When I disembarked from the cruise ship at 5pm on Friday in Ushuaia (Argentina) I had 72 hours to exit the country. For these 72 hours I was the responsibility of the company’s local port agent. The port agent had organised me a bus ticket leaving at 5am on Monday morning (most crew members fly out on the first flight back to their homes, but I had wanted the cheapest option to exit Argentina). When he came to my hostel and handed me my passport, bus ticket and all the immigration papers he had got notarised showing that I was leaving the country his last words to me as he left were “DON’T MISS THE BUS”.
You probably know where this is going………………I missed the bus. What makes this even more comical is that at 1.30am that morning as I was saying good bye to friend Vikky I remember answering her concern that I had to catch the bus in less than 4 hours with a “I’ve travelled for 7 years and I’ve never missed a bus (not totally truthful, once in Mexico I thought I could wait all night in the bar and then catch the 6am boat – I found out I couldn’t).
For whatever reason my alarm clock didn’t go off, maybe that reason was the red wine, maybe it was the 1.80 metre male that goes by the name of Hap, or maybe it was little alarm clock turning off lepricorns. Anyway, I ended up waking at 5.28am with a sinking feeling in my stomach that sunk even further when I turned my cell phone on and saw the time.
I grabbed my pack and took off out the dorm room door hoping that the bus driver was a true Argentinean and would be running late. I got to the street corner where it was leaving from, and my stomach sunk even further so that the turtle was poking his head out. No bus. In most places in the world this would be no problem, just go to the bus station and buy a ticket for the next bus. But you have to remember that I’m in Ushuaia, not just any place in the world, but the proclaimed “end of the world”. There is no bus station and the bus to Chile only leaves 3 times a week at 5am on a Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
I weight up my options to exit the Argentina by 5pm when my 72 hours would be up, or should I say “option”. As the sun rose over Ushuaia where I had arrived 3 months previously, I stuck my thumb out and started the walk to the main (the only) highway out of town.
After an hour of walking, feeling cold, cramps in my hitch hiker thumb and battling to fight the weight of my eye lids who were striking due to the lack of sleep the previous night I decided to ring my port agent. You can imagine my poor port agents joy as he is woken at 7am on a Monday morning by an incoming call from the client he told “don’t miss the bus”. “I missed the bus, I’m really sorry, I’m trying to hitchhike but there isn’t much traffic”, “Urrgghhhh, OoooooooK, come back to town, go to the hostel and wait, I’ll talk to my boss and then call you”.
As Murphy ‘s Law has it, I turn around and start to hitch back into town and was picked up by the first car. I arrive back at the hostel and bee-line it to the hostel reception couch where I give into my eye lids protest, drifting off while grasping my cell phone like a rescue rope to a drowning victim.
The tug of the rescue rope wakes me from my shallow daze, “Hello Mark, I have talked to my boss, the next bus doesn’t leave until Wednesday, but he thinks you can probably use the same immigration paper but will have to pay an overstaying fee or they may hold you at the boarder”. Ok, there are two phrases in that sentence that didn’t really fill me with reassurance, the first being “overstaying fee” which usually translate to “let’s screw this foreigner for all he is worth” and “hold you” which from previous experience in America has led to a windowless concrete room with a room mate by the name of Philip who is staying in the room due to drug trafficking allegations.
I go to the hostel reception, which by the way if you go to Ushuaia make sure you stay at Hostel Antarctica, this was my home for a month before I found my job on the cruise ship, Gabriel and staff are awesome. Maia the receptionist rings around and confirms that there are no more buses leaving for Chile until Wednesday, but there is a bus leaving at 11am to Rio Grande that is 3 hours out of town.
So that was my only option if I wanted a chance at reaching the Chilean boarder by 5pm that night. My plan was that I could get 3 hours sleep on the bus and then try my luck hitch hiking from Rio Grande to the Chilean boarder.
After 3 hours of bumpy of/off bus sleep I arrive in Rio Grande where the bus driver drops me at a truck stop and farewells me with good news that the Chilean boarder is only an hour and half away (My original bus ticket had been for Punto Arenas in Chile, which turns out is 6 hours into Chile from the boarder). Awesome, I can make it before 5pm.
After an hour and a half of sitting on my pack with my thumb out in the chilling Tierra Fuego wind I required a coffee. I went across the road to the car wash that had a little kiosko attached to it. I sit at one of the three rickety tables set in a black painted concrete wall car wash that is decorated with photos of the owner with various rally driving stars. Despite the sign advertising coffee in the window there is no coffee so I settle for a cold beer to warm my soul. The rally driving owner gives me advice to walk a kilometre down the road to a round-a-bout, as there all the traffic will be leaving for “la frontera de Chile”.
