You may know of our Ultimate Adventure (UA), where every year we take our staff, sponsors, cronies, and six lucky readers on a 4x4 summer camp–style trip of a lifetime in the U.S. Sebastian Varas from Chile was invited to the Ultimate Adventure 2012 with his LS-powered Willys, and he liked the UA so much he instituted the Twisted Andes Adventure in his home country.
The Twisted Andes Adventure 2013 is the first gathering of South American 4x4 enthusiasts from the website www.twistedandes.com. Varas is one of the founding partners of the website, which was formed 11 years ago and has become the premiere site for Latin American wheelers, with a huge following around the world. In this first year for his adventure there were 22 built 4x4s ready to romp 1,500 miles of Chilean countryside. Patterned after the UA, the trip required a team to live out of their rig for a week of camping, wheeling, and all kinds of weather, from blistering sand in the north to the freezing snow in the southern Andes Mountains. Varas built another Willys for the trip since he parted with the first one, and it was our transportation for the week.
There’s no question that the Chilean scenery is awe-inspiring. Taking in the view while covering 1,500 miles in eight days in some of the toughest-built rigs on the planet is a dream come true for any wheeler worth his weight in salt. We started in the capital city of Santiago and then towed the Willys north to Copiapoé where the Atacama Desert reigns supreme. In fact, this is where the Dakar Rally is now held, and the treacherous terrain means staying alert to stay alive.
It took two full days to reach Copiapoé, a distance of around 500 miles. We stopped halfway for the night, after swapping spares on the trailer at a roadside llanteria. It turns out the trailer spare was the wrong lug pattern, unbeknownst to us. Some participants drove to Copiapoé, while a few shipped their rigs and flew in like rock stars and the rest of us trailered on.
Day 1: New Trails, New Friends
Most of the participants had never met before, but all belong to the Twisted Andes website. When the call went out that the trip was being formed, hundreds of people applied. The four partners—Sebastian Varas, Gonzalo Bravo, Facundo Lozano, and Mariano Lozano—vetted the participants and selected two handfuls from around Chile and Argentina. The wheeling in the northern and southern parts of the country is similar to the UA (think Michigan or Florida): opposite extremes with the participants’ rigs built for their local area. In this trip though, having a ride that does well in all terrain would be critical.
Day 2: Pushing On Through the Atacama Desert
The second day of the Twisted Andes Adventure took us out into the depths of the dunes in the Atacama Desert. Of course, that entailed 20 more miles of sand, which resulted in Gonzalo Bravo rolling his Suzuki in a bowl. Fortunately no damage was done to skin or steel.
Once out of the mountains we made our way to the beach and headed south. Between rocks to climb and sandy beaches to skim, it was a long day—even longer for those in open vehicles, given the cold and wind. So we stopped for rest and recuperation. We opted for hotel rooms for the group because the temperature had dropped near freezing and it we hadn’t reached the destination till after midnight.
Day 3: Continuing South on the Chilean Coast
The third day on the Twisted Andes Adventure was called a road day, but only about 50 miles was on pavement. After packing up and leaving our beachfront hotel, we wound down the coastline on dirt roads and two-tracks to sandy beaches and craggy rocks we could climb on. The only fisherman within 50 miles from anywhere had a ’79 Jeep CJ-6 with a CJ-7 rear tailgate grafted on. He earned a 4WOR license plate!
As usual the wheeling took its toll on some vehicles and resulted in a broken hub, tweaked track bar, and even overheating issues. A few hills were conquered though during this full day of dust, dirt, and sand. As always, we kept driving until way past dark-thirty so we could set up tents in the dark and cook in the cold—another incredible day. There’s just something special about completing a long hard day of wheeling in some of the most challenging terrain on the planet only to follow it up with a nice warm meal in cold weather while hunkering down near the campfire.
Day 4: Treacherous Trails Through Fields of Boulders
The Twisted Andes Adventure continued down south in Chile, but not before another great road day. By this time our contingent of 23 rigs is down to 22. The tranny went out in the Hilux of Isaias Diaz. Stuck in fifth gear, he found a used one and swapped it out in a parking lot while the rest of us motored on.
Our goal was a rock trail discovered by Sebastian Varas and preran for this trip. While only a few miles long, it starts on cobbles and finishes on boulders the size of pickups. It is a rockcrawler’s paradise with multiple lines and degrees of difficulty.
The La Cebada Trail is in a wash right off the main highway. It starts easy and quickly morphs into a giant-killer. The damage count included an axle shaft U-joint, a front axle, a rear axle, a clutch, an oil pan, a gas tank, a steering arm, and more.
