#1: Ecuador through Peru
Wherein we drive for ages through the desert and realize that
pregnancy and overland expeditions don't mix
We had a happy surprise in late summer, we were pregnant. It was
a whirlwind time of plan changes and adjustment. What to do? This
expedition had been conceived when my wife Stacey wanted to take
a break from work. Her friend Jim was in the middle of a trip around
the world and would be going through South America around the same
time that she wanted to travel. I suggested they take the Land Rover,
Jim brought on two other friends - and the expedition was born.
But pregnancy changed things. Stacey felt like she couldn’t
bail out entirely on the trip, but it was medically unsafe for her
to go to high altitudes, definitely a problem on the originally
conceived route. Cusco, Machu Pichu, La Paz, Potosi, the Atacama
desert, all were out. So she changed her plans.
Jim, John and Christine would take the first six weeks from Guayaquil
to Santiago, I would join Stacey for six weeks and poke around in
Patagonia, and the others would return to do another six weeks into
Argentina and Brazil. Then, a week before we were to fly down, a
series of emails from Jim – the truck came out of the container
broken. Improperly lashed down during shipping, it had rattled around
the inside of the container and stripped the left rear wheel connector.
Jim stayed for a week trying to get the truck fixed, but frustration
was mounting. I emailed back, “No problem, I will come up
to Guayaquil and pick up the truck myself”. Relieved, they
left on public transport to do the first half of their South America
After detouring into town for a coffee, we were directed back
to the Panamerican on this "on ramp"
Ruined palaces of Chan Chan, ancient coastal culture of Peru,
just north of Lima
Miraflores is an island of luxury in the middle of Lima, a
rest stop for Starbucks, movies, and pasta al dente
Plaza de Armas in Lima, a cluster of restored buildings but
still the feel of pickpockets and lethargy
Suddenly, an oasis in the middle of the desert
And we thought our Land Rover was big - a Unimog camper and
retired Swiss couple poking along through Peru
Occasional rivers slash green through the desert, cutting
the worlds deepest canyons
Santa does his thing in Arequipa - but brought us no presents
on this expedition
From Guayaquil to Santiago, our original starting point, is about
5,000km. The same distance as NY to LA, but definitely not the same
kind of drive. You can break it down into three sections.
Northern Peru, 2,200km of blazing desert with a scattering of
tin shack beach towns and not much else. Even backpackers shun the
oven-like drive and fly from Lima to Ecuador.
Southern Peru into Bolivia is 1,000km of attractions. The Nazca
lines, Arequipa, Colca canyons, Cusco and the stunning Machu Pichu,
Lake Titicaca, and in Bolivia the silver mine of Potosi and Atacama
desert’s rare beauty. It’s the top attraction on the
west coast of South America… and all at high altitude, putting
it off limits for a pregnant woman. The alternate route through
southern Peru is a lot like northern Peru, two-lane tarmac road
through sand, and sand, and more sand.
Northern Chile to Santiago is remarkably similar to northern Peru,
another 2,000km of desert down the slender length of Chile. Better
roads, nicer gas stations - but the same dependence on cable TV
to break up the long drives.
It looked daunting on the map. Stacey and I changed our tickets
from Santiago to Guayaquil. The trip had just changed from a casual
drive through Patagonia, to a 12,000km sprint from Guayaquil to
It took several days to patch up Max in Guayaquil,
Ecuador's major port and a perfectly nice place to spend a couple
days. They've dressed up the riverwalk with fountains, restaurants,
and shops, way more enjoyable than my last visit in 2002. I'd done
Lima to Guayaquil several times, but always by plane. The Lonely
Planet sums it up well, "an arid 2,000km drive noted for cheap
beach towns in the north." This time we had to drive. Stacey
is a tough chica. We had done several 1,000km day-drives on the
previous expedition and we both figured we'd just suck it up for
eight days, blaze down to Santiago, and then start the real vacation.
The first day on the road offered a tantalizing possibility of fun.
KFC as we left Guayaquil, a painless border crossing, and a moonlit
dinner on the beach at a tiny seaside resort that we just happened
to find in the middle of nowhere. Aiya carumba. Why? From such a
promising start we spiralled right down into infamy. I was up at
3am with what turned out to be food poisoning. Stace tried driving
the next day, but I bailed in one of the few towns that break the
desert view, and communed with the toilet bowl while tinny salsa
blared through our hotel room window. That evening I sipped Coke
and Stacey watched 'Road Trip' on cable. Wierd.
Lima or bust the next day, was pretty close to a bust. Pregnancy
and an '85 Defender, like sundaes and sardines, just don't mix.
We visited the ruins of Chan Chan, mystery ordered what turned out
to be grilled chicken at a gas station grill, and gutted out the
smoggy dusk to make Lima after midnight. Stace was so tired and
sore that she was crying, and after a few tries we gave up looking
for a decent hotel - checking into a flophouse in Miraflores. It
was becoming apparent that this little detour would be much harder
than we thought. We took a day off to sightsee, had Starbucks and
ice cream, caught a movie, booked into a real five-star hotel and
raided the mini-bar.
"Don't worry honey, Nazca and Arequipa will be great!"
If there was a silver lining to our unexpected detour, it was the
chance for Stacey to see some of the great tourist attractions in
southern Peru. Pisco offered up a terrific patio for lunch, and
a desert oasis was yet another unexpected plus. Further down the
road, Nazca's mysterious rock formations only reveal themselves
from the air, outlines of animals and fish whose builders remain
a mystery. I signed her up for the 1/2hr flight, and stayed behind
to do some work on the truck since I'd already seen them. She came
backa bit quiet. "What did you think, terrific huh!" She
was a bit bashful. "Well, those little planes are scary - I
had my head down most of the time." Oh lordy.
Years ago I fell in love with Arequipa. White stone buildings in
the shadow of 6,000m snow capped peaks, ancient alleys and great
local food. I couldn't wait to get back. But several hours out of
town, her stomach pains getting stronger and stronger, Stacey got
worried. She looked up her symptoms at an internet cafe in town,
then called her doctor. "I have to tell you," her doctor
said via long distance, "you may be having a miscarriage."
Stace broke down. We couldn't believe it. Emergency calls were made
and we were rushed to a local clinic by ambulance. I matched fractured
Spanish with the local doctor's fractured English, trying to understand
what was going on. Several desperate hours later, after an ultrasound
and exam, the doctor assured us the baby was ok. A big baby, a boy
in his opinion, but mommy needed to rest - no more driving for her.
Our tentative plans to fly up to Cusco were abandoned. We stayed
at the hotel, sleeping, reading, taking short strolls. Stacey discovered
the old nunnery where shadows run across ochre alleys in the changing
light and bouganvillia blooms tumble out of stone planters. We had
crepes at the French cultural center - and wrestled with our next
A flight to Santiago was awkward, involving a leg up to Lima, changing
airlines, a long wait, and then a flight down to Santiago. We perused
our options. If we could get to the northernmost city in Chile she'd
have a much more straighforward trip. Thought about it for a day.
It was only five hours away. There is a principal known as sunk
cost - where to make the best of a bad situation you write off your
investment and change plans. But human psychology is too grippy,
in for a pound in for a penny, if you have lemons make lemonade.
We decided to keep going. Slept in, ate the breakfast buffet and
had one last cafe latte at the bar, packed, and pulled out of town.
Destination, Chile's northernmost city of Arica.