Friday, February 5, 2010

Bumming around Chile

"When God was finished making the world, he had a little of everything left over - deserts, mountains, lakes, volcanoes, forests - and he put them into his pocket. But, his pocket had a hole in it and as he walked along heaven, it all fell out and the long trail it left was Chile."

The Carretera Austral

A popular starting point for the Carretera Austral highway is Futaluefu (Mapuche for Rio Grande, or Great River). There is literally nothing to do in this town, and most everything is only open when someone feels like it. The only reason tourists don't just pass right through is the white water rafting, which is supposed to be the wildest in South America and is also the most expensive. It was from this sleepy Chilean mountain town that Yuval and I decided to hitch hike down the Carretera Austral.

Augusto Pinochet, malevolent Chilean dictator of the 70s and 80s, built the Carretera to connect isolated parts of Chile and to protect the land from the ever encroaching Argentineans. Now it's become a tourist attraction solely for the road itself, and the surrounding scenery. Israelis hitch hike it in droves, and rich American tourists rent large spacious vehicles and never stop for the hitchhikers (not that any one's bitter or anything). This road embodies the metaphors and cliches about enjoying the ride and not the destination. On the Carretera, the road literally is the destination.

Our first day as hitchers was spent getting to where the Carretera properly begins, at a town called Santa Lucia. We waited all morning at the edge of Futaleufu for our first ride. We figured people would be leaving early for work. We had mistakenly assumed that anyone was going to work. And early? Ha!

Luckily for us, the weather was pleasant and there was a puppy to play with - perhaps the ugliest puppy ever, only cute because of his puppyishness. A thin man with a mullet (very common in Argentina, where male hairstyles are seen in every mullet permutation you can think of and then some) and his son were driving to pick up some rafters. He drove us out of town, about 30 km from Santa Lucia. At one point he pointed out a condor - the quintessential South American bird - circling right above us, close enough to see the circle of white around his neck. I took this to be a good omen.

At the junction we were dropped off at, we met the first of many Israeli hitchers. They were not happy to see us. The three boys had been waiting for two days for a ride and our presence would further decrease their chances. Not wanting to be jerks, we rambled on down the road a while and sat near a sheep pasture and resigned ourselves to a long wait. Not that that was a bad thing; the sun was shining and I had a good book.

With Yuval hiding in the bushes, I stopped a car after about a half an hour.

Apparently, blonde hair and two X chromosomes are invaluable assets in hitchhiking through Latin American countries. Yuval said that I should rent out my hitchhiking assistance to those who'd like to do the Carretera. I can see the business card now: Professional Hitchhiker. Not responsible for inebriation level of drivers.

The man who stopped was also with his son, and the rest of his family was in a spluttering van up ahead. They were going to Santa Lucia, but first would be stopping at a lake for a picnic. He said that if we wouldn't mind waiting, he'd take us. Lunch and a swim at a lake with a nice Chilean family on a gorgeous day? He really had to twist our arms.

We were in Santa Lucia by six pm. The town was very small, populated by a smattering of dilapidated shacks on stilts. The beginning of the highway was an unassuming dirt number. By the end of this adventure we would be coated with layers of dust; the highway's version of a souvenir, perhaps. But the surrounding mountains were indeed beautiful.

My luck continued. Within literally five minutes, again with Yuval lurking unseen in the bushes, I stopped the first passing truck, which was already full. The driver had initially passed me by, but then turned the corner, went around the block and came back. They rearranged the luggage in the back of the truck to make enough room for us and our packs. After some time sitting in the back feeling the icy wind rushing past our cheeks, the truck stopped and let two of the people out and we moved into the warmth of the cab. The driver was a wiry older man with thinning white hair and a permanent Marlboro hanging from his mouth. The cab smelled of stale smoke and something mechanical. In the passenger seat was an exuberant Chilean man, probably in his mid thirties to forties with a thick swatch of black hair and round, red face. He never stopped talking. His cigarettes appeared to smoke themselves. The driver periodically offered a brief quip, but for the most part it was a monologue. They made another stop at a cabin where they went in to presumably chat up the girl who worked there, and the younger man came out with beers in hand. After that his talking sped up and his face got redder. After he finished a beer, he crushed the can with his hands and threw it to the floor with a giggle.

They were stopping for the night in the newly touristy town of La Junta at a friend's house and offered to bring us along with them and give us a place to stay. We politely declined (figuring that alcohol and Latino hormones probably wouldn't be a good combination in the exuberant younger Chilean and I might not have the best time), and went to camp in the nearby cattle pastures by a river.

The next day was just as hot and sunny as the previous day. Only I was feeling the effects of the sun; I was sun burnt everywhere including a particularly sensitive part on my scalp and suffering a heat induced headache. However, luck was on our side again, and after a bit of a wait we were picked up by a silent, stern looking Chilean man who drove us six hours to the capital of Patagonian Chile, Coyhaique. He had also picked up a South Korean gringo somewhere up by Bariloche and they had been driving together for days. Our driver didn't say much but when he did, we didn't understand a thing. The Korean, whose Spanish was much clearer to us, had to translate.

