slide1 slide2 slide3 slide

Notes from the home of the hitchhiker

On the road again

Moon Valley in Atacama Desert
I forgot how heavy all my stuff was! I did a few hitching trips during my time in Valpo but never fully geared. They were short trips so I didn't need it all. And now, after more than a year I had even more things. My spine wasn't too happy, but I knew it would get used to it again.

Hitching was easy, as nearly always in Chile. With a few short lifts I ended up at the station on Panamerican Highway from where I was picked up before the sunset. The truck was going to Los Vilos and after 10 p.m. I ended up at the same Copec where we camped with Aileen on our way to Elqui Valley. There wasn't much movement, but I still decided to hitch for an hour or two, and only then give up and pitch my tent. After around two hours, when I was ready to call it a day another lorry stopped. Straight to La Serena.

I crashed for a few hours at the bus station and at dawn started to look for a good hitching spot. The morning was freezing, maybe three, four degrees, but with that breeze from the Pacific it felt so cold I had to jump to warm up. I checked my map, there was a petrol station a few miles up the road, but according to the locals public buses didn't go there. At the place where dual carriageway was turning into a regular road a traffic jam started to build up so I quickly scribbled 'Copec' and in a minute got a ride with a four wheel drive to the station.

The plan was to get to Antofagasta in three days and it still seemed possible. In that city two girls from couchsurfing were awaiting my arrival. From La Serena I had a lift to Vallenar, then to Copiapó and finally to the famous Bahia Inglesa, all of that with private cars. It was getting drier and drier, I was entering Atacama Desert, the driest place on Earth. There was something in deserts that really attracted me, but in the same time after a few days I felt like running away. It just seemed so inhospitable. In Bahía Inglesa I was hoping to camp on the beach, especially that it wasn't cold, but it was invaded with Portuguese man o' war - a marine creature looking like a blue jellyfish. All the beaches in the area were closed, as its venom caused severe pain. In this case I camped at the outskirts of the village near a nice viewpoint.

Many people were recommending me Bahía Inglesa and it was a nice village with white beaches between rocks. Unfortunately at this time of the year it was chilly, cloudy and empty. There were more dogs on the streets than people. I haven't seen any blue creatures in the morning, maybe the alarm was over, or maybe they would come up again with the tide. After a short walk I was brought quickly to the nearby town of Caldera where I could hitch further north.

Around lunchtime I had a lift with another truck to Chañaral. Most truckers I met told me that they really liked to pick up hitchhikers, as this road was boring to drive through. Total emptiness, not even one straw of grass. Just stones, sands and dust. Different planet. The fact that Chile was such a long but narrow country was helping hitchhikers, in most parts there was only one main road connecting the north and the south.

In Chañaral I had a lift after maybe an hour and the guy told me he could bring me only to the junction with C-13, a regional road leading to Diego de Almagro. My first question was: is there any water and food? I didn't want to end up in the middle of the desert without supplies. He said there was a restaurant, so after a second of thought I jumped inside. When we arrived there all the clouds and mists of the coast were behind us. Even though the Panamericana was not in the motorway standard here, the junction was grade separated, so I had a high speed traffic to deal with. Not good. I went to the mentioned restaurant and there were two trucks parked and one police car. I asked the drivers for a lift and heard they were not allowed to pick up hitchhikers in this section of the road. Strange, I never heard of that before.

The fact was that for around four hundred kilometres, beside some mines there was practically nothing, until Antofagasta not even one village. And most trucks were going to those mines. Being dropped off at the exit to the mine road could be dangerous in the driest place of the planet. Cars were passing so fast. After nearly two hours of no luck I decided to go back to Chañaral and hitch in a place with some speed limit. I was always wondering why the same people driving slowly could pick you up and driving fast usually didn't care. They must think: 'oh too late, someone else will pick him up.'

