26-31 January 2015: Mendoza

26 January 2015-
Some days it’s hard to get myself moving. This day I’m planning to hitchhike to Mendoza, another long journey of 1400 kilometers or so, and I’m having trouble getting myself going. Hitchhiking is rewarding and interesting, but far tougher than just hopping on a long-distance bus. It’s a slow, distracted morning that ends with me forgetting some clothing in the hostel closet and nearly leaving town without paying my bill.

By 12:30 I’m out at the northern limits of Bariloche where the highway starts in earnest. I’ve drunk some mate with a couple of guys who have been waiting on a ride for two days (yikes). I’ve got my sign reading NEUQUEN ready. I’ve already decided to split the journey into two days of travel – one day to Neuquen, about 500 kilometers away, and the next day on to Mendoza.

I’ve been waiting a half hour or so when a car pulls over. There’s another hitchhiker already in the front seat – as it turns out, a woman I saw hiking a trail in El Bolson. It’s an astonishing coincidence that we should see each other again, considering we never spoke on the trail – and what are the odds she should happen to pass by my stretch of highway this day? We talk for about 10 minutes before she hops out at another intersection – she’s headed to another town in the Lake District. She’s from the Basque country, friendly and talkative. I’m sad to see her go, and regret it even more when the driver, a man in his 50s, begins flirting with me. “Do you do yoga? You look flexible. I only take pretty hitchhikers. I love women,” etc. I’m not thrilled when he pulls onto a dirt side road on a stretch of highway a couple of hundred kilometers fr Neuquen and says this is as far as he can take me, but I’m glad to be out of the car, even if it means I’ve got to wait for my next ride out in the middle of the wilderness.

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As it turns out, I’m only waiting about five minutes for my next ride. In a weird way, being stuck in the middle of nowhere has its advantages – people are more likely to take pity on you and offer a ride. A big red tractor-trailer pulls over and a bald, smiling man with an open, honest face stows my big bag in a compartment under the oil container he’s hauling. As we drive off he introduces himself as Mateos. He says he usually doesn’t take hitchhikers – I can’t catch the exact reason why, but it has something to do with him not liking their lifestyle. This makes me feel a little uncomfortable so I try extra hard to impress him with stories of how hard I worked at my last job and what I’ve been learning traveling through Argentina. I’m not sure if it works, but Mateos doesn’t seem in a hurry to kick me out of his truck, and we settle into friendly, easy conversation for the several hours’ drive to Neuquen.

The road from Bariloche to Neuquen leads us out of the pretty Alpine mountains and into flat, dry country more like a desert. Far away in the distance I can see the high cone of a volcano. We’re still covering flat plains of scrubby bushes like I’ve seen in Patagonia, but the vegetation thins as we approach the industrial town of Neuquen.

In the cab of Mateos’ truck there’s a largeish propane cooking stove. While driving, he turns on the gas, which makes me nervous, and lights it, which makes me more nervous. One hand on the wheel and one eye on the road, he carefully fills a metal water kettle with water and heats it on the stove. I realize he’s preparing a mate for us. I offer to do the preparations so he can watch the road, but Mateos has done this hundreds of times before and the truck stays steady as he pulls out a tiny stainless steel cup with two handles and fills it with yerba. First a little water, then the bombilla, the first few burning sips, and finally the mate is ready and we pass it back and forth for hours as the kilometers crawl away behind us.

I ask my standard set of questions: how are things in Argentina? What is the political system like? Do you like Christina (Argentina’s president)? He’s not happy with the current government (I haven’t met many argentines who are) and tells me he thinks the president has mafia connections. He asks if I like president Obama, and I do my best to explain in Spanish a complicated political stance that involves disappointed hopes and extreme dislike of the Republican Party, vast contempt for the unwillingness of either political party to behave like grown-ups, and the American two-party political system in general. I’m not sure if I communicate any of it well but Mateos seems sympathetic and offers me more mate. The afternoon deepens and the hills start to turn red and dusty as we crawl along towards Neuquen.

Finally as the sun sets we hit the edge of town – as usual, the outskirts of the city are not flattering, and I mainly experience the town as a long, very boring series of stoplights. For a while we’re behind a van transporting dogs in cages, and Mateos inches his truck right up to the bumper of the van so the dogs stay cool in the shadow of the truck.

