A South American road trip is many people’s dream as the open roads and single language which everybody speaks make it the ideal destination to visit. A road trip from Chile to Ecuador was a dream come true for me as I always wanted to do something similar to the Motorcyclist’s Diary, which is my favourite book. Fuel is relatively cheap in South America and the traffic is not horrendous – but even if you are stuck behind a truck you can easily overtake as most roads are straight as an arrow.
This road trip took me in a four-wheel drive Mitsubishi Pajero from Arica in Chile to Quito in Ecuador. Arica is in the north of Chile, in the middle of the Atacama Desert. It is here where the main road from Bolivia meets that of Peru and southern Chile. There is also an important port here and a big bus terminal, so if you don’t have a car you can still do the same route using public transport.
The entire trip was supposed to take only 2-3 weeks but it turned into nearly a month – filled with a lot of adventure! During the trip someone broke into the car, my friend and I both had food poisoning and I’ve seen wildlife that I never expected to encounter. In Ecuador I saw poisonous snakes, hummingbirds and various butterflies and various plant species for the first time in my life. Peru was also an eye opener seeing the wide gap between the rich and poor.
The Road Trip from Chile to Ecuador
We left at the end of June on our month-long journey. Pancho’s itinerary was as follows:
- Visit plantations near Arequipa and stay with one of his friends for the night in Camana
- Drive to Nazca to visit another plantation
- Stay in Chincha a few days to visit Fruchincha, a massive plantation
- Go to Lima with Arturo, the director of Fruchincha and meet a friend of Pancho
- Stay in Lima a couple of nights
- Drive to Quito with Arturo and Pancho
- Spend two nights in Quito
- Drive back non-stop to Arica, stopping off here and there to sleep
- Fly from Arica to Santiago de Chile for a week
If you want to see the places I visited on a map, just click the city names on the list below.
The Cost of The Road Trip to Ecuador
Fuel being dirt cheap in Chile, Peru and Ecuador, the entire trip came in at just under $400 for the month, which is hard to beat given all the things we’ve done. And this also includes the cost of food and accommodation!
My friend, Pancho is a businessman and he travels a lot in South America and Europe trading whatever he can. He knows a lot of people and has many friends but still we had to stay in hotels, although about three or four nights we managed to stay in places for free. We also slept in the car a couple of times and also on the beach when taking breaks to save money on accommodation.
After the round trip to Quito we also went to Santiago where I visited Vina del Mar. During the entire trip we shared the accommodation costs and some of the fuel, and I paid my own food – which was quite cheap!
While on the road we were staying in small hotels and at the landowners’ places on the way up and mostly slept in the car on the way down. Pancho sells agricultural stuff and we visited many huge plantations, some of them 11,000 hectares or more.
The first leg of this epic road trip from Arica to Quito took us through Peru in a super comfortable Mitsubishi Pajero with all the comforts you need on a long road trip.
Arriving in Arequipa
We first went to Arequipa, driving overnight from Arica. Pancho had a Mitsubishi Pajero, imported from Japan from the first owner. I actually found some Japanese documents in the glove compartment with fuel receipts and other stuff! Pancho had driven thousands of miles in his life so I thought I would be OK to put my life in his hands – so I just slept during the night!
Arequipa is a fascinating city full of history. The entire city has been destroyed at least a dozen times in earthquakes, yet the residents always rebuilt it. It has an amazing main square, some huge cathedrals and history museums. A lot of tourists stop here on their way to Cuzco and Machu Pichu, so prepare for huge crowds!
We arrived in the morning and spent a day in Arequipa visiting an avocado plantation. These guys export the avocado mostly to the US and Europe and only sell the third grade product in Peru or Chile. This was the first large scale plantation I had ever seen – it was more than 4,000 hectares and all with avocado! The trees were just everywhere as far as the eye could see.
The Night in Camana
After the plantation visit we went on to Camana where we stayed with Pancho’s friend. The house was very simple but they put us up in separate rooms and I slept like a baby. In the morning they made us breakfast then we set off to Nazca.
The Nazca Lines
I was looking forward to seeing the Nazca lines but they were quite disappointing. They had a few viewpoints and you can climb the hills to have a look but it’s pretty much a waste of time unless you fly over. The entire area is a dry desert and everything is the same colour so it is difficult to make out the lines.
