The Great South American Challenge
February 14 to March 24 2013
In February 2013 we took 29 crews to South America for a truly epic endurance rally, the Great South American Challenge, which encompassed five outstanding countries on a route of more than 15,000 kilometres. If you were only ever going to visit South America once, then this was surely the way to do it, visiting all the best places on the continent.
From Rio de Janeiro the rally took the participants to the spectacular Iguacu Falls in Brazil, along uncharted routes through Bolivia and on to the amazing Uyuni salt flats. From there we made our way to La Paz, the highest capital city in the world, and thence to Lake Titicaca, Cusco and the astonishing Machu Picchu in Peru. Heading south, we moved on to some of the driest places in the world, including the fantastic Atacama desert with its spectacular geysers and the clearest night skies in the world, where the Milky Way appears to be a solid mass of stars!
We climbed the Andes up to 4,800 metres and then drove down one of the most spectacular routes into Salta. From here the wine regions of Argentina and wide open spaces of Patagonia beckoned. Memorable sights included the great Perito Moreno glacier, the wonderful town of Bariloche and one of South America’s greatest hotels, the Llao Llao.
Finally our six-week adventure arrived in the world’s most southerly city, Usuhaia, from where you may look out over the Beagle Strait and feel the chill winds blowing up from the Antarctic. Here at this time of year you will find penguins and sealions, seabirds and tranquillity – a truly wonderful place to finish a great event, and to congratulate the overall rally winners, father and son Max and James Stephenson in their lovely 1923 Vauxhall 23/60.
All good things must come to an end, they say, but we very much hope to return to South America in future. If you wish to join us, please register your interest with the Rally Round office.
“We are delighted to have won The Great South American Challenge. It included so many South American highlights, joined together by brilliant driving roads through ever-changing landscapes, and the best available accommodation where we could rest and re-live the day’s excitement with our fellow participants.”
Max & James Stephenson (1923 Vauxhall 23/60) – Winners, The Great South American Challenge 2013
“We would like to express our gratitude for the great time we had on the South American Challenge. We will never forget these six wonderful weeks full of spirit, fun, a little competition and impressive routes. It was a unique experience for which we would like to thank every member of the team. We would have loved to continue with you all the way back from Ushuaia to Rio!”
Andreas Pohl & Robert Peil (1962 Mercedes-Benz 220 SE) – The Great South American Challenge 2013
“Thanks for providing such a wonderful adventure! This was one of the best trips of my life. I will always remember the route, the people and the landscapes – all out of this world. It was an opportunity to strengthen old friendships and make new ones while dealing with the daily challenges on the road, and I enjoyed myself all the way. It was certainly the very best rally I have had the privilege of participating in.”
Martin Egli (1933 Lagonda M45) – The Great South American Challenge 2013
“What a great trip! Please convey our thanks to everyone on the team for making it such a memorable adventure, with fantastic roads, incredible scenery, top hotels and entertaining company, all accompanied by copious quantities of beer and steak – what more could one wish for? We look forward to doing it again!”
Mark Seymour & Chris Evans (1928 Ford Model A) – The Great South American Challenge 2013
“This was the best rally around South America, going to all the right places – my dream route!”
Paddy Walker (1937 Buick Series 4 Coupe) – The Great South American Challenge 2013
|1||David Ayre (GBR)||Karen Ayre (GBR)||1907 Itala 40HP||A|
|2||Ralf Weiss (DEU)||Kurt Schneiders (DEU)||1923 Austin 20||A|
|3||Bill Bolsover (GBR)||Biddy Bolsover (GBR)||1927 Bentley 3/8 Litre||A|
|4||Chris Evans (GBR)||Mark Seymour (GBR)||1928 Ford Model A||A|
|5||Steven Harris (USA)||Hayden Burvill (AUS)||1964 Porsche 356||C|
|6||Fritz James (USA)||Lang Wightman (USA)||1929 Ford Model A||T|
|7||Adrian Shooter (GBR)||Barbara Shooter (GBR)||1930 Ford Model A||A|
|8||Peter Little (GBR)||Louise Cartledge (GBR)||1930 Bentley 4.5 Litre||B|
|9||Mark Winkelman (NLD)||Victor Silveira da Conceicao (PRT)||1932 Plymouth PB3||B|
|10||Martin Egli (CHE)||Thomas Kern, Marc Buhofer & Jack Amies (CHE/GBR)||1933 Lagonda M45||B|
|11||James Stephenson (AUS)||Max Stephenson (AUS)||1923 Vauxhall 23/60||A|
|12||Paddy Walker (GBR)||Scott Greenhalgh (GBR)||1937 Buick Series 40 Coupe||B|
|14||Lloyd Dahmen (USA)||Chuck Schwager (USA)||1949 Cadillac 62 Coupe||B|
|15||Roger Goodwin (GBR)||Gillian Goodwin (GBR)||1958 Austin-Healey 100-6||D|
|16||Lloyd Reddington (CAN)||Treacy Reddington (CAN)||1959 Sunbeam Alpine||C|
|17||Daniel Schlatter (CHE)||Rabia Schlatter (CHE)||1960 Mercedes-Benz 280SL||D|
|18||Andreas Pohl (DEU)||Robert Peil (DEU)||1962 Mercedes-Benz 220SE||D|
|19||Nicholas Pryor (GBR)||Lesley Stockwell (GBR)||1962 Volvo PV544||C|
|20||Frank Bird (AUS)||Ross Oakman (AUS)||1964 Holden EH||E|
|21||Mark Robinson (GBR)||Yvonne Fuller (GBR)||1966 Jaguar S-Type||E|
|22||Marc Buchanan (USA)||Charles Green (USA)||1967 Ford Mustang||E|
|23||Dr Jose Romao de Sousa (PRT)||Maria Romao de Sousa (PRT)||1968 Volvo 142S||C|
|24||Reg Toohey (AUS)||Tony Spanjers (AUS)||1968 Chevrolet Camaro||E|
|25||Steve Hyde (GBR)||Janet Lyne (GBR)||1969 Mercedes-Benz 280SL||D|
|26||Herbert Pinzolits (AUT)||Hans Geist (AUT)||1969 Mercedes-Benz 280SE||D|
|27||Ralph Cotter (USA)||Liza Cotter (USA)||1970 Peugeot 404||C|
|28||Roger Allen (AUS)||Maggie Gray (AUS)||1971 BMW 2800CS||D|
|29||Jorg Lemberg (DEU)||Antonio Cardoso, Peter Schmidt, Maic Laubrich (DEU)||1971 Mercedes-Benz 280SE||E|
|30||Patrick van Griethuysen (NLD)||Louise Peters (NLD)||1984 Citroen GSA||T|
|Day 1||Day 2||Day 3||Day 5||Day 7||Day 8||Day 11||Day 12||Day 13||Day 14|
|11||Stephenson / Stephenson||Vauxhall||A||1||1||1||1||1||1||1||1||1||1|
|5||Harris / Burvill||Porsche||C||3||1||1||1||1||2||1||1||1||1|
|26||Pinzolits / Geist||Mercedes||D||1||1||1||1||1||1||1||2||1||1|
|14||Dahmen / Schwager||Cadillac||B||1||1||1||1||1||1||2||1||1||1|
|20||Bird / Oakman||Holden||E||2||1||1||1||5||1||1||1||1||1|
|9||Winkelman / Conceicao||Plymouth||B||5||1||2||2||3||2||1||4||1||1|
|3||Bolsover / Bolsover||Bentley||A||3||1||4||2||5||2||3||3||1||1|
|4||Evans / Seymour||Ford||A||2||1||2||3||2||3||2||2||3||1|
|10||Egli / Kern / Buhofer / Amies||Lagonda||B||2||1||3||5||2||3||4||2||1||1|
|18||Pohl / Peil||Mercedes||D||5||1||5||3||4||3||3||3||5||1|
|19||Pryor / Stockwell||Volvo||C||1||1||4||3||2||1||2||3||1||1|
|27||Cotter / Cotter||Peugeot||C||4||1||3||4||5||3||3||2||3||1|
|8||Little / Cartledge||Bentley||B||4||1||4||4||5||5||5||3||5||1|
|2||Weiss / Schneiders||Austin||A||4||1||3||4||5||5||5||4||5||4|
|17||Schlatter / Schlatter||Mercedes||D||5||1||5||5||3||4||3||4||3||1|
|12||Walker / Greenhalgh||Buick||B||3||1||4||3||5||5||3||5||5||1|
|Day 18||Day 19||Day 20||Day 22||Day 23||Day 25||Day 26||Day 27||Day 28||Day 29||Total|
|11||Stephenson / Stephenson||Vauxhall||A||2||1||1||1||1||1||1||1||1||1||11||1|
|5||Harris / Burvill||Porsche||C||1||1||1||1||1||1||1||1||1||1||10||2|
|26||Pinzolits / Geist||Mercedes||D||2||1||1||2||2||1||1||1||1||1||13||3|
|14||Dahmen / Schwager||Cadillac||B||1||1||1||3||1||2||3||3||2||1||18||4|
|20||Bird / Oakman||Holden||E||2||1||1||5||1||1||5||1||1||1||19||5|
|9||Winkelman / Conceicao||Plymouth||B||3||1||3||1||2||3||1||2||1||1||18||6|
|3||Bolsover / Bolsover||Bentley||A||1||2||2||2||2||3||3||2||3||1||21||7|
|4||Evans / Seymour||Ford||A||3||3||3||3||3||2||2||3||2||3||27||8|
|10||Egli / Kern / Buhofer / Amies||Lagonda||B||2||3||2||5||4||1||2||1||3||1||24||8|
|18||Pohl / Peil||Mercedes||D||4||1||5||3||3||2||2||2||2||1||25||10|
|19||Pryor / Stockwell||Volvo||C||3||2||5||5||5||5||5||5||5||5||45||11|
|27||Cotter / Cotter||Peugeot||C||2||3||5||5||5||5||5||5||5||1||41||12|
|8||Little / Cartledge||Bentley||B||5||5||5||2||3||5||5||4||4||5||43||13|
|2||Weiss / Schneiders||Austin||A||4||4||4||4||4||4||4||5||4||4||41||14|
|17||Schlatter / Schlatter||Mercedes||D||3||4||5||5||5||5||5||5||5||5||47||14|
|12 (B)||Walker / Greenhalgh||Buick||B||5||5||5||5||5||5||5||5||5||4||49||16|
|14-Feb-13||1||Rio de Janeiro||Arrive||0||Sheraton Hotel|
|15-Feb-13||2||Rio de Janeiro||45||Sheraton Hotel|
|16-Feb-13||3||Rio de Janeiro||to||Maresais||550||Beach Hotel|
|18-Feb-13||5||Curitiba||to||Foz de Iguacu||710||Iguassu Resort|
|19-Feb-13||6||Foz de Iguacu||Rest Day||Foz de Iguacu||0||Iguassu Resort|
|20-Feb-13||7||Foz de Iguacu||to||Dourados||503||Bahamas Hotel|
|22-Feb-13||9||Corumba||to||Santa Cruz, Bolivia||670||Los Tajibos|
|23-Feb-13||10||Santa Cruz||to||Sucre||492||Capital Plaza|
|28-Feb-13||15||Puno||to||Cuzco||471||Tambo del Inka|
|01-Mar-13||16||Cusco||Rest Day||Cuzco||0||Tambo del Inka|
|04-Mar-13||19||Arica||to||Iquique||372||Holiday Inn Express|
|05-Mar-13||20||Iquique||to||San Pedro de Atacama||485||Kunza Hotel & Spa|
|06-Mar-13||21||San Pedro de Atacama||Rest Day||San Pedro de Atacama||170||Kunza Hotel & Spa|
|07-Mar-13||22||San Pedro de Atacama||to||Salta, Argentina||594||Salta Sheraton|
|08-Mar-13||23||Salta||to||Cafayate||190||Wine Resort/Los Sauces/|
|Patios de Cafayete|
|09-Mar-13||24||Cafayate||to||Villa Union||575||Canon del Talampaya/|
|13-Mar-13||28||Santiago||to||Chillan||631||Termas de Chillan|
|14-Mar-13||29||Chillan||to||Pucon||547||Green Park Hotel|
|15-Mar-13||30||Pucon||to||Bariloche, Argentina||398||Llao Llao|
|16-Mar-13||31||Bariloche||to||Esquel||367||Sol del Sur|
|17-Mar-13||32||Esquel||to||Los Antiguos||588||Antigua Patagonia|
|18-Mar-13||33||Los Antiguos||to||Gob Gregores||407||Alojamiento Alberdi|
|19-Mar-13||34||Gob Gregores||to||El Calafate||336||Xelena Suites|
|20-Mar-13||35||El Calafate||Rest Day||0||Xelena Suites|
|21-Mar-13||36||El Calafate||to||Rio Grande||756||Grande Hotel|
|22-Mar-13||37||Rio Grande||to||Ushuaia||212||Los Cauquernes|
|23-Mar-13||38||Ushuaia||Final Day||0||Los Cauquernes|
On arrival at Rio de Janeiro airport you will be met and transported to your hotel. The rest of your day is free for you to explore one of the world’s great cities. Please join us and the rest of the crews for a drinks party in the evening.
Today we reunite you with your cars and complete all the necessary rally documentation before our navigation exercise to familiarise yourself with our system. In the evening we have a welcome dinner to introduce you to your fellow participants and our team.
Our first competitive day is a fairly straightforward run out of Rio on good roads allowing you time to acclimatise to the traffic and life in South America. The route aims to avoid greater Sao Paulo, which is extremely busy, by skirting around the northern suburbs. You should reach your destination by mid afternoon, providing time to carry out any fettling your car might need before the longer days ahead.
We have a gentle start to the day as we roll through the wheat-bowl region of Brazil with vast tracts of agricultural land on either side. Once past Ribeirao Grande we begin the climb into the fantastic Apial hills, offering stunning drives along the Sebastiao Ferraz de Camargo Penteado and fantastic views over the surrounding countryside.
Heading west out of Curitiba we head for the Serra da Esperenca range of hills and some great driving through this seldom-visited region. We have picked great roads in this part of Brazil to give you a real taste of the mountains. Our destination today is the fantastic Foz de Iguacu falls and we arrive in time for a visit on the Brazilian side. Iguaçu means ‘big water’ in the local dialect and they are not wrong. The falls are among the greatest natural wonders of the world and a truly stunning sight. Tonight we sleep on the Brazilian side at the Hotel das Cataracas.
Today we cross the border into Argentina for a tour of the Iguaçu Falls, which have a flow capacity equal to three times that of Niagara Falls. The Argentinian side includes the Garganta do Diabo (Devil’s Throat), the highest of the falls at 97m (318 ft). Seventy per cent of Iguacu is located on Argentine territory, but most of the falls face Brazil. To get the most out of your visit it is advisable to see them from both the Brazilian and Argentinian sides.
After the well-earned rest day at Foz de Iguaçu we turn north on secondary routes skirting the border with Paraguay until we reach the Parana River. We then join the main road through another agriculturally rich region to Dourados. Our hotel for the night is the best in town, with excellent facilities and a welcoming staff.
From Dourados we head north-west on minor roads where there are plenty of opportunities for stages, before turning north onto main roads at Miranda. Driving into Corumba we pass through the Mato Grosso du Sol (Thick Forest of the South), one of the most popular tourist destinations in Brazil with a profusion of wildlife, vegetation and marshlands.
