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South America Four Wheel Drive Trip - I.

April 15, 1996

Folks, So many of our friends have asked us about our trip to South America we felt that a note from time to time would keep everyone abreast of the trip. The trip will be done in 8 legs or so each about two to three weeks. We will do a leg every three to four months.

Our trip first started with a farewell party at our CPW apartment. Our only regret was we had to call it over too early to get a 6:00AM start the next morning. We left about 7:30 only to rush over to Carmen Charles our travel agent to pick up our return air tickets that she forgot to deliver. The only thing we forgot was the ham we cooked to eat along the first couple of thousand miles.

The preparation of the Land Rover was accomplished by DAP of Springfield, Vermont and updated with work by Tom Sircausa at our local gas station in Englewood,N.J.. We know that the car could make it on any trip anywhere. The 1967 Land Rover has a top speed of 55 mph so our excitement was high when we passed 4 cars. It only took us to Texas to pass the last slow car. We stopped for the night at Charlottville North Carolina, Biloxie Mississippi and Corpus Christy , Texas the third night. Lots of hours behind the wheel was the way to move through the USA.

Mexico

The border at Matamoros Mexico really put us on the road to the south. We did not ask how far the next gas station was located. The Great Northern desert as those in Mexico call it; was miles of scrub. In fact over 145 miles. We arrived with a great relief in Soto del Marina with a little more then two pints of gas remaining in the tank of the Land Rover. Now we know to ask how far it is to the next station.

Soto Marina is a real cow town complete with horses and it's the best place to buy a real cowboy hat. You will see many photos of ours at some time. The roads in most of Mexico are not at all difficult it to drive on. In fact some new toll roads are excellent by any standards. You only have to get used to no shoulders along the side and "topes". A tope is what we call a speed bump with a special Mexican twist. Every town has them and you can be sure that they are well respected by all.

We stayed at a five star hotel in Coatzacoalcos just by accident. We drove into town and asked a pedestrian if he know of a nice hotel. He said turn at the next corner and go down the dirt road a short distance. We found Terranova a truly luxury hotel full of oil and chemical men form all over the world. The service food and surrounding at the hotel are outstanding.

We stopped along the road and picked up local people who were standing waiting for the buses. It's a great way to meet some fascinating people who are just wonderful. The school teacher was taking a big fish to cook for her class lunch. She invited us to her home for coffee and we met the whole family. The musician had many stories of his playing on the road in Texas. The student did not talk much but we think he was a little shy.

The lake region in the mountains was breathtaking in its beauty. It was cool and lovely with almost no tourist development for the big city people from Mexico City. Campeche is a wonderful town and a haven after driving for almost a full day in a straight line from Poza Rica (rich hole for oil). This entire area is oil country with a capital O. It took us 7 and 1/2 days to reach Merida our final spot in the Yucatan Peninsula.

Merida is a town of storybook beauty and fun for all. The majority of the tourist are from Mexico City there to celebrate in the honor of Benato Juarez. Dancing to live music on every block in the center of town. We stayed at the Hotel Gran a slightly fading luxury hotel built in 1901 in the style of the NY ST Regis. We are told it is Fedel Castro hotel of choice when in Marida. We left the Land Rover in the hand of Jose Faller Vega at Calle 68 an excellent little shop to do a few minor repairs. We were referred to him by Jose Ponce the local VW dealer. The two brother which run the business could not be more helpful in there dealing with us.

We visited many Mayan ruins spectacular in the grandeur but the people really made us feel at home. Next trip should take us through Central America and arrive in Bogota in August 1996. Remember if you want to join us we have an extra seat just for you.

August 1996

We have finished the second leg of or trip south and found ourselves on the shores of Lake Maracaibo, Venezuela. The drive from Merida Mexico thoughtout all of Central America was quite an gruelling experience and at the same time magnificent for all the sights and people we encountered along the way. The drive to Belize from Merida was one full day of hard desert driving with few hill and baking sun. We stopped for lunch at a local spot full of the local cowboys on the Sunday off. The food was great and the beer ice cold. A few miles down the road we got gas from the back of Juan's home where he keeps three 55 gallon drums and a five gallon jug for measurement. The late night boarder crossing to Belize was made just before closing and we were suggested to stay at the next town for the night. A clean and wonderful place on the Gulf. It could not be any better. That morning Gladys took a walk out on the jetty and heard strange sounds. She kept going and found a Chinese man saying his prayer at early light. Belize is a delight to drive through with Mennonites' farm along the road. It looked like Pennsylvania.