Nazca is not only famous for the lines but also for its orange groves. They grow thousands of tonnes of orange here is vast areas stretching along the river and the various canals. So, after the lines in Nazca we visited a massive orange plantation.
This was the first time I had seen an orange plantation and it was quite fascinating. I had seen orange trees before in Valencia, Spain but never an entire grove. When I graduated from high school I actually wanted to go and pick oranges in Italy but instead I ended up in Dublin picking boxes in a warehouse!
The Nazca Orange Plantations
While Pancho was doing business in the office, I went for a big long walk in the orange groves. There were roads between the various parts of the plantation. It was June but the weather was more spring-like and the oranges smelled amazing. The roads were also lined with eucalyptus trees and the smell was simply amazing. I can’t describe it but imagine mixing an orange and eucalyptus air freshener in the room! I picked a couple of oranges then went to discover some other parts of the plantation. As I was walking around I was in for a big surprise: in the other corner of the plantation there were some peacocks hiding which was another first for me!
Arriving in Chincha
After about two hours on the plantation we drove on to Ica and then Chincha where we spent the night. Chincha is a small town in the middle of the desert and there really is nothing going for it. What’s more, a massive earthquake completely destroyed the town in 2006 so a lot of the buildings were still in ruins. We spent about three nights here but it was probably the most terrible place I’ve ever stayed in my whole life. I went to the plantation for the first day but then the second day I decided to stay in town and have a walk around.
The town center was still in ruins and the only real sight was the market. It was a vegetable, meat, milk and fish market with all the smells and dirt that comes with it. I have a strong stomach but I nearly threw up when I visited the fish market section. It was the most horrendous sight and smell as they were gutting the fish in the midday heat with no fridge or ice anywhere. That really put me off fish and just about everything while in Peru.
After Chincha we drove to Lima to pick up Rosita, a friend of Pancho’s who flew in to meet Arturo. Rosita was a lady from Santiago and later on in July I actually visited her massive house. She owned a laboratory testing soil quality all across South America and she made a fortune out of it! Yet, she loved going to the Chinese clothes markets to look around for bargains. So during our second day in Lima we visited a massive Chinese market. It turned out she wanted to save some money buying T-shirts for her staff!
The first day in Lima I was on my own as Pancho, Arturo and Rosita wanted to catch up. I went to walk around the downtown area called Miraflores and then down to the seaside where they built a huge western style shopping center for the new rich.
Kennedy Square is in the center of Miraflores. Most of the touristy bits are around here and it is also where most of the historic buildings are. The square is super busy all the time with locals and tourists alike. Most of the western shops and fast food places are also here, including KFC, Burger King and McDonalds.
The sea is only a short walk from Kennedy Square and it is here you will find the strip malls.
Cinnabon and Multiplex
It was totally American with a Cinnabon restaurant and a massive multiplex cinema. Once I finished my cinnamon roll I decided to go to the cinema as there really wasn’t much else to do.
Lima was a little bit disappointing to be honest – I’ve been there three times and and I could never find anything interesting to do. It is in the middle of the desert and public transportation is almost non-existent. All the roads are clogged with traffic and anywhere you look there are people hanging about with good or bad intentions. Suffice it to say I didn’t really enjoy visiting Lima.
Back to Chincha
From Lima we went back down to Chincha (200 kms away) for the night as Rosita had to take some soil samples. Unfortunately they broke into our car overnight and so Pancho had to replace the window and buy a new laptop which they stole from the car. It was a bit of a shock and put Pancho in a bad mood understandably.
Once we’ve done all we needed to do in Chincha we headed back up to Lima to drop Rosita off at the airport. From here the three of us drove almost non-stop to Culebras and then Chimbote. This was another one of those not-so-nice places and we stayed in an out-of-town ranch motel. The motel was quite nice with a swimming pool and each room had a small terrace with a garden patio.
Having left Chimbote behind Pancho drove solid all the way to Piura, which was quite a nice place for a change. We also stopped off in Chiclayo and Trujillo but these were again not tourist hot-spots!
Eating Ceviche – Bad Idea!
