There come certain times when even the best laid plans fail, when even the best of travelers find themselves in a pickle. I had such an experience when I found myself without a bus ticket or other means of getting from Punta Arenas, Chile to Ushuaia, Argentina. And as such my only option was something I feared and hoped always to avoid…I had to hitchhike.
Nevermind that the media would have us believe that hitchhiking is dangerous for anyone, what with the possible crazy people and murderers that could pick you up. But add to that my circumstance of being a woman traveling all alone, trying to cross an international border, in a region where my language skills are imperfect…and well, it seemed a recipe for disaster. I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it, I just knew this was a terrible idea. Yet I had no option whatsoever.
The situation was this:
I’ve been traveling through the Patagonian region of Chile and Argentina for nearly a month, and there has never been a problem buying a bus ticket to my next destination a day or even a few hours in advance. There are always plenty of seats, or else a bus a few hours later I could catch. Not so in Punta Arenas, where the tickets to Ushuaia are sold out a week or more in advance! Well, I’ve got my accommodations and tours in Ushuaia booked and I’d lose out on hundreds of dollars of bookings if I don’t get there. Not to mention I’ve been in Punta Arenas several days now and have exhausted all there is to do here. I’ve got to get to Ushuaia.
My hostel manager is trying to help me, calling his connections and friends, seeing if he can pull some strings for me. Really, he’s such a sweet man, trying very hard to help me out of this terrible situation. By the end of the day he’s exhausted his options, and he says to me, “I think your only option is to hitchhike.” I freeze up, unsure what to do with this truly preposterous suggestion. My heart and mind racing, I ask him really isn’t there anything else I can try. He explains that as this is an incredibly busy bus route, it sometimes happens that people need to hitchhike when they can’t get a ticket.
I resign to my bed, filled with fear and nerves and I try not to cry as I put together my plans and google safety tips. Not long after, a group of backpackers arrive who have just hitchhiked the same route in reverse. I pick their brains and they assure me I’ll be fine. The manager draws me a map and explains how I’ll need to go about this. I smile and thank everyone for their help, trying to put on a look of confidence to fool them (and myself).
The morning comes too soon. I’m up early, out by the local bus stop by 7. The bus never comes and after a half hour I hail a taxi to take me to the edge of town. Off to a great start…
I walk to the nearby gas station and begin scanning the folks in the parking lot to see who I can ask for a ride. Two large men, definitely not. A family! Oh the car is full. Two women, okay I’ll ask. Dammit, they’re going to the airport, that’s no good. An older man, two men, another male driver. Why is it that most of these drivers are men? I don’t feel comfortable with that. I’ll wait it out. Alright a young couple, I’ll ask them. Hmm, they’re off to Puerto Natales, that’s not ideal but it would at least get me started. Turns out its four folks, all headed to hike in Torres del Paine. Perfect, we’ve got some common ground. They graciously welcome me into their SUV, offer me a sandwich and snacks, and work to overcome our language barrier. They’re so nice, what a lucky break!
After only a half hour they drop me at the fork where we need to go separate ways. And it’s raining now. I thank them profusely, throw on my poncho, and stick out my hitchhiking thumb.
Maybe its the rain, or the look of desperation and fear on my face, but in less than five minutes I’ve got a lovely young couple stopped to offer me a ride as it’s on their way to Rio Gallegos! This is absolutely great, they get me about two hours further along my way, and the man has lived in New Zealand so his English is great and we go on chatting the whole time.
We exchange hugs at the ferry, where they’ve gone out of their way to drop me. And they suggest I might be able to hitch a ride on a bus on the other side of the ferry as those from Rio Gallegos won’t be nearly as busy. What lovely folks, I think this may not be the worst experience ever, as I had imagined.
Half an hour later I’m off the ferry and onto the Tierra del Fuego island. None of the buses have a seat though! And none of the cars will stop for me. The only traffic coming through here is by the ferry, so I sit for another half hour until the next ferry arrives. Again no luck. I’m beginning to worry…will I be stranded at this remote ferry terminal??
A half hour later another ferry arrives. None of the buses are going to Ushuaia, only to Rio Grande which is along the way. A sweet little Spanish man waves me over to the other side of the bus and indicates for me to put my bag in the storage. I do this, and start thanking him for this is a big chunk of the journey he will be taking me! He doesn’t ask for any fare, just directs me to the one open seat left on the bus. I sit and smile…this is a big break!
I notice I’m surrounded by 15 or 20 Koreans, and I start chatting with the woman beside me. She is baffled by what I’m doing, insisting that it’s dangerous and I shouldn’t be doing this. I thank her for her concern and assure her that I’ve actually been helped by so many nice people along the way. It’s true really, as I think about it, I haven’t felt unsafe. I suppose if someone sketchy had offered me a ride I could have politely declined, but I’ve been so fortunate that perfect strangers have extended their help to me without expecting anything in return. That’s really something.
Across the border control we go, and my seatmate continues to look out for me, making sure I get in the right line and get back to the bus in time and offers me some of her snacks. The unpaved roads have slowed us and in fact the bus breaks down beside the road for over an hour. I’m again growing concerned that I may not make it to Ushuaia tonight, that I may get stranded in Rio Grande. Almost sensing my unease, my seatmate turns to me and says that her group has got a private shuttle waiting for them in Rio Grande to get them to Ushuaia tonight, and perhaps they’ve got a spare seat for me. I can’t thank her enough, this is so kind and so perfect.
At Rio Grande we disembark, and she takes me to where we will wait for the shuttle. Trouble is, there aren’t any seats left after all. The shuttle is entirely full. My heart sinks. I ask the driver isn’t there a spare seat or another shuttle leaving tonight. He shakes his head no, but points to the ground and says in Spanish something that sounds like there’s only floor space left. My eyes light up and I exclaim “Esta bien!” I don’t think he was actually offering me to sit on the floor for the ride but at my reaction considers this possibility. It surely isn’t legal or per company protocol, but he seems to realize that helping someone out is more important than the rules. He chuckles in disbelief about what we’re about to do, and then into the bus I go. The Korean tour group starts buzzing with whispers and leaning over to look at me as I sit on the ground. And my friend explains to them in Korean that I’m a hitchhiker who needs to get to Ushuaia tonight. I think some of them took pictures of me sitting there.
The driver and I chat the whole way, using his broken English and my broken Spanish. He then designates me dj for the drive and I hook up my phone to play him some English music. As we pass the police check points along the way, I have to move to the back and crouch down with the luggage. More photographs.
We make it to Ushuaia by 10 that night. The driver gives me a hug as he drops me in the downtown area and the Koreans all wave to me out the windows wishing me luck. What an incredicle display of kindness. I couldn’t have been luckier today. If ever I had a doubt about the good and kind hearts of people, today surely squashed those doubts.
I never thought I would have to hitchhike, especially across international borders in South America. But now that I have, I can surely say that the people here are wonderfully kind and the experience wasn’t as frightening as I thought it would be. I hope I won’t find myself in another situation where I have to resort to hitchhiking, but at least I can say I made it safely through the experience, and met some amazing people along with way!
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