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A dedo [Verb]: By thumb, hitchhiking to Patagonia

Hitchhiking is more than a way to avoid transportation expenses while surrendering to chance. ‘Thumbing it’ is also a guaranteed way to encounter colorful individuals, as you visit far-off places and ruminate what you would not appreciate otherwise. That, or a shortcut to the front page of lurid newspapers.

Looking for a fair share of all those things hitchhiking offers, minus the fifteen minutes of goreish fame, Kris and I decided to thumb it from Cordoba to El Bolson. Travelling by way of Mendoza and turning South on the National Route 40; a massive stretch of road that runs between Ushuaia in the far South of Argentina and the Bolivian border, parallel to the Andes Range.

On a rainy Wednesday afternoon, still hungover and with the bare essentials jam-packed, we left a friend’s apartment in downtown Cordoba. Catching a municipal bus heading to Rio Tercero, a small town some 50 kms South West, we made it just in time before rain glutted the city.

As we finished a cheese sandwich and started to taste the road, Juan pulled over in his eighteen wheeler and offered us an overnight ride to Mendoza Capital. In exchange, we offered good conversation and the promise to remain silent if his wife called. She did. Several times. A truck-load of Coke, and us, made it to the Land of Malbec just in time for breakfast. So far, so good.

Overcast and chilly, with the view of Aconcagua temporarily turned off, we still loved both days spent in Mendoza. I had the constant feeling of being in my hometown of Bogota, but the clean streets and the friendly people quickly reminded me I wasn’t. We hope to return one day with enough time for a wine binge.

Well rested and hoping to get lucky again we started heading South. Leaving the urban sprawl was a bitch, but eventually we made it to road. Upon our first contact with Route 40 we felt rickety. Several lanes going each way, heavy traffic flying by, menacing rain, and a feeling of inadequacy took over. So we walked it off for a while until Marta, a scuba diver who had her share of travelling around, dragged us about 1o kms down the road where she reckoned we had a better chance getting a ride.

A little more walking and our morale got stronger at the sight of no city around us. Soon after, Ernesto picked us up in his bus turned veggie hauler, fed us the best tangerines I’ve eaten in a long time and dropped us some 100 kms down the road at his turn off. He was more excited than us throughout
the ride.

Five minutes later we got a five minute ride, short enough to not exchange many words, but long enough to drop us in front of a bus station. Given the conjunction, we inquired about the options, and not long after we jumped on a bus cheating 250 kms, making it to San Rafael just before midnight.

The following day started with a short walk, before long Jose pulled over; turns out that after a bad poker night he decided to drive around until his wife had to go to work. Judging by the amount that he lost, smart money says his testes are hanging on a different place than they did that morning. You lose, we profit. For fifteen minutes or so. All the best Jose.

A short ride with little conversation and all of a sudden we found ourselves legging it through an uninhabited stretch of road South of San Rafael. The sun was going at us strong and maybe that’s what softened Marcelo’s heart. He quickly took us to Malargue to the beat of Soda Stereo (The Argentinean version of The Cure).

Malargue is the last town in the Mendoza province as you head South along Route 40, it is also where the last chunk of pavement decays. Getting out of there was easy, ten minutes later we had reached the bridge over the river on the outskirts of town, the one where teenagers go to smoke and make out. Yes, we saw you guys.

At this point, the view of the Andes was clear and intense, the air was certainly different. After some lazy walking we had a three ride streak, all of them trucks, all of them zoomed through the nothingness of the desert that every so often was interrupted by the zig-zagging Rio Grande and the sporadic sight of a green haven hacienda fenced in by middle-aged poplar trees.

Following our last drop off, we walked half an hour more and then called it a day. The sun was already hiding behind the mountain, signaling the urgency for us to stop thinking about a potential ride.

Things are never the same when you experience them from the safety of a bubble. During that afternoon of rides we witnessed a beautiful landscape, and that was it, but that night we camped, unwittingly in the most humbling landscape I have seen this trip. I would have enough time to find out the following day as we walked it for a little over six hours.

The valley was shaped by one thousand volcanoes that patiently wait for those violent instants that will reshape the land space. At times, the road is indistinguishable from the surroundings. Half the time the entire valley is covered by 2 metres of snow, perhaps explaining why no one bothers to pave it, the other half is faithfully cooked by an eternal midday sun. The place was so depopulated that we could smell a human or a tribe of goats 15 minutes before we actually got to see one.

The river is funneled through massive, smooth rock formations where waves of lava intersected it’s path, to then let it spread across the land and then be funneled again. The sound made by the water as it flows through changing causeways is the constant soundtrack that prevented obliviousness.

We walked the valley during Argentinean mother’s day Sunday. It was clear to us that roads would be as busy as the fridge of an anorexic. Not having the numbers on our side made casting-a-hapless-face-as-we-walk through-the-desert seem like the soundest strategy for the day, and it wasn’t like we needed much effort to employ it.

Altogether ten cars drove through the route that day. Four of them in our direction, the first three of those were pick-up trucks carrying a bunch of empty space in the back. Loosing faith in humanity had not been that easy since I first heard of chastity belts, to then regain it twice in the space of five minutes. The ninth car, travelling in the opposite direction, stopped and gave us a bottle of Sprite, which we were still guzzling when a familiar face caught up with us.

Marcelo, after arbitrarily extending his break from work, kept driving South from Malargue, all the way to San Martin de los Andes. This second ride with him added a bit over five hundred kilometers to his charitable effort. We had enough time to find out enough about him, and to establish that we genuinely liked the guy, as if picking us up twice wasn’t enough. Marcelo, we look forward to a gig of the only Depeche Mode tribute band in Argentina!

