•May 26, 2011 • Leave a Comment

I left Valparaiso quickly. I had no intention of repeating the long, meandering walk that had started my time there. So, at the base of my funicular car ride, I grabbed a taxi blaring Santana and happily watched while my driver cursed and swerved his way toward the bus station.

There was a bus immediately leaving for Santiago and I jumped on it with a kind of excitement that only comes when you have made no preparatory efforts for your travels and things just fall into place. Just 40 minutes after I had left my hostel, I was underway.

Santiago is a big city; the largest in Chile and the biggest place I had been since I had passed through Buenos Aires some 4 months before. I knew it was large enough that I could find all of the corporate comforts of home, including Starbucks, but I was hesitant to make those trips. Experience has taught me that giving into those temptations is to begin to end your trip prematurely, and I wasn’t ready for that.

I found my hostel with some effort, again wandering for too long before giving up and asking for directions. I managed to get a single, private room overlooking the small streets of the Bella Vista neighborhood. This particular neighborhood is the bohemian, hipster, cool kid hangout of Santiago. Every nook and cranny is filled with a restaurant, bar, art gallery or hostel. Each building was painted a unique and vibrant color, beckoning passersby to trust that their establishment is unique and special in some way. But the fact that every facade was trying to be special in the same way only proved that in reality, none of them were special; though many of them were very good. In the daytime the atmosphere was exceedingly relaxed. Later, I found out the reason.

The nightlife in Bella Vista starts at 10 pm and ends at never. With windows open to fight the heat, I cannot recall a time when I woke up and didn’t hear the drunken banter of dozens of couples walking by. Bella Vista was the place to be, unless you wanted to sleep.

Not terribly excited by the nightlife, I took advantage of the days strolling through the city’s streets, parks and hills. In doing so, I discovered Santiago’s perfection as a walking city. Wide park boulevards give you the option of walking for great distances downtown, without ever leaving the shade of a tree. Random hills are not obstacles but opportunities to explore castles and fortresses overwhelmed by dense hanging gardens.

Santiago is like a dusty, antique radio which you could easily value for aesthetic purposes alone, its stone architecture blending easily with glass skyscrapers. But, when you plug it in you discover that it still works; that underneath its classic—albeit grimy—facade is a well functioning machine. The buses were frequent and on-time. Underground, an exceptionally intuitive subway system carried passengers to the farthest reaches of the city. Downtown, every fifth street was completely cut off to traffic, allowing for a wide pedestrian boulevard filled with food vendors, street performers, bums and businessmen. Roomy bike lanes were clearly painted on both sides of every avenue and traffic cops monitored the busier, more confusing intersections. Santiago was efficient and modern without compromising originality, romantic charm or pure unadulterated lust.

On nearly every park bench, under trees, in restaurants, at bus stops and subway stations were couples smooching, making out, dry humping and grab-assing. These were not merely horny teenagers or unabashed lovers with nowhere to go, these were average citizens. I would see couples dining in restaurants I could not afford one minute and those same couples romping in the park an hour later. Where couples were not united, there were cat calls and jeers to nearly every woman on the street. The passion continued in other ways as well. In over 4 months, I had not seen a single fight but in Santiago I saw 3 different skirmishes. The food was spicier, the cars drove faster, the dogs were more aggressive. Perhaps I was simply noticing the pace of a big city, but Santiago felt more passionate, raw and emotional than any other city I had been to. It was a change I was not fully prepared for and I started looking for places that would offer a slight reprieve from the madness.

Of Santiago’s hills, Cerro Santa Lucia is probably the most famous. It is the highest point within the city and is crowned with a large statue of Santa Lucia, church and of course, a zoo. More importantly, it was close to my hostel. I went early and caught the first funicular ride up the hill, getting off halfway up to tour the zoo. As far as zoos go, it was pretty poor. Many of the cages were simply empty, the walkways were dirty, information signs rare and security fairly lax. At several of the ‘bird exhibits’, half of the specimens were sitting on nearby benches eating french fries and hot dog buns. But, its saving grace were the displays of domestic animals. The guanacos, nandas and hares that I had seen so often on my road trip were present in droves. And, because these were domestic animals, there were no crowds to fight with. For a Chilean, looking at a guanaco would be the American equivalent of checking out a deer. Ironically, the zoo did have a deer exhibit. It was packed.

I continued up the hill to the statue and the supposedly spectacular view. I was particular excited for the view because Santiago is set in one of the most recognizable and unique environments in the world. Shoved tight against the Andes, on a clear day you can see snowy peaks in nearly every direction. But, in the summer when pollution lingers, the view suffers. When I reached the top and looked out, all I could see was a dull, greyish brown band near the horizon. I was disappointed, but not surprised. Luckily there were a few souvenir stands with vibrant postcards that depicted what the view could look like on a perfect day. It looked pretty good. I headed back to the funicular station and climbed into a waiting car.

