Hitchhiking from Ushuaia to Buenos Aires: The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

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Ushuaia in all its overcast glory

So, you’ve reached the end of the world! What next? How about a relaxed week visiting national parks, museums and penguin colonies?

But everything is absurdly expensive…

Well why not catch a cheap pre-booked flight up to Buenos Aires and enjoy Christmas in the sun?

BORING.

How about hitchhiking with a fully loaded touring bike over 3000km and risk spending Christmas drinking box wine alone in a barn?

We have a winner!

Months ago, long before the reality of the situation had set in, I decided upon hitchhiking my way north from Ushuaia to Buenos Aires. It would be fun, I thought. I’d meet some characters, see a whole other side of Argentina and save myself a lot of money in the process. I’d heard tales of other cyclists doing this so knew it was possible. All I needed was a bit of luck and plenty of patience.

However, as I sat in the snug confines of Refugio de los Mochileros in Ushuaia surrounded by cyclists preparing to fly home for Christmas my plan didn’t seem so alluring. Staring at the map the distance seemed greater than ever. What had my stupid past self got my present self into? As I wheeled my way to the entrance of Ushuaia, a mere 2 days after arriving, I can’t say I was brimming with wanderlust and enthusiasm. I just wanted to go home. Weighed down by the steel grey skies I stuck out my thumb and hoped for the best.

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Things got off to a good start. Within half an hour I got picked up by this fine fellow whose name escaped me. He was off fishing and drove me 200km up to Rio Grande, sharing an empanada feast with me at the bakery in Tolhuin.
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We stopped by his mother in law’s house to feed a very excitable dog.
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Then, within second of being dropped off on the fringes of Rio Grande, Marcos, a champion mountain biker appeared and drove me to the other side of town.
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I stood for around an hour in very strong winds before Guillermo showed up and squeezed my bike into the back of his people carrier.

“So, where are you from?”
“England”
“ENGLAND??? THE FALKLANDS!! GET OUT!!!”

For a split second my blood ran cold before Guillermo roared with laughter. Ice broken, he went on to display his abilities as a radio football commentator.

“AAAAAND KUN AGUERO MARKS ANOTHER FINE PERFORMANCE FOR MANCHESTER CITY WITH 2 SPECTACULAR STRIKES! GOOOOOOOOOOAAAALLLLLL!!!!”

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A little while later one of his tyres gave up on life and exploded.
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15 minutes of frantic wheel changing later and we were back on the road. Guillermo dropped me off a the border where I noticed some familar bikes lined up outside.
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It was only my friends Zoe, Olivier, Thiago, Milka and little doggy Frida who I’d met on the Carretera Austral! We had a good old catch up before settling down to sleep in the snug little waiting room I’d first frequented barely a week prior.
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The next day was rubbish. My friends all headed off south leaving me to wave my thumb at the scraps of Sunday travellers in gale force winds. After 8 hours Samuel showed up and, living up to his rally driver credentials, had me at the ferry port in record time.
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The wind was so strong that the ferry couldn’t dock and all the cars that had rejected me at the border for the past 4 hours were stuck waiting. Lucky for me the wind slowed soon after my arrival and I smugly rolled on board.
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A passing bus driver lifted me the 15km to the crossroads.
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Where I decided to call it a night and stay in the neat shelter, presumably built to spare cyclists from destroying their tents in 100km winds.
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Inside I found two seasoned Czech gents that I’d met north of Ushuaia 5 days earlier.
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They were a sorry sight. Their wide smiles were long gone, replaced with sunburnt faces, chapped lips and a sense of pervading misery. These tough bastards had cycled over 500km in 5 days, the majority in some of the roughest headwinds imaginable. We shared some cake and tea then settled down, waiting for the sun to set at around 11.30. I felt so sorry for them as they headed west the following morning, knowing they had nothing but pampa and frustration to come.

While hitchhiking with a bike is far more difficult it does occasionally have its advantages. If you’re ever stuck in a bad spot you can always cycle your way out of it. With none of the trucks biting and a favourable wind, I decided to cycle the 40km north to the border.

Many cyclists had told me of the fabled perfect tailwind. The kind so strong and pure that without putting foot to pedal you glide across the earth at 20mph like some kind of thrillseeking angel. I doubted its existence until I had the pleasure of being pushed for 15km by this benevolent force.

Unfortunately all good things must end and 10km short of the border the road took a sharp turn and I had to wrestle for what felt like hours with a horrendous crosswind. It had me roaring with rage like a dyspeptic grizzly bear with tourettes and by the time I arrived at the border I felt like I’d been violated.

