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SOUTH AMERICA ON A SHOESTRING: Backpacking in Argentina & Chile

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I was on the bus once again, returning to Bariloche and to the trailhead of a great adventure. An adventure not only to amazing places, but to becoming a different person.

At last I finished the episode with my passport card and was delighted to walk into the hotel at about 7pm to find my card ready for me to collect. Thank you DHL. I spent the day shopping around for climbing equipment; ultimately buying a good ice axe and a pair of crampons – second hand of course.

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The hotel reception gave me the address of a lady who owned a cheap hospedaje. So, as the sun began to set, I gathered my stuff and made my way up the hill…away from the touristy centre and toward the barrios of the city. Here I could camp for just $3, but I decided to go for the equally economical option of crashing on a couch outside on the balcony. Nelly – the owner of the guesthouse – welcomed me warmly and made sure that I was comfortable and happy. Throughout my travels across South America I was never short of being amazed at how friendly and accommodating people in hospitality were.

I met a humble Japanese traveler, Taka, who was taking a Spanish course before I would continue a cross-continental motorbike expedition. I was pretty impressed with story. He had sold everything and decided to hit the big open spaces on a solo adventure of a lifetime. Three years in to his trip, he had covered Asia, Europe and Africa, and was half way through South America – having shipped his bike from Cape Town to Buenos Aires. We sat peacefully for a few hours, conversing excitedly over the fascination that is borne out of travel and the relationships between cultures and peoples’ psyches.

I got an early start the next morning, being treated first by Nelly to a nice breakfast and some pleasant conversation. She told me that the train north into Chile, began not in Osorno, (as I had originally thought) but in Temuco. My first stop enroute to Temuco then, would be Valdivia – one of Chile’s most vibrant cities.

I booked a ticket into Chile with Andes Mar and then headed back into town to pick up my long-awaited parcel from Chris. I also did a little extra shopping for climbing and camping gear. My progress was abated by a good hour after I was told that I needed authorization in order to collect my parcel. Great. My only hope was Thomas’s fax machine, but after learning that it didn’t work, I decided to ask the King’s hotel to please authorize the damn form with an ID number and a signature. Sorted.

I was stoked to get a thermal undershirt and a polypropylene undershirt for cold weather. Chris also threw in a jar of marmite for the road. A bit random I thought, but hey, you can never get enough energy while on the road. I had run out of time to shop for a stove and a sleeping bag, so I rushed back to the hotel to get my backpack and, with an increasingly depleting window of time, waited for a shuttle to take me to the main bus station…some 3 kilometers away.

I hopped onto the bus, meeting this chilled French guy, Joos, who was also headed for Valdivia. The trip this times across the border seemed more revealing, an array of mountainous landscapes featuring abrupt rock formations and patches of red forest…snow covered volcanoes receding like great white pyramids in the distance.

We arrived in Valdivia during a stunning sunset. Once at the terminal I hooked up with Joos and we set about looking for a place to stay for the night. We were given the address of a hospedaje costing 5 000 pesos ( -$10) per person. However, explaining that we were looking for a place for 3 000, as we were leaving, the lady obliged. We even bargained for a break as well! I then realized how easily I had simply conformed to sticking with Joos…a nice enough guy, but not someone I would really spend too much time with. Nevertheless, there was a chilled out student/dopehead named Jorge who was living at the hostel and he told us that he had some friends close by whom we could visit and maybe even hook up a party later…sweet.

After a relatively mediocre home cooked meal, we walked a little down the street and into the student residence where we would spend the next few hours tripping out. We had bought a few Escudos – Chile’s national beer – and not long after we sat down to a cold one, Jorge was rolling up a joint! Could it get any better? Gathered around a small table and to the beat of the radio, we conversed with Jorge, his mate Pedro (a really cool guy) and two funky girls. Joos had the upper hand on the communication level, sitting next to Pedro, far more conversable and easier to understand in contrast with the word-slurring, slang-slashing Jorge sitting next to me! But the atmosphere was really vibrational…a very special energy of communal respect and willingness bouncing off the walls of the room.