Neuquen is big and sprawling and I think about how much time it will take me to find an actual hostel in a city not usually visited by backpackers, and I imagine the hassle it will be to navigate the city sprawl out to the highway tomorrow for another full day of hitchhiking. I mentally weigh the cost of a hostel room tonight and a day of travel tomorrow versus the price of an overnight bus to Mendoza, think it over for the duration of another stoplight, and ask Mateos if he can let me out near the bus terminal. Better to keep moving and take an overnight bus, I think. If it’s really too expensive I can get a city bus into town and look for a hostel. But there’s no need for this plan – within 20 minutes I’ve found a reasonably priced bus leaving for Mendoza and soon I’m tucked into a window seat next to a very pregnant argentine lady who seems unfazed by the discomforts of bus travel and cheerfully passes a mate back and forth with her husband. It’s a nearly 12-hour ride to Mendoza and I sleep when I can. The bus stops several times during the night to pick up passengers, and each time the lights on the bus come up.

27 January 2015
6:30 – finally it’s dawn in Mendoza. Purple light brings a handsome mountain range into focus as the bus pauses in two more small towns on the outskirts of the city. I see dry, hardy vegetation, small bushes and low trees leading up the slopes of high mountains that rise out of a green valley.

At a gas station near the bus terminal I drink coffee and spend an irritating hour walking around a quiet, residential neighborhood looking for a hostel. The streets are wide and lined with grown sycamore trees that remind me of Montevideo. Heavy backpack on my shoulders, I step carefully to avoid tripping into the deep canals that line nearly every sidewalk, forming gullies of about a meter deep between the concrete and asphalt. They are all dry.

Finally I sling my backpack down in a miserable, tiny room that must be a converted garage. Through holes in the wall by my bed I can see busy traffic outside. It’s too hot to sleep so I grab my daypack and explore Mendoza.

The city is tidy and pleasant, with the wide avenues and plentiful shade, but not actually that exciting. I pass through the main square with fountains and monuments and on to a large park. For some reason there are people actually running here in the baking afternoon heat. I chug cold water and sleep for an hour in the shade of a sycamore before continuing my slow trek, up past an ugly stadium and strange zoo, up to the top of a hill overlooking the city. The views of the mountains are lovely as the sun sets, dusky red and purple granite peaks and soft vineyards lining the valley. The views of the city – well, it’s a city. I think Mendoza may be one of those cities that’s lovely to live in but not so interesting to visit.

Back in town at my hostel there’s free wine tasting. Clearly wine is the reason most come to Mendoza, and with good reason. Argentine wine may be the best I’ve tasted, and the wine from Mendoza the best in Argentina. This is enjoyable enough although as one might expect it lends a superficial character to the general atmosphere, especially in hostels full of young people easily excited by the idea of drinking wine for a week. By now I’m rather bored with meeting people who have traveled somewhere primarily looking to find new places to get drunk.

27-31 January 2015
My days in Mendoza blur together and I confess, readers, that they are somewhat quiet. I make friends with two men traveling South America on motorcycles (cheers, Chris and Andy) and pass many hours in conversation and relaxation with them. There are some nights spent drinking wine and some lazy days watching movies and sleeping off a hangover, and in a way I too become a little infected by the party atmosphere. It’s easy to criticize but sometimes hard to resist.

One day I decide to try a horseback riding tour. I’m skeptical at first, given that I’m going as part of a large group and it’s likely to be a rather touristic experience (lots of hand holding by an English-speaking guide carefully shepherding us through immaculate farmlands specially prepared to look “rustic” for our ignorant first-world eyes, I think) – but to my surprise, I find it delightful. The touristic hand-holding is there, but I’m so distracted by the enchanting novelty of riding a horse for the first time that I forget to be cynical and accidentally end up quite enjoying myself. I’m seated on a small, old brown horse with a white muzzle (“his name is bigote – moustache” our guide tells me). This horse has seen it all and is more patient and stoic than the younger, excitable animals in our group. Our guide gives me a small stick to gently tap on Bigote’s hindquarters if he “stalls” but I don’t have to use it. The horse knows the route by heart and every time he stops without my pulling on the reins, it turns out there’s a good reason (another horse in front of us having trouble, a planned stop by a river, etc). The horses plod down a dirt road out of the farm, through a stream, and up a series of dry, steep hills and canyons full of scrubby desert vegetation. At the top of our ascent we’re looking back out at the high buildings of Mendoza and the dusky mountains behind as the light fades over the expanse of vineyards. I’m delighted. Bigote leads the horse train down the steep canyons back to the farm and I settle into the rhythm of his footfalls, enjoying the challenge of balancing on his broad back as he navigates the steep trail.