On the way to Piura I unfortunately let the guys bully me into eating some ceviche – it was a terrible idea! Ceviche is like sushi and in theory it’s safe to eat but not if the fish is out all day in the scorching heat! And that’s exactly what happened in this restaurant. We had been driving all day and everyone was hungry so we stopped at this middle-of-nowhere place by the sea. It was desert again, pure sand everywhere and in the middle of it was a shack selling ceviche. Arturo and Pancho went on for at least half an hour that I was a pussy if I don’t try ceviche. So in the end I gave in. Off course the stupid thing was off! I noticed on the way out that the fridge was off so he basically kept the fish in a warm fridge all day!
By the time we got to Piura I was very sick and had fever – I couldn’t sit or stand! In the middle of it all it was a national holiday in Peru and in the main square they were playing music all night so I couldn’t sleep. I had a huge go at both of them for forcing me to eat that shit! They then took me to the pharmacy to buy some medication which they paid for in compensation!
Finally they turned the shitty music off, they did the fireworks at midnight then I could go to sleep. In the morning we went to get breakfast but I noticed they kept disappearing from the table. So I asked what was going on and it turned out that both the machos got food poisoning too! I had such a laugh! This delayed us a little as we were taking turns in the toilet but we then left around 10 in the morning.
Mancora And The Border Crossing
We drove to Mancora and Tumbes after which we crossed the border to Ecuador. Mancora is a tourist hot-spot, mainly for backpackers from the US and Europe. There are lots of huts on the beach and youth hostels cater for any nationality looking to get drunk. The beach apparently has some of the best waves in the world so a lot of surfers come to visit.
We only spent a short time in Mancora for lunch then went to cross the border. The border guards were terribly corrupt: they said that if we paid $10 each we could jump the queue. Neither of us wanted to do it, what is more, Arturo said he thought it was sick that so many people are corrupt in these countries.
No wonder Chile is listed as the least corrupt and best place to do business in the entire continent of South-America! Both Arturo and Pancho were Chilean and they paid no bribe anywhere during the trip!
Improving Spanish Skills
My Spanish gradually became better and after a couple of weeks I could understand CNN Espanol with no problems. I still had a hard time understanding the Chilean people but after travelling with Pancho for three weeks it became so much easier. Pancho did not speak a word of English and I took my Spanish books and grammar stuff with me to practice in the car. It paid dividends: after 10,000 miles I learnt Spanish perfectly well!
We entered Ecuador at Tumbes in the furthest north of Peru. Our first day in Ecuador was nice although it started pretty slow. It took us three hours to cross the border and we were tired and fed up afterwards. We headed off to Guayaquil, which was about four hours away from the border.
Guayaquil And The Iguanas Park
Guayquil is a huge port town with an amazing historic town center. They had many preserved houses and some amazing parks like the Parque de los Iguanos. In this park iguanas are literally walking around on the threes and in the grass. It was so fascinating to see those animals, which was a first for me.
We had a walk around Guayaquil and had something to eat but instead of staying in town we drove to a place called Playas. The word stands for beaches and that’s what the place is famous for. It is a beach town in Ecuador with many surfers calling it home. The seaside had many huts and restaurants and it really felt good to take a break here. The hotel cost $25 for a night with A/C and everything included, even Wifi! Ecuador uses the US dollar as their local currency which made it super easy to navigate!
Dubious Quality Petrol
Everything was very cheap and in at least one petrol station I saw the workers clean the ground with the fuel! Before that I thought this was just urban legend but no: at the end of the day the guy took the pump off and sprayed the petrol around and then brushed everything up! I couldn’t believe it!
The fuel wasn’t amazing quality and our car broke down the first day! Apparently some stations mix water with the fuel and that killed our filters. So we spent an entire morning at a garage waiting for someone to fix the car.
Lunch in Playas
Playas was a bit like a tourist resort town for rich Equatorians, Peruvians and Chileans. Still, a three course lunch in the posh part of town only cost $1.75! From Playas we went to a grape plantation and spent five hours there. These people can talk so long!!!
When they do business instead of getting to the point they talk about family, weather, football and all sorts of things when finally get to the point. They then talk about business for a little while and decide to meet again later!
Playas became our base for the next two days as Pancho had to visit a couple of grape plantations nearby. The afternoon we arrived we went to see some land on the outskirts of town because Pancho and Arturo wanted to invest in a plantation. It was here that I came face to face with a snake!