As I descended, I looked out over the city and imagined all that was beyond. The Atacama Desert, Ecuador and Peru to the north, the Pacific ocean and Easter island to the west, Argentina just over the Andes to the east. So many places to explore, I could carry on for years and never visit the same place twice. But as the car came down, I realized that I was too. I was tired. Tired of moving, tired of living in a three way struggle between survival, work and vacation. Tired of the bruises and raw skin that came from carrying far too much luggage.

The car stopped and the passengers piled out. Back to their cars and buses which would take them to homes, families and friends. I envied them, so close to the important things. I have come a long way and could go farther, but there is only one destination on my mind now. It’s time to come home.


Somewhere Beyond the Sea

•May 11, 2011 • 1 Comment

There are some cities that have no feel. Urban growths which lack charm, flavor, smell or any characteristic that is memorable or distinct. Other cities inspire themes. The common hum of industrial centers, the crisp smell of mountain hamlets or the bright neon jungles of a fast moving metropolis. Finally, there are those rare places that evoke their own feeling. Their colors, shapes and lines seem completely original and therefore, incredibly refreshing.

Puerto Montt had been a themed city for me. The salty air, boulevards of seafood restaurants and armies of seagulls reminded me of nearly every port town I have ever been in. It was nice, but familiar. Moving on from Puerto Montt left me in Valparaiso, another long important port town southwest of Santiago and while it shared many of the features common to all ports, it was immediately apparent that the city was a member of the third category, a wholly new place waiting to be explored.

Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Valparaiso has been a popular tourist destination in Chile for decades. Its dozens of hills fence the shore and support hundreds of thousands of tiny houses, apartments, shacks and lean-to’s and each structure is painted in vibrant shades of red, purple, blue, green or orange so that what might normally be a street of boring facades is made into an architectural garden, with graffiti instead of wildflowers.

After a long, meandering walk from the bus station I checked into a small bed and breakfast run by a very elderly woman and her husband. I had chosen this particular location because it was at the peak of Valparaiso’s historic district, where the streets wander like errant streams and nearly every other building houses either a cafe, restaurant or art gallery. What I didn’t expect to find was the rooftop terrace that was constantly unattended, leaving me to take in 360 degree views of the city and its port. It was from this vantage point that I took in Valparaiso. I passed the time focusing on small sections of the city, watching them like different episodes of the same tv show, each with a new plot and characters. In some episodes there were funicular cars, the impossibly steep rail cars that provide access to the various hilltops throughout the city. The car to my section of the city is the oldest, built at the turn of the century and riding it is exactly as exhilarating as you might expect. A 100 year old wooden box being tugged up a track at a near vertical angle. Let’s just say I rode it only as often as was strictly necessary. Between funicular track’s iron dividers I could make out schoolyards, almost always filled with children playing soccer, fruit stands, live jazz bands, traffic jams and love struck couples. Thousands of stories packed neatly among rainbows of concrete and rusting steel.

Then there was the port which seemed startlingly bare compared to the overloaded city streets, but provided an equally engrossing story. Drab battleships sat in a motionless line, their grey hulls only interrupted by the bright orange lifeboats, worn like earrings near the bridge. All around them were tiny tugs and tinier inflatables, dragging long white tails as they moved around the dark blue water. Large trade ships eased into their respective slips at incredibly slow speeds. Staring straight at them, they appeared to never move, but if I turned away for a few minutes I would find that they had moved halfway across the port. I watched until the sun set and then until all natural light was gone and the once colorful mosaic of Valparaiso illuminated under the yellow electric glow of millions of street lamps and bare porch bulbs.

I left the terrace and a very large empty bottle of beer to go in search of dinner, which wasn’t difficult considering how many restaurants are packed into my part of the city. Within a few minutes, I found a well occupied cafe with live music and ordered a steak and more beer. The music was good and the food was better, but I didn’t linger. I don’t like eating alone in restaurants and the friendly atmosphere made it feel all the lonelier.

For the next few days, my schedule remained the same. Evening sessions on the terrace, quick good meals, absent minded walks through the streets and frequent cat naps when the sun grew too hot. It was the sort of lifestyle that is completely unproductive, but feels unmistakably natural. It was too easy and I enjoyed every minute. But, travel is not travel unless you move and I could only stay in Valparaiso for so long. I had roamed quiet city streets for months and was ready to get back to some real civilization. Santiago is just an hour away and I feel ready for some noise.

The Young Man and the Sea

•May 1, 2011 • 1 Comment

Puerto Montt, Chile’s last call for ships heading around Cape Horn to Argentina and beyond. Tucked up into a deep, protected bay, this port town has been an incredibly viable refueling station for boats heading around South America. Now, the town’s aqualture industry is exploding, mainly in salmon. There are dozens of hatcheries, canneries and processing plants along the industrial shore of this Patagonian port, each involved in some part of the process to catch a lot of fish and send it somewhere else. It’s not pretty, but Puerto Montt’s grittier personality was a refreshing switch from the tourist trap circuit.