Guatamala

We crossed the border to Guatulmala and the road changed from a highway to a rutted gravel road with a top speed of 12 mph. After 4 hours of going we reached the jewel of the area, Flores. The town sits on an island reached by a causeway in the middle of lake Petan Itiza . Great food, nice hotels and many tourist from all over the world which come to see the Mayan ruins.The young man we picked up gave us all the local gossip in the three hours he rode with us.

The next day was 9 hours of driving over the worst roads we have ever driven. May times I felt that if we drove over the fields we would be more comfortable. Besides the cows and pigs to evade Gladys favorite story is the mother duck and five ducklings swimming in a pothole in the center of the "highway". We had to rebuild the carburetor from a combination of bad gas and the tank shaking loose 13 years of sediment. We can recommend a great mechanic in Esperanza, Hondoras should you need one.

Honduras

The short cut we took to enter Honduras was an adventure of a gravel road and fording rivers every few miles. The lady bookseller we had with us said only a few trucks take this back road. We can fully understand why. Honduras has the most lush and beautiful mountains of all Central America. It seems that the guerrillas have all gone home to plant seeds. It is very poor nation we picked up a woman who travel 30 miles to save 30 cents on her sack of food. The custom is if someone gives you a ride you offer them something to cover the gas. Her story of the death of her young son and family problems was so sad that when she had to go and offered us something we gave her money. She could not believe it her mouth dropped open as we drove away.

Our most difficult drive at night was from Graces the original capital of Honduras to Esperansa. The man we picked up in Graces said it would not be to bad and he knew the way. Skimming the top of mountains in pitch dark on poor gravel roads at 10 mph was not fun for four hours. Not one car or truck was seen in either direction. We did ask him why the cobblestone roads in Graces were so rough. We thought they were redone for tourist development. No, he said they just had not been repaired since the building of the town in 1540.

Nicaragua

The last town in Honduras before Nicaragua is Pariso. They have a five star restaurant in town called "El Torito". It is worth a 500 mile trip to eat there. From that point on that was the culinary standard and in New York it still stand out. Nicaragua is a fine place and all the people we picked up were all very nice. The soldier told us his whole life story. You do see small children carry loads of wood so large the can just about stand up. The years of war have left the place very poor.

Lake Nicaragua is huge and grand and the area just before Costa Rica looked like a farming area in Illinois. Our first night in Costa Rica we stayed near La Cruz at Colinas de Norte a sparkling resort run by an Italian family. That is were Gladys got bit by the monkey. Not to worry she was told it happens all the time. We shook lose the exhaust system at the header and had a local mechanic retool the header for about ten dollars. All the main roads were out due to a hurricane the prior week so we had to take the coast road all the way to Panama. We met some great people at a river crossing. The only vehicles to go through because the bridge was out were very large trucks. We gave some gas from our spare tank to a tourist from Martinique who could not cross in his jeep and needed gas to get back to the last town. A team was formed with three of us a diesel jeep connected by our winch went first, then us in the Land Rover, and we chained from us to a regular car which had his engine off. The his wife in the car was a little frighten when the water went over the hood and the auto started to sway in the current.

Panama

Panama has the greatest road in all of Central America we could go as fast as possible. What a feeling that is after almost a thousand miles of gravel and potholed roads. In Colon we stopped at a traffic light and found a full scale strike going on at the intersection. Armoured National Guard with shotguns sweeping the intersection was quite a surprise. Gladys did not want me to stop and take pictures.

The ferry to Cartagena was an experience from our past 12 days of travel. Private cabin, full service meals and a evening of dancing plus a floorshow. It was another world. Colombia as a place and the people was wonderful but get the legal paper work straight. We had to go out of the country by auto to leave legally.

Venezuela

As we drove toward Venezuela in a desert area near Riohacha the two lane highway widens to 8 lanes with full striping just like an airport and ran for a full flat five miles and then back to the old two lane highway. As you drive next to Lake Maracaibo you see the salt works still in operation as it has for a thousand years. The town is over three million and has some great hotels. We stayed at the Maruma a 5 star hotel full of marble, dancing and excellent restaurants.

We left the Rover in the hands of Manuel Lobo to do a little work and care for it until we return. He replaced an axle, rebuilt the clutch hydraulics and replaced a few bolts on the engine pan. The overnight bus to Caracas was no fun but the airport was jammed and we had no choice to get our plane in two days. Do not go into Caracas, stay at the seaside resorts of Macuto were all of Caracas goes for the weekend. Next trip we hope will bring us back thought Colombia and over into Ecuador. Again we still have the extra seat for you to join us.

