“Only the strong survive.”-Herbert Spencer referring to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.
The colors of Valparaiso remind me of a Light Bright. The city’s colorful colonial houses are stacked on top of one another and they rise up a series of steep hills that cup the bay like an ancient Roman amphitheater. I wasn’t expecting this at all, but I guess that’s the beauty of not using a guidebook or looking things up online before I arrive at my destination.
There must be thousands of crumbling homes and mansions that rise above the city and each one’s a different and more distinct color than the one next to it. The color combinations through the city give Valparaiso a character that most places I’ve been don’t quite offer. And the tradeoff for those living in the cramped quarters up above must be an incredible bird’s eye view of the Infinity cruise ship I’m on as it begins to dock down below.
I love when things take me by surprise just like this. Nicknamed the “Jewel of the Pacific”, Valparaiso was declared a world heritage site in 2003, but for as much as there is to see here I feel like I don’t have a second to spare once we settle into our spot in its port.
I’ve got to cover over 2,200 miles by bus if I want to make it to Antarctica and I only have fifteen days to do so. I know fifteen days might sound like a lot, but since I’ll only be traveling by bus, it’s really not that much time at all. The distance itself if mapped out across the United States is roughly what it would be like to go from New York to California, but with America’s easily accessible infrastructure that’s a piece of cake compared to what I’ve heard Southern South America is like.
In order to get to Ushuaia, which is at the southernmost tip of Argentina and where my cruise to Antarctica leaves from, I’ve got a major obstacle in my way and its name is Patagonia. The region is dominated by the mighty and monstrous Andes Mountains and the tiny towns that dot its countryside are few and far between. Plus I have no idea what the buses will be like in the isolated regions that I’ve got to travel through and I’ve heard from other travelers that many of the roads are rough and unpaved. I already know all too well the toll that tough terrain takes on buses. I’ve spent countless hours sitting alongside the road as numerous buses I’ve been on have broken down over the course of my two plus years on the road so far. And so with the terrain being as harsh as it is it might as well be 10,000 miles.
Then there’s the fact that I don’t speak a lick of Spanish so I think it’s safe to say that that’s only going to complicate things. Oh, and one more thing, I’ll have to zig zag back and forth between Argentina and Chile just to get to Ushuaia, which means multiple border crossings. This can raise a few red flags in and of itself and in turn means a plethora of confusing questions from immigrations officers that I’ll hopefully be able to mime the right answers to. So it’s easy to see how this whole thing could get derailed for someone with even the most precisely laid travel plans.
And here’s the thing, my travel plans (as per usual) are anything but precise. I don’t have much mapped out other than my first two stops and the end goal of getting to Ushuaia, and the margin for error is so small that if anything should go wrong there’s a good chance that I won’t make it in time for my cruise with Antarpply Expeditions to Antarctica. That’s the cruise that I’ve miraculously managed to barter my way onto, and for as nice as they’ve been to me they’ve also made it very clear that there isn’t a backup cruise should I miss this one. All their other cruises for the rest of the season are fully booked up. So this cruise in fifteen days time is well and truly my only option if I want to complete my dream of making it around the entire world overland.
The second my foot hits the dock in Valparaiso I’m off and running. I need to get to Santiago somehow and I max out all the Spanish I know and ask the first police officer I see outside the port where the estación de autobus is.
I quickly follow the direction he points and after stopping and asking someone inside a small bodega the same question, I eventually find Avenue Pedro Montt and then Terminal Rodoviário Valparaiso. I buy the first ticket available through a tiny window that’s got metal bars separating the saleswoman and me. By 2:15PM I’m on the bus to Santiago.
It’s a straight shot, just two hours southeast to Chile’s capital and largest city and I’ve got a seat with decent legroom in the first row of the bus. I never thought I’d actually say this but the rush of being back on a bus is intoxicating. I can’t believe how much I’ve missed this. The last bus I was actually on was way back in Southern California nearly six months ago. Since then I traveled by car and cruise ship and it’s nice to get back to my roots.
It isn’t long though until I make my first mistake in South America.
In fact, it happens within minutes of checking into Providencia Bed and Breakfast in Santiago. I meet Ignacio, the owner, at the front door of his 6-room home that’s he’s converted into a charming bed and breakfast. He welcomes me warmly and we wish each other a Merry Christmas. I quickly thank him for accepting my standard offer (a free room in exchange for photos). He leads me up the steps to the living room/lobby, which is where I wait as he runs to the kitchen to get me a cold glass of water. If I had to guess I’d say Ignacio is in his late forties, his hair is a mix of salt and pepper, and it gives him that distinguished gentleman look that’s hard to attain.
