I’ve seen the cheesy quote, “it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey” more times than I can count; on book marks, coffee mugs, daily write-in planners, it’s everywhere. It sounds nice and all but how often do we actually travel without a specific destination in mind? How often is it really about the journey and not about where you’re heading?
Even on this trip around the world, most of our “travel days” have a pretty specific location. We’re on a bus, a train, a boat, or a plane to somewhere. We may not plan our accommodation in advance as much as we did back in July, and we frequently show up to a new place then then figure out where we’re going to sleep, but we usually know where we were headed the whole time we were traveling there.
All of our days are travel days, but the days when we have no destination in mind are the days we feel the most like travelers. These are the days when I really believe that travel is all about the journey, and not the destination.
We’ve really felt like we were traveling just for the sake of traveling, traveling for the thrill of the journey, twice on this trip. The first time we felt like this was when we took the slow boat in Peru from Yurimaguas to Iquitos. The second time we felt like we were really traveling was while we were hitchhiking in Patagonia.
The freedom we experienced hitchhiking is unlike anything we’ve ever felt. Travelers who use public transportation to get from point A to point B are constrained by deadlines, tickets, and schedules. You have to book things far enough in advance that tickets aren’t sold out, but close enough that you have the option to change your mind and plans before you’ve locked yourself into a date and time where some vehicle will transport you to your next destination. I can say this lightheartedly and slightly mockingly, because we are usually those travelers. We have spent so many hours this year researching how to get from point A to point B. I actually would be hesitant to know how much time – I would probably be sad that we didn’t use that time “traveling.”
Funny, isn’t that? Wasting time traveling, while you’re traveling, so you can travel?
When we were hitchhiking, we met a lot of people in camper vans who were driving from North to South or visa versa through Patagonia. Sometimes while we walked or waited on the side of the road, Jesse and I would dream of having the freedom of a camper van and the flexibility to avoid committing to tickets since a van allows you to go when you want, and stop whenever.
But really, we wouldn’t trade our time hitchhiking for anything. Sure, we had “destinations” in mind. We had a running document of all the places we wanted to see in Patagonia, approximately how many days we thought we would spend in each place, how long we should reserve for hitchhiking based on distance, but it wasn’t a schedule we stuck to. The only real schedule we had to stick to was our flight from South America to Morocco; we knew we needed to somehow make it to Buenos Aires, Argentina by November 26, 2018.
If you know anything about modern day Patagonia, you’ve probably heard that the W and O treks to Torres del Paine are considered the mecca of Patagonia. Respectively, the 5 and 8 day hikes are on many hikers’ bucket lists, so many in fact that the trail has become so popular, you have to book your tickets well in advance and reserve spots at each campsite. I’ll write about our O trek in another post, but I wouldn’t even really say that the O trek was a schedule commitment for us originally. We had reservation nightmare after reservation nightmare, and didn’t find out that we would be able to do the hike until day 21 of our trip.
So on October 10th we put our thumbs up and had six and half weeks to travel; I mean really travel.
So why do we love hitchhiking travel so much? You might think it would be frustrating to have to completely rely on others and their desire to stop on the side of the road for two strangers, who most certainly would ask them for a free ride.
We didn’t rely on anyone but ourselves though. We were completely self-sufficient for those six weeks. We each carried everything on our backs that we needed; our food, our home, our clothing, our doctor’s office, our library, our entertainment, simply everything. If someone didn’t pick us up, we didn’t have a care in the world. Sometimes we ended up walking to a campsite, and sometimes we found somewhere on the side of the road and called it home for the night.
We changed our plans constantly. We took advice from people who gave us rides about cool things, or sometimes stayed with people who picked us up for way longer than we expected simply because we enjoyed their company, they offered to keep driving us as long as we wanted, we were heading in the same direction, and after all, it (mostly) wasn’t about one specific spot we wanted to see, it was about just traveling for us.
Would we have had this same freedom in a camper van? In some ways yes, but in many ways no, and we wouldn’t have met nearly as many people.
It was just me, Jesse, and the roads of this world.