I woke up to a gray, drizzly morning, the kind of weather friends and family back home in Seattle have been bitching about for the last 4 months. The cynical side of my accepted it as typical weather for the day I planned to spend walking about Puerto Montt’s historic Angelmo district, trying to find the best plate of seafood available. But, the rain and salty air felt a bit homey and I struck out in good spirits.

Angelmo is the city’s older seafront district, which basically translates to ‘gift shop center’. When I got there, around 11 in the morning, most shops were closed, not yet open to the tourist masses that must congregate here at some point in the day. Those that were open were extremely typical; each one selling items identical to the shop next to it, making everything seem ordinary and undesirable. Puerto Montt inscribed stocking caps, key rings, coffee mugs and necklaces, all fluttering in the early afternoon wind, all guarded over by the same middle aged women, all uninteresting, and all not selling.

At the end of the gift shop gauntlet was a series of buildings, many with second levels connected to each other by catwalks and to the ground by a series of suspiciously rundown staircases. On the bottom floors were the fish monger stalls, where the day’s catch was cleaned and sold either to the public, or to the dozens of restaurants occupying the second floor. The parking lot was nearly empty, but the mosaic of broken clam and mussels shells alluded to a flurry of shellfish activity.

I had come at an awkward time. Most of the fisherman had not yet returned with the morning’s catch and restaurant owners were busy wiping down tables, anxiously awaiting the day’s products. I chose to wait until something more exciting happened, passing the time reading by the water. I found it hard to read, not because reading is difficult, but because I was constantly distracted by a new boat coming in, a sea lion coming up for air, or a cormorant surfacing after a surprisingly long dive for the little fish that flocked around the sea wall.

Eventually, enough boats had returned and the smells of cooking drifted down to where I was sitting. Though still not terribly hungry, I was excited to eat and decided to have lunch. When I returned to the maze of restaurants, it was a whole new experience. Though the men had finished bringing in their own catch, it was now their female counterparts, the owners of the restaurants who were casting their nets. At each closet sized establishment, I was accosted by women asking me if I wanted to eat. It was like walking through a gauntlet of concerned mothers. “You want to eat? Look at you, you’re skin and bones! Come on inside, it’s nice and warm”.

I chose the place that had the most people in it. In most cases, the locals know where the best food is served, and I trusted them. I ordered the curanto because the lady suggested it and I had heard from others that it was the most famous dish in Puerto Montt, served by nearly every restaurant, but perfected by only a handful. I knew it was some combination of meat and seafood, but wasn’t really sure about the details. It started off innocent enough, with a small basket of bread, a tiny pisco sour, the national cocktail of Chile, some fresh salsa and a cold beer. By the time the curanto arrived, I was nearly full, but it didn’t matter. Even if I had starved myself for days, I could not have mustered the appetite necessary to overcome the aquatic genocide presented to me.

On a serving platter that you might normally reserve for Thanksgiving turkeys was a mountain of food. Mussels, clams and unidentified fish made up the girth of the plate, but there was also about half a chicken, a very large piece of ham, a full sausage, two potatoes and a few slices of incredibly dense fried bread. Speaking in relative terms, I believe the cook considered the chicken leg to be garnish.

I didn’t even say thank you when the waitress brought it out. I merely groaned and put my head in my hands.

The next 45 minutes were filled with a sick pleasure only possible with eating too much good food. It was hot, it was fresh, and the atmosphere was perfect. My seat right next to the window, looking out onto the boats which had undoubtedly brought in the very mussels I was now enjoying, only an hour or so before.

In pain, but extremely satisfied, I crawled back to the city center to kill the few hours I had before my bus left. An immense, shiny building near the waterfront peaked my interest, so I decided to investigate. It turned out to be a mall and I soon became lost inside. At least there were some familiar sites; a McDonald’s, KFC and Pizza Hut took their place alongside their domestic competition. I was disappointed to see that the KFC did not offer the irrefutably American “Double Down” sandwich, but was pleased to find that Chilean McDonald’s renamed the Big n’Tasty to the McNifica, which I think we can all agree, is a much better name. Eventually, I found my way out of the mall and back to the bus station on time. I rolled out at 7 o’clock for an overnight to Valparaiso and the proper coast of Chile.

Chapter 2

•April 27, 2011 • 2 Comments

The end was not as dramatic as we might have expected, or feared or maybe even hoped for. Indy and I spent days fantasizing about an explosive finish, exchanging blows with a smug rental car agent, getting arrested and becoming national heroes. In the end, it didn’t happen but it did teach us a few tricks about how to return a rental car with a long history of domestic abuse, outlined below.

