It had been 55 days apart from Savannah. I bounced between hostels, hotels, and rental cars from February 28th to April 23rd. My life was condensed to a duffel bag and a backpack, but it still felt like too much stuff as I was constantly moving from one place to the next. I made friends with the hostel workers and gave them bits and pieces of my story, enough to accept I’d be drifting in and out of their place. I was given the green light to buy my ticket for April 23rd, the same day that the last person on the study (besides me) here in Santiago would be moving to Chicago. I guessed it would take about a week to drive back down, but I wasn’t given a hard deadline to be back by. Work would resume when I returned to Santiago, whenever that would happen to be.
I hopped on a dating app to socialize again. Between the couple of months I was traveling solo and moving around so much in the city, I craved human connection. I don’t really like dating apps, but it is surprisingly difficult to actually meet people in a city. Everyone is on their own mission and schedule. So, I met with a guy for lunch. We ended up talking for 4 hours about our travels and wanderings. He works for a fire truck company and travels the world fixing them – even Antarctica! The next day after lunch, he left for Cuba for two weeks on a work trip. Bummed that we seemed to hit it off and he suddenly disappeared, I wasn’t sure we’d see each other again. But we chatted and messaged for those two weeks and I joked about my rescue mission having an open passenger seat, if he would be able to buy a last minute ticket once I knew the date I could leave. This joke gradually grew into a possibility, why not travel together? It could either go really well or be a complete disaster, but either way it would be a story. He came back from Cuba, we hung out three more times to make sure we actually did get along. Then, for our fifth date we hopped on a plane to Peru.
That morning in the airport, I was skeptical he’d show. Who would take a one way ticket to Peru with a girl they just met and then drive a van across two countries? We would both have to be absolutely crazy to follow through with this plan. But around 6:30 AM, while I was drinking coffee at a Starbucks stand in the airport, he showed up with his backpack ready to go. We shrugged and laughed, then boarded the plane to Lima. We were able to sit next to each other despite a relatively full plane and seats not together on our tickets. I had a window seat and mused about how much duct tape was on the wing of the plane, it was a bit concerning. We couldn’t shake the feeling of how crazy this was for the next 3 or so hours before landing in Peru, then I found out it was even his first time in Peru!
I had been coordinating with Heraldo, who runs the Refugio Lima where Savannah stayed for van camp. He arranged for his friend to pick us up from the airport and drive us the hour and a half to Savannah. I think this was the same guy who dropped me off at the airport in Lima back in February, but his driving was quite a bit more chaotic. In the back seat we joked it was the “death taxi” as he swerved around cars, popped the clutch, slammed on the horn, all while watching a soap opera on Netflix on his phone. Eventually we made it to the refugio where Heraldo’s family greeted us with hugs and I was reunited with Savannah, exactly as I left her! It felt so good to have her back. That night we all hung out with beers around a bonfire before we set off on the next leg of the trip.
My Peruvian car insurance had expired so Heraldo helped me get more online before we left, even though it was a Sunday. He had some connections with SOAT and knew a guy who could do it for Savannah. While we waited to leave, we walked along the river just outside of town. Cieneguilla, Peru is an oasis amidst dry desert. The river is the source for lush trees and flowering plants that make the city stunning. We got some pizza for lunch, probably not the best first meal to have in Peru but it’s what we wanted. When we found out we got the SOAT we packed up Savannah, took a photo with the family, and headed off. Not more than 1 kilometer down the road, the battery overcharge message/check engine light came on. I pulled over, turned it off and on again, and told him I warned him that this would not be an easy trip.
We drove West to the coast that afternoon and then down to Peninsula de Paracas (Peninsula of wind). It was dark by the time we pulled into the park and drove down dirt roads. If I were alone I may not have continued driving into the night but I figured we would be fine. I found the campsite that was listed on iOverlander and wasn’t sure just how close to the edge of the cliff we parked. I think I may have scared him a bit driving him out there in the middle of the night since he asked if I was going to take one of kidneys and push him into the sea. All jokes, and soon we were marveling at the spectacular view of the stars. Without much light pollution we could see the milky way blast across the sky and found constellations like Scorpio and Orion.
The next morning we woke up and saw a car driving towards where we were parked, appearing not to be driving on a road. Three guys got out of the car and packed up some stuff before descending the cliff to the sea. We had no idea there was even a trail down the steep cliff. After giving them some time to make it down, we climbed down as well. The guys were nowhere to be found, only some footprints were left in the sand. We guessed they must’ve been picked up by a boat. Unclear what we just witnessed, we concluded they must just be fishing and nothing sketchy was going on. But we should probably climb back up the cliff and get out of the area, just in case. After we returned to Savannah, we saw a guy on a motorcycle slowing riding along the cliff edge, looking down to the coast apparently searching for something, or someone. We waved but he didn’t wave back. Definitely time to get the hell out now. Just before we left, I noticed a dime on the back bumper. Unsure how it got there and for how long, we didn’t discuss it anymore and drove out of the park away from the mysterious happenings on the cliff.