It is a short hop from the hotel to the Bolivian border, then fast, flat roads for the rest of the day allow you to eat up the miles to Santa Cruz. The first section in Bolivia is paved so is relatively quick. After El Carmen the Bolivian authorities have been surfacing the road as quickly as possible, so we may have a good surface all the way. We will update you after the recce. An early start to this long day is recommended; the hotel will be a welcome sight and has great swimming pools and excellent service.
As in much of Bolivia, other than main routes, the surface here is a mix of tarmac and graded dirt – dusty but generally good. Our journey to Sucre is no different, starting on the Santa Cruz to Cochabamba highway, which is the main east-west paved route, then a section of graded road before finishing on tarmac on the way into the town of Sucre. The competition classes make a run to the Che Guevara Memorial, which will add an hour or more to their day. In keeping with the tradition of Paradores in Spain, our hotel is in a 17th Century building that has retained its character and is one of the most charming places to stay in Sucre.
Leaving Sucre on good roads, allowing your average speed to increase (although you may stop to look at the scenery), we head to Potosi, one of the highest towns in the world at 4000m and well known for its silver mines. From Potosi the remaining 210km to the salt flat outside Uyuni is a secondary road and unpaved for much of the way. Although surfacing work is being carried out it’s impossible to tell how far they will have got by the time we roll up. But it’s a journey worth taking as the destination for the day is Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flats. You will arrive in time for a sundowner and a chance to look round your astonishing hotel built from salt blocks – nothing like using local materials. The walls, the floors, the furnishings and the entire hotel’s structure are completely made of salt making this one of the more unusual places you are ever likely to stay!
The Salar de Uyuni, is not only at the top of the new 25 wonders and natural historical attractions in the world but it also holds some 50 per cent of the world’s lithium reserves. Today, weather permitting, we get a chance to drive the salt flats with some very special stages – another unusual experience. Afterwards it is necessary to thoroughly wash the cars down as the salt gets everywhere.
From Uyuni we travel north on the graded road to Lago Poopo, following it all the way to Challapata where we join the well-paved road to La Paz via the Valle de la Luna, a spectacular canyon 10km from the heart of La Paz, which has eroded to look like a lunar landscape. The first 200km is slow due to the condition of the road. La Paz, the highest capital in the world, dating from 1548, is the administrative centre of Bolivia, while Sucre is the constitutional capital and the seat of the Supreme Court. The altitude in the city ranges from 4,058m (13,313ft) in El Alto (where the airport is located) to 3,100m (10,170ft) in the lower residential area!
For the competitors we start the day with a great loop to Tiahuanaco, which rejoins at Taraco just a few kilometres down the road. The touring class have a straight run from La Paz to the border. Once across the border we hug Lake Titicaca (the highest and most famous navigable waterway in the world) for about 150km as we head into Puno, 3,287m above sea level. This is the folklore capital of Peru (due to the Feast of the Virgen de la Candelaria). The lake contains numerous islands whose inhabitants to live just as their ancestors did. The Uros, for example, live on ‘floating islands’ created entirely from totora reeds.
The road today is not complicated but fantastic as it winds its way round the northern edge of Lake Titicaca and then on to Cuzc, which is the nearest large town at the bottom of the mountain where Machu Picchu stands. We don’t stop in Cuzco town itself as our journey has another 70km to go to the sacred valley of Urubamba and our hotel for the next three nights, the Tambo del Inka. Location is everything, and this is the only hotel in the Sacred Valley with its own private train station on the Machu Picchu line. It’s a superb place from which to explore the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu and Cuzco itself.
We take the train from our own station to the 15th Century Inca site of Machu Picchu and a tour of this historic location. This enigmatic complex, located 2,430m above sea level, is the most important and beautiful legacy of the ancient Peruvians. It was unknown to the outside world before being brought to international attention in 1911 by the American historian Hiram Bingham, and is one of the few places in the Americas placed on both the World Cultural and Natural Heritage Lists by UNESCO. It is located high on top of a mountain and complements the exuberant nature that surrounds it. A truly unique experience.
Located at an altitude of 3,400m, Cuzco is one of the most beautiful cities in South America. Once the capital of the Inca Empire, the city is a fascinating mix of pre-Columbian and Spanish colonial styles. It offers some incredible museums, cafes, bars and restaurants. Stroll through the capital of the Incas, amongst atmospheric colonial streets and houses built on Inca walls. You may make use of a special ‘multiple tourist ticket’ to explore many ruins and museums which are generally off the tourist beat.
Our route takes us along the Carretera a Paruro through canyons and plains and across the mountains from Cuzco to Espinar, the hub of a road system that centres on this little town. Here is an example of the incredible high-Andean life at its best. This road leads ever higher until you reach the crater of an extinct volcano, the Chucura, nearly 5,000m high. From this viewpoint, the highest of the route, you have a panoramic view of eight volcanoes in a chain along the western Andes. The road then takes us to Chivay, famous for its hot springs, before heading to Pinchollo and the Canyon del Colca, which is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in the US. Las Casitas del Colca is Peru’s hidden gem, a collection of luxurious cottage villas with a fabulous spa, set in the peace and serenity of this remote canyon.
The trip from Colca to Arica is a little adventure in its own right. From the Canyon the route climbs to a vast plateau with ranches scattered amid huge mountains. The landscape is littered with interesting volcanic rock formations, which have been formed over hundreds of years into shapes reminiscent of forests or ghost cities. We follow the fantastic Route 1SE out of the mountains, down to the Panamericana highway and on to the border at sea level and on to Arica on the Pacific coast. With a surprisingly mild climate and temperatures rarely exceeding 72F, it is a very pleasant place to stop.
Arica marks the half-way point in the rally in terms of mileage, and is a useful point at which to change navigators or passengers as there is a small airport taking flights from most large airports in the region. If you need spares or supplies it is also the perfect point for deliveries. Today is a day off for the crews to enjoy the surf or visit the Arica national park, which is home to vicuna, alpaca, wild chinchilla and many other indigenous Chilean animal species.
Today we have excellent roads for most of the way, helping the average speed. We head east on Highway 5 from the northern province of Tarapaca to Chuquicamata, where you will find the world’s largest open cast copper mine – and the dust to go with it. Then we turn south to the Atacama desert. You will need some warm clothing at this altitude even in the middle of the day. You will also need plenty of water. Our stop for the night is the Hotel de Larache, located on a plain known as the Ayllu de Larache, once inhabited by an ancient Atacameño community. The owners have respected the original layout of the land and restored and maintained some of the buildings.
In the morning there are stages through the desert to the El Tatio geysers in sight of the brooding Licancabur volcano. The tests are a little faster today as there is nothing to get in your way if you have ‘an off’. In the afternoon there’s plenty to do for the inquisitive: the Salar de Atacama, a giant salt flat; Chaxas Lagoon, part of Los Flamencos National Reserve; Puritama Hot Springs and Fort Quito, a 12th Century fortification.
Today we leave Chile and head for Argentina. It is almost all uphill for the first 160km from San Pedro de Atacama and through the Paso de Jama pass. With some amazing roads and stunning views it is the most northerly route between Chile and Argentina. At a height of 4,400m above sea level both you and your car will be running out of puff, but the drive is spectacular across the mountains. Salta is known as ‘La Linda’ (the beautiful one) – although the town itself has faded somewhat. The highlights are the Spanish architecture, preserved for the benefit of tourists, and the surrounding geography, which is definitely worthy of the title
From Salta it’s a shorter day, with a drive through the Quebrada de las Flechas (Canyon of Arrows) as we head south and then through the Quebrada de Cafayate Canyon as you approach Cafayate. The two canyons make it another really memorable days driving. Cafayate is Argentina’s second city for wine production; the area is famous for its Torrontes grap, which produces an aromatic white wine, but the local bodegas also produce some fine reds.
It’s a great drive today up and down the Andes, through the mountains, following river beds both dry and wet. We leave Route 40 at Belen onto the more picturesque roads with a mix of good tarmac and graded surfaces. Finally we turn east and rejoin the 40 towards Chilecito and our night stop at Villa Union.
Today we drive the mountain desert roads with a landscape that looks more moon than earth. This is an arid area with water piped in from the lakes and rivers in the Andes to control the watering of the vines. This is after all La Rioja province, named after its more famous Spanish wine region. San Juan may be overshadowed by the bustle of Mendoza but it’s no slouch when it comes to wine production. One test for the day will be at the San Rafael race circuit. Here, you will have to set a lap time and then repeat exactly the same time for another 3 laps: a piece of cake! All over the world Mendoza is synonymous with wines so we have a rest day here to take in a winery tour and give you a chance to sample some of the local vintages. Our hotel is the Mendoza Park Hyatt, a truly sumptuous hotel and perfect base for a couple of days sightseeing and imbibing.
There is a lot to do here, from white-water rafting to museums, but the most fun is to be had on the wine tours, of which there are several. The small town of Maipu, just outside Mendoza, is so packed with wineries, olive farms and other gourmet businesses that it’s easy to visit five or six in a day – you can even hire a bike to make your tour easier.
What a day! From Mendoza we head west towards Chile and one of the great passes on the event. Heading out on Route 13 we climb to Uspallata and join Route 7 to Las Cuevas Eva Peron, just before the border with Chile. From here it’s a spectacular descent down the Los Caracoles de Cuesta, one of the region’s most spectacular winding roads. Once out of the Andes we arrive in Santiago for a well-earned chance to catch up on tales of the descent.
Driving out of Santiago we point south on the valley floor between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean. The road is a section of the Panamerican Highway, which we follow to Curico then head towards the Pacific, over the foothills and away from the main road. Chillan is the base town for the local ski resort of Thermes de Chillan in the winter months. The twin volcanoes of Chillan look down over the town.
From Chillan we head towards Los Angeles – another one – and away from the Panamerican Highway through the foothills on the Pacific side to Temuco, which is the gateway to the superb Chilean Lake District. Our stop is at Pucon, which has an unrivalled location by a lake and volcano. Chile’s Lake District is aptly named. There are 12 major lakes in the district, with dozens more dotting the landscape. Between the lakes there are rivers, waterfalls, forests, thermal hot springs, and of course the Andes, including six volcanoes of which Villarica is the highest at 2,847m (9,395ft). The scenery here has been likened to Switzerland, and with the early emigrations from Germany and the consequent German feel to farms, towns and traditions, it is certainly cosmopolitan, yet entirely Chilean.
The road from Pucon to Bariloche is very pretty; a winding paved and unpaved route that crosses the border at the base of Volcan Lanin. The road continues onto the Seven Lakes Drive through some of Parque Nacional Lanin, passing deserted mountain lakes and dense forests. Bariloche itself is a modern resort area with chocolate stores, restaurants and trendy shops revealing German, Italian, and American influences. Perched on the shores of the vast, blue Nahuel Huapi Lake, this alpine town is surrounded by stunning forests, mountains and lakes as far as the eye can see. We stay at the fabulous Llao Llao Hotel, not just a hotel but a destination in its own right with a range of amenities including a spa.
A day for exploring the nearby lakes or simply relax at the sumptuous Llao Llao. A great day trip is to visit Cerro Tornador, Ventisquero Negro, the black glacier, and some of the nearby lakes. The scenery at Lago Mascardi is enhanced by the heart-shaped island in the centre (Isla Corazon) surrounded by water of the most beautiful shade of greenish-blue. The glacier itself is a mass of dirty blackish coloured ice at the foot of a large mountain, with glaciers rising up the slopes of the mountain feeding various waterfalls down the face. A kilometre farther down the road on the other side of the same mountain is the face of Cerro Tornador, a sheer rock cliff capped with white and sky-blue glaciers that melt to form dozens of cascading waterfalls down the rock faces, a scene reminiscent of The Lost World.
A beautiful day’s drive today as we head south along the banks of the various lakes in the region along Route 40. After Epuyen we find Route 71 to Cholila, which, although barely a recognisable town, has become an pilgrimage site since US author Ann Meadows identified a house where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid lived for a while on the run. Once again we follow fingers of lakes as we follow the Argentinian Lake District to Esquel, a deceptively tranquil town of wide avenues divided by densely planted trees. It is also the southern terminal of the Old Patagonian Express line or La Trochita – a narrow-gauge steam train.
The route south from Esquel offes a variety of surfaces and conditions as we do not stick to main roads all the way. We start the day on Route 40 but then turn off and take the old road past Alto Rio Senguer, which also offers the chance of a selective stage before returning to Route 40 at Rio Mayo for the remaining 100km to Perito Moreno. Confusingly, this is not near the glacier at all but some 620km to the north!
After travelling about 10km from Perito Moreno you get your first sight of Lago Buenos Aires, in Latin America second only to Lake Titicaca in length and extending far into Chile. Its intense blue waters are evidence of its profound depth. On the Argentinan side the beaches are composed of smooth rocks and surrounded by steppes, while on the Chilean side the sea-like lake lies between dramatic mountain peaks. We then enjoy a great drive passing by Lago Cardiel and Lago Viedma, where we have our special selective stage of the day. Our accommodation for the night is in the Posada los Alamos Hotel, where will have a well deserved rest and a chance to try some local wines. The hotel sits in the edge of the town, within walking distance of restaurants and other amenities. Named after the berry that, once eaten, guarantees your return to Patagonia, El Calafate hooks you with another irresistible attraction: Glaciar Perito Moreno, in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. The glacier is a magnificent must-see, but its massive popularity has encouraged the rapid growth of the once quaint El Calafate.
No competition today as we take the cars on an excursion to the Los Glaciares National Park some 80km away. Some people come to Argentina just to see the Perito Moreno glacier, which is a flow of blue ice more than 22 miles long and with an average height of 74m. It is still growing and constantly on the move, making alarming cracking noises – a surprising contrast to the surrounding ochre plain. Periodically the glacier advances over the L-shaped ‘Lago Argentino’ (Argentine Lake) forming a natural dam that separates the two halves of the lake when it reaches the opposite shore. With no escape route, the water level on the Brazo Rico side of the lake can rise by up to 30m above that of the main lake. The enormous pressure produced by the height of the dammed water finally breaks the ice barrier holding it back, in a spectacular rupture event. This dam/rupture cycle is not regular but recurs at any frequency from once a year to less than once a decade. The last time it happened was in 2008.
Today we turn east, leaving the main road at El Ceritto and taking the scenic route that runs along the Chilian border, as the direct route is initially fairly straightforward running across the pampas. Taking the scenic route means there are plenty of opportunities for competitive sections as we bump along the eastern edge of the lower Andes.
We have a fabulous eight-hour drive to finish the Great South American Challenge, from the southernmost end of Patagonia to the tip of Tierra del Fuego. We cross the border from Argentina to Chile shortly after leaving Rio Gallegos and take the ferry at San Gregorio. This is also the last day of competition and we have the perfect section after Rio Grande so you can finish in style. We then cross from Chile at San Sebastian and enter Tierra del Fuego at Punta Delgada.
As you cross the finish line you will be toasted with Champagne and lauded for the incredible journey that you have just completed. To celebrate the great achievement we have a fantastic Gala Dinner where the prizes will be awarded.