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On another occasion, I take a city bus to Maipu, a nearby town, and rent bikes with Raffael, a Swiss traveler from my hostel. We ride down the hot, sunny streets of Maipu and turn down a shady, unpaved lane with a sign pointing to a winery. In the cool shade of more sycamore trees we cycle past fields and fields of vines heavy with purple grapes. We tour Trapiche, a large and apparently quite prosperous winery famous for Malbec. As with many wine tours, I’m left feeling a little like the parts of the winery that we tour are not where the actual production takes place. They seem a little too well-manicured, too perfect, none of the bustle and stress of an actual production center. The wine tasting, however, is excellent – a reserve and grand reserve Malbec and one white wine I can’t recall, all delicious. I remember touring a large winery in Napa valley back in the US and paying $20 to taste wines that in the end were mediocre. For 80 argentine pesos (around $6) I taste some of the best red wine I’ve ever tried.

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Raffael and I point our bikes toward Mevi, which turns out to be a tasting room rather than a large winery. In a sun-drenched restaurant we try more wines and a cheese plate as we watch the afternoon slowly wane over dusty, picturesque fields that remind me of Tuscany.

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As we leave the restaurant Raffael convinces me to try dessert – sweet, ripe grapes picked surreptitiously off the hanging vines at the edge of the vineyard.

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A short visit to Bariloche

22 January 2015:
10:25 – Another hitchhiking day – this one much shorter than the previous epic journey. I’m headed to Bariloche which is just over 100 kilometers from El Bolson – a couple hours’ ride at most. After an hour or so of waiting near the gas station in El Bolson, a very old man picks me up and offers to take me 20 kilometers down the road toward Bariloche. I accept and hop in and listen to his stories. He says he always wanted to hitchhike when he was younger but never got the chance, so now he takes hitchhikers whenever he sees them.

11:58 – After some very slow driving he leaves me by a chorizo stand along an empty stretch of mountain highway. I’m a little nervous about this but he tells me how to walk to his house, which is about half a kilometer down the road, and says I can knock on his door if I need anything.

12:07 – The advantage to hitchhiking in the middle of nowhere is people are a lot more likely to pick you up. After less than 10 minutes of waiting next to the chorizo hut a friendly couple has pulled over and re-arranged their back seat to make room for me and my bag, and they’re happy to take me all the way to Bariloche. They’re selling perfume, and we make a couple of stops along the road where they take a little box of scents into a store and chat with the owners for a while. In between they chat with me and offer me fresh cherries. In Bariloche they show me where to find the best chocolate shops and give me big hugs goodbye.

I spend the afternoon and evening relaxing in the hostel where I’m staying. It may be my favorite hostel so far: a beautiful, airy house full of natural light. Three-quarters of the common room is a big picture window with a low, cushioned bench running the length, surrounding a small indoor garden overgrown with climbing ivy and various potted plants. It’s light and cool inside and the plants seem to have a cleansing effect on the air even with the windows closed. Hammocks hang on the little deck outside. The huge kitchen is well stocked with sharp knives and sturdy pans and a huge gas stove.

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In the evening I manage to escape downtown for drinks with a friend before returning to finish the night chatting with the hostel’s owner about music, Ireland (his home country), and Argentina. Finally at midnight I sneak into my dormitory (careful not to wake my roommates). I curl up and fall asleep, sinking into a deep, thick mattress tucked in a little nook in the wall.

23 January 2015:
11:24 – I’ve been traveling outside the strange, isolated, Imperial-system island that is the US for about four months at this point, and I’m getting pretty good at the mental conversion from Fahrenheit to Celcius (today I think it’s about 23 degrees C out – comfortable); but the miles-to-kilometers conversion is still throwing me off. I’ve gotten as far as the understanding that kilometers are shorter than miles (a kilometer is about 2/3 of a mile), so a journey of 100 kilometers should be shorter and quicker than a journey of 100 miles; but I haven’t really internalized the actual proportions. I tend to just vaguely assume every journey measured in kilometers will take less time than I expect it to. Normally this is something I can work around if my estimates are a little off, but today I am gasping for breath and stomping the pedals of my rented mountain bike and swiftly coming the realization that 26 kilometers is a much longer distance than I thought it was.

I’m being treated to fine scenery as I sweat and curse and pant up some pretty steep hills along the “circuito chico”, which is a loop in the main road near Bariloche that climbs a small hill and offers impressive views of the lakes. I make it up the top of a huge hill, sweaty and panting, and find myself looking out at a massive body of water so blue it looks almost dyed. This lake flows in curves around various steep hills rising along the perimeter, bordered further still by high rocky mountains with granite tops. At the lake level, thick deep green forests form a belt of vegetation bordering a thin band of yellow beaches along the shore. Nothing seems out of place. It’s beautiful in a carefully manicured, resort hotel kind of way. I realize that the scenery is probably naturally this beautiful, but there seems something artificial about it. It’s tame.

