As soon as I returned to Argentina from Uruguay, I was eager to hit the road and head south to Patagonia. After a night bus from Buenos Aires to Bahia Blanca, I was ready to hitchhike south. I was on my way out of the town with a cardboard sign that read “Puerto Madryn”. Luckily, a trucker saw me and offered me a ride after walking for only 2o minutes or so. He was carrying medical oxygen to the hospital there, and I was welcome to join him.
For 8 hours we drove south through the pampas of Argentina; a flat prairie-like landscape that reminded me very much of Kansas and the east half of Colorado, except this went on for much much longer. I tried talking to him, but he refused to speak slowly, and would get kind of frustrated when I didn’t understand him. So in the end, we just listened to music, my iPod for the first 3 hours or so, then his for the rest. After 8 hours, he decided to call it a night, stopping in a little town called Sierra Grande, literally in the middle of nowhere. That night, he slept in the truck while I found a cheap hotel close by. After being on the road for 2 days, I was more than grateful for a room to myself, WiFi, and a hot shower.
By 8 a.m. the next morning, we were sharing a mate and leaving Sierra Grande behind. 2 hours later, we rolled into Puerto Madryn and said our goodbyes. I made my slow lumbering way to a hostel I had found in my guidebook. For the record, traveling with 2 backpacks is less than ideal, but I made it just fine to Chepatagonia, a cute, comfortable hostel 100 feet from the water. There I met a temporary travel companion who was willing to tour the town with me. That day, we tried to think of the best way to see everything on a budget, but since neither of us could drive a manual car, we were limited to renting bikes from the hostel since the tours through agencies were outrageously expensive.
So the next morning we headed out around 9 a.m. to see if we could spot some sea lions, but no luck. At least we had gorgeous weather and a scenic ride.
Once back at the hostel, we grabbed a quick catnap before our afternoon excursion along the north coast. We biked a rough 14 kilometers over mostly gravel roads, fighting the busy traffic and loose gravel most of the way. Finally we made it to the beach entrance. As we walked our bikes through the sand, I spotted the first whale! It was such a breathtaking moment, I couldn’t believe they were really there. Deep down I had been afraid that they wouldn’t show up like the sea lions, but my fears were soon put to rest as we counted at least a dozen just beneath the surface, feeding.
There was a whole pod of Southern Right Whales, and they were close enough to the shore that I could have swam out and touched them. If the water wasn’t ice cold I probably would have. We could hear their breaths each time they surfaced for air, and even watched a baby flip flop around the water close to his mother. I couldn’t stop smiling; the moment was downright magical.
Eventually the sun set and the temperature dropped, so we got back on the bikes and fought the gravel until we found pavement again. I felt like the day deserved to end on a good note, so we went and splurged a bit on dinner. I got an amazing seafood stew and an Argentinian stout to go with it, then called it a night.
The next morning we decided to take a quick cheap bus ($4 USD) to the little town of Trelew, who’s only claim to fame is an amazing museum with unique dinosaur skeletons. Being the dinosaur geek that I am, I had to check it out, and I was not disappointed.
They boast an amazing Gigantasaurus skeleton, along with several other impressive ones from land and sea.
The jawbones laying in the photo on the right were taller than I were, belonging to some massive prehistoric shark.
After I was finished exploring the museum, I began my very long walk to the outskirts of town where I was hoping to find another free ride. I carried my little cardboard sign that said “Sur”, or south, in Spanish. Eventually I made it to the YPF gas station on the side of the main highway. After treating myself to a hearty lunch and some WiFi, I walked outside to start asking for rides. Once again I was lucky to find a trucker within minutes. He was headed to Ushuaia, so I agreed to go along for the ride.
His name was Michael, and apparently he was or had been an undercover cop. I struggled to understand his Argentinian accent as well. For the letters “ll” and “y” they make a “sh” sound instead of the customary “y” sound. I didn’t understand a lot of what he said, but I did find out pretty fast that he disliked Chileans and had been raised in military school, something he was very proud of.