In Ushuaia you can enjoy the great feeling of being in the most southerly city in the world and marvel at the incredibly clear, deep blue waters of the South Atlantic Ocean. A busy port and adventure hub, Ushuaia is a sliver of steep streets and jumbled buildings set between the Beagle Channel and the snowcapped Martial Range. It’s a unique location at the end of the world and they make the most of it. Its endless mercantile hustle knows no irony, the souvenir shop named after Jeremy Button (a native kidnapped for show in England) being just one example. That said, with a pint of the world’s southernmost microbrew in hand it does feel idyllic and far away from the rest of the world and its cares. Our hotel, the Los Cauquenes, is situated on the Beagle Channel, with superb views across the bay.
Today we lock our cars away before they are shipped back home, and say our fond farewells.
Day 1 on the road
Rio de Janeiro. Left hotel at 6.45. Copacabana beach is already active, joggers, walkers, skateboards the old and the young. Guess they are trying to get their exercise before it heats up – already 27 and headed for 35 degrees. Traffic is light. Since we have been here we have been impressed by the Brazilian drivers – well mannered, courteous and tolerant. Leaving the city is easy, well signposted and clear – the dual carriageway is well maintained, two or three lanes. Some trucks but no ‘white vans’. Speed cameras are clearly marked, as are speed bumps in towns. The suburbs last for 50km then the buildings disappear and we are into the country – green and lush but well manicured, they have workmen strimming the verges. We enter the hills and the dual carriageway is great – long sweeping bends, undulating through the hillsides, up to about 1,000m above sea level. The surface is perfect. The only thing missing is a great exhaust note – I wish we were in the Jaguar!
After two and a half hours the road reaches a plateau, flattens out and becomes straight, 50km of this and we turn off onto a B-road to find the first test venue. After 20km we turn off the B-road to a country lane. We could be anywhere in Europe, with cows, farms, tracks off to the side. The test we choose is 40km of twisty lanes climbing into the hills, with fantastic views of the surrounding granite hills, covered in trees. The road is good, not perfect, with some potholes, but nothing to match the those we have in Surrey! As we cross the range of hills and go down the other side the countryside becomes tropical, with dense vegetation right down to the roadside, lush and green interspersed with vivid purple, orange and yellow – quite beautiful. The bird life is also tropical, gone are the turkey vultures hovering overhead. Now we see brightly coloured birds flying in and out of the trees. On one roadside verge we even see Guinea Fowl wandering in the undergrowth.
Eventually we make it down to the coast road. The sea is a brilliant blue but even though we are only 100m away the vegetation is so dense that for km after km we can’t see the water. Then there is a break and the bay curves before you for the next 5km before the sea disappears again. We stop at around six in an Ibis hotel – we have two appointments tomorrow to view the hotels the rally will be using. It has been a great day, with some fantastic roads and the dual carriageway we hoped to avoid was actually the best of all – long fast bends excellent fun.
Day 2 on the road
We continue along the coast road, with forest on the right and glimpses of the sea. On the left after 100km we are joined by the main route from Santos, a container port, and Sao Paulo; this heads inland for 50km then we fork left towards Curitiba. After a fruitless search for suitable B-roads and loops for tests we decide to head straight for our overnight stop. The road is well maintained and again climbs and falls as it twists throughout the forested hills. It is busy though. This area borders the Atlantic – Paranaqua is the second largest grain port in Brazil – and we are also leaving the industrial hinterland of Sao Paulo, the biggest city in South America and still growing. Hoping to find a ‘truckless’ route is foolish. Fortunately on the event we will drive this route at the weekend, so there will be fewer trucks. That said, they pose no problems, generally driving quickly and safely and using the crawler lanes uphill.
Day 3 on the road
The staff at the Raddison hotel in Curtiba are charming – we leave with maps of the town and very clear directions to the highway. Heading for Foz de Iguacu – our man in Brazil tells us the falls are 700km from here. A brilliant day’s driving though – 50km sees you out of Curitiba and into the countryside, completely different from the roads from Rio to Curitiba, with pine trees and grassland, very rural, no forests. The road is on a plateau, undulating between 750 and 1,000m elevation. With streams and lakes it looks very European. The road itself has a fantastic surface, smooth, no potholes, and as on previous days it sweeps through fast bends, over crests and down hills – fantastic to drive, fast and flowing. All hills are two lanes up, one lane down – lorries use the crawler lanes.
Our special stage today is 100km long, two lanes through an agricultural area, both wheat and corn being harvested, birds are all sizes and all colours – even the blackbirds are iridescent. We found the route on the map but asked at a petrol station for directions. Filling up were two octogenarians, a 1929 Model A Ford and its 80-something owner. He confirmed that even though the tarmac petered out it was still the main road for the grain lorries and the farmers, and yes he did drive it regularly in his Model A. Once again the road was fast and flowing but with blind crests and sharp bends to follow. Towards the end the road became graded gravel, red clay, which had been rained on very hard overnight but we had no problems – there are few potholes and it is regularly skimmed by the council. Big farmers are evidently very important. Back on the main drag with 300km left to go – a lovely drive with an awesome finish. Sundown is 19.05 and we arrived at the falls to see it dropping below the sky/water horizon – fantastic. A great day’s driving.
Day 4 on the road
The falls – by sunset, by moonlight and this morning by bright sunlight – are an awesome sight. The Cataratas is a five-star luxury hotel and we are well rested after a good night’s sleep. We leave the park, 140,000 hectares of tropical rain-forest, plus the Argentinian side which is slightly smaller, and take the dual carriageway back for 50km before turning off and heading north. The countryside is similar to yesterday with agriculture on both sides, but today we will follow, cross and recross the rivers Iguacu and Parana, which run through a broad delta created by the Itaipu dam (the biggest in the world) 30km above the falls. I would love to see the falls when they open the dam, which they do to stop flooding. We are not sure if the fertility of the plain we are crossing is due to the access to water or rainfall – there’s neen none so far on this trip. The towns are clean, and well kept, the area is obviously relatively wealthy.
Further north the road crosses a flat plain with herds of cattle on large ranches, still managed on horseback. Along the road are camps of migrant workers, 500m long, then 10km later another camp, and another. The last 100km are two lanes with too many trucks – they travel at 80kmh so patience is the order of the day. No tests today for the competitors – we looked at several but despite the roads being marked on the map they were either impassable, Mongolian style, or too rough for us, or they were dead ends, gated off by the local subsistence farmer and eventually grassed over. Still a decent day’s driving, not so interesting, not so challenging, but good for covering the distance (500km). Dourados is a typical town laid out on a grid system so finding the hotel is easy.
Day 5 on the road
Today we left Dourados for a 600km drive to Carumba. Having failed to find good stages yesterday we were not optimistic. But we ended up with a route on which the excitement grew and grew almost to the end of the day. Firstly within 50km of town we found a great test, graded gravel / clay, which is a main artery for the area, 45km long, straight, with narrow bridges, plantations either side, great fun. Then we spotted six emus grazing in a field. By the end of the stage we had seen dozens, very exciting, but it got even better. After 50km of tarmac we were off to the side again, gravel / clay, narrow bridges as before, more emus and an Armadillo! When we returned to the tarmac we still had 400km to go but I for one was very pleased with the day so far. Then our first navigator error! In his enthusiasm to keep the car interior cool at the coffee break he started the engine, closed the door behind him and it locked. Plonker. It was 40 minutes before the locksmith arrived, 15 minutes more and no key combination worked. My worst fears were dawning – 150 Rialls and he gets to break the glass – but no, out comes the pre-bent, custom designed coathangers. 30 seconds and he’s in. We shook hands, gave him his money and he looked me straight in the eye and said (roughlytranslated from Portugese): “You weren’t meant to leave, fate has taken a hand.” Though myself a disbeliever I do believe in other people’s power and thought our misfortune must have saved us from something – on reflection it was saving us for something!
The road we were on is long, straight and crosses the Pantanal National Park, thousands of hectares of swamp. All along the road are marshy areas with cattle grazing, waders feeding on the water and birds of prey, caracals, waiting in the trees. Kilometre after kilometre, ranchers on horseback rounding up cattle, all in all an interesting sight. Road signs say be careful of the animals in the park and we discussed anteaters, tapirs and big cats. What we didn’t consider were crocodiles, but there they were, basking in the mud by the pools just off the road (elevated to avoid flooding), first one then dozens, amongst them deer, hundreds of storks, Roseate Spoonbills, herons, egrets and ducks. Quite incredible. As we neared Carumba we crossed rhe Paraguay River, which feeds the swamp, and on the other side we saw a flock of bright blue Macaws. As an amateur twitcher I was very excited. Then we spotted a Guiness bird – our first Toucan. It was a great day. The tests were fun, the road surface still excellent but becoming patchy in places, preparing us for tomorrow. In Bolivia the contrast will be startling but I’m hoping to see another Toucan!
Day 6 on the road
Recce notes to follow.
Day 7 on the road
A day of sharp contrasts. The Salar salt flats are the largest in the world. To get to them you go through two old towns, Sucre and Potosi, both World Heritage Sites. You also go through (before and after) the worst roads we will encounter on the trip. We will report on the salt flats in a couple of days – today we have the approach to Sucre. We leave Santa Cruz after a more than adequate buffet breakfast. First stop for fuel, no, first stop for police motorcyclists who want to know what a GPS is! Now for fuel and jackpot first time – they have fuel and a licence to sell it to foreigners, cheap at $1.50 a litre. The road out of Santa Cruz starts off as we came in, very urban with commercial buildings and people waiting around for work or buses. After 50km we are in a rural district on a good two-lane road, the farmsteads are right the roadside and pigs, goats, cows, chickens and dogs roam the verges seemingly oblivious to the traffic. Toll booths are accompanied by police, who need to see our paperwork, and by street vendors – the cheesy pies are very good and would be even better hot.
Soon the road starts to ascend and the roadside houses disappear. We climb to 1,800m and the next 100km wind up and down the hills. The road is ok, a typical rural road – some potholes, not deep, uneven tarmac and the odd stretch of gravel where they are repairing it. After 250km we turn off to Sucre. It’s a dirt road but well maintained as it is the main route between Sucre and Santa Cruz and beyond Sucre to Potosi and Uyuni. The track soon climbs and we experience the first stretch of hairpins and unfenced drops, not really a problem – looks worse than it is. We climb and descend through tiny villages for 138km. Here the road becomes poor, very poor in places, roadworks periodically all along the route, single lane in places, through streams and over brand new bridges. It is not difficult or dangerous as long as you take it slow – you never know what is round the next bend – so we average just about 26kmh for five and a half hours. The driving is no fun and car prep for rough roads is imperative, but there are no prizes for trying to go quickly. But it is worth it. The villages are very poor, but take you back in time, thatched outbuildings for the animals, corrals made of thorns for the cattle. The women are more traditionally dressed – colourful, braided hair and various hats. The river 150m below has carved out a 2km canyon through the mountains, with sheer cliffs at the sides. Bolivia has carved a road through the same mountains, an awesome achievement, the equipment is old by modern standards but what they lack in technology they make up with in manpower – we encounter hundreds of workers, in groups of 20-30, carving the road and installing gables with rocks recovered from the river bed. Heavy rain has washed away parts of the road, now being repaired.
Day 8 on the road
We leave Sucre still wearing shorts. Everyone else is dressed for the local weather. Today it will only reach 18 degrees and it is only eight degrees when we leave, at 08.30. We easily find our way out of town and by 10.00 we are in the countryside. The road climbs gently for 20km or so and then more steeply, with fantastic views all around. We are following a dried river bed that forms a broad valley below, while around us the mountains rise up to a peak of 3,250m. From here we are on a wide plain, cultivated in smallholdings scattered as far as the eye can see. The houses are contructed of mud bricks made on site, the roofs are tile, corrugated iron or traditional grass thatch. The beasts of burden here are donkeys, which carry firewood and colourful bags of produce to the local market. Women sit waiting for transport, or walk at the roadside, heavily laden. It’s not clear where they are going – people walk in all directions, often a long way from any habitation.
The road itself is a sharp contrast to yesterday as it is paved and well maintained all the way to Potosi, where we stop for a quick look round the old town. The approach is disappointing as Boliva doesn’t seem to have got the hang of rubbish disposal yet. Everything – and I do mean everything – is dumped on the edge of town. Potosi is less easy to negotiate than Sucre but with some luck we find our way back to the main route. These are glorious roads through fantastic landscapes with distant mountains capped in snow. Around each corner there is a new view – granite changes to sandstone which in turn becomes sand. Warning signs inform us that we are in an unstable geological area, prone to landslides and rockslides along. The dry river bed next to the road is 50m wide and diggers and lorries quarry the rocks, simply graded by putting a wire mesh over the back of the lorry.
We follow the railway alongside the river, crossing and re-crossing the tracks. Round a bend we see the diesel loco slowly hauling its trucks up the gradient. Trains carry a lot of freight – fuel, rocks, gravel and salt. The roadside is covered in yellow flowers, llamas graze and I think we saw vicuna – more delicate than llamas. We also saw our first flamingo, and pink one at that – the lakes must contain shrimp. At the brow of the mountain the Salar opens up in front of us, white and shimmering like an ocean, as wide as you can see with snow-topped mountains, a subset of the Andes, in the distance. 30km from Uyuni the road becomes smooth gravel but that will soon change as crews are working on it all the way. The last 20km to the Salt Hotel is corrugated and rough. It’s slow going, but it goes quite quickly.
Has our destination been worth the last two days’ driving? A resounding yes from all of us. The beautiful, sweeping roads have been a real joy, and at the end of the day we have a unique hotel made entirely of salt, even the floor. We obviously haven’t experienced the road out yet. anddn’t expect it to be fun but we will have seen two World Heritage Sites and the largest salt flats in the world – nothing worthwhile comes easy.
Day 9 on the road
The Salt Hotel is a great experience, like the Finnish Ice Hotel but made of salt – and it doesn’t melt every year! On the road, the day was one of mixed emotions. The Uyuni to Challapata road, direct but slow, was under construction so we decided to reroute via Potosi. As a result we missed the salt flat experience, but like us you have probably read reports of it on the internet so we can wait a year. The road to Potosi was as described before, and from there we were on new territory.
Our first assumption was that Highway One must be Bolivia’s pre-eminent road. Wrong. It was probably the country’s first, though, and it has suffered. It is patched and must be made from different material from the others we have driven on. It has melted in the heat, and has tram lines four inches high – weird to drive on, and overtaking is like being catapulted sideways. But no more than inconvenient, really.
The road to Oruro is a good fast touring road, still great scenery, agricultural, similar to the others we have travelled on. At Challapata the Uyuni road joins and it heads north to La Paz – similar scenery etc with snow-covered mountains in the distance. The last 50km becomes congested and we enter the suburbs of La Paz, difficult to describe without being derogatory – shacks falling down, strewn with rubbish, scavenging dogs, dusty and dirty. It is dark, Saturday night and the small 12-seater buses are picking up locals going into town. The older women are stunning in bowler hats, shimmering skirts and shawls, the younger girls look as they do like any western city. The way they emerge from these tiny, dingy buildings is totally incongruous. We turn off the main road into La Paz and promptly get lost. Hernan has done this before so we hail a taxi to follow. All is good for 2km then he takes a sharp hairpin and we are looking down on the city all lit up below us. Right below us the road has a 1 in 3 or 1 in 4 gradient and goes on for a kilometre… Imagine driving this in a La France – my loyal navigator would have bailed out at the top! Worse is to come – another hairpin with the same gradient. We go from kerb to kerb. A real car (we are in a Ford Eco} would have to do a three-point turn. After half an hour we arrive at the hotel. I dismay my guide and clerk of the course by telling them that the road we’ve just driven will be impossible for a large number of vintage cars and we will have to do it all again in the morning. Indeed next day we take the hotel courtesy car back to the last place of level ground and, with explicit instructions, find another way into town, down an easily accessible road. I must say, given a 50s Jaguar or Porsche 356 – and closed roads – I would want to use that first road in.
