The Great Escape
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.