Whenever I first arrive at a hotel, hostel or bed and breakfast like this, I like to meet with the owner or manager as soon as possible, sometimes even before I drop my bags off in my room and today is no different. I do this because I like to review the details of our arrangement and to make sure we’re all on the same page, plus I want to organize the schedule for the photos I’ll be taking so I know when I’ll have free time to do other things.
And here lies my mistake. As soon as Ignacio hands me over a cold glass of water I ask him, “What type of photos would you like me to do for you?”
It takes him a second to translate my English to Spanish and then his Spanish into broken English, “I just want the photos from the sky”, he says and then he pauses to find the word he’s looking for, “drone”, he blurts out.
I have no idea what he’s talking about and I’m completely caught off guard by his request because I’ve never done drone photos for a hotel and so I tell him, “there must be some mistake.”
Just as the words come out of my mouth I realize that the mistake is mine.
It dawns on me that when I sent out all my emails to the hotels in Santiago that I had added a line in the email that stated that I could do drone photos. Back when I was in Florida I decided to buy a drone because I thought that would increase the likelihood of hotels accepting my offer. But when I was packing my bag for South America I realized that I didn’t have enough room for the drone, so I left it behind with my parents.
I’m immediately annoyed at myself, but I must have totally blocked it out of my mind because I had emailed all these hotels in Santiago well over a month ago when the prospect of traveling with the drone I had purchased was a certainty.
I find myself fumbling to explain that although I do have a drone, but that I don’t have it here with me, which I can tell raises flags in Ignacio’s mind. I think about concocting a story up about how Chilean immigrations officers found it in my bag today when I passed through customs and took it from me or tell him that I crashed it while using it yesterday and that it’s broken beyond repair. But instead I just tell Ignacio the truth, which is that I had every intention of bringing a drone with me when I first emailed him, but that I didn’t have space in my luggage to bring it along.
I sheepishly say, “I don’t have a drone with me although my email promised drone footage.”
Ignacio, rightfully so, is skeptical of my explanation. I can tell that he thinks that I never had a drone to begin with and that I just used that to reel him in and hook him on my offer. I’ve heard from many hotels that I’ve bartered with in the past that travel photographers/bloggers like me often promise to do all this wonderful work, but then they don’t ever hold up their end of the bargain.
The language barrier isn’t helping much either, and the more I talk in English the more frustrated Ignacio becomes with me. I try to explain that I’ve worked with over two hundred hotels around the world and that I can do amazing photos and a wonderful film for him without the drone, but he isn’t buying it. He skeptically says, “but you promised a drone” and I keep saying, “I know and I’m so sorry, I didn’t have enough room in my bag.”
I even unzip my trusty duffel bag to show him that there isn’t a square to spare, but that seems to only infuriate him. His thinking is that I should have clearly known that I wasn’t going to have room for a drone and that I should have emailed him ahead of time to let him know. And he’s right, I can’t argue that fact.
Eventually the tide starts to really turn on me and Ignacio begins to think that I’m here to hustle him. But I promise him that I’m not and I say, “if you ask any of the 200 hotels I’ve ever worked with I think they’d all vouch for my work and feel as though they probably ended up getting the better end of the deal.”
Ignacio doesn’t understand a word of my explanation and I kick myself for not sticking with the Spanish class I had signed up for while I was in Florida a month ago. I tried to take Spanish lessons before I left, but I only attended two classes and all the teacher covered was how to count to ten and how to sound out the letters of the alphabet, so I don’t know any actual Spanish words other than estación de autobus and baño. Plus, my brain just has a hard time with learning a language. I cannot think of a more confusing thing on this earth than trying to learn another language. I barely have a grasp of the English language for god sakes.
I don’t know what to do and Ignacio is running thin on patience so I offer to do photos and film of the 6 guestrooms he has, the exterior of the house and also the breakfast he offers his guests, but he turns it down. He’s adamant that the only reason he accepted my offer was specifically for the drone photos.
It quickly becomes obvious that there’s just no way to hash things out through the language barrier and so Ignacio says, “instead of the two nights I now can only offer you one. I will let you stay tonight, but only because it’s Christmas.”
