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Turning Around: Puerto Varas to San Martin del los Andes

For the first time in 25 months, the little digital compass readout on our rearview mirror (a mirror rendered otherwise useless with our huge camper in the truck bed) shows an N instead of an S. We are heading north. Yet getting back into the rig after hitting our goal of Ushuaia, and then Antarctica, feels a little anticlimactic. I don’t have the energy to psyche myself up for the long drives anymore, and John isn’t as enthusiastic for them either. We’ve been in mostly cold temperatures since May, close to 8 months, and that is getting on our nerves.

We have turned around not only physically but also mentally.

We are blessed, don’t get me wrong. We have seen so much and feel so fortunate – we are filled with so much gratitude for this adventure. We have incredible freedom on the road, and I know we will look back on this time and long for that freedom. But we are tired of finding a different place to sleep every couple of nights, muddling through a new grocery store every time we shop, hunting daily for Internet. And I have totally lost all tolerance for public bathrooms. We are used to people stopping their cars, getting out, and taking pictures of us while we simply live. However, I’ve grown weary of the staring. Once in a grocery store, a security guard followed me from one aisle to the next, then to the next - he at one end, me at the other. Not for theft, but just to stare. Another time a little girl with big brown eyes and long hair, dragging a child sized shopping basket, was staring so hard at me she ran smack into her mother’s backside.

At every gas station stop for 27,000 miles we have dealt with the same open mouth wide-eyed stares and John starts the spiel, as if on a never-ending loop (in Spanish):, “Si, it is a casa rodante, a motorhome. It is a Toondra. Si, very big. We are from the United States. We drove here from San Francisco. Si, California. Si, United States. We are going to Ushuaia. Si, long journey. Do you take credit card?” Every time.

Before we left home I used to read other people's blogs who were heading back to "real life", and think NO! Don't do it! Don't give up on the dream. Then a few months ago, I read in another overlander’s blog that toward the end of their trip, “the extraordinary had become ordinary”. As crazy as that sounds to someone working their tails off back home, it’s true for us now too. After 2 years of a nomadic life, we aren’t taking as many photos, we aren’t "gung ho" about new towns, hikes, or museums, and everything sort of looks the same. We are having a hard time appreciating aspects of this trip that not that long ago thrilled us.

We’re tired. It’s time to go home.

We had a bright spot on the horizon, though. We met up with some of our best friends from San Francisco for Christmas in Puerto Varas. The bad news is the drive there is about 1300 miles back up the way we came. If we wanted pavement (and by now we always do) much of the drive goes through Argentina – long, straight and mind numbingly boring. Endless miles of pampa, nothing to look at, merciless winds and crappy camping. The drive would take roughly two weeks, maybe more. Or we could put LoJo on 4 day ferry that takes us from Puerto Natales up to Puerto Montt, and then Puerto Varas is a 20 minutes drive. It was an easy decision…we took the ferry option.

To catch the ferry we had to drive back up to Puerto Natales. We took 3 leisurely days to drive down back in early November. As evidence of just how done we are, we did the drive back up in one day. That wasn’t my idea but John insisted he was not spending another night in that “shitty YPF gas station in Rio Grande”. I wasn’t exactly thrilled to sleep there either, so we pushed on and had a very long 13-hour day. At 11:00 pm, just outside of Puerto Natales, we filled up our gas tank on the side of the road in the howling wind with one of our jerry cans. All the gas stations were closed and we couldn’t make it all the way. We rolled in at 1:00 in the morning, exhausted, and camped in the parking lot of a cottage whose owner we had met last time we were in town. We checked in to the cottage the next day after the owner laughed, "Well you said you might be back and I when woke up, there you were!"

Bories House Cottage in Puerto Natales. We had a late check in.

We spent the next few days running around (sometimes literally in circles) getting things arranged for the ferry. Departure day was also a long one. For some reason, they board the ferry at night. We were told to be ready at 11:00 pm, and by midnight we were still on the loading dock. By 1:00 am, John was finally able to park the rig and LoJo was strapped down tight. The ferry ended up being kind of miserable too (bad food, rough seas, and rain), John had a bad cold, I got completely stir crazy, we both got a little sea sick, and with every nautical mile the stench from the poor cows living in their own filth got worse and worse. Instead of the epic sail through the Chilean fjords we were expecting, we felt a little like crew but without the distraction of any work. At least it only lasted 4 days and it was way better than driving the damn pampa.

It had such promise in the brochures...

Thank GOD for bunk beds. He was sick, the seas were rough, food sucked...blah.

The rare time we were both outside. We thought about highjacking one of these suckers and making a break for it.

Always looks better in the rear view. But oh, the smell back there. Poor cows...4 days in a truck.

