What happens when two Yankees with an empty tank and wallet take to the open Patagonian road?
Join me on the journey of two victims of their generation, taken directly from a worn, leather-bound journal that joins others like itself in chronicling the travels of an ignoramus. This was my guest post at the now defunct Real Bloggers United in response to its “Holiday” theme.
This memoir is a direct transcription from my 2007 travel journal, when my husband (fiancé at the time) and I traveled to South America’s Patagonia. This particular entry involves our roundtrip road-trip from El Calafate, Argentina to Torres Del Paine, Chile.
El Calafate, Argentina, 29 March 2007
The Blackberry calleth us to consciousness early yesterday morning, but we waketh not early. Both needing sleepy long-time, we snoozed a bit longer until, rriiiipp! Off had to go the Band-Aid of blissful sleep so we could ready for our next adventure. Off we went around 10:30am to seek out Ruta 40. Missing our intended turn, we luckily remained on route to Esperanza, which was a longer, but easier way to take—paved all the way until the border, whereas approximately 70km of our originally mapped journey would have been unpaved in addition to the 100km or so leading into Chile and to Torres Del Paine national park.
Once past Esperanza, just as the guidebook promised, we could see the jagged torres on the horizon for the rest of the drive in. Between us and that wicked vision looming in the distance was a vast openness of dry plains and low hills, much like the American West. Turning onto a gravel road to cross the border, the Argentinian immigration/customs site came out of nowhere—a couple white buildings standing solitary in an ocean of uncultivated, unpaved land, making its sister Chilean border patrol seem like a bustling metropolis in comparison.
Just driving into the park was an experience in and of itself: the sinister blades of stone once in the distance now crept in upon us before we knew it—utterly thrilling to behold. The whimsy-factor was certainly upped by the plethora of guanacos we encountered roadside (at one point, they must have numbered at least 50), as well as ostrich-like birds, the choique. Check 2 off the wildlife-indigenous-to-the-area list, 3 if you count the dead skunks on the road; happily, we did not check puma off this list.
Feeling lame that we naïve, Starbucks-and-ATM Americans had not thought of withdrawing more Argentine pesos or exchanging to Chilean ones in preparation for our border-crossing, the park guy at the administrative office let us pass on the condition that we’d pay on our way out. Reaching our campsite off Lago Pehoe after more twists-n-turns, we were ecstatic to leave the car and stretch our legs in the presence of such awe-inspiring natural wonder.
Perhaps just as awe-ful (really, as in awful) was the simultaneous realization that we needed to spend our remaining pesos for the camp site, and, therefore, had to find a way of obtaining Chilean cambio in a realm of no ATMS, as well as fill our car with fuel.
Prior to finding fuel that evening, we had—after a brief hike around our new surroundings—walked a kilometre to the neighboring hotel in hopes of exchanging cash or using a credit card. No. So we walked back to our site, hopped into the car and drove the other way to the other neighboring hotel. Si. I was able to exchange 120 USD for 60,000 Chilean pesos, 30,000 of which would cover our park access. The remaining 30,000 had to be budgeted carefully, a concept neither my husband nor I are very savvy with.
It was at this hospitable location that we were directed to our fuel source 15 minutes up the road to take care of Desperate Need #2. Before we left the hotel, I had befriended a baby gato that was killing me with its cute mewing in the parking lot until we nearly killed it when it crawled under the freaking car when we needed to back up and leave.
The rest reads like a hybrid drama/horror movie: I had to tempt the kitty far from the car so my husband could start it up and maneuver it for exiting, at which point my guilt-ridden goodbyes to el gato were replaced with the shrill yell, “Open the door! OPEN THE DOOR!!” as I ran to the car to out-chase the kitten running after me. You see, the door on the passenger side of our ancient VW Polo always had to be opened from the inside because it was broken. Regardless, when I looked back in the midst of screaming bloody-murder, the kitten had since stopped following me a great distance off; it was instead preoccupied with new people who’d just driven in and likely thought I was an American Psycho not only ditching a poor kitten but running screaming from it and trying to hop into a moving vehicle. The pièce de résistance would have been if my husband, in trying to make a speedy getaway, had dropped the transmission right there.
