La Araucanía, Chile

Buying a bus ticket in South America can be a bit of an ordeal, but in larger towns with a terminal it’s less of a hassle. Rather than have various offices and points of sale scattered throughout the town, Argentina’s Bariloche terminal has a dozen or so different companies and conglomerates lined up alongside each other. Because each kiosk doesn’t display easily visible timetables (if they have any at all), and there’s no centralized site online with every company’s routes and times of departure, it can be an adventure.


Buenos Aires’s chaotic Retiro bus terminal, which is reminiscent of a war zone.

My Lonely Planet guidebooks for Argentina and Chile, although outdated, have lists of which companies go where from each town and serve as an excellent start. Looking online at various company websites, I found a convenient bus over the Andes to Chile that didn’t leave at an ungodly early hour. About $31 from Vía Bariloche, a reputable company about which I haven’t heard too many stories of sudden breakdowns in the jungle, the six hour ticket to Chile’s Puerto Varas was easy to purchase.

Entering Chile is a bit more of a process than going into Argentina, as the former has strict importation guidelines on agricultural products (read: no meat, vegetables, or fruit). While border formalities for entering Argentina can take a few minutes for an entire busload, in Chile it’s often much longer. But the sniffer dog’s habit of repeatedly running off into the woods, and bringing along random pieces of luggage taken from the inspection pile in an attempt to play fetch, provided entertainment.


It’s pretty easy to swap out SIM cards while crossing from country to country. Data costs about 40 cents a day, and the card allowing you access to the network is free or only a couple bucks. You can recharge the pay-as-you-go plan in lots of different places, like supermarkets or newspaper stands. When I asked for a smaller SIM card for my phone, the attendant just said “no problem” and got out a pair of scissors. Apparently in the US they frown very heavily upon that.

Entering Chile was a bit of a shock with a sudden onset of well paved roads and a lack of the general “Berlin 1945” feel you get everywhere in Argentina. The bus dropped me off 4km south of Puerto Varas on the highway, which wasn’t a terrible walk into town. Though next time I’ll pick a company that has a dropoff point in the settlement.


Walking to Puerto Varas around 9pm.

Disclaimer: Sweden is my favorite country I’ve ever visited, up there with Albania, Croatia, and Colombia, but Chile is quickly rising on that list. Puerto Varas is touristy, but the Swedish hostel I stayed at was lovely and the town is quite nice. Touristy towns in Chile don’t seem to have the “tourist trap” feel of Bariloche.

I spent a full day in town before heading up north to the Araucanía, Chile’s poorest and most heavily native region. Still, Chile is probably Latin America’s most developed country and the region seems more prosperous than just about anywhere in its eastern neighbor.


The beach of Pucón, my base for hikes in the Araucanía, with the Villarrica volcano visible in the background. Pucón is touristy, but still fairly pleasant.

My first hiking excursion in Chile was to Huerquehue National Park, known for being easily reached by public transit and having pretty lakes. At 50km (31 miles) round trip, the hike from the entrance to geothermal pools just outside the park was steep in places but overall not terribly demanding. I have to admit the scenery wasn’t comparable to other parks in the region, but soaking in the hot springs at the end of the day was quite nice.

Back in Pucón I went to the Villarrica National Park office to talk to the rangers about trail conditions on the popular 80km (50 mile) Villarrica Traverse. Because of the previous mild winter snow is not an issue, and the ranger gave me a map of the trail plus transit info (there really is none other than hitchhiking and a bus at the end that leaves once a day at 5pm).


The ski center, a pretty lonely place in summer but very close to the start of the Villarrica Traverse.

Rather than hitchhike the 20km (12 miles) up somewhat steep gravel roads, I decided to lengthen my first day and walk it all the way from Pucón. The sun was shining and it was a beautiful summer day, so why not? I’ve heard it’s an easy hitch, though. A little over halfway up I reached the Villarrica National Park entrance station, where I paid the entrance fee ($11, includes all camping costs) and registered my hike with the enthusiastic rangers.

