slide1 slide2 slide3 slide

Notes from the home of the hitchhiker

The end of the world?

Heavy clouds over destroyed ship in the port of Ushuaia
'Are you travelling with these dogs?'
'No they are following me since yesterday.'
'Ah, okay. Welcome to Uruguay,' an officer gave me back my passport with a new stamp. When I went out the dogs started to wave their tails like crazy again. They accompanied me all night and in the morning followed to the other side of Chuí, here called Chuy, where Uruguayan immigration and customs were. The town wasn't too appealing, it was actually the most dirty town I saw in a while and the amount of dogs wandering around was unbelievable. At least they were all friendly bunch.

The first lift was in a few minutes and brought to me to a crossroad near Castillos. It was very hard to speak with a driver, I just couldn't switch to Spanish somehow. It felt like Portuguese wiped it out. The pronunciation in Uruguay was so different that I also couldn't catch everything. At the junction every few minutes I could see a new group of teenagers coming and finding a lift easily to a beach nearby. And I was standing on the other side for an hour trying to get to Punta del Este without any luck. At some point I was joined by a young lad hitching back to Montevideo. It looked like hitchhiking was popular, but we both couldn't find a lift for a long time. Then after a walk to the other side of town I finally hitched a pickup driven by a family. I loved pickups, but at that moment I was hoping for something more sheltered, I could see lightnings on the southern sky for quite a while. And Punta del Este was in the south.

I was observing with an excitement that huge storm developing above my head, though I knew it could be tough for me and my backpack. I couldn't hide behind the driver's cabin as a concrete mixer was standing there, so I put all the stuff between legs and covered myself with a camping matt, still trying to observe the changing landscape around. Pampa was sometimes turning into a palm forest and this time it was butia, which could be found in southern Brazil as well. We were also passing through patches of eucalyptus plantations and the smell of these trees during a warm summer rain was hypnotising. Every time I could smell it again I was closing my eyes to make this sensation more intense. The family dropped me at the exit for Punta del Este and after saying thanks and explaining that I'm not Brazilian I started to look for an outline of eucalyptus trees. The sky was getting blue again, I wasn't too wet and all I wanted was to fell asleep in my hammock with this stunning smell. And soon it happened.

In the morning I got quickly to Punta del Este and it was just as most people said, expensive resort for reach tourists. Not my kind of place. I wanted to get there because there was a marina and I thought I could meet some sailors heading south towards Tierra del Fuego. I preferred to get there by land, but there was a hope of meeting someone planning a trip to Antarctica and yes, this continent was also in my plans, I think it's a dream of every geographer to see it. There were not many boats in Punta del Este and almost all of them were either Argentine or Uruguayan. It looked like all the people willing to sail Patagonia already left. So I decided to leave as well and I got to Montevideo with just one car that stopped within a minute.

The capital of Uruguay had very different feel than Brazilian or Venezuelan cities, there was a scent of Europe on every corner. It was actually reminding me Paris with all the plane trees along the streets. It also had European prices. I crashed there for a few days in a little house of Isa, a couchsurfer who lived in suburbs with her seventeen years old son Diego. Her place was always open for travellers and it was this kind of place where you feel so good that you don't want to go sightseeing. We could just sip mate for hours and hours with a bit of chat and nice tunes. One night we went out to see free gigs organised by the city council. There was a rock band playing which name I forgot and they were talking and singing a lot about the military regime that ruled Uruguay for many years. This scar seemed very fresh for Uruguayans as it was a topic of many conversations I heard and those hard years built even stronger national identity.

As usual I stayed longer than I planned and I realised it was almost Christmas. I thought I would spend it in Ushuaia, and now I wasn't sure if I'd manage to get at least to Buenos Aires, where one CS family was already waiting for me. It took me half a day to pack my stuff and prepare my wallet for Argentina. It was better to bring US dollars and change them on the black market as the official exchange rate was a big rip off. Argentina decided to introduce currency control similar to the one in Venezuela.