The Snake in the Tall Grass
As we were walking around in the high grass and among the bushes I suddenly noticed a huge snake in the grass! I nearly shitted a brick! It was a poisonous snake and Arturo told me to freeze. That little shit was staring me in the eye and then slowly went the other way. I was lucky enough to take a couple of photos, the better one is below here!
The next evening we slept in Salinas which is the Miami Beach of Ecuador. It was very nice but not my cup of tea. Why would anyone want to spend time in a built up tourist resort when there are so much nicer places in the country? From Salinas we went back to Playas again. The next day we drove out to that same plantation to talk about the same shit for another three hours.
The Grape Plantation
I was so bored of listening to them by then that I decided to go for a walk. This was a massive grape plantation with harvests several times a year. Since we were close to the equator there were no seasons there so they could harvest more than once a year. The grapes were massive (below) and the branches were thick as my arms.
And what I couldn’t believe was how they had to maintain the grapes. Basically, every time the fruit appeared on the branch they came with a pair of scissors and cut out some of the mini grape bits to make way for remaining ones.
So when the grapes were still green and small they removed some of the green grapes. This meant that what was left behind grew big. If you don’t understand what I am saying look at the photos below.
Then, as I was walking around I couldn’t believe what I saw: I first thought it was a massive wasp but no, it was a hummingbird! It was a mini bird and was flying around the plantation drinking the honey out of the flowers. It was such an amazing site and I couldn’t believe my eyes. The bird’s wings were flapping like crazy and the bird itself was able to stay in one place for several minutes. A shame I didn’t manage to take any photos – they were too fast!
Finally Arriving in Quito
We finally arrived in Quito after a full day’s drive. Arturo had a nice house in one of the suburbs so we could stay with him for the next two nights. Quito in Ecuador is a stunningly beautiful city with much of its old city centre area protected under Unesco heritage rules.
The roads to Quito were narrow and winding up and down hills and packed with cars. In the end the drive from Guayaquil to Quito took nearly all day as we could only do about 40-50 km/h, far slower than we planned. I found it quite ridiculous as the entire country is full of oil and other natural resources but the politicians steal it all, the corrupt bastards! Instead of investing in roads and railways they siphon the money out into the US or Panama – in the meantime destroying the rain forest!
Arturo’s House in Quito
Arturo had a very nice house in the rich suburb on top of a hill. He lived there with his wife and their little daughter. We stayed two nights with Pancho and the next day we went for a walk in town.
Quito is like a nice European city, but with a little South American spice. It is an old colonial city and fortunately there has been next to no property development in the downtown area for at least 100 years. This meant that everything is as it used to be. The main square, the churches and all the old houses seem untouched by time. We didn’t go to any museums, instead walked around all day and then had coffee in a couple of places. In the afternoon we climbed up to the church spire of the largest cathedral in the city.
It was quite fascinating as the official just sold us the tickets then told us to get up top ourselves. It must have been the low season as there were only two other tourists in the entire cathedral. The views on top were amazing and we could see the entire city in 360 degrees.
A little bit further north of Quito lies the Equator. Pancho was kind enough to drive me there so I could take the below photo. One side of my bode was in the North, the other in the South!
Quito was wonderful. I think it is the nicest city in the whole of South America. The city is high up in the mountains and the air is super clean and crisp. The people were very nice and the whole city centre had been preserved as a UN historic site. Watch this video below from youtube but skip to 2:00 to see the interesting bits.
Montanita – a Surfer’s Paradise
We left Quito early in the morning to make good progress that day. Pancho wanted to drive all day so we could sleep in Peru that night. On the way back it was only the two of us and Pancho was fed up with driving so we stopped to sleep on the beach near Montanitas.
Montanita in Ecuador is a very small town not far from Guayaquil on the way to Quito. It is most popular among mostly American and European surfers and party goers. It became famous in the 1960s as a backpacker paradise and its star has been rising ever since.
Unfortunately the car got stuck in the sand! The sand was super soft and Pancho wanted to show off his driving skills but then we got caught by a sand dune.
Luckily we managed to find a guy with a spade and dug ourselves out! By then we were both so exhausted that we just passed out on the beach. When I finally woke up the sun was slowly disappearing behind the horizon.