December 26, 1996

We made it back from the top of South America and to tell the truth this part of the world is a piece of cake to drive through. Many high mountains but the roads are all great compared to Central America and you would find it an easy trip. Our real question at this point was to go south to Brazil and through the Amazon Basin or over the mountains and down the West Coast of the Americas. We choose West because Gladys does not like bugs and snakes that are in the Amazon. Prior to our leaving we considered is this trip worth all the efforts, emotional drain and expense but now at the half way point, the routine if you can call it that is set in. We departed from Miracabo after having the car serviced by Manuel Lobo. He did a great job replacing the axle and presented the car to me at the airport with a shine inside and out.

We obtained a Liberta de Passo (a sort of guarantee if you sell the car all import taxes will be paid) which is a great help in traveling from nation to nation.

Columbia

We departed the next day to Colombia but did not quite make it to Cucuta. We took photos of the clouds below us at La Fria a really cold place. That night we stayed in San Cristobal Venezuela at the Military Hotel. It seems that the government is turning over underused facilities to public use just as we are doing in the USA. The rates were very cheap and it was a huge place with a theater dance hall and sport facilities. In fact a beauty pageant was going on in the theater and we saw all the girls of the town.

In Colombia we arrived at Bucaramanga a wonderful old city at the foot of some very high mountains. Off to Tunja were we spent the night at the Conquistador a hotel just like staying at your old aunts house with all the comforts of a home.

To Bogata

The next day to Bogota. We had a little problem with air in the brakes and had it repaired at Auto Imperio in Bogota along with the cracked support they found to the right front spring. That steel plate is about 3/4 inches thick and it must of taken quite a jolt to crack it. The same day we pushed on to Girardot and found this local farming community away from Bogota a great place to enjoy a truly Colombian town. The trip on down to Calli the next day was over the Central Mountain Chain. Many farmers have their own cable cars to get to the roads. On a 50 mile route we saw 5 major accident with serious injuries and a death or so. All of the accidents were caused by buses or overloading of vehicles and all could have been prevented by using care in driving.

Calli is a lovely town full of high rises and quaint little shops and bistros. A river runs at great speed in the center of town giving a special quality to the town. The next day it was on to a full days drive south to Pasto and over some of the highest mountains in the Occidental range. The areas is dry and almost desert like for over half of the way although it has a quality of peace and harmony. Pasto is an Indian farming town that has grown considerable and offers most all modern facilities including cash machines.We stayed at a 4 star hotel and enjoyed a meal at Sorantio s equal to "El Torito" our Honduran standard. I enjoyed the pastry shops that seem to be on every block of the town.

Ecuadaor

On to Ecuador and up to Quito a really cosmopolitan town full of travelers from around the world. The capital is at a level of 9,000 feet and it does take some getting used to the thin air. Bring long underwear. We both had headache but the beauty of the city quickly revived us. We stopped into the South American Explorers Club which we are member and donated a few camping items to aid in their efforts. It is a great group and very helpful to travelers of all types. We found the local guru of Land Rovers by stopping a Land Rover driver on the street and asking him where to fix our car. Mistro Manuel as he is called can do just about anything and has a shop full of Land Rover to work on. He is rebuilding our engine (mountains were a real strain) and many other things to keep up the Rover in fine shape for the next 6,000 miles of heavy going. We are getting rid of the roof carrier and adding extra Jerry cans for the areas of Peru and Bolivia. We are taking a little time off to go to Hong Kong in January but will be on the road to Peru in March. As always come and join us for all or part of the next leg to Lima and on to Machu Puccha Peru if time permits on this leg of our journey. If you sign up soon the air fare is only $425 round trip and it would be such fun to have some friends along for the ride. We have guarantees of safe passage and a party in Lima when we arrive.

April 15, 1997, Ecuador

You all have to go to Peru it is one of the most spectacular and varied nations on earth. It has deserts, mountains, ruins and jungles. Peru has great people to be your guide through the culture and mystery of a land far to the south. We arrived in Quito Ecuador to find our Land Rover with a completely rebuilt engine, and as Maestro Manuel said ready for the next 50,000 miles. We dropped off a couple of goodies for the people at the South America Explorers Club. Should you plan a trip south this is the club to join for they are nice people and have a vast storehouse of knowledge for any type of traveling in South America.

The trip south took us along the coastal roads of Ecuador because the upper mountain road were washed out in several places due to the rainy season. One of the most interesting spots, at least by name, was Babahoyo, or Slime Pit. What a town mostly covered in water with planks to the doorways of the shacks.

