It was a long time coming but we were finally in Argentina. The border was a breeze. We crossed at Paso Huemules (named for a small native deer that has cute stubby antlers) where both Chile and Argentina had their customs and immigration housed in the same building. When we entered they gave us a slip of paper with five boxes on it. We started at Window 1, got a stamp in box 1, moved to Window 2, got a stamp in box 2. This pattern followed until we had visited all of the windows. Then we pulled the truck up to the building and a guy come out under the guise of inspecting the contents of our truck for contraband. We explained to him how our solar worked and he took our slip of paper wishing us a buen viaje. The governments of Central America really need to come down here and check out this system.
Twenty yards after entering Argentina the asphalt ended. The mountains of Chile were barely visible through the dust in our rearview as we headed into the wide-open countryside of the Argentine pampas. We had about 65 miles of corrugated ripio (gravel) between us and the thin pavement of the famous Ruta 40. Upon reaching Ruta 40, we turned south and made our way to the town of Perito Moreno. Many things in Argentina are named for Perito Moreno. He was an explorer and well-loved for his role in keeping Chile from taking all the good stuff when the borders were under dispute.
The town of Perito Moreno was laid out in an orderly grid and toward the back end of that grid was a municipal campground. There we hoped to find WIFI, hot showers and a safe place to sleep. We got everything but the WIFI. All for $2.15. For some reason, the hot showers were only available between 8 and 10 both am and pm. There was also a heated kitchen with many tables and chairs for cooking and communing with fellow travelers.
We had met many young Argentine travelers over the months on the road. They invariably had some sort of handicraft that they produced and sold to fund their travels. This place had a disproportionate amount of friendship bracelet makers. I shared a table in the kitchen with a young man from Buenos Aires. I was distracted by the similarity of the braids in his beard to the knots he was tying to form a bracelet while he tried to chat with me. His accent was thick and I was not able to follow much of what he said. Eventually, he tired of my smiles and nods and switched tables to join his bracelet-making friends.
Once we left Perito Moreno, the camping spots were slim pickin’s. There was not much topography to speak of and the wind was relentless. You wouldn’t know it by looking out the window. The plants that grow there are very hardy and don’t pay much attention to the wind. The world looked motionless; lulling us into a complacency that led to the cab doors being wrenched from our hands anytime we exited the truck.
We found one place in this windy expanse that offered us shelter. It was a huge gravel pit dug into the volcanic soil. The wind that found its way into the pit swirled around innocuously but as soon as we peeped our heads up out of the pit we were buffeted with intense gusts. Home sweet home in the belly of the earth. We parked ourselves in an eddy and went about making dinner. On our backpacking stove. We were really missing the sturdiness and BTU’s of our Coleman camp stove. We just needed to make do for another 600 or so miles before we could refill our propane in Ushuaia.
Before reaching Ushuaia, we had a couple of stops to make. The first was in the town of El Chaltén. Approaching El Chaltén we were given a glimpse of the mountains that make it such a popular destination. The scenery gods were smiling on us and gifted us with a clear view of Mt. Fitz Roy. We paused on the way into town to catch a couple of glamour shots with The Joan.
Our first stop was to pop into the visitor’s center and look at the trail map of the area. El Chaltén is within Los Glaciares National Park and it has been named the hiking capital of Argentina. We decided that we would hike up to Lago Torres the following day to see what we could see. Our next stop was to get some groceries. This was a mildly horrifying experience. It started out okay. The shop was tiny and uncomfortably warm as it was midafternoon on a sunny day. We gathered up some goodies like granola, avocados, and chocolate. It was when we checked out that things turned. The lone shopkeeper paused from his labors slicing bacon on a small deli slicing machine to ring us up. He wore a glove on the hand that was pushing the bacon around and was good about not touching money with that hand. But he did not remove the glove before handling all of our purchases. Everything was glossy with raw bacon fat by the time he gave us our tally. I’m not sure if it was in my head or real but I was unable to escape that smoky ham aroma for at least three days.
We camped across the street from the visitor’s center with all of the other overlanders. It was the only area in the vicinity where overnight parking was allowed. We were able to use the bathroom in the visitor’s center but only when it was open