I started to hitch at peaje, a toll station in the far outskirts of Montevideo. After maybe half an hour I was picked up by a family going back home in Rosario. Leticia, wife of Juan Jo and mother of Braian and Tobias, offered me mate, and this drink was like a religion for Uruguayans. Everyone was walking with a thermos under an arm pit and holding mate in a hand. Machines with hot water were on every petrol station and in some supermarkets. After a little chat I was invited to stay overnight in their house and when we arrived there I was surprised to see that they didn't bother to lock the door. It was a huge change after Brazil. In small towns like Rosario houses were left unlocked, didn't have bars in the windows, not even mentioning high walls or electric fences around them. Even though the crime rate went up in Uruguay after the crisis in 2002, it was still one of the safest countries in South America, with relatively high standard of living. After a little snack we all jumped into the car again and drove to the other side of town for a family gathering and parillada, Uruguayan barbecue party. The house was really crowded, women were preparing salads and guys taking care of the meat, which was absolutely delicious. After filling it all up with a few beers I was so full that night that I thought I wouldn't eat anything for a week.

Around midday the next day I started to continue hitching and even though the traffic was scarce on Ruta 2, I was finding lifts quite easily. First with a truck to Florencio Sanchez and than another one to Mercedes. The second driver was more talkable and at one place he showed me a little countryside house with a tractor in the backyard, which was a common view in this flat agricultural country.
'Our president lives in a similar one', he said, ' he's a good man who doesn't need much, he was imprisoned for fourteen years during the regime, sometimes even kept at the bottom of a well. He's not like so many others before, corrupted bastards.'
First I wasn't sure if I understood everything correctly, but later on I'd found out it was truth. My driver was talking about José Mujica, who's sometimes called The Poorest President of the World. He drove an old Volkswagen Beatle, and was giving away to charities about ninety percent of his presidential income. Hard to imagine such a politician in Europe, even between left wing parties.

From Mercedes I was brought to a junction for Paysandu together with another hitchhiker and a minute later all the way to the border crossing near Fray Bentos. That was very short stay in Uruguay and it felt not enough to really discover the country. A country maybe without astonishing geography, but with good people and with the president who could be example for others.

The immigration officer after stamping my passport told me that I couldn't walk over the bridge to the other side of Rio Uruguay and showed me a place to hitch. A minute later I was picked up by a truck just to the other bank from where two more cars quickly brought me to Gualeguaychu. First hitchhiking in Argentina looked promising. The town seemed a bit more chaotic in comparison with Uruguayan ones, full of old advertising and with a few abandoned petrol stations. It straight away reminded me about the infamous crisis from 2001 which ruined so many people. I marched quickly to the other side of town and crashed for a night in a construction site between bricks and bags of cement.

After eating leftovers of Brazilian granola for breakfast I had to wait for the first lift for around one hour. Not bad considering it was Sunday, the twenty third of December. I was picked up by a cop who's family immigrated from Ukraine and who was very happy to help a Pole. He dropped me at the motorway junction where police checkpoint was located so all the cars had to slow down. Twenty minutes later I was already sitting in a car with a young lad driving back home in Buenos Aires. Flooded in many places pampa started to turn into metropolis with high buildings and spaghetti of roads. The city centre looked a bit like older brother of Montevideo.

Mural with the face of Diego Maradona in Buenos Aires
Eliana who invited me to spend Christmas with her family lived in far suburbs of the city in a big house together with her parents and sister. She hitched all the way to Mexico once and was also planning a trip around the world after finishing university, so we were exchanging a lot of useful information. Her parents meanwhile were preparing for Christmas Eve, but it was more chilled out, no one was spending a whole day in a kitchen like it was in my family house. The next day since the morning the main news on the tele was the weather. The heat in Buenos Aires was unbearable, it was hotter than in Manaus with heat index reaching fifty degrees. No one in the house could remember so extremely hot Christmas and for me it was absolutely exotic.

In that weather I had to get to the other part of town to meet up with Sebastian, probably my life saver. A few days before I asked on Buenos Aires group in Couchsurfing if anyone had any old jacket to sponsor or lend. Sebastian offered me his professional jacket which he was using when going south to Patagonia.
'Try if it fits you' he said straight away when I arrived. I put it on for a second though it was even hard to think about jackets in such a heat. It felt too hot in a T-shirt, well it actually felt too hot in my own skin.
'It's perfect. When should I bring it back? You will probably need it after the summer.'
'Don't worry, here in Buenos Aires I won't need it at all. Take your time, you bring it back after Patagonia.'
We had a little chat about my crazy plan to hitch to Antarctica and his experiences in Tierra del Fuego. I left his house thinking not for the first time that CS is a site connecting absolutely fantastic people. These people were the best reason to discover this crazy planet. Salt of the Earth.