Day 10 on the road
We had a choice of hotels in La Paz, none local, so we will probably decide on the Radisson. it is central, flanked by two parks, and a short walk from the cathedral and downtown. The manager was friendly and efficient and without prompting said he would close the road beside the hotel and put two security guards on the rally cars, because even though he has 40 parking spaces underground he would rather have them on display outside. The route out of town was easy – we had done it in reverse less than 30 minutes ago – through the Sunday market (literally) and off to the border with Peru. Exit no problem, two minutes and all smiles. Immigration no problem, six people in front, five minutes max. But Customs don’t like the fact our car is a rental, as cars must be accompanied by their owner. We have the signed paper we need, witnessed by Notary Public, but Customs man still not happy. Hernan remarks that he does this all the time – he was here with a group of 20 cars last year. This appears to insult the Customs officer in front of his minions, so they go to lunch for half an hour to think about it. They think Hernan should apologise, which he dutifully does, and now we are very humble. Very humble for two and a half hours! The head honcho’s parting comment: if you get a touring certificate for next time I can do one stamp for all the cars and it will only take a few minutes! If he is true to his word, with 50 cars to get through, this is a result.
Peru is beautiful. We follow the Lake Titicaca for most of the way to Puno, all the land between us and the lake is cultivated with potatoes, beans, peas and hay. The flowers are all herbs, the yellow ones camomile for making tea. Individual plastic bags have been used to cover the seed heads of each plant to protect it from the birds – it must have taken hours. The farm animals are all tied to stop them grazing on the cultivated crops and there are piles of reeds for feeding the livestock and for drying for winter feed. The birds are water related – ducks and grebes, coots, moorhens, ibis, egrets and waders, sandpipers and plovers, some recognisable some not.
The road is good, the surface very good, we found a test stage quite near the border going through a rural area, gravel but fast, spoilt at the end by the residue of a protest, rocks allowing just a car’s width between them, so the stage will have to stop immediately before or continue on until town, depending on what it is like in a year’s time. We continue to Puno on more good roads, fast except in towns where there are speed bumps, and at random police or military or military police checks – no money changes hands, just documents. The officials are not aggressive, just fussy – one wanted to know why the car was so dirty and proceeded to kick the tyres and laugh. Puno is another big town where you have to expect the unexpected, as the officials close roads and/or put in diversions on a whim. Tonight they closed the road two cars in front of us and took us all off to gthe left, down two turnings and right back onto the original road, which now had through traffic on it again, literally two minutes after our diversion! The hotel tonight is right on the lake – a low, whitewashed modern building. Tomorrow we drive to Machu Picchu.
Day 11 on the road
The Hotel Libertator interior is minimalist but the bar, restaurant and more than half the rooms have huge glass windows overlooking Lake Titicaca – a fantastic view. As we breakfast the boats sail past the window, taking guests to the floating islands. The trip to Machu Picchu is under 500km and, as we report below, the roads are good – this allows a choice for the day of either taking a boat out to the islands, a trip of about three hours, or relaxing in the square at Cusco on one of the balconies overlooking the two churches. There probably isn’t time to do both but we will explain the opportunities in more detail on our return. The road this morning climbs out of Puno, but before we get into our stride the military block our way and move us off to the side – we have run into a march of local people protesting about the mining rights around Puno being sold off to a foreign company. We don’t know which foreign company, but as we are two Brits and an Argentinian in a car with Argentinian plates Hernan suggests we keep a low profile. The soldier minding us is a huge man, and you would need to be to carry all that weaponry. Casting our low profile to the wind I get out of the car with my camera and he gladly poses for a photo. The protest march is cheerful, well organised and peaceful and only lasts about a half an hour so we are soon on our way again.
The first part of the journey is like the west coast of Scotland or the Swiss Alps, the lake is in front of us and the road winds along the valley, a good surface again and very picturesque. We then drop down the the valley floor and turn off for our first test stage of the day. The land either side is a flood plain and the road no more than half a metre above it. In places the potato crop has been flooded and I can’t help thinking the water level must be unusually high – the locals seem to depend on subsistence farming and surely wouldn’t plant a crop where it would be ruined. They have built dykes in places but these have been breached – they look in dire need of some Dutch technological assistance. We climb a little further then turn off onto our gravel stage, 10km of good quality, fast, open, solid gravel then the crest of a hill and another lake down below – the road twists and there are some nice curves, then a bridge, then water… no road, just water. About 100m to our right, there is the road again. The valley is flooded. Ladies are paddling towards us carrying their bags on their backs. We stop a young lad to enquire and he tells us this isn’t unusual, it depends on the rain. He says a 4×4 would make it quite easily but we have a small two-wheel drive SUV so reluctantly we turn back. At the road we turn right (away from the main road) to try again, into an ecological development centre where the farmers use only organic methods. The road winds through their village and then drops down towards the same lake and the same problem. Here we don’t have to ask if it’s a common problem, because the enterprising village lads are ferrying people across. There is a string of floating plastic Coke bottles to guide the adventurous. We turn back to the main road, and try again a few km further on. This time we find success – 20km of off-road test stage with good surfaces interspersed with a few bridges, which the prudent will slow for. Back again on the main road it’s good all the way to Cusco, two lanes winding up the hills with long straight stretches across the plain, as fast as you want it to be. Speed bumps mark the entry and exit of villages and/or schools. There are a few tolls, mostly free today, and almost no policemen.
The only thing to mar the day was Juliaca. We tried a stage here and the road followed a rubbish trail for 10km – not pleasant at all. To do an accurate road book we went back into town, on market day, to find where we had left the main drag. It was quite an experience. No lane discipline, no junction discipline, and weaving in and out of the vendors and right through town goes the train line and the train, people scattering everywhere. Anyway in the middle of this chaos there is a five-way junction, a traditional crossroads and the train tracks. To the side is a policeman on a raised dias – whistle, orange glow stick, gun and night stick. Hernan rightly judges the junction and gets there before the lorry and a tuk-tuk, only to slow after the junction. Unfortunately I am blind sided so don’t see the fully laden policeman running after us. It appears that whistle and stick pointed at you at the same time means stop, not go! Whereas in England I for one would be terribly apologetic and humble, Hernan turns to the rule book and directs the policeman to the section that says motorcyclists must wear helmets and restrict themselves to two on the bike at the same time – if he gives them a ticket we will happily accept one too. It works, and we are let off. The rest of the trip is uneventful, a truly pretty drive through European-type scenery on roads in good condition. Cuzco is a beautiful historic city with the usual raw hinterland and the road to ‘the sacred city’ winds quite gently down through the trees to the river valley below.
A day at Machu Picchu
The hotel has its own station so I’m up at 06.20 to catch the train to Machu Picchu. First class seats, just five of us onboard. There’s coffee and a snack but I breakfasted so I don’t bother. We have two stops on the way, one to pick up, the next to drop off bikers. In all, the journey (including the last half hour by bus) is 2.5 hours. The view is great as we follow the Urubamba river, which is running at class six rapids pace all the way. I’m not going to go into the trip around the site here – I won’t do it justice – except to say it is very well organised with multilingual guides and an incredible experience. The whole thing is just amazing, a must do.
Day 12 on the road
John and Hernan have done a great job with the maps while I was at Machu Picchu. We leave Urubamba and take a road through the valley, which avoids Cusco. After 50km we turn off the main road onto a brilliant stage, through the valley, into the clouds, following the river below us. The Peruvians are impressive in many ways, not least for their road maintenance – it is not even 7am yet where there has been a rock slide they are moving the small debris off the road with brooms made of rushes. The big rocks will have to wait for the digger, but at least one lane Is clear.
We have to rejoin the main Cusco to Puno road for 100km or so before heading west towards the canyon, and we have done only 5km when we set the second stage of the day – it ends up as 25-30km of winding roads up the valley on good tarmac until we hit the graded gravel that takes us across the plateau. On the rally this may be a much longer stage as we have to end it where they are upgrading the road. We sit for a full 40 minutes watching them at work – a scraper and two big rollers dance back and forth to tame a huge pile of dirt and rocks and convert it to graded road. As we pass the new stretch they have a couple of km of gravel, sand and cement dumped ready to spread. We are not sure if the activity we witnessed was new or repair works but for the next 50km we see crews clearing up slides. Eventually we hit poorer gravel and after 5km the road ends with a damaged bridge. Behind us is a sign saying alternative route, 6am to 6pm – quite daunting as above us looms a large dam. We take the diversion and wind our way under the dam and through the ghost town that was formerly the works, with abandoned graders and giant dump trucks, all rusting in a camp. Up the road we encounter to national police who tell us that the tarmac resumes 45 minutes down the road and that work on the bridge starts in two months. As the dam is upstream we wonder how the bridge was washed out.
We eventually arrive in Chivay and find two hotels of acceptable standard, one with 20 rooms one with 45, so we will probably have to split the group for one night.
Now the bigger issue. The condors are viewable an hour or so down the canyon, subject to the weather – they need thermals to get off the ground and might may not be viewable until 10am. The other attraction, the canyon itself, is also a problem. This winter is the worst in 20 years and the road has been washed out in several places, so to take the route we want is impossible and to view the condors means going there and waiting, rather than viewing them along the way, and then turning back and starting our 600km drive to Arica. One of the hotels also has a difficult approach and their new road has been delayed by weather – they hope to have it ready later this year (going back to the dam, we think perhaps they had to release water and the force of that took out the bridge a kilometre downstream). Anyway we will work on the alternatives and keep you informed. A slightly disappointing end to a great morning’s drive.
Day 13 on the road
Report on Arica to come.
Day 14 on the road
As you read this, bear in mind that last October’s rains were the worst in 80 years.
Nice hotel, breakfast outside overlooking the ocean. We left Arica on road number 5, a fantastic example of functionality. It is a great road, takes the shortest distance between two points and efficiently disposes of mountains, but despite being never more than 40km from the coast (and sometimes only 10) you never get to see the ocean. Clinically efficient in all respects, well maintained, well signed for any problems and a quick way to eat up the distances. We took two longish diversions inland on good quality gravel looking for stages only to find both washed out, one with a bridge literally gone, the other with two metres of road and the crash barrier missing on a hairpin bend with a sheer drop. We ended up finding two stages, the first tarmac all the way, the second very interesting with a short gravel section. Luck was on our side again when we were stopped at the junction by the local police who warned us about the conditions and the curves at the end of the proposed stage. We stopped 10km short of the original target and then reversed it uphill.
Our second dose of luck, and charm, came on the road to Iquequi, where we were headed to find the alternative accommodation we might need if road conditions force a re-route. It’s not often you are stopped twice in one day, this time by national police with a radar gun! Here we can be grateful for Hernan, our local DMC (Destination Management Consultant). It took a full 10 minutes not to get a ticket – instead the officer downloaded all the local information he had. Fantastic. Our original intention was to go into Iquequi and return by the same route, but it appears that 200km down the road there is a 40km section that has been washed out and the resulting problems have resulted in numerous deaths in the last two months. Far better to go to Iquequi and take the coast road past the problem, then head inland and carry on eEast to Atacama.
Iquequi is the capital of northern Chile and has new builds as well as the old colonial town. We found two decent hotels, one local the other a Radisson. Job done, we set off south. A fine road to the airport first, then due south, the beach never more than a few metres away. Despite many towns on the map they are all fishing villages with no fuel stations. With 70km to go to the next big town we pull off and ask for advice – we are directed to the jetty where the boats are unloading kilos of crab, squid and urchins destined for Iquequi, and refuel with 20 litres from five-litre plastic bottles, syphoned into the tank. We eventually turn inland and head up into the mountains, headed for San Pedro de Atacama. As we approach we can see the salt flats behind the town, desert and snow-capped mountains. A long but fun drive. We have an extra day here so tomorrow we’ll look at the Tatio geysers. DW
The Tatio geysers and back again
This will be a day of decisions for you, multiple choice. All include a visit to the Tatio geysers, best seen at dawn. 1) Leave on the hotel minibus at 05.30 to see the geysers at dawn. 2) Leave in your own car in the touring class. 3) Leave in your own car in the competition class. 4) See below…. We actually missed the dawn today as it’s a rest day for John. Yours truly therefore did the road book and set the stages, so any complaints should be directed at me! For a first effort I think did an ok job with the road book (to be checked later) and a first-class job with the actual route and the stages. I would be happy to drive or co-drive them if your driver or navigator wants to go on the tour bus.
The road to the geysersheads north-east out of town and immediately diverts past a washed-out bridge – here I hope my route book skills are up to scratch but it will have to be checked. We are heading slightly west of the snow-capped mountains, one of which is shrouded in rising cloud – our first sight of a volcano, the Volcan Apagado. We stop for photos and decide to set our first stage. The road is graded gravel, smooth and quick but we cut it short after 15km when the road rises on loose rock – we have a little difficulty finding traction but eventually crest the rise. Remember what I said yesterday about the rain. We set off on the plateau and set the second stage – really entertaining driving, gravel again and much better grip, just the odd impromptu stream to cross and the river where the bridge is out, all fun and not too challenging. We end the stage on the crest of a rise next to a signpost. Leaning against it is a Dutch retiree who is doing a similar trip to us – Santiago to Ushuaia and then back to Atacama – but he is on a push bike loaded with clothing, tent, sleeping bag and a gallon of water. I couldn’t even lift it! For the last 20km we have no stages as the road is being graded by workmen. There are tons of gravel, cement and sand piled by the side of the road, so we anticipate that the road will be in better shape next year, it’s already pretty good.
While we are unchallenged we see vicunas and flamingos, a flock of about a dozen feeding on the shore of a lake. There are abundant, coots, moorhens, ducks, geese and ibis. On arrival at the geysers we are one of only three cars, the rest have been and gone. It’s an eerie experience, must be fantastic at dawn, steam and water bubbling away all around and even into the hills. While we are here I enquire about route 21, which comes in from the north and was recommended by a good friend of mine who ran a quad bike tour. Unfortunately the road is another victim of the rains just a few km away. We haa similar problem trying to access it 100km to the north – maybe next year? We return by another route and set two more stages, one 25km and the other the reverse, this one is uphll for for 10km with hairpins, long undulating sretches and all with the Andes capped with snow and a volcano to the side. Great driving, great views, great wildlife, a super four and a half hours’ driving. Here’s my pitch, and I know this may be a once in a lifetime experience, but driving off road with little traffic is a brilliant experience. The route we choose will be suitable for all cars. If the road is still rock strewn we will go with the return route, we may use it anyway. Some of the hills are a little steep but no worse than the open road. The environment is breathtaking, calm and quiet, tiny villages border the road, people tend their animals or fields. They are reserved but if you wave they always wave back, if you stop to ask a question they always tell you more than you want and then they will smile. This is something that should be experienced as a couple in your own car in my opinion, but that won’t suit everyone. So, choice 4) do this in your own car with the lights on to catch the dawn, allow a little more time and it is doable, but your lights will need to be good. We will bring your breakfast and/or lunch.