I stand in his living room and stare out a beautiful bay window that’s wide-open. There’s a vase with white and pink carnations on the windowsill. Behind that is a sea of thatched orange roofs that defines this side of Santiago. I could stay here for the one night and then try to find another place for tomorrow night, but the thought of staying for free without doing any work for him in return doesn’t sit well with me and plus he thinks I’m lying. I know myself and I just know that I wouldn’t feel comfortable here. So my brain flips to the other option, which is to leave. I could always pay for a room somewhere else, but then again I don’t want to do that either as I’m still on a very tight budget.
I remember seeing a Starbucks down the street (which to me means Wi-Fi) and so I decide that it’s best if I leave.
I apologize to Ignacio and leave without a handshake. He’s happy to see me traipse down the steps and out onto the street. I shuffle along it feeling defeated. I don’t know what it is about Christmas, but here I am again having yet another awful one out on the road, but if I can just connect to the Wi-Fi at Starbucks then I can try to catch my breath and hopefully hatch a plan to barter with another hotel in Santiago somehow.
But by the time I order a coffee and get the Wi-Fi code to actually work, it starts getting dark out and I know that it’s out of the realm of possibilities to email more hotels in Santiago to see if they’ll accept my offer. Most families spend Christmas night together in Chile and they have a big family dinner around this time of the day, so I know that no one’s going to be checking their emails for the rest of the night. The streets are completely empty and all of the stores I just walked by were already closed anyway. So I decide to search for a hostel online, which is painful when I see the prices for even the cheapest rooms, but I eventually grit my teeth and settle on one only because it’s within walking distance.
The Bellavista Hostel is about a fifteen-minute walk and the pictures of it online look nice enough. My options are that I can share an eight-bed dorm for $15 a night or I could get my own room with a shared bathroom for $30 a night. I decide that since it’s Christmas and that since today has turned into an unexpectedly long travel day that I’m going to treat myself to the private room. So I hitch my camera bag up onto my shoulders and grab the handle of my trusty duffel bag and begin the lonely process of making my way across town on Christmas night.
Believe it or not, the exact same stupid thing happened to me two days later in Pucón.
And again it was no one’s fault but my own. After a rough 12-hour bus ride from Santiago, I showed up at Pucón Adventure Hostel and its owner Miguel said, “the only reason I accepted your offer was for the drone shots your email promised.”
Besides owning a small 5-room log cabin that doubles as a hostel, Miguel also runs a tour company that specializes in outdoor activities in and around Pucón. And instead of doing the typical photos of the hostel’s bedrooms, living room, kitchen and exterior like I normally do he wanted to take me on a hike tomorrow, one that he offers his guests. And this isn’t just any hike, he wanted to go up the side of the active Villarrica volcano, which actually took my breath away when I saw it for the first time from the window of the bus earlier today. Its snow-capped summit and simmering smokestack was so spectacular against the bright blue vaulted sky that it was the kind of thing that restores your faith even if your faith is already full. Its crater hovers nearly 10,000 feet above Pucón’s picturesque ski village streets like a soaring eagle that’s got nothing but time on its hands.
Villarrica has erupted 82 times since 1558 and the most recent one was just two years ago, which forced the evacuation of nearby communities, but I’d absolutely love to go on a short hike up the side of it with Miguel tomorrow. However, when I told him that I didn’t have my drone with me he immediately said that the deal was off. I didn’t even bother going through the same discussion I had with Ignacio just a few days earlier so I quickly apologized and walked down the street with all my things (again). I found a café called Rústico Pucón that was next to a Zumba studio and connected my phone to their Wi-Fi. Then I used my Skype account to call Etnico Eco Hostel, which is just down the street because they had also accepted my offer, but they did so well over a month ago.
As the phone rings and the Zumba music rattles the wall next to me I began to worry about the awkwardness of the situation. Since both Etnico Eco Hostel and the Adventure Hostel had replied to my initial email and each accepted my offer I chose to stay with the nicer of the two, which based on a small sample of pictures I found online was the Adventure Hostel. And so I respectfully turned down Etnico Eco Hostel and emailed them to explain that I wouldn’t be coming. Now normally if two hotels or hostels both accept to my offer, I’ll just ask one of them if they could change the dates so I can space out my stay and stay longer in whatever city it happens to be, but since I’m racing to Ushuaia to make my cruise to Antarctica I don’t have any extra time to hang around Pucón. And so now here I am calling them back out of the blue like a lover that abruptly ended things, but wants to get back together.
I hope they’ll take me back and I’m embarrassed to have to ask them if they’ll still have me. And what makes it even worse is that I’m just a few blocks away and I’ll have to ask them if I can come over now since its getting late and I have nowhere else to go.
