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Notes from the home of the hitchhiker

Travellers' land

Road to El Chalten in Argentine Patagonia with a view of Mount Fitzroy
The first day in Punta Arenas, unlike most people in the camping, I spent pretty much in my tent sleeping. Finally a proper rest. The city didn't have much to offer, the most beautiful part for me was a cemetery with old decorated tombs. Hitching out was easy, but the distances covered very short. After maybe five lifts, surprisingly mostly with taxis I ended up on the junction for Ushuaia and Puerto Natales, where little café and petrol station was located. The traffic was nearly non-existent that evening and soon I pitched my tent worried by heavy clouds building up above. That night my tent went through the first heavy rain test and well, it would be better if a snorkel was included.

It brighten up around nine and soon after I was picked up by another taxi straight to Natales. How did they make money here if they were offering free lifts to hitchhikers? The town was built on a shore of a picturesque bay connected by fjords with the ocean and was packed with backpackers preparing for a trek to famous Torres del Paine National Park. I needed to wait for a message from a CS host so I went to a café and handicrafts shop run by a cool guy called Jorge. Inside I met Julia, a girl from Hawaii and when I told her about my trip to Antarctica she basically packed her stuff, said goodbye to everyone and left for Ushuaia. What a spontaneity!

In the afternoon I ended up in the house of Gloria, Oscar and their almost adult kids and the place was packed with travellers just like the town. Guest rooms were full of bank beds and they were inviting everyone, people from all over the world. Every day people were coming and leaving either before visiting Torres del Paine or after and I was the only one who didn't want to go there. The entrance and campsites were way too expensive and I knew there was a lot of wild nature to be discovered in western Patagonia without being ripped off. I knew I had a lot of time to lose myself in the wild of the Andes. At some point there were fifteen people inside the house and preparing a dinner for such a crowd was a logistical challenge.

In order to get further north I had to cross the Argentine border again, a massive Southern Patagonian Ice Field was located north of the national park and there was no land connection with the rest of Chile. This time I wasn't hitching alone, I was joined by Johanna, a French girl met in Gloria's house. We got close to the border with two short lifts and than an Argentine couple from Neuquen, who was travelling in their white camper van, picked us up. Once we crossed the border the forest turned back to a desert where wind was reaching extreme speed. We sealed the windows with a sellotape to stop the noise and every time we passed cyclists we were wondering how they could do it. We were driving along Ruta 40, the most famous Argentine road, which during a short summer was full of two wheels lovers.

The couple dropped us in El Calafate even though their destination was El Chaltén. They drove off for thirty kilometres in order to not leave us on the junction in the middle of nowhere. The town was another tourist centre located on the side of the glacial Lake Argentino, the biggest freshwater lake of the country. I couldn't find any CS member willing to host me there, but Johanna knew a cheap place to crush. It was called La Cueva, a climbers' refuge owned by Jorge, long haired man in his forties. The refuge had a kitchen and common area, a backyard to put tents and a shed with a huge bed where up to ten people could sleep together. It had a hippie vibe with a lot of artists, vagabonds like us and mountain aficionados popping in and where cultural events were taking place.

There was a festival going on in town and with Johanna we caught up again with Eva and Iosu from Spain whom we met in the same house in Puerto Natales. We were also joined by one more Frenchie Mélanie and Ariel who was a local CSer and a singer in experimental band Suicidio Primavera. Live music, wines, beers, empanadas and a lot of laugh! After maybe a week spent in town I started to feel the call of nature. It was time to see one of the most spectacular glaciers of Patagonia - Perito Moreno.

I was told by the locals that it was possible to enter without paying, and as the entrance fee for foreigners was nearly three times the price for the nationals, I definitely wanted to avoid it. The plan was to get off before the entrance, camp somewhere in the bushes and get in before the dawn when no one was working yet. I started to hitch in the afternoon as it was only eighty kilometres away and it took me maybe an hour and a half to find a lift, this time with two young girls. I was relaxing in the back seat having a funny chat when suddenly after one of bends we were stopped by the park employees.
'Where are you from guys?'
'From Rio Gallegos,' both girls answered in the same time.
'And you?' the ranger pointed at me.
'Passport please?'
'I'm from Poland.'
'It's hundred pesos then.'
I gave the money thinking why the hell no one told the gate was thirty kilometres before the glacier. Well planned...