“Now, son,” the ranger told me, “make sure you don’t drink that ash water on your first day. You’ll have so many bowel issues that…” He went on in vivid detail that seemed a little unnecessary, but he did give me useful up to date info on water conditions. Very important stuff on such a dry trail.

At the river, the last water source for some time and my campsite for the first night, a Chilean English teacher who carried everything in bags seemed to be forcing two friends of his on a death march that they really did not want to be on. He seemed mystified by my map, which I offered him since the entrance ranger had given me an extra. He said I could have some marijuana in return, but I declined while he and his friends walked somewhere off in the distance to collect 9 liters from a different water source. I had no trouble filtering the volcanic ash water with my physical filter, and promptly passed out.

I ran into the miserable Chileans later on in the hike, when the one who was actually in shape asked me to tell his straggling friends that he’d gone off to look for cell phone service. “I really need this to call for a ride back into town, I can’t believe there’s no service out here!” What did you expect in a remote valley surrounded by snowcapped mountains?!

I left them to their fate (I heard later on they weren’t at the same spot the next morning, so hopefully they’re not dead in a ditch somewhere) and hiked all the way up to a viewpoint covered in loose volcanic material. Because it was windy and I was tired, I just laid out my sleeping bag on the ash. Watching the sun dip below the Andes and the stars come out, I like to imagine I was looking at the southern cross. But I really have no idea and admittedly did fail the astronomy merit badge at scout camp. I had cell service, but turned it off. It’s nice to be disconnected.


The weird Martian landscape in one of the valleys.

Rather than rush to finish up the hike, I decided to take it at a slower pace of no more than 25km (15 miles) a day, something I couldn’t really do on the Pacific Crest Trail with a marathon-a-day pace. A Canadian couple I met along the trail would power through the day and arrive at camp by 1pm or so, and invited me to camp with them each night. It was nice having someone to talk to in English, and they let me scan pages from their out of print and sacred Lonely Planet Guide to Trekking in the Patagonian Andes. There’s really no decent guidebook for trekking in Patagonia, so I often have to rely on blogs and national park offices for info on planning this trip. Definitely a big difference from hiking in Europe and New Zealand!


Descending into a valley with more water and greenery.

The Villarrica Traverse is supposedly popular, but other than the Canadians I wouldn’t see hardly anybody else attempting the entirety of the main stretch. The solitude was nice, though near dirt roads leading to regional highways we’d see a fair amount of locals. One such group kept asking me about the prices of random everyday objects in the US, which was a bit bizarre. At least they weren’t trying to convince me of some weird conspiracy theories involving the CIA and a mysterious, shadowy corporation that controls all the news media outlets like I’d often hear in Argentina, where the politicians have become adept at blaming most of their problems on foreign countries (and don’t forget about the great patriotic war for the liberation of the Falklands from the military dictator Margaret Thatcher, leader of the third world impoverished nation of England).


A panorama of a particularly nice viewpoint.


Waiting for the Canadians at a rest stop on the highway to Argentina, heading towards the extension hike.

The trail dips for 15 minutes into Argentina, though luckily we didn’t have to go through border control. I wouldn’t have even known I was in Argentina if it weren’t for the GPS points of the trail I’d loaded into my phone for navigation backup. The Canadians and I decided to do a 25km (15 mile) extension of the Villarrica Traverse, which involved a 2km (1.2 mile) walk along the highway to a barely discernable trailhead by a bridge.


A panorama of the extension hike, with Lanín volcano and Argentina’s Volcán Lanín National Park on the other side. I wasn’t able to go to the latter because of weather a couple weeks ago, so I was glad to finally visit it from the much less frequented Chilean side.

I didn’t see a single other person besides the Canadian couple on the extension, though it was well marked and easy to follow. The three of us ended the day where the trail seemed to vertically scale a cliff with the trail signs blown down. After talking a bit, we decided to spend the night there by a lake and take a much easier to follow (not to mention safer) nearby dirt road back to the international highway in the morning.

