South America Road Trip- Lima To Rio And Back... Almost
In 2009, myself and two friends (Chas and Tyler) decided to use our 2 week winter break from school to skip our Christmas, for a second year in a row, to attempt a cross CONTINENT-and-back trip in South America. Lima, Peru to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and back in 13 days.... or at least that was our plan...
So there we were:
3 dudes, 13 days, a rental Jimny (mini P.O.S. SUV), minimal ability to speak Spanish, virtually NO ability to speak Portuguese, a wall map of South America, a compass, three school bags of gear/clothes, 20 extra gallons of gas and an insatiable thirst for a new adventure. Ahead of us, lay a string of unpredictable and unforgettable events; each of which was taken in incredible stride as we embraced the very journey we sought!
Fly into Lima, Peru and rent or buy the cheapest 4WD vehicle we could find. Then traverse the daunting Andes Mountains in our quest to reach the Atlantic Coast, via Bolivian and Brazilian roads through the Amazon. Upon our Arrival in Rio, we hoped to take a few days of R&R on Copacabana beach before heading back to Lima, stopping to see Macchu Picchu on the way. As you can probably guess, our trip ended up very different...
We ended up renting, and going with the FULL COVERAGE and UNLIMITED MILEAGE on a Suzuki Jimny. It was a bit pricey but the best option due to our late arrival time, and how eager we were to get this show on the road. So from Lima we would proceed south along the Peruvian Coast as we pondered the thought of seeing and touching the ocean on the OTHER side of the continent, less than a week from that time.
The drive through the Andes was breathtaking... literally. And yeah also because the photo ops were nothing short of fantastical too. The isolated small villages we would pass through were certainly a sight to see. You really get to witness how people live when they are TRULY disconnected from a world of running water and electricity. If you're driving through the night and need a little boost, the Peruvians make some killer tea that will do the trick. A note regarding nights in the Andes: It can get very cold, it even snowed while we were driving and it was summer in the Southern Hemisphere! Also, it IS possible to get Carbon Monoxide poisoning if you are sleeping in a vehicle on top of a mountain with the engine running and windows up, so please be careful.
Well, after surviving the fierce roads, switchbacks and horrific sights of belly up tractor trailers in the Andes, we eventually came to the Bolivian boarder near the southeast corner of Lake Titicaca (the highest lake in the world!). Mind you, we had no visa for Bolivia because we did not believe we needed one. We chose to enter via the Commercial entrance where all the tractor trailers were lined up for miles. Luckily, our vehicle fit between the two rows of trucks with barely a foot or two on either side of us. We were elated! Eventually we came to a point where there were guards checking the trucks. But security was minimal, and there was only one gate which lifts up for each individual truck to drive through after it has passed inspection. Luckily, again, as we approached this point, the gate was going up and we snuck through a small gap in the traffic to cut off the truck about to pass through and blew through the border as the guards just turned and stared at us... unable to do anything because they had no vehicles themselves. A few miles later, we came upon another "gate" consisting of a man in a lawn chair holding a rope across the road. We decided to stop here and enter the small mud shack he sat in front of. In here we paid a young man 30 dollars for 3 stamps allowing us into Bolivia. He was resistant to our intentions to enter his country until we busted out our American Cash Stash. It was a done deal, we were in, and off we went. Bolivia is Beautiful. The Jungle and villages scattered throughout it are surreal. This is exactly what we came for.
Driving through the nights to make good time was easy, as we took shifts driving, sleeping and navigating with map and compass. YES a map and compass. There are not many named roads through the backcountry of Bolivia which appear on the map, so we had to resort to using a compass to determine which road we were on and what direction it was heading. What a trip. As a matter of fact there was a stretch of almost 200 miles of unpaved road through the jungle where there was no road on the map, so that compass came in real handy. Gas, along with everything else, is very cheap in Bolivia. In the 4-5 days we spent there, we spent about $200 between the three of us. That included gas, food, and souvenirs.
Soon enough we were in Brazil. Roads there are paved significantly better than in Bolivia. Gas here was significantly more expensive. The sights were spectacular and the weather was great. It gets very hot during the days and at nights it doesn't cool down much. Definitely bring along plenty of bug spray if you're planning on sleeping on top of your vehicle like we did. As we approached the bigger cities like Sao Paulo and Rio, major roads began to appear but they are very confusing so it is recommended that you pick up a map from a local gas station to find your way around. NOTE: Watch out for motorcyclists. Many people travel on motorcycles and mopeds and they don't care to use their lights at night. When we arrived in Rio, we found the nicest hotel we could afford and rested up on Copacabana beach for 2 days. If you're looking for some good beef, boy oh boy that's your spot! And the people there are friendly too. We got locked out of our dilapidated and muddy vehicle one night, but thanks to the help of a bunch of Circ De Sole performers, we were back in business in no time!
The trip back to Lima would prove to be the toughest part of this trip. On our way to Rio, we popped a tire on that long stretch of unpaved road through the jungle. And as luck would have it, we popped another one on our way back. No, we didn't have another spare. So after spending the night on the side of a mountain road where we popped our second tire, we decided we would have to drive on the flat tire until we found a place to have our first tire replaced or fixed. Chas rode on top of the vehicle, keeping a close eye on the rapidly deteriorating tire, as I carefully maneuvered through those mountain roads. We ended up stopping three times to put just enough air in the punctured tire to get us from town to town in search of someone to fix this flat. Eventually we found a "mechanic" who used some sort of primitive rig to fix it! All of this calamity cost us precious time in our trip back and caused us to re-evaluate our trip. We would not have enough time to see Macchu Picchu AND get back to Lima for our flight in the short amount of time we had left. We chose to make it to Cusco and see Macchu Picchu, drop off the vehicle at the Cusco airport, and fly back to Lima. HOWEVER, this didn't quite work out either. Just East of La Paz, Bolivia, we came to a checkpoint where the guards asked to see our paperwork and passports. They would not let us continue, and threatened to take us to jail because we did not have Bolivian Visas. So I made a phone call back to the U.S. where a Bolivian friend of mine (From La Paz) offered some help. I had him speak to the guards and arrange a "deal." The Guard wanted $300 U.S. money. I offered $60, and he took it and let us be on our way. This ordeal lasted no less than 2 hours, and in the end caused us to miss the last train up to Macchu Picchu upon our arrival in Cuzco. But all was not lost. We made it to Cusco, got the cheapest, worst, driest, most painful massages of our lives and enjoyed the wonderful scenery until our flight back to Lima.
It was an exhilarating trip and I would absolutely recommend it to anyone with the desire to take life by the horns and do something most people in this world never will. Each day and the challenges that came with were adventures in themselves. Between popping those tires, navigating through countryside, and overcoming countless unforeseen obstacles, it is sure to be one of those trips we will never forget!