For 3 days and 2 nights we traveled together. Sometimes it was convenient to have his police status. There are cop checkpoints on the outskirts of every city, and the majority of them had me get down from the truck so they could check my passport and grill me on how old I was, where we were coming from and where we were going. I slept in the cab of his truck both nights as there were no hotels within a few miles of where we stopped, and I was unable to camp on the parking lots of the gas stations. He slept in his regular bunk, and had a spare mattress for me. He uses it for when one of his sons goes on a road trip with him. I was definitely uncomfortable; I slept with my knife in my pocket, but nothing ever happened and I was fine. The last morning I found out he was not actually going to Ushuaia, but Rio Grande, a small town 4 hours north of Ushuaia. This was somewhat irksome as I didn’t know how I would make it the rest of the way, and I didn’t know why he didn’t tell me that in the beginning.
By the third day, I was impatient to be on my way and away from Michael. Even in another language I could tell he was a womanizer, and would complain to me about the different ones he had in different places, saying they were crazy, and why did he deal with them in the first place. But the one thing I was done with was his arrogant attitude toward Chileans. As a rule, Argentinians maintain a certain level of disdain towards Chileans, but Chile does not return the animosity. At the Chile border crossing above the island of Tierra del Fuego, he was a complete jerk to the immigration officer for no reason, and thought it was hilarious, voice messaging all of his friends about how funny he thought it was. As we disembarked off the ferry, he waved back and said goodbye to the “Chilean bitches”. Apparently it didn’t matter that I had lived there for 6 months, and that I had told him more than once how much I loved the country. Needless to say, when the opportunity came, I was very glad to leave him behind.
Michael had stopped to help another trucker who seemed to be having tire issues. One thing I found interesting was the community the truckers had amongst each other. They were constantly greeting each other as they passed on the road, and when one needed help, they all stopped to lend a hand. There were 3 other truckers already helping, and one of them was actually headed all the way into Ushuaia that night. So I gratefully changed trucks. My new driver was much kinder, and I understood his Spanish much better as his father was from Chile.
By the time we made it to the mountain pass, the sun had long set, and the sky had cleared. The pampas had mercifully ended, and I was so happy to be surrounded by mountains again. There was a full moon that night, and it reflected brightly off of the snow on the peaks, making them glow. It was so beautiful my eyes watered a little. I didn’t even try to get a picture, unfortunately my camera was nowhere near good enough to capture the amazing beauty of that drive.
By 11 p.m. I was checking into my hostel, Cruz del Sur, or the Southern Cross, named after the famous constellation that can only be found in the southern hemisphere. It’s a warm cozy place that was filled with interesting people from all around the world. My Spanish (or maybe my acting) had improved enough to make some friends from Argentina and Mexico. Luckily the Brazilians all spoke English, as did the French nurse, and a guy from Israel who had a bunch of questions for me about life in the United States these days. We bonded over a midnight asado (barbecue) of steak and choripan, a kind of sausage.
My first morning there, Thursday October 6, I set out to see the Martial glacier. It’s only about a 5 hour round trip from the hostel. When I set out, it was raining lightly, but I was surprised to find that it really wasn’t that cold. As I continued to ascend, the rain slowly turned to snow. But I was too hot to wear my hat, and my wet hair quickly froze and got heavier as I continued on.
The snow really started to come down as I climbed the final hill, and I thought I may have to turn back in case there was a bad snowstorm coming. Thankfully, it was nothing serious, and I made it all the way to the top. Only to find that I couldn’t see the glacier at all whatsoever. The clouds were right above me, and there were even some below; I couldn’t see more than 1,000 feet down towards the town, it was all just a smoky gray.
On the way down I decided to stop at the base of the first hill where there was a touristy little village, complete with a tea house. I warmed up for about an hour with some coffee and a medialuna, or a croissant. When I left the restaurant, the sky had completely cleared, and the sun was shining. I was a little bummed that I had missed the view by 45 minutes or so, but was okay with it in the end as it was a small glacier, and at least I had a beautiful walk back down to town.
I relaxed in the hostel the rest of the night since the rain started again. The next morning I was up early and ready to explore the national park. It was free before October 15, which officially marked the beginning of the high season. However, I did have to pay 500 Argentinian pesos ($29) for a round trip ticket in and out of the park.
For 4 hours I walked through the trails and braved the stiff breeze coming off of the water from the bay and the lake. There were gorgeous views everywhere you looked.
That night we had our barbecue where I said goodbye, as my bus to Punta Arenas left at 8 a.m. the next morning. I was so excited to take a bus, where I wasn’t forced to attempt poorly bilingual conversation and I could read my book in peace. It took me a long 12 hours, but I was so happy to be back in Chile again.