Mendoza to Santiago: 1-4 February 2015

1 February 2015

A grocery run, a stop to fill up the gas tank of the silver SUV Raffael bought in Chile, and we’re finally on the road around 11:30 heading for those tall, jagged mountains to the west of Mendoza. It was barely a week ago that I talked with my friend Jenny about how much I wished I had someone to travel with. I guess saying it out loud was all it took to meet someone; now here I am with Raffel, a traveler from Switzerland, crossing the Andes mountains, headed for Chile. image The pass over the Andes between Mendoza and Santiago turns out to be one of those places that everyone tells you to go, and you mentally note it, but maybe you don’t make serious plans to go because maybe it’s out of your way, and people say that about almost every beautiful place they’ve traveled, and you can’t go everywhere and sometimes people exaggerate, and you think, it can’t really be that beautiful can it? – and then sometimes you go there anyway and it’s more beautiful than anyone told you it would be and you think, dammit, why didn’t anyone tell me this place was so beautiful, and you’re glad you went. image First there’s a long straight stretch of highway with acres of vineyards spreading away towards Mendoza on our right, as the mountains jut up ahead of us like a steep, hard wall. Quickly we’re in among the foothills, passing dry, red, rocky peaks and mysterious narrow canyons that I just catch with the camera as we speed by. Raffael expertly glides the SUV around tight turns as we start to gain elevation, and I think it’s lucky I’m riding through the mountains with someone who grew up driving around the Alps. I’m given the important tasks of taking pictures out the window, serving mate, and choosing music for the drive. First a little musical education, as Raffael has not heard Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours; then I decide the landscape calls for Neil Young. I always like listening to Neil on trips with impressive natural scenery. His music seems made for lonely, wild landscapes, and it seems thoughtful to me, in the way that big open spaces make you thoughtful. image We glimpse a large, turquoise lake and turn off the highway to investigate. The reservoir is beautiful, strikingly turquoise against the dry hills, but low – many meters too low, it looks like. We walk to the edge of the water along white, chalky banks. Strict signs warn us not to swim but I dip my feet in anyway. We’ve already gained some altitude and the water is shockingly cold. image A little later we continue along the highway as it curves through a wide canyon, following the course of a swift, chocolate-brown river swollen by hidden rains. Hungry, we begin looking for a good picnic spot. The bare walls of the canyon don’t afford any vegetation nor shade, so we eventually settle in the meager shadow of a boxy metal container next to a slip where one of the tour companies from Mendoza begins their whitewater rafting tours. We watch the brown river tumble by on one side and cars rush by on the other as we eat tomatoes and fresh fruit and cheese and the least disgusting gluten-free crackers I was able to find at the supermarket. We pack up from the whitewater rafting slip and not five minutes later pass a beautifully shaded little park by the river that would have been perfect for lunch, and laugh at ourselves for stopping at the ugly little concrete platform. image The canyon we’ve been traveling through finally widens out into a broad valley. On all sides we’re surrounded by rocky, steep mountains. The broad plain is flat and yellow with a strip of green leafy trees bordering the course of the river. We’re settled into driving now as we cross the valley and begin climbing another narrow canyon, and I play some electronica to fit the mood. We stop now and again to take pictures as we climb deeper and higher into the sharp, endless mountains. Soon we begin to see glimpses of a high peak covered in snow away to our right. We come to a side road leading up to a little guard station and signs for views of Aconcagua, the highest mountain in all of the Americas and the highest peak outside of Asia. image The wind howls down a canyon covered with tough, short grasses. It’s an easy walk up to the viewpoint, but I can tell we’ve already gained some altitude when I get winded on the way. Up along the walls of the canyon we see condors circling and tiny glimpses of motion on the rocks as rabbits dive for cover when the birds’ shadows pass over them. At the end of the canyon looms Aconcagua, nearly 7,000 meters high – around 23,000 feet. We’re already so high in elevation that it actually doesn’t seem that tall by comparison, just big and imposing.image Aconcagua fades again behind closer mountains as we approach the Chilean frontier. The Argentine exit and Chilean entry offices are right next to each other. Leaving Argentina officially is a piece of cake, but as anyone who’s been to South America can tell you, Chile is notoriously strict about what crosses their border. I’m carefully double-checking my bag for any forgotten pieces of fruit or vegetables, and Raffael is sorting out the paperwork for his car, which has to be stamped through border crossings just like we do. From the way they write the fruit and vegetable warning signs at the border, and the stories other travelers have told us, I think we’d be in bigger trouble for trying to sneak an apple across the border than if we accidentally imported Raffael’s car illegally. Sure enough, while Raffael chats with a Chilean border official about a missing paper the Bolivian border officials misplaced a few weeks ago, a food-sniffer dog goes wild over a bag of trash in our front seat. The dog’s handler grabs the bag like it’s full of drugs and pulls out a discarded orange peel. He gives me a stern look, tosses the bag in the trash, and brings the dog around for a thorough investigation of the rest of the car. Meanwhile the official Raffael has been talking to laughs and stamps the car through. image We finally clear the border as the sun sets. Immediately past the border crossing the road descends sharply into a canyon, dropping what has to be 400 meters sharply and steeply. Long, tight curves zig zag down into the valley. They’re coated with something that makes the tires squeal as we round each bend – Raffael complains about this – and I count 30 tight turns from top to bottom. image Another forty minutes of driving and we’re close to Los Andes, a small town that seems like a decent enough place to spend the night. Our road maps show little water fountain symbols just outside of town – natural hot springs. We pull into a square in town to ask friendly locals about the springs (Raffael is much braver about talking to people than I am) and pick up snacks in the hopes of being able to picnic next to a hot spring under the stars. Termas del Corazón (hot springs of the heart) turns out to be an expensive resort. There are springs, but they’re part of a complex of constructed pools under a roof in the resort, and they’re closed for the night by the time we arrive. I’ve been completely spoiled by the natural hot springs I used to be able to visit from Reno, so I veto giving the resort a try tonight – plus the cost to stay overnight is an exorbitant 70,000 pesos per person (over $100). We return to Los Andes to look for a backpacker’s hostel, and eventually find a building marked HOSTAL that has rooms for a much more reasonable 15,000 pesos each. The very friendly night receptionist offers to let us park the car in their garage, and cheerfully opens the door to the dining room. Once we realize he’s not joking, I hop out and Raffael executes an impressively difficult parking job, squeezed between a wall of antique china and a pile of stacked-up tables and chairs. Our upstairs room is comfortable and empty of other backpackers, at least for this night. The hostal doesn’t seem to have a kitchen (at least not one for guests) and our room doesn’t seem to have a table, so we shrug, laugh, and spread out our snack-dinner on the floor – meat and cheeses and tomatoes and Raffael cuts apart a plastic water bottle to use as makeshift glasses for wine. image