  1. Return the car the night before it is due. This not only confirms your disgust for the car, but it confuses the rental agency. Any misdirection you can instigate is beneficial.
  2. Wait until it is dark outside before meeting with the agency. If possible, choose a time when it might also be raining. Dark, wet conditions discourage agents from spending too much time noticing things, like a one-inch rock gash in the window, or the mud caked and blown out, spare tire.
  3. Park the car away from the rental agency so that you have to lead the agent to the car. This way, you can force the agent to approach the car from the side which has fewer window cracks and scraped bumpers.
  4. Pray that the agent doesn’t actually attempt to start the car, because when if it doesn’t, your chances of getting reimbursed for costly repairs are greatly minimized
  5. Settle up on money and abscond as quickly as possible, preferable into a large crowd.
  6. Call your bank immediately and place a temporary hold on your credit card so that the rental agency cannot charge you for any damages they soon discover.
  7. Leave the country.

Our return to Bariloche was fueled by spite and characterized by high speeds. We attempted to enjoy a two day stop in El Bolson, but concern over the car seemed to seep into our thoughts at all times and ruin what would have otherwise been very enjoyable moments. Beer seemed flat, empanadas were dry, prices high and weather was miserable. The town was nothing like the sunny, hipster paradise it had appeared to be when we had passed through on our way south, just a week before. A never ending rainstorm flooded the streets and for two days we long jumped around town, trying to stay dry in spite of the ever rising urban streams.

Saturday was our final day of driving and we struck out early, anxious to eat up the last hour and a half of incarceration in our German engineered, rolling prison. We buzzed by roadside food stands and scenic viewpoints, once again avoiding turning off the car for fear of it never starting again. Whether it was necessary I will never know, but we did finally make it, checked into a smoky hotel and waited for darkness to fall so we could return the car.

Miguel, the rental agent, met us around 7:30 and performed a delightfully perfunctory check of the vehicle, failing to notice the blown tire, rock chips and cough riddled start. I spent 20 minutes arguing with him about refunds for days lost while Indy passively, but deliberately, blocked Miguel from exiting the car. Eventually, Miguel and I agreed to a simple reimbursement for only the repairs. He seemed equally and oppositely frustrated with the whole deal but when I left, I think we both felt that we had gotten away with something. Us with the rock chips, failing engine and blown tire and him, with our refund. Perhaps justice is found not when things are correct, but when all parities involved feel equally screwed.

Indy and I then had a few days in Bariloche to catch up on souvenir shopping and conclude our trip. On the surface, we had failed in nearly every aspect of the trip. But, I think we both know that the experience we received was truly unique and will someday be a far better story. For me it was the conclusion of more than a two week road trip.

I said goodbye to my Argentine home with final stops at favorite restaurants, park benches, happy hours and public bathrooms. The last 24 hours went by very quickly and this morning I was on a bus out of Bariloche, waving goodbye to Indy who would take a later bus to Buenos Aires, followed by a set of plane rides home. The sun was rising on the new day, but fog obscured my view in such a way that Bariloche disappeared before I was ready to turn away. Leaving my little place in Argentina left me wondering if and when I would ever return. The prospect of a permanent goodbye to a place that begin to feel like home made the morning unexpectedly challenging.

At present, a new chapter begins with Chile, starting in Puerto Montt. The few hours I have spent in the streets so far have revealed a pulsing city. Rosy faced women hawking knock off Puma bags face off against loose lipped food vendors frying dense breads and grilling choripan sausages. The plinking sounds of ramshackle gambling houses collect with piles of tumbleweed garbage and suspect electrical work at every corner. It’s messy and loud and wonderful.

The empty, family-sized bag of nacho cheese Doritos at the foot of my sagging bed has committed me to devoting tomorrow to an exploration of seafood and all things maritime. After that, my plans lie north. Only time will tell how far. For now, a toast to Argentina for everything it was and a challenge to Chile for everything it might be.

The Great Escape

•April 22, 2011 • 1 Comment

Hell is a delightfully appointed town. It has chocolate shops, pizzerias, cafes, bars, campgrounds, hotels and hostels. It has tourist information centers, adventure travel agencies and gift shops galore. In the fall the cypress trees along its main avenue change a color of yellow so vibrant they appear as giant flames from some massive underground candles and their leaves fall like so many sparks, scattering among the groves of cobbled walkways. Across the town’s lake, snowy peaks poke through oncoming storms and massive glaciers shed thunderous tons of ice as if they were dandruff. El Calafate reeks of postcard Patagonia, but when a failed rental car leaves you stranded in a lonely campground for 3 days, very little of that matters.

After getting a new battery in Rio Gallegos, we excitedly drove on to El Calafate to explore the famous Perito Moreno Glacier and hopefully, press on to Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. We arrived as the sun was setting and everything seemed perfect. The sky was saturated in stereotypical shades of lavender and rose and the wind had died down enough to make the temperature outside seem slightly less than cold. So high were our spirits that we decided to sleep in the municipal campground and spend our money elsewhere. In other words, eat a lot of food. We started at a local cafe, ordering coffees with fresh whipped cream and little biscuits, then moved on to a highly recommended local restaurant for cauldrons of lamb stew and cheap wine. It was spectacular.