We scratched, skidded, crawled, and broke as we finished the trail and made our way to the next campsite by midnight, complete with a fire during the Chilean holiday. Once again we had a perfect end to a long day of epic wheeling and freezing temperatures with a nice warm campfire basking under the seemingly endless stars.
Day 5: Long Road Ahead
Our fifth day on the Twisted Andes Adventure continued in Chile as a road day from the north to the south. After a killer rock trail at night and an awesome camp and BBQ at midnight, we woke to repairs being made. Varas’ Jeep received custom doors and hardware for the trip since the good weather would turn cold and rainy, much as it would if you drove from Alabama to Michigan. In the Southern Hemisphere the seasons as well as the toilets are backwards, and it gets colder as you head south.
Every fuel stop on our 450-mile trek revealed more and more damage and parts in need of repair. Road days can be the worst for 4x4s because the weak links become apparent. We found spun bearing caps, leaky covers, broken sealing studs, and even some Mustangs at our fuel and rest stops. Double-swapping rigs on the support trailers was needed to get us all the way to camp.
At Facundo Lozano’s farm, where we camped, the shop was filled with half of the rigs for a long night of repairs, and a bit of lamb as well! The next day was a road/trail day, so all of the rigs needed to be in tiptop shape for the long trek ahead.
Day 6: Breaking Parts in the Pouring Rain
The Twisted Andes Adventure continued in the south of Chile. We hit the road heading south early so we could take in two trails that lay 200 miles away in Linares. The local wheelers met us and guided our caravan into the foothills of the Andes Mountains. This is where the “twisted” part of the Twisted Andes website comes from: the deep ravines switch back and forth, causing the axles to flex in opposite directions. Smooth and steady is the technique here, punching it only when necessary.
The La Cruz Trail wound around the mountains in slippery style, especially since it had started to rain. The decomposed granite formations made the twisties more fun with both looseness and grip. Rolls and breakage marked the end of the first trail, and we hit the second trail just as rain began to pour. The second trail consisted of a deep slot in the hillside barely wide enough for a fullsize 4x4. Even smaller rigs bounce side-to-side like pinballs while grasping for traction in the soupy mud. Steeply climbing into the hills at night with the ground level over the cab roof is as challenging as it gets. The lack of visibility and the slippery slopes caused another roll, one that took hours to recover from.
Day 7: Highway Hijinks
On the seventh day we rested—sort of. The plan was to regroup and rebuild after drying out from the night before. The night run had taken its toll on vehicles and participants alike. Broken windows, crushed cabs, busted axles, and even a bent Hi-Lift jack were counted as casualties.
The group departed on separate schedules for an easy day with few miles to travel. They could find spare parts and fix the carnage en route. But as always, the weather conspired with the night to slow us down. Heavy rains and a Jeep with no wipers caused a slow trip to the town of Cunco, nested near the Andes amid lakes, trails, and snow.
Days 8 & 9: Night of a Thousand Winchings
Our final days of wheeling on the Twisted Andes Adventure would prove to be the most challenging. Starting in the summer tourist Mecca of Cunco, Chile, we headed out on the Colico–Caburgua Trail into the Andean foothills. With temperatures near freezing and a couple feet of fresh snow on the ground, the 20-mile route connecting the two lakes seemed ambitious in a day. With a full contingent of 23 wheelers and three local guides, we set off.
The first hill showed us how the rest of the trail would be: steep and slick with mud and slop, with minimal traction regardless of tires. On the first climb alone, no less than half the group had to resort to winching. Three miles later the hills and holes had conspired with the melting snow to turn the trip into a chocolate sundae sort of look, with sun sparkles keeping us warm as the fresh snow slowly turned to brown soup. By the time our group crossed the river it was hitting dusk, and with more winch action than trail tracking we turned the group around to fight another day.
The problem was that after 25-some vehicles had churned the earth into a quagmire, we needed to return through the same mess we had made. By now the trail was impassable without winching, and even that equipment was breaking down. One battery terminal melted from the stress, two cables were rendered useless, and a front driveshaft had failed. All before midnight, some 12 hours after we started. Hence the final day of the Twisted Andes Adventure began with four rigs hooked together by winch lines in a hill assaulting relay system of anchors and winching. On what has come to be called the Night of a Thousand Winchings, we pulled cable and strapped 4x4s until 7 a.m., bringing to an end a 1,500-mile off-road adventure unrivaled in the annals of South American history.