Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Road Less Traveled

Sunrise in Río Grande When I began this trip, I decided that I wanted to visit smaller towns, talk to locals, and get to know the culture, the things that tourists don't really do. Well, thus far, I've been only partly successful. Staying at hostels, I've spoken mostly English since taking three weeks of Spanish lessons in Buenos Aires. Also, you don't meet too many locals at hostels. At the rate I've been going, I will never learn the language past a first-grade level. Something had to change.

I figured that if I'm stuck in a vehicle for hours on end with a local, I'll have no choice but to practice the ol' Español, unlike hanging out in a hostel or riding on a bus, where I can speak English or just not speak. Besides, 99% of travelers down here take buses everywhere, and I like being different. So, starting last Friday, I began hitchhiking. My first goal is Ushuaia to Santiago—fifteen-hundred miles, as the crow flies, and probably closer to two-thousand the way the Jaybird flies. I outlined my first jaunt, which took me from Ushuaia to Río Grande in another post, so I won't rehash that here, but let me tell you about the rest of my first leg, which took me from Ushuaia to El Calafate.

Hitchhiking, Day 2

Sunrise in Río Grande Leopoldo had told me to get up early and show up at YPF, the local gas station where cars and—more importantly—semis fill up in Río Grande. There, I could catch a ride with a trucker going to Río Gallegos. The lady at the hostel verified what he said, so I got up at an ungodly hour, and, for the first time on my trip, I saw the sunrise—it was almost exactly 9:00 A.M when its nearly six-thousand-degree-Kelvin surface peeked out over the Atlantic. The guy at the station said that I was too early. The truckers leave between 10:00 A.M. and 11:00 A.M., so, since I wasn't in a hurry, I just shot the sunrise for a few minutes.

I was standing near a truck that had probably a dozen cars on it, parked next to the VW dealer, across the street from the gas station. The driver got out of the truck to go into the cafe, and, as he passed, he made some comment to me about taking photos. I just smiled and nodded, as though I knew what he said.

After shooting the sun for a bit, I went into the cafe at the gas station to get something for breakfast while I waited. That cafe would become my best friend. When the friendly truck driver left the cafe, I pursued him outside. He was friendly before, so I figured I'd hit him up for a ride. He had driven the cars down from Buenos Aires for delivery here, to Río Grande, so he had to go all the way back to Buenos Aires, right through Río Gallegos—perfect. He told me he had to unload the cars and do some paperwork, but if I wanted to wait, I could go with him at 12:00 or 12:30. That sounded good to me, so I headed back into the cafe to read for a while. He told me he would have to swing into the station to fill up before leaving, so I couldn't miss him.

Reading a book in the YPF in Río GrandeJust past noon, I walked out to his truck to check in. He updated me on the situation. The paperwork was delayed and he wouldn't roll until 3:00 or 4:00. No problem, I still had over one-hundred pages left to read in my current book, Best Travel Writing 2006, so I went back inside and kept reading. I also ordered lunch—the beauty of being stuck in a cafe all day. To top it all off, the cafe had WiFi, so I did some work on my laptop—check mail, edit photos, surf, all the usual stuff.

I couldn't see his truck from the cafe, as it was obscured by the Volkswagen dealership, and not wanting to get left behind, I went out of the cafe at about 3:40 to get an angle where I could apprise the situation—i.e., make sure he was still there. The problem is that, to see something, there has to be some mass to reflect the photons of light, and, in this case, there was no such object. Photons were bouncing off the dealership, off rocks and gravel, off people, but not off of an empty car-carrying semi. I had just wasted six hours of my day sitting in a cafe. No problem. Could've been worse. If I'd been standing out in the freezing rain for six hours, then I would've really been annoyed. I was still rather annoyed. I will not quote myself here.

At this point, I walked up to a truck in which were sitting two caballeros. There was no trailer behind the tractor—they were probably just waiting for a load of products. Keep in mind, Río Grande is an industrial city. The government waived taxes in this province, so business here has boomed. I asked them what is the best way to hitchhike out of here. He said I should walk down the road a ways to the roundabout and go from there. That's the edge of town and everyone who leaves goes that way. I thought that sounded like a brilliant idea, so I set out.