By the end of the night, we were almost excited to sleep, tucked into fetal positions on the hard seats of the little Volkswagen Gol. But, in what has become the theme of this trip, at the turn of a key our hopes were dashed. We merely wanted to charge the car with heat before tucking in for the night, but the car refused to start. With a battery barely 24 hours old, we knew it must be something more serious. After looking under the hood and finding nothing, which was not surprising, we retired in the cold car, dreading the coming day.

Because it was Sunday, no mechanics were working. Instead we set about making arrangements for Monday. Because neither Indy or I have the vocabulary to describe complex mechanical problems, our first goal was to befriend a bilingual speaker and force them to translate our troubles the next day. I attempted phone calls to friends in Bariloche to no avail. We went to the tourist office and found agents who spoke very little English and met other travelers in the campground who were just as useless as we were. At length, we managed to find two contacts: Derek, the deeply gay gift shop owner who held us captive in his store regaling us with stories of his time in New Hampshire, and Guadalupe, an agent with a local tourist company that books trips to nearby national parks. Both seemed willing to help and arranged to meet us at a later time. Both failed to show up at the planned times and could not be found, leaving us no farther ahead when we woke up the following morning, Monday.

Our biggest fear with the car was an inadequate repair job. There were obviously serious electrical issues, but we had trouble convincing mechanics. When presented with a non-starting car, a typical mechanic would help us push it until it roared to life, then smile in a very satisfied manner, close the hood and shake our hands. We would try to explain that the car was not fixed, but pointing to a running car and repeating, “No working, no working!” would only garner confused looks from the mechanic. I imagine them thinking, “These gringos are insane! The car is obviously working, the engine is running and the lights are on. What else could they possibly want?” It was this distinction which were not confident in explaining. That a running car is not necessarily a problem free car. We were especially concerned because the rental car company was far less than helpful when we attempted to contact them for advice, leaving us with the chore of making responsible mechanical decisions to get the car back to Bariloche with minimal compromises in cost and mechanical afflictions.

Desperate, I walked into the Argentinean equivalent of Jiffy Lube and started ranting about problems with a rental car, possibly with the alternator. The chief lube technician seemed interested and made a few phone calls, but there were no answers. I had all but given up when his phone rang. It was one of the mechanics who had neglected to answer just a few moments before. Lube chief handed me the phone and I rained down Spanish on the poor mechanic at the other end. With no sentence structure, a few choice curse words, and the high pitched voice of someone who is on the very cusp of falling into complete dementia I explained the problems. When I was done I heard him say very simply “Where are you?….Ok, I will be there in 5 minutes”. I couldn’t believe it, but sure enough 5 U.S. minutes later (equal to 35 Argentine minutes), two mechanics showed up, one of which even spoke a little English.

I had typed a long winded explanation of the progression of mechanical failures and translated it using an online service. Juan and Ruben, the mechanics, read this explanation carefully, poked around a bit and then towed our car away. Shocked by the prospect of finding two competent mechanics, we realized how many questions had gone unanswered, and how many precautions had not been taken. They weren’t sure what the problem was, we only had their first names and one cell phone number, we had no idea where the car was and were given a very vague idea of when it might be returned. In short, we were left in the parking lot of the campground with a slip of paper and our coats. We didn’t even have the foresight to take our bags out of the car.

For two days we moved between hostels and campground, trying to get messages from Juan and Ruben about the car. Translated by the camp host, the messages were usually the same, “Car not ready. Soon. It ok. You ok. Be calm. Stop calling.” We called them quite a bit.

Nervous about the possible costs of a replacement alternator, Indy and I lived on the cusp of complete poverty and nervous breakdowns. We ate lots of bread, drank a completely inadequate supply of wine and tried to distract ourselves with trips to the lake and a very overpriced museum which did manage to produce a big paper mache T-Rex head, some sort of prehistoric super-bear skeleton and a very informative video on Patagonian history.

Finally, we got a message that the car was ready. In fact, Juan would be dropping it off in 30 minutes. An hour and a half later, Juan showed up, right on time. Not only was the problem fixed, he had also cleaned the car, previously caked with mud from our failed attempt at Ruta 40, and silenced the squealing serpentine belt which had plagued us with the notion that the car was broken, even when it seemed to be running strong. What’s more, the total was only 150 bucks, infinitely less expensive than what we had thought. For those interested, the diagnosis was a faulty voltage regulator.

We jumped in the car and zoomed to the gas station for a quick fill up before heading out. At the last moment, we decided to stop by the campground for a quick photo op. In our ecstasy, the past few days seemed to be nothing more than an amusing story, filled with the delightful misadventures of travel. The car, sensing our vulnerability and thin veil of optimism, immediately started billowing dense white smoke from under the hood, as soon as we pulled into the campground. I nearly went blind.