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I bike for some hours along the steep circuito chico, which passes for a time through forests away from the shore. I stop for chorizo and coffee at a little hut by a small, rocky beach. At the edge of the lake I dip my hair in the freezing clear water.

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17:48 – exhausted, I lock my bike to a white fence near an open plaza scattered with artisan kiosks selling ice cream, Swiss chocolate, and unusual handicrafts. I’m a little worn out to appreciate it, but I’ve come to a small village called Colonia Suiza – Swiss colony. This place has a beautiful hand-crafted look to the buildings that I was missing in El Bolson. There are lots of wooden cabins with strangely pointed roofs – probably constructed for the benefit of visiting tourists, but still fascinating. I’m so tired and hungry I buy and eat an entire half kilo of chocolate ice cream – that’s one full pound, my fellow Americans. It goes down easy and gives me a boost of energy for the gentle climb up a gravel road toward the city.

18:58 – I round the corner of a dusty, earthy track and drop my bike as I run over to a family of tourists admiring the lake. I’m going to be late to meet the van driver from my hostel who’s coming to pick me up at a meeting point we agreed on earlier in the day. I beg to use someone’s cell phone to call him, panting, and estimate another 45 minutes to get to the main road where we’ll meet.

It’s only 20 minutes to the meeting point but I wait for another hour before Santiago, my driver, shows up. “Sorry,” he says “I’m Argentine, you know. I went to drink a beer with my friend.” I’m too tired to worry about this or anything else. By now I feel confident in my understanding of exactly how long and how difficult a bike ride of 26 kilometers is.

24 January 2014:
10:48 – I lie along the cushions in the hostel’s indoor garden and start to doze. Normally I might feel guilty for taking a nap in the middle of the morning, but I give myself permission to enjoy it today after yesterday’s long bike ride.

To pass the morning I make sketches of the indoor garden and read. It’s a quiet day.

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Everyone traveling for months at a time needs these quiet days, these do-nothing days (or do-laundry-and-errands-days, which are just as important). I sometimes feel guilty for taking the time to relax (“you could be outside exploring!” says my annoying brain); but really if I try going anywhere when I’m this tired I’ll just feel grouchy. On a short trip you can push yourself and skip sleeping and catch up on rest when you return. Long journeys require a different approach.

14:10 – I slip through throngs of tourists choking Bariloche’s hot streets. Shops selling high-end outdoor gear, expensive shoes, and chocolate blast drafts of cold air out into the street. Bariloche is famous for chocolate, so I wander into a little shop that seems less touristic than some others and try some chocolate poured into sheets and gently folded on itself. Sadly, it’s nearly tasteless – mostly butter and sugar with hardly any cocoa flavor. It could be a bad batch, but I also wonder if this is chocolate adapted to the Argentine palette – sweet foods here tend to be quite sugary, so bittersweet chocolate probably wouldn’t sell so well with the tourists here, most of whom seem to come from other cities in Argentina.

16:08 – I’m strolling a little aimlessly down a side street in Bariloche, heading away from the town center when by chance I run into a French girl I met in Puerto Madryn nearly a month ago – Caroline, who was working at the hostel where I stayed for a night. I’m astounded at the unlikeliness of our meeting – a quiet, out of the way street, nearly a month after we met, in a town I wasn’t even sure I would go to in the first place. We hadn’t even exchanged emails. We talk and make plans to meet the following day.

25 January 2015
Caroline and I chat mostly in English on the way up the steep Cerro Campanario, a hill overlooking the lakes and mountains around Bariloche. Last time we met we spoke Spanish, but today I’m grateful for the time with an English speaker to rest my brain.

At the top of the hill – a steep but quick 30-minute hike – we try more chocolate (still disappointing) and I make some sketches.

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In the afternoon we visit a beach by the lake called Serena. The sun is hot here, but the breeze is cool and I’m not keen to swim. I do it anyway, because who knows when I’ll be back? But the water is freezing and cloudy with dirt and I’m back on the shore within a few minutes to warm up.

In the evening I pack and plan tomorrow’s hitchhiking route. The map says another 1400 or so kilometers to Mendoza – pretty far. I decide the best plan is to try to hitch to Neuquen, about 500 kilometers away, stay the night there, and see about covering the remaining distance to Mendoza the day after. I’m having trouble motivating myself. Hitchhiking requires more planning and care and worry than jumping on a bus and waking up at your destination. The inertia of staying in one place for a few days is sometimes hard to shake off.