Rodolfo, the owner who I’d been emailing with last month, isn’t home. But his wife Pao answers and she tells me to come by in about an hour and that they could probably work something out for me. Relieved, I sip my coffee as slowly as possible and hope that the hour passes in just a few minutes. I just want to get into a room and rest. I’m exhausted from the long bus ride today and as I sit here alone and wait, I begin to wonder if all these travel-related headaches are really worth it.
Just getting to Pucón was a bit of a challenge. I left my hostel in Santiago at around five this morning, which meant that I didn’t get full night’s sleep. Any time my travel plans require me to leave so early in the morning, I toss and turn all night afraid that I won’t hear my alarm or wake up in time. So I was already in a bit of a fog before I even left and once I made it to the bus station I waited outside in the rain for the bus for fear that I’d miss it if I waited inside with everyone else. And of course my bus was thirty minutes late, which caused my travel anxiety to flare up even more.
The thing I’ve noticed about Chilean buses so far is that they don’t tell you the exact terminal they’re going to depart from, they only narrow it down for you. So I had to keep an eye on terminals 31-40 and then hope that I would see my bus the moment it pulls in. But since my bus was so late I thought each of the twenty buses that came and went over that time were mine. I asked the woman working outside on the concourse which bus was mine so many times that when mine finally showed up she pointed at it so violently that she nearly took my eye out. Then to top it off, once I got on the bus I had to change out of my soaking wet clothes in the absolutely filthy bathroom at the back of the bus. Dirty toilet water sloshed around as the driver made what felt like a never-ending series of left turns like he knew that I was balancing on one leg back there and trying my damndest not to touch anything.
Rodolfo, Pao and there little three-year old daughter are a breath of fresh air. They welcome me in and tell me that I can stay as long as I need to, no questions asked, no drone required. They even give me a private room, which has its own bathroom. They’re not too concerned with what I do in return for the room. “Maybe just a few photos here and there”, they say.
They’re seasoned travelers themselves and know how hard life on the road can be at times. Rodolfo tells me that they once traveled from Vancouver to Pucón in an old school bus that they converted into a camper. He says it took them six months to drive that far and that the bus was fueled by vegetable oil. This seems unfathomable to me. I can’t imagine crossing through some of the more isolated parts of Central America and trying to find enough vegetable oil to keep an old school bus up and running for thousands and thousands of miles.
I quickly decide that I have to see this bus and so Rodolfo takes me out back and pulls the tarp off of it. He said there were up to twelve people traveling and sleeping in it at one time sometimes, which also seems unfathomable to me. As someone that loves their personal space I couldn’t imagine sharing the cramped quarters with that many other people, but the bus has an undeniable magic to it. I can see how much it means to Rodolfo and its memories come tumbling out when he opens the door and lets me in.
While we sit inside, he tells me about the paint job that decorates the outside of it. One side of the bus is painted with beautiful blue rivers, green mountains and a huge tan puma head, while the driver’s side has a llama and a big yellow daffodil emblazoned against a scenic backdrop. Rodolfo tells me that he gave a Ted Talk about his vegetable oil journey and that he really wants to raise the environmental consciousness in South America. As I listen to him speak with passion I can’t help but begin to feel good that my plans fell through at the Adventure Hostel.
I eventually arrive in Ushuaia with two days to spare. Well I shouldn’t say spare, that’s not really the right word. I need one day to go around town and buy clothes that are fit for the harsh conditions in Antarctica and then honestly I just need a day to decompress and catch up on my sleep. The past week was one of the most grueling, if not most grueling weeks of overland travel I’ve ever endured.
For some reason all the buses that happened to be going the way I needed to go were only night buses that usually left around midnight, which is undoubtedly my least favorite way to travel. Not only do you miss out on seeing the landscape because it’s so dark out, but it’s also damn near impossible for me to sleep on a bus. I don’t fit in a normal bed, let alone a cramped South American bus seat that’s built for someone a foot shorter than me. Then add in all the stops and starts and swaying from the uneven Patagonian roads and it quickly becomes a grueling affair.
It was 12 hours from Pucón to Bariloche, which meant crossing the Chilean-Argentina boarder for the first time. A stray dog found its way on the bus at one of the rest stops and worked its way to the back of the bus, so that provided some entertainment, but when the bus hit a pothole and I fell flat on my face in the aisle as I was walking back to the bathroom, that soured my mood.
