Disappearing into the Atacama Desert

Day 1: Picking up Wicked Van, Laguna Chaxa

We arrived at the Wicked offices to pick up our van at 10:30am. There were a few people ahead of us in line finishing up their paperwork, so it took us a little while to get on the road. After signing the documents, verifying the condition of our camper, double checking the checklist, and snagging a few essential free items: sleeping bag, pillow cutting board, extra dishwater, we were off. Our first stop was the grocery store to stock up on food for at least the next day. The second stop was the gas station to fill up the camper and the 20-liter jerrycan we had been given just in case. There is only one gas station in the desert, in San Pedro, so you have to come back to town to get gas, and we definitely did not want to run out. With that, we were off on our adventure heading towards Laguna Chaxa.

Our van for four days – lovingly nicknamed “Milkshake”
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San Pedro de Atacama

We have a week before we need to be in Bolivia for our WWOOFing post, so we decided to go back to Chile to explore the Atacama desert for a few days. There are three bus companies: Pullman Bus, Andesmar, and Gemini, that each run three trips to and from Atacama per week. The bus costs 1600 pesos ($42.11) per person no matter which company you go with. We took a 7am bus on Friday morning with Pullman Bus. The bus ride was uneventful, but our arrival in Chile was marked by some of the now familiar challenges of exploring a new place.

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In Pursuit of Wine in Cafayate

Cafayate is a wine region in southern Salta province. It is located at 5,500 meters above sea level which makes the wines produced there some of the highest altitude wines in the world. The valley has mild weather with low humidity, receiving less than one inch of rain per year, and is most known for the Torrontes grape. We had heard that Cafayate was similar to the Mendoza wine region in Argentina but lesser known.

From Salta city to Cafayate, there is a four-hour bus that costs 350 pesos ($9.37) per person. We took a bus on Tuesday with Roderick at 1pm and arrived at the bus station in Cafayate just after 5pm. On the bus ride, Roderick booked the Backpackers Hostel on Booking.com, but when we showed up, we were told there were no rooms available. It was clear the hostel did not have a system for dealing with day-of bookings since the person doing check in did not have a computer and kept insisting no one had told her we were coming.

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Hiking to the Waterfalls of Rio Colorado

On Wednesday, Eric and I set off from Cafayate for a hike to the waterfalls of Rio Colorado. We had read many blog posts and TripAdvisor reviews of this hike advising that it was a must-see and indicating there was a guide option available for ~$10, but that many people had elected to do it without a guide. There are seven waterfalls along the trek of increasing size, with the seventh, most impressive, waterfall having a fall of 20 meters. We caught a taxi from our new hostel, Casa Árbol, for 150 pesos ($3.94) to the trail head and were immediately accosted by people trying to sell us a guide. They handed us a sheet of paper that indicated the cost for waterfalls 1-3 was 250 pesos ($6.58) per person; waterfalls 1-5 was 350 pesos ($9.21) per person and waterfalls 1-7 was 500 pesos ($13.16 per person). Normally hiking doesn’t come with a fee, and if it does, it’s nominal, but we were looking at more than $25 for this hike, which seemed a bit crazy considering we saw Iguazú Falls for just over $35.

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Finding Friends in Salta

We arrived in Salta tired and hungry having long ago exhausted the multiple sandwiches and snacks we had brought with us on the bus. We had expected to arrive at 7am and have the whole day ahead of us, but instead we arrived at the bus station at 2:30pm. Eric and I had a hostel booked for the night, but the two French girls did not, so they decided to tag along with us and see if there was room for them at a reasonable price at our hostel. It was only on this walk to the hostel that we thought to exchange names, despite having first met each other 40 hours before and spent 28 hours in a bus together. That might have been a small personal failing, but you can meet so many people on the road you never see again, that sometimes names aren’t that important. We’ve noticed it’s not unusual to chat with people for quite a while before asking their names, even though that would be one of the first things we asked at home.

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Bus del Infierno

Our two weeks in Paraguay are over and we are a little sad to be leaving. While we’re not sure we’d use valuable vacation time to make a special trip to Paraguay, we are really glad we came here and would wholeheartedly recommend it to other travelers.

Our next destination is Salta. There are no direct buses to Salta from Asunción, so we have to change buses in Resistencia. On the map, Resistencia looks very far out of the way since Salta is a little north of Asunción. In fact, it looks so far out of the way we explored other options including crossing to Clorinda, just across the river from Asunción and catching a bus there. There is a city bus to Clorinda, but it can take two hours to cross as it winds through all the city streets first. There is also a ferry from Puerto Itá Enramada in Asunción, to Puerto Pilcomayo just outside Clorinda. Allegedly there’s a shuttle into town, but if you missed it, you’d be 10km from anywhere. The final argument is there’s only one bus from Clorinda to Salta (leaving at 1:50pm), but it goes through Resistencia anyway, so it’s a lot easier to just get a bus from the bus terminal in Asunción to begin with.

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Five Days in Asunción, Paraguay

Months ago we booked six nights at El Nómada Hostel in Asunción because we needed to show accommodation on our Paraguay visa application.

The first night after our sweaty bus ride, we ran into Jonathan and Danielle in the kitchen, the first Americans we’ve seen since we left Buenos Aires. While we aren’t particularly focused on finding Americans on our trip, it was fun to meet them. We are doing our trips in opposite directions, so they had lots of tips about Colombia, and we could tell them about Encarnación and getting Bolivian visas in Buenos Aires. They had spent three days in Asunción and were leaving the next day. They warned us Asunción is weirdly empty and there isn’t much to do.

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Bus to Asunción

We arrived at the bus terminal in Encarnación at 10:40am, and before we had even made it to the ticket windows a guy asked where we were heading and told us he had a bus right now to Asunción. Before we had agreed, he had written out a ticket for a bus leaving at 11:45. Not exactly “right now” by our definition but we figured it was fine. Louisa showed up 30 minutes later and managed to get on a much nicer bus leaving 15 minutes before us. And that’s when we realized we had made a mistake.

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