Day 15 on the road
Today’s trip includes a border, almost! As you leave San Pedro for the border 150km away there is a customs post, but as we were in a hurry and as there was a long queue and as nobody seemed to be interested we skipped it. Mistake… The road out of San Pedro was annoying, 25km uphill, most of it straight, average gradient 1 in 20, steepest 1 in 14 – second gear, third gear, second gear etc etc etc. But what a view! All the time you look up to see a snow capped volcano and mountains, well, almost all the time. At 4,700m it feels like we are the same height. We crest the peak and start down, passing the turn to Bolivia, onto the plateau and a wide expanse of National Park and salt flats and flamingos – don’t worry if you miss them as there are more around the corner, and more salt flats, vicunas and llamas as well. A beautiful drive.
As we descend there is a sign welcoming us to Argentina. Remember the customs post? We stop, passports, no need to import the car we have Argentinian plates, but we cannot get an export paper for the car from Chile. Why do we care? Because in a few days we need to temporarily import the car into Chile again and it hasn’t been exported. What a stupid place to put a border post, 150km away from the border! Not a problem for us as Hernan will surely charm us back into Chile.
Salt flats, llamas, vicunas and flamingos know no boundaries as for the first 200km in Argentina we see many more of them. We resisted the temptations of gravel until we had cleared the border, in case it took time, but half a border takes no time at all. So at the first good opportunity we take to what Hernan calls ‘graded gravel first class’. Argentina has at least two classes of gravel. Here it is indeed first class, smallish shingle, compacted and smooth, until it isn’t, until it is a riverbed. No problem at first but as we climb the river beds become more frequent and wider, so after 20km we turn back. The rains know no boundaries either. Half an hour later we are looking at salt flats on both sides of the road, the left with water, the right pure salt. Turning left onto a mining road a few hundred yards behind a mining lorry we try again, finding sand, fast sand, soft, but firm enough to grip, a bit straight but really good, and then… you guessed it, a dried up river bed and a diversion, and another. Not a problem, still flat, but annoyingly it slows progress. We persevere, after all the lorry went through, and after a few km it becomes gravel again and then we have 50km of good stage, next to and across the salt flats with flamingos everywhere. We don’t have a target time for the stage yet because yours truly has pictures of birds feeding, standing on one leg, on their own, every flamingo combination you can imagine…
Back on the road we cross a salt flat being actively mined or quarried – I am not sure what you do with a salt flat – there are lorries on the lake and piles of salt waiting for transport. We climb 500m to an altitude of 4,200 and then the laws of nature come into play – remember the 25km climb uphill? Well what goes up must come down. We descend to below 3,000m on long straights, curves and hairpin bends. Engine braking will help prevent vintage drum brake fade – we managed without drama in a 2WD SUV with rear drums, just by taking it gently.
We skirt San Sebastian and come up trumps with the next stage on the old road to Salta – brilliant, 20+km at an average of 25km an hour, uphill, curves, straights, hairpins all between two walls of lush green vegetation. Today is Sunday and the locals are out for a meander. The 24-hour car will do it on a weekday to ensure no lorries for the rally and all being well you will arrive at the Sheraton with smiles as big as ours. Now sitting with a beer by the pool on the second floor overlooking the city, temperature a cool 20 degrees – sorry but we did do nearly 800km compared to the rally route of 550km. Tomorrow, we head south to Cafayate.
Day 16 on the road
Today is an easy run of about 200km. However need to return to Jujuy and the start of yesterday’s final stage, as we need to road-book the stage and the alternative direct route in case of heavy traffic on the day or for cars arriving at night – the stage is exciting but too much so in the dark. So an hour and a half later we start the day proper. The road we take is the 68, leaving town and heading south through small villages until we hit the canyon that takes us up the pass, through a national park to the wine region of Cafayate. Tarmac all the way to the canyon and a good stage winding up the river valley – ending earlier than it will on the rally as the bridges will have been mended by then and/or the road will be graded better than it is at present.
The run into Cafayate (and out again) is spoiled only by the rumble strips warning of the gullies that carry away excess water, dry at the moment. A mix of hotels here, but surprisingly for an area that attracts tourists and has its own ‘wine route’ there are only 38 first-class rooms. However, three-star is also very comfortable. We are looking to all dine together in one hotel that has great food and great wine, the grape being Torrontes and the wines predominately white. We are not hanging around to find good stages – when the side roads are in such poor condition it takes too much time so we are using the short day to explore tomorrow’s route.
Day 17 on the road
The area of wine growing around Cafayate is quite small so we are soon out of the vines and into open country. The drainage gullies – dips in the road, 10 metres wide – are frankly a pain. Ignore them and they bite. Go slow and they turn out to be benign. No consistency. Caution is the only approach, although in a Ford rental you can play the odds a little bit. Stages are proving difficult to come by. We head off on a 70km diversion where the map clearly shows a bridge at the end of the road, only to find out that the bridge is an earth bank, solid enough to take lorries, or it would be if it hadn’t been washed away five months earlier. We get as far as mid stream, but the Ford is only 2WD and the deductible is considerable. One bit of luck – half way back we find a new bridge being built, not on any map, so some time was saved. Route 40 is a main north-south artery for Argentina – the fact that some of it is still gravel is not too surprising given the ups and downs of Argentina’s economy for the last two decades. But between Chilecito and Villa Union is a perfect stage on paper, through a gorge, not too steep, again following a riverbed. Well that’s how Hernan described it. It is awesome, you will enjoy the drive immensely. However, rally stage it is not. It’s clay, winding up the canyon to start, no barriers but wide enough for two cars, then it carves through the rocks – stop and both driver and navigator will be able to touch the walls of the gully with their elbows. Despite being narrow, you can see for a hundred metres. But around a bend you descend to the valley floor and the road isn’t there anymore. It ends at the river. On the other side there, 50m away, hanging five metres in the air, it begins again. The yellow line is intact on both sides but in between there’s nothing – not crumpled road, not rubble, nothing. All gone downstream. Amazing. This example was extreme but not unique, and as I say this is a main north-south artery.
Soon afterwards, back on the hard stuff, we cruise into Villa Union. If they have replaced or installed barriers by next year we can have some stages. Otherwise just very entertaining driving at your own pace. The two hotels we have chosen in Villa Union are three-star – no safes and no minibars but they are done in traditional Pueblo style and are very comfortable, with nice public areas. They’re across the street from each other and under common ownership. Tomorrow Mendoza. and some Malbec.
Day 18 on the road
We leave Villa Union early, just after dawn, 200km is all on a two-lane road, scrub either side, the mountains in the distance left and right. It’s straight but with dips and drainage gullies, most harmless but demanding some care. When we turn off the 40 we are in another river valley. As we enter the road is temporarily closed to recover an accident, two 4x4s came together, nobody hurt, as soon as they clear the road we’re off, but our hopes of finding a stage are thwarted again – bridges out, tight hairpins with no barriers and sheer drops, not the sort of place to encourage excesses, but enjoyable driving none the less. Later we find an interesting stage along the river valley, with some dips and curves. Remember South America is a big place and to get from A to B they simply draw a line and build a road, efficient but not necessarily fun to drive. Anyway after a 15km diversion we are back on the road and heading south. Long straights, some gravel, but fast, so the kms get eaten up. There’s one more surprise for the competitors, and us – we found two large, wide, hard ‘beaches’ off to the side. Now we just need to decide what to do on them. In an underpowered 2WD Ford SUV they were fun, so watch this space.
Into Uspallata, route 7 and on to Mendoza. We have a good alternative to the Hyatt Regency here, likewise five star, pluses and minuses for both. The Intercontinental is on the outskirts, and as it looks like we will take the same route in and out the situation is ideal. Bigger rooms than the Hyatt, more flexible, and they work with four different vineyards to provide wine tasting with dinner. Hyatt says do as you wish etc. It’s ‘softer’ and in the middle of town, a mixed blessing. When we report back the team will decide. Had a great steak dinner with a nice bottle of Malbec in a local restaurant.
Day 19 on the road
Still dark at 07.30, beautiful dawn, fully light by 8am. We try route 13 and the road ends, washed out in a deep gulley, so we abort and try the 52. A concrete road towards the mountains for 30km, feels like it’s going somewhere specific and no further, we pass a cement plant and the road keeps going straight, 5km as far as the eye can see, 5km which keeps moving away. There is scrub on the right and more mountains on the left. Our first effort at a stage is a disused quarry, a great quad-bike track but too extreme for us. After 30km we arrive at Termas de Vilavicencio, a spa, the road ends at a hotel entrance, the only building. Off to the right a gravel road heads off up the mountain, a notice informs us that the road is not maintained during the winter and furthermore if we use it then the authorities accept no liability. Challenge accepted.
The climb is not steep, we start at 1,400m and reach the peak at 2,200m some 20km later, but it is narrow, has few barriers and is littered with rocks. Next is 28km of gravel and tarmac, which turns to riverbed, which turns to gravel, which crosses the river. All in all not suitable for the rally cars. We end in Uspallata on route 7, about 90km from the border and 250km from Santiago. The rally will leave the hotel and retrace the route it came in on, following route 7 to the Junction at Uspallata. A shame but necessary. The road to the border is excellent, it is after all the main Argentina-Chile trade route. The border is just forms and procedure, no problems even though we hadn’t exited Chile correctly. Across the border and onto the Christo Los Cuevas pass – fantastic photos but frankly a bit disappointing, think main trade route, think trucks in both directions at crawling pace, but it’s only for about 80km to Los Andes so not the end of the world. At Los Andes we head south and soon turn off to find a stage, loose scree after 5km and the Ford can’t get up the gradient. Back to the highway and off again, this time good roads, some a bit straight but navigation is needed, great views of the mountains. After 25km we join the ring road and head for the hotel. Tomorrow Santiago to Chillan.
Day 20 on the road
Out of the hotel onto the ring road and then off heading south. Dawn is at 07.45 and it is quite congested. 15km and 25 minutes later we are out of Santiago, but the suburbs extend for another 10km. Which is where we turn west towards the vineyards. Here Chile’s prosperity shows with schools, parks, supermarkets and new homes. This area is fertile – vines, fruit trees and sweetcorn all grow – but as we head south it is obvious that the lush areas were artificially irrigated, for now the mountainsides are brown and scrubby trees are the only vegetation. Chile has a massive program of public works and the B-road we are travelling is fun, through small towns with town squares and markets but periodically spoilt by roadworks where they are upgrading.
Further south we find a side road for a stage, it’s gravel and the only mountain pass we encounter all day, not high but with a succession of tightish hairpins then over the top and down, 25km in all. Back on the road the tarmac is good and we do approx 250km of the 400km on secondary roads, nearly all of it flanked by vineyards where they are starting to pick from the vines and fruit trees. We rejoin route 5, the Trans Am Highway, and arrive in Chillan at the Grand Hotel which has aspirations but has not achieved them yet… It is warm here, mid 20s at a guess, so we are off to find a chilled white. Tomorrow Pucon, route 5 goes all the way, our goal is to not use it.
Day 21 on the road
Chillan is a small town, so leaving is easy. We pick up the car from the secure car park two blocks from the hotel and head south east, parallel to route 5. Sunrise over the Andes is very impressive. The plain is between the mountains and the coast 80km away, mixed farming with fields of various crops, fruit trees, corn, and chillies, the stubble has been burned and piles of lime wait to be spread on the fields. The roadside is lined with smallholdings with the usual mix of pigs, goats sheep and chickens. Hawks sit on the fenceposts warming up for the day or feeding on the carrion killed overnight. The secret to all this fertility is the drainage ditches, standpipes and irrigation booms.
First is a stage set on tarmac, for now… We found a great piece of gravel, 25km long, after which according to two different maps there is the choice of another 10km and crossing a bridge or crossing the bridge after the first 25km. But neither bridge exists, not as we have encountered before because they have been washed away, but because they never were, never have been and are not planned – two different local sources, same story. I’m not convinced but in the meantime we are on paved roads. Shortly after the stage we cross route 5 at Los Angeles and head south again, a good road for 20km which turns into a great new road, two lanes, wide, long undulating straights, long sweeping bends with some tighter, must-slow-down corners, through two towns, it goes on for 100km over the plain and through forests, old and newly planted, absolutely brilliant driving. We leave the road about 100km from our destination and set the last stage of the day on good roads, twisting through the hills for half the distance when we hit Turmeco and start to negotiate our way to Pucon. With a 10km stretch of gravel we have achieved our goal, Chillan to Pucon without using the Pan Am Highway. The hotel is on the lake, beautiful views from our room and the bar and restaurant area. Argentina tomorow.
Day 22 on the road
Dawn here is 08.00 so a relaxed start as we want to see Volcano Villarica on the way out. it is a 20km round trip detour but as it is the highest volcano in the area we make the diversion. As we drive up the top is shrouded in cloud but as we get closer the clouds lift and we see the typical cone-shaped top. It’s $8 to get into the park so as we are only looking we turn around and set off for the border. As we leave Pucon we look right and see the volcano in all it’s splendour looming over the town – our hotel is about 5km short of Pucon so we had not seen the mountain the day we arrived. The hotel, Vill Rica Park, is a five-star owned by Starwood but not designed by them – it was a one-off so has more character than many modern hotels, plus the breakfast buffet served Bircher Muesli, a pretty good rendition with a little honey, a nice change.
The drive to the border is going well, about 100km up a wooded valley, climbing gently when the road runs out. The next 15km are no fun, hard packed rock, corrugation and stones the size of golf balls strewn about, uphill and round bends, but the scenery is superb – lakes with the early morning mist rising, mountains capped with snow (it is frosty outside) and volcanos. We arrive at the Chilean border, efficient and officious, no smiles but no problems either, only two other customers so quite brisk, about half an hour. A 1km drive to Argentinian border, the gravel is better already. We stop outside, only one other customer leaving Argentina. The immigration official rushes out to tell us we are parked in the wrong place, difficult to determine when you are on gravel with no white lines. We move the car five metres to the right and he is happy, laughing with Hernan. We enter the building and he has rushed around the back and is there to do our paperwork, he and Hernan didn’tt stop talking or laughing for the 10 minutes it took to clear immigration and customs.
300km to Bariloche. After the requisite 10km of gravel, the road is very good – Argentinian roads are patched and repaired more than in Chile, Peru and Brazil but the surface is still good, no potholes, over a couple of wooden bridges and… a police roadblock, half a dozen officers, all young, all armed. We stop and the one in charge, short sleeved shirt, beany hat, guns, laughs for five minutes with Hernan (his charm works with almost everybody). All is ok but as we prepare to leave th officer asks to look in the back. Back door open, cursory glance, back door closed and we are off. It appears they are looking for two armed Cilean fugitives, and warn us not to pick up any hitchhikers as they are extremely dangerous.
We set the first stage as we enter the seven lakes area, it lasts about 50km as we are approaching gravel. Great road, great driving, great views of mountains and lakes. We hit the dirt road, get past where they appear to be working and set the second stage, great fun if you are driving (I was) but not if you are the least bit nervous – the surface is a bit loose, our tires are well worn and it doesn’t take much to provoke a slide. The view once more is fantastic, mountains rise up out of the forest on either side, rivers, waterfalls and lakes, great fun including a long tarmac stretch along the lake to finish. 20km later we are in Bariloche and then 33km to the hotel, another terrific individual hotel, think grand, luxurious hunting lodge.