Within a couple hours of waking up I was walking along the highway to a nearby rest stop, with raindrops starting to fall from the sky. Rather than walk the 11km (7 miles) along the highway to the closest village and wait six hours for a bus, I found a good spot and stuck my thumb out. Within 15 seconds a local had pulled over and said he’d give me a ride all the way back to Pucón, almost an hour away, if I agreed to speak English with him.

Looking back, I saw my companions just a few minutes down the roadand told him if he was willing to wait and take the three of us he could get even more English practice (the Canadians didn’t speak any Spanish). He agreed, and we hopped into his bus. The guy was very friendly, refused to take any pesos to help cover gas, and dropped us off in front of our hostel. Chile is wonderful!

La Región Patagonia

Maybe I shouldn’t write this as my hometown gets hammered by an ice storm, but at the moment I don’t really care: Uruguay and central Argentina were getting so damn hot and humid that upon arriving in Córdoba I immediately bought a bus ticket down south. Walking around during the middle of the day was unbearable and necessitated spending hours in air conditioned book cafes (admittedly what I was going to do anyways; I’ve finished six books in the past month).


This is usually what happens when my hometown gets more than a millimeter of snow.

My main memory of Córdoba was being a stupid gringo that lost the key to his padlock. Thankfully (or not, from a security standpoint) it only took the receptionist 7 seconds plus a hammer to break it open. I accidentally woke up my Scottish roommate during the process, who turned out to just be an American with a cold and not actually Scottish. He was also sleeping in some other guy’s bed due to a mixup in bunk assignments by the staff, which made for a very entertaining scene when he came back really drunk at 2am. As the only person in the room who spoke both English and Spanish, I translated the scene for the very startled Argentinian engineering student the next morning.


The quite comfortable cama ejecutiva seat on my 23 hour bus ride. The seat reclines 140 degrees or so.

The 23 hour bus ride to tiny Junín de los Andes was surprisingly nice, and I slept better than I did in the hostel. They did play some bizarre music videos, including one of an Argentinian guy dressed as Hitler in what appeared to be a Japanese video game. Argentina’s roads are pretty bad, so it was a little like being on a bumper car ride from the state fair, but other than that I can’t really complain about anything other than the disgustingly sweet food they handed out throughout the trip.

The main attraction of Junín is its proximity to Volcán Lanín National Park, where I was hoping to do some hikes around picturesque lakes under a volcano. The first woman at the tourist office seemed a little dense, but gave me maps and a bus timetable. When I went back to ask for a more detailed hiking map another worker looked aghast at what the first woman had written.

“There’s a weather alert in the park and it’s way too dangerous to go right now! Who the hell wrote all this on your map?!” She exclaimed as the perpetrator suddenly found something to do in the back of the office.

At the bus station, I inquired without success on available seats across the Andes to Chile. Desperate not to have to spend the next three days in this tiny town with the crazy homeless woman who kept glaring and growling at me all around the central plaza, I was able to procure tickets five hours south to El Bolsón via the picturesque Ruta de los Siete Lagos (Route of the Seven Lakes). And the next morning, after a relatively sleepless night while everyone in the local campground had a rave and blasted music until 4am, I watched the scenery change from desert to lush pine forests surrounded by snowcapped mountains.


Walking to the start of the hike.

El Bolsón is a pretty hippie-ish place and, after registering my trip with the local mountaineering office and procuring a map in the undying rain, I was largely set for spending some days in the mountain. The municipal campground was again noisy, with what seemed to be air raid sirens (I later learned it had to do with a fire) going off around midnight.

There’s a bus every hour or so to the start of the hike, but the weather had cleared when I awoke and so I opted to instead walk the 8km on unpaved farm roads. A dog from the village followed me most of the way, which caused the farm dogs to go berserk.


Drying out my tent next to the rickety old bridge of death.