It was late afternoon when I finally found a lift to Antofagasta. The car driver worked in the field of heavy industry. We were going through the darkness talking constantly and at some point he asked if it was okey to stop for a moment to stretch the limbs.
'I always do it when I drive through the desert by night. Just stop, turn off the lights and smoke a cigarette staring at the stars,' he said taking out a lighter.
'I would probably do the same if I lived here. Well, beside smoking a cigarette, I never liked them.'
We stood silent for a moment. And the stars... If I was a bit taller I could stand on tiptoes and peep through one of those innumerable holes to see what's beyond the universe. Transcendent moment of silence. We arrived in Antofagasta around 11 p.m. and my driver got me all the way to the northern outskirts of the city where my hosts lived.

When I entered the apartment of Nathy and Clau there was another couchsurfer called Alex. One of the first questions I heard was: 'are you up for a party?' Sure! Soon we moved to the city centre to catch up with girls' friends and then we enjoyed some beers either at the Huanchaca ruins where all the students partied or on the beach. Everyone was surprised that I could deal so well with the Chilean slang and accent and I was just joking that I'm actually Chilaco*. It was bright when we got back home. Another great carrete** in Chile.

Both Clau and Nathy were students and they were smart and cool girls to hung around with. I felt absolutely comfortable at their place either when partying together or just having a quiet movie night. Alex, who was from France was a great lad as well, he was also on his trip around the world and in the same time inventing his own imaginary universe with different planets and languages, something like Tolkien's worlds. A man of amazing imagination.

It was hard to leave this cosy and friendly place, but finally one afternoon I gave a big hug to everyone and started to walk towards a junction next door. It looked like a good spot for hitching. After maybe fifteen minutes it started to rain. A rain in Atacama Desert! Wow! It actually helped me to find a lift, this time with two ladies going to Mejillones. One of them was originally from the south of Chile and she was so happy to see the rain, she missed it so much. A proper rain in this area was a rare phenomenon happening once in a few years. Most of the precipitation was in the form of drizzle or from the condensation of the coastal fog known as camanchaca.

I was dropped at the toll station on Ruta 1, the coastal road connecting Antofagasta and Iquique. Normally it wasn't possible to hitch just near the booths, I always had to move further out, but because of the rain the security guard let me stay under the roof. I could practically talk to people paying the toll. Great because it was already dark. In a few minutes I had a lift straight to Iquique with a 4x4. Middle age man who picked me up was on his business trip. Iquique was a duty free zone so it had a lot of commerce. There were only two places like this in the country, here and in Punta Arenas in the extreme south.

We arrived in Iquique late in the evening and I went to the bus station to grab a nap. On my way I noticed cracks in the asphalt and many destroyed buildings. That was the effect of strong earthquake that hit just a month earlier which epicentre was at the Pacific, less than two hundred kilometres away from the city. It had a magnitude of 8.2 and caused tsunami that damaged many fishing boats. In the morning I quickly popped in to a duty free shopping mall to buy a new waterproof backpack cover and then took a bus to Alto Hospicio, Iquique's suburbs. The view from the road connecting the two areas was amazing. Iquique was founded on a coastal platform at the foot of six hundred metres cliff on which Alto Hospicio was built.

After a quick lift to the junction with Panamerican Highway I was picked up by a couple going to Tacna. It was their first trip to Peru. I must say I was tempted to go with them but it wasn't time for Peru yet. My plan was to get to Arica, located only twenty kilometres from the border and than head back southeast to San Pedro de Atacama. I could go there straight away, but I wanted to get to the northernmost city of Chile first and have all Chile done by hitchhiking. After that I wanted to go to Argentina and Brazil again. I couldn't leave South America without revisiting my Brazilian friends. And the timing was perfect, the World Cup was about to start soon.

There was an open wifi at a Copec in Arica so I let Natalia know that I already arrived. In a few minutes I was picked up by her and her mom Gloria and taken to their beautiful house near the city centre. Natalia didn't have any references on CS but her profile was very well done for a newbie, so I decided to write to her. She quickly explained that her brother was hosting loads of people before moving to the US. Now she decided to sign up as well. She wasn't a newbie at all.