People often describe seeing red when enraged or pushed over the edge. I saw only a dull gray color. My mind had simply clicked off, so destroyed that it moved far beyond anger and into a comfortable coma of insanity. Unfortunately, my bliss lasted only a few seconds before we opened the hood. Luckily, the problem was simple. The coolant cap had not been screwed down all the way. It was a bittersweet fix. We were happy to be able to fix the car ourselves, but a little worried that a mechanic supposedly qualified to rebuild an alternator, had failed to notice it. Either way, the smoke had stopped and it was time to go.

We blasted out of Calafate, eager to get back to Bariloche, some 2000 kilometers away, so we could drive our piece of shit car through the front window of the rental car agency, possibly killing everyone inside and ourselves in the process. But Bariloche was too far away to reach in one evening. At midnight we pulled into Puerto San Julian, the coastal town we had visited a few days prior. The night went by without incident. A slightly creepy hostel, a pill-sized shower and some much needed sleep.

The next morning, we topped off the coolant after noticing it to be a little low and set for Esquel. The rental car company had curiously chosen Esquel to be the limit of the “free roadside assistance anywhere” program, so we figured on heading there, assuming it was only a matter of time before the car bent us over again.

The drive was long and uneventful. It’s amazing what good time you can make when you refuse to stop or shut the car off for fear it will never start again. We shot through Caleta Olivia, a major industrial hub, Comodoro Rivadavia, the Argentine Riviera, and a majority of the country’s heartland, where the lack of tourist destinations encourage large oil drilling fields and massive municipal waste facilities. At the cost of a few picturesque photo opportunities, three hares, one bird and an armadillo, we hit Esquel in record time, rolling in at around 10 in the evening.

We greedily ate raviolis at a local, fake Irish pub, not caring that we had been conned by the restaurant and their policy of placing pastas and sauces as two separate items. In other words, pasta only costs 5 dollars but tomato sauce costs 6 dollars. Also, tomato sauce is required. Afterward, we made a quick stop at a fantastically creepy old hotel bar. It was extremely dark, had lots of candles, fireplaces and wrought iron. Ancient farm implements which seemed all too capable of doubling as torture devices hung from the walls or sat in piles in corners. But the highlight was the route to the bathroom, through a lofty wooden ballroom where every surface was covered with mirrors. Going to take a leak has never been so surprisingly fun, spooky, or frustrating, especially when you stride across the floor and slam into a wall merely reflecting the bathroom entrance.

The next day, we planned to do some souvenir shopping around Esquel, but a worryingly labored car start had us on the road very quickly. Heading north, we decided to take the road less traveled, through the National Alerce Park. The Alerce is a tree which, of course, only grows in this area of the world and is spectacular for a great number of reasons, many of which are not very spectacular. It’s major contributions include growing only one centimeter every 20 years, its capability to live for over 4000 years and its striking similarity to the giant sequoias in northern California. In other words, it’s basically a large tree.

Because of exceptionally cloudy, wet weather, the park had very little to offer in terms of things to see, especially when coming over a shallow pass completely socked in with fog. Based on the pictures contained in our free park brochure, I can tell you with absolute confidence it was probably breathtaking. The real treat however, was just north of the Alerce park. The one location we had intended to visit from the very beginning stages of planning this trip.

In the late 1800’s, a pair of notorious train and bank robbers were plaguing the American west. After nearly two decades of offenses they fled, with a female accomplice, to South America. Their plans were to live it straight; running a simple ranch off the remains of their loot. They arrived in Argentina through Buenos Aires on a steamship that had departed from New York.

It was 1901 and Argentina was practically begging immigrants to come. The country’s burgeoning industries and millions of acres of land needed to be settled. So desperate was the government that it offered free land to anyone who would settle there. So, in late 1901, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, along with Ethel Place, built a log cabin on 15,000 acres of free grazing land, set among the foothills of the Andes, in a small town called Cholila.

Years ago, their log cabin and the few surrounding buildings were nearly collapsed but a private investor stepped in to prop them back up, with minimal alternations. Today, there is no museum, no tours and no souvenir shops, but with a little internet research, it’s not too hard to find. Around noon, we pulled up at the end of a long gravel driveway hopped a low fence and walked into the former, and only known remaining residence of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

There was no one else around and we were able to enter all the buildings. The floors were bare, some shelves still clung to the walls, but the only item we could find was an old gas can, which Indy not so cleverly discovered using his lighter. It was odd to be in a place which seemed to hold so much history, but had been largely neglected by the tourist industry. I expected to find an animatronic Cassidy cleaning a gun, perhaps a table with a big pile of fake money and a looped audio recording of their exploits. But it was simply deserted, empty of anything that might link the pair to the rooms we walked through. In fact, the only seemingly unique quality among the cabins was their construction method; overlapping stacked log walls which are common among cabins in North America, but never seen in South America. We spent perhaps 30 minutes wandering around as the rain poured down, looking out from the doorway at the miserable weather and wondering if Butch had stood in that same spot, looking at equally terrible weather, glad to have even a temporary respite from the troubles that followed him everywhere he went.