I bumped into a girl walking along the sidewalk when I got near the roundabout and stopped her to verify that what I was up to was on target. She pointed out that there was another roundabout another ten minutes ahead and that was probably the one I wanted, so I continued.

Once I arrived, I decided that must be the spot, so I dropped my bags and stuck out my thumb. Within about twenty minutes, a pickup stopped and I asked if he was going to Río Gallegos. He said some stuff I didn't understand and waved for me to get in. I tried to make sure he was going to Río Gallegos, but he just waved me in. I threw my bag in the back of his pickup and got into the cab with my shoulder bag.

Jose Torres, born just over a half century ago, works in the petroleum industry for a French company called Total and was on the job. I didn't get exactly what he was doing at the time, but he was headed north, so I didn't really care too much. On the street, Jose wouldn't strike you as a genius, but he did own four homes and rented them out—one in Punta Arenas, Chile, and the other three in Río Grande. Jose moved from Chile, where he was born, decades ago for work here in the bustling industrial capitol of Tierra del Fuego Province. He was headed to the first of four borders on the way to Río Gallegos, where he apparently had some petroleum related business. He would drop me off at the border where it would be easy for me to get a ride with a truck. Sounded good to me.

Jose was almost impossible to understand. He talked fast and his enunciation was horrible—at least to a foreigner just learning the language. His Spanish was the craziest I had heard yet.

About half-way into the brief one-hour drive, Jose pulled over. I wondered if this was the part where he killed me and dumped my body after emptying my pockets. He walked around back. I figured he was just making sure my backpack was secure, but he didn't touch it. He took a big plastic bag out of the bed of his truck and set it on the ground next to the right rear wheel. He then took a few small cardboard boxes and other items out of his bed and stuck them in the bag—the bag had already been almost full. A couple cars drove by. Jose stood there. For a second, it looked like he was faking taking a leak, just to throw off the passersby. After the cars had sped past, he walked back around to his door, got in, and we left, the bag sitting on the side of the road behind us. I didn't ask.

We arrived at the border and I thanked Jose for the lift. I went inside the usual customs building and handed my passport to the border agent. No problem. Then I went back outside to wait for my next ride. Trucks and cars came trickling through. After asking probably a half-dozen truckers if they had room for a passenger and being rejected, I asked the border guard who was outside what the deal was. All the trucks had empty passenger seats. He explained to me that the companies insured only the drivers and if there were an accident and the passenger were killed, the families could sue the driver. The drivers had a reasonable aversion to carrying strangers.

Thankfully, a younger driver pulled in and I convinced him to take me. I explained to him that I had been asking drivers to take me and had kept getting "no" as an answer, despite the trucks having free passenger seats. He told me that we probably wouldn't make it to Río Gallegos that night because the border crossings close at 11:00 P.M. I said that wasn't a problem, because at least I'd be on my way to Río Gallegos.

I was excited to be moving again and to be in the cab of a big truck for the first time—it's a nice view from up there. Diego, like Jose, was tough to understand. When speaking to Leonardo, if I didn't understand something, he would repeat it and even use alternate words that I would be more likely to comprehend, besides the fact that he spoke more slowly and intelligibly—I think he knew that he had to speak on a lower level to be able to communicate with me. Leonardo and I discussed the presidential race in the U.S., the weather, and some topics about local things. With Jose, and now with Diego, I was a bit lost—the conversations were much more limited. I did catch a few things, however. Diego has been driving trucks for seven years. He lives in Buenos Aires in a house with his wife and his daughter, who just turned one only days before. He also listens to all kinds of music. He introduced me to some new Latin music. I'm always after a new album for my Latin music collection, and now I'll be picking up a few more.

The drive between Río Grande, Argentina and Río Gallegos, Argentina, is a tough one. Here's the sequence: cross the Argentina border, drive a short distance, cross the Chile border, drive on rough dirt and gravel road for a couple hours (in Chile now), hit pavement (finally!) and drive a while longer, stop and wait for the ferry, get on ferry for forty-five minutes, drive some more, cross Chile border, drive a short distance, cross Argentina border, drive another hour. Voilà! You're in Río Gallegos! Keep in mind, I did this same thing in the opposite direction in a big tour bus when going to Ushuaia from Puerto Natales.

