By day three I was slightly less enamoured with life on the road. I was starting to smell, hadn’t changed my clothes in 48 hours and counting, hadn’t really slept, my brain was mush from trying to keep up with the Spanish. Toilet visits were few and far between, and even then I could only really take care of my dental hygiene. Amazing how invigorating a proper floss can be.
Top tips: Do wear sensible (cotton) underwear when undertaking an adventure like this. Avoid tight jeans.
At the service station in Rio Gallegos, after we said goodbye to Leo (I rolled up my sleeping bag on an island in the middle of a busy intersection), Nikki and I got lucky again. A French woman – Veronique, I believe – asked if she could use my laptop to email a friend. Turns out she had just come from Ushuaia and had also been hitchhiking. “My guy is nice and he’s going back to Ushuaia,” she said. “I’m sure he’ll be happy to give you a ride.”
And so he was, and so the three of us set off with Mario, who dropped Veronique on the side of the road after we entered Chile. She was heading for Punta Arenas or El Calafate; I forget.
Yes indeed, we had reached borderland. You cross in and out of Argentina a number of times to get to Ushuaia. First, you have to leave Argentina, drive for a while, then enter Chile.
This is when you cross the Strait of Magellan. Riding onto the giant ferry loaded with trucks and cars and people was a significant milestone. Nikki and I grabbed a coffee (Christ, the price of instant coffee! Honestly) and made like tourists at the bow. Wiki says the straits are difficult to navigate because of winds and waves and such, but it was a clear, still day and we could see all the way to the opposite side. Penguins played in the water (Magellan penguins, I presume), and it was cold, breezy.
After the 15-or-so minute ferry ride it’s back onto dry, hard Patagonian soil. It was late-ish afternoon now. Sun setting over golden sand, the movement of dry shrubs outside betraying the presence of a strong, sweeping wind.
Back at a border post, leave Chile, a few kilometers down the road, then back into Argentina. Mario and I got through passport control without problems, but the very young uniformed guy at the counter took Nikki behind a closed door and into an office and Mario and I sat there, waiting, communicating in hand gestures and shrugs. Briefly I wondered if Nikki was a fugitive of some kind. I wondered if I’d ever see her again! I had visions of taking both our backpacks and waiting in the cold outside while she was held somewhere inside, being robbed of her basic human rights, interrogated, beaten …
I watched the clock as 30 minutes ticked by. Young uniformed guy #2 tried making small talk; I was wary and annoyed because his comrade had taken my only friend. He said the inevitable: “Ah, Sudafrika! Mundial! Vuvuzela!” (Ah, South Africa! World Cup! Vuvuzela!). ‘Yeah, yeah, fuckin’ mundial asshole, get over it, we have. Where’s my friend, don’t arrest us, I have mate in my bag, is that illegal’ went my internal monologue.
Nikki reemerged shortly after my visions became violent. She was not beaten up, but she was not happy either. People from the USA – I can’t call them Americans anymore, obviously – are charged a “reciprocity fee” when they enter Argentina. Nikki had paid her fee the first time she entered Argentina months before, but for some reason there was no record of this payment. So she had to pay again.
It rocks having a South African passport in South America. So far only Bolivia has cost me money to enter.
It’s worth recounting the “Curtains Drawn” episode in Rio Grande (I think it was Rio Grande. It was definitely night time, once we were back in Argentina). We pulled off in a dark backstreet where there were lots of other trucks. Mario asked me to do something that I didn’t understand, and Nikki said “He wants you to draw the curtains”. Which I did. Then Mario put his index finger on his lips and I assumed he was asking us to be quiet. We lay low.
Another truck pulled up in front of us and Mario got out of the cab. Through a slit in the curtains I could see someone leave the driver’s side of the other truck. The men greeted each other and then moved to the back of Mario’s truck. A heavy door slid open, hushed tones from outside. Inside the cab, it was tense. We had no idea what was going on, didn’t dare say a word.
The men went back and forth outside. Whatever was being exchanged couldn’t have been particularly heavy, and then they said goodbye. The second truck started up and maneuvered past us and away.
Mario climbed back into the cab, completely nonchalant with a wad of cash in his hand. The truck rattled to life and off we went.
Now, I’m not saying he did, I’m not saying he didn’t, I’m not saying what either. Pure conjecture, my friends.
It was late but Mario wanted to keep going the few hundred kilometres to our destination. Nikki and I went to sleep on the bottom bunk; when we awoke we’d be in Ushuaia.
And this is what greeted us on that painfully beautiful, freezing morning at the southern tip of the world.
About the money
Beyond being a fabulous daredevil thing to do, hitchhiking was the only way I could afford to get to Ushuaia. I’ve worked out roughly how much I would’ve spent – on transport and the bare minimum on accommodation, assuming I’d sleep over, which I doubt I would’ve done – one way, but it’s difficult because of the Chile/Argentina changes and the lack of public transport to Ushuaia (most people fly).
- Bus from Trelew to Rio Gallegos: ARG$700 (R1400)
- Overnight in Rio Gallegos: ARG$100 (R200)
- Bus from Rio Gallegos to Rio Grande: ARG$345 (R690)
- Rio Grande to Ushuaia: ARG$100 (R200)
Total: ARG$1245 (R2490) (excluding food)
- Hitchhiking: Free (excluding one or two milanesas completas, and Leo’s pot lunch)