We disembarked in what is officially called the “Lakes District", and it spans both Chile and Argentina. It begins in Puerto Varas where we hooked with our friends, Dana, Jim, and their daughter Emma. Dana and I have been friends for almost 17 years and having her here, with her family, gave us a huge boost emotionally. They were on vacation all around Chile and our dates matched up for a sunny Chilean Christmas together! We spent Christmas in a beautiful BnB on the lake, enjoyed gorgeous weather, and played tourist all around the lake. It was exactly what we needed. Having friends visit is such a gift.

We found a brewery owned by a guy from PA. Chester's Beer. Whoo Hoo!

We LOVED their beer.

Thanks, Chester!

After we left Dana, Jim and Emma, our plan was to drive the Seven Lakes Route or the Ruta de Sieta Lagos in Argentina. The Road of the Seven Lakes is the popular name given to the route between San Martín de los Andes and Villa La Angostura in the Neuquén Province of Argentina. The guidebook said it was a highlight. So, we headed up toward the border.

I have to be honest here, though. I didn’t really want to cross that border back into Argentina again. I am kind of done with Argentina, too. Not to bag on Argentina…but I guess I will. Where the stares in other countries in South America feel curious, Argentinians stares are more of a gawk. They have, and I kid you not, stood in the front of our truck blocking our way with a “what the hell is that” look on their face, not even acknowledging there are two humans inside. Nothing really seems to make sense in Argentina, either. The grocery stores are a maddeningly frustrating experience ( I could write a whole post on Argentinian grocery stores), the ATM’s rarely give you money, the regular stores are closed most of the day and the people are up all night which makes for some seriously noisy camping. I think they might be some type of vampire. Oh, and if the camp ground is empty and there are 500 spots, they will camp right next to you. We keep asking ourselves, "is it us"? We enjoyed BA and had some amazing times in Argentina, for sure. But it isn’t a place we would rush to return to, especially as overlanders. I think my first post on Argentina was kind of rant, and we have been in and out of this country now for about 5 months and not much has changed. Sorry, Argentina, but you were not our favorite.

We did cross back into Argentina, though. And the Seven Lakes drive was beautiful. Brilliant colors, views of the majestic Andes Mountains and every kew kilometres gradual slopes carpeted with evergreens spread down to brilliant navy blue lakes, some small and placid, others large enough the wind stirred up white capped waves. The drive took us through several beautiful national parks and plenty of scenic viewpoints. Our first stop was in the town Villa Angostura, a pretty tourist town that looked like a European ski town in the summer. We loaded up on some provisions and then headed out. We found nice camping on Lago Traful, and stayed for a few days there, enjoying the nature and relative quiet right on the lake.

On Lake Traful, we hiked, we cooked, and we hung out with a local family. All 8 kids were adorable.

Driving the Ruta de Sieta Lagos

On New Year’s Eve, we hit the road down along the shore of the last of the seven, Lago Lacar, into San Martin de los Andes. We opted not to go south to Bariloche since we heard it was a much bigger city and we just weren’t in the mood. Plus, our friend Ben had been robbed there so after that news report, it didn’t really pull us in. San Martin is much smaller than Bariloche, but still has a nice vibe and good infrastructure. We had lunch here and spent the time securing a reservation for the next day on yet another ferry, just over the border in Chile. We left San Martin at around 5 pm, on the hunt for a camp spot where we would spend New Year’s Eve. We planned to cross the border the next morning, thinking it wouldn’t be busy. Our plan was to find camping in the national park right on the border, allowing us to make the 9 am ferry on the Chilean side.

We drove to the national park, down into a canyon on a bumpy, steep, rough dirt road, so I thought for sure we would be all by ourselves. But as we crossed a bridge into the camping area we saw lots of cars. Too many cars. Then a another overlanding couple, who were also looking for camping, came up to us and told us we probably didn’t want to go much farther. They told us some locals had huge speakers set up, most of the crowd was already drunk, and they had brought a big garbage dumpster filled with water for a pool. Seriously?!? They had dragged that thing down into the canyon with a tow truck. So much for our quiet night. The couple, Javier and Lidia, turned out to be Overlanders from Barcelona, who had been on the road about 4 months. We all hopped back into our respective vehicles and high tailed it out of there. We eventually found quiet camping a few kilometers away on the other side of the lake.

En Serio? A dumpster pool?

Our quiet New Year's Eve spot on the edge of the lake at the Argentian/Chilean border. Muy Tranquillo.

Want to set up camp with us? Here you go:

Our only other visitor on New Year's Eve. He was giant. And sweet.

Javier and Lidia

We spent the evening chatting with Javier and Lidia, then ringing in the New Year with cheese quesadillas, no booze, and lights out at 9. I don’t know what 2017 has in store for us, but I am pretty sure our next New Year’s Eve won’t be anything like this one.

As we were driving away the next morning, Javier and Lidia called after us, " Don't let the usual life suck you back in!".

Amen, guys. Amen.

Next up, we recenter ourselves in the town of Pucón - and start preparing for the journey home.

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