Recovery in El Bolson

19 January 2015
13:45 – this is a day for recovery. I’m wrapped in the covers of my narrow hostel top bunk, streaming a forgettable English-language movie. What I saw of El Bolson looked beautiful when I ventured out to buy groceries, but two solid days of Spanish, forced interaction, and uncertain plans have worn this introvert out, and I’ve come into a hostel full of vacationing Argentines – no easy camaraderie with other English-speaking foreigners here. Normally I’d be thrilled to escape the typical hostel environment and meet more South Americans, but today I begin to truly appreciate for the first time the comfort of speaking one’s mother tongue and the feeling of camaraderie you get from meeting other foreign travelers. I don’t have the energy for anything except a few brief words with the travelers coming and going in the overcrowded, stuffy dorm.

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20 January 2015:
11:35 – I wander through the artisan market in the main plaza : vegan street food and clocks made out of old gnarly tree slices and picture frames with dried flowers under glass and handmade puzzles and notebooks and bookmarks and countless macrame bracelets and silver jewelry and incense and windchimes – and that’s just the first block of the market that covers the square.

I think this is El Bolson’s strength, this market. I heard people describe El Bolson as a sort of hippy haven, and I think it may have been a few years ago, but now I’ve found it depressingly commercial: where I expected to see charming humble little incense stores run by locals, I find a boxy ugly supermarket stuffed with overpriced meats, and “natural” shops selling hideously expensive health products with ugly labels and pushy salespeople, and restaurants advertising organic vegetarian meals that cost a small fortune. If this is a haven for hippies, the hippies in this part of the country must be pretty rich.

On the other hand, the artisan market seems to stay true to a tradition of simple goodness – high-quality crafts sold by gentle, friendly locals who insist on wrapping your 30-peso bookmark carefully and lovingly in soft paper to protect it while you travel. The natural surroundings, too, defy commercialization. Charming bungalow houses line quiet streets and it seems every family keeps a rose garden. A mountain ridge towers somewhat alarmingly (yet majestically) over the village, steep and close enough that you may glance up expecting to see sky and find a wall of old granite in your line of sight instead.

I spend the morning wandering in the market. Vendors shyly ask me where I’m from and smile when they show me their wares. I amble around the quiet neighborhood surrounding my hostel. The perfume of rose gardens follows me down every street.

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15:43 – a brief nap on the edge of lake Puelo and a few sketches fill my afternoon; steak dinner and quiet conversation with a porteƱo guy from buenos aires fill my evening.

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21 January 2015:
13:58 – I’ve looked up “cajon” in my dictionary and found a translation of something like “drawer” or “box”; when I finally reach the impressively deep swimming hole at the end of a dry, dusty hike, I think I get the concept though I can’t come up with a satisfying English translation. “Cajon azul” (blue hole? Blue drawer? Blue box?) is freezing cold, painfully cold, but crystal clear. I’m not brave enough to dive straight in like some of the other hikers, so I wade in and swim further downstream, hiking clothes and all. The air is clear and dry here and my shorts dry on my body as I hike back through quiet forests and steep dusty hills.

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The mountains here make up for El Bolson’s commercialized atmosphere, I think. The hike is hot and difficult, especially for this out of shape traveler, but the scenery is rewarding. Along the way back to town I meet Alejandro from Neuquen and Serrana from Uruguay, who tell me about a several-day trek they’ve just completed. It’s possible to spend several days hiking in the mountains among the hidden mountain lakes and little streams, eating at the refugios and camping or sleeping in basic cabins along the way.

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My last night in El Bolson is as quiet as the first. I never really connect with the town and I’m ready to move on.

17 and 18 January 2015: a hitchhiking journey through Argentine Patagonia.

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Patagonia is big, Patagonia is wide, Patagonia is wild, and Patagonia is very empty.

Its principal highway, Route 40, runs north along the western edge of Argentina, near the border with Chile, sometimes as close as 60 kilometers. It’s a road with a history – lots of families on road trips, vacationers, Chileans border hopping to cover ground faster on their way to Santiago, Che Guavara on his famous motorcycle speeding over dust and gravel. There are a handful of little towns and gas stations scattered here and there – nothing big or busy.