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The guanacos didn’t seem too bothered by the wind at least.
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At the border the guards very helpfully scored me a lift on one of the tourist buses up to Rio Gallegos. Here is an unrelated photo of a groovy lorry.
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I stayed at a nice-ish campsite in a dodgy neighbourhood of Rio Gallegos. Every night families would descend to the event rooms to celebrate birthdays and eat asado. The smell off delicious steak permeated the campsite as I ate my lentils in the sparse kitchen.
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I decided to take a day off and got chatting to Hector, a retired photocopier repair man turned Tai Chi and yoga instructor who was heading south to Ushuaia on motorbike. Top notch fella.

During one of our conversations he casually mentioned he was one of the famous desaparecidos – the people kidnapped, tortured and sometimes murdered by the military dictatorship of the 80s. He had some leftist affiliations so he was tortured and forced to work in a prison for 6 months before the dictatorship fell. He considers himself lucky. He was kidnapped towards the end of their brutal reign; if he’d been caught earlier he’d have had to give up the names of all his friends and colleagues, something he was unsure he could live down. Later he stood as a witness against some of the convicted perpetrators and now receives a small pension for having done so. It was so shocking to be chatting with someone affected directly by these atrocities. As privileged westerners we hear about these things on TV or in books but rarely are we confronted with them face to face.

Our chats aside, my time in Rio Gallegos was fairly miserable. A constant strong westerly wind whipped in, trapping me for another day, then rendering my fruitless hours of thumb waving even more joyless. It’s easy to think “it’ll be fun” before the fact but once you’ve stared down rejection for 6 hours on the edge of a wind blown industrial shithole it’s hard to remain positive.

Cycle touring can be tough but the beauty lies in the freedom it gifts. You’re your own master. You go when you want to go. You stop when you want to stop. Hitchhiking on the other hand is the complete opposite. Your destiny lies completely in the kindness of strangers. Alone and vulnerable you stick out your thumb, smile and pray that just one blessed soul will take a leap of faith and pick you up. Then, after hours of being palmed off by what feels like an entire nation, some rare Samaritan does you a solid. But they go when they want to go, stop when they want to stop. At once you’re deeply grateful and utterly neutered, a hostage to their kindness. It’s this dynamic that at makes hitchhiking equally humbling and frustrating. You’re confronted by the very best of humanity, but are passively involved, swept down the river without a paddle.

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After 6 hours of rejection I set about getting drunk. One box wine later, having read read Moby’s excellent autobiography (you can’t say I don’t know how to have a good time) I was visited by some lovely Brazilians who fed me delicious tapioca and dulce de leche.

At this point the prospect of spending Christmas alone in the dingy campsite kitchen was staring me in the face. In my drunkenness I decided I needed a plan. Obviously what I was doing wasn’t working. How could I endear myself to all these blank faced drivers? I focused on the weak spot of every Argentinian and went and bought a brick of mate herbs. If seeing a gringo waving a bag of the national beverage on the side of the road wouldn’t endear them to me nothing would.