Warning about beaches being closed because of the invasion of Portuguese men o' war
Invasion of Portuguese men o' war
I spent in their house a few days and it felt like visiting an auntie and a cousin I haven't seen for years. With Natalia and her friends we were partying all nights, usually on the beach, and after coming back home Gloria was waiting either with yummy breakfast or fantastic lunch for a hangover. Such a relaxed auntie! One day we went to the valleys Arica was famous for and it was surprising view. Thanks to the irrigation the valleys were green oasis cutting the desert. For that reason Arica was called the city of eternal spring. There were tomatoes, mangoes, cherimoyas, olives and many more fruits and veggies grown all year round. And I'd never seen so many hummingbirds flying around.

After the northernmost city of Chile I headed back south again and the first lift was with a group of Brazilians travelling in the classic Volkswagen Kombi. It was actually a funny coincidence as the night before we watched with Gloria and Natalia City of God, a film from Brazil. The guys were from Rio Grande do Sul, the same state where my beloved Pelotas was located and were on their way back home after visiting Paraguay, Bolivia, Peru and now Chile. We had a great chat even though my Portuguese was half gone. Natalia and Roger, who were the owners of the Kombi lived in Capão da Canoa on the coast. Marcelo had an organic farm in the Atlantic Forest with his friends and told me to pop in once I was around as they sometimes needed volunteers. Sounded great, especially that they were growing juçara, a southern type of açai***. Its fruits were used to produce probably the most tasty pulp I had ever tried.

After a night spent on the desert at the outskirts of one town it took me the whole day to get to Calama where I finally found a wifi. There was a new message from CS. Cool, I had a couch in San Pedro de Atacama. It was very popular destination, so I was afraid it could be hard to find one. Now I had to get there and the sun was already getting red, but luckily half an hour later I didn't have to worry about that anymore. Together with an old man who owned a hotel in town we started to climb up the Cordillera Domeyko, named after Polish geologist who migrated to Chile in the 19th century. A pity it was getting dark as the views were astonishing.

From the town centre I was picked up by Yerka who just finished her work in one of hundreds of tour companies operating in the area. After a quick refreshment in her house we went to visit Luis, her Argentinian friend who also worked in tourist industry. San Pedro had this chilled out atmosphere which was attracting many foreigners and some of them decided to settle here for a while. But it wasn't only the town that was bringing so many visitors, but the breathtaking nature around. I couldn't wait to see it by daytime.

The first thing I spotted leaving the house of Yerka the next day was the snow-capped Licancabur. This symmetric volcano was dominating in the landscape. The mornings were really cold in San Pedro as it was located on a plateau at altitude of 2,400 metres above sea level, so leaving without a warm sweater and a jacket was impossible. But then, during the day it was getting quite hot and I had to remove it layer by layer. I spent the day wondering around town and trying to figure out what could I see without spending a fortune. Unfortunately most tours were too expensive for me, even though I could get a discount thanks to Yerka or Luis. So I had to skip the salt flats, lagoons with pink flamingos or geyser fields. I wouldn't have time for that anyways as I had to leave the country in a few days.

The next day I jumped on the bike Yerka lent me and went to the famous Valley of the Moon which was about ten kilometres from the town. And it was like a trip to the moon! I had never seen such a landscape, it was so picturesque I could take thousand photos and it still wouldn't be enough. The texture and the colours were changing constantly depending on the angle of the sunlight. And the best show was just before the sunset. It was like a culmination of the spectacle repeated day after day by nature, spectacle that will last even when all the viewers, us humans, will be long gone.

During my stay in San Pedro I received phone calls from Tami and Josefa from La Valija and from Aileen. They knew those were my last days in Chile and soon my Chilean number wouldn't be active. It was nice to hear their voices, I already missed them. Before starting to hitch I went to speak with PDI, the investigation police which was also responsible for immigration. I wanted to confirm which was my actual last day to cross the border and where to get my stamps, as there were two control points, one in San Pedro and one at Jama Pass on the other side of the border. In case of going to Argentina all the paperwork was done at the latter one. I was also told that during the winter the border crossing was open only between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. and most trucks were leaving San Pedro as early as 5 a.m.