It’s these qualities that worry me as I head out of my hostel in El Chalten, past the bus terminal, along the road that leads out of town, thumb up and EL BOLSON written in sharpie on my arm. El Bolson is nearly 1300 kilometers away, up that long, empty, dusty route 40. 1300 kilometers is a long way to go – too long to make it in one day – and I don’t have a tent or sleeping bag. I have no idea at which one of the small anonymous towns along the way I might be stopping to crash in a cheap hotel – I don’t know if any of those small, anonymous towns along the way even have hotels. If I’m stuck outside when night falls, things could get tricky. This uncertainty worries me as I trudge along the shoulder of the paved highway leading east from El Chalten.

10:04 – early luck – a white station wagon pulls onto the shoulder ahead of me as I walk. I peek in the car and there are two French hitchhikers I passed a few minutes earlier, giggling and squeezing on top of each other to make room for me, my bag, and their bags all in the back seat. I’m glad I took the time to greet them and exchange a few words as I was walking past earlier, because now they’ve convinced the Brazilian couple driving the station wagon to pick me up too and take me 90 kilometers out to the highway. I think getting a ride this early is a good sign and I happily wedge myself between the hitchhikers and the door. They’re a pair – either married or serious partners – and are headed to Calafate now, but will be in Mendoza a little later in the summer. It turns out they’re wine makers back in France and they’re here to work in Mendoza for the harvest season. “What’s your favorite kind of wine?” I want to know. “We couldn’t possibly decide!” They laugh, “as long as it’s good.”

11:22 – the Brazilians and French wave goodbye and now it’s really started, the waiting. I’m at the dusty intersection of route 40 and the road that leads to Chalten, among the weeds and dust on the highway shoulder, under a silent grey sky. I’m fascinated by the utter silence. There are few places in nature I’ve been that were silent. If you’re in the desert it’s windy and you hear plants rustling and insects clicking; in the woods you hear the trees murmur and the birds sing – maybe water rushing somewhere. Here there’s an occasional breath of wind but it doesn’t stir the grass enough to make a sound. The road stretches behind and before me, silent.

As quiet as it is, somehow I feel glad to be out by the side of this deserted, absolutely silent highway with my little cardboard sign, waiting and watching the lines of cars all turning away from me toward Calafate; like I’m part of some great long tradition of hitchhikers and this is my first real test.

After an hour or so a little turquoise sedan pulls onto the highway and a friendly couple roll down the window to ask where I’m headed.

11:58 – he’s a music teacher from Buenos Aires, she’s a lawyer from Puerto Madryn. “How did you meet?” I ask. “Mutual friends,” they shrug. They move the electric guitar over to one side to make space for me in the back seat and turn down the Foo Fighters greatest hits album enough that we can hear each other. I don’t get their names, but they do teach me some Argentinian slang – “Che, boludo!” they laugh “it means something like ‘hey buddy!’ …but you probably shouldn’t say that to anyone unless you know them really well.” They can only take me 20 kilometers down the road but it’s a lively few minutes of conversation. They wish me luck, drop me at a depressingly empty intersection, and disappear toward Tres Lagos.

12:21 – here we go – this is one of the places I was afraid of getting stuck. How does it look? The highway basically dead ends and splits into two beat up gravel roads leading in different directions. There are a few farmhouses scattered around the highway, but they’re silent. I meditate a bit on the experience of being in the very place I was worried about getting stuck – someplace remote and hard to spend the night – and find I’m not so panicked about it. I reason that El Chalten is still only an hour away. At the worst, I can either beg a ride from someone at the farmhouse, or ask to sleep in the barn.

12:42 – contingency plans for sleeping in the barn are rendered unnecessary when a gigantic silver VW pickup truck roars onto the shoulder. Pablo tosses my bag in the back, making comments about how heavy it is. “We can speak in English, my English is better than your Spanish,” he says, without waiting to hear my Spanish. His young, pretty wife smiles at me and hangs on for dear life as he jams on the accelerator. He’s in the mining industry and visits the US often for work. “I love Las Vegas,” he grins sleazily at me. This part of Route 40 is unpaved, but it seems to be under construction, and Pablo is constantly hopping dirt barriers and veering around construction signs to get to the newly-paved, not-yet-open sections of unmarked highway, where he speeds up to 120. Occasionally these paved sections end abruptly in dirt mounds and we slam on the brakes and swerve around them. Pablo grins through all of this and pats his wife’s hand when she makes little worried comments. It’s nerve-wracking, but we make great time toward Gobernador Gregores, especially when the construction section ends and Pablo guns it up to 165. Guanacos become tan blurs as we barrel past them. I see some rheas running further off from the highway. The landscapes settles into scenery that reminds me a lot of Nevada : gently rolling hills loping out toward brown mountain chains, covered in small bushes and scrubby grasses, hardy vegetation, no trees in sight. It’s fairly green here, but you can tell that this is a countryside that doesn’t see downpours often. It’s empty except for range fences, guanacos, and the occasional crowd of sheep.