Peru

The coast has bananas by the mile along the route or should we say hundreds of miles. We just made the boarder crossing to Peru at Huaquilas 5 min. before closing for the night. The place is one of the most chaotic spots on earth, with the money exchangers trying to trick you at every turn. It actually makes the Casaba in Tangeres look organized and tame. A border officer wanted to hold us over to the next day until I asked "how much". It was late and we were the last for the day so we bought the permission for about $5.00.

About five miles from Tumbles the desert started. This was no ordinary dry areas like northern Mexico or northeastern Colombia but just like the Sahara with dunes hundred of feet high and nothing at all but rocks and sand. Along the entire coast of Peru this unrelenting desert continues broken every seventy or hundred miles by a river valley green with irrigated farmlands. Some spots had signs warning of dunes crossing the highway and sand storms. We picked up a man and asked when the last rain came and he said in 1983.

I had the chance to buy an entire new wardrobe when my suitcase was stolen in a oasis town called Puira. While waiting at the local bank we made a friend with Raul Nieves professor at the Univerdidad National de Piura who helped us with the police. His kindness and willingness to aid strangers made up for the inconvenience of the theft. We now know about the new generation of genetic cotton he is cloning for growing in the oasis areas of Peru after his tour of the university.

At Tacume, which was developed by the great Thor Hyrdahl, sits one of the major archaeological finds of recent times. We spent to little time but we hope to return.

Lima is a major city of almost eight million where we were introduced to Carlos Arteaga and his lovely wife Alexandria by Lasse from the NYYC. What a treat it was to visit such nice people. We managed to get to the Yacht Club of Peru through them and what a grand place it is with two supper clubs and a theater. The only thing they need is sunshine. It seems that a fog hangs over the city most of the year. This is caused by both the pollution and the cold Humboldt Current mixing with the warm coastal waters. The place to purchase great gifts is at the Artisan Market in Miraflores. It seems that the producers have all moved to Lima and are willing to sell at great prices in fact better then almost anywhere in the country. We stayed at the converted mansion Miramar de Isquicha, which we found on the Internet, overlooking the foggy sea. The place is so exclusive no name appears outside it seemed that our dust covered Land Rover was a little out of place in the entry. The battery started to give up in the driveway it looked odd that I had to hand crank the car to get it going, however, how many other cars have a crank. From that point on we parked on a hill for the last six hundred miles.

The food throughout all of Peru is excellent but the best restaurant in Lima for traditional food is Senorio de Sole. It matches El Torito our Honduran star. A late night stop at Chala was of interest when we stayed at the best hotel in town. The hours of water were from 6:30 am to 10:00 pm. It was the only place for a hundred miles. The lines at Nazca are interesting but looking at lines in the desert after about a thousand miles of desert driving does leave a little to be desired. The drive down to Arequipa in the south was fast for all the coast roads are in great condition. We found Talleres Luque owned by Ceferino Vargas in no time for his reputation as the Land Rover expert was know far and wide in this town of about one million. He will replace the battery, replace the passenger foot well and a few other items for our return in August. It seems that any Land Rover shop in the world finds it normal for some stranger to drop in and leave a Rover for a few months with an outlandish list of repairs. Arequipa is a magnificent town of Spanish glory in excellent condition. It was a joy to spend several days seeing the sights with our guide Lissie Pacheco. It was Holy Week and one high point of the trip was the procession from the churches each night. The parishioners carried the gold and silver covered alters through the street each evening at six. It was without question a emotional experience as the processing went on it way over the cobble stoned streets.

To Come

On our return we will drive out to do the Colca Canyon which is reported to be far deeper then our Grand Canyon it is a two day trip in a very remote area. Cusco the city of the Incas can only be held in awe. It is a living example of the ancient and modern Peru. Indian natives in full dress, standing on the corner in front of a shop selling cellular phones can only be described as bizarre. The city mixes well the old and new with tourist guides showing you the true treasures in a delightful way. Without question use the tour services which give you everything in a package with all your needs taken care.

Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley cannot be described in any clear terms it must be seen, felt and heard for all the awe inspired works of construction art and history. National Geographic only does a fair job of showing the area you must see it. We met some delightful folks along the way one Maria Cerro from Salta, Argentina asked us to visit her family on our trip south. When we return in August to Peru we will continue to southern Chile or Bolivia and as always we have an extra seat waiting for someone to join us.

© Roy & Gladys Halvorsen, 1997

See also part 2 or other 4WD Destinations


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