We weren’t confined by a car, and while we admit it would be nice to have had one at times, we much preferred to walk when we wanted; set up camp when we wanted, and we were free to literally go anywhere and do anything we wanted. When we go back to Patagonia 15ish years from now in a camper van with kids, we may nostalgically look back to our days of hitchhiking the same roads, but there’s a time and a place for everything. If you have ever had any desire to go to Patagonia and you have even the slightest bit of flexibility, I can’t suggest enough that you hitchhike, even if only once during your trip. It’s freeing in a way I can’t totally explain and you can’t totally understand unless you’ve done it. And you’ll never forget the feeling you had when we first get picked up.
But now, we begin our third week on the road.
Week Three Hitchhiking and Camping in Patagonia
We hoped that someone would show up this morning for white water rafting so we could go, but the only group that showed up planned to go the next day. We loved our rafting trip in Costa Rica during our honeymoon, so we decided it was worth it to spend an extra day here to raft tomorrow. It was also my birthday tomorrow, so we decided to pay for camping and WIFI for some much needed Spotify music downloading. We dropped our bags off at this old family’s backyard camping spot, and then set out for a day hike. We had no idea where we were going, but just walked around the middle of nowhere, with gorgeous snowcapped mountain peaks for scenery.
Formal camping at El Pescador. After we got back, we set up camp, popped a bottle of wine, and cooked a delicious camping dinner in the most ratchet dirty kitchen. It was the perfect early birthday celebration – we also delighted ourselves with two trips to the bakery that evening for desert.
We woke to a gorgeous view of the lake from our tent, and the unfortunate news that our air mattress was officially screwed. We used the Klymit Double V insulated camping mattress pad, and despite the difficulty it caused us, we still swear by it. We had a bad factory product with two leaky seams and our mattress pad slowly stopped working.
Before this morning, we would wake up in the middle of the night and Jesse would give it an extra pump or two, but my birthday present was 6-7 wake up calls and Jesse telling me happy birthday on the flat ground. We spent the morning submerging the mattress in the old lady’s personal shower tub, which was probably the smallest tub I’ve ever seen. She also had a large bloody chunk of meat drying out in her living room, with tiny splatters of blood all over the floor just 10 feet from the bathroom, where we used good old fashion detective skills to find the holes in our mattress pad.
Side Note: After we patched these two seams, more seams started to leak. Klymit was awesome though about everything and shipped us a new mattress pad back home. They offered to ship us one to Patagonia, but we weren’t staying in any one place long enough to risk them shipping it and missing us. Plus, you can’t exactly ship to random spots on the side of the roads and rivers, which were quickly becoming our accommodation specialties. We bought a new mattress pad a few days later since the patches didn’t last very long and we quickly were waking up on the floor again.
On the plus side though, the camping site had fantastic WIFI, which meant all of my music downloaded, and we were rafting today!
We’re pretty much always early everywhere we go, so when we got to the raft shop that morning, no one was there yet. Jesse and I walked around and he tricked me into running an errand without him. The staff at the rafting company had a little surprise for me, and he needed to get me away from the shop. Jesse isn’t the best at surprises though because he tried to convince me that the other people on our trip weren’t there still when I could literally see them standing by the van. I was adamant that he was wrong and that they were indeed there, so when I opened the van to take a spot, I was half scared, half shocked to have the van explode with balloons and a few random staff members yelling happy birthday to me all at once. It was really sweet of everyone, and put the trip off to a great start.
The trip included accommodation back to the raft office, but since we planned to hitchhike after the river trip, we convinced them to let us stash our bags in the back of the van so we could continue on our way after we finished.
The river was absolutely beautiful, but unfortunately we didn’t pay for the professional photos of the trip, so we don’t have much to show for it other than our word that it was freezing. The river was all ice melt from the mountains. Jesse was in the front, so he had it worse than I did and was continuously backhanded by our good old friend Ice Melt.
After the rafting trip was finished, we put on our bags, waved goodbye, and headed in the opposite direction of the van. We were pretty isolated on this road and a ride to the next big town seemed unlikely, but we knew we had a sufficient amount of food and with this scenery, we would be perfectly happy wild camping for a night or two. This was one stretch of the trip that we really didn’t have a destination in mind. The rest of the day was spent journeying, just for the thrill of it.
We are always hitching for the thrill of it, thrill of it.
I guess I had a little bit of birthday luck though. We got Ride 12 from this swagged out, country Argentinian father and his feisty daughter Kristen. He smoked one of those old school tobacco pipes while he drove, with his beret titled slightly sideways and his daughter loving correcting his grammar in Spanish the entire drive. She shared her potato chips with me while the two of us squished into the back and I promised her after multiple pleas, that no, I would not forget her or her name.