After the rolling hills and farms, the trail began to climb. Mile for mile it was probably one of the most difficult hikes I’ve ever done, ascending at a ridiculous rate for 10km. I did it in about 3 hours not including long breaks (I didn’t want to get to the end too early), which upon arriving at the Cerro Hielo Azul Hut I was told was impossible and should take over twice that time. I replied that I hiked 4400km from Mexico to Canada and spent two months hiking solo in the Arctic, which they didn’t seem to believe. One ranger asked me about the northern lights, and didn’t seem to understand that the farther you get from the equator the more light there is in summer (and thus you can’t really see them in summer, when I had about a  month of perpetual daylight). After this I pretty much didn’t listen to what they said.


Climbing the boulders up the mountain towards the glacier.

Camping is prohibited near El Bolsón except by mountain huts, which charge about $5 a night for you to put up your tent. The Hielo Azul Hut had flush toilets and a special shelter for campers with a stove for heat, which was quite nice in the higher altitude temperatures. I spent the evening chatting with Argentinians in the shelter, where they gave me peach marmelade and the tea-like drink mate. As a gringo that speaks Spanish, I get a lot of comments about how respectful it is to come to a country already speaking the local language. People here have been very friendly to me, and as practically the only foreigner I stand out.


View from the hill above the glacier, overlooking the valley where the Cerro Hielo Azul Hut is.

I awoke early the next morning to ascend the glacier, a popular day hike from the hut. The ranger didn’t want to let me go solo, but relented after I talked about wandering off into the Icelandic tundra by myself for days at a time. He said it would be a minimum of 3 hours round trip, not including time spent at the glacier, but I was able to return within 2 hours including some rests.


Selfie at the small glacier because I was the only one there. I didn’t see anybody going up, but ran into about 30 people while going back down.

During parts of the ascent I had some don’t look down and don’t fall, what the hell am I doing out here?! moments as it was fairly steep. Some parts I had to ascend using my hands amid loose scree. Looking back, I can definitely see how they don’t want people to go alone.

The steep climb on uneven, rocky terrain played hell on the muscles around my left knee. Still wanting to continue with my original plan, I downed two ibuprofen (aka Vitamin I on the Appalachian Trail) and was fine.


Hanging out in front of the Retamal Hut.

After a terrifying ascent and subsequent descent into the next valley, I decided to take a day off at the hut campgrounds. There are worse places to spend a sunny day than reading and resting one’s knees on a Patagonian riverbank. My Spanish sure got a workout, as all the chatty locals wanted to know what an American was doing in a popular Argentinian vacation spot.


Overlooking the river.


Path through the forest.

The end of the hike was very easy, and since I left the hut around 6:30am I didn’t see anybody until almost two hours later. A porteño (someone from Buenos Aires) social worker, his northeastern boyfriend, and I walked to the Wharton convenience store bus stop and asked around until we found out how to take the $2 bus back to the hippie village. They were interesting to talk to, and said that although Argentina legalized gay marriage a few years ago it still wasn’t that welcoming of a place outside of Buenos Aires. They had to go back north for work, and I was on my way to Chile, so we parted ways.


Heading down to catch the bus back to El Bolsón.

La República Oriental del Uruguay

I was a little disappointed with my Buenos Aires post, but after thinking it through I’m leaning towards the conclusion that it might’ve been because I was a little disappointed with Buenos Aires. It’s famed for being a mix between Madrid and a South American Paris, but having just spent 10 months in Madrid and almost a year and a half in Europe (with a couple long weekends in Paris) I don’t really see the connection.  

Disclaimer: I love Paris.

Maybe it’s the difference of having been a working resident of the European Union and a tourist in Buenos Aires, but if anything the dilapidated fleet of buses plying through the city’s crumbling streets and worn out buildings were more reminiscent of the former Yugoslav city of Podgorica than Paris. 

Which is not to say that I disliked Buenos Aires. To the contrary, I enjoyed its developing world feel. It’s just not European. In contrast, I found parts of Uruguay to be much more European. 

Map of the Eastern Republic of the Uruguay. Uruguay is an indigenous name, like Paraguay.