When I came back to Eliana's house everything was almost ready for the supper. We sat around the table together with other family members around ten pm and the highlight of the night was asado, typical Argentine roast. Unlike the traditional Eve in Poland in that country it was normal to eat meat that day and no one was preparing twelve dishes. The noise of fireworks on the streets got kids excited, but terrified all the dogs in the house. Santa Claus brought gifts after the supper and later on with a glass of wine we discussed cultural differences between our countries and I was introduced to the complicated history and politics of Argentina.

I stayed for a few more days in Buenos Aires preparing for the Patagonian road. Eliana gave me some more clothes which her father didn't use anymore, just in case, because even in the summer Tierra del Fuego could be freezing and I was hoping to get much more south. The day I left was fresh, nothing like the days before and after getting outside of the metropolis with a public transport I quickly found a lift to a town called San Miguel del Monte. After half an hour another car stopped with two guys inside. They said they were going really far and after studying a map I realised I could go with them to a junction behind Bahia Blanca where Ruta 3 was turning south. All around us was just grass, grass and grass, until the horizon, dotted from time to time with ruminating it cows. We passed Bahia Blanca in the middle of the night and soon stopped in a service station for a little nap. In the morning they dropped me at the junction after driving together for six hundred kilometres.

From that point I was picked up by the first car with lads going back home after a night out in Bahia Blanca. They lived in Mayor Buratovic, a village named probably after some Slavic immigrant. After finding a little forest with an altar of Gauchito Gil, a folk saint never officially recognised by the Church, I decided to have one more nap, it was still very early and I didn't sleep much at the station. When I woke up I realised I was sleeping next to a dead parrot. Pretty rare. I needed three lifts to get to Viedma and it was late afternoon when I arrived there. Before I did some shopping for the road the sun was just about to touch the Earth. I started to look around for some place to crash and in the same time one guy stopped and offered me a lift to the junction behind San Antonio Oeste. He was surprised that I was going from Bahia Blanca through Viedma, most traffic was going via Rio Colorado along Ruta 22 and Ruta 251.

The crimson sky was our companion for a long time on that Patagonian road, and in that twilight I could see how the juicy grass was getting thinner and thinner, how haciendas around us started to disappear and how slowly everything turned into endless semi desert. Suddenly something rasped on one side of the car and when we stopped we noticed one wheel being loose. There was no spanner to fix it so we were driving maximum eighty kilometres per hour and I was asking myself all the way: will the wheel break off, or not? When we arrived at the junction it was well after midnight and I crashed at the station in my hammock set between the only few trees in that wilderness.

In the morning, after maybe an hour on the side of the road, I saw a guy with a broken backpack and dirty jeans approaching me. He was hitchhiking as well, going to Puerto Madryn for New Years party. He offered me mate and some snack and on his way back to the station to get more water he found a lift with a truck. I needed maybe twenty minutes more to find mine. It was a van with an old couple which lived for half a year in Patagonia and the other half in the north of the country. They dropped me near Puerto Madryn at YPF, a service station owned by the state. A minute later I saw the same hitchhiker and he invited me for mate again. After a few rounds I grabbed my little backpack with a camera and went to the toilet. In case he'd found a lift only my big and heavy backpack would be left unattended. Harder to steal it. When I came back the guy looked into my eyes, said something about the backpack which I didn't understand and tried to... punch me! He started to shout and tried again and again, but luckily couldn't really reach my face. I quickly took my stuff and hid inside the station, asking workers for help. What if he took a knife out? The guy was furious, completely nuts and my heart was pounding like crazy. After a while he gave up and started to walk along the road to the city which was a few miles away. One girl from the station brought me a coffee asking if I was all right and I wasn't sure. I mean he didn't hit me physically but it actually hurt me. It was the first time that violence was directed towards me, after years of travelling. I was analysing what had happened again and again but couldn't really understand. That guy definitely had some mental problems. All I could hope for was that I wouldn't meet him again on this desert road.

In the evening I arrived at the next station near Trelew with a truck driver. It looked like it could rain so I pitched a tent I bought in Brazil that I'd never used before. It was a cheap stuff from a supermarket, probably not of the highest quality, but better than nothing. The morning welcomed me with a wind so strong that it was hard to walk and just after packing my stuff, the first heavy shower poured from the sky. I spent hours at the station connected to the internet, all the YPFs had wifi for customers, sipping coffee and sending New Years greetings to friends and family.