That day we drove to Nasca, Peru. We passed by the site for the Nasca lines, but there really wouldn’t be a way to see them unless we got in a plane. We stayed at a hotel that night since the city didn’t seem like a great place to park and sleep in the van. A big group of kids from the UK were there, probably on some type of school trip. We drank pisco sours and speculated about what they were doing and the group dynamics among everyone.
One of the nights we were driving down 1S, within the first few days of the trip, we encountered corrupt police. I hate driving into the night because it just seems like you’re asking for trouble with a foreign plate in the dark. The police here drive pickup trucks and I didn’t realize it was a police truck until after I passed on the left. I wasn’t speeding, but still felt like I was about to get into trouble. I moved back in the right lane and soon the truck passed another car behind me and we were being followed. We both noticed this at the same time and tensed as the truck came up fast behind the van and then backed off. Then the lights came on and they drove up next to me in the right lane, shined a flashlight into the driver’s window, and motioned for me to pull over. Both police got out and asked for my documents, specifically the import permit I got when I entered Peru with the van from Ecuador. This permit I knew was good for 90 days. The first policeman pointed to a line on the document that stated something about 30 days, and they claimed I overstayed. Now the paper was out of my hands, as well as my passport, driver’s license, and registration. They kept pointing to the line, while covering the top half of the paper. They claimed I overstayed, but I could pay them about $800 US dollars and be let go, or they would impound the vehicle. I knew this wasn’t right and that my papers were legitimate but I guess some small part of me wondered if I was missing something. We called Heraldo and he assured us we were getting scammed and that my papers were fine. With this new confidence, we insisted on getting the permit paper back where then we found the date for 90 days that the cop was covering with his hand. As soon as we found this, the act was over and they said we could drive away. It’s really frustrating and disappointing running into corrupt police, but luckily we made it out with only just some wasted time.
We continued to head South. Originally the plan was to cross into Bolivia, then Argentina, and then Chile since the Peru-Chile border would not be open until May 1. From the coast we headed East towards Puno. Savannah had a bit of a temper tantrum with check engine lights, engine overheating warnings, and going into limp mode. We checked the coolant and oil levels and determined the engine was not overheating, so it must just be an electrical problem. I didn’t want to drive back to Arequipa, where we had just gotten the oil changed and had PCR tests done for crossing into Bolivia. Perhaps a risky decision, but I decided to keep driving up into the mountains and if something happened, hopefully we would be able to make it to Puno to get it fixed. That night we slept at a pull off for “Garden of Stones.” We watched an incredible sunset at 14,700 feet (yes the road was that high) and learned the hard way just how much altitude can affect you if you’re drinking whiskey.
Groggy the next morning, we felt awful until we dropped a bit in elevation. Savannah ran fine and we made it Lake Titicaca (Puno). We took Savanah to a Ford dealership just before Puno in Juliaca. They said that Ford Transits aren’t here in Peru and that their computer would not work to try to diagnose the problem. They knew of a local mechanic who had a computer that could read it and sent us to him. This guy was able to see the codes and also confirmed that the engine/motor was in fact not overheating. He tried to clear the codes, which I guess put Savannah into safe mode and it wouldn’t start at all. But then she started up again. We wrote it off as just a glitch with wiring and pretty much impossible to fully diagnose, especially in Peru. The mechanic left us with an unwanted parting gift in the form of a fart and we drove away not feeling super confident but also like there was nothing else to do. Savannah went into limp mode an hour later as we were pulling into a place to get some ceviche. But I turned her off and on again, and she was fine. I was beginning to wonder about the rest of the trip and if she could make it to Santiago.
That night we stayed in a hostel called Las Cabanas. It was cold at night since we were still around 13,000 feet so we had a fire in the fireplace, I forgot how cozy that makes a place! We discussed Savannah’s health and the plan. At that moment, we were planning on crossing into Bolivia the next day and then cross into Chile from Bolivia on May 1. But after doing more research, I realized I would have to pay around $180 US for a tourist visa to Bolivia, which didn’t make much sense to get if we were only going to pass through within 2 days. And if we crossed into Chile and not Argentina, we wouldn’t even be able to visit the salt flats. Also, we didn’t know if Bolivian Ford dealerships would be able to work on a transit. Apparently Ford dealerships in Chile could work on transits. We decided to adjust our plan, wait in Peru until May 1, and cross the border into Chile on the day it opened. This would save time and miles, and be less stress than adding more border crossings.
The next day, we drove back towards the coast after having some fried cheese and potatoes at Tio Juan’s restaurant. It was oddly difficult to find breakfast food in the town we had stayed, Chicuito. The owner of the restaurant didn’t know his place was on google and that there were tons of good reviews! We took a photo with them to add to the reviews and set off West. That day we drove one of the most beautiful roads I have ever driven. It was narrow, though apparently two lanes. It hovered around 14,000 feet and it felt like we were driving on the roof of Peru. We saw alpaca and vicuna, possibly even guanaco. At times, the road was a washboard dirt road and other times it was perfectly paved. Magically, Savannah’s check engine light turned off and she purred along the twists and turns of the highway. We saw crazy rocks, massive mountains, rivers, caves, and plains. It was beautiful.