2 February 2015

It’s 8:23 and I’ve felt this before – a little rattling, nothing out of the ordinary, maybe just a truck passing – but it doesn’t stop, it goes on way too long to be a truck and it keeps going and then there’s the real shaking, the whole building swaying back and forth and I hold my breath and close my eyes and after a few seconds which feel like a few hours, it stops and now I’m awake. It’s hard to go back to sleep after an earthquake. Welcome to Chile, I think.

No one in the hostal blinked an eye at the tremor, which I look up later online. The epicenter was deep underground near Mendoza, around 6.7 there but in the low 3’s here in Chile. At breakfast – bread for Raffael; deli meat, cheese, and fruit for me – we talk with the owners of the hostal, who bought the old building and added a huge event hall, where we’re now having breakfast. Right now we’re the only guests but they sometimes host large groups – I guess that the hall could seat 50 people easily. After we say goodbye to the hostal staff, Raffael maneuvers the car back out of the dining room – we are both still giggling about this – and we set off in the direction of Santiago. We make a detour to investigate another hot spring marked on the map, but our hot spring luck continues to be bad, and this one is closed today. Instead after some exploring we find a shady spot under some trees by a small stream and make our picnic lunch there.

We’re barely back on the highway when the suburbs and traffic of Santiago start to come into view. Or rather, the toll booths of Santiago start to come into view – I think we pass three within a few kilometers. We pass through tunnels cut into the mountains that border Santiago and Raffael gets excited about some interesting engineering-related features that I can’t remember now (sorry Raffael). And then Santiago looms below us, modern-looking high rise apartment buildings and shiny skyscrapers and it’s hard to remember we’re in South America until we come down into the suburbs and there are the crumbling concrete buildings with their hand-painted signs and broken sidewalks again. They fade into elegant antique colonial buildings as we approach Bella Vista, a lovely neighborhood deserving of its name, urban yet pretty, with rows of restaurants and bars crowded together along quiet streets. Raffael sweet-talks a meter maid into letting us park the car on the street long enough to unload ourselves – funny how quickly I adapted to spreading out into every inch of the car after having traveled with just a backpack for the past five months. We settle into a huge hostel that seems nearly deserted – one or two stray backpackers and the friendly receptionists.

We walk through bella vista, down the length of a green park glimmering with fountains, and into the downtown area. I’m surprised by how nice this part of the city is. People say Santiago isn’t worth visiting – just a big city, they say – but I see interesting murals and cute shops and boutiques and pretty little cafes (Raffael knows some good ones and I drink the best coffee I’ve had since buenos aires), and a bustling restaurant scene. We take a wrong turn and miss the Thai restaurant we were trying for, and end up instead at an Indian diner that serves passable curried fish with coconut milk. I think Santiago seems like a fine city. image 3 February 2015