Bariloche itself was beautiful. Situated in the foothills of the Andes Mountains and on the southern shores of Nahuel Huapi Lake, it’s a travelers dream. I rented a bike and rode around the lake and spent New Year’s Eve there where I enjoyed my first Argentinean Asado at midnight. The Fortaleza Hostel, which I had bartered a room with, organized a huge barbeque for all their guests and there was beer, beef, pork, ribs, sausages and blood sausages as far as the eye could see.
I left shortly thereafter for Comodoro Rivadavia, which is when things really started grinding me down. It took an excruciating twenty hours to get there. And once I finally did, I schlepped my things back and forth across the town for hours in rain while looking for the cheapest room. Hotels and/or hostels were few and far between and I eventually gave up and spent the night in a bed bug infested hostel that was next to the San Juan Bosco Cathedral, which is the city’s main church.
There were no hotels willing to barter with me in exchange for a room in Comodoro Rivadavia, but even if they had, I wouldn’t have had time do the photos anyway. Because almost unbelievably the very next night I was right back in a cramped bus seat for twenty more additional hours. This time I was headed to Rio Gallegos, which while exhausting but also provided some moments of inspiration.
The GPS on my phone actually had an alert that read: May include unpaved roads. Ferry required. Turn-by-turn directions not available to destination.
For the last ten hours of the ride I actually had the entire bus to myself, which just goes to show how far off the grid I’d gotten since I left Santiago a little over a week ago. The countryside opened up and we drove along a long stretch of a highway that wound beautifully around a sea as blue as I’d ever seen. There’s something about the ocean that always helps me tap into another layer of myself and I wished that part of the ride stretched on forever, but once we cut back inland we witnessed something just as majestic. We passed a pack of wild horses running alongside the road like they had been plucked right out of a Budweiser commercial. Their long flowing manes and gorgeous black coats shimmered across the afternoon sunlight as they galloped together like nothing I’ve ever seen. And alpacas were everywhere too, but some of them met an unfortunate fate, which wasn’t quite as nice to see.
There were barbed wire fences about hip height that ran alongside the highway and every hundred miles or so we’d see the skeleton of an alpaca dangling overtop it. My best guess is that they had tried to jump over the fence in an attempt to cross the road but that they didn’t quite have the vertical leap required to make it and got caught up there, and in such isolated parts of southern Argentina no one was there to help wriggle them loose.
The last leg to Ushuaia took 14 more hours, which drained what little was left of me. I crossed into Chile from Argentina and then back to Argentina again, which meant confusing questions from immigrations officers just as I’d expected, but when I cleared the last set of questions and crossed back into Argentina for the last time the pressure was finally off. I knew right then and there that I was going make it to Ushuaia in time for my cruise to Antarctica. The bus drove onto an industrial looking ferryboat and crossed the Straight of Magellan and then I just had to sit patiently for a few more hours as the bus chugged ever so slowly along the knife-edge of a cliff. We made our way up the skyscraping Martial Mountains at sunset and when I finally arrived at Le Casa de Tere in Ushuaia around 9PM I nearly collapsed.
Spending some 60 hours on a bus in one week is damn near insane and it had me at my wits end by the end of it. Not to mention the toll it had taken on my body. Everything was so rushed, so unorganized and so stressful that I’d been eating like crap the entire way. I was grabbing greasy food from rest stops and gas stations, often eating massive amounts of slimy salami in one sitting. And when I missed a meal I’d replace it with overly caffeinated energy drinks and bags of M&M’s.
By the time I got to Ushuaia I didn’t know right from left and up from down, but I’ll never forget when Tere opened the door to her bed and breakfast, (she had agreed to host me for two nights in exchange for photos). She was just about as bright of a light as I’ve ever come across, but tough as nails too. She reminded me of my great-great grandmother. Tere was probably in her late seventies if I had to guess, and I could tell the harsh Ushuaian winters had taken their toll on her. Her curly white hair was in rollers and she spoke little English, but I felt like the bond between us was immediate. It was just one of those unspoken things that if you asked me a million times how or why we had it I’d never be able to give you the right answer.
Maybe there was just some special connection when someone who’s racing to the end of the earth meets someone who lives there. Travelers often talk of the times they didn’t need a translator while traveling because occasionally there’s this force that overrides the language barrier. Maybe this was that force.
Tere ushered me up to my room with a grace I’ve only rarely ever seen and when she showed me how to work the shower she said, “frío, agua from the glacier.”
I guess that’s when it hit me. All the sacrifices, bumps in the road and hard work have been worth it because my next stop is a stop that I’d never even planned on going to when I sold all my things and left home two plus years ago.
I looked at Tere and said, “Tere, miracles do happen and Antarctica awaits!”