A few bus rides separated us from our first overland border crossing of the trip. The almost absurd vertical sprawl of Chile appealed to us. At least route planning might be simpler now that the pesky east and west directions were more limited. After a confusing stopover at the bus station in the last Peruvian city of Tacna, we finally scrambled together the Spanish instructions we received from about four different people, we found the correct bus and boarded with all our luggage in our laps for the quick drive to Chile. Besides the security dog sniffing out a granola bar with a singular dried raisin on top which was tucked into Lane’s backpack, the border crossing proved simple. Traveling just a few miles into Chile, the change between the two countries felt almost palpable.
We arrived at small border city of Arica. The long beach stretching along the city provided a view of the Peruvian border, weather permitting. And by weather, I mean waiting for the intense fog which accumulates each evening as the cold ocean clashes against the heat of the encroaching Atacama Desert to burn away from the intense morning sun. We’re told by locals that in “the city of eternal spring”, it has only rained two days in the last 10 years. Otherwise, it’s nearly the same weather day after day: clear, hot, and sunny.
Our guidebook recommended Sunny Days hostel, so we booked a few nights anticipating the need to begin wrapping our heads around this new country. Ross, the Kiwi who’s made Chile his home for almost twenty years, welcomed us into the front room of the hostel. It’s a large living room complete with a dining table and feels like walking into your grandparents’ home with the number of travel memorabilia and family photos carefully arranged on each wall.
The first few days called for relaxing at the nearby beach and transitioning from tolerating to enjoying the icy water—courtesy of the Humboldt current straight from Antartica. We marveled at the fresh selection of vegetables right across the street in the market. Huge drums of delicious olive and pickles lined the rows, and we made a practice of visiting the market each day. We climbed to the cerro above the city, a pivotal battle site for Peru and Chile. We toured the wharfs buying fresh seafood and chatting with the fishermen. We laughed at the enormity of the sea lions playing in the bay.
Although we slept only a few miles away from the Peruvian border, we focused our efforts on learning about Chile and how we might approach the seemingly endless coastal country. I knew we wanted to spend time in Patagonia, though I already felt worried about the encroachment of high-season in Chile. Without meaning to, we were living in a perpetual state of summer. The passing of the Southern Hemisphere’s spring didn’t feel particularly different than what came before and after due to the moderate weather we’d experienced for most of the trip.
Our attention quickly gravitated to the opportunity in closest proximity—renting a vehicle and driving in the altiplanos rising from the Atacama Desert. Our hostel friends further encouraged the idea with their recent trips through the desert of planned excursions. We’d loved the freedom endowed by having our own vehicle, though our nerves questioned our ability to manage the isolation of the landscape before us. Basically, Arica is the capital of the northern region and the only gas stations in the entire region—an area the same size as New Jersey—are in Arica. Sure, you can buy water and a few other supplies in the spattering of towns out east, but we wanted to come prepared. You can’t count on tap water anywhere around here as well. Due to the extensive mining in the region, it’s just not safe. For the first time, we were completely dependent on bottled water and planning our how much we would need for the journey through the driest desert in the world—a part of it, at least.
After a few budget calculations, we rented our vehicle of choice, booked a few nights at our first hostel, and excitedly waited for our journey to begin. Before departing, we met a friendly Rocky Mountain couple hailing from Montana who just returned from a trip through the altiplanos. They assured us the trip was well worth it, and sold us their spare jerry cans. Joshua and Stephanie assured us the trip would was worth it, and completely manageable. We would also learn they were obsessed fans of the travel show, Departures, just like us. The show visits this region of Chile, and this was part of the reason we each found ourselves here. It seems only fitting to recieve advice from other Departure-lovers as we prepared for the trip.
The 4WD truck we reserved turned out to be the same model rented by the mining companies in the area. Needless to say, it felt a little over-the-top give our needs, but also pretty cool. Loaded into our Volkswagen truck (they make trucks?), we drove to the BIGGEST GROCERY STORE I’VE EVER SEEN IN MY LIFE. We’ve spent the past several months walking through grocery stores in some level of moderate confusion and without any expectations of what we will or will not find. Thus, this store was unbelievable. I would have been surprised to even see something this massive in most places in the states. Overwhelmed, we wandered through the aisles in shock grabbing items from our list as well as brands from back home and a few items we didn’t think we would see again for months. We stared at our cart, perplexed, shrugged it was probably enough food for a week and headed to the gas stations. We filled our pair of jerry cans with diesel, and we were ready to hit the road!