7 beers more between the four of us dudes and I was pretty fucking drunk! Ready for a party, we soon crossed the bridge and jumped in a taxi por centro, rather unsure as to whether we would be able to find either a free or very cheap place to party, as the other guys didn’t have much cash. We walked into a bar with a thumping dance floor and rocking music, but the others were not keen on the vibe and the lack of girls in the place. Why I didn’t stay for a jol…well I don’t know. Next time I’m in a group I’ll remember to do what I want to do, and not to be a sheep.

Pretty much all the other places were quite expensive and so eventually we decided to walk back to the hospedaje. I felt a little disappointed that we ended the night without a real party. We got back at about 3 in the morning and Jorge quite brilliantly fixed us some munchies…a multi-filling sandwich each and a big pit of rice and mayo.

I slept like a baby, and woke the next morning heading straight for the kitchen for a cup of coffee. Jorge hooked up some bread for us and we chowed down on breakfast with some great plum jam. Joos and I took a walk through town and to the lively feria fluvial, brimming with fish and fruit stalls and edging along the Rio Valdivia. A little down the riverbank, at the Puerto Fluvial, a fancy gathering of military officials and navymen were all lined up and watching a bizarre parade of firemen firing huge fountains of water up into the air, whilst an ambulance siren was going off and canoes and boats were yachting along the river.

We took a bus across the river to the Isla Teja, with a connection to the seaside town of Nebla, home to a 17th century Spanish fort. Not as spectacular as I expected, but the circuit around the fort was pleasant enough. On the way back we visited the tranquil Universidad de Austral and it’s expansive and really pretty Jardin Botanica. I was keen to keep travelling through, not altogether charmed by ‘Chile’s most lively and enjoyable city’. So, after a shower and a coffee at the hostel, I exchanged e-mail ads with Joos and then caught a 17:30 bus to Temuco, hoping to take the 22:30 train to Santiago.

When I arrived in buzzing Temuco, I learned that a 2nd class train ticket costs double that of a bus ticket, all buses leaving however, in the morning. Probably better, as the journey to Santiago was a lot better in daylight. I was directed to a bus office in town where I could buy a ticket and hopefully wait out the night. But at arrival I was told that I had to go to the main bus terminal to buy a ticket…some 3km away along the main road.

Then, on my way back from a supermarket, I was lured in by a really unique, old man, Juan Pablo; an artesenal who made crafts from all kinds of materials, and as I soon realized, didn’t have much money, nor a house of his own. He advised me that I could spend the night with him in a pool salon that stayed open all night, which didn’t sound too convincing. Anyway, I helped him carry his things down the street, watching his hobbit-like body pull his one-wheeled cart across the sidewalk. The very modern and stylish street scenes by night in Temuco both soothed and freaked me out. Dozens of Goths, gays and oddballs frequented.

Then an incredible thing happened. Juan Pablo and I arrived at a gathering of people where a few men were eating soup, served for free by a group of ladies who were offering support to people short or money and connected with some religious organization…most likely catholic. I felt so privileged to be offered a bowl of soup and bread and although I stuck out like a sore thumb, I was inspired with the realization of the truly unique experience I was having. Certainly way, way off the tourist radar. No shit.

Once I handed my bowl back to one of the kind ladies, the group of people all began giving me gentle cheek kisses, handshakes, and warm blessings of good being. I continued down the road with Juan Pablo, who hailed our meal as ‘’food from God’’, pointing to the sky. Soon we arrived at a stall where a lady was selling take-away food and hot drinks. I was offered a coffee and soaked up the unique scene with total strangers, all so different on a street in Temuco.

A guy wearing a Brumbies rugby cap said that I could wait out a few hours on his bus, and gave me a blanket to keep warm. At 5am he started up the bus and conveniently took me to the Rodovidia bus terminal, where I waited out the last few hours, watching Batman Returns on a TV until I caught a 08:45 bus to Santiago.

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