You Get What You Don’t Pay For: My Best Travel Adventure Ever
In ten days, I covered 900 miles of southern Patagonia with about twenty different “rides.”
I suppose it should come as no surprise that of all the activities of which I spent a pretty penny during my year traveling through Latin America (the Inka Trail, Carnaval in Rio de Janiero, etc.), my favorite moments were those spent on a rat-scrabble road in remote Chile, sputtering along in a red, windowless delivery van with my new best bud, Leo the Chilean Sausage King.
A fellow traveler initially tipped me off to the idea of hitchhiking through southern Chile and Argentina. I needed to work my way north anyway, so decided to test me old hitchhikin’ thumb on a rugged stretch called the Carretera Austral.
The Carretera Austral (CA) stitches together rural towns, stunning vistas, and enchanted forests in Chile’s southernmost region. This far south, there ain’t no local bus system or other modes of public transportation. (At least there weren’t four years ago.) Most travelers through the region either rent a car or simply fly to their outdoor-sport launchpad of choice.
The ground I covered.
So you know, I’m resurrecting these stories from my now-defunct personal travel blog. I’m doing so partly because I’m a Slytherin of a businesswoman who feels zero shame in re-using material. But mostly, I’m bringing ‘er back for your #frugalfun enjoyment. This adventure reminds me that the best experiences aren’t the ones that make the most impressive Instagrams and that life is made rich and important by the connections we build with the people all around us (and with ourselves).
And also, I saw some really weird shit. So, allow me to share with you eight things that happened to me during my ten days of hitchhiking. Let’s just say, you ain’t gonna to see list-item Numero Ocho on an overpriced day tour led by some lanyard-wearer.
1. Improved my Spanish by 100%
If you get picked up as a hitchhiker in rural Chile, it is often because the driver wants company. Cars don’t always have radios, stretches of road are gravel, potholed, and slow-going, and drivers on the CA are often traveling long distances for work. That means a whole lotta one-on-one time with your new friend and chauffeur, which is both wonderful and excruciating as you attempt, in your fifth hour together, to twist the 300 words of Spanish you hold in your brain into entirely new meaning.
It’s my middle name.
In addition to the (free!!) Spanish immersion crash-course, I learned more about life in Chile and the region than I ever could’ve gleaned from the internet or by staying in hostels with other white kids that look, think, and talk just like me.
I also learned fast that the CA will explode a tire right the fuck off your vehicle. Here I am, being very unhelpful. lol my b
2. Met my Chilean sisters
One German boy, one Dumpster Doggy, and three cracked-out, sweatered-up miniature poodles (and their kennel), all smushed into the back seat of a small sedan. Our driver knew damn well we couldn’t all fit back there, but made it happen anyway.
(FYI, I did about half of the hitchhiking with a fellow German traveler named Maik and about half by myself. We = me + Maik)
3. Did one touristy thing
The big tourist highlight along the CA is the Capilla de Marmol (Marble Cathedral), which are caves of psychedelic granite carved out by turquoise lake. It was lovely for a couple hours, but I grew bored and wanted back on the trail.
4. Moonlit as a sausage delivery woman
Outside of the marble caves, Maik and I wait for hours in an increasingly deep state of concern. Very few drivers head north from here. Then, a red van appears like a freshwater spring rising up out of the scorching desert to rescue we two weary travelers. Operating this most beautiful piece of machinery was an equally as magnificent man named Leo:
Leo is part of a five-man operation that makes and delivers chorizo to customers and stores up and down the CA. A distance that should have taken a handful of hours clocked us closer to nine because we had about twenty sausage delivery stops to make.
5. Enjoyed a sausage-fest
What better way to celebrate a successful day of selling sausages than with: a feast of sausages!!
Leo lived with his papa; his mama recently passed from cancer. They constantly apologized for the size of their tiny house. We all got drunk on hearty Chilean red wine and I told him maybe a hundred times that it was totally perfect. Because it was.
Would gobble Leo’s chorizo all day. Five stars!!
(Side note, living with family members is a pretty normal thing in Latin America. Yes, it’s partly because people don’t earn enough to live on their own. But also, familial support is foundational to their culture and frankly I wish we wouldn’t stigmatize it so much here. It’s not for everyone, but I loved seeing families making it work, and doing a lot with a little.)