That evening we dropped down into Tarata. I’m not even sure how many switchbacks we descended down from the mountains but the sky was on fire with an amazing sunset and it felt like we were caught in a dream. Once in town, we found it odd how dead and dark it was at 7 PM. We got dinner and a beer in a small restaurant where we definitely stood out. We got some curious stares as we ate our food. We weren’t sure how we felt about the town so we drove back up into the mountains a bit to find a place to sleep. The next morning we returned to the town to get a better understanding of what was going on. We stopped in a hostel for breakfast and as I was walking around the common area, a Peruvian man who had been eating soup nearby asked for a photo with me. Blushing and feeling incredibly awkward, I agreed and soon we were invited to a fair. He was the president of an agriculture group and told us we must come to the fair and sit with him. We agreed and drove to the fair, parking Savannah in a place I could easily keep an eye on her. Most of the stands were selling fruits and vegetables or oils. There were also some shops set up selling Eucalyptus licor and fig wine. We bought some wine and found our new friend, who was apparently quite important and popular. We sat around a table where 5 or 6 chairs were constantly being swapped among people who wanted to talk business with this man. We also got a lot of questions, of which some of our answers had the whole table laughing – like the fact that we’d only known each other now for a month and embarked on this type of trip. We shared the wine and were given some of the Eucalyptus liquor. Knowing full well that more attention would make me blush, they kept calling me “la reina” or “the queen” and wrapping some of the colorful ribbons from the fair around my neck. Soon the whole table was calling me la reina and everyone wanted a picture. With the amount of eucalyptus liquor they had consumed, I’m not sure they’ll remember taking pictures with me and I doubt I’ll ever see those photos. They bought us some lamb to try for lunch and even took some photos of us eating it, which I was not able to do gracefully. We had a ton of fun and felt happy that we took the time to get to know the town. It turns out everyone just goes to bed super early after farming all day, and drinking that liquor. On our way our of the town, we got a bit of gas since there were no stations between there and the last town on the border. The gas was kept in drums and hand poured into the tank. It’s no wonder Savannah has some unexplainable issues if this kind of thing seems to be part of the new norm for her.
We drove to Tacna, the border town on the 30th. That night we got a hotel room and parked Savannah in the tiniest garage she’s ever been. Border towns are known to be a bit dangerous so we decided to play it safe. We sorted the documents for the crossing the next day, ordered dinner in, and watched The Descent because you can’t know me and not watch that movie.
The next morning we left early for the border. It was the first day this border would be open in years and we found it a little tense with how every kilometer or so there were police stationed on the side of the road, as if expecting something to go down. But the roads were pretty dead from Tacna to the border. When we arrived we saw a long que for people trying to get into Peru from Chile, but only a handful of cars traveling in our direction. The border process was relatively smooth, a bit disorganized but all in all easy. We got stamped out of Peru and into Chile, then canceled the Peru import permit for Savannah and got her set up for 90 days in Chile. (I’ll have to plan a quick trip to Argentina in July to get another import permit for another 90 days, but future Kelly will deal with that.) It took about an hour in total, then we were rolling into Chile.
I cried, just a little bit. It came out of nowhere but when I crossed into Chile I felt an overwhelming mix of feelings – relief, accomplishment, and some sadness that the trip was coming to an end. I did it, I drove to Chile in Savannah. I took my life, tipped it upside down, gave it a shake – some things stayed, some left, and I started this new chapter of my life without much of a plan other than to figure it out along the way. This life is a wild ride, and I’m in love with it.
We stopped for a lunch of shark steak and a celebratory pisco at a beautiful garden restaurant. That night we stayed in Savannah at an “adventure camp” that sat on a hill overlooking the sea. The next day we took a bit of a detour to see the highest and driest desert in the world, the Atacama Desert. It looked like we were on Mars. Volcanoes surrounded the desert and we were in awe of the crazy shapes of rocks and canyons. We stayed at a campground with a firepit, drank beers, and watched the stars. It was well worth the couple of extra hours of driving to experience that place. It was incredible.
From there, we drove two more days to get to Santiago. We stopped for a night on the coast at Bahia Inglesia, breaking up the two days of driving into about 10 hours of driving per day. Savannah didn’t have any more problems and the driving days flew by as we chatted constantly. I knew it could have potentially been a disaster if we found out we were not compatible on the trip. But with high risk can come high rewards. Doing this trip together was probably the most spontaneous decision either of us have made, but it was well worth it. We had a 13 day fifth date.
I’m now living in Savannah parked next to a hostel run by two guys in their mid 50s. Oddly enough, I fit in with them and when I’m around we’re sharing coffee or wine and chatting about traveling. I have access to the kitchen, restroom, and shower, and the place I’m parked feels safe. I’m back at work and will be based in Santiago for the rest of May. After that, I’ll start traveling to Chicago and Peru and Brazil. I’m enjoying some sense of calmness and being somewhat settled for a little bit before I start to be on the move again.
Updated map of campsites, here!