Perito Moreno Glacier in Argentine Patagonia
Perito Moreno Glacier
Nothofagus forest started to grow bigger and bigger with every mile. We were driving along Brazo Rico, the southern arm of Lake Argentino with this amazingly blue water and after another sharp turn I saw it - enormous river of ice slowly moving down the valley. Perito Moreno was one of three glaciers in Patagonia still growing. After arriving I quickly walked down the metal platforms to get as close as possible and at the front it felt like I could nearly touch it. After Antarctica I wasn't sure if I'd be impressed, but hell yeah I was. Maybe the surrounding made it so different, such an amount of ice and the thick forest on its side. And all that noise! Cracking sounds could be heard all the time and ice calving was happening from time to time. Only less than a month before a huge rupture occured after the pressure of the dammed arm of the lake broke the ice. Such dramatic event was taking place on average in every few years. Lucky the one who was here that day.

It was getting late and most cars left, but I didn't want to go back. There was no camping area and only one expensive hotel a few miles down the road, so I started to walk looking for a hidden place to crash. It was probably illegal inside the national park but without a tent, inside my green bivy bag nobody would find me. I wanted it to be just me and the nature, intimate night of lovers. I camped on the side of the road behind broken trees and soon stars pierced the sky. In the silence of the night every crack was so loud and every new one was building up the tension more and more. When it was finally released it ended up with an explosion and a big splash. The same music since millennia.

After coming back I spent one more night in La Cueva and decided to go to El Chaltén. It was late when I began to hitch and very late when I finally got a lift, so on the arrival I hardly saw another wonder of nature awaiting me, Mount Fitzroy. I was invited to stay with another CS family who lived in a tiny house and though there was no more room inside, the backyard was big enough to host many tents. I imagined a quiet time with a family but when I arrived it turned to be quite different. The first words I heard from Mario after introducing myself were: 'grab some wine!' A second later someone added: 'hey we met in Puerto Natales!' It was Robert travelling with his girlfriend Sabine, both from Italian Tirol. Soon I was holding a melon filled with red wine and chatting with Henrik and Peycho, both cycling around the world, the first one from Denmark and the other one from Bulgaria.

When the roast lamb was ready we sat at the table and suddenly kids started to cry. I asked Flor, Mario's wife what happened. Shit, the view was disgusting, their cat had its belly wide open. Maybe a dog did it, maybe something else, we had no clue. Mario called a vet but he couldn't come. Something had to be done to save the cat's life, so with the help of Robert and other guys Mario started to stitch the belly himself. It kind of looked funny, a few guys after a few melons of wine operating the cat on the kitchen table. After finishing we went out and Mario got his new nickname - Super Mario.

The next day all the guests left, but new people arrived and it was like that every second day, constant movement. The cat started to get better soon even though a vet removed some stitches and I could see its inside again. Every evening we were chipping in some cash and cooking a massive meal for all, telling stories and exchanging information. In the morning we could buy fresh bread baked by Flor to sell it in a little shop which was part of the house. The family income was coming also from Mario's work in a construction as every summer something new was built. The village was growing fast fuelled by tourism sector, though it was founded in 1985 for military reasons, there was a border dispute going on that time between Chile and Argentina.

I couldn't really see the top of the Mount Fitzroy in the first few days, it was hiding behind the clouds, but when the sky finally cleared up, together with Sang, another cyclist this time from Belgium, we decided to go for a trek. The trail wasn't hard and we needed only two and a half hours to get to the camp site. We were in the area of Los Glaciares National Park, same one in which Perito Moreno was located, but in this section there was no cover charge, so far. It was almost dark when we arrived and we met there with Max and Sophie from France, who were also staying at Flor's and we decided to hike up at dawn together. After refreshing in a cold stream I was standing for quite a while looking at the steep granite wall of Fitzroy enlightened by the rising moon. What a place.

It was freezing when we began to climb but the steep trail quickly warmed us up. As we were walking Fitzroy was glowing with orange light, but once we arrived to the view point clouds covered the eastern sky and the colour disappeared. It still looked majestic, like a king between mountains of this world. Its height wasn't so impressive, less than three thousand metres, but for climbers it was one of the most difficult walls to conquer. Dozens of people were reaching the top of the Everest every year while on Fitzroy maybe one.

