As I’m writing this, I’m sitting in my camping chair, wide awake from the ice cold shower I just endured. There’s a a grassy air strip to my left, framed by pink and yellow wild flowers. To my right, Robbie is having a well deserved siesta in a hammock. I’m relaxed and content, glancing up too often (for writing) at the glacier thats oozing down the mountain in front of me. We’re in Patagonia, our ultimate destination for the past two years. Today we hiked up to the Volcan Chaiten crater, to witness the damage done by the recent eruption. The surrounding hillsides were dotted with fallen, barren trees and there were puffs of sulphuric gas spewing out of the red mountain that emerged from the crater. On the menu tonight is steak and fresh veggies, along with a bottle of Las Moras vino. It’s been a really good day. It’s also been a long time coming.
Don’t get me wrong, we’ve had a spectactular journey through the Americas and we’ve been lucky in most aspects of our travels. The past two weeks however, have been trying. I’m not talking about extreme life situations here, just the ups and downs of being on the road.
After making some difficult decisions based on our timeline, about our route through Peru and Chile (and not going to Bolivia-boo!) we decided to visit the Atacama desert and enter Argentina through a rural border crossing. Our multi-day stay in San Pedro de Atacama was cut off shortly after we realized how expensive it was for camping, groceries and the surrounding sights. On our budget, we couldn’t afford the $60 fee to float in the buoyant Lago Cejar. It was time to move on.
Our spontaneity landed us in a bit of a whirlwind from then on. We realized, as Canadians, we had to pay an online entrance fee into Argentina before we arrived the next day. Robbie did his research, found the website and paid the fee. We knew the northern route through Chile to Argentina ascended gradually and Rambo would likely overheat, so we woke early to begin our long day of driving and stopping.
The scenery was like nothing we’ve seen before. The volcanoes were perfect, colored charcoal, burgundy and tan. The rolling hills were covered with patches of grass, the tips burnt orange in the sun. Wild horses and llamas grazed, roaming around nonchalantly. The earth changed as we went, brown hills turned to rust and the snow white salt flats emerged. Pink flamingoes stood like statues as they waded in the water. These passing scenes became more pristine and tranquil as we drove. We were camera happy and on top of the world. Then we arrived at the border.
There was some confusion about our entrance fee and it turned out, we had paid the wrong one. As we waited for someone to help us, the beautiful blue sky turned grey and it started to pour. Then it got cold. At the end of the two hour wait, people were walking around with down coats, hats and rainboots. Finally back in the van, we broke out our wool socks and down coats, to warm our frozen skin. It was not the arrival we had anticipated. Nonetheless, we were in Argentina, our last and most dreamed about country!
There are two more things of importance to note about taking a rural border crossing. One, we had no Argentine Pesos and were relying on an ATM being close by, and two, we were out of gas. There was a petrol station shortly after the border. The ATM had no money and they would not take our credit card. We used another card for our fuel and paid a pretty fee to do so. We eventually found an ATM that allowed us to withdraw a minimal amount and charged a crazy percentage for it. These problems would continue throughout the next several weeks. Here begins our love-hate relationship with Argentina.
Our first day in the country took us through more breathtaking mountains to Salta, where we had to purchase insurance for the van. This was the first time we could not buy it at the border and we beelined to the city to get it taken care of before the weekend. We arrived at lunchtime and by 7:00 that night and twelve brokers later, we still did not have insurance. The next town we stayed in for the weekend, visiting half a dozen businesses with no luck. We were pulled over on several occasions in the following days but we would hand over an armload of papers to the policeman, confident he would get flustered and not notice the lack of insurance he requested. This strategy worked like a charm but it was still nerve wracking every time. After eight days in the country, praying we wouldn’t get a ticket, corresponding with more brokers through email, we finally got insurance.
During that week, other issues kept popping up that we hadn’t experienced before. En route to the province of Mendoza, we were held up by rain. The roads were built with dips to let the water flow over them in the rain. I know what you’re thinking….what happens in heavy rain? Well, you wait for hours for the water to drop, then you drive through and hope you don’t get stuck or swept away and if you’re really in a hurry, you get a ride across the new river in a front end loader. With your motorcycle in the bucket like our friend Polo. Why aren’t there any bridges? Your guess is as good as ours.
Rambo was a little too big for a joy ride in the bucket, so we turned around and began a two day detour around the damage. We weren’t in a hurry to get anywhere but adding extra driving time in rural areas adds on more issues. One, the pesky problem of gas stations only accepting cash. Then the problem of ATM’s running out of cash and us almost, down-to-the-last-drop running out of fuel! Along with those annoyances, we had a hard time finding wifi for Robbie to do some work. It’s not just the lack of signal that bothered us though. If you drive all day stopping at every store and restaurant that has a wifi signal, only to discover none of them actually do, it gets frustrating. Or asking for wifi, being told it’s available, ordering a meal outside of the budget and then having the same server tell you that it hasn’t worked for a few days. This situation occured often enough that it became an expectation and we became internet feigns, bombarding the poor servers with a round of 20 questions about their signals. Argentina was succeeding in changing our happy-go-lucky, on the road personas into bitter, restaurant lurking, wifi addicted, all things Argentinean haters.
Then we hit the Lakes District and our world turned upside down completely. We entered the mouth-watering, abudant world of craft beer and homemade goods. Signs for casero (homemade) bread, sausages, wine, cheese, steak, jams and beer were everywhere. Add to that a landscape of green forests, blue lakes and white mountains and we might as well have died and went to heaven! We haven’t been the same since. Not even two coolant leaks, hitchhiking and hardware scavenger hunts ruined our moods. We were in Argentina, the land of beautiful landscapes, rich vineyards, and divine food. It was even better than we had imagined.
We crossed back into Chile shortly after our casero revealation and this is where I sit now, soaking it all in. We’re heading deeper south and will return to Argentina soon. This time around, we’ll be prepared for the quirks of the country and nothing will get in the way of us thoroughly enjoying our feasts of steak and wine again!