To escape the craziness and parties of Christmas in the big city, I bought passage on the 75 minute ferry across the estuary to Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay. Border control, done before boarding the passenger ferry, took about 60 seconds max. Definitely the easiest border checkpoint I’ve crossed. 

Quiet, leafy streets of Colonia.

A rural small town and popular weekend getaway from Buenos Aires and the Uruguayan capital Montevideo, Colonia doesn’t retain much evidence of its colonial roots from over 335 years ago. That being said, it was a terrific and tranquil place to spend Christmas Eve and Christmas and was a welcome respite from the big city. I’m not sure it’s worth a day trip unless you really want to add another country to your list and relax, but I loved it. 

Streets of the old town of Colonia.

The vast majority of visitors to Uruguay are from Brazil or Argentina, coming to enjoy the beaches (much better than those in Argentina, and cheaper than those in Brazil). That was definitely true of the hostel population in Colonia.

My Christmas card photo 2016.

After the festivities of Christmas (read: barbeques on the beach) I hopped on a four hour bus east to Montevideo, at 1.5 million home to half of the country’s population. 

The architecture and lifestyle in Montevideo was much more reminiscent of Madrid than Buenos Aires, with no restaurants opening before the ungodly early hour of 8pm. 

The sign instructs visitors to not swim in the empty fountain.

Like its neighbor to the south, and also former colonizer, the diet is heavy on meat. It’s also surprisingly progressive with gay marriage, recreational marijuana, and government funded abortions both legal and largely noncontroversial. The live and let live outlook, informal friendliness of the locals, and “don’t worry about it” attitude reminded me a lot of Spain. Though the latter may be because the Uruguayans seem to always be stoned. 

The hostel in Montevideo had a really great vibe, and a backyard that was very cool on the hot summer days (getting up to 90F/32C). One of the volunteers there said she left school to travel and wished women would be added to the draft in the hopes of her one day being able to burn a draft card, and I knew I was in for a nice 60s-style hippie retreat. 

The hostel owner cooking the most amazing barbecue I’d ever had.

During the days I roamed the streets of Montevideo, and at night we’d gather in the backyard and chat. Mentally, it was nice to vent with others about how annoying it is in the US to constantly hear:

  • How do you pay for these trips? Once you’ve got the airplane ticket, places like Ukraine, rural Ethiopia, and camping in Arctic Sweden while eating noodles can be quite affordable. 
  • When are you going to get a real job? Usually this is after the asker tells me about how he hates his job and life. 
  • The world is just so dangerous nowadays. Stop watching American cable news. 
  • Why would you go anyplace else if you can see anything you want here? No. 

And, as one of the other Americans noted, it’s nice for foreigners to get a view of the US that’s not blind nationalism, loud proclamations of being the greatest country in the world, and denial of atrocities we’ve committed. 

Camping out an a river island in rural Uruguay with a bunch of party hard alcoholic locals. This tent got me through the Pacific Crest Trail, two months in the Arctic, and has served me quite well.

To escape the New Year’s celebrations, I headed northwest to the swelteringly hot and humid rural town of Mercedes. Having visited largely because they had a campground and to see more of rural Uruguay, I kind of regretted my decision when campers drunkenly blasted reggaeton at ear destroying decibels from 7pm until 11am. But that’s what you get from a $3 a night campground. The elderly Uruguayan men laying in the park were quite friendly, and I joined them while we collectively tried to not die of heat exhaustion. 

Tits: an upscale women’s clothing store in Uruguay’s capital city.

Finally escaping Mercedes, I headed to Paysandú on the Uruguay River. A border town, I had heard it was an interesting cultural city to visit. That may be true, but the oppressive heat and rain kept me from exploring too much on my 11 hour wait for an overnight bus to Córdoba, Argentina. The bus terminal was very comfortable and air conditioned, and the chipper (and presumably unbearably bored) tourist office woman kept me company. 

I did get asked to not eat on the floor while I charged my phone in a corner outlet, but the security guard was chill about it.