After a few more days spent on a trail or in the house in El Chaltén it was time to move further north, running away from the cold. Short Patagonian summer was almost gone and even during the summer sleeping in a tent wasn't too pleasurable, sometimes I had to put on all the clothes I had. After some shopping I just checked my email. A new message from Julia. Fucking hell, she did it! She'd found a job on the last ship sailing to Antarctica. She was lucky, but she wouldn't be if she didn't push for it.

Around 4 p.m. two women with a baby on board going to El Calafate stopped and as I was waiting for a while in a queue I jumped quickly in. Getting to the junction with the main road sounded like a good idea, but there was more traffic between El Chaltén and El Calafate then in my direction and more meant maybe one car in ten or fifteen minutes.

The wind was blowing my head off, it was hard to stand still and there was nowhere to hide, back in the desert. Soon I realised I forgot to fill up my bottles and I could quickly run out of water. I had seven kilometres to Lake Viedma, but I would have to walk back, not even along the road, so I thought I would start walking north and look for a stream. I saw a few of them earlier closer to the village, so there should be more. In the worst case scenario there was another village thirty kilometres away, doable.

After a few hours my hips started to be sore, my stuff was too heavy. All the streams I passed were dry but the walk was still enjoyable. The wind was pushing me from behind and the moonless night was making the view of the Milky Way so real, it was just above my shoulder. I was walking through the desert on that little planet, in that little corner of the universe. It brought me that fantastic feeling of being part of it, part of everything, being it! When I got tired I put my tent and lied down, slept a bit and in the morning continued. Only a few cars passed and when finally one stopped I was only three kilometres away from Tres Lagos, the first settlement.

The guys who gave me a lift were engineers working for a company that was building a new road there. The driver dropped me at the petrol station saying he could drive me later all the way to Gobernador Gregores. I just had to wait. I didn't want to go any further, here I had access to food and water. A few minutes later I saw a couple with backpacks getting off a four wheel drive, Germans hitching in the same direction. We shared a mate waiting for the engineer hoping he would have a room for all of us. And he had. Almost all the road between Tres Lagos and Gregores was under construction, miles and miles of roadworks. Another section was being improved and soon the romantic view of the gravel road cutting a desert and the sign Ruta 40 next to it would be seen only on postcards. In the town my travel mates went for a camping and I decided to crash behind a YPF where I could enjoy a hot shower after a cold night.

After breakfast within a minute I had a lift straight to town called Perito Moreno with a guy working for a telecommunication company. They were putting fibre optic cables which meant fast speed internet for Patagonian people. Modern technology was slowly reaching the most remote places on Earth. In Perito Moreno I had to hide in a station from a pissing rain which lasted for several hours. Late in the afternoon I did some shopping and started to hitch. A bus stopped. I waved my head saying no, but still the door opened. I said that I was hitchhiking but I was invited on board anyways. Cool, I'd never hitched a bus before.

At the bus station in Los Antiguos I saw long dreadlocks which looked familiar and than I heard that specific voice.
'Hey crazy!' I started.
'Paluch! No fucking way you're here as well. Where are you going now?'
'To Chile, wanna see the Carretera Austral, every one was saying it's a beautiful road.
'Oh, I'm going to El Bolson, different direction then.'
'Where are you staying?'
'Here! I told them I have a bus in the morning and they let me sleep here.'
'Cool, I think I'll crash here as well, it's pissing outside again.'

It was Oceana whom I met in Jorge's refuge, and she was doing exactly the same thing as when I saw her the first time - making jewellery for sale. This French girl was supporting her travels around the continent purely from her craft. It was a lot of work, but she was absolutely independent financially. Inspiring. Next to us there was an Argentine called Juan, who was also hitching around. His backpack was filled up mostly by maps, he had like five kilos of that. More crazy about them than me.

The morning welcomed me with the sun and I started to walk early towards the border. With two short lifts I arrived in Chile Chico, the first town on the other side. Moving further west wasn't too easy, first of all I had a competition, a couple from Tel Aviv. Patagonia was a popular destination for Israelis who were usually travelling in large groups after finishing their long military service back home. Secondly there was basically no traffic. It took me something like six hours to finally catch a pickup.