We’re just a few minutes late to the free walking tour that meets downtown. Both Raffael and I have been in South America long enough now that we rarely show up to anything on time, and the tour operators are used to this as well, and everyone’s quite content to ease into the actual tour content around 10:20 or so. The buildings we pass downtown I find only a little bit interesting – I’m mainly amazed at the age of the buildings that are still standing after years and years of earthquakes. “If you pass an old building in Chile and you see it’s still standing, you know it’s safe” says our guide, and I guess he’s right. We cross the river into what our guide tells us is the poorer part of town, and in a few minutes we’ve come into the fish market. Raffael is delighted by the variety of very fresh seafood on display – there’s barely any fish smell – and begins planning a dinner that, if he includes all the ingredients he wants to, will feed about 20 people. We wander through the market stalls with the group. I’m staring at little piles of octopus next to gigantic glassy-eyed eels, while Raffael drools over piles of fresh mussels still moving and finds slices of what one vendor tells us is meat from a giant squid. In the center of the market the building opens up and I see that it’s very much like the market in Montevideo, which is reminiscent of a huge iron train station like the ones you see in Europe. The ceiling looms high and vaulted and beautiful and the open square underneath echoes with the bustle of commerce. I’m not the only one who’s reminded of Montevideo; they tell us there’s a rumor that when they shipped the pieces of this market building from Europe (I’m still not clear on why or how that happened, readers) the parts for this market were confused with the parts for the market in Montevideo. Given the general lackadaisical attitude toward formal organization in South America, I think the story seems believable. image Out the fish market (we have to drag Raffael), across the street, and into another more modern-looking market building selling some produce and meats. I’m getting hungry but don’t have time to stop for a snack before we’re out again and on to yet another market – this one rougher, dingier, and way more fun than the last two. There’s all manner of produce being sold here – mainly fruit and vegetables, but further in we find rows and rows of spices typical of Peruvian cuisine (a lot of people from Peru live in Santiago, our guide tells us), bags of grain sold in bulk, and even high quality Japanese soy sauce. I open my eyes and ears completely as I drift through the stalls and hear vendors swapping jokes, greeting customers, hawking wares. Young men in rough work clothes grin with mouths missing most of their teeth as they haul in huge crates of exotic fruits. Raffael buys cactus fruits (which, confusingly, are called tunas) and I try one – juicy and soft, a lot like a kiwi fruit. The seeds are annoying but apparently harmless so I swallow those as well. Raffael adds about 30 ingredients to our dinner shopping list and I wonder if he’s planning to cook for everyone in the hostel tonight. IMG_8414[1] After this last (and coolest) market, we hop onto Santiago’s clean, fast, and modern subway and hop out a few stops later near the cemetery. This is a new one for me – I’ve seen the mausoleums and huge tombstones in cemeteries in Europe, and sprawling manicured outdoor cemeteries like golf courses with tombstones in my own country, but this is the first cemetery I’ve been to that reminded me of a motel. Rather than being buried underground, the dead are tucked into niches that seem impossibly small and their remains are stacked in an orderly block arranged in a concrete honeycomb several stories high. There are rows and rows of these huge residential blocks of bones marching through the cemetery. image Further in, the rich lie in enormous mausoleums more like what I’m used to seeing in European cemeteries. Many of them are absurdly ornate, several stories high or carved to look like mosques or pyramids. Some lie in utter ruin, not having survived a recent earthquake, waiting for remaining family members to find some way to pay for the repair of their dead relative’s ridiculous final resting place. image Finally we come to the tomb of Salvador Allende. Here I hear for the first time the history of political events in Chile over the past 40 years. The history of Salvador Allende’s socialist government, the military coup in which the American CIA was directly involved, and Allende’s suicide are a sobering