25 South

This blog entry about the events of Wednesday, December 22, 2010 was originally posted on December 24, 2010.

DAY 7:  “Excuse me, are you going to Puerto Natales by any chance?” I asked the lone gringo waiting by the curb at the small airport in Punta Arenas, Chile, around dusk. I reckoned he spoke English with his baseball cap and The North Face bag.

“Yeah,” he spoke in his American accent.  We were both seemingly stranded, with the look of hopeful uncertainty in our eyes, wondering if there was in fact a bus to Puerto Natales, about three hours northwest of Puntas Arenas airport (the only major airport in the southern Patagonia region on the Chilean side).  So far, all the taxi touts were asking us if we needed a ride into the city of Punta Arenas twenty minutes away, trying to psyche us into thinking we had missed the last bus to the other town.

“No gracias,” the new voice said in a semi-American-accented Spanish.

At that moment, I was in my 22nd hour of being in transit, after leaving Emily and Ina abruptly at the dinner table in Mendoza.  After a 10-minute taxi-ride to the Mendoza bus terminal, a 9 1/2-hour full-service overnight bus ride back to Santiago (two of those for clearing immigration and customs, picture above), a 30-minute airport shuttle from Santiago bus terminal, a 7-hour airport wait time (when I changed from sneakers to boots, freshened up, and caught up on blog duties), and a 3 1/2-hour flight later, I stood on the curb, unsure if I would continue the streak to my proposed final destination.  A nice Chilean woman told me to ignore the taxi guys because the bus would in fact come.  However; it was no where to be found yet, but at least I wasn’t alone.

“John,” he answered when I asked him his name. He was a recent law school graduate from North Carolina, who landed a new job in New York, which started him off with a 12-month rotation in Buenos Aires.  “I’m sort of afraid that I have to go back to New York,” he admitted.

“There are plenty of people from North Carolina in New York,” I informed him.

“Yeah, I know.”

“There’s no Cheerwine though,” I mentioned, citing the North Carolinan cherry soft drink that any statesman would be proud of.

“How do you know about Cheerwine?” he said, smiling at the recognition.

“Oh I know about Cheerwine.”  I told him about my friend (Lilit, Paris) who raved about her home state’s beverage, and even mentioned Bojangles, the fried chicken chain born in North Carolina as well.  (Little did he know that I could do wonders with Bojangles and Cheerwine on my food blog.) John was undoubtedly a fan, so much that it was one of the factors when considering going back home for the holidays instead of Patagonia.

“[I was thinking] this is crazy that I’d go all the way [home] for Bojangles,” he said, happy that he’d made the decision to seize the opportunity to trek Patagonia instead — when in South America…

“Well [Bojangles] is good,” I told him. “But they have fried chicken here too.  It won’t be as good though.”

Bonded over talk of fast food, we waited for the bus to come and sure enough, it arrived with room to spare for two ticketless travelers.

IT WAS ABOUT THREE HOURS TO PUERTO NATALES, the Chilean base town for treks into the world-renowned Torres del Paine National Park, and the bus ride there was pretty relaxed. The guy next to me slept, probably already over the sight of the surreal tundra-like environment we drove through.  “It looks like the [American] plains,” John said.  “Like a tornado is going to come down.”

We were so far south that it didn’t get completely dark until around 11pm — particularly with the winter/summer solstice — when we arrived in the small town.  John already had a reservation at a popular Lonely Planet-listed place he heard was booked solid, which left me to find a bed elsewhere in town to call my own.  I emailed one place earlier that day but got no response.  However, as expected, the touts were there at the bus garage with accommodation flyers for the many unpublished hostels, hotels, and B&Bs in town.

“I’m going to go with these guys,” I told my new traveling companion, bidding him farewell for the time being. “I’m sure I’ll run into you. It’s a small town.”

The Hostel Backpackers was sufficient for what I needed; I got my own room for ten bucks, and there was free wifi, hot water, and even a Nintendo Wii hooked up to the living room TV.  What it was lacking was people; unlisted by the books, it was like a halfway house for unreserved people like me and the only other travelers there, a couple who spoke in a British accent who had only arrived in town that evening as well.

I dropped off my bags and explored the town of Puerto Natales to find food at that late hour.  The town was pretty sleepy at 11:30, with only a few people out that lukewarm December 23rd.  I managed to find a local pizzeria and sandwich shop where I sat alone with a celebratory chicken sandwich and local Patagonian Austral beer after being 25 hours in transit.

THE NEXT MORNING I WOKE UP in an empty building.  The couple I noticed the night before was gone, and the front office was vacant. With the howling winds outside my window, it felt like the surreal beginning of a zombie apocalypse movie (28 Days Later, The Walking Dead) — or Home Alone, when Kevin realizes he “made his family disappear.” (Take your pick.) Creeped out by the eerie solitude, I went out to find a familiar face.

“I was walking around alone last night, listening to Frank Sinatra Christmas songs on my iPod, looking at the Christmas decorations, feeling sad,” John told me when I tracked him down at his much livelier American-run hostel, Erratic Rock, five blocks away.  I knew the feeling; I told him about the time I felt homesick traveling through Peru around Christmas and Money Train came on (which takes place during Christmas in New York.)

“I can’t believe it’s fucking Christmas Eve,” he realized, staring out the window of the hostel as we sat over coffee in the cozy living room that morning of December 24th. Outside the window it was shaping up to be a beautifully sunny albeit windy day with unexpectedly mild temperatures in the 60s.

“I can’t believe how warm it is,” I said, accustomed to cold, northeastern American winters. “It’s crazy.”

We were both excited for whatever would come next, both content we wouldn’t have to spend Christmas alone.  Now about that fried chicken…

Next entry: Die Hard With A Christmas

Previous entry: Goldilocks and the Three Wineries

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Comments for “25 South”

  • Heading into the NIZ (No Internet Zone) in the morning… see you on the 30th!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/24  at  03:30 AM

  • Merry Christmas Erik. Safe travels, and we’ll see you on the flip side of the NIZ!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/24  at  03:43 AM

  • Merry Christmas my fellow traveler! Enjoy Torres! It will take your breath away.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/24  at  04:33 AM

  • Merry Christmas….leave it on the doorstep and get the hell outta here.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/24  at  11:13 AM

  • I was there this time last year!  You’re in for something amazing.  So worth all the time travelling, I must say.  Just don’t let your bus driver to Torres run over a guanaco.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/25  at  08:54 PM

  • Merry Fishmas!!!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/25  at  11:22 PM

  • Merry HoHo!
    Why can’t Greyhound offer bus service like that? Actually, I’d settle for buses that clean - the buses here are nasty

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/28  at  02:37 AM

  • Most of the buses in Chile and Argentina are “first class” with reclining seats, coffee machine, etc.  The bus I just took this evening even had that new car smell.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/29  at  07:03 AM

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This blog post is one of nineteen travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip: Chill Out in Chile," which chronicled a trip through the country of Chile, from the central and coastal cities of Santiago and Valparaiso (plus a quick jaunt to Argentina's nearby wine region of Mendoza), followed by a trek through southern Patagonia, and a journey to Easter Island.

Next entry:
Die Hard With A Christmas

Previous entry:
Goldilocks and the Three Wineries


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