I left Yerka's house around four thirty and went to the junction where the road 27-CH was beginning. Surprisingly there were only two trucks, but the drivers told me that everyone always waited two kilometres further up the road. Once I arrived at the spot I saw a queue of maybe ten lorries, two buses and a handful of cars, all of them full. Most truckers told me they couldn't give me a lift as they were transporting dangerous goods and the Argentinian Gendarmería didn't permit passengers. My best bet was a Paraguayan truck bringing cars from the duty free zone in Iquique, but there was only one such truck, already with three passengers inside. It looked bad and it was fucking freezing.

After opening the border, which was later than supposed I spent hours near the junction and only a few cars and lorries passed. The last hours in a baking hot sun. Was the traffic always so scarce here or was there some kind of emergency, I didn't know what to think about it. Finally in the afternoon a firefighters car passed and a minute later came back to tell me the border was closed because of the weather conditions. The cops who were closing the border saw me hitching there and didn't say anything. Bastards! Luckily I left myself one extra day for such a case. After all, this road was reaching the altitude of 4,810 metres above sea level. Things like that happened.

I showed up at the same spot the next morning and the queue wasn't any longer. Soon the border was opened and I was left alone again. After five minutes I saw a truck in the distance. It looked like it had some pipes on its trailer. Argentinian plates. And it started to slow down. Yes, I got you! We started to climb up and up and up. I saw some geysers on one side, some llamas on the other and finally leftovers of snow after a recent storm. The driver offered me coca leaves to chew in order to survive altitude sickness. And I must say it worked, my dizziness soon diminished. When we were close to the border he told me he had to wait for papers till the next day, but I could cross the border on foot and find someone on the other side to get me down to San Salvador de Jujuy. Unfortunately he wasn't right.

Soon after getting to the Immigration I was informed by the Chilean officer I couldn't cross the border on foot for the safety reason. The temperature by night could drop down to -20° Celsius. Even by day it was very cold, the wind was mental. I was told to find a car driver willing to give me a ride first. The problem was there were almost no cars. After an hour I went to the other building where truck drivers did clearance. I was immediately asked by the Gendarmería how I got here and where was the truck that brought me. They looked like they wanted to punish the guy rather than help me. I was sent back to the car drivers' office. I got stuck at the altitude of 4,000 metres.

'Hey and you, what are you doing? Are you ok?' I was asked by an Argentinian Immigration officer that I haven't seen before. He must had seen me going round in circles.
'Well, I'm trying to cross the border, but the PDI says I can't do it on foot.'
'Are you hitchhiking?'
'Yes, I was brought here but now I can't find anyone.' He nodded and then went to speak with the PDI and with other Argentines.
'Come with me' he said after a moment. We went to the truckers' office. Again PDI, Gendarmería, Argentinian Immigration. The PDI officer said he couldn't let me go without writing a licence plate number in their electronic form.
'So what should I do,' I asked the Argentine, he looked like the only person willing to help.
'Wait here, I'll find you a driver.' After a few minutes he showed up with one Paraguayan. 'He'll take you.' Only now the PDI wanted to see my passport.

The officer started to flick through the pages.
'You've been in Chile for a while,' said the policeman still flicking. 'Hey, what were you doing here for so long?'
'Em...' I couldn't say I was working, 'I met a girl in here.'
'Ha ha ha, one Chilean chick got you!' they all started to laugh. One stamp, another stamp. Sorted! 'Go to the petrol station and wait for him there. Or find someone else.' Now I could cross the border on foot. What a bureaucracy. At least I didn't lie. Thanks Aileen.

There was a wifi at YPF so I checked a few things and soon one Chilean truck driver asked if I needed a lift. We drove for hours and hours chatting and chewing coca. There were moments of driving down and climbing up, but for most of the day we were going through quite flat desert plateau, the Andean altiplano. Late in the afternoon we crossed Salinas Grandes del Noroeste, large salt flat that the road was cutting in half. The snow white salt contrasted with black asphalt and the blue sky that in the mirror was actually purple.