That's the easy way to do it. The hard way is showing up at the second-to-the-last border crossing after 11:00 P.M. Since Diego and I left the first border crossing around 7:00 P.M., we didn't make it to the one after the ferry until late—they were closed. This despite the fact that Diego is a bit more aggressive than the other truckers—we were zipping around sharp corners on a washboarded, dirt road, and we passed several other trucks (I must admit that for a good part of the trip on the dirt, I was contemplating jack-knifing in the back of my mind).

For a trucker, showing up after the border is closed isn't a big deal. They just park, crawl into the sleeper, pull a blanket over themselves and sleep until around 8:45 the next morning so they're ready to get their passport stamped when the office opens at 9:00. In my case, I sat in the passenger seat for about eight hours and nearly froze to death. On the upside, I did get to listen to Ricardo Arjona's album Quién dijo Ayer about fifty times, as Diego likes to let the stereo play quietly while he sleeps. Thankfully, I really liked it, so that helped pass the time. I swore never again to allow myself to endure such discomfort and bitingly cold temperatures. It was a long, miserable, sleepless night.

Hitchhiking, Day 3

Stopped just shy of Río Gallegos by protestorsWe made it through the border checkpoints with no problem and were rolling along nicely when we saw smoke in the distance and vehicles parked on the highway. I thought there had been a bad accident, but soon discovered that it was merely petroleum workers protesting low wages. In the States, workers who want more money either go to the boss and simply ask or do this thing called striking where none of the workers shows up for work until their company agrees to increase their wages. In Argentina, the workers simply pile old tires across the road and block traffic. Then, they scatter other tires along the side of the road and set them on fire, creating trails of black smoke stretching across the countryside for miles—a very effective technique for getting your company to increase your pay, I'm sure. The problem was, I'm not sure where their payroll department was—probably at work. Interestingly, the police didn't do anything about the roadblock. Two cops in bright orange vests were just pacing back and forth near the scene.

Diego boiling some water for his mateDiego took this opportunity to light his gas stove—in the cab of the truck—to boil himself some hot water for his mate. He didn't use a traditional gourd, but I guess that's secondary. Also, for the first time, I saw someone take their yerba—the plant used for mate, think coffee grounds—from a sealed pouch not unlike that in which coffee comes. Although I hadn't seen it before, I suspect this is a common way to buy one's yerba.

A disgruntled motorist protesting the protestors near Río GallegosBefore long, the protestors decided to allow traffic through. I was anxious to see if I could make it to El Calafate today, so I was relieved to get rolling again. Diego dropped me off partway into town and said I should—what else—look for a ride at a gas station/cafe where trucks were filling up. I offered to buy Diego breakfast, but he declined. I think he just wanted to boogie. I thanked him, grabbed my bags, and hopped out of the tall cab to the concrete far below. He pulled away and I walked across the road to the station. I asked a couple truckers there about getting a ride. They said the best thing to do would be to wait at the police checkpoint on the outskirts of town. This worked before, so it sounded like a good idea.

Looking for my next rideI went to the bathroom, got a quick bite to eat, and set off down the road. After maybe a kilometer, there was a shoulder where cars could pull over, so I began to exercise my thumb. One guy pulled over and gave me a ride about a kilometer. That was one step closer to the checkpoint. The problem was that the trucker had told me that the checkpoint was about twenty klicks away—I still had a ways to go before even getting started—and El Calafate was 300 kilometers away.

I was getting on a roll. It didn't take long for someone else to pull over—a family of four in an old Ford pickup truck. The husband told me they were going part way to El Calafate—about half way, as it turned out—and would be willing either to drop me at the police checkpoint or to take me as far as they were going. He said it was a tossup as to which would be better. Based on my new philosophy of going as far as possible whenever possible, I decided to go for it. He said it would be about a one-hour ride.

