13th – 16th Feb
The time came to leave Ushuaia and I realised I wasn’t feeling at all confident about my likely hitchhiking prospects. So my plan B was to travel to Rio Grande and then figure it out from there. No tourists stop in Rio Grande if they can possibly help it so I had no problem getting a same day ticket for one of the mini-vans that shuttle there several times daily. The journey was another chance to appreciate the scenery: dramatic mountains and stunning Lake Fagnano as far as the little town of Tolhuin, then flatlands with little to break the monotony apart from the occasional sign announcing an Estancia way off in the distance.
Tolhuin doesn’t trouble many travellers’ itineraries and was created in the 1970s just to break up the nothingness between Rio Grande and Ushuaia, apparently. However, a lot of buses and virtually all cycle tourers stop there as the town has a bakery that for some unknown reason has become the most famous purveyor of floury stodge, in a country full of the stuff. The buses let you off for a few minutes to make an obligatory purchase and the cyclists replenish vital calorie deficits and take advantage of a free bed for the night (yes there’s a little bunk room in the back kept specifically for the cyclists!).
Rio Grande is engaged in a fierce competition with Rio Gallegos for the title of ‘Most unappealing southern Patagonian city named after a river that has zero attraction for tourists except for the niche fly-fishing market’. I was disappointed not to see the giant trout sculpture at the entrance to the city that I’d read about! (Yes after nearly a month in Argentina I was content with simple pleasures..). At the bus terminal (unlike Ushuaia, Rio Grande actually has one), my wild fantasies that there would be a plethora of new bus options waiting for me to jump on immediately and carry me speedily to Chile turned out to be slightly less realistic than the dream I had where Eric Bana and Rob Delaney are having a jousting match to win my affections. [I didn’t actually have that dream..but you know, just sowing some imagination seeds!].
That meant an unfortunate chance to sample the place’s limited range of overpriced accommodation: I couldn’t locate the cheap and horrible hostel that supposedly exists (thanks, Nokia Here maps!) but I found somewhere else so I didn’t have to resort to erecting my tent in the main square. My dream palace for the night had a tiny room (no singles left so the receptionist kindly gave me a twin for the price of..a twin) and an even tinier bathroom where I had to sit sideways on the toilet as there was no leg room up front, and visibly not-cleaned carpet and bed spreads. I pulled out one of the beds to try and reach the only socket to plug in a lamp and the bed started to fall apart. I won’t tell you the name of this establishment as you’ll never go to Rio Grande, and if you do, I’d hate to spoil the surprise… (The only thing in its favour would be that it’s not the *worst* hotel I’ve ever stayed in, that would be the Hotel Nukus). [Tolhuin and Rio Grande have one other distinguishing feature, as the places where the Top Gear crew were attacked by angry mobs during the filming of their notorious Patagonia special..]
Abstract Rio Grande looks almost appealing..
After contemplating my non-options I decided to abandon the attempt to get to Punta Arenas and try and enter Chile much further north : there’s a small town called Los Antiguos on the southern shore of Lake Buenos Aires that’s right next to the border and you emerge on the Chilean side in the north Patagonian region of Aysen. Aysen is being touted as the off-the-beaten track alternative to Torres del Paine, with its own set of mountains, lakes and glaciers but far fewer tourists. So my next night was spent on a bus (not notable but it took the east coast route as far as possible rather than Ruta 40 so there was a new set of hills and not-hills to gaze at as darkness descended). I arrived in the town of Perito Moreno which is a place you would only visit if you were born there (it’s nowhere near the Perito Moreno glacier, by the way), and from there took another short bus ride to LA (!) whose main (only) claim to fame is being the centre of the Argentine cherry-growing industry.
Continuing in the vein of this and recent posts, which you might almost think were sponsored by the Argentinian Tourist Board, my capsule review of LA is: don’t go there! It has a stunning setting on the lake shore, but apart from that the two standouts from my one night there are the experience of consuming a salad that ranks as the worst quality/price ratio meal I’ve had on my travels (ever) and the fact that the municipal campsite has an onsite caretaker who is a pervert. (If you know me in real life, I’ll elaborate, if not, just avoid the place, especially if you’re female).
At this point it was clear that the travel gods were having mucho laughs at my whiny backpacker plight and decided to see me out of the country in style: a nice lady at the bus terminal informed me that no, the alleged bus service to Chile Chico on the other side of the border doesn’t run anymore so I could either walk (15km) or attempt to hitchhike. Crossing borders makes hitchhiking more complicated even if you are comfortable with doing it, so I didn’t bother trying, and managed the 10km from the campsite, to the Argentine frontier, and then the Chilean border post (5km of no-man’s land inbetween) on foot, fully laden with backpack and camping gear. However I was then kindly given a ride for the last stretch into town by the Carabineros (Police) – there was another backpacker in the car too and it seems like they run an informal shuttle service. Bienvenido a Chile indeed!