education, especially for me as an American. We’re told that Chileans tend to be strongly divided in their opinions about the Pinochet’s takeover and dictatorship. I don’t feel well informed enough to comment on the history here, but most Chileans I’ve talked with aren’t proud of the Pinochet dictatorship, despite the prosperity that Chile has enjoyed as a result.IMG_8473[1] The walking tour ends with a visit to a bar where we’re able to try a terremoto (“earthquake”, a cocktail made of sweet red wine, sprite, and pineapple ice cream). Now it’s 14:00 and we’re starving. We retrace our steps back to the market where Raffael buys a modest third of the planned ingredients for tonight’s feast – including mussels and a giant squid tentacle – and we make it back to the hostel for a very late siesta and lunch. By the time we finish dessert it’s late, maybe 19:30. We walk back downtown for another of Raffael’s favorite cafes where I find an exceptional chocolate ice cream. He takes me to the Presidential palace, where Salvador Allende was found dead (the exact manner of his death is disputed, but it happened in the midst of the military coup during which the palace was bombed). In the main square, the Plaza de Armas, two astronomers have set up telescopes. It’s a full moon tonight, and for a few hundred pesos they let us look through the lens. The moon shimmers there, swaying slightly as the day’s heat rises from the mountains, still baking from the strength of the sun which set a few hours ago. We talk a little more with the astronomer, who points out Jupiter. We slip him a few more pesos to point his telescope at the planet and we’re delighted that we can see three of Jupiter’s moons, just little points of light around a bigger redder point of light in the lens. It doesn’t look like the pictures you see of jupiter, but it’s still beautiful, and awe-inspiring, and makes us both contemplative as we walk back to the hostel. It’s nearly 23:30 now – it’s late, but we took naps earlier and the fresh seafood from the market is begging to be cooked. Raffael washes the mussels, showing me how they squeeze shut when the fresh tap water rinses over them – this is how you can tell they’re still alive, which apparently they need to be when you begin cooking them. We make a stir fry of vegetables and slices of the giant squid tentacles, which have an interesting texture – not as rubbery as calamari, not exactly chewy, almost like the flesh of a firm cantaloupe, but less granular… It’s hard to describe, but tasty. While we eat the stir fry we’re simmering tomatoes and spices and by the time we finish our first course we’re ready to dunk the mussels into the stew. I feel a little guilty dumping live animals into boiling tomato sauce, but that’s how it goes with mussels, and I think we’re as humane as we can be about it. Soon they ease open and we sit down to the stew. Everything is delicious – Raffael knows what he’s doing. By now it’s around 2 am and the hostel is deserted except for the night receptionist. We bring him some of the mussel stew and laugh at ourselves for eating dinner so late.

4 February 2015

It’s a sad day of checking out of the hostel, walking downtown again for one last look at Santiago, and saying goodbye before my bus to Valparaiso. We only traveled together for a few days, but the idea of going to a new city without Raffael makes me a little sad. Four days traveling together didn’t seem like enough. Now I’m heading to Valparaiso and then north along the coast of Chile, and he’s headed south to Concepcion. I walk myself down to the metro and into the bus terminal and find a bus leaving for Valparaiso. With ten minutes to spare I buy my usual bar of chocolate (I always eat chocolate on bus trips). The trip to Valparaiso is quick – just a couple of hours – and soon I’m off the bus again, finishing the last of my chocolate as I walk out of the bus station and through the streets of a new city.

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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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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 porteño 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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Calafate and Chalten

13 January 2015:
I wake up late in the morning, refreshed. I’m Couchsurfing again, this time with Eduardo, an Argentine IT specialist who is basically the perfect Couchsurfing host. He picked me up from the bus terminal late last night after I left Puerto Natales and crossed the border back into Argentina.