My ride from Río GallegosMy memory is short. After a few hours of riding in the back of this pickup truck, I was frozen virtually as solid as an ice cube. My feet were numb. My thighs were numb. I couldn't take it anymore. I was about to jump. I kid you not. Hopefully, my end would be a quick one. I had to keep reminding myself that the longer we drove, the closer I got to my destination. Again, there's a sunny lining in every cloud—or at least in some of them. In this case, the old Ford had problems. Not long after we started out, a long line of cars formed behind us. I figured we were just following someone who was driving slowly—I was facing the rear, so it wasn't immediately apparent to me what the deal was. After a semi passed us, I turned around and saw that we were the slow car in front.

Every so often, this old pickup would slow down for no apparent reason, almost like it had just run out of gas. Then, once it was about to come to a complete stop, it accelerated and kept plodding along, like nothing had happened. After maybe a half hour, we pulled over. The man got out of the truck, grabbed a combination wrench out of his toolkit in the bed, walked around to the front, popped the hood, and began to fiddle. I could hear the idle changing. I guess he had just improved something. Not sure.

My room in La EsperanzaWe set out again. After another twenty minutes, or so, we climbed into some hills. Toward the top, the truck began to give up the ghost. This time it wasn't going to be able to keep going. He pulled it off onto the shoulder just before we came to a complete stop, the engine resting in silence. I was elated. I could stand up and get the blood flowing in my extremities again. I could arrange my body so the sun was striking it. Hopefully, I could thaw out some before we continued. After we were parked on the shoulder, the husband tried restarting the engine—no dice. I wondered if it was flooded.

The husband stepped out of the cab, grabbed his toolbox out of the bed and walked forward again, popping the hood, and fiddling with the engine for a few minutes. Then he tried restarting it. As the engine cranked, I wondered if it would start before the battery died. Before that terrible moment came, he quit trying. He stepped out of the cab again, but this time crawled under the bed and began—well, I figured he was removing the fuel filter to clean it out. Just a guess. Whatever it was, it must've worked—or the flooded engine had had time to recuperate on its own. Regardless of the reason, on the next attempt, the engine came back to life. Great! Now I get to freeze again!

Back on the road, headed West, more freezing, more anticipation of the end, nay, longing for the end.

I know this will come as a shock, but, after a nice long run of probably a half hour, the truck sputtered and we pulled over yet again.

The kind Argentine señor opened his door and came around to the back of the truck, to the passenger side this time, reached into the bed, and pulled a bottle of Coke out of a plastic bag that had been next to where I was sitting. He passed it into the cab to his wife. She put her hand out the window a minute later and handed me a sandwich she had just made—ham and cheese. The bread tasted fresh. The sandwich was followed by a plastic child's cup filled with my favorite beverage. I thanked her profusely.

I paced back and forth in the bed over a distance of a mere few steps, but it felt good to move. I almost spilled the Coke due to the fact that I was shaking. After I finished the sandwich and Coke, I hopped out of the bed onto terra firma, hoping my abused legs wouldn't collapse under me. I returned the empty cup to the wife, thanked her again, and declined a refill. Hands in pockets, I took this chance to walk around a bit more and thaw as much as possible before resuming the torture.

I asked the husband how much farther—twenty kilometers, said he. Remember, he had said this trip would be about an hour. I desperately hoped his estimating had improved over the last two hours.

Within about a half hour, we arrived in La Esperanza—an aptly named destination, considering my condition. I thanked the husband and wife for everything they had done. He said the gas station—YPF—would be a good spot to find a ride. After spending only a few minutes there, I decided I would be better off walking about half a klick to the road leaving the tiny town in the direction of El Calafate. By this time, I had warmed up, but after about an hour of looking for a lift, I was getting cold again, despite the fact that the sun was out. I decided enough was enough.

I walked back to the few buildings defining the town center. I had hoped one of them was a hotel, and it was. My plan was to take a hot shower, get some dinner, and get a good night's sleep. I had one to make up.

After getting a room, I cranked up the gas heater and crawled into bed with all my clothes on. I would wait for the room temp to rise to a comfortable level before showering. It was 5:30 P.M. Although I woke up a couple times, I was pretty much in a coma until 10:30. I got up then and walked over to the restaurant that was a part of the hotel—the restaurant and rooms were in three different buildings. I went back to my room with a sandwich and bottle of Coke and worked on my computer until about 1:15 A.M. A shower could wait until morning.

