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.
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.