We got out at the next intersection where they went left and we would turn right. There was a small truck driving by soon after we go out, but there were three people crammed in the front and the back was full of construction equipment. I told Jesse it probably wasn’t worth holding up our thumbs, but he did anyways and they stopped! The lesson here: ALWAYS put your thumb up when a vehicle drives by.
Ride 13. We could hitch with them until the next town, so we hopped in the back, held onto the massive cement mixer that sat between us, and enjoyed the scenery of one of our absolute favorite rides of the trip.
We got out where they stopped in Santa Lucia, Chile and debated for a while about whether we should wild camp for the night, or keep trying to push my birthday luck. It was close to 6 PM, which usually doesn’t bode well for getting a ride, but we had at least 3 hours of daylight left and we were feeling lucky, so we walked to the end of the town and positioned ourselves on the main road.
About 20 minutes later a forest government worker picked us up in his truck for Ride 14, and brought us all the way to La Junta where we would spend the night.
With a completely dead mattress pad, we decided to stay in a hostel for the night. We shopped around for a room a bit until we decided on Hostel Museo, where we ran into our cyclist couple friends and enjoyed a home cooked meal and wine with them.
We thought we woke up early enough to be the first ones on the road, but when we walked to the end of the town, there was already a solo male hitchhiker with his thumb up.
There are two types of hitchhikers in this world: the ones who stand in front of the hitchhiker who is already there, and the ones who stand behind him. It would have been so easy to put down our bags where we first approached the main road, but this guy clearly was already here and waiting for a ride. We didn’t want to be those hitchhikers that everyone hates, so we walked past him, said we hope he gets a ride, and would walk just over the little hill since he was there first.
This actually ended up working in our favor though because when we finally got a ride, the pair who stopped for us said that there was a solo male traveler on the other side of the hill that stood up and put his thumb out too late for them to stop. They talked about turning around for him, but then they saw us and stopped for us instead. Good Karma.
Ride 15 was a Canadian girl and Danish guy who were “just friends” and met on what I understood as a rich kid’s boarding school, located on a large ship that cruised around the world for its classrooms. Pretty cool if you ask me. We spent three hours with them until they dropped us off at the entrance to the Queulat Naitonal Park. This national park is HUGE, but only has a few spots that you can actually visit on foot. The two spots that we were determined to see were the Ventisquero Colgante, or the hanging glacier, and the Enchanted Forest.
The two pictures below are from a stop we made on the way.
Our first stop was the hanging glacier at the northern most entrance to the national park. We had planned to stay here for 3 or 4 days, but after we learned that you couldn’t really wild camp here, we decided to just stay for enough time to see the glacier, which was one night.
Originally we planned to make the hike up to the glacier’s view point the morning after we arrived, but the park ranger told us it would rain tomorrow morning and that if we wanted to actually see it instead of wasting a two hour hike to view nothing but mist, we needed to quickly drop our bags at the camp site and hurry up the trail before it was too dark. We followed his advice, which was a good thing because the weather was terrible the next morning and we wouldn’t have been able to see the glacier if we waited.
This is what the glacier looked like the next morning covered in mist:
Formal camping in Queulat National Park.
We woke up early and made the 30 minute trek from our campsite to the main road. We got Ride 17 pretty quickly from a local man who also worked in the Chilean forest industry. We asked him to drop us off at the Enchanted Forest section of the park, but when we got to its entrance, there was a big sign that said closed. It wasn’t your typical closed sign that we would once bypass, but we were in the car with someone who worked in this park and he said it was dangerous with all the mud slides. The sign also basically said if you ignore the sign and get hurt, don’t bother to call us because we told you not to go. Begrudgingly, we got back in his car and kept going with him until Villa Amengual. This was one of the spots that we really wanted to see in Patagonia, but we’ll save it for next time.
We waited by the town’s exit for about two hours, but rides seemed few and far between. Every car we saw was already full with hitchhikers. After a while we realized that if we were going to make it to the closest wild camping spot on iOverlander, we needed to start walking to make it before dark. After about an hour though, a blinged out van with strange graffiti all over it, stopped. I always spoke in Spanish when a driver pulled over, but the girl in the passenger’s seat quickly stopped me and said English?