As I exit the rally photo clad black walled car wash with an Argentinean Quilmes cerveza brewing in my stomach I stick out my thumb as I start the 1 km walk to the round-a-bout where I should have more luck. Within a minute a 2 door silver VW sports car pulls over on the busy road and honks it horn signalling me to hurry up. Under the weight of my pack, I rush to the waiting car like a person rushing to the movie theatre toilet after watching Lord of the rings and consuming a jumbo sized coke.
Middle aged Claudio and Ricardo who are on their way to Rio Gallegos on the Argentinean mainland pick me up (You have to go through Chile to get to the Argentinean mainland from Tierra del Fuego). They aren’t that talkative but from Claudio’s driving I know that he has driven the gravel road many times before and I conclude in my restless mind that they are mafia men going to the mainland to smuggle illegal foreigners back into Tierra del Fuego. As we arrive at the boarder set amongst sheep paddocks with fluffy white clouds floating in the blue sky I look at my cell phone clock, 5pm, perfect.
A bus had just pulled up before us so there was a big queue of tourists waiting to be processed. Claudio kindly ushers me into the Argentinean nationals queue with him and fast tracks me to the front of the queue saying hello to all the immigration staff with their first names, confirming my people smuggling thoughts – or more likely he’s just a friendly guy that drives that road a lot and feels sorry for a freezing cold foreigner on the side of the road. With Claudio at my side I show them all my immigration crew visa papers that my port agent had given me 72 and ¼ hours beforehand, and after a minute of perusing them they stamp my passport and signal me to leave with Claudio.
Later on we arrive at a narrow fast flowing body of water that Claudio tells me is the channel between continental South America and the island of Tierra del Fuego at the end of the world. We board a car ferry and Claudio get outs to pay, talking to a couple of Chilean military guys along the way.
20 minutes later we arrive on continental South America and drive a further hour through the flat farm lands until we arrive at an intersection. Claudio pulls over, waves down the passing truck which is driven by the Chilean army guys, throws my back pack in there, gives me a kiss that I think was held for a bit too long for the amount of time we had known each other and wishes me good travels and then he speeds off in the direction of mainland Argentina.
I squeeze into the back seat of the 4 door pickup truck beside white polystyrene boxes with “fresco” stamped on them – Fresca means fresh, but I never did ask what fresh contents the boxes housed. Military uniform clad Giraldo and Nicolas occupied the front seats and were very friendly and enjoyed the unusual company of the guy from Nueva Zelanda.
A couple of hours later around 9.30pm as the sun was thinking about exiting the sky we reached the cross roads of Punta Arenas (the destination of my missed bus ticket) and Puerto Natales. I decided to get out at this cross roads in the middle of nowhere and try my luck at getting a ride the further 193km to Puerto Natales, the home of the famous “Torres del Paine” hike, which is rated by national geographic as one of the top 50 things you have to experience before you die.
As I jump out of the truck into the unobstructed wind that rips across the flat barren Chilean farm land I see there isn’t much traffic. As the sun goes to sleep I realise I’m better off at setting up camp than trying my luck with the next to nothing traffic.
I doze off to sleep with the intermittent roar of a semi truck passing a 5 metres away and the constant thread that the roaring wind is going take my wind sock designed cheap Paraguayan tent fly into the night sky.
All goes well through the night; my fly stays intact and the dark rain clouds that loomed in the distance as I went to sleep stayed in the distance. I wake to the noise of passing morning traffic, and the cold even though I’m wearing my thermals, woollen hat and 3 sweat shirts. I have my breakfast which consists of some “CHILLean” water and eat the remainder of my night before dinner that was a packet of crushed water crackers. I break down my camp and set up my new camp beside the isolated narrow highway, doing some back exercises to try and keep me warm against the unrelenting wind that this area is famous for.
After not long Franciso, a Punta Arenas born and bred local picks me up on his way to Puerto Natales. For a couple of hours we chat away and he tells me all about the surrounding area. As we glide through the Chilean plans mythical condors fly above us and the funny wild lama like animals that look like the result of a night spent between a sexually frustrated horse and shaggy sheep roam the road side.
Finally I reach small welcoming Puerto Natales, 19 hours after I was meant to, but also a lot more memories than I was meant to as well! The end, or is it the start
OK folks, as you read this I am probably just starting my 9 day Torres del Paine hike (providing my back can handle carrying the 9 days of supplies and my cheap tent handles the 100km+ wind and rain). But don’t worry hapworkingtheworld.com will continue, I have queued up my 2 final Antarctica posts to fill the 9 day gap. So enjoy and I will catch you in 10 days or so.
Nuthin but love Hap