Ah, but returning to the Gas Quest, we drove to where the hotel had directed us. The owner of whatever that establishment was informed us this wasn’t where we could get gas, yet at the last-minute called out to offer to sell us some. We took his word on the price, and our 4 litres were delivered to us in a juice bottle and “pumped” into the tank with a jerry-rigged device that likewise appeared to be made of some sort of beverage container…
When we got back to our site with a tank filled in unorthodox fashion, we found there were slim pickin’s at the wee campsite store for dinner, so we thought long and hard about how to allocate our remaining pesos: 14,000 to dinner at the restaurant since there was zero available we could cook ourselves (unless we desired a Starburst/marshmallow/M&M bouillabaisse), and I think another 12,000 to water, oatmeal, marmalade, and firewood in prep for that night’s warmth and this morning’s breakfast. This newfound necessity for frugality, however, didn’t stop us from investing good American dough in a bottle of wine (Chilean merlot) to have with dinner, the very tonic that probably contributed to the Fight-Heard-Round-the-Camp, which eventually unfolded during said meal.
Ah, well. It was a kiss-and-make-up morning with the new day amidst pink mountains and hills full of rainbows. The melancholy thing about rainbows is that no matter how clearly they appear, when you chase them, there is nothing there. They are fleeting. The magical thing that happened to me this morning, though, was that, just as I was gazing out the window and registering this very thought as I watched a rainbow dissipate on reaching it, another one leapt out from behind the hill almost immediately thereafter, even brighter and more vividly distinct in its color spectrum than the first, if that could have been possible. Huh. Not so fleeting after all, those rainbows…
Well, once we awoke this morning, packed up our tent, and ate our most delicious oatmeal/marmalade-combo, we washed our dishes, got the auto packed, resigned ourselves to a 2nd day without showering, and set out around 9:30-10:00am Argentine time to retrace our steps out of the park—but not without making a wee side excursion for a brief and easy hike to a nearby waterfall. Well, easy in the wide-gravel-path-and-low-incline sense, fierce in the wind-is-so-strong-it’s-as-though-the-wicked-mountains-don’t-want-us-here sense. The spattering rain was actually painful, and the lake waters whipped upwards in broad plumes of spray…not a bad day to not spend in the park. The hovering clouds prevented the fantastic views of the torres we had yesterday, so perhaps it was just as well we had to leave…
…until, holy mother-f***ing s***. Life became The Amazing Race.
We had just barely enough gas to reach Esperanza, the next town with ever so slightly more commerce than the “towns” we’d been through—indeed, the beacon of “hope” (the town’s namesake) we relied on to employ automated machines accepting credit cards, perhaps.
Instead, as we rolled into our 2nd station of the day (the 3rd fuel source of the previous 24 hours), why no, in fact, they do not accept credito and apologize for the inconvenience.
We drive to the café across the street, with persisting hope that they will exchange cambio or accept the plastic, but our situation became increasingly hopeless. And we still had almost 300km more to drive.
As we walked out to the lot, a tour bus just unloaded its human cargo for leg-stretching at the café. I told my husband they might be our only hope, that we would have to beg for “money, honey” (yes, I used those words in a time of crisis). I wouldn’t have considered it had I not seen it successfully executed so many times on The Amazing Race after non-elimination rounds. Sadly, reality TV differs significantly from “reality” when you don’t have a cameraman running around with you. Who knew what leverage that could be internationally, when good Samaritans will come out of the woodwork for their 15-minutes of fame.
After asking a tour member for cambio given our predicament, he insisted that the station would offer credit as an option. This was seconded by another man, despite our insistence that they didn’t. We got back in our car, pooled our cash and held our breath; I pondered anything that we could possibly pawn. Though we saw a credit card machine on the station counter, just beyond loomed the same sign we saw before stating cards wouldn’t be taken. It is not often that one finds oneself in the situation of slapping down 3 different denominations of currency on a gas station counter, asking for the attendant to please accept. He and a coworker thumbed through our combined 4,000 Chilean pesos, 2 Argentine pesos, and 4-odd U.S. dollars (barely exceeding 10 USD in total, and our U.S. coins no doubt being worthless to them), which they somehow deemed acceptable and worth 15 litres to us.
With assurance that this would bring us back to El Calafate (and an actual 17 litres added to our malnourished tank out of the goodness of their hearts), we were on our way with sighs of relief, a grin on our faces, a sense of adventure, and a great lesson learned on not taking modern alternatives to cold, hard cash for granted.
The tranquility of yesterday’s sunshine and low winds, though, remains at the forefront of my mind when I think of Torres Del Paine. I think of its aqua-grey lakes and how their waves sounded like a million pearls tapping and colliding as they cascaded and rolled over one another in crashing to the shore. I think of the twilight looked upon through a teardrop-shaped tent window. The experience wasn’t restful, but the memories already are.
And that much more so three years later. We can’t wait to return…with a wallet loaded with local currency and tank filled with fuel. 🙂