Ride 17 was two British girls in their early 20s who seemed to know less about where they were going than we did. They also were using iOverlander, so the four of us started looking for a good spot for both a van and a tent. After a little, they offered to drive us as long as we wanted, and as long as both of us were headed in the same direction. It seemed like we would be heading in the same direction for a while, so this was perfect!
The next town was definitely more of a city, Coyhaique and wild camping is never great in the midst of a city, so we stopped for supplies and then kept going; we bought wine for us all since they offered to drive us the next day too.
We informally camped at El Blanco, which was a pretty nice informal camping spot about an hour south of Coyhaique. We made a huge campfire that night and enjoyed the company of these two girls. They just finished college, although it seemed like they just finished high school. Maybe Jesse and I are just much older than we realized, but their bubbly, slightly immature, and yet innocent world view was precious, and we enjoyed every minute with them.
We woke up the next morning, thinking that we would still hitch with them, but we weren’t sure if they offered for us to keep going with them to be nice, or if they really meant it. Turns out that they meant it, so we hopped in their van and spent the day driving to the mountains of Cerro Castillo. We found a lovely spot by the river at the end of the four day trek loop in the mountains and set up camp for the night. We considered starting a four day trek the next morning, but decided against it. Instead, we spent a beautiful afternoon lounging by the river and taking leisurely walks. This four day trek will stay on our Patagonia list for next time.
Wild Camping by Cerro Castillo.
The four of us woke up and made our way to Rio Tranquillo, Chile, which is the launching point for kayaking to the marble caves. The girls had no idea what their plans were, so we decided to part ways the next morning and enjoyed our last supper together on the beach of a pristine lake.
Wild camping 10 minutes from Puerto Rio Tranquilo.
We woke up early for a kayak tour to the marble caves. The pictures speak for themselves.
Then we tried hitchhiking for an hour or two with no success, so we took the last bus to cross the border at Chile Chico back into Argentina with the hope of taking a night bus to el Chalten. We received news this afternoon that we finally booked all the campsites in the O circuit in Torres del Paine, so we were now officially on a ‘schedule’. We could have hitchhiked to Chile Chico and then back to Ruta 40 until el Chalten, but this stretch would be a 10+ hour drive if we got a ride straight through. Seeing as this would be highly unlikely, we would probably need at least 2 solid days hitchhiking, probably 3, and time was money at this point, so we planned on the overnight bus.
When the bus to Chile Chico arrived at the border, we helped a group of Asian tourists traveling with suitcases (and without a clue) to figure out the border crossing situation. They were not prepared at all. At this border crossing, you have to walk 4 km from Chile to Argentina. If you’re driving, you can go all the way through, but taxis aren’t allowed to cross. Normally we would have hitchhiked, but this group seemed pretty clueless and you can’t hitchhike with 5 other people, so we made the trek with them on foot. They were also all planning to take the overnight bus to El Chalten so we decided to make a group trip out of it.
Side Note: Border crossings into Chile are pretty strict. They search your bags and are sticklers for meats and cheese. If they find them, they will make you throw them away. This happened to us once, but we weren’t about to waste the meat, so we sat down on the road and had an early lunch of cured meat, cured meat, and more cured meat. When you cross into Argentina however, they don’t care about anything. They look at your passport, look at you, stamp you, and wave you through.
Normally we would have hitchhiked here too, but the group we were with was baffled at the idea of hitchhiking. Splitting a cab was pretty cheap too, so the border patrol called us two cabs that would drop us at the bus station.
Once we arrived we heard the unfortunate news from each bus company that unfortunately, the next bus to El Chalten was four nights from now. Well that simply wouldn’t work.
Two more girls showed up, which made us a group of 9 that planned to ride to El Chalten through the night. After watching each person go up to the counters, frustrated when they received the news, I was ready to make something happen. I talked with the more agreeable of the bus companies and arranged a private bus for 9 people that night to El Chalten. It would be only slightly more money than the bus, but since no one wanted to wait four days, they all agreed to my plan pretty quickly.
I have to admit I missed working in a school here. This was the first time I organized and coordinated anything on our trip of this scale for people other than Jesse and myself. I felt the thrill of problem solving, planning, convincing people to get behind my plan, and executing it; this definitely made me miss work.
At 10 PM, we loaded up our mini bus, hopped on, and made the 10 hour overnight trip to El Chalten.
The best of Patagonia is still yet to come!