Sign warning against tsunami in Chile
Common view on the Chilean coast
Gravel road started to wind up the hill and soon we were going again along the shore, this time very cliffy, of Lago Buenos Aires which from the border changed its name to Lago Carrera. I was stuck to the windscreen fascinated by the view of the Andes growing in front of me again. Heavy clouds were hanging from the sky and their bellies were torn apart by sharp peaks of the cordillera. When we arrived to Puerto Guadal it was dark and dim lights of the village were doubled and tripled in muddy puddles. It was definitely raining a lot here so I decided to camp in a sheltered bus stop.

I was very close to the junction with Ruta 7 more known as Carretera Austral, the famous road stretching for more than twelve hundred kilometres from Puerto Montt to Villa O'Higgins. It was going through the wildest part of the country, cutting the area with thick forests, fjords and lakes, steep mountains, glaciers and rapid rivers. Its construction began in the seventies during the regime of Augusto Pinochet and it arrived in Villa O'Higgins just in 2000. Most of the road was still unpaved and after every winter its condition deteriorated.

After shopping and morning coffee I decided to slowly walk along the road and maybe after a mile I had a lift to the junction. When I told where I was from the guy sitting next to me started to laugh, his grandfather arrived here from Poland. There was a bus stop at the crossroad but hiding in wasn't necessary, the sky started to clear up. There was a thick forest everywhere, plenty of wood to make fire, and that rapid change between Argentina and Chile was still impressing me. The westerlies were robbed almost till the last drop from their humidity by the Chilean Andes.

Around three hours later I had a lift with a pickup straight to Cochrane. The sun was drying the surface quickly and the road was becoming more and more dusty. The views were absolutely fantastic all the way. In Cochrane I picked some apples and plums that were growing along the streets and walked to the forest to pitch my tent. In the morning I refreshed myself in the river which had this turquoise colour and stuck my thumb up again to continue my trip south till the end of the road.

It was Sunday and I thought it would be harder but I found a lift within an hour. After a few miles the family who gave me a ride squeezed two more girls on the back of their pickup. When we got off they started to walk fast, maybe being too shy to start a conversation with me. But soon we all ended up together in the back seat of another car, so this time we started to chat. Francesca and Veronica were students of tourism in Santiago and it was also their first time in that part of Chile. They wanted to see Caleta Tortel a town twenty two kilometres off the main road and when they described the place I realised I wanted to see it as well, but I thought it was much more north. So we decided to continue together and it took us only one more lift to get there. The last stretch of the road was along the River Baker which water, thanks to the glacial sediments, was turquoise blue. I don't know why but it felt like the end of the world there more than in Tierra del Fuego.

Caleta Tortel was built near the mouth of the river on the coast of Martinez Inlet. At the end of the road there was a roundabout with a parking lot and further on the town had no classical streets. Instead there was a labyrinth of wooden decks. Some of them along the coast others higher up the hill and the city squares were like wooden temples without walls. The strangest town I saw. The majority of people living there were lumberjacks, carpenters and fishermen. The road connection existed only since ten years, before the only way to get there was by air or sea, but in the wintertime all three ways were challenging with harsh weather conditions. One guy we met told us that in some winters they were forced to eat huemules, endangered South Andean deers in order to survive. This protected animal was part of the Chilean coat of arms. Truth? Or bullshit in the mouth of an old man?

Together with the girls we found a hospedaje* with a reasonable price, bought a carton of wine, prepared sandwiches and enjoyed the evening in a heated room. Early in the morning the girls grabbed a bus and I went to discover the labyrinth a bit more. In the afternoon I met Floran and Celine, a French couple which spent one night at Flor's in El Chaltén as well and we were thumbing together until it got dark without any luck. There were other hitchhikers, there were actually more of us than cars around the roundabout.

We pitched our tents in the roofed plazas made of wood hiding a bit from the wind and I slept till about eleven the next day. In the morning all the hitchhikers were gone and I thought I lost my chances to leave the place. A few minutes later I was packing my dirty backpack to the boot of a car. Along the way I saw one group of mochileros** walking, than another and than one more. It wasn't such a bad idea to sleep that long after all. The sky was blue again and I didn't have to walk for a few hours till the junction.