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Turns out I didn’t even need it. On my way to hitch I spotted an empty lorry on the side of the road. I sheepishy enquired and while the guy clearly didn’t want to take me he must’ve sensed my desperation as he begrudgingly agreed to take me 200km north to the next town.
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Things were very frosty to begin with. I asked some questions only to receive one word answers and he ramped up the volume of the radio. But after about an hour he turned it down and asked me where I wanted to go. We got chatting about all sorts of rubbish and when we arrived at the town where I was set to get out he asked me if I wanted some lunch.
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In the supermarket he dropped like £30 on luncheon meats and cheese in the kind of wanton display of wealth my frugal mind could barely fathom. We gorged on sandwiches and he tacitly agreed to bring me 1000km north.
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The scenery was utterly boring. Anyone who cycles to west coast of Argentina either lost a bet or is a maniac. Every now and then we’d pull over and David, the driver, would chat some shit with his fellow camioneros. Lots of bum spanking and name calling took place.  “Oi, fat girl!”  “Your sister’s fanny”
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David drove deep into the night. Growing delirious he ramped up the 80s hair metal and we sang along to White Snake, Def Leppard and Guns n Roses before he put on some Cordoban “quartet” band called Sabroso (Tasty). 
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At 5.30am, having driven all night, he pulled us into Trelew. We’d travelled 1200km in about 18 hours and I was now half way to Buenos Aires. David went off to fill up his truck with cans of coke and we said our goodbyes. It was the 23rd of December and I was too tired to keep hitchhiking so I set my eyes on spending Christmas in the nearby beach resort town of Puerto Madryn. This photo proves that I wasn’t hallucinating and there was indeed a giant dinosaur roaming around.
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In the cool morning air I hopped on my bike and, aided by a nice tailwind, cycled the 60km north to Puerto Madryn in like 2 1/2 hours.
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There I found a very nice hostel run by gregarious Gaston and had a massive Christmas feast/piss up/card game sesh with a band of miscellaneous Europeans. 
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It wasn’t just asado either. A very nice Venezuealan couple worked at the hostel and rustled up this delicious Venezolano Christmas delicacy. Rolls of ham stuffed with olives, cheese and raisins and wrapped in pastry. 
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Along with the standard box wine we sampled the Argentine favourite “Fernet”.
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Yum.
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Much like in mainland Europe, the Argentinians celebrate Xmas on the 24th so the 25th was spent nursing my hangover, Skyping the rents, watching films (Call Me By Your Name and the Jim Carrey documentary – gooooood shit) and walking on the beach.
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Legions of huge jellyfish had decided to take humanity by surprise and mount an all out assault while we were busy drinking ourselves to stupification. Thankfully the jelly idiots forgot they couldn’t survive on land and their invasion came to nothing. 
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The next day was great. Within 10 minutes I got picked up by Oscar and Alejandra. They were both very friendly and Oscar instantly asked me if I’d eaten (I had) then bought me an ice cream. Alejandra keeps him company while he rides round the country, although after one trip of 30 consecutive days she sticks to the shorter journeys these days.
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They have a little gas burner in the cab and we drank a load of mate on the road north.
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Times like these make all the waiting on the roadside worthwhile.
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They dropped me off 250km further north outside of the town of San Antonio del Oeste. I set up camp in a nice spot behind the petrol station…
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…and got chatting to Benedicto and Marta, a lovely retired couple from Puero Madryn who were on the road in their campervan. They invited me to share their lamb BBQ.
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Later Marta’s truck driver brother, Hugo, showed up and we drank wine and feasted on the best damn asado I’ve had in Argentina. Everything came up Milhouse that day.
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Then it was back to the grind. A few hours of waiting and I was thoroughly fed up. I bopped over to the town to see if I could take a bus the remaining 1000km but in this high season there’s no space for bikes. It was hitch or bust.
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Just when I was starting to feel defeated this purple shirted hero (he had a strong accent and I didn’t catch his name) picked me up.
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He was heading to Buenos Aires and was more than happy to bring me along for the ride.
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The truck was beaten up – all held together with tape, rope and whatnot – but gradually we slugged it northbound.
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The scenery slowly turning more lush…
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…and hot.
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Ol’ purple shirt was so very kind to me I found it truly humbling. He treated me like a houseguest, constantly  buying me food and offering me cigarettes. I felt really guilty but he wouldn’t take no for an answer, over the course of 24 hours buying me a huge milanesa sandwich, a plate of ravioli, a salad, a burger, coffee and numerous bottles of coke and sprite.
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Getting closer.
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Barely 10 blocks from his destination the truck gave out and we (well…he) spent a couple of hours on the roadside trying to fix it. Eventually he got it going and we said our goodbyes.
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Leaving me to jubilantly cycle the remaining 20km into the heart of the sweltering capital.

These 13 days were simultaneously some of the most rewarding and draining of the entire trip. No longer was the struggle physical but mental and emotional. And while I’d never do it again I found the kindness of the drivers and the people I met along the way deeply inspiring and moving. The way in which the people here naturally veer towards kindness and sharing without question felt so removed from the English reserve I’ve grown up with. I also got to chat about politics, what it is to be Argentinean, the struggles and strifes of living in this country. For the first time I felt like I got under the skin of this land in a way that wasn’t possible on the bike.

If I take anything away from this trip it’ll be the essential human goodness that I was repeatedly gifted by the fine people of Argentina. God fahkin bless ya!!

Tunes: Moby – Best of, Various Hair Metal Bands, Sabroso, The Psychedelic Furs – Greatest Hits, Joy Division – Closer

Reads: Moby – Porcelain, The Spy Who Came in From The Cold – John Le Carre, The Electric Cool Aid Acid Test – Tom Wolfe, Waking Up – Sam Harris

What’s next? 

A week in Buenos Aires followed by the final hurrah: 2 weeks of cycling through Uruguay before arriving at Montevideo, the city that came calling to me all those years ago in Italy.

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