But what happened next has stayed with me ever since – it was like out of a James Bond movie. Just as I turned around, a couple of beautiful women came riding past on horseback in the sand! I will never forget it – it really was like out of a movie! The women then rode on into the sunset – Pancho then woke up and we went to stay for the night in Playas again as we were so delayed. The best part of the road trip was that we had no schedule. If we got delayed somewhere nobody cared as we had no appointments.
The Best Olives In The World
By the time we got past Lima we were both becoming sick and tired of eating biscuits. It was then that Pancho told me about a famous olive grove which the original conquistadors planted. Legend has it that the Spanish imported the first olive trees to Peru in the 16th century.
What’s more, the Pisco Valley still produces olives from that tree! Obviously I won’t be able to verify this but the bread, cheese and olives were all home-made right there. I can truly say I’d never had a better dinner than that. I still, after all these years, cannot forget the taste of the olives and the soft cheese melting in my mouth. The bread was purely the best I had in a long time and with a little salt and cheese it tasted even better. Pancho decided to drive all night and the next day as well. He stopped to sleep once in a while but generally we were just doing it solid.
At one of those stops I wondered off a little bit into the desert and saw some really scary vulture-like birds. As I was walking towards the sea these guys kept flying closer and closer to me so I panicked and ran back to the car instead! I was scared they would eat me right there!
Travelling to Santiago de Chile
Instead of driving to Santiago, which would have taken two days, we decided to fly as Pancho had a car in Santiago anyway. During my walks around Santiago de Chile I completely fell in love with its atmosphere and the friendliness of the people. Nearly everyone said hi when I entered a shop, they smiled and they were very helpful. I also travelled to Valparaiso and Vina del Mar for a day trip during the week I spent in Santiago.
I stayed in a nice area of Santiago in a flat which Pancho’s friend owned. Pancho and this lady went to the south of Chile for a few days so basically I had to place entirely to myself!
I had lunch in a small French style cafe nearly every day. It was really smart, although it was not much bigger than my current living room. The food was really good and extremely cheap – only 2,000 pesos for a two course lunch. It was normally soup and a second course and I never left hungry.
The restaurant was so popular that people were queuing outside to get in. I normally went ten minutes because lunch was about to start, sat down in a nearly empty restaurant, ordered, washed my hands and by the time I finished my soup there was a line of people outside. I normally sat at a two seater table so when someone was queuing outside I told them they could sit with me because I wanted to grab every opportunity to talk in Spanish. The flat where I was staying was in the posh Providencia district of Santiago near the Sheraton and the US embassy.
Valparaiso and Vina del Mar
Valparaiso and Vina del Mar are two tourist hot spots not far from Santiago in Chile. The trip to the coast from Santiago takes about two hours. On my third day in Santiago I took a bus out to Valparaiso, which is about an hour away by the sea. It is the port town of Santiago and everyone was going on about it. If I want to be honest it wasn’t really worth the trip! It looked like any other port town with a small historic district and a tram line. Vina del Mar, another “must see” place was just next door but it didn’t really impress me either. In retrospect I think I was just tired of travelling but to be honest I can’t think of anything that really impressed me there.
Pancho came back from Valdivia five days later and then the next day I took a bus up north to Arica. The journey took 28 hours in a reclining seat! I wanted to save some money so I bought the cheaper ticket – bad decision! Many bus companies operate services with actual beds on board which is what Pancho booked for himself. I should have listened to him!
After a tortuous journey I finally got back to Arica and spent the next couple of days sleeping!
Leaving Chile with Great Experiences
The trip wasn’t only an eye-opener in terms of seeing the divide between rich and poor, but it also helped me learn a huge amount of Spanish. He didn’t speak English and I was eventually forced to use only Spanish which was great. Within a month I was so advanced they took me on as an intern at the local newspaper in Arica!
I had a quite simple trick: I had a dictionary on me and exploited Pancho’s patience. In the evenings I always turned the TV on with subtitles and learned Spanish that way. I did the same when I learned English and it worked perfectly for me.
By the end of the 11,000 kilometer return journey my Spanish was almost impeccable! We got back to Arica late at night – it felt like coming home honestly! Entering Chile was really like going to Switzerland in comparison to Peru and Ecuador. I suddenly noticed how much cleaner the streets were in comparison and there was public lighting everywhere!