After a couple of hours we pull into Gobernador Gregores, a tiny unremarkable town as far as I can tell. “We’ll leave you at the service station for your next ride. Good luck!” And the truck is off in a blur of silver.

15:02 – I station myself dutifully at the end of a line of depressed-looking hitchhikers standing along the road that leads north out of town. They’re all in poor spirits and seem a little resentful of my presence. I would be too if I’d been stuck for five hours, as they told me they have been. “This town is shit,” they complain, “nobody wants to give you a lift.” I nod sympathetically and wish them luck, but mentally take their comments with a grain of salt. Their group is just too big – who tries to hitchhike with four people? No wonder they’ve been waiting so long.

A few minutes after I arrive, another solo hitcher gets picked up. I take this as a good sign that I’m not stuck in some kind of hitchhiking desert.

16:05 – I head back to the gas station to wait out the rain. It’s been dampening my spirits and my backpack – and I also have an intuition that I’ll have better luck finding a ride at the station, away from the soggy pack of hitchhikers. While I wait I watch what appears to be the selling of a horse across the street. The potential buyer canters the white horse down the street alongside the slow traffic leading out of town, kicking up puffs of dust not yet soaked by the light rain.

16:22 – my intuition about the gas station turns out to be correct. The rain stops and I’m just heading out to the side of the road with my little sign reading NORTE when a man who’s just finished getting gas asks me where I’m headed. “Perito Moreno” I say, and it turns out he’s going there too. Jackpot. He tells me to wait 20 minutes while he gets food.

17:10 – I wait in the gas station, drinking coffee, and after nearly an hour I’ve finally decided that the guy who promised me a ride earlier must have forgotten me. Even by Argentine standards he’s pretty late, so I figure he must have come by the station when I was in the bathroom and left when he didn’t see me. I’m just about to head back to the road feeling depressed when he pulls up. “Hey, I’m ready. Sorry it took a while, I’m Argentine, you know”. Figures. It doesn’t matter – Perito Moreno was the destination I had in mind as my ideal stopping point for the night, and truthfully I didn’t expect to find a ride all the way there, so I don’t really care how late we arrive. Anyway when you’re hitchhiking you can’t complain about having to wait for someone.

As we head out of town I see that the big group I saw before is still huddled by the side of the road, glaring resentfully and throwing up their hands in exasperation at the cars that pass them. Luis, my driver, slows down a little and waves at them, and says with real regret that he wishes he could take them, but their group is just too big. They straighten up hopefully as his car slows, then slump again and shoot us resentful glares as we drive off. Something about their attitude seems off to me; sure, it’s bad luck to have to wait five hours, and probably frustrating, but isn’t it part of the philosophy of hitchhiking that you sometimes have to wait a long time? Getting angry and acting rude toward drivers who can’t or won’t take you seems like bad hitchhiking karma somehow. But I do feel bad for them, and I know it’s easy to judge . I mentally wish them better luck as they disappear in the side-view mirror.

Luis and I pass the long hours to Perito Moreno talking about politics and economics in Argentina. He talks bitterly about the low quality of public education, mismanagement in the government, and his fears for the future when young people who are poorly educated start to become leaders and decision makers. We agree that better education is the most urgently needed solution.

While we talk, I watch Patagonia melt slowly in the long, dusky evening light. Broad, dry fields of low vegetation undulate past us as we climb gentle hills and watch the landscape open up into wide plains. More bare hills in the distance, looking smooth from far away because of the lack of trees. We pass guanacos frequently, usually in little herds of five or six, some with babies. Sometimes, less happily, there’s a corpse caught in a ranch fence where a guanaco got stuck trying to jump and eventually died.

Luis stops around sunset so I can take pictures as the sun goes down behind the distant mountains. The hills take on a more dramatic flavor as we climb, the dirt turning from sandy yellow to deep, rich, red. Luis tells me there’s gold in the hills here. Canadian companies have come in to begin mining and little mining towns and dirt roads through the hills are starting to take shape. At Bajo Caracoles we stop to refill hot water for mate and head toward Perito Moreno with the day’s last remaining light.

21:56 – we arrive at Perito Moreno. I wave goodbye to Luis. I’m exhausted from the hours of social interaction – I’ll always be an introvert – and from speaking Spanish all day. I shell out 300 pesos for a little cabin at an unremarkable campsite populated mostly by families, check my route for the next day, and relax.

