La Ruta del Desierto


When things go wrong is when adventure begins. 

After nearly two months of being stuck in Santiago and further south in Osorno with transmission problems, a resolution appeared and we finally made our escape. Sadly, we missed prime time for trekking around Patagonia in March and April like we had planned from the beginning of our trip. It was frustrating and heartbreaking to realize that after months of zero issues, this one problem decided to show up during the two months we were most looking forward to. It came down to the decision on whether we would just wing it and spend winter in Patagonia or get creative and change up our plans a bit. After way too much deliberation, we decided to take advantage of the dry season in Peru and Bolivia now and then circle back south in a few months. This backstepping in our route is not what we initially had in mind. It felt counterintuitive and...wrong. However, we’ve had to learn to let go of our expectations, take the leap of faith and let adventure run its course.

Heading north along the Ruta del Desierto was the perfect way to let the van get her groove back. 

This route isn’t a conventional beauty by any means and yet, there’s something about it- even with the trash, random roadside factories and shanties. Ruta 5 is a popular route but it still feels like you’re on some deserted road in the middle of nowhere with how sparse vehicle sightings can get. The places where it reconvenes with the coastline are like oases in the midst of such a barren landscape. Oh and the sunsets? Breathtaking. The big sky, flat earth and lack of structures allows the last light of the sun to sprawl out and drape everything in its glow. The sand glows white and the surrounding hills are set on fire with vivid shades of orange. 


I can’t explain it but that time of day feels spiritual. No matter how many times I watch the sun set, it takes my breath away each time. I think part of the reason it feels so powerful is because you’re essentially watching the earth turn away from the sun. You’re seeing the earth in motion. Speaking of that, we’re beginning to notice that the sun no longer appears directly above us at midday. Now it takes a lazier path, lingers closer to the horizon and casts longer shadows during the day.

The most beautiful thing about the way we travel is the consequent connectedness we feel to nature. Not only do we feel the seasons changing more dramatically…but we see the earth shifting and changing. We note each and every phase of the moon along with the lengthening and shortening of days. 

The past few days have been a blur of long, lonely stretches of road, podcasts and a combination of wild camping and gas station sleeps. On the bright side, the heat allowed us more excuses for ice cream breaks. It was a fair enough trade given that we don’t have air conditioning. The evenings brought a more than welcome chill in the air. The drastic change in temperature allowed us to have simple, warm and nourishing meals at night and frozen pineapple chunks in the heat of the day, thanks to our small but ample freezer. 

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The Ruta del Desierto is lined with mostly nothing, a few geoglyph sites, and lots of roadside memorials. The memorials’ sizes range from houses to something that would be a home for a mouse. At least one Chilean flag, silk flowers, candles, pinwheels and streamers were the usual items of decor. We have been seeing these all over the parts of the South American continent that we’ve driven through so far yet this was the first time we actually stopped to take a look. 


The crown jewel of this entire drive was La Mano del Desierto. We’ve seen the photos from countless overlanders and roadtrippers with this monolith of a hand jutting out of the desert floor and decided it was worth a stop along the way. Even though we knew exactly what to expect, it was a completely different experience seeing it with our own eyes. It was especially beautiful at sunset. After the multiple observatories and geoglyphs we passed along the way, Mano del Desierto underscores the extraterrestrial feel of the Chilean desert. 


This drive was reminiscent of the lonely drives we did through Nevada and New Mexico during our time in the United States. The best part of stopping off to see this sight was the network of dirt roads leading away from it and into the surrounding hills. Wild camping heaven! We followed a road over a hill and nestled into the flattest spot we could find just before dark for a peaceful night of sleep before continuing on the next day. We’ll see you in Peru! 

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