Eduardo’s friendly and chatty and speaks English almost perfectly. He plays a Janis Joplin record while I cook eggs and tells me about previous surfers he’s hosted. By the time I’m done eating he’s convinced me to go visit the nearby glacier Perito Moreno, which I had intended to skip because of the high cost and a general vague notion that glaciers aren’t that interesting. Eduardo sells it well though so we head to the bus station where I pay 250 pesos for transport to the park.

Because I take the late afternoon bus, I arrive at the park with only a couple of hours to explore. I regret this instantly, as soon as I see the glacier. I think when I pictured glaciers in the past I thought of sort of a giant rectangular ice cube with snow on top – like the pictures you see of Antarctica. This is completely different: it’s much craggier than I expected. It’s a field of giant wrinkled slices of ice, all sliding and piling up over each other as they march toward the peninsula. It does not look like a comfortable place to walk – in fact, I can’t imagine walking over this at all, the way you think of polar bears or penguins doing. It really does look like a river of ice. It’s colorful, too: alternating between an unnatural electric blue, deep cold sapphire, and brilliant pale sky blue laced with pure white. It’s also enormous – 14 kilometers long and nearly 50 meters tall at its edge. It comes to an abrupt end in a jagged wall of ice that makes me think of the wall from Game of Thrones.

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This is the cool part: the bus leaves me at the top of a huge hill that’s maybe two kilometers from the edge of the glacier. What’s happening here is that the glacier is headed straight for this promontory hill extending into the lake, and it’s so close that at times the ice blocks the flow of water at the shore. They’ve built balconies and platforms all along the side of the hill facing the glacier where you can watch it calve. There’s an enormous crack and then you see it – a huge outcropping of ice, tall as a high rise apartment building, pulls away from the body of the glacier, almost as if it’s being tugged, and shatters into fragments as it plummets and explodes into the lake below. Spectacular. I watch for hours.

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That evening, back in Calafate, I return to Eduardo’s place and meet Anna, a couchsurfer from the Netherlands. We visit a bar together and Eduardo makes us Pho soup from scratch, and we talk into the night.

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14 January 2015:
12:47 – Eduardo, Anna, and Eduardo’s dog Blanquita drop me off just past a police checkpoint by the side of the road leading out of Calafate. There’s a depressing little pack of hitchhikers spread along the first fifty meters or so of gravel shoulder across from the welcome sign – mostly men in groups of two of three. This worries me a little – maybe this is a bad spot to hitchhike? – but I’m hoping that being blonde, female, and solo will give me an edge.

13:14 – one of the police officers ambles over to check my passport. We chitchat about Nevada while he makes some notes on a clipboard and asks my age and where I’m headed. He wishes me luck. I think about hitchhiking laws in the US, and how the hitchhiking culture is clearly different here if the police are actually keeping tabs on hitchhikers rather than arresting them.

14:02 – two men in a company van wave at me as they drive past, then continue down the road a few hundred meters and pull onto the shoulder. I walk the distance and hop in the back and meet Luis and Cesar. They’re men in their 50s working for a transportation company, and they tell me that they make the trip from Calafate to Chalten every day and always pick up hitchhikers, but they have to be out of sight of the police station when they do since the back of the van is an open floor – no seats or seat belts. I sit on my backpack and grin to myself as we settle in for the trip to Chalten. Success!

Luis drives and chats with me : he lived in Rio Grande for many years and remembers Ushuaia well, but he’s lived in Calafate for a long time working for this transpiration company. Cesar is quieter, mainly checking his watch and pouring endless cups of mate for the three of us.

14:36 – as we turn towards Chalten we stop to pick up Paolo, a hitchhiker from Brazil who’s traveling for three months on 100 US dollars and has hitchhiked from Brasilia all the way to Ushuaia. He’s a little skinny and road weary, but full of smiles and cool stories. He drifts off to sleep after we talk for a while, but I wake him up as we get closer – the views of the mountains are spectacular! Jagged, grey peaks loom above the low hills, tinged blue and fading into deep shadows where they overlap each other. Luis stops for a few minutes so Paolo and I can take pictures. They say it’s rare to see Fitz Roy so clearly from the road, normally it’s hidden in clouds.