In 1905, the law caught up with Butch and Sundance. They fled north, but only made it to Bolivia, where they were gunned down. Like them, we also fled the ranch, afraid of the responsibilities and consequences of driving our rental car nearly anywhere.

Just outside the property, the tire went flat. I’m not even sure we discussed what needed to be done. We simply obeyed the will of the car, stepped into the thick mud, pouring rain and blasting wind, removed the problem wheel and slapped on a spare. All in all, we were stopped for less than 5 minutes before we continued on. Like our fugitive predecessors, we headed north, to the safety of El Bolson, just shy of Bariloche. Hopefully, our story will turn out better.

Yes We Can

•April 16, 2011 • 2 Comments

We should have seen it coming. The trip was going too well. Cruising along with reckless abandon through painfully beautiful landscapes, drinking cheap wine, eating big hamburgers, meeting great people and having no car trouble whatsoever. But the car could not withstand the punishment forever.

Leaving Perito Moreno, we headed south along Ruta 40, entering what is considered to be the most desolate section of an already, extremely desolate road. It was supposed to be the cream of the crop, by means of being the crap of the crap. Sevently miles south of Perito Moreno, the light drizzles of rain that had defined our morning began changing form. Slowly but surely the drizzle turned to light flakes of snow. The wind picked up, the snow fell harder and before long we found ourselves in a full on blizzard, getting nearly blown off the side of the road and crawling through whiteout conditions at approximately 10 miles an hour. It took us 4 hours to travel the 60 miles to Bajo Caracoles, a town of perhaps 20 people, and hardly distinguishable from a dump. Remnants of half-built houses, plastic wrap and piles of garbage swirled around the three dusty streets that made up Caracoles. At the center stood the gas station, store, hotel, only phone, and bar, all in one building run by the sort of man who seems friendly at first, but is fully aware of his monopolistic power over everything that comes in and goes out of town. Our stop was short, merely to use the bathroom and top off the gas tank before slicing off another section of Ruta 40. The weather had eased up and there was no more snow on the road. We were optimistic.

Allow me a moment to more fully describe what these roads are like. They are almost all gravel. Not the good gravel you might expect on a country road, or the long driveway of some southern estate. These are similar to forest service roads but often far worse. Washboard surfaces are nearly constant, limiting your speed to perhaps 25 miles per hour to prevent the car from rattling apart. There are pot holes everywhere, but so few cars that you can, and do, constantly swerve all over the road to avoid them. When it rains, these potholes quickly fill and become large pools of water. Beyond the edge of the road, there is usually a fence and then scrubland and grazing pastures as far as the eye can see, occasionally punctuated by low, rolling hills.

For the last few decades, Argentina has been at work to pave all of Ruta 40 and the evidence of its near completion is seen everywhere. The paving project creates mixed emotions for many. On the one hand, paving means more people can access this spectacular part of the country throughout the year. Now, the main paved road to the south runs only along the coast requiring long detours from the western edge of Argentina. However, a paved road will completely destroy the adventure, the struggle, the victories and failures of those stupid enough to try and ride its gravel strewn spine all the way to Tierra del Fuego. Another problem with paving is location, namely that it is being constructed directly beside the current gravel road. This means that as you are slipping, bouncing, sliding, pounding and trouncing through rocky hell, a smooth, shimmering line of blacktop is right next to you at all times. Some paved sections are open, but only as arbitrarily assigned detours lasting, at most, a few miles. It is exceptionally cruel.

As we pulled out of Caracoles, that wonderful blacktop stuck with us, running parallel to the gravel road. However, at this point there was very little gravel left. It had changed to a thick, brownie batter mix of mud and water with huge puddles that covered the entire road and extended for up to 60 feet. We had to balance each puddle crossing with enough power to avoid getting stuck and enough moderation to avoid losing control.

Things were questionable, but each patch of mud became a small victory and we were pressing on enthusiastically until suddenly, the car died. As simple as that, it stuttered and ground to a halt. Immediately thinking it was a strange anomaly, we of course tried starting the car but it would not turn over. Indy got out and checked the oil, coolant levels, air filter and the other vital engine parts that men should know about. I helped by looking at the engine with a very concerned and troubled look, touching parts from time to time but never affecting anything. At length we tried starting the car again, and it managed to fire. Excitedly we started forward, but the car died a few hundred feet later. It started snowing again.

I could tell you that we were scared or nervous, but that wouldn’t be too true. Mostly, we were shocked. Breaking down on Ruta 40 is a very bad thing, especially in a snow storm. It is the sort of experience you assume only happens to other people, like hurricanes, earthquakes, tax audits or getting McDonald’s chicken nuggets that turn out to be whole chicken heads. Now, it was happening to us. For me, the most striking part of the experience was the sound.

