If you would have told me that I would hitchhike once, let alone as a lifestyle for five weeks, camping on the side of the road in hidden fields, I would have laughed. Yet, here we are.
Before we left last summer, Chile and Argentina were at the very bottom of my list of countries I wanted to see. Ironically, hitchhiking and camping through Patagonia still takes the cake though as our favorite part of our trip so far.
Before we said goodbye to my parents in Mendoza, Jesse had a rough outline of where we were going to go in Patagonia, but I let him completely take lead on planning. I planned all of Peru and most of Bolivia, so it was his turn to plan. I was surprised that I let go of the reigns so much, but I did, and had no idea what we would be getting into in this outdoorsmans' paradise.
We took a very long overnight bus from Mendoza to Bariloche, Argentina but there was a village near the end of the drive called Villa Traful that had a gorgeous lake, some hiking, and a two day trail over a pass through the mountains to Villa Angostura, that we also wanted to see. There weren't any buses directly from Mendoza to Villa Traful, so when we woke up from our overnight ride I had to convince the bus driver to let us off early, where the main road to Bariloche split with the main road to Villa Traful, which is exponentially smaller in comparison. He asked me five times if I was sure I wanted to do this; I still wasn't at this point.
This was a big gamble. If we got off, it was still 36km to Vila Traful. The only thing between this makeshift bus stop and the village was a bumpy dirt road. At first I wasn't convinced that this would be the best start to our camping; would it discourage me if we didn't get a ride on the first day? There was an informal camping spot on the river at this intersection though, and if we didn't get a ride, we could sleep here for the night.
So there are three types of camping that we experienced: informal, formal, and wildstyle.
Informal campsites are free locations where people frequently camp. They may have some fire pits, a water source near by, and from what we experienced, enough decently flat ground for at least a few tents. No one maintains the sites though except campers who sleep there.
Formal campsites are what most people think of when they think of camping. You enter the site, pay a fee, have a set spot to camp (most let you choose which spot,) potable water is available, there are bathrooms, showers, designated cooking spots, electricity, and some even have WIFI.
Wildstyle camping. Okay technically it's called wild camping, but wildstyle method just sounds so much cooler. On the camping app we use called iOverlander, fellow campers will post locations in the wild where they have spent the night, directions to get there, tips about the spot, what is available, and some even post pictures of the places if you're lucky. You basically just search the map, see what is closest to you, and you pop up your tent. We've had some extremely interesting wildstyle camping experiences, but that deserves a post on it's own.
So we pulled to the intersection around 4PM, and the pure beauty of the spot where we got off eased my fears of not getting a hitchhike ride that night. I would be more than happy to camp here if we didn't get picked up. And it's a good thing I was happy with the spot and that we purchased five days of meals, because we didn't get picked up that first night. We waited for about two hours, and only two cars drove by, neither stopped, which left us ride-less.
That first night and morning was cold. I didn't think it would be able to get much colder, but of course it would later on in our camping. We set up camp, cooked a lovely dinner under the stars, and shared a bottle of wine that we saved for our first night camping. We have since learned that you should eat dinner before it gets dark, even if you aren't hungry yet or are exhausted and just want to rest. Cooking and picking up in the dark just isn't worth it.
The next morning we woke up early, packed things up, and hit the road. We weren't feeling too optimistic about hitching a ride due to the inactivity of the road, so instead of staying in one spot with our thumbs up, we walked and planned to stop anytime someone drove by us. It was still really cold when we got moving so we kept on all of our layers. I should know better though; I get warm so easily. Jesse and I would become accustomed to our daily 2-3 de-layering stops in the first hour of our walking though.
We stopped to take off our Merino base layers after about 20 minutes of walking uphill. I had my pants around my ankles in the middle of the road, one leg in, one leg out, when Jesse says "Emily I hate to tell you this, but there's a car coming."
I thought he was messing with me though; he just stood and starting laughing. Unfortunately I realized I was wrong as I heard the car come up over the hill mid scurry. I rushed to clothe myself so my thong bared behind wouldn't be the first thing this stranger saw that we would be trying to hitch a ride with. Jesse just kept laughing - "What are you doing?!" I yelled. "Put your thumb out!"
He did. I hope I pulled my pants up in time. We got a ride to the town, but we'll never know if it was me or if he was just a nice guy. We'll go with the latter. He was from Bariloche and was dropping off some produce at a local store in the village. He was extremely nice and even stopped at a lookout point that he said had the best views of the lake and told us to get out and take five minutes at the top. His short ride with us saved us two days of walking.
Once in the town we bought batteries since one of our head lamps went out the night before and headed to the hiking office to get a map. Most places in Patagonia have national park offices that are well worth a quick pop in. We walked all along the gorgeous lake Traful and deck at this visitors office and found out about two waterfalls nearby. We hiked up, found a hiding spot to ditch our bags for an hour or two, and wandered around the waterfalls before heading on and trying our luck at getting another ride to the best camp site on the lake. One thing we didn't think to ask the office though (they also didn't mention it which is odd, because this is usually the point of an office like this) is if the campsite was even open yet. We were still in the first half of October; it was way early in the shoulder season for hiking here.
We got another ride from an Argentinian couple vacationing en route to the Seven Lakes. They were a little concerned about us when we pulled up to the spot and it was closed, but no worries we assured them we will just hop the fence. They offered to drive us all the way to the Seven Lakes with them, or anywhere else along their way, but we were set on this spot so we politely declined. They did mention that it was suppose to rain on Monday and snow on Tuesday though. It was Friday, so that gave us two days for the hike through the mountains to Villa Angostura, landing us there by Sunday evening, before the inclement weather was supposed to begin.
Another lesson learned. Check the weather whenever you get WIFI while camping. Strange how this didn't even cross our minds before practically begging the bus driver to let us off at a random spot on the side of the road. That's what you get for two totally inexperienced campers I guess.
In just a short time, we learned a lot about camping: cook before it gets dark, carry extra batteries, don't drink a bottle of wine at 10PM because you'll be up all night running around the corner to the "bathroom rock" in the freezing cold, carry extra batteries, ask the local park office which sites are actually open, and check the weather.
All things considered, we forgot about some big things, like if the place we were going was open, and the fact that it would rain and snow soon, but we were off to a good enough start. We will ignore the fact that Jesse broke the Go Pro screen this day since we replaced it later that week. Even though this campsite was closed, we hopped the fence and it was one of the most beautiful camp spots we had in all of Patagonia.
We walked to the water, dropped our bags, and searched the camp grounds for the perfect spot: good wind cover, out of sight of the road since technically we were trespassing, lakeside view, flat ground, and the best fire pit.
We scored on all of these things with the perfect spot, and with a 2PM arrival thanks to our second ride of the day, we had hours of relaxation and plenty of daylight for dinner time. After dinner, Jesse built a pretty impressive fire and we huddled up and warmed our hands to Harry Potter on audio book while we snacked on cookies and chocolate, a camping necessity no matter how much weight they added to our bags.
The sunset that night was probably the best sunset too that we witnessed in all of Patagonia. See for yourselves.
The next morning came and we felt good. I mean really good. We didn't get picked up that first night, but we had two beautiful camp sites, got rides, and we were both on cloud nine.
Well... the honeymoon phase of our camping journey was about to come crashing to an abrupt halt.
Let the Trial Trails begin, and may the odds be ever in your favor.