Around noon I took a bus to the city centre to buy some food and beers, even though I was travelling alone I wanted to celebrate that night as well. A few minutes after arriving at a service station on the other side of Trelew I saw a couple with backpacks getting out of a car. They were from France and hitching to El Calafate. We pitched our tents together under a roofed car park, perfectly protecting us from the wind and rain. After cooking some pasta we started the hitchhiker's New Year's Eve party. We had a few beers, a carton of wine and a bottle of Fernet, Italian liquor which became Argentine national drink. I had never celebrated a New Years on a closed petrol station before. Life on the road!

I woke up with a terrible headache, it was about to explode. What the fuck, I thought, I didn't drink that much. The Frenchies soon left and I started to have shivers. It wasn't only a hungover, I was getting a fever. I didn't get to Tierra del Fuego yet and I already got cold. I asked the guys working at the station if it was OK to camp one more night and they offered me some painkillers. The signal of wifi was strong enough so when I was not sleeping I was reading some stuff on the web. I really felt like shit.

Forcing myself to hit the road again was very hard, I didn't feel much better in the morning, luckily the weather was nice, it was actually too warm for the jacket. Around two pm I finally stuck my thumb up and in a few minutes had a lift with another truck to Caleta Olivia. The view behind the window was pretty much the same for all the day, flat dry land covered with little scrub. We arrived at YPF at the beginning of the town when it was already dark and after a hot shower I jumped into my tent half alive.

When I woke up my T-shirt was wet of my sweat. Feeling a bit dizzy I walked to the outskirts and after another hot shower in another station I continued hitching, which was easy again. Another truck going straight to Rio Gallegos and another whole day of emptiness around. When we arrived at YPF I found a nice lawn with a tent and I first thought it was one of many cyclists that go to Ushuaia and which we were passing all the time, but there were no bikes around, so it must had been another hitchhiker. When I woke up the tent was gone already, but I saw one backpacker hanging around between cars. After breakfast I started to walk along the road expecting to meet him but I couldn't see anyone till the far outskirts.

Patagonian wilderness
Patagonian wilderness
The first lift was in a few minutes and this time it was a Chilean truck going to Punta Arenas. It brought me to the border in the middle of nowhere where I saw a huge queue for the Immigration and Customs. Chileans were very strict about the environmental protection and no one could enter its territory with fruits, veggies, honey, seeds, basically any fresh food. They were scanning every piece of luggage, something common at the airports but not on land borders. And in this case all that was done to people who in majority after two hundred kilometres would cross the border again. There was no possibility to get to Ushuaia by land without leaving Argentine territory. When I finally went through I saw another hitchhiker and he looked like the guy I saw in Rio Gallegos.
'Didn't you sleep behind the station in Gallegos last night?' I asked him after saying hello.
'Yeah I did.'
'I was sleeping on the other side of that little building .'
'Really? I haven't seen your tent, but I saw you in the morning drinking coffee.'
I had a little distrust on the beginning after the incident in Puerto Madryn, but it soon disappeared. Pablo was a teacher of history in a school in his hometown Bahia Blanca and it was his first trip to Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. He didn't have much hitching experience so when I told him about my trip he nearly couldn't believe it.

There wasn't much traffic and it was getting late. After a little chat, mate and photo session with guanaco, the animal we both could see for the first time from such a little distance, we decided to go back to the crossing and ask custom officers if it was possible to camp near the border. Before we did it Pablo chatted up one driver for a lift and he agreed to bring us to the ferry terminal. Cool.

The area south from Rio Gallegos must had much more precipitation, the grass was thick and we could spot lots of sheep on the way. When we arrived at the terminal our driver went to the office and Pablo started to chat with another trucker. A minute later we moved our stuff to his cabin. We had a lift to Rio Grande, back in Argentina. When we embarked we both run upstairs of the little ferry to see the Strait of Magellan. We were leaving the continent and sailing towards the island of Tierra del Fuego. At this moment, looking at the fiery stain on a dark blue sky I realised how far south I was. I crossed all the continent from Venezuela. I felt proud and excited. But Pablo looked even more excited than me. It was nice to see it and it reminded me the fantastic feeling when I was crossing the German border for the first time years ago.

It took us something like half an hour to get to the other side and after ten or twenty kilometres tarmac turned into a gravel road. Our speed dropped below thirty. For Chileans this road was connecting only a few villages, they had no reason to pave it, but for Argentines it was the only connection between Ushuaia and Rio Grande with the rest of the country. It was hell to drive there, but I think no country would invest in the road being in a foreign territory.