18 January 2015:
8:04 – I wake up groggy and move slowly, repacking and fighting left over exhaustion from yesterday. It’s a long walk through silent Sunday streets to the edge of town.

10:52 – he’s a technology specialist, she’s a teacher in a private school. Their little daughter wiggles in her car seat next to me and daintily hands me an empty mate and bombilla that she’s been playing with. They offer to take me from the road leading out of Perito Moreno to the highway – a short trip, but a better spot to hitch from. He speaks English with a distinct British accent, and it turns out his mother was Austrian, but I try to stick to Spanish while we talk since his wife’s English is limited.

While we drive, I ask what he thinks about the Canadian gold mining company in the hills nearby, and wonder why no Argentine companies are out there digging. He says with some bitterness that Argentine companies lack the sense of national pride required to invest in their own country. I don’t know if this is really the reason, but his bitterness surprises and sobers me.

After some talking they reveal that they are headed to Rio Mayo and can take me there instead of leaving me at the entrance to the highway. This is good news and puts me another few hundred kilometers down the road. I’m guessing they offered to leave me at the highway initially so they’d have some time to sort out whether I’d be nice to have along in the car or not. I sometimes forget that the risks of hitchhiking cut both ways – there’s a risk for the hitchhiker, but also for the driver who has no idea what kind of person he’s just picked up off the side of the highway.

It’s an uneventful ride through similar landscapes – empty and beautiful. I’m happy for the rest and the opportunity to look at the scenery as it rolls by.

13:08 – I’m waiting in the dirt at the bottom of a huge hill leading out of Rio Mayo. I’ve walked a couple of kilometers from the service station in the middle of town, after being given bad directions by five or six different people and passing what appears to be a gaucho festival (lots of men on horses dressed in traditional gaucho outfits, parading around a fairground). It’s hot and dusty and a lot of cars stop by the festival as I wait.

13:30 – a man pulls over and hops out of a van stuffed with his family’s vacationing gear, picnic baskets and coolers and suitcases, tucked in behind the back seat where his wife and daughter smile serenely at me. He cheerfully tosses my backpack in with his family’s vacation supplies and settles me in the front seat.

I mainly remember the tedium of this ride. Pablo makes pointed remarks about getting bored driving and how much talking helps him stay awake, but mainly gives me one-word answers to questions and speaks with such a thick accent that I’m not able to follow most of his remarks. The conversation is forced. We drive along another unpaved section of route 40, dusty and potholed, and I count the minutes during this dreary slog to Gobernador Costa.

16:41 – his accent is so thick I couldn’t make out his name (I think it was Esequiel), but he’s the nicest driver to pick me up so far, and he’s driving a huge yellow tractor-trailer all the way to Bolson. This is my first ride in a truck and it’s every bit the hitchhiker’s dream they say it is: big, bouncy comfortable front seat, lots of space in the cab, air conditioning, and a driver who’s used to long trips and conversation with backpackers.

Between his accent and my limited vocabulary, conversation is a challenge, but we manage. I’m fairly certain he’s been driving trucks for about 20 years, he has either 5 or 9 brothers (couldn’t catch the exact number), and they all drive trucks. He talks about the wind a lot – winds in Patagonia are violent and can blow big trucks like his off the road. We can’t go more than about 90 kilometers per hour because of this, but he’s cheerful about it – and about nearly everything else. We take a break to drink some mate with a friend of his at a service station, and make another pit stop later when we pass a car broken down by the side of the road. He stops the truck and spends probably 45 minutes helping a traveling family fix their radiator. As evening sets in he eventually asks if I’m tired and offers to let me sleep in the bed in the back of the cab. I feel safe enough to go for it, and it’s amazing – more comfortable than many of the beds I’ve slept in at hostels.

I wake up as we slow down at Epuyen, just 10 kilometers from Bolson. It’s nearly dark. Esequiel offers to let me sleep in the truck – there are two beds – but I’m worn out from the road and ready to be somewhere with a kitchen for a hot meal.

I hitch my last ride for the night with Eduardo, an hippy Argentine jewelry maker, who also offers to let me sleep on the floor of his house if I can’t find a hostel. I decline this offer as well and stumble into a huge dorm at a hostel called Casa de Arbol.

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It was two days of adventure, uncertainty, generosity, and discovery, readers. In total I covered about 1300 kilometers of big, empty Argentine Patagonia, with eight different drivers. The longest I waited for a ride was two hours – which is pretty lucky – and my most effective hitchhiking sign turned out to be the one that simply read NORTH.

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