“It’s not an adventure until something goes wrong” – Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia Clothing and adventurer-extraordinaire
After arriving in the pueblito of La Junta in northern Patagonia, we were relieved to get out of the rain and looked forward to a good night’s sleep before continuing our journey southward. The preceding 24-hours included a sleepless overnight ferry ride, followed by five hours of standing in the cold rain as we waited for the not-so-Express mini-bus to make its appearance and take us southward along the Caraterra Austral. Little did we know that the real test of resolve was still before us.
It wasn’t long before we learned that we were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Protesters in several Chilean towns south of La Junta were making their dissatisfaction towards the rising cost of fuel known by forming roadblocks to prevent cars and gas tanker trucks from accessing gas stations. As a result, bus tickets southward were nonexistent, and those for northward routes were sold out for at least a week, as hundreds of people (mostly backpackers) were beating a hasty retreat. This left us somewhat stranded.
As such, we made the team decision to hitchhike, but with limited vehicle traffic (no fuel available for 100’s of kilometers) and scores of backpackers all in the same predicament, we knew this was not going to be easy.
We rose bright and early (sort of) to flex our thumbs, but our optimism deflated when a band of protestors descended upon the town and proceeded to blockade the main bridge – our exit. Once they started rolling tires onto the road and setting them on fire, we knew it was time to move to another road with a revised hitchhiking motto of “we’ll go anywhere, as long as it’s out of La Junta”. Not to be outdone, the protestors quickly blocked the other exit out of town, rendering it useless. And now we were officially stuck.
We couldn’t even buy our way out of town by attempting to contract a private driver. Local residents apparently were expecting this latest dispute to last a while, and as such, were unwilling to share their “precious” – fuel – on nonessential trips with a bunch of backpacking gringos.
What´s more, hotels and restaurants were virtually a cash-only business and ATMS only accepted Mastercards (Visa, it’s everywhere you want to be…except for southern Chile, apparently). Since we had very little cash and not a Mastercard among us, waiting out the strike in a comfy hotel was out of the question.
After another emergency team regroup, our new plan was to walk 70 kilometers to the nearest town that, rumor had it, still had daily running buses with empty seats.
A two-three day walk.
With a single two-person tent to shelter four people.
And it rains a lot in Patagonia.
Even 70km away, we would still be relying on buses (likely full), or hitch-hiking (never a guarantee) to get to Argentina.
Before we were able to put our plan into action, we were spared by a lovely Irish-American couple with a car, just enough gas, and a strong a desire to get out of La Junta as well. Jeff had run into Jo and Greg on a handful of occasions on our journey south and had developed a traveler´s rapport, so when we approached them for a ride, we had an advantage over all of the other people begging them for a lift. Jo and Greg promised to make room in their already heavily laden car and take us with them once the tire-burning protestor party retired for the evening and opened the road. (Rumor had it that the protestors would reopen the bridge long enough to catch some zzzs before reassuming their positions following morning). At 9pm, satisfied at having derailed enough travel plans for the day, the protestors ended their blockade for the night. Jo and Greg, now with us in tow, tore out of town and to an improvised campsite about 5 kilometers down the road.
Sadly, since there wasn’t enough room for all of us in the car, Sean and Olivia spent another night in La Junta, sleeping in a garage/shed. Sean claims it was as cozy as the garage’s owner promised: “you will be fine, my dog sleeps in there all the time!”
Sean and Olivia finally made it to Futaleufu on Sunday night, 12 hours later than us, after spending another day wearing garbage bags in the rain and riding in backs of pickup trucks. We were all able to rest a bit and cross the border into Argentina together without further incident.
The moral of this story still eludes me. It’s certainly not about trying to anticipate every possible risk when on a trip, as the best laid plans can fall apart through actions beyond our control. Instead, one should appreciate the purity of the adventure, with all its twists and turns. Finally, we learned that when things don’t go as planned, you learn what you’re really made of, which in our case is grit, beer, crackers, and the ability to look good in a trash bag.