“All our camps, sleeping bags and cooking stuff is gone. Someone stole it in the night.” were my first words to Sanjay on the morning when we were going to begin our drive in Argentina. For the first time, we had parked our vehicle on the street outside the hostel. I got up at 5 AM and went out to check the vehicle. The ratchets had been cut loose and all the bags that we had securely strapped on the roof were missing. Thankfully, the thief left the extra tyre and jerry can which were still strapped on the roof.
I was very excited and feeling happy when I had woken up. I had convinced and consoled myself about the money we had paid to the port and custom people. I had also convinced myself that somehow we will manage funds and complete the journey. We all were positive and looking forward to hitting the road. But seeing the bags gone was very discouraging and upsetting for me.
“Never mind, we never used the sleeping bags or the camps anyway. It could have been much worse, at least the car is fine and our trip is not affected by those bags gone missing. Let’s hit the road and make the most of our first driving day in Argentina” Sanjay said
We switched on the ignition, gave each other hi fives and rolled. Ravi, our new friend in Argentina also joined us on day one. “I want to be part of your journey, even if for a few hours. I will go half way with you guys and then take a bus back to Buenos Aires” he said. We hit the road and soon left Buenos Aires behind us. We were in the country side and were finding it very comfortable driving on the right side of the road. The traffic was thin, the sun was bright, the tarmac was smooth and the car was moving along swiftly. We had already forgotten about the morning incident and were completely absorbed in the Argentine countryside. Our destination for the day was a small town called Bahia Blanca which was around 700 km from Buenos Aires. The goal in mind was to reach Ushuaia, the southern most town in the world in the next 4 days. The drive was pleasant and we were feeling comfortable and ‘at home’ already.
“As soon as we are in our vehicle and driving, it doesn’t matter which country we are in. It starts feeling like we belong here. It’s the world through our windshield.” Sanjay said. I completely agreed with him. Sitting in our own vehicle, looking through the windscreen, everything seemed under control. We felt confident, we felt like we belong here and we enjoyed the admiration and the expression on the faces of people who stare at our foreign vehicle with a confused look. The stickers, the number plate, the steering wheel on the right side, it was enough to attract anyone’s attention. People smiled at us, stared at us and gave us thumbs up signs all the time.
We stopped for lunch after driving for around 5 hours. We ate Pollo (pronounced as Posho meaning chicken) and Papa Farita (meaning French Fries) in a small road side café. The Pollo was grilled and cooked in some local sauces that smelled heavenly. The food in Argentina is absolutely awesome and not that expensive. After lunch, Ravi bid us goodbye and took the bus back to Buenos Aires.
“I will miss all of you, please let me know your dates for Peru, I will try to take a few days leave from work and join you there.” he said.
“We are on our own now. Just the three of us. Let’s get to Bahia Blanca” I said after dropping off Ravi at the bus station. Ravi could speak a bit of Spanish so it was easy to communicate with people while he was with us. However, we preferred being able to interact with people directly even if it meant making a fool of ourselves by speaking a completely strange and incorrect version of Spanish. Sanjay had a Spanish to English translation app in his phone and I had downloaded a language dictionary. Whenever we went to a shop or petrol pump or anywhere else, using our language tools, we started talking with as much confidence as we would in Hindi or English. In my experience, if you smile and make an honest effort to interact with someone in their language, they will remain patient and give you time to make yourself understood. We had picked up a few words like Derecho(straight), Dereche(right), Izquierda(left) so asking directions was not a problem. I firmly believe that language is never a problem, all you need is the will and the attitude to reach out to people.
After driving for 8 hours, we reached Bahia Blanca, our first destination since starting our drive from Buenos Aires. There was nothing special about choosing Bahia Blanca as our first stop over except that it was a big enough town and conveniently located on Route 3, the highway that we would continue driving on all the way to Ushuaia from Buenos Aires. As we entered Bahia Blanca, we started looking for a place to spend the night. It was about to get dark and we had no clue on how to find a hotel.
We signaled for a vehicle next to us to stop at the traffic lights. An old couple was sitting inside and the husband smiled and rolled down his window.
“Hotel, hotel, sleep, sleep” I said making a sleeping action with my hands.
He tried to explain directions to a hotel but when he realised that we couldn’t understand a word, he signalled for us to follow him. We kept followed him for 15 minutes after which we stopped our car behind him.