Before the car bought the farm, we were listening to loud music, the heater fan was whirring away, and the growl of the engine rose and fell with each entry and exit into new puddles. It was a symphony of sounds, each of which supported the idea that we were safe. When the car died, all those comforting noises disappeared, instantly replaced by the whistle of cold wind through the small weaknesses in the rubber molding around the doors of our very battered little rental car.

By some eternal grace, a truck came by a few minutes later and we flagged them down. Inside were three Argentinean men, on their way to an estancia for a hunting trip. Estancias are essentially large farms that often host guests for hunting fishing and general country-like activities. I explained to them in broken Spanish what was wrong with the car. We thought that there might be water in some part of the engine or fuel line, from going through the puddles. Upon mentioning ‘water’ and ‘no start’ in the same sentence, the men immediately nodded in agreement. Without question they pulled in front of us. All 3 men got out and started hooking up our car with a tow rope, laying in the snow and mud to attach the rope to the bumper, dirtying their clothes, freezing their hands and expending their valuable vacation time. We tried to help, but they worked all too efficiently as a unit and we seemed to only get in the way. When the cars were hooked up, the leader of their pack, a man named Carlo, got in our car and through a combination of hand signals, tows and patience, finally got our car started again. This took at least 5 separate occasions of towing and starting before the engine seemed strong enough to carry us back to Caracoles, our new destination based on the advice of our 3 new friends and the increasingly bad weather.

We limped back to Caracoles and stayed the night there, hopeful for better weather the following day and another shot south. The better weather showed up, but snow throughout the previous evening had made that route impossible for us.

And so, for the last few days, we limped back north, then east to the Atlantic coast of Argentina, working our way south along the paved monotony of Ruta 3 until we reached our current location in Rio Gallegos on the edge of Tierra del Fuego. We stopped off for one night at a delightful little town called Puerto San Julian, important only because it the location of Magellan’s discovery and naming of Patagonia in 1520. No big deal. To honor this important event, the town has a themed replica of Magellan’s ship which you can tour for a few bucks. It was fantastic to say the least, and well worth the 3 dollar entry fee.

The car has been extremely temperamental, climaxing in frustration today when it died at a stop light at the busiest intersection in town. I pushed and Indy steered the car onto a side street where we hung our heads in dismay. But again we put our faith in luck and Argentina, and once again we were rewarded. A random woman, seeing us outside the closed tourist information center, asked if we needed anything. Upon hearing out story she set out calling and eventually driving us to a service station where mechanics took a new battery out to the car, started it, and brought it back to their shop for repairs. All of this happening after service hours. I truly love the people of this country.

So Far…

•April 13, 2011 • 4 Comments

There is an 8 gigabyte memory card in my camera. Shooting at the highest quality setting, I can store about 630 pictures. When I went to Europe and China, gone for a total of 3 months, I did not fill up the card. When I returned after a month in Colombia, the card had plenty of space left. In the more than 3 months in Bariloche, I could not fill it. But in less than 6 hours on the Carretera Austral, the infamous north to south road through Patagonian Chile, I packed that card like an elephant in a phone booth.

I have never known such dramatic changes in scenery, switching from dense jungle, to arid plains, to snowy mountains, to lush green pastoral valleys, to never ending desert. It’s unbelievably beautiful here. And I mean that in the most literal sense of the word.

The last few days of driving have seemed like a dream, my mind unable to comprehend the shifting landscape. You can never predict what the road will present next and that doesn’t just refer to the environment. At one point, after staring slack jawed out the window for nearly 3 hours we came over a pass and found an actual litter of real puppies. I’m not talking about malnourished, garbage dogs on the verge of dying, feasting on roadkill. I’m talking about 6 dalmation puppies, well-fed and playing in a bed of what appeared to be Easter grass.

We have spent two nights sleeping in the car, by the side of the road, and one in a hostel. Yesterday we picked up a few cheap sleeping bags to make car nights more comfortable. We have nearly gotten lost several times, had our salami stolen by a Chilean border guard, witnessed a house burning down, witnessed a burning house being put out, drank an entire bottle of Pisco liquor on a park bench, swam in a glacial stream, eaten lots of bad bread and smelled horribly. There is more, but recalling it in a semi-coherent way is difficult.

If you want to track our route, here’s a list of cities we have visited, in order, I think. Bariloche, El Bolson, Futaleufu, La Junta, Coyhaique and today we are in Perito Moreno. We are going to try and reach Gobernador Gregores by tonight, but it is unlikely. The next stretch of road is the most remote of all of Ruta 40. Stretching a few hundred miles with no gas stations, mini-marts, repair shops or hotels.

After driving through Chile, we are glad to be back in Argentina. Our experiences with Chilean people weren’t particularly inviting, just about everything was more expensive and their cheap beer is not as good.

There are only a few pictures below. The internet here is very slow and it has taken a few hours to upload these few. When we get good internet, you’ll get more pictures. Until then, too bad.