Day 23 on the road
You can always measure a great hotel by how good their Bircher Muesli is, yesterday we had it pretty good in Pucon with the novel addition of honey, well the Llao Llao Hotel disproves the theory. I toast the oats and hazelnuts when I make mine and soak the oats overnight in grated apple, but the hotel toasts neither, in fact it has no oats and no hazelnuts either – their rendition is yogurt, grated apple and walnuts. But what a wonderful hotel. To serve the muesli and the rest of the breakfast we had 13 staff, for just seven guests. All the public rooms look over the lake which seems to surround the hotel. Our rooms were in the old part, so quite small with small bathrooms but very stylish, very comfortable, and we got a great night’s sleep.
We head back through town and head south. We quickly climb a few hundred metres and set the first stage – sweeping curves, long straights, no sheer drops and barriers on all the curves – a great piece of road. The surface varies from fair to good, once again there are patches and some distortion but nothing serious. We stop to fix a puncture and check the other tyres, throw two away. Only four punctures so far, two stone chips, one nail and one rock that blew out the sidewall. Once back on the road we try two gravel sections but with no luck. Third time lucky, 28km of brand new road, no traffic, no markings, winding through the hills, followed by 37km of gravel, well graded, hills, hairpins, bridges, up and down, with a flood-plain below. Great fun. It’s a loop, so we go back to where we diverted to map the road for the touring class in case they wish to go direct. We then continue on to Esquel, fair to good tarmac again, the beginning of the Argentinian steppes. The town itself is a centre for skiing, hiking etc.
Day 24 on the road
We are now definitely in the steppes region, the plain is wide between the Andes on the right and arms of the Andes on the left, flat inbetween. Dawn is late here so we see the sun rising in the east but eerily reflected on the mountains in the west, The road varies as before between fair and very, very good. The new roads are immaculate, and the advantage of long straights is that you eat up the distance – Argentinian days are shorter than other countries. We find a gravel section, great approach road, new tarmac, then driving up a short bank to get out of the floodplain we are thwarted again, great gravel and straight as far as the eye can see, then a dip and straight as far as the eye can see. So we set some tests instead, they should be enjoyable. After we set the tests we come across a bomb hole, the road, loose gravel, bears sharp left, downhill, hairpins onto a narrow bridge at the bottom, then runs straight out the other side. We do it twice and both times find it far too easy to lose control, so it will remain a great piece of driving fun but no competition. This will be the only test today, Perito Merino is only 125km away and the road is gravel beside the new road that is being laid as I write.
The steppes are not challenging but for me they are totally absorbing – today as well as vicuna we saw deer, flamingo, hawks, caracaras, snow geese, I think, rheas, skunk, hares and armadillos as well as the usual assortment of ducks and small birds. No traffic. Perito Merino accommodation is a challenge, but we will prevail – the tourist office manager is on top of his job, they will close the main street, the mayor will welcome us and there will be a barbecue in the football stadium. He could not be more helpful. Why? Because to attract other tourists must be a thankless task. Four hotels say they are three-star. Three have one star, one has none. That’s three stars in total. We have taken up the challenge…
Day 25 on the road
Looks can be deceptive and we had a good evening in Perito Merino. The food was good, the people friendly and the rooms basic but very comfortable. We leave for Calafate at dawn and have a good road for 45km where we turn off to the ‘cave of hands’ a World Heritage Site where the caves have hand paintings dating back over 9,000 years. On the way we set our first stage of the day, after dropping a few hundred metres very steeply you climb out again equally steeply, the stage is from the bottom to the top, not very long but a test as the gradient in places touches 1 in 5, all gravel but very stable. The road from here to the caves and then out to the route again is also gravel but straight and unchallenging, so relax, stop and case the armdillos, as I did. Mind the thorn bushes – they are sharp. After we rejoin route 40 we enter Santa Cruz province. It’s Mrs President’s province and fortunately she is buying votes – as you cross the border the road is excellent new tarmac for 180km through the steppes with the same wildlife as yesterday, the lesser rhea this time, with its young. Then the bad news – 250 km of gravel. Then the good news – over half is already tarmac waiting to be opened, the rest awaits it’s top coat so by this time next year over two thirds will be brand new. The 24 hour car running ahead of the rally will be critical for this stage as we were limited to the amount of fuel we could buy due to shortages – there are several stations 20km off the road but we had insufficient to take a risk so we will check all these out next year and keep the rally posted.
The road to Calafate is excellent, newly surfaced, wide, undulating and every 50km around a corner there’s another lake, quite beautiful. On lake Cardial they are preparing for the Salmon Fest, the pacific salmon being one of the sports fish you can catch. After we check in to the hotel in Calafate John needs to sort out the technical equipment and Hernan needs to deal with his emails, so I set off for the 30km drive to the glacier. I pick up my brochure at the entrance to the park, and quickly confirm that both eagles and condors can be seen.
Do I see any birds of prey? No. Do I even look? No. Because as you approach the glacier, following the lake, you glimpse this immense ice field still in the distance, but then you turn a corner and there it is. It is awesome, enormous, towering above the pleasure boats below, another South American WOW moment. I spent three hours, until closing time, photographing and viewing the ice flow, a truly magnificent sight and quite humbling. My pictures will not do it justice.
Tomorrow it’s Ria Gallegos. Nearly there…
Day 26 on the road
Before going to bed I was all for getting up before dawn and going back to the glacier for a second look. All evening I was thinking of its shades of blue. But we overslept. I think my headphones still connected to my phone so when the alarm went off it was muted, and I woke to a view over Lago Argentina – sunrise over the mountains in the distance and black necked swans outside the window. We leave Calafate by the same road we came in on, then turn right, the road climbs for 800m and we set the first stage of the day on good roads, bends, undulations and no traffic. After 50km we turn off onto good gravel, a bit straight but with twists, turns and hills so good enough for the second stage.
John was the first to see them – two condors in front of us barely 20 metres off the ground. We stop the car and there are five of them, graceful but in no hurry, they turn and disappear over the hill. Due to my excitement and ineptitude I didn’t get a photo. We continue, eyes peeled, and 5km ahead we spot several more, standing on the mountainside, waiting. There are one or two in the air but I assume it was too early for the air to have heated up as they were going nowhere, another wow moment, another awesome sight. We stopped for about 20 minutes watching, it was cold and windy but we saw several other birds of prey including an eagle, type to be declared later when I can access the Internet. The gravel road is 71km long and we see one other car and a lot of wildlife – vicuna, foxes, lesser rheas with their young, flamingos, geese and various ducks. A wonderful morning, in all we must have seen 20 condors, big beautiful birds.
We are on tarmac again and the kms go quickly – straight roads until there is an obstacle, over or around it then straight again. We check out the hotel in Rio Gallegos, a smart four-star with nice public areas and ample bedrooms, then off to the border to see how long Rio Grande takes, into Chile, ferry onto Tierra del Fuego then back into Argentina. I am writing this on the ferry, more in a moment…
We have 25km of paved road after we land, then gravel – 120km of gravel. The first 10-15km are not good, they are building a new road and the trucks have cut up the surface so we have potholes for the first time since Bolivia. After that the gravel is fair to very good all the way to the border, the second one today. As with all the others it is just process, export car, import temporarily, emigrate, immigrate. The last 100km to Rio Grande is tarmac, very good, very speedy, very efficient, the Atlantic to our right. I am dying to look for penguins but will wait until tomorrow, and the end of the world.
Day 27 – the end of the world
We did the drive all the way from Calafate to Rio Grande yesterday, dropping in on Rio Gallegos to recce the hotel, nice place right in the middle of town. The home stretch will be much shorter from Rio Grande (220km) than from Rio Gallegos (500km plus two borders) but the previous day much longer so decisions will be made when we return. Two 4/5 star hotels in Rio Grande, one downtown one a kilometre away near the airport, both good quality. The road from Rio Grande to Ushuaia hugs the Atlantic, lots of water on both sides of the road, cattle, sheep and vicuna grazing, the road itself is very good and the traffic light. Then about 100km from Ushuaia we climb a little and we are in a petrified forest, trees not very tall but everything appears dead. Gradually there is more life to the trees and we are on a patched road, still a good surface but repaired in many places, with lakes and rivers to our right and the ocean a couple of km to our left. It has been raining for about an hour now. We had a couple of hours’ rain in Brazil, some overnight storms in Peru and since then only very light showers of five or 10 minutes.
As the rain stops and the sun breaks through we are climbing a pass in the mountains, only 500m high but we enter the clouds and pass through them – as we do so we are greeted by a spectacular panorama, a lake below us to our right, the water so still the mountains are reflected in it, and the mountainside is covered with Lenga trees, green, yellow, brown and red, just like New England in the fall. We are in the Tierra del Fuego National Park mountains, shrouded in clouds, and when they peek through the tops are capped with snow, rivers and lakes in the valley, rain, sun, rainbows, a typical autumn. And that is how we enter Ushuaia, 100km of beautiful scenery, fantastic roads and mixed weather. We’ve done 16,000km (the extra 20 per cent looking for the best route and stages) in 27 driving days across five countries. It has been a brilliant journey, full of firsts for me. I shall volunteer to be the 24 hour car for the rally as long as I am allowed to do it in our XK120 – only a classic roadster with the top down and a proper exhaust note could have made this journey any better.
Tomorrow it’s back to Europe for a reunion with the family, who will be skiing in France. I will write a synopsis on the plane. Well done John, head down preparing the ultimate road book, and thanks to Hernan, driver, guide and charmer. It’s been a great recce, and an unforgettable experience.
DW, signing off.
Day 35 – Rio Grande to Ushuaia
The final day! And a short one too, just 212km before all cars were collected together for a triumphant drive to the hotel and the finish of the rally. There, at the Gala dinner, James and Max Stephenson were crowned kings of South America for their superb drive to the top of the leaderboard.
Day 34 – Rio Gallegos to Rio Grande
A two-border day today! One hour from Rio Gallegos we crossed the border into Chile, then took a 30-minute ferry before a short drive on tarmac which soon turned into another well trodden gravel track. Then it was the border into Argentina before hitting tarmac again for an easy drive to Rio Grande – the windy city of Argentina.
Day 33 – El Calafate to Rio Gallegos
Once again a short day across the open plains of Patagonia saw participants arrive in good time to enjoy the delights of this old fishing town and the British Club.
Day 32 – Gobernador Gregores to El Calafate
El Calafate is a major tourist destination in Argentina as it is the nearest large town to the incredible Perito Moreno glacier. With just 336km to do today we arrived in plenty of time to take the 80km trip to the glacier. Casualty of the day was the Mercedes 280SL of Steve Hyde and Janet Lyne, which once again overheated and sadly this time cooked the engine to the point of retirement.
Day 31 – Los Antiguos to Gobernador Gregores
A relatively short day today in terms of time, as the 407km distance was covered by most in under six hours. Here too we were spread in a number of hotels but this was made up for by the welcome we received from the town, which was celebrating its own anniversary. They put on a car show with special places for our participants, all of whom arrived in good order.
Day 30 – Esquel to Los Antiguos
The true Patagonian plains start here and the land flattens out to form an incredible horizon that stretches a full 360 degrees. Los Antiguos is a small town on Lago Buenos Aires and provided a calm and perfect backdrop to the rally. With accommodation scarce the rally is in a number of hotels for the night.
Day 29 – Bariloche to Esquel
Deep into Patagonia and a bright and sunny day with a distinct early-morning chill. We drove through the rolling hills and long flat endless plains that stretch as far as the eye can see. Everyone is sorry to leave the Llao Llao Hotel this morning, as it might be the best hotel for the rest of the journey. Situated in the Argentinian Lake District it was a tranquil oasis in the hustle and bustle of Bariloche.
The Austin of Ralf Weiss and Kurt Schneiders had its repaired petrol tank fitted in the morning before the off. Several other cars were showing signs of fatigue, including the Citroen GSA of Patrick and Louise. They were also struggling to find replacement tyres, as 15in rims are scarce in this part of the world. In common with many towns in the region, Bariloche was also short of fuel and participants had to embark on a treasure hunt to find it, experiencing long queues in the process. However the route out of town was superb, with views of the Argentinian lake district. Competition today was of the jogularity type as plain regularity on the long roads would be rather dull. Esquel is something of an oasis in a vast unpopulated plain, but has the advantage of ski-ing in the winter.
Day 28 – Pucon to Bariloche
While the previous night had been restful for the mechanics, all hell broke loose this morning. First the clutch of Nicholas Pryor needed attention, then 40km out of town the usually reliable Ford Model A of Chris Evans ad Mark Seymour expired in noisy fashion. The diagnosis was a blown cylinder head gasket, and a new one was kindly loaned by Fritz and Lang. With the border not far ahead, Chris and Mark were towed through into Argentina, where a repair was made by Charlie McGowan; the car is now back on the road.
The Austin of Ralph Weiss and Kurt Schneiders sprang a leak in the petrol tank and was repaired by Toby Kilner and Andy Pragnel at the overnight halt, the Llao Llao Hotel – regarded by many as the best hotel in Argentina, if not the whole of South America!
Day 27 – Termas de Chilan to Pucon
Towed into the night stop at Termas de Chilan on board the trailer, the mechanics worked through the night to repair the clutch but were a seal missing. In the morning they found a garage which fitted the new part but unfortunately at the same time ruptured the oil pressure gauge feed, resulting in a loss of oil 100km down the road and a seized engine! A great drive all the same…
All others made it to the overnight halt with only minor niggles.
Day 26 – Santiago to Termas de Chilan
Just to recap, these cars are out:
- Car 1. David and Karen Ayre – car was not going well from the outset and gave continual problems up to the point of expiring at Santa Cruz. They also went through the border into Bolivia without customs clearance! A bit of a schoolboy error. Still with us in a hire car.
- Car 7. Adrian and Barbara Shooter. Their usually trusty Model A Ford expired in Corumba in Brazil. Also in a hire car.
- Car 16. Lloyd and Treacy Reddington. Their Sunbeam Alpine made it as far as Maraseis but no farther. Also in a hire car.
- Car 23. Jose and Maria de Sousa. Their Volvo only made it as far as Corumba in Brazil. Also in a hire car.
- Car 15. Roger and Gillian Goodwin. Their trusty Austin-Healey found the rough ground into Sucre too much. Also in a hire car.
- Car 29. Jorg Lemberg. Two accidents and a misfiring engine put them out in Salta.
Day 25 – Mendoza to Santiago
Back up the Andes today as we headed out of Argentina and back into Chile to explore the fabled Chilean Lake District. First, however, we had to cross the border and cross the Christo Redenter pass, also known as Los Libertadores. Although a relatively modest pass of some 3,500 metres altitude, it also has some of the most famous hairpins in South America. However, as we descended, looking forward to the ‘Stelvio of Chile’, we found a lot of roadworks that severely hampered our progress and fun.
From the cool air of the mountains we descended to a very different Chile than the desert we left behind a few days ago. Santiago is a bustling metropolis with a host of good quality bars and restaurants, of which our Germanic participants made full use!
There were no real dramas today as all the cars made it into Santiago and through the terrible traffic surrounding the hotet, exacerbated by roadworks blocking the entrance!
Day 24 – Rest Day
More car fettling!
Day 23 – Villa Union to Mendoza
Facing a 635km drive and two tests, everyone was up early to enjoy the cool of the dawn hours before, inevitably, the heat set in. The big news of the day was that Steve Hyde’s Mercedes Pagoda blew a head gasket,which meant he had to be towed for a considerable distance. Unfortunately this also meant that his windscreen and headlamp covers were damaged by stone chips. Remarkably, the local Mercedes-Benz club came to the rescue and with the exchange of some US dollars his car was up and running, fully repaired a day later!