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16:13 – we arrive in el Chalten. Luis and Cesar promise us rides back to ruta 40 if we need them and show us where they work when they’re in town. “Anything you need, just bang on the door and ask for us.”

18:26 – I start up the path toward Laguna Capri to meet Paolo, the Brazilian hitchhiker, who headed up here ahead of me. It’s a steep climb, but somebody loves this trail: clearly marked, clean, well supported and free from trash and overgrowth. It’s a dream. The sandy path weaves through tall grasses which quickly give way to shorter, hardier vegetation as I climb a little in elevation. Dusty, dry, yellow sand dotted with rocks. Clear, dry air. I can see clear across valleys when the trees open up, clear to hard granite peaks thrown into deep shadow by the afternoon sun, white patches of snow dotting the peaks.

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I reach Laguna Capri in an hour and a half and there’s Fitz Roy, a rounded granite monolith soaring above the treeline in the soft light of early evening. Paolo and I sit in silence for a while and take it in.

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15 January 2015
8:52 – The weather in Patagonia is famously changeable, so I don’t worry too much about the low clouds shrouding the mountains as I set out from my hostel on the edge of town. I work up a fine sweat as I climb up to Laguna Capri again, where I wake up Paolo and chat with an American couple I met back in Puerto Natales. Paolo’s moving slowly but we get going in an hour or so, headed to Laguna de los Tres where the views of Fitz Roy are supposed to be incredible. The trail is flat, clear, and well maintained, which I’m grateful for because it’s started raining and the wind has picked up. After Torres del Paine I’m fully prepared for rain and nothing in my backpack is going to get damaged, but it’s still miserable to hike when you’re wet and we’ve got about seven kilometers to go yet. Thankfully the showers clear after an hour or so and the famous Patagonian wind sets in. I’m dry in about 10 minutes and worried in another 10 when the wind knocks me over. I start to consider quitting the trail since it’s violently windy and getting worse, but the clouds are clearing and Paolo is doing fine and there are other hikers around, so we keep climbing.

It’s fierce wind on the way to the top, and a steep, nearly vertical rocky climb for the last kilometer. Fitz Roy is right there – impressive – but I can’t stand nor walk for the violence of the wind screaming over the mountain range. We have to crawl to peek over a ridge hiding the lake, and I stay behind a huge rock where the wind is merely terrifying, not intolerable. Just crouching there, I get exhausted from battling the gusts that buffet me from around the sides of the rock and the constant noise and the energy that’s howling around me. I can’t stay for more than a few minutes.

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It’s an exhausted, though warm and less windy hike that I take back to Capri where I say goodbye to Paolo, and back to my hostel in Chalten where I fall into my bunk.

16 January 2015
15:38 – I round a corner of a stony, barren hill and find a dusky turquoise lake with a perfect iceberg floating in the middle. At the western end of the lake rests the leading edge of a modest glacier flowing down from steep peaks above, slate-colored granite spikes tinged blue in the clear air. Snow and ice glisten in the calm sunlight.

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This is Laguna de los Tres. I was lucky with the weather today, clear, dry air, blue skies, warm sunshine, and I hiked much slower than normal to save my aching feet still complaining after yesterday’s walk. It’s really perfect weather, a perfect hike, and perfect views, which don’t make for a very interesting blog post but were a lovely experience.

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In the evening I visit friends at a hostel across “town” (chalten is tiny, only 12 blocks). I’m out late and have to hustle back to my hostel before they lock the doors at midnight.

I go to sleep a little anxious. Tomorrow I’ll attempt a long hitchhiking journey to el Bolson, 1300 kilometers north through some of the most deserted countryside in Argentina. I’m doing it solo and without a tent. I’m hoping it’s just a fun and crazy idea, not a dangerously stupid one.

Ushuaia: Day 3

2 January 2015:
9:23 – seven minutes until I’m supposed to meet Diego, a couchsurfer from Ushuaia whom I’m meeting for a hike today, and the bus company’s office still hasn’t opened. I’m going to have to leave to go meet him and return together to buy tickets for Puerto Natales.