Hitchhiking, Day 4

El Calafate, Lake Argentina, the Andes I got up at around 9:00, not wanting to get too terribly late a start, while potential rides came and went. After a wonderful shower, I packed my bag, paid for my room, and headed back to my spot. Within only twenty minutes, or so, a small Peugeot pulled over. The driver got out while still on his cell phone. In between words, he asked, "El Calafate?" I replied in the affirmative. He had to throw a thing or two into the hatchback space from the back seat to make room for my backpack. There was an older man in the passenger seat, so I got in back. Within sixty seconds, we were rolling.

After he got off the phone, I thanked him for the ride. He lived in El Calafate, and, not surprisingly, worked in the tourism industry—El Calafate is, after all, merely a launching point for exploring a small section of the Andes, specifically Perito Moreno glacier in Los Glaciares National Park.

This particular hitchhiking segment was interesting because it had been quite cold during the night and the roads had ice on them. We passed two vehicles that were no longer on the road. One, a pickup truck, had rolled and was upside down next to the road. The other, a mid-size van was also on the side of the road. It didn't appear damaged, but did appear to have involuntarily left the roadway based on its location. What makes this interesting is that we had been driving at about 170 kph. In English, that's just over 100 mph. Although his Peugeot seemed to handle quite well, I was still concerned about making it to El Calafate.

After passing the second vehicle off to the side, we slowed down some. I felt a bit better about matters then.

Perito Moreno glacier in Los Glaciares National Park, near El Calafate, Argentina Long story short, we made it to El Calafate, all bodies in tact. We dropped off the old guy, I hopped in front, then we drove to another part of town, and parked near what I presume was the driver's work place. He pointed me toward a building only a hundred meters away, or so, and told me I could get information on hostels there. I guess he knew what kind of place I wanted to stay in!

The people at the info center gave me a map and marked it with several dots. I specifically had asked for a hostel that had WiFi. The first place I went to was expensive, didn't come with breakfast, and didn't have WiFi. I walked probably less than a kilometer to another place. By now, I was toasty, as my pack is heavy, and I'm fat and out of shape. I walked into America del Sur Hostel and asked if they had WiFi. I told the gal at the front desk—Mariana—that's all I cared about. She told me that they do have WiFi. She then added that the price is $3,000.

In reality, the price is only 30 pesos—about $10—and includes breakfast. They also have WiFi, my main prerequisite. It's a very nice hostel and has an incredible view over Lake Argentina and the Andes. The staff is wonderful—both knowledgeable and super nice. I highly recommend this hostel if you're coming to El Calafate.

The End, Hitchhiking, Phase One

Sunset over the Andes, as viewed from the hostel, America del Sur Well, I did it. I made it alive and in one piece—albeit a bit the worse for wear—from Ushuaia to El Calafate a dedo (by finger). After a freezing night in a semi and a couple freezing cold hours in the back of a Ford, I now have a cold. I'm coughing and my nose is running. I've been taking it pretty easy here, sleeping in some, and just trying to get some extra rest—at least aside from going on a little trek out on Perito Moreno yesterday. I think I'm getting a bit better now, and am preparing to leave for El Chalten. My first hitchhiking exploit was a success and I look forward to continuing the push toward my first big goal—Santiago. Wish me luck!


Anonymous said...


Sounds like a blast. I am leaving for Peru next Wed and am quite excited. Thanks for all the tips a few weeks back. I will be in Chile by mid July and have 10 days extra to kill after my friends leave and was toying with either heading South or going to BA. I know heading South would be hard but your hitchhiking is making me think it may be more doable although it would be more in the dead of winter.

Good luck


Jay said...


If you like cold, snow, and winter in general, go ahead and go south. Otherwise, go to BA.


Abhijeeet Thacker said...


Your hitchhiking reminded me of my college days, where me and my frnds would stick out thumbs for rides to nearby city. And this kind of hitchhiking is lot of fun