Standing there I was passed by cyclists, first two guys, then one chick and then another guy. A quarter later I passed them sitting inside a dumper bringing pipes for a new culvert. Than we all met in Puerto Yungay to catch the six o'clock ferry. Two Germans, one American and a Japanese girl cycling from Alaska. Until six only one car showed up and it was absolutely full, so I knew that it was the end of travelling for the day. The crossing over Mitchell Fjord lasted half an hour and on the other side I saw happy faces of Celine and Floran. I had a company for the night.

We had plenty of wood to burn, we had a little terminal with toilets and running water and we had a view of a little glacier on the top of a mount on the other side of the fjord. Its white face started to turn orange and than slowly disappeared in the darkness of the night. We cooked some pasta on a bonfire while telling weird hitchhiking stories. Then we jumped into our sleeping bags and inside the building it was warm enough to sleep without a jacket.

We woke up before the morning ferry and there was a car which brought us all the way to Villa O'Higgins. Mission complete, I hitched practically till the end of Carretera Austral. The town was located on the side of Southern Patagonian Ice Field and there was a ferry connection with El Chaltén. I could actually get to this point straight from there instead of making such a loop, but it would cost a lot. We spent half a day lying in the sun and later pitched our tents in somebody's garden, of course after getting a permission. Then we climbed one of the hills to see the sunset and soon went to sleep. I woke up in the middle of the night shaking like crazy and until dawn didn't sleep much. When I unzipped my sleeping bag I saw frost on the walls of the tent. Outside everything was white and instead of the tent of my travel mates I found a goodbye note. They couldn't stand the cold anymore, neither did I. Soon I saw them jumping around on the roadside trying to warm up. I didn't feel so cold even in Antarctica.

We were thawing slowly in the morning sun when a car in a nearby house started the engine. Celine came closer.
'Paluch go! They have only one space.'
'No guys you were here first, you can squeeze in somehow!'
'No, go! We'll see somewhere on the road.'
'Okay, Take care. Till the next time.'
I was hoping to meet them again. I actually felt sad.

The car brought me all the way back to Cochrane and it was late afternoon when we arrived there. This time one guy from CS agreed to host me, no more cold. When I was waiting for a message from my host I bumped into Massimo, Italian guy I met in Caleta Tortel who was doing a research about water rights in Chile for his thesis. There were many protest against building a dam in Patagonia, interesting topic. When I asked him where he was staying we realised we had the same host. Travelling around western Patagonia meant seeing again the same people, the same cyclists, hitchhikers, vagabonds. It was travellers' land.

Chaitén destroyed by volcano eruption in 2008
Chaitén destroyed by volcano eruption in 2008
In the house of Camilo, a hard working architect, I met Lalo and Andrea from Coyhaique on their road trip to Tortel. We spent really nice evening together and when they heard I would be passing through their town they explained me where their house was and where the key was hidden. Brilliant. After three nights in Cochrane I hit the road again and it took me all day long to get back to the junction near Puerto Guadal. The next day I was picked up by a van with a driver and four passengers. It was rented by a folk band coming back from a gig to the airport in Coyhaique. It was sunny all day long and the landscape was dominated by different shades of blue and green. Pure sky, deep lakes and thickening more and more forest.

In the little house of Andrea and Lalo in Coyhaique I spent a few days taking care of their cat. The town was populated by nearly fifty thousands inhabitants and it was the biggest human settlement along the Ruta 7. It took me four days to get from there to Puerto Montt and surprisingly I hadn't seen any other hitchhiker in that part of Patagonia. The road between Coyhaique and Puerto Cisnes was paved but further north its quality went drastically down. At some point it was closed for a few hours due to a car crash. Luckily no one was hurt, it was hard to drive fast there. The blue sky was a rare view during these days. I was entering an area with the highest rainfall in Chile, covered by the Valdivian rain forest. It had a well developed understory with huge nalcas similar to rhubarb, big ferns and colihue - local bamboo. Even during the fog the green was juicy and intensive.