When we reached the last mountain range before heading down towards the valleys it was already dark. On one of the last turns before reaching the top we saw a truck parked on the side. It looked like it needed a tow. When I jumped out the cabin my head was blown away by extremely strong and cold wind. A night spent here could be lethal. It took us three tries in order to bring it to the top, from where it could do alone. After receiving a big thanks we started to climb down through endless switchbacks and after around two hours of constant descent we arrived in Purmamarca where I got off. Warm breeze welcomed me. The altiplano was behind me.

In the morning I went to see the town and after breakfast started to hitch towards San Salvador de Jujuy. It was so nice to see trees again. It took me only one lift to get to the city and with every kilometre the yungas, a subtropical forest, was getting thicker and greener. Even though I sent many requests no one from Jujuy responded so I decided to continue towards Salta, especially that I didn't have that much time. Francisco from Hostal Barrio Paraíso was going to see the World Cup as well and we agreed to meet in Rio. He would be in Brazil for only ten days, I had to speed up in order to see him.

Floods in the region of Entre Ríos in Argentina
Floods in the region of Entre Ríos in Argentina
There wasn't any good hitching spot in Jujuy so I took a bus to one of satellite towns where I spent the night. I arrived in Salta around midday the next day on the back of an old rusty truck. I sent a message to Gabi from CS and went to see the city centre. It had many historic buildings and it was called by Argentines Salta the Beautiful. Unfortunately the day was grey, heavy clouds were hanging low. In the afternoon I sent another message and later also tried to call, but there was silence. I started to worry. Not about the night, I could always camp somewhere, or find some cheap accommodation, but I was worrying about Gabi. We had a nice chat the night before and now I could see that she didn't use whatsapp since then. Maybe something wrong happened. In the morning I did some more sightseeing and since there was no news from her I decided to continue travelling. Maybe she just lost her phone. Never heard from her again.

I quickly found a lift to the junction near General Güemes and maybe half an hour later to Rosario de la Frontera where I stayed for the night at one YPF. After breakfast I was picked up by a driver who was going almost all the way to Córdoba. Nearly eight hundred kilometres with one car. He chose an alternative route via Santiago del Estero, but soon regretted it. The road was empty, but full of potholes. The landscape started to change, yungas first turned into monte with large cacti and then into wet pampa full of tall grasses. I arrived in Córdoba early in the morning after being dropped for the night at one station close by.

In Córdoba I stayed at Samuel's, a local who accepted my last minute couch request. He was working all days long, but there was a spare key, so I could freely move around. I heard a lot about Córdoba while working in La Valija and that was one of the reasons to come over. The old town had a nice atmosphere especially now when it smelled with autumn and the trees were dropping their yellowed leaves. On my last night I went to a couchsurfing meeting where it was always possible to meet interesting people and then some of us went to a club. It was a cumbia night, not really my kind of music, but I ended up on the dance floor anyways.

I woke up later than I planned and just before hitting the road I received a message from Monika, a Polish girl I met in Valpo. We saw each other only once but chatted a lot on facebook after that .
'So what's the plan for your route? Dorota sais you're going to Brazil' she asked at some point.
'First Rosario and then all the way to Rio!'
'Wanna stay at my boyfriend's in Santa Teresa? He's a musician.'
'He's got any room? Where is it?'
'He has a house on the top of Santa Teresa with a bunch of musicians. I'll ask him in a second.'
'Santa Teresa, sounds familiar...'
'Above Lapa.'
'Ah, in the city centre!' I started to get excited.
Monika travelled a lot and she was such a crazy girl! After Chile she went to Brazil where she met her boyfriend and right now she was in Ecuador with her friend Dorota, who also visited me in Valparaíso. Maybe half an hour later it was all confirmed. I had a place in Rio!!!