“Hotel.” he said, as he came out of his car with his wife and pointed at a small hotel in front of us. We thanked him and his wife for taking time out to help us. His wife gave us her number and asked us to call her in the morning. We thanked, hugged and kissed and said goodbyes. After we checked into the hotel, their son, who could speak English, called us.
“My parents told me to call you, they would like you to come home for dinner tonight if you are not tired” he said
We felt very happy and touched and immediately told him that we would love to join them for dinner. One hour later, they picked us up, took us home and treated us to a delicious dinner and local beer. The old couple and their 2 teenage boys made sure that we ate well and were comfortable in their home. Where did we meet them? On the road, a couple of hours back. Moments like these make our journey absolutely worth it. Neither could we speak Spanish, nor could they speak English. But we ended up having a lovely evening in their home. No monuments, tours or sightseeing can make you understand or know a country more than such experiences with the people living there.
Next day, we were on our way further south to a town called Puerto Madryn which was famous for whale watching. As we headed south, the temperature continued dropping and by the time we reached Puerto Madryn after 9 hours on the road, it was very cold. We checked into the first guest house we spotted on entering the town. Once again, we struggled to communicate using our broken Spanish with the lady sitting behind the counter.
“Momento, I call English speaker” she said and walked away from the reception. A couple of minutes later, a young guy walked to the reception.
“Hello, how can I help?” he asked
“Wow, you can speak English. That is so amazing!” I smiled and said. The hotel was a very small family run enterprise. The English speaking boy was the boyfriend of the owners’ daughter. The owners’ wife was the lady behind the counter. The owner himself was a ‘goucho’, a farmer working in the fields. They all were very excited when we told them about our journey. We took pictures with the entire family and half an hour later, their daughter made a custom collage of our pictures with them, printed it and gifted it to us. After eating Lamb steak, the local dish for dinner, we had some ‘mate’ (pronounced matey), a local drink in which you mix local herbs and leaves with boiling water. ‘Mate’ is always served in a special oval shaped container and the entire family drinks off the same container turn by turn. Everyone will continue passing and drinking using the same container and the same straw!
“Umm, do I have to put the same straw in my mouth which the whole family is using?” I whispered to Prasad when it was my turn to drink.
“Shh, just drink it” he replied
It tasted a bit sour, was very hot, but was really refreshing. I was more glad about having tried something very traditional even though it didn’t really appeal to me that much. But what did appeal to me was once again the warmth of the entire family in the hotel. It didn’t feel like we were clients, it really felt like we were all one family. We were sitting with all of them in their kitchen, watching TV, drinking mate, talking about our journey, their lives. It was clear that people in Argentina are very warm, hospitable and will go out of their way to help you and to make you comfortable.
As we continued driving south, the temperate dropped and soon we found ourselves in the middle of a snow storm. At first, it was mild and we all got very excited looking at snowflakes falling on the windscreen. But slowly, it got worse and before we knew, the road ahead was completely covered in snow. It was around 9 AM, but still completely dark. I slowed the pace and was sitting at the edge of my driving seat as we continued driving very carefully and with full focus on the road. The storm passed, the sun rose and we were once again a bit relaxed. But not for long. We reached a town called Rivadavia and while fuelling at the gas station, Sanjay and I noticed a whistling sound coming from under the bonnet.
“We need to get it checked as soon as possible, it could be something serious.” Sanjay said. Fortunately, there was a Toyota Service Station in Rivadavia which we managed to locate.
“The alternator is broken” declared the mechanic.
“Oh no! What the hell! Not again!” I said losing all hope. We had already changed the alternator in Kenya but at that time, we had replaced it with a second hand part.
“Quanto?” I asked how much it would cost.
“5000 Peso”, the mechanic answered. 500 US dollars! My heart sank, we didn’t have enough money to survive anyways, and now we would have to part with another 500 dollars. Every day it was something or the other, pay bribes, change the bloody alternator, the windscreen had also cracked a bit after a stone flew and hit it on the highway but we were going on ignoring that.
“The car is the most important member of the team, without it, the journey stops. If the alternator needs to change, it needs to change.” Sanjay said. We were driving through Patagonia, one of the remotest regions in the world, there were hardly any towns or gas stations for hundreds of km, the landscape around us was barren and empty for as far as the eye could see in all directions. Cell phones didn’t work outside of major towns, if the car broke down in Patagonia, it would be a long time before we would get any help. Not knowing Spanish was not going to help us either. Our only solution was to make sure we don’t get stranded in Patagonia. We got the alternator changed, left the garage and continued driving. We lost about 5 hours in the process which meant that we couldn’t reach our destination before dark so we decided to halt much earlier.