Roger Allen also suffered ongoing ignition problems with his BMW, and limped into Mendoza. With a rest day here there was plenty of activity in the garage with some crews enjoying the luxury of a trip to the car-wash while others spent the day on their clutches and suspension.
Still, with Argentinian steak finally on the menu everyone was in good spirits as the afternoon sun set on our ‘rest’ day.
Day 22 – Cafayate to Villa Union
From the wine centre of Cafayate the rally would motor on south to Villa Union, but not before some trepidation as we were informed last night that there was no petrol in town! We were promised that it would be delivered at 10 o’clock and sure enough, as the clocks struck the hour, a tanker rolled into town and started filling the empty tanks.
Today was a journey through moonscapes and mountains – all beautiful and all amazingly different from each other. The geologists amongst us are having the time of their lives.
On arrival in Villa Union it appeared to be a one-horse town of the sort you see in westerns, but it did have a couple of decent hotels and a temperature in the high 30s. Once again our band of travellers did their best to drink the hotel dry.
Day 21 – Salta to Cafayate
Great excitement this morning as the crews were heading for the Salta race track, which, although it has seen better days, was still reasonably maintained and provided an excellent challenge. The test comprised three laps divided into three sections with a stop-astride at each. Fastest of the day was Tracey Burvill who had stepped into the driver’s seat of the Porsche 356 while Steven Harris took a break to fulfil business commitments. Major casualty of the day was Andreas Pohl, who failed to take the second test after the steering lock of his Mercedes jammed on the line.
The circuit test was followed by another 65km regularity in the mountains before we dropped down to the wine centre of Cafayate, a delightful small town tucked into the mountains. We spent the evening at the amazing Patios de Cafayate, a manor house attached to one of the largest wineries in town, where we were treated to a real Argentinian BBQ – a veritable meat feast and our first true taste of the fabled Argentine steak. Local dancers performed for us and (as is inevitable on these occasions) some unfortunates from the rally were selected to accompany the experts. While lightning lit up the hills all around, Cafayate stayed dry and as we made our way back to the hotel the town square was buzzing with diners and revellers. A truly marvellous evening in a superb little town – one that most people will have on their list of places to visit again.
Day 20 – San Pedro de Atacama to Salta
It was with some nervousness that the crews gathered at the crack of dawn by the Chilean Customs Office in San Pedro, as the rumour mill had warned of a hard climb out of Chile to the Argentine border.
As the sun crept over the Andes we were all still waiting for the customs officials to arrive – in the end they made it at 8.30am, and to be fair they then moved at a reasonable pace so the first of us got away ahead of the locals at around 9.30am. Thereafter a steady stream of cars that headed for the hills and the 160km climb to the lunar landscape at the Passo de Jama, at an elevation of 4,800 metres. It was a great climb and only one car had a problem, the GSA of Patrick and Louise van Griethuysen, and that was solved by removing the air filter to allow more oxygen to the engine.
The descent was as spectacular as any mountain road anywhere in the world. With great views and hairpins, many commented that today was one of the best drives ever.
Once in Salta there were spares for Steve Hyde, Max and James Stephenson, Nicholas Pryor and Roger Allen – all brought out by a courier, which proved efficient and timely. Salta was a surprisingly sophisticated city after the desert, and most crews took advantage of the evening to explore its restaurants and bars.
Day 19 – Rest day in San Pedro de Atacama
A chance to enjoy the driest place on Earth!
Click here to view the penalties from Day 19
Click here to view the standings after Day 19
Day 18 – Iquique to San Pedro de Atacama
Our start time of 07.00 was just before dawn, as the two hours’ advance on local time from the other day took effect. After a simple exit from the town we followed the coast road for two hours. Truly fabulous driving!
We had a light, patchy sea mist at first, and as the sun climbed over the mountains to our left the light created a photographer’s paradise. The rocky coastline has a few small, scruffy villages here and there but otherwise the cliffs, bays and beaches are for the sole benefit of the birds. Brown jagged rocks are thrown into a sharp contrast with the white guano-topped homes of the countless sea birds here. Big waves and frothing surf lace the shoreline while the road winds up and down following the contours of the coast.
At Tocopilla we refuelled and turned due east towards Calama, the largest open-cast copper mining area in South America. It made a change for the drivers as we were faced with roads that any good Roman would die for! Straight, without the slghtest deviation, stretching away some 20km or more to the horizon, the tarmac seemed endless. It wass a great experience.
The terrain was now full desert, all brown with not a hint of vegetation, in fact no sign of life at all. This is the second driest location in the world – second only to Antarctica. The slow climbs are deceptive, and only obvious when a gearchange is needed to maintain momentum as you pass 3,000m, climbing at approximately one metre per second. This was followed by a steep descent into the mining valley town that is Calama. Here many lorries and red pickups, all the same, each bearing a four-digit ID number, contest the limited road space. There are few people to be seen and it is rather spooky.
Out of town we picked up signs for our destination – San Petro de Atacama. We climbed again to yet more of the same vast expanse of barren plain. In the far distance, the snow-capped Andes marked the horizon. The combination of mining and desert provided a mixed palette of colours: grey, brown and white, like nothing we have seen before.
It was agreed that today’s drive had been exceptional and the warm welcome by the Kunza Hotel was appreciated when we arrived just after 13.30. We now had a day and a half to fettle the cars or relax by the pool or in the spa. The heat was dry and bearable and it was a pretty cheerful crowd that gathered for dinner on the terrace. Log braziers were lit as the sun went down, although the chill of the desert night was immediate when we eventually headed for bed. A good long night’s sleep was on offer unless you were one of the few electing to get up at 05.00 in the morning for a trip out to the famous geysers, which do their best huffing and puffing at dawn. This will not include the author, and therefore any news on that will be hearsay.
Sadly Jorg Lemberg has confirmed his retirement, the first participant to leave the event entirely.
Click here to view the penalties from Day 18
Click here to view the standings after Day 18
Day 17 – Arica to Iquique
It was a shame to leave our beachside overnighter but today we had to move south to Iquique. The relatively short distance allowed a 09.00 departure and another bright and sunny day encouraged most to get away on time – with the exception of those who had retired, whose cars were on the way home.
The retirees were nevertheless keen to continue in locally hired cars. The paperwork was tedious, but worthwhile it if allowed them to criss-cross the Chile/Argentina border for the rest of the trip. Eventually all was sorted and the Ayres, Goodwins, Shooters and Reddingtons are on their way again.
It was another day of astonishing scenery as we crossed plains of desert broken by steep climbs and descents. The road was quite new with an excellent surface, which allowed a lot of fun for the drivers despite being held up by roadworks that closed the road for 15 minutes at a time. The road workers were broadening the two-way highway that winds around the mountain along a deep deep gorge with no barrier at the edge: not for the faint hearted! At a ‘stop’ for the works, the held traffic anticipated the turn of the red PARE sign to green with a Le Mans-style start to grab a place ahead of the slower moving coaches and lorries in the queue. Even roadworks can be fun!
It was annoying to find a new set of works in the middle of the test, which spoiled an otherwise superb drive with no serious mechanical problems for the majority. One victim of the day was Jorg Lemborg’s Mercedes, which failed again and had to be trailered in. It seemed likely to join the list of retired vehicles to be shipped home.
Our Holiday Inn Express was again right on the beach and the Pacific waves justified the area’s reputation as the surfing capital of Chile. It is also the nitrate mining centre of the country and it was interesting to see the warning issued by the hotel not to drink the tap water due to the high mineral content.
Dinner at Club Nautico was a 15-minute walk along the shoreline. A club situated on a small promontory extending into the bay, it has excellent views to the lights of the town from the open balcony. There was still time for a nightcap back at the Holiday Inn before turning in.
Day 16 – Arequipa to Arica
The day dawned with clouds dispersing after heavy overnight rain and the sun beginning to come through. There was time to make a visit to the famed ancient citadel of Arequipa and several took the opportunity to do so. Meanwhile an advance party headed early to the border to facilitate easy passage for the competitors. It was Sunday morning so the town and traffic were quiet; the tatty outskirts were like many small Indian towns with potholed roads, a rather random local driving style and small shops selling anything and everything at the roadside.
Initially, we picked up heavy lorry and coach traffic, which slowed us down until it thinned out to virtually nothing and we had the roads to ourselves again. But what a change to the green grandeur of yesterday! Had we been transported to the moon overnight? We travelled on through a barren brown landscape with not a sign of life, animal or vegetable. The long straight roads extended for 10km or more to the next range of hills with some good curves (some of them deceptive, as indicated by the numerous shrines to the unlucky), then resumed another long straight. A few places are dotted with tiny shacks – possibly miners, we surmised. We later heard that these shacks are in fact Chilean social housing, provided by Government to those in need of a home, and that the recipients are allowed four years in which to erect a permanent dwelling or lose the property. It is difficult to see how the scheme can succeed in such remote desert areas with zero infrastructure.
Border facilities out of Peru were quick and slick and the entry into Chile at Arica gate was straightforward, with the advance team doing a great job of pre-filling forms and directing affairs. With only a 25km last leg to our Panamericana Hotel in Arica, it was an easy end to our driving day. However we discovered that we had in fact gained two hours on crossing the border, so the 3pm arrival time shown on our watches was actually 5pm.
We were on the coast again, with Pacific rollers crashing in front of the hotel. This explained the people crossing the border with surfboards, which had seemed so incongruous at the time. There was still time for a dip in the pool, then sundowners on the terrace while watching pelicans fly above the waves.
Day 15 – Cusco to Arequipa
A dry clear morning saw everyone back on the road again. Scheduled crew changes meant we welcomed some new faces: Tracy Morris, driving with husband Hayden in the No.5 Porsche 356, Peter Schmidt joining Jorg Lemberg in the No.29 Mercedes and Marc Buhofer navigating for Martin Egli hin the No.10 Lagonda; mechanic Jack Amies will join him later in the trip.
Two route options were available today, both supported by the rally mechanics. The original route and test took a 4,700m pass plus a 170km stretch of graded road, while the alternative, slightly longer route on top-quality tarmac headed for Juliaca then took the road south to Arequipa.
Those who took the Rally route were rewarded with fabulous scenery as they crossed the high pass and found the graded surface no problem at all. The alternative route had the benefit of a snow-capped mountain backdrop, which heralded cooler temperatures. Herds of alpaca grazed with sheep on the vast open plains and, hemmed in by the rolling shoulders of the mountains, reminded us of driving through Scottish glens, magnified several times. Little traffic, good tarmac and mostly straight roads posed no problems to those on this route despite the 4,500m elevation. All the cars coped with the altitude except the Lemburg/Schmidt Mercedes, which succumbed again and had to be trailered in.
Down from the heights, the approach to Arequipa brought gathering clouds then a thick bank of fog that enveloped the hillside and reduced visibility to 10m. Predictably there was an accident – a local crashed into the back of a lorry – which held up about a third of the field. They consequently arrived in the dark, which took the shine off an otherwise lovely day. Our Libertador Hotel appeared an oasis of charm and calm after the chaotic poverty of the suburbs, and the Pisco Sour welcome drink met with universal approval from everyone gathered in the bar, where the talk was of tomorrow’s agenda, as we leave Peru for Chile.
Click here to watch a video of Day 15
Day 14 – Machu Picchu
It was still dark when at 6.20am the majority of the group gathered to walk to the hotel’s tiny railway station and board the private train that had been chartered to take us to Machu Picchu. However, this early start was rewarded with one of the world’s greatest wonders.
The two-carriage train ran alongside a brown rushing river that frothed and boiled over the rocks. One and a half hours of non-stop grandeur with the mighty Andes towering overhead, viewed through the cleverly designed windows in the roof of the carriages. The final leg of the journey, by bus, wound steeply upwards to the top of the montain; then, with our guides, we walked into Machu Picchu. Theoretically 2,500 people are allowed into the site each day, but as this was the low season it was easy to walk around and take great photographs without having to negotiate crowds of people.
There can be few people in the modern world who have not seen images of Machu Picchu on TV, but the real thing is breathtaking. Bright sunshine gave the photographers a million opportunities to snap away and even the later rain showers eventually cleared, allowing the sun to spotlight this magical place whilst dark clouds in the distance accentuated the dramatic setting.
Words are inadequate to describe the experience; surrounded by green towering mountains rising steeply all around like a fortress, the silence wss a reminder that our own lives are otherwise constantly subject to background noise. There is not enugh space here to relate the Inca legend; suffice it to say that with no written records the story is more myth than fact, which somehow suits the place.
Some of our group took an early train back as they had work to do on their cars. The rest stayed for the day and were entertained by the Orient Express staff on the return journey. They were treating us to a song and dance when a masked creature in brightly-coloured garb startled Karon Hope with a tap on the shoulder from behind. Her scream of surprise was probably heard back in Machu Picchu. A fashion show followed, with the enterprising staff displaying alpaca shawls and jumpers for us to buy. What a day!
Back at the hotel, the focus returned to preparations for our departure tomorrow morning. There was concern from some that the climb over the highest pass encountered so far, 4,700m above sea level, might stretch their cars to breaking point, so an alternative was needed. The decision was taken to support two routes – one over the high mountains and the other along the valley.
Click here to watch a video of our trip to Machu Picchu
Day 13 – Puno to Cusco
Leaving Lake Titicaca was a wrench, as everyone had enjoyed the world’s highest lake, the friendly Peruvian people and the splendid Libertador Hotel, sitting like a liner on the shoreline. Nevertheless the sun shone as we left Puno and after 54km reached Juliaca – apparently the scrapyard of Peru! We had a relatively easy drive in front of us as we headed towards Cusco and Urubamba for another rest day and the opportunity to visit Machu Picchu. The roads were good, with tarmac all the way, and few participants had any problems; Jorg Lemberg’s electronic gremlins persisted and he arrived at the hotel very late, while Bill Bolsover had an issue with his water pump, which was temporarily fixed at the roadside.
Our lodging tonight is the Tambo del Inka, the best hotel possible – it even has its own train station to take us to Machu Picchu tomorrow. It is designed along the lines of a ski lodge, with sky high ceilings, wooden interiors and massive open fireplaces that issue blue flames and warmth. Super-comfortable rooms and an excellent dinner topped off a perfect rally day.
Today was also the end of the first Roadbook, so all GPS units will be reloaded for the next leg to Mendoza in Argentina.
Click here to view the penalties from Day 13
Click here to view the standings after Day 13
Click here to watch a video of Day 13
Day 12 – Puno
Today was a rest day for most, with a chance to fettle the cars, take a boat trip to the floating islands and generally enjoy the alpine sunshine and Lake Titicaca.
Day 11 – La Paz to Puno
We enjoyed a beautiful day’s drive out of the highest capital city in the world. The first 25km were busy with locals out early in the minivan taxis that dodge and weave their way through the traffic – they take no prisoners! Once away from the city the high plains flattened out until we headed towards the mountains and the border town of Copacabana. A short ferry ride interrupted the flow of the drive but otherwise it was an incident-free day for all except Jorg Lemberg, whose Mercedes again refused to run properly. The border formalities were easy and the rest of the cars made it to the Libertador Hotel on the shores of Lake Titicaca in plenty of time for a relaxing afternoon and a rare chance to work on the cars in daylight.