6. Celebrated with Mickey Mouse cake
Luckily literally no one thinks that hitchhiking is fun or glamorous, so I don’t need to spend any time convincing you otherwise. There’s dealing with the fickle Patagonia winter weather, terrifying drivers (and musical selections), and the uncomfortable, nervous type of anticipation that’s usually reserved for the gynecologist’s waiting room before a pap smear. On our slowest day, nighttime caught up with us before we’d made it somewhere warm to stay. Pitch-black isn’t a particularly desirable condition for hitchhiking, but with only an hour or two left to our destination, we decided to keep at it. And a right decision, it was.
With plans to celebrate their anniversary that evening, Katie and Eduardo somehow found it in their adorable Chilean hearts to stop and scoop up a couple o’ kids waiting out in the cold of night. We were in the car for no more than thirty minutes before they invited us into their home so we’d have a warm place to sleep. And, help them celebrate six blissful months of marriage!!
Their love for Mickey Mouse was so pure and good. The design on the cake matches the Micky Mouse tattoo on Katie’s arm.
“Happy Anniversary, My Darling”
They kept our bones and stomachs warm and even invited their friends over to have a party in our honor. A party!! For us, strangers!! Because of their generosity (and cool location, in a town called Futaleufu), we stayed at their home for two nights.
7. Explored my inner art critic
Late one night, I was dropped in a tiny precinct with only one open motel option. It emanated bad vibes from the get, but I had no other viable options, and fatigue had set in thick. Now, I ain’t no expert on The Arts but I probz wouldn’t choose to hang this lil number in the shared space of my for-profit motel. Art experts, is this a yay or a nay?
8. Witnessed an old-fashioned stoning
I actually began my journey in an Argentinian town called El Chalten and had to hitch 400 miles or so up Route 40 to get to the Carretera Austral. Route 40 blades through the Argentinean pampa (prairie) on the east side of the Andes range. Aside from some far-away mountains, I can’t see much ‘cept for the occasional herd of guanaco (llama) or ostrich flitting across the arid landscape.
It was my first day on the road. It’s boring. Or so I thought.
Maik and I hitch a ride with this father-son cowboy duo, who were leaving for Chile from the same rodeo I spent the two previous days. For hours, we sat in chilly silence. We made it clear we speak Spanish. Like, why even pick us up?
Then, in a seemingly unsolicited abruptness, the truck whips to a stop at the side of the highway. Not a living soul was within shrieking range of our roadside detour, so I figure I’m ’bout to be buried alive. Next, the father reaches into the center console and fumbles around for something. As he draws out a sheathed knife, my heartbeat starts pumping like Pitbull song at a Señor Frogs.
We were spared. But an injured ostrich was not so lucky. I watched, eyes unblinking, as they proceeded to sprint at the big flappy dinosaur, stone it down, and bash rocks into its head until it was dead.
Ya ever seen someone slaughter a bird the size of Muggsy Bogues, sans modern weaponry? Those things are freaking monsters. And due to the obvious enjoyment they got from killing the bird, I was quite concerned that they were doing it for fun-sies. (Was I next?) As it turns out, ostrich meat is an expensive delicacy in Argentina. My guys only wanted to take it home for dinn-dinn!!
Above, bagging it up.
Below, in the bed of the truck, next to my red backpack. I will never get over this picture. Check out dem legs.
There you have it, folks.
You get what you don’t pay for. When you pay for convenience in travel and in life, you sometimes cheat yourself out of real-life adventures and learning experiences, like this one. This is not to say that I’ll never go to a tropical, all-inclusive resort ever again because I most certainly will; but you miss out when you constantly rely on money to unfurl life’s weird little joys on your behalf.
I love visiting beautiful places and try to do it often, but to me, it’s way more fulfilling to curate a true sense of self-reliance, and to forge connections with real, live, humans. Whether it’s learning to change a tire or taking control of your financial life or pushing yourself to ask for help when it’s hard, these are the experiences that make life interesting. As creativity becomes less important in an era of endless convenience, I find that scrappy people are my people. That’s what bein’ a Dumpster Dog is all about!!
Thanks for playin’ along!! For now, imma file this one away under: funny things will happen to you in life, if you let them.