It started with a waving hand and fancy cardboard sign in Puerto Natales. It ended with little bit of blood, scraped head and huge milanesa in Rio Gallegos. What an adventure.
Farwell Puerto Natales
Our journey started in the morning in Puerto Natales, we were packed, washed and in good mood. Tana prepared very fancy cardboard with the name of our destination, which was in different country – El Calafate. I was allowed to fill it with colours as I was getting better and better in it. You know every little helps.
We went to the costal road leading from town. Unsurprisingly we weren’t the only ones with the same idea. There were already few groups with cardboard signs waiting. It felt really wrong to stop in front of them and rob them of the first arriving car. Probably our British spirit – queue and wait for your turn. On the other hand there was no point sitting there and not trying. So we went little further along the road, put backpacks down and started waving cardboard sign. As usual we put on a nice smiles. It worked like a charm – one car which passed all the other groups stopped right in front of us and told us to hop in.
The journey begins
Older couple and their daughter were our new car hosts. They were on a shopping trip in Puerto Natales as in their town in Argentina weren’t that many shops. They told us right away that they won’t be able to take us all the way to El Calafate. They’ll let us out in their town – Rio Turbio. We’ll be able to cross the boarder to Argentina and hitch another ride from there. It did sound good. We squeezed ourselves and all the luggage in and were on the way. I think we were a good company and talked a lot.
We were actually lucky to travel with natives as there were some issue at the boarder. Probably suspicious that we were going back to Argentina which we left a week ago. I think that gentleman talked with border police a little bit on our behalf. Not long after that we got stamps in our passports and were back on the road. Ride from the boarder (Paso Dorotea) to Rio Turbio was quick. Time so say good bye and look for a new ride.
As before it didn’t take long. One guy in a lorry took us on board for ten minutes ride. He said he’s not going any further but the place where we jumped off (Julia Dufour) should be much better to hitch a ride. We thanked him, checked the map where we are and waited. There was some big factory nearby – quite a change of a scenery from previous mountains.
This time it took little longer as traffic was minimal. Still it took far less time to hitch another car then it did in Perito Moreno. Our transports were also getting bigger and bigger. This time it was big truck. We wanted to go back to El Calafate or possibly to El Chalten. Our new friend was heading all the way to the coast to Rio Gallegos. He even offered to take us there with him. We were reluctant as we didn’t know what to do there and already had a plan. So we got out of the truck at one small junction in the middle of nowhere. There was a gas station, small hotel, restaurant and few more buildings on the side.
Lost in Argentina again
We checked the map to be sure we stood along the right side of the road and waited. There was another group waiting there so we stood further away not to thwart their attempts. After more than 30 minutes we realised that we made a mistake. We should have continued with the trucker all the way to the coast. There were almost no cars passing by. The few that actually showed up were heading to Chile rather then north to Argentina.
It was getting late and windy (really Patagonian windy) and we were thinking what to do. Last option was to ask in the motel and sleep there. Question was – is it open? It was quite dark, not many lights shining inside. To increase our chances of getting out of there we made another board. This one had Rio Gallego written on it. We occupied both sides of the road with our fancy signs, jumped in the wind and had a good time (without stopping anyone).
But all the fun must end. Night was slowly coming, soon it won’t be neither safe nor practical to wait by the road. We agreed to give it another 30 minutes before we try the motel. And again we were lucky, some guy in a white car was heading towards the coast. He stopped for us and we were merrily riding east.
And what a ride it was, as usual one and only language spoken was Spanish. It wouldn’t be a big issue if I wasn’t sitting on the front seat and most of conversation didn’t depend on me. Tana was in the back seat and tired. Still she tried to provide some help. I didn’t master past tense yet so it was difficult to explain what we already visited. Anyway we managed to get all the way across the continent unharmed, which was surprising. Cars youth and integrity were long gone and driver didn’t follow speed limit at all.
Not far from Rio Gallego important question was asked – do you have any accommodation for tonight? We didn’t and it was a problem. Our usual approach – get to town, visit some “hospedajes” and pick the best price / value one – won’t work. It was already after 10pm. But our good driver had a solution, he knew a guy who was renting cabanas (small cottages) and can let us sleep in one for just 1000 pesos. We agreed, travelling all day and running along the road in strong exhausted us.
Night and morning to remember
We passed by a sign telling us that we entered Rio Gallego. Not long after that we made a turn, continued for few more minutes and stopped. It was dark but there wasn’t much to see anyway. Small houses and some store were the only buildings around. Property tycoon arrived shortly after us. We gave him money, he gave us key and showed us around.
One big room with two beds, fridge, some area dedicated to cooking and a bathroom. All “open space” but to be fair, toilet and shower were separated by a plastic curtain. We didn’t care at all, all we wanted to do was to undress a little, brush teeth and go to bed. We did that, then got up and went for our sleeping bags. Bedsheets were little suspicious (even in the dark). Some darker spots and “harder” areas told us that they don’t change them for each guest. Wrapped safely in our sleeping bags we drifted off.
I am really glad we arrived in the night and didn’t see the cabana properly. Place where we were was really, really dirty. But as saying goes “beggars can’t be choosers”. We were sure we won’t be spending another night here. I got out of my sleeping bag, trying not to touch rest of the bed too much and went to bathroom. I made few steps and disaster struck.