Click here to watch a video of Day 11
Day 10 – Uyuni to La Paz
The overnight storm rendered the direct route to La Paz almost impassable, so the rally was re-routed through Potosi to La Paz – an additional 200km. The local petrol station didn’t open until 9am and as cars were leaving at 6.30am we found 400 litres from local ‘reseller’. Just as well we did, as the queues were already 200 metres long as we passed the garage on the way out of town.
The first 400km were superb, with extraordinary high plains scenery at more than 3,500m elevation all the way. It is difficult to describe the scenery as being similar to another country. The twisting roads expose vista after vista of mountains that change colour from grey to black to green to red and all hues in between. The volcanic activity of millions of years ago and the non-interference of man have left nature unspoilt, not a pylon or comms mast in sight. With no more than occasional smallholdings on the roadside, with stone walls and otherwise free-range llamas, it was simply lovely. Indeed on the flat plains between the high passes llamas were the main hazard, displaying a sublime disregard for vehicles. The traffic is so intermittent that they have not yet learned to keep off the road.
The hot early-morning sunshine gave way to clouds gathering behind the mountains in the distance and we encountered the first showers of rain as we approached La Paz. Our arrival coincided with the rush hour and the experience was akin to driving in Delhi. The first crews to reach the Radisson Hotel had the benefit of daylight but the slower cars had to contend with the most dreadful conditions. The gathering storm threw down bruising hailstones, then snow, resulting in near calamity for the Bolsover Bentley (but for a miraculous recovery) and a complete and icy soaking for those in open cars. Fortunately the hotel rooms included bathtubs, for a remedial hot soak.
Click here to watch a video of Day 10
Day 9 – Sucre to Uyuni
By complete contrast the roads today have been delightful – tarmac all the way, the last 200km brand new – and stunning views to boot as we reached an altitude of 4,200m through the mountains. With a few cars still suffering the effects of yesterday’s drive there were some late afternoon arrivals in Uyuni, although everyone had enough time to go and see the amazing salt flats – the world’s largest. Some drivers had expressed an interest in taking their cars onto the flats, but the recent rain had left six inches of surface water in some places and the idea of a salt bath dissuaded them all.
The 4×4 convoy that took everyone to view the salt flats bumped and bounced on the road out and splashed through the water to a salt hotel some way from the shore. It was very interesting and worth the trip for a sunset so bright that it was possible to see the earth’s curvature on the horizon.
Meanwhile, black clouds were gathering over the distant mountains and daggers of lightning split the sky. Soon the heavens opened and torrential rain set in for a couple of hours, accompamied by a howling wind and crashing thunder.
A hot dinner in convivial surroundings made for a good end to the day. Nevertheless we wondered how the weather would effect our route tomorrow, as the first 170km of unpaved roads were predicted to be treacherous.
Click here to watch a video of Day 9
Day 8 – Santa Cruz to Sucre
As there were so many late arrivals last night, today’s start time was postponed for two and a half hours. All went well for the first 222km, including a lovely 50km regularity section. However, we then turned onto the main road to Sucre, and found it had deteriorated considerably since the route recce. It was rough, rough and more rough, which sadly led to the retirement of the Goodwins and a number of DNFs as cars turned back before the approaching darkness. Those who made it through to Sucre were treated to some fabulous views, a lot of dust and a lot more dust, which made its way into every nook and cranny. Thankfully the reception in Sucre was delightful and the hotel staff did all they could to give us a comfortable night.
Click here to view the penalties from Day 8
Click here to view the standings after Day 8
Click here to watch a video of Day 8
Day 8 – Corumba to Santa Cruz – Bolivia
The border from Hell! The crossing was just a few minutes from the hotel and was due to open at 8am, but none of the officials arrived until 8.20 and they only starting working at 8.30. If getting the cars into Brazil wasn’t hard enough it was also pretty difficult to get them out, wasting valuable time in getting over to the Bolivian side of the crossing, which closed for lunch at noon. To make matters worse it was also a very, very hot day. How Brazil might cope with the Olympics is hard to imagine.
Cars started trickling out of Brazil at about 10.30am but then had to run the gauntlet of the passport officials, who were extremely unfriendly. The rally organisation was already working on the Bolivian customs officials to try and speed up the process, but it took the lone officer assigned to the task about an hour to locate the correct form on his computer. As he typed at the speed of a snail we offered to do the inputting for him, but only five cars got through before the two-hour lunchtime shutdown. The last car got through at about 4.30pm, which meant we faced a 670km journey into darkness. A most beautiful sunset was small compensation for all the frustration.
Although everyone had fuelled up the night before, they still required a top-up along the way and soon found that the Bolivians didn’t like serving foreigners at the pump, although they are happy enough to fill jerrycans from which the cars may be filled in a darkened area. Anticipating this problem we had bought vast quantities of petrol from Brazil to be distributed to the competitors en route.
Sadly this was the last night the grand old Itala would be seen on the road, as it broke down half way to Santa Cruz. The Clerk of the Course towed it to a safe garage, from where it was later picked up by the rally’s trailer and taken to Santa Cruz. At the same garage a number of crews stopped to top-up for the remainder of the journey, which for some ended at about 4am. After three long and frustrating days, we could all be forgiven for feeling a little tired.
Click here to view the penalties from Day 7
Day 6 – Dourados to Corumba
An overnight storm dampened down the dust but made the day’s first test very slippery and a number of casualties ensued. Martin Egli ran out of brakes and consequently almost ran the marshalls off the finish line, Roger and Maggie Gray heard an enormous crack from the rear of their BMW and discovered they had a broken damper mount, Reg Toohey attacked the course with verve and ended up with a bent top wishbone for his trouble, while Peter Little and Louise Cartledge broke the mount for their spare wheel. There was worse to come as just after the second test Jose and Maria de Sousa stopped with a burnt piston. Sadly that meant the end of their rally, but they are planning to rejoin us in Cusco and finish the event in a modern car.
The road into Corumba was spectacular, running alongside the wetlands of the Pantanal of the Matto Gross do Sul. However it was also characterised by a dearth of fuel stations and many people arrived in the town on fumes. It had been a long day for everyone, so it was a weary group of travellers who sat down to dinner.
Click here to watch a video of Day 6
Day 5 –Foz do Iguacu to Dourados
Did the alarm clock really go off at 3.20am today? Yes it did – we were preparing for an early start as word had reached us that the route would to be blocked at 9am for some road repairs which invoved blasting by the military.
As the assembled crews took a bleary-eyed breakfast for a 5am start everyone seemed determined to get through the roadworks before the deadline. First out was the Itala of David and Karen Ayre, which threaded its way through the darkened streets of Foz do Iguacu on its way to the town of Mercedes.
Yet at at the roadworks, a few minutes before 9am, all 27 cars (two having retired) were accounted for except the Itala. On the dot of 9am the Itala swung around the corner at the start of the blockade and slid through just as the barriers were being pulled across the road. Phew!
The other anticipated high spot of the day was the Ayrton Senna Bridge – one of the longest in Brazil. As Jorg Lemberg approached, a local driver decided to take a chance and pulled out in front of him but misjudged the distance. A wing and two headlights were damaged on Jorg’s car, requiring realignment in a local garage. Once the police had gone through the formalities the car was released. We then we headed for the bridge, which was actually something of a disappointment. A low concrete affair with no character, it is one of the lesser memorials to Brazil’s greatest racing driver.
To everybody’s delight this was the first day on which we saw any wildlife, including termite mounds, rheas and llamas. Such were the celebrations at the hotel that both bars ran out of beer and reinforcements had to be called for.
Click here to view the penalties from Day 5
Day 4 – Foz do Iguacu: day off to see the Iguacu Falls
Click here to watch a video of our trip to the Iguaca Falls
Day 3 – Curitiba to Foz do Iguacu
With Thomas Kern on a plane to Sao Paulo, I took the hot seat alongside Martin Egli in the 1933 M45 Lagonda to navigate for the day. I did not know Martin but found him to be the most delightful company, meeting all eventualities with the same chuckling good humour. He is the true embodiment of the man Rudyard Kipling imagined when he wrote: “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same…”
It was a cool, sparkling morning as we left Curitiba and headed for Foz. Having plenty of time to reach the first test of the day we decided to stop for refreshment, and spotted Steve and Janet Hyde holed up in a decent looking restaurant about 18km before the stage. They went for the buffet while we opted for pizzas, which turned out to be far larger than needed for a rally lunch!
Steve had already been to the test and reported a line of cars waiting, so we took our time, only for the heavens to open, requiring the quick fitting of the tonneau cover. Arriving at the stage we found cars had been let through early, so we didn’t have to queue. Between us we managed to cock-up several aspects of the test but still managed to be second in class – probably the best we could have expected. Enough said.
It was a long day (710km) but we were bowling along nicely only for the heavens to open up again, and properly this time – it was almost possible to see the front of the car let alone the road, so we pulled into a petrol station where we found David and Karen Ayre also sheltering from the storm. It was more than an hour later before the rain subsided to the point where we could get back on the road. Within 10km the weather front had cleared the area and we drove the rest of the way in relatively dry conditions, although yet another cloudburst did briefly catch us out.
We were happy to arrive at the hotel in good humour. A bonus was that Thomas was already there, with his new passport. I told you the Swiss were efficient.
Click here to view the penalties from Day 3
Click here to view the standings after Day 3
Click here to view a local press article and pictures from Day 3
Click here to watch a video of Day 3
Day 2 – Maresias to Curitiba
After an overnight storm that cleared the air, Maresias beach sparkled in the morning of the second day of The Great South American Challenge.
Despite his late night session working on the Itala, David Ayre was eager to get away, only to be thwarted by an engine timing problem that meant he and Karen had to return to the hotel to make additional repairs. Very frustrating.
Save those who had elected to go for repairs, the rest of the cars followed the ribbon of coastal road which wound its way to the main highway to Curitiba; on the main road everyone was happy to be going south, as the northern carriageway was choked by a traffic jam at least 30km long. Among the rally cars the only real casualty of the day was the 289SE Mercedes of Jorg Lemberg and Peter Schmidt (Car 29) which suffered an intermittent fault characterised by a smoking wiring loom. The efficient motorway rescue system saw them picked up and transported some 50km to a trailer waiting to take them to the hotel.
They were more fortunate than Martin Egli and Thomas Kern. Having got themselves lost they stopped a taxi and asked the way to the Radisson Hotel, whereupon the taxi driver languidly stuck an arm out of the window and pointed over the road! Still laughing, they pulled their cases from the car and handed them to the hotel porter. He loaded them on the luggage trolley and took them inside, where an enterprising local spotted the bag containing Thomas’ camera, cash, credit cards and passport and walked off with it. Despite a good CCTV system, no-one could identify the culprit.
Losing everything is bad enough but the hassle of getting a replacement passport is truly daunting. However, the Swiss are nothing if not efficient and a quick call to the Brazilian Ambassador, no less, elicited the promise of a new passport the next day. The only problem was that it had to be collected in person in Sao Paulo.
An early morning flight for Thomas was duly booked, which left Martin short of a navigator. Accordingly yours truly, Carlos the Blogger, was volunteered for the seat.
Click here to view the penalties from Day 2
Click here to watch a video of Day 2
Day 1 – Rio to Maresais
The Great South American Challenge is go! The last cars made it from the port in the wee small hours as the Brazilian container drivers claimed double time for a late night removal. It was a great relief to the four US crews – Fritz James and Lang Whitman (Car 6), Marc Buchanan and Charles Green (Car 22), Lloyd Dahmen and Chuck Schwager (Car 14) and Steven Harris and (Aussie) Hayden Burvill (Car 5) – who had seen their container ship criss-cross the Atlantic without docking in Rio as scheduled. Poor souls, they had beed obliged to kick their heels in the carnival capital of the world, with nothing to do but check out Ipenema and Copacabana beaches, enjoy the Caipirinahs and chillax like a Brazilian. Now they had to squash two days’ car preparation into two hours – but that’s rallying for you.
Amid excitement and trepidation in equal measure the rally roared away from the Sheraton Hotel in Rio de Janeiro at 8am sharp, to the cheers of local motor enthusiasts, well-wishers, hotel staff and a coach load of bemused Japanese tourists. Passing through downtown Rio to the backdrop of weary partygoers clearing up after the greatest show on earth, the cars swept through a town with a hangover.
The first day was a relatively gentle introduction to Brazilian roads and their many speed bumps, speed cameras and police checkpoints. We covered 424km on mostly coastal roads to Mareseis, a resort area with perfect white beaches and plenty of sunshine – normally. The climatic annus horriblis that has seen storms of record proportions in the USA has affected Brazil too, and despite a respite for most of the Rio Carnival, thunderstorms were again gathering. Those out late on the first day were well and truly caught out.
There was the usual plethora of technical teething problems. Casualties included the glorious Itala of David and Karen Ayre (Car 1, which limped into Maraseis after their first ever tyre blow-out and with strange noises coming from the engine – David eventually got to bed at 2am after considerable help from the indefatigable Max Stephenson (Car 11). Others who suffered were Paddy Walker and Scott Greenhalg, who had low oil pressure in Car 12, and Mark Robinson and Yvonne Fuller (Car 21), which needed serious attention from a specialist. One has been found in Sao Paulo so tomorrow the Jaguar will be taken there on the back of the low-loader. Also sidelined were Lloyd and Treacy Reddington in their pretty Sunbeam Alpine (Car16), which had overheating problems that required a refill of the radiator at regular intervals. A head gasket problem was suspected so they opted to go for repairs the next day rather than continue to Curitiba. Both crews will rejoin the rally as soon as the repairs have been completed.
The hotel car park was full of running repairs, which meant a late night for the mechanics: Charlie McGowan and Leo Gelpi, Richard Last and David Ellison, Toby Kilner and Andy Pragnell. Luckily the hotel provided an excellent welcome drinks and snacks table, although it soon resembled a fertile field after a storm of locusts had blown in – barren!
Possibly overwhelmed by all this hospitality, Bill Bolsover (Car 3) entered the sea with his swimming shorts back to front and refused to come out until everyone else turned theirs around in like fashion. This sport is unlikely to feature at the 2016 Brazil Olympics!
Click here to view the penalties from Day 1
Click here to view the standings after Day 1
Click here to watch a video of Day 1
The Great South American Challenge
The Great South American Challenge rally is a six-week, 15,500km adventure for pe-1973 cars, driving through Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Chile and Argentina and taking in the Continent’s most spectacuar sights before finishing in Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world.
The crews make up a truly international crowd, hailing from Australia, the USA, Germany, Holland, Switzerland, Portugal, Canada and the UK. The oldest car on the event is a well-travelled 1907 Itala driven by David and Karen Ayre, while the newest car is a 1972 Citroen GSA that also has the smallest engine (1,300cc) and is driven by Patrick von Griethuysen and Louise Peters from The Netherlands.
Other cars include the spectacular 1927 eight-litre Bentley of Bill and Biddy Bolsover, the 1949 Cadillac Coupe of Lloyd Dahman and Chuck Schwager and the Porsche 356 of Stephen Harris and Hayden Burvill. There are five Mercedes-Benzes from the 1960s, three Model A Fords from the 1920s and representative cars from Sunbeam, Volvo, Jaguar, Chevrolet, Buick, Plymouth, Austin-Healey, BMW, Holden and Lagonda.
It’s going to be quite an adventure!
Click here to watch a video of Rio de Janeiro