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Hitchhiking Across the Argentine Patagonia

A loud clattering noise followed by the sound of a sputtering engine roused me from the middle of a dream, and for a moment I couldn’t tell if I was still dreaming or awake when my brother told me that our bus just broke down.  As I regained my senses, I noticed we were pulled off to the side of a small gravel road at an awkward angle in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere. Rocky hills and windswept plains as far as the eye could see.  Brown and grey dust swirled around outside and filtered in through the open windows on this hot summer day in early February.  I could hear the bus driver mumbling curse words under his breath in Spanish as he began to usher people off the old bus.

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  *Portion of the road we traveled and broke down on through Patagonia

In the very southern portion of Argentina lies a vast expanse of open steppe, semi-arid desert, and mountains with glaciers and crystal clear lakes, that together make up the very large and sparsely populated region known as Patagonia.  My younger brother Travis and I were backpacking from the southern tip of Argentina all the way up to the lake country around Bariloche some 2000 km to the North.  We had departed earlier that morning from the small town of El Calafate, which is very close to the famous and incredibly beautiful Perito Moreno Glacier.  We were still many uncomfortable and bumpy hours by bus from El Chalten, a frontier town at the base of the great peaks of Mt. Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre.  These mountains are within the boundaries of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, and are home to numerous trekking trails, mountain climbing adventures, and some of the world’s most difficult rock climbing routes. That was our next destination.

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 *The peaks of Mount Fitz Roy. Southern Argentina. 

Unfortunately for all of us there was no radio on the bus to signal the headquarters we broke down, and anyone that had a cell phone didn’t get any service out in the remote region that we were stuck in.  There might only be a couple of cars passing by over the course of the whole day.  To make matters worse it was very hot out, the bus driver was not helpful, and some people did not have that much water with them. The next bus would be coming through in about 24 hours, which seemed like an eternity to wait. I thought to myself as the bus driver assured me we would all get on that bus,  “Our bus was full, if the next bus is completely full, which is likely this time of year, then there is no way everyone is going to fit, so then what?”  While my mind was busy calculating our odds and time frame for getting out of there, my thoughts were busy picturing 40 people swarming to board the next day’s bus as it pulled up completely full of people, with luggage piled high on the roof of one of the smaller old and beat up minibuses that the charter company uses, which probably was only meant to hold 25 people.  It was at that point that I decided we opt for plan B.

In talking with some other passengers, I learned that there was a junction with another busier road some 20 miles ahead, where there was a decent chance to stop a car and catch a ride somewhere. All the while Travis was pulling on my sleeve demanding to know what was being said since he didn’t speak Spanish.  I was desperately trying to keep up with the fast-spoken and uniquely accented Argentine Spanish; far different from the Mexican Spanish I was used to speaking and hearing at home in Chicago. Plan B was put into effect – Travis and I were going to walk up to that intersection in hopes of stopping a car.

We gathered our belongings, made sure we had adequate water, and started walking up the road, knowing we had daylight until about 10:45pm and plenty of time to cover the distance before nightfall. As the heat beat down on us, we kept walking, making pretty good time. We were being conservative with our water consumption and covered our heads with t-shirts turned into turban-like headwear to avoid too much exposure to the burning sun.  Finally, after about six long hours, dusty and sunburned, we made it to the intersection I was told about. I saw the other road was paved and cracked a smile at Travis as if somehow we had found a pot of gold.

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*Sun setting over the Patagonia

The real treasure was meeting Juan Alvarez and his family after I stood in the middle of the road, waving my arms in every direction, and practically forcing them to stop their old station wagon. They were from Buenos Aires on a long driving holiday and wound up driving us about 100 miles up the road, in the general direction we needed to go!  I got to speak with them and learn about their family and home while Travis periodically tapped my shoulder to ask me what in the world we were talking about.  They dropped us at a little wayside restaurant/motel before they turned off the main road heading north since we were going to find our way east from this point. Travis told me he hadn’t been so hungry in all of his life and that the small empanadas he ate there were his best meal of the trip.

After collecting ourselves overnight at the wayside restaurant/motel Café Perez, named after the owner, good fortune struck again the next morning. This time in the form of an old German couple and one other man heading to El Chalten, driving what had to be the smallest car I had ever seen.  It took me about half an hour and the promise of some lager beers once we reached town to convince them Travis and I could squeeze in the back seat with our packs, and that the car wouldn’t bottom out all the time on these bumpy and poorly maintained roads with all our extra weight. After ten hours on very rough dirt roads, creeping along like a snail, packed in the back seat so tight that we practically lost all circulation in our legs, heavy packs sitting on our laps the whole time, and sweating to death, we finally arrived in El Chalten. I learned later that the people left stranded on the bus made it in the day after us.

I look back at the route we took to get to El Chalten and it’s certainly not the easiest or most direct way, but one we will always remember.  That experience helped to further solidify my bond with my younger brother, and we both look back on that incident and the whole trip as a wonderful experience we had together.  Travis and I had just as much adventure getting to El Chalten’s famous mountains as we did camping and hiking in them.

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*Travis

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*Both of us after a climb

Please visit my website Erik’s Adventures (www.eriksadventures.com) or email me at erik@eriksadventures.com to learn about some of our trips, look at some great photos, or to ask any questions. Thanks!

 

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