Rio was like a magnet, I really wanted to go back there, but I was worried about the prices. I checked some hostels on the internet and most were charging so much during the world cup, even six times the normal price. Finding a couch also seemed impossible, they were all probably booked way in advance. I wanted to go there anyways maybe just for one day to see Francisco and watch one match in the Fan Fest. I wasn't into soccer really but the World Cup was a different story. I could leave my luggage in some locker and stay awake all night. That was my plan. Now, thanks to Monika I could forget about that plan.

I checked the dates to see when Chile was playing. Getting to Brazil for their first game was impossible, but their second match was in eight days and it was on my birthday. I had three thousand kilometres, seemed doable. Francisco, prepare a beer! After all that great news and replanning I arrived at the station near Córdoba's bypass late in the afternoon and couldn't find anything until the end of the day. Seven more days, I still should be fine.

After breakfast I was picked up by a truck driver going to Rosario, at least that's what I heard at the beginning. Later he said he had to unload somewhere off the main road and then we realised it was like hundred kilometres off the motorway. Unloading took a lot of time and even though Paula, a friend from Valpo, organised me a place to crash for that night in Rosario, we didn't get there that night. The driver was really tired and had to stop for a nap. I slept in the cabin of the truck and lucky me I didn't have to camp. It was freezing.

We arrived at 8 a.m. and I just went to have a quick look in the historic old town where celebrations of the Flag Day were taking place and then kept on going. I crossed a long hanging bridge over Paraná River on foot and arrived at the peaje. I was told there by Gendarmería that I couldn't walk any further and that hitching was not allowed there actually either, but they would make an exception. I had no idea why. Soon after I got a lift to Nogoyá. We entered Entre Rios, a region between two massive rivers, Paraná and Uruguay. All that area was heavily flooded, many cattle herds were trapped on islets, a lot of cows drowned. Some farmers were trying to rescue them with boats. I could see it all from the car purring along the road built on a causeway.

I arrived in Nogoyá exactly for the game between Chile and Australia which I watched at the petrol station. 3-1. Chi chi chi le le le! After the match I stuck my thumb up again even though it was dark and managed to get to Villaguay where I spent the night shaking in my tent. I got the first lift in the morning quickly, but for the second one I had to wait a few hours and only early in the afternoon I was picked up by a girl going to Concordia. I was a bit confused which route to take. There were two options: via Uruguayana and Porto Alegre or via Foz do Iguaçu and Guarapuava. The problem sorted out itself when I found the next lift. That truck was going to Posadas which was close to Foz.

In the evening the driver stopped to buy one thing in a small village. His shopping was a leg of capybara, world's largest rodent that lived in that area. The leg was huge and unfortunately it was raw and frozen. I was really curious what it tasted like, trying exotic food was that part of travelling I liked a lot. Maybe some other time. We came to Posadas at 11 p.m. and I went for a desired sleep. I knew I wouldn't shake that night, the air was warm and filled with the scent of the tropics.

The next day with three lifts I arrived quite early in Jardín America. There were many patches of jungle we drove through, I was so close to the border. In the afternoon my winning streak was over, suddenly hitchhiking just stopped working. I knew Argentina was playing that night, but there were still many cars and trucks on the road most of them covered in national flags. When the time of the game arrived I just sit inside the petrol station and watched it as well, trying to hitch would be pointless. The town just stopped, the road was completely empty. After the match celebrations started and I gave up and jumped into my tent.

After waking up very early I had a lift straight away to Puerto Iguazu. I was finally on the border. The day was hot and humid. I spent the last pesos on food and went to the parking lot near Customs to ask around. Most drivers advised me to cross the border first and try to hitch on the other side, as the majority had to wait for documents and that was taking forever. After obtaining the exit stamp from Argentina I marched to the other bank of Iguaçu river, which turbid water had a colour of coffee with milk. A few miles up the river there were famous Iguaçu Falls, but I didn't intend to see it yet, especially that some viewpoints were still closed after the flood. I would visit it later, now it was time to run to Rio. I had just two and half days. Hard, but spark of hope still existed.

* Chilaco - a mix of the words Chileno and Polaco, Chilean and Polish.
** Carrete - Chilean slang word for party.