Planning a 11,500 km walk through South America

The route is the most important aspect of traveling. Distance, weather conditions and infrastructure decide what equipment we must have, what risks we need to be prepare for and what will be the final budget of the expedition.

The original plan was to cross the Andes in the south, at its lowest point, and then travel along the west coast up to Colombia. There were, however, two issues. The less important one was… Boredom. Not exciting enough, terrain too flat and not enough turns to make walking fun. But first and foremost, crossing the Atacama desert and the surrounding area means that at the assumed speed we would spend almost three months going straight through the deserts and semi-deserts. After a long debate, we decided to completely change the route. For a moment abandon the coast and the ocean, and cross Andes in Bolivia, traveling through the center of the continent.

Then we had to adjust waypoints. Day after day, kilometer after kilometer. I looked at the political, climate and topographic maps, browsed satellite images looking for places where we can push a little bit more or places suitable for having a proper break. Water – lakes and rivers – was the most important factor if a given point was good for a night. Especially, that there are areas with no source of water at all for several days. Also, we may not always (or rather unlikely) have a hospitable home to be invited to. We have to be self-sufficient. The second factor, which we had to consider when planning the route, is that from time to time we have to visit major cities – replace missing items, repair, buy supplies or use the Internet. Route is divided into 24 to 40 kilometers parts when moving on a flat ground. In the mountains, some of them have only 8 km. All this not to push through and not risk injuries.

The next step was to prepare the elevation profile using GPS coordinates in case, if we could avoid unnecessary climbing. And in fact, in three places this could have been optimized. It was enough to choose a different route to save a total of about three thousand meters in height difference or to stretch climbing over a greater distance. The distance stayed the same.

When everything was ready, it was necessary to take the climate into account. When walking, it is essential to have as little gear and clothes as possible. The aim was to select such a starting date, so for as long as possible we would have similar weather conditions. Eventually, it turned out that February (hopefully of year 2018) is the best month to start from Ushuaia in Argentina. As a result, when traveling from Tierra del Fuego for the next nine months we will have the average temperatures 6.5-16°C. If we get to Lima more or less at the right time we will be traveling at 14.5°-28.5°C until the end of the trip. In Peru we would have to sell or send some things back in order to continue completely light-weight. Most probably we will have to replace the tent with hammocks and mosquito nets.

As with the rest of the world, it is the bad people who pose the greatest threat, unfortunately. So far on our tour there are two places which should be considered dangerous. One is around Medellín in Colombia. Nothing exceptional, but we should keep “low-profile” as much as possible. Second place, the border crossing in Yacuiba and the Salta region, is where kidnapping is quite popular activity among local mobs, although most criminal groups are mainly associated with drug trafficking and theft of luxury cars (good thing it’s not our case). If statistics are true, 90% of the drugs coming to southern countries are passed through this small area.

The entire route is stored in a GPX file. It was adjusted manually with a text editor, but main tools used for planning were Google Earth, Google Maps and a great online application for manipulating GPS data.

Elevation profile created with GPS Visualizer.

Elevation profile created with GPS Visualizer.

The final version of the route.

The final version of the route.

Instead of carrying a handheld GPS we are going to use an iPhone operating in GPS/GLONASS systems with Pocket Earth and a set of topographic maps installed. Lighter, more comfortable and faster than any typical GPS. By having the data in GPX we can easily synchronize the route and the most important places over Dropbox, visualize it using Google Maps, or put it quickly on the phone. Internet access is not required. Pocket Earth comes with the option of storing Wikipedia entries offline, so if we accidentally end up being nearby an interesting sightseeing spot, it will appear on the map along with a description. We are tourists after all, right?

And a side-note: it’s better to plan traveling between towns using the “cars” version of Google Maps. For unknown reason, the “walking” version marks some streets as not continuous and suggests much longer paths than really needed.