Our brief stay in San Martin de los Andes was a cultural shock, over previous days we had grown accustomed to scabbing around, usually dealing with simple folk, and having few alternatives in shops or restaurants; all of a sudden we found ourselves in what some refer to as the Saint Moritz of the South, we didn’t stay long.

From one day to the next the scenery had changed from desolated desert to fjordish looking lakes, Kris couldn’t stop reminiscing about her trip to Alaska. I couldn’t stop shivering and smelling like a pauper who hadn’t showered throughout the course of several physically active days. But we were close. So close in fact, that we decided to stop hitching rides, after all, it didn’t seem like the sort of place where brotherly love spreads.

After two scenic bus rides, one to San Carlos de Bariloche, and from there to El Bolson, we finally made it. Our first impression of our new temporary home would have to wait a day or so to be made. A long hot shower followed by slumber were the only priorities. We landed in a place called ‘El Rincon del Sol’, where high-pressure showers and monastic silence week seemed to be celebrated. We where the only guests and for very little money enjoyed two lazy days before playing farmers again.

Our journey was 2,073km long, instead of the 1,600km on the road that goes straight from Cordoba. Altogether we spent AR$460 (US$120). On the bus, the bill would have rounded out to AR$1500 (US$375) and 36 hours of travel time. Two return airfares would have been US$550. You could say that we picked the most inefficient path to reach our destination, nonetheless, it was the most effective way to fulfill our whims.

Regardless of how much we savored the trip, I don’t think we will be doing something similar in the near future as we plan our return North to BA from Patagonia. After all, a cheap train runs between Bariloche and Buenos Aires, bar 300km between Viedma and Bahia Blanca, a couple of towns along the Atlantic coast. Which reminds me of the questions that tormented me throughout the trip: Why are bus tickets so expensive? It should be noted that plane tickets can be cheaper on some routes, and just a little extra in the others. And, being such a flat country, with tens of thousands of previously laid railways, why are there so few lines freighting, servicing locals, and the growing influx of tourists?

Well, if you really want to know, don’t take my answers as valid, they are merely speculations, and never ask a local, unless you want to reawaken someone’s depressive feelings.

As for the buses, there is very little competition amongst bus lines, each region is serviced by many operators who are usually owned by the same parent company. Parent companies in turn have to deal with high payroll demands from unionized workers, making bus drivers earn more than school teachers. And because the vehicles are Brazilian made, the owners have to pay extra as the value of the Real soars.

Since the government nationalized Aerolineas Argentinas, big subsidies started flowing the Airline’s way, placing the airfares at an all-time low; other airlines lowered their prices as well. So if plane tickets are so cheap, then why do 90% of local travellers still go by bus? Well, airlines reach about forty destinations and a dozen others with less frequency, bus lines on the other hand reach more than four thousand towns, and doing a plane-bus combination trip would defeat the purpose of travelling on the cheap.

So why isn’t the train the way to go? The short answer rhymes with Carlos Menem (I know, I will not utter those words again). The long answer rhymes with the railroad system fumbling, for more than a century, back and forth between foreign interests, the federal government, and business organisations as they all try to snatch it from each other and/or try to rid themselves from it when it serves them best.

Foreign interests wanted it to freight resources to the port, and for the major contracts a railway system entails. The government wants it to boost popularity, or dumps it when cronyism beckons, or shuts it down when the new foreign interest wants to sell cars and build highways. Cronies want it when subsidies are good and labour laws are unenforceable, and want to lose it when the heat is on.

Throughout the last 150 years more than 100,000 kms of railways were laid. Until the late nineteen eighties 50,000 kms of railways serviced a good chunk of this nation. Thousands of towns sprawled along the lines, to then die of hunger and boredom, but mostly hunger as the train system was sold off or stolen by bits, and apparently the contract for the Transpatagonian line has been gathering dust for quite a few decades in someone’s desk.

A handful of long-distance lines still run, all of them from Buenos Aires to major cities. We already did BA to Cordoba and expect to do a couple more on our way back to BA, and one to Tucuman. If they are still running you can expect us to tell you all about it, otherwise we’ll give another go at those prospective fifteen minutes of goreish fame.

I guess I have ranted enough. If you decide to be a scab like us and hit the the road, all I can recommend is to pack a map, tent, food, water, books, fire making items, and good conversation for your benefactors. Also, check these websites. You will get more tips and insights than the most level-headed version of me could ever give you:
The wikipedia of hitchhikers
Hospitality exchanges
The couchsurf of rides


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There are 4 Comments to "A dedo [Verb]: By thumb, hitchhiking to Patagonia"

  • Link to BA Expats: A dedo [Verb]: By thumb, hitchhiking [South America on a budget] Bought to you by Dodgy -a scabs guide. Hitchhiking is more […]

  • Link to America Today: Read more from the original source: A dedo [Verb]: By thumb, hitchhiking – South America on a budget

  • Thom says:

    Hola boludos 😉

    I just read your story about your hitching trip. Me and a friend of me a thinking about doing the same from Bariloche all the way to El Calafate as we don’t have money to hire a car… Now I hitchhiked before in Europe (3500km) and that was really easy, however I’m not sure how it’s in Argentina and then especially the south as there is not much traffic probably. It took you about 4 days right?

    What do think. Will it be possible (we have about 2 weeks).

    Gracias por tu respuesta y un buen viaje!!!


  • sporks says:

    Hola Thom,

    Thanks for you message. Two weeks should be enough time to cover the distance between Bariloche and El Calafate, depending on how long you want to stay in each town. Although Route 40 is not too transited, your edge on that leg of the road relies on Chilean truckers that use Argentinean roads in order to service cities in the South of Chile (A truck going to Puerto Natales would take you all the way), and holidaymakers that visit the glaciers during the summer.

    Remember to pack extra food, and a quirky sign would help you lots.

    Best of luck, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the views.


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