But one thing was great, whenever we woke up in the morning and started driving, we left the previous day and its’ worries behind us. Our focus was always on the day ahead and we had arrived at the day when we would be reaching Ushuaia, the southernmost town in the world. I had first heard about Ushuaia in 2010, after completing my drive from London to Delhi. I would stare at Ushuaia on google maps and dream about driving there someday.
“The southernmost town in the world, it would be such a great moment to drive as south as possible” I would think to myself.
Fast forward to 2014, we would be reaching there in a few hours. For anyone who is absolutely passionate about epic journeys, road trips, driving cross country and exploring remote terrains in the world, Ushuaia is always on the wish list. It is a challenge to get there, only a few people can claim to have got there and once you are there, well, you will have achieved a ‘landmark’ in your ‘adventure career’.
We reached Ushuaia late in the evening and after struggling to find a hostel for 2 hours, we settled in at a popular hostel right in the middle of the city. I went to sleep with a smile, feeling satisfied, feeling a sense of completeness and knowing that a dream has come true. Next morning, we went down to the port and we saw the sign board, “Ushuaia, Fin Del Mundo” meaning “Ushuaia, End of the World”
“We have driven 3000 km from Buenos Aires only to see this sign board. We have seen it now, lets’ start driving north” I said to Sanjay.
“Now we will continue driving north for more than 18000 km till we reach the top of Alaska!” I said.
Our journey north started with a stopover at a town called El Calafate, famous for the Perito Moreno Glacier. I have seen deserts, mountains, forest, oceans, I have seen incredibly beautiful cities, palaces and forts, I have driven on amazing highways in unique terrains, but I had never seen anything as gorgeous in my life as the Perito Moreno Glacier. Have you ever felt that maybe your eyes are fooling you? That maybe what you are seeing is not actually real but maybe you are just imagining it? Have you felt spellbound, speechless, emotional, silent looking at something? Have you felt like wanting to continue staring, lost in the grandeur, the beauty, the magnificence of a place? I have. At the Perito Moreno Glacier. I had never seen pics of it, I had not prepared myself for what I was going to witness. As we walked towards the Glacier and saw the first sight of it, I was amazed. A gigantic 14 km long and 4 km wide glacier, the absolute silence all around it, the deafening sounds it made from time to time as huge chunks of ice melted and dropped into the water underneath it, the crystal blue shadows, the towering ice towers, the absolute white, the ships that appeared like toys in front of the 2 km (approx) tall ice towers of the glacier, it was mother nature in all its glory. It can make you smile, it can make you cry, it can make you lost in thought for hours, it will definitely leave an everlasting impression on you.
The final leg of our Argentine Adventure took us on Route 40, the highway in Western Argentina that goes all the way north and is considered to be one of the most beautiful drives in Western Argentina. We took Route 40 from El Calafate, the town we stayed in to visit the Glacier, all the way to Bariloche, the town from where we would exit into Chile. Route 40 shocked us more than it surprised us. We experienced harsh, remote landscapes in Australia, we drove through empty, remote terrains of Patagonia, but in all those places we still saw some traffic movement. On Route 40, there was nothing. We drove on the highway for close to 10 hours and I think we must have seen close to 10 cars throughout the day. Just one car per hour! No villages, no gas stations, no birds, no animals, only mountains, lakes, winds so strong that we could feel it pushing the car sideways. We had to actually take a tight grip on the steering wheel fearing that if we don’t, the wind will toss the car off the highway. Driving through Route 40 and reaching Bariloche was a huge relief for us. We felt proud of ourselves to have survived Route 40 and be back in civilization. It was one of the most nerve racking drives for us, not because of the challenging terrain but simply because of the nothingness. If you car breaks down, you are as good as dead!
Argentina was a great start to our Latin American drive. Tango dancing, warm and helpful people, losing our bags, car problems, meeting local families, driving to Ushuaia, Perito Moreno Glacier and Route 40, every single day was a new story. On our meagre budget where some days we skipped meals, stayed in dingy hotels, shared rooms with backpackers in hostels, stayed hungry so we could fill up our fuel tank, all this just to make sure that could continue exploring, continue driving and continue moving ahead on our incredible journey. We know this journey is not going to be easy, but we also know that this journey will change us and leave us with everlasting memories, a massive sense of achievement and a feeling of absolute high. We have driven through Argentina, a country about which we knew nothing till just a couple of weeks back. We survived the challenges and overcame the language barriers. Next Stop…Chile.