10:15 – Diego and I wait for a while decide that the office isn’t open today. He very helpfully calls a few travel agencies around town who can make bus reservations, trying to help me plan a route to Puerto Natales in Chile tomorrow. One company in town has places available. On the walk over I tell him about changing my plans and heading to Puerto Natales in Chile instead of El Calafate in Argentina, and how a friend convinced to go to the Torres del Paine national park to hike. “Estoy emocionante!!” I’m excited!

11:24 – buying bus tickets has taken an unusually long time, so we ditch our original plans to hike a summit in the national park and decide to walk to the glacier closer to town instead. Along the way he tells me about his work in casinos and in the national park.

14:38 – we reach the bottom edge of the glacier, which is covered in snow and looks pretty much just like all the other patches of snow on the mountain. It’s been snowing for about half an hour and the wind is fierce. We’ve climbed 800 meters in the past couple of hours, staying warm with the effort but feeling the bite of the wind through our jackets when we stop for food or pictures. Ushuaia is bitterly cold today – only about 6 degrees centigrade. Though I dislike being cold in general, it feels kind of nice after about eight months of summer temperatures. Somehow it didn’t really feel like January before.

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The views of the mountains are beautiful. Wild, hardy mountain grasses and mosses line the ascent. The glacier begins just above the vegetation line. Further up, broad slate-line rocks cover the peaks of the mountains. When I turn around, I can see the majority of the town of Ushuaia and the bay laid out below.

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22:01 – I spend another slightly uncomfortable evening with my Couchsurfing hosts. We eat dinner together after a little while and I give them a thank you drawing, alfajores, and a magnet in the shape of Nevada as thank you presents. It’s a shame I never managed to connect with them, but I decide not to overthink it. Sometimes it’s just bad luck with Couchsurfing.

I’ll be up at 5 tomorrow to catch my bus to Puerto Natales.

Ushuaia: Day 2

1 January 2015:
14:20 – I pause to eat hard boiled eggs and raisins on a little stone wall holding up the trail. I can’t stay long – the wind is blowing now and even with my down jacket I get chilly quickly. As soon as I start moving again I’ll shed layers the way I did at the start of this hike, a walk of a few kilometers along the edge of a bay that extends into the Tierra del Fuego national park. I’m within sight of a clear, turquoise bay lined with little flowering bushes and a variety of trees – I think aspen or beech, mostly, and some firs. The dark earth is lightly covered in a bed of yellow oval-shaped leaves from the fall and dead branches. There’s not much undergrowth in the park so the woods have a pleasant open feeling.

My hands start to get numb and I move on. The lake I’m heading for is still a few kilometers away.

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14:45 – I’m waiting for the bus back to Ushuaia from the national park. While I wait I sketch the snow-capped mountains on the other side of the lake. A man stops and shyly asks if he can take a photo of my drawing.

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I’m loitering by the parking lot when I spot an enormous black bird of prey circling the lake with slow, powerful wingbeats. Its wingspan must be nearly two meters wide. Its head is white and after a few minutes I realize that what I thought was the sun shining on its back is actually white feathers lining its shoulders. It’s a condor – not a rare animal to see in the park but an exciting spot nonetheless. It circles majestically, and conveniently, in front of a peak called “el condor”. The bus arrives just as the bird disappears from view.

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23:56 – I’m walking back from the bar where I met a friend from the states to get some advice on hiking Torres del Paine. The sun has just barely set, and the sky is still light in the west – it’s nearly midnight! The longest day of the year was just a couple of weeks ago and there are only a few hours of true darkness at this time of year.

Back at my host’s house, I’m a little uncomfortable again. Couchsurfing is often a gamble : sometimes you connect and make a friend for life, other times it’s just a bit awkward or unremarkable. I’m still surprised at how very difficult it is for me to converse with my hosts. All three of them work in the tourist industry in Ushuaia, so I thought it would be easy for us to talk, especially as my Spanish is steadily improving, and I assume they’re used to talking to foreigners – but I can barely understand them when they talk to me and not at all when they talk to each other. There’s a skill to knowing how to slow down, speak clearly, and use short sentences when you talk to someone who’s not fluent in your language, and for whatever reason, these guys don’t have that skill. I don’t blame them for it, though it does surprise me. Maybe they’ve never hosted someone who doesn’t speak Spanish well before. In any case, our interactions are strained and awkward. I do my best to be a good guest in spite of the language barrier.