On the way I passed through Chaitén, a town completely destroyed by volcano eruption in 2008. Most of the houses where undug and renovated by now, but some were still in ruins with ash filling up every room. After Chaitén most of the way had to be done by sea. Out of four ferry crossings along Carretera Austral as a hitchhiker I had to pay only once. While being still aboard the ferry between Leptepu and Hornopiren I found a lift straight to Puerto Montt, actually straight to the house of Michael, who together with his roommates decided to host me. I spent there a few days having a possibility to taste the student life in yet another country.

From there I headed south again as I wanted to see the mythical island of Chiloé, where religion of Mapuche peoples mingled with legends and superstitions of Spanish conquistadores creating a new mythology. Ruta 5 from Puerto Montt to Pargua was all under construction as it was being upgraded to the motorway standard. Half an hour ferry crossing didn't cost me anything again and I was dropped around 11 p.m. in the suburbs of Ancud. After a night in a bus stop I needed three cars to arrive at the main square of Castro with its wooden church painted in gaudy pink and yellow. I bumped there into Thom, another traveller met earlier on the road and he offered me a sip of wine even though drinking in public was illegal in Chile.

In the evening, walking outside of town I heard somebody calling my name. It was Anka, a Polish girl I also met in El Chaltén. It was probably a fifth Pole I met in all over South America. Rare thing. She asked a family who was hosting her if I could stay overnight as well and they were more than welcoming. It was Great Friday and the family was preparing for Easter. The south of Chile was famous for its sea food and the kitchen was full of bowls with yummy mussels. In the morning me and Anka decided to travel together to Cucau on the other side of the island. Two Poles celebrating Easter weekend on a Pacific beach with a bottle of rum. It could mean only one thing, a massive hangover!

Getting back to Puerto Montt was extremely easy, hitching with a girl always makes it so much faster. We stayed there for one night in an apartment of José, a university professor who was hosting Anka earlier and then we all drove to Frutillar to a house of his girlfriend Soledad. Frutillar just like many other towns in this area was founded by German immigrants who were granted land in the nineteenth century. Big wooden houses looked like the ones in western Germany and the church and many signs written with Gothic font. A typical German cake called kuchen was sold everywhere. There were even schools teaching in German. Only one thing didn't remind me Germany, the view of the snow capped peak of the Osorno Volcano on the other side of the Lake Llanquihue.

Soledad had to drive to Osorno the next day so we both went with her, I got off at the station on the bypass and Anka continued to the city centre in order to visit her friend. Soon the first drops started to wet tarmac. In an hour or so I found a lift and the guy driving an old Mack-like track was going directly to Valdivia, my next destination. When we arrived it was raining buckets. The city founded by Spaniards was highly influenced by German settlers and it was sometimes called the Chilean capital of beer. I spent more than a week there together with Daniela from CS. She worked as a children psychologist so during the day I was usually staying alone in her house in the suburbs, taking care of her dog and cat and keeping the fire on. Trees outside turned red and yellow and the scent of autumn was getting stronger. In the evenings we either went out to try some local beers or stayed home watching Chilean films, cosying ourselves in blankets while heavy rain was lashing the windows.

After Valdivia I ended up in Pucón located hundred and sixty kilometres to the northeast and I decided this would be the last place to stop in the Chilean south. It was getting colder and colder, rains were becoming more frequent, it wasn't the best time for travellers in that beautiful land. The land created for that in the summer. Pucón seemed half empty, though it would fill up again with ski enthusiasts. These few days there I spent with Jorge from CS and his friends, another friendly bunch. We had the last warm days, warm enough to go for a swim in the Lake Villarrica. From above I could sense the breath of the volcano named just like the lake, it was smoky breath sometimes, the volcano was active all the time.

After saying goodbye to everyone I stood in the town limits and with three lifts I got to a station on the Panamerican Highway. My destination was Valparaíso located eight hundred kilometres away. When I studied geography back in Poland I was thinking many times that I would love to see Chile one day, geographically the strangest country on the planet. And now I was doing it. But back then I also thought I would actually like to live there for a while and this plan was still in my head. I didn't know much about Valparaíso, but that name was always giving me a positive buzz and every Chilean I met was telling me it was the craziest place to live. I wanted to find it out. It was time to stop for a while, take a rest after more than a year on the roadside and find a way to finance the rest of the trip. So, Mission Valparaíso!

* Hospedaje - guesthouse in Spanish.
** Mochilero - a Spanish word for backpacker.