The road twisted somewhat Bolivia-style through the mountain pass: it was a narrow, bumpy dirt road that hugged the mountain, with barely enough room for the two directions of traffic. We had one very close call with an SUV barrelling around a corner. The vegetation was rain forest-like, carpeting the mountains right up to the line where the snow starts, and we passed by large and shimmering trout and salmon filled lakes. In certain lakes the trout can reach up to 8 kilos. We decided that when we arrived in Coyhaique, we would eat fish. Our driver made a pit stop along the road to eat stalks from a rhubarb-like plant that covered the lower parts of the mountain. It tasted like raw rhubarb, sour and fibrous. Our driver saw that Yuval didn't like his very much, and came over with a little packet of what looked like sugar and sprinkled some on for him. But it wasn't sugar, for some reason it was salt, and it was all Yuval could do not to throw his rhubarb back where it came from. When we stopped in another small town so he could check something that wasn't working quite right in his jeep, we bought him cookies.

The mountains turned into rocky hills, and the forest disappeared into sparse, low bushes. Coyhaique lay in a valley, a larger town of about 40, 000 people; also quite touristy. I thought, not for the first time, how wonderful these towns must have been when the road was first built, just emerging from isolation, rustic and suspended in time.

He dropped us off in the main plaza of Coyhaique with a surprisingly warm hug and cheek kiss. We decided to forgo camping in favor of staying in a hostel with a real bed and, fingers crossed, a warm shower, on account of my persistent headache and thus slight crankiness. Unfortunately our luck didn't seem to extend to finding a bed to sleep in. Most every hostel, hotel, hospedaje, and hosteria was full. High season made it impossible to find accommodations and hitching and guerrilla camping in farmer's fields doesn't leave much opportunity for booking ahead. Eventually we found a hospedaje run by a grumpy old man who let us sleep in what was essentially a shed in his back yard that had a bunk bed in it. Good enough!

Day Three; woke somewhat late but feeling much better than the previous day. We meanderingly made our way just outside of the city - only briefly tempted by a car rental office - and joined a few small groups of Israelis also waiting for rides. I flagged down a young Chilean couple with a small daughter and they took us twenty km down the road, where we waited and waited in the whipping wind, feeling tiny whispers of frustration starting to build. After what seemed like hours - although I don't know for sure because I on purpose did not keep track of the time - we were picked up by an aging cowboy in a dirty baseball cap, originally from Wyoming. He said he had not been back to the States since '98 and had been in Patagonia on and off for twenty years. He worked as a fishing guide for American tourists on a nearby ranch. We began talking about trout, and mentioned the wonderful trout that we had eaten in Copacabana, Bolivia, from Lake Titicaca. He was shocked that we ate "holy" trout. For a moment I thought he meant that because Lake Titicaca is sacred (as the Incan birthplace of the sun, it does indeed hold a great deal of importance to Bolivian culture). But no, he meant trout were holy in their own right. He practiced catch and release fishing. We joked later that the poor returned fish were indeed "holey". I'm of the mind that if you are going to torture something - yank it out of its home by a hook through its mouth and suffocate the unfortunate creature - you should have the decency to eat it.

Yuval thankfully changed the subject from 'ethical' fishing, and commented that our cowboy's Spanish must be pretty good by now. He responded that he only spoke "combat Spanish" and always would. He then cautioned us against getting into any vehicle that stopped, because you "never know with these yahoos" and unself-consciously took another swig of beer.

It was another brief wait after the cowboy dropped us off. Almost immediately we were climbing into the back of a nice Chilean family's truck. The two young girls and I played peek-a-boo through the back window. Riding high on our streak of luck, we decided that instead of going with the family to Puerto Ibanez and taking the ferry to Chile Chico - thereby ending our hitchhiking adventure - that we would hitch the long way to Chile Chico, around the lake (second largest in South America, after Lake Titicaca).

We should've have stopped while we were ahead. Our luck ran out the second we jumped out of that truck. My theory is that a combination of factors were working against us. One, there is a paltry amount of traffic and more people looking for rides than there were rides to be had. Second, of the small trickle of vehicles, most of them contained the aforementioned American tourists with aversions to Good Samaritan-ism.

It took all day to get a ride ten km to the next town, Ville Cerro Castillo (Castle Mountain Village). When we got there, there was already a gaggle of Israeli hitchers that had also been waiting for ages and ages. One of them came over to give us shit for poaching their territory. I couldn't help but think of prostitutes defending their corners (perhaps because I had been reading a book about a young women escaping from the sex trade at the time). It was about supper time regardless, so we retreated into the field and set up camp underneath the jagged peaks of the Cerro Castillo, with the intention of taking the one bus that passed through in the morning.

In the morning, the bus we intended to take was completely full, leaving us essentially stranded. Curbing the frustration with cookies, we resigned ourselves to the fact that it appeared we were done with hitchhiking. We then went about flagging down a bus going back the way we came, and headed for Puerto Ibanez and the ferry.

The ferry proved to be a further nightmare. Yuval went to ask for ferry tickets and was told that it was full until Sunday. It was Monday. And the wind was maddening; no matter what the direction we were walking -struggling - into it and it whistled in our ears so loud we had to yell to hear each other. It was just one of those travel days where nothing goes right and all you can do is hold on until its over.
Unsure of what our next step should be, we sat huddled up against the side of a building, trying to block at least some of the wind, and made lunch. A kind Argentinean lady, perhaps seeing our distress, came over to offer her help (God love the Argentineans and their altruistic helpfulness). She told us that the tickets were only for cars and that we could just walk on and buy our fare directly from the Captain. Cue the flood of relief.

We both dozed off on the ferry, heads spinning from all the wind, and stomachs tossing with the waves. The journey from Puerto Ibanez to Chile Chico and from there taking a combi over the border and into a small town called Los Antiguas was blessedly uneventful, and we were both very glad to return to Argentina.

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