We were driving for hours and hours sipping mate and listening to crazy stories that driver was telling us, but in reality I was half asleep. My fever was gone, but I still didn't feel very well and I knew that lack of sleep could get me worse again. In the middle of the night we re-entered Argentina and we could speed up on a new tarmac. It was getting bright when we got off in industrial suburbs of Rio Grande. The city was a tax free zone so many companies opened there their factories. We were wrecked but there was nowhere to camp really so we went to town to eat something just to realise that everything was still closed including YPF. Pablo had some tins in his backpack and that was our breakfast and dinner for the night before. After a short nap inside the bus station we saw the first rays of sunshine and decided to continue hitching.

Within an hour we found a lift to Tolhuin on the back of a pickup. It was chilly outside so I zipped my jacket properly and hid behind the cabin. After a few miles we spotted the first tiny trees, the first naturally growing trees after thousands of miles of Patagonian desert. After a while midget trees turned into a forest, then we saw ponds and lakes and finally the snowy peaks of the Andes in the distance. What a view! In Tolhuin we were invited for lunch by father of Pablo's friend. He lived in Ushuaia but was working in that little village a hundred kilometres away. That was the distance dividing us from our destination, from the city in the end of the world. Was it really world's most southern city was questionable, Chilean Puerto Williams was further south, but it was more of a town than a city. Will it be my end of the world, my southern limit, I was wondering, or will I be lucky and get more south?

The final lift was maybe after one hour of hiding from showers in YPF. The driver was working in an environmental agency and told us a bit about the area. We started to climb up the windy road staring like hypnotised at the white peaks, blue lakes and thick green forest. What surprised me was that it was not made of coniferous trees, it was all lenga, one genus of southern beeches. We stopped on the way in many places to take pictures, and the sky meanwhile cleared up. A perfect day to arrive at the last city.

We got off at the entrance to the port from where a friend of Pablo picked us up. He couldn't host us, but showed us the cheapest campsite in town. It wasn't cheap, nothing was cheap in here, but there was no response from CS, so I paid for a few nights for the beginning to give myself some time. The same evening we were invited for dinner by Pablo's friend and later went for a pint to an Irish pub.

I was still very weak after the fever and I couldn't really think of boat hitchhiking yet, I needed to get better and organise myself in Ushuaia first. Finding a lift to Antarctica, the most unreachable continent, could be the hardest part of my trip and could take a lot of time. The success was not guaranteed, it was all question of luck, but I wouldn't be myself if I didn't try. I started to look around if I could camp somewhere wild, fifty pesos per night was too much for me, my budget was getting more and more tight. But then living in the wild without a place to warm up could be really hard. It was raining a lot the second night and a few hundred metres above fresh snow covered the slopes. Maybe I could camp wild at least from time to time to save a bit, I wasn't too sure.

The third day I received a message from Couchsurfing. Pancho, who lived with his girlfriend Aymi, wrote that he could host me. How brilliant! I sent him my Argentine phone number and was awaiting more news. The hours were passing and no info. I wanted to camp wild but at the end I stayed one more night in the campsite with Pablo, it was his last night in Ushuaia and we had really great time together. Buena onda* as they say in Argentina.

All the next day I was waiting for a message from Pancho and nothing. I took all my stuff with me and went to marina to see how many boats were there. It actually didn't look too well, but I knew it wouldn't be like in the Mediterranean, cold and stormy winds are not for every sailor. It was almost ten pm when I decided to find a place to camp in the forest on the western side of town. I started to pitch my tent in the light of a torch and when I was almost ready my phone rang.
'Hey, here's Pancho from CS. Where are you?
'I'm just putting my tent in a forest.'
'Forest? Which forest?'
'Not far from Andino campsite.'
'Oh, I live not too far. Where are you exactly?'
'Just in a forest. You know what, I'll call you when I get to 12 Octubre street.'
'OK, find some shop or something with a name and give me a shout.'
It was well after eleven when I finally ended up in his house with a heating full on. After tasty dinner and some funny chat I cosied myself up on the couch made of old palettes and a mattress. All right, I thought, get yourself fucking working again and back to boat hitchhiking! Summer in Antarctica is very short! And then I fell asleep in a second.

* Buena onda - literally good wave. Popular saying describing positive situation or person.