Show of hands. How many of you would take a 14 hour bus trip?
Well that depends, you might say. Chicken bus or first-class? Rock Star bus, perhaps! Or would it depend on where it was going? How about a tourist bus to the 'End of the World', el fin del mundo, to Ushuaia, Argentina? That's just what we did on our trip to Patagonia.
Getting around this southernmost region of South America can be challenging - especially if this is your first time - with road conditions, unpredictable weather, and the sheer enormity of Patagonia. Not to mention navigating the international border crossings between Chile and Argentina, two countries with lukewarm diplomatic relations. Sometimes, a trip like this turns into a 'Planes, Trains, and Automobiles' (and ferries and donkey karts) -- adventure that only traveling through remote parts of the world can deliver. Patagonia is remote, but that's not to say its major cities like Ushuaia, Argentina and Punta Arenas, Chile are podunk places.
It's just getting there!
We could have flown to Ushuaia for around $800 USD but opted for this 14-hour road trip instead, for the fun and adventure, and because it was less than $200 for both me and my husband, round trip. So we left Puerto Natales, Chile at 7:30am sharp, too early to grab breakfast anywhere except for the fruit and nuts we brought along, and too early for an open ATM to get us some cash for the trip. Halfway to Punta Arenas we stopped at Kon Aiken to change buses alongside the road. We'd be heading east to the international border at San Sebastian in Argentina.
We settled in, taking in the beautiful scenery around southern Chile. The sun was just coming up and I saw two baqueanos - Chilean cowboys - riding near the highway. Picture perfect.
Minutes turned to hours, and we dozed.
The two girls sitting ahead of us were not traveling together but got along well, and they chatted non-stop about sexual dilemmas at work and discrimination against them from a female boss who loved the guys in the office. The young couple across the aisle from them looked very much in love. And two dusty backpackers behind them and directly across the aisle from us looked like twin brothers only with different hair. One of them spent the entire trip fixing the ear bud issue he was having by recircuiting the complete wiring system inside his smartphone with a teeny tiny screwdriver. Meanwhile, his brother (I assume) with a head full of dreadlocks piled on top of his head, used his big toe to anchor the tied end of a bunch of brightly colored strings he was weaving into interesting looking jewelry.
And the grasslands full of grazing sheep rolled on forever.....
Hours later as I awoke, I heard the buses engine gearing down as we reached San Sebastian and the ferry crossing across the Straits of Magellan. A welcome break.
The bus stopped to let us off and we walked down to the ferry at the waters edge. One by one, several dozen cars and tractor trailers of all sizes drove on board. About 100 passengers squeezed into the covered lounge indoors and watched out the windows as the ferry slowly slogged through chilly waters across the Straits.
Forty-five minutes later our bus drove off the ferry, we loaded back on, and away we went. The chatter among the passengers softened and most everyone slept, except for the girls in front of us.
We'd been on the road for nearly 6 hours, and I awoke just as the bus started slowing. A western-looking signpost in the distance signaled we were arriving at the Ponderosa - or in this case, La Frontera Bar & Restaurant. Ah, this must be lunch. All of a sudden, I was starving.
Inside La Frontera, the place was cheery with green plastic lawn chairs and red-and-white checkered tablecloths, and the waitress didn't look at all surprised to see us tired and hungry tourists clamoring through the front door in search of baños and a good lunch. Two cooks in the kitchen dressed in bright red smocks, a bubushka and a chefs hat sprung into action and began accepting orders. They seemed to know the drill. The BusSur drivers made a beeline for the kitchen and took their seats in there, chatting with Mom and Pop. Clearly they were regulars here and their lunch appeared on the small kitchen table in short order.
This 14-hour bus trip was worth it if for no other reason than to see the well-oiled machine of La Frontera cook fifty individual lunches, and settle as many checks in at least five different languages, in thirty minutes flat.
So what if the exchange rate may not have been the most current. The hamburguesa and papas fritas were good, and get this - the rich, homemade hot chocolatta I ordered was insanely delicious!
Perfect when you're out on the cold frontier.
Bellies full, we boarded the bus again for the fifty-yard trip down the road to the Chilean Customs Office and Border Crossing where we'd officially exit the country. We could have walked from the restaurant. One girl panicked at not finding her 'walking around' permit that everyone must turn in to Chilean Customs when they leave. But the Customs guys took pity on her and it was all fine in the end. Further down the road a few miles however, the Argentinean agents weren't as friendly. They appeared more gruff, more puffed up, and all too willing to take their time.
Several hundred questions and fifty passport stamps later we hit the road for Ushuaia. Only seven more hours to go.
I gazed out the window. The views of the open plains here go on forever. Occasionally (and by that, I mean every 30 or 40 miles) a road - driveway maybe - ends squarely on the highway, leading your eye back to a tiny cluster of houses. But you realize the houses are several miles off the road, and aren't so tiny after all.
Traditional farms and family homesteads of the earliest settlers to Patagonia - mostly Welsh and other Europeans - around 1860. The wide open spaces in Patagonia were perfect for the kind of farming they sought. They were the very definition of intrepid given the harsh environment.
The estancias in Argentina have a more refined style compared with those we saw in Chile. More European in design, and less 'western ranch'.
I sat back and recalled In Patagonia, an iconic book written by Bruce Chatwin that many visitors to Patagonia consider a must-read before you get here. The landscape here is all he described and more.
And that sky.
The scenery changed as the hours rolled on.
For quite awhile, the highway hugged the southern Atlantic ocean, menacing and cold. It was early autumn and I tried to imagine these waters frigid in the peak of July winter. Here and there, a few people huddled in the cold wind near their cars parked along the shoreline, catching the last rays of sun.
Fields of grazing sheep gave way to herds of guanaco, which eventually gave way to the thick woods and evergreen treelines of Tierra del Fuego. Wild horses completely free. Now you could see the huge snow capped mountains in the distance and rivers flowing down to the valley floors, littered here and there with beaver dams.
"OOSH-why-ah...." one of the twin backpacker brothers uttered aloud as he stared out the window. "OOSH WHY-ah!" I wondered where they both were going and how long they'd be staying. He was proudly holding the string necklace he'd woven, and I was sure his collection would be peddled to fund their trip.
You could feel the excitement building. People were awake now, packing their gear, and combing their hair. They chatted with each other about their travel plans. Some were off to Antarctica. Others planned to hike Tierra del Fuego. The two girls in front exchanged emails, promising to stay in touch, and I think they will.
As for us, we came to Ushuaia for several reasons - the austerity, the history, in search of King penguins, and the "Southernmost City in the World" passport stamp. That unique merit badge you pull out now and then to remind yourself of the life you've led, the adventures you've had. And the 14 hours of your life you spent on a bus to get there.
Do you think getting there is half the fun? How far would you go to get somewhere? Tell me in the comments below. I'd love to hear about it :-)