An inspection trip never to be forgotten

| Johan van Rijswijck

In 2009, we were asked by the classic Volvo club to organise a trip with 80 Volvos through South America. In order to prepare ourselves as optimally as possible, I decided to buy a classic Volvo myself and drive the whole route. Afterwards I did well to check this in advance. It was an inspection trip filled with debris, but I didn't know that at the time. Anyway, it was a journey never to be forgotten.

Inspection trip with my Volvo 123 GT

The wish of many participants was to drive from the Chilean village of San Pedro de Atacama, an oasis in the Atacama desert, to the salt plain of Uyuni in Bolivia. The route would for the most part be unpaved and it was of course the question if these oldtimers would be able to handle this ride. From experience I knew there was only one way to find out; to drive my own Volvo 123 GT. The shortest way to get from San Pedro de Atacama to Uyuni is a route of about 530 kilometres of which only the first 125 kilometres were paved.

The first hiccups

However, before we could start this trip, we had to get to San Pedro de Atacama. A week before that we had started in Buenos Aires and until the Chilean capital Santiago everything went well. On the way to San Pedro, however, the car started to malfunction. It turned out to be a problem with the carburettor. In the village of Chañaral two old men tried to fix it. We could go on, but after the night had already fallen we were stranded in Calama. It was Friday evening and it was not easy to find a garage. Eventually we met some young men who wanted to help us. The next day we parked our car in a garage, where the mechanic on duty worked with all his knowledge and skills. In the afternoon we could continue to Awasi, our beautiful accommodation in San Pedro. I already described the heartwarming way in which we were received in this hotel in a blog about Awasi.

The monsterous trip to Uyuni

The run-up to the monsterous trip that would take us to Uyuni did not go without a hitch. Fortunately, we had the assurance of a team of dedicated escorts on both the Chilean and Bolivian side of the border. They could support us if necessary.

In the early morning we set off. In Calama I refilled my car and the spare tanks with gasoline, after which we left the inhabited world behind us. After about 25 kilometres outside Calama, the asphalt ceased to exist. The road was beautiful and ran across salt plains while majestic volcanic peaks stood out against the clear blue sky. In front of us was a mountain pass at almost 5,000 metres high that we had to cross. The classic got heavier and heavier, it literally was as if its throat was being squeezed. This was not only the case with the Volvo, by the way, but also with my co-driver and I noticed that we were reaching a serious height. The only thing that went fast now was the petrol gauge. At altitude, a car consumes up to 25% more fuel. We were almost out of petrol and we were hoping that we could get petrol at the border town.

Eventually, we reached the border. We soon found out that a train passed here only once a week. So we did not have to count on petrol. The car broke down again and we had to be towed by the Bolivian contacts who were waiting for us at the border. This ride was really hard. We had 200 kilometres ahead of us and this would take hours. The road in front of us was completely unpaved. It was certainly not a fine gravel road, but more a path dotted with bigger and smaller boulders. Every metre felt as if the car was being pulled apart. Deep in the night we arrived in Uyuni.

A trip to the salt flats of Uyuni

After a short night we brought the car to a local garage early in the morning. While waiting we decided to visit the salt plain of Uyuni. The salt plain of Uyuni is more than 12,000 square kilometres in size, making it the largest salt plain in the world. In the dry season it is an endless white plain, where sunglasses are no superfluous luxury. In the rainy season it has a thin layer of water on it, which makes it look like a gigantic dance floor of a fancy ballroom. We were there in the dry season so we put on our sunglasses.

On transport to La Paz

In the afternoon we returned to the garage to see if the car was ready. Unfortunately, our classic car turned out to have more serious problems. The best thing to do was to transport the car to La Paz. Soon we found a driver who had a truck and who was willing to bring the car to the Bolivian metropolis. In a notepad with the local police we made a contract. Via a junkyard we drove the car onto the truck. Wonderful to see how innovative man can be for lack of resources. The best man took my car and we took the night bus to La Paz. In La Paz we found a Volvo garage where people worked on the car all night long. The next day we could continue to Peru.

One of the most beautiful routes I have ever driven

In Peru, the ride to Cuzco went without any problems. After our visit to Cuzco the journey continued to Nazca. The route from Cuzco to Nazca is one of the most beautiful routes I have ever driven. The route goes through tropical valleys and spectacular gorges, you drive over impressive plateaus and pass picturesque villages. Slowly the landscape changes into a desert-like coastal strip.

Game over

The first part of the journey went fine. The route in the beginning has quite some differences in altitude and we did notice that the car was having a hard time there, but it went well. Before we got to Nazca, we had to cross a serious plateau that was over 4,000 metres high. Just when the landscape got a bit more sloping, I heard a huge bang and then the car stopped. The drive shaft had broken off and smashed into the engine block. This really was game over. Of course, we were on an inspection trip, so we had no technical back-up here. We were in the middle of nowhere and when night falls at this altitude, the temperature drops far below freezing. Not really a good place to get stuck.

When the need is greatest, salvation is near

I tried to hail the few cars that drove by. In the end, a small lorry passed by at a snail's pace. I asked him to tow me to the nearest town, which, according to my calculations, was about 30 kilometres away. Towing in these mountains would not be possible, but we could see if we could get the car into the lorry. I knew the trick of the rubbish dump in Bolivia, so in dusk we went looking for a hill. Luckily there was a small ledge and through this sand heap we managed to get the car on the truck. We even got the men to take us all the way to Nazca. We arrived here the next morning.

In the meantime, I had contacted our partner in Lima. I had told them about our situation and they arranged for a car to be waiting for us so that we could get through the next day. In Lima I had been in contact with the classic Volvo club for some time now. President of this club was a young doctor, who had a passion for classic volvo's and drove a 123 GT himself. It turned out that he still had an engine. When we arrived in Lima, he and his friends went to work on it. I travelled back to the Netherlands. After a month the car was ready, then I went back and completed my inspection trip.

Not a hellish journey, but one of the most beautiful travel experiences

If you read this story, you might think that this must have been a hellish journey, but that is absolutely not the case. For me, it is one of my most beautiful travel experiences. It has once again confirmed to me that when the need is greatest, salvation is always near. What is even more important is that I have, once again, seen that people are always willing to help each other. I managed to get my car to Lima within the scheduled time because there were so many people who wanted to help me disinterestedly. People who I did not even know and whose existence I might never have known in other circumstances. When I look at the series by Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman, you can see this again. I'm sure they too will agree that this kind of experience enriches your life.

The eventual Panamericana Roadtrip was more than worth it

LatinAmeriCar - Exclusive car trips

Based on my experience, we have created a special series of car journeys with Sapa Pana Travel, called LatinAmeriCar. During our exclusive car trips you will drive in your own or rental car, with the help of our experienced Dutch, German, English and Spanish speaking guides and an expert technical team. You will travel through the most beautiful continent in the world in a fully catered manner. Adventures you will cherish for the rest of your life!

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Would you like to join us on one of these exclusive car trips? Then take a look at our page of LatinAmeriCar. Do you have questions about a unique journey in Latin America, would you like a tailor-made travel proposal or would you like to make an appointment at our office? Feel free to contact us. Send an e-mail to or call us on +31 73 610 62 04. We are happy to help. 

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