oh lordy, it was the most excruciatingly painful road we have driven in this ENTIRE trip.

Transitable = a bone-jarring 10 hour drive to go 250 km, frustration,  no gas stations, instantaneous irritability (the kind when someone talks and you immediately get angry for no apparent reason, it’s just that they have spoken…to you), thoughts of calling the whole trip off, borderline breakdown tears (me not Tom) and to top it all off we watched a semi fall over right before our eyes.

It truly was an exercise in patience as well as a huge test for us as a couple, which we passed since both of us are still living and we have decided not to go our separate ways after being trapped in the car together for probably the longest 10 hours of our married life.

Semi down on Joydrive's worst road ever

Semi down on Joydrive's worst road ever

For more about driving in Bolivia (and it’s awesome roads) as well as other tips about driving the Americas click here.

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