Shelf holding the TV (good old CRT beast) was lower than I expected and its sharp corner grazed top of my head quite deeply. I sweared, held my head and dropped to my knees. That is pretty much all I remember. When I opened my eyes again I was sitting on a bed, Tana was right in front of me, holding me, crying and telling me not to leave here and to stay with her. I had no idea what was going on.
She was definitely relieved when I opened my eyes. She told me that I fainted, so she put me on her bed and was doing her best to keep me alive. Poor girl I felt so bad that she had to go through this terrifying experience. At the same time I was grateful and glad that I was there with her.
I think that I didn’t faint because the hit was too hard. More likely quick descend to my knees and then quick stand-up (while cursing) was the reason. Anyway, I had to lie down for a little while on bed and almost got accompanied when my journey to the toilet resumed
Welcome to Rio Gallegos
Tana checked top of my head, it was bleeding a little, skin was grazed and crumpled in a triangular shape. Tana wanted me to go to the hospital to get checked just in case I had a concussion. As explained above I really didn’t think hit was that bad so I decided against it. If I felt dizzy or felt like fainting again then I’ll go, but until that happens we should move out of this place.
Our temporary land-lord told us to leave the key inside the house, trusting us we didn’t steal anything valuable on our way out. Area where we were definitely wasn’t tourist hot-spot. Small cabanas all around us, all in similar miserable shape. Shop nearby looked like it was selling only alcohol. It was probably part of town where travelling workers lived.
We checked our map and headed in the direction of Plaza San Martín (which looked like centre of the town). It was a long way during which we were able to see how the houses, streets and amount of garbage changes. It was getting better and better and we actually made it safely all the way to town. Almost no people on the way just a few barking dogs.
Plaza San Martín was nice and had some slow public internet available. We had a rest as our legs were soar and my head was hurting at the point where it was penetrated. Tana applied little bit of ointment to the critical spot to protect it from dust and dirt in the air. We searched the map for some decent accommodation, found few possible places and went to check them out.
There was one hotel nearby with good reviews and reasonable price. They were even on Booking which stated there are few rooms left. When we got there we were told the opposite, no space for you young travellers, sorry. I think it might have been related to our look, especially mine. My hair was unkempt, sweaty and I suspect that ointment on top might have been visible. So back to map and more search. Some places were more expensive than we were willing to pay, some of them we didn’t find. In the end we found one small place further away. After agreeing to stay for two nights we got an ok price and were able to put our luggage down.
Few days to recover
Rio Gallego isn’t big tourist destination, there’s pretty much nothing to do. You just pass it on your way to the south to Tierra del Fuego. Having time to recuperate from my head injury we were considering what to do next. We can go south, visit Ushuaia where arctic expeditions are leaving from and maybe see some penguins. Or go north and see what we can do there. It was a tough choice but in the end we decided to go up.
It was very tempting to go down but too pricy for what it offered. Near Ushuaia were some hikes and penguin colonies but it was bloody expensive. From what we read it would cost us between $300 and $400 to go on an excursion and see them. Add another days to get there, accommodation and food much more expensive than here. I guess there’s a reason why they call Ushuaia end of the world.
We walked through the town, parks and visited few restaurants. We had one of the biggest milanesas in our life. Simple food, very popular and tasty.
Tana was constantly reminding me to look where I am walking and not to hit my head again. Which I actually did right in the hotel room and TV was the culprit again. Luckily not on a sharp edge this time. Tana saw and heard it and gave me a hard look. It didn’t happen again after that, at least not in front of her. It’s not my fault that they designed all the furniture for people much shorter than I am.
Our last little adventure in Rio Gallego was at the bus station. Dirty place with only few busses passing by. We spent an hour there and in the end decided to hitchhike again. Our point of departure was not far from the station (just in case). That was the only positive thing about the place. Other than that it was smelly and dirty, garbage everywhere.
Not much traffic heading in our fancily written direction – Puerto San Julián. It was 350km long journey. Small town which also offered a penguin expeditions. For much more friendly prices.
After quite a long time we were lucky. One lady took us on board and delivered us out of town. She told us that our chances of hitching a ride are much bigger here. It was little scary as our previous spot allowed us to cross the road and take the bus or return to hotel. In here it would take us few hours just to walk all the way back. At least we made a friend with one stray dog, who was running around wagging its tail and sniffing everything. We gave it some food which probably wasn’t suited for him but he didn’t complain.
Our next ride was huge truck again. In the middle of the cabin was a small gas hob which our driver used to heat his tea. It was first time I saw open flame in the car. I hoped we won’t have to do any emergency braking as I was sitting in the middle on a raised platform right in front of it. Tana got to sit on a proper seat. But with non-functional seat belt. When we were passing police checkpoints I was suppose to become invisible and Tana had to hold the belt in position so it looked like she was safely tucked in.
We managed to talk for few hours quite lively (mostly thanks to Tana). Our driver friend even showed us his family on his phone. Seeing him browse pictures while driving was quite nerve wracking for some of us. Real “fun” started later when all of us run out of stuff to talk about. Mister driver was already behind the wheel for six or more hours. I can tell that he was tired as I saw him close his eyes from time to time and relax. Even with my limited language skills I was trying hard to talk or ask him something to keep him awake.
In the end we made it safely and in one piece all the way to our destination. Brave Coca-Cola driver continued on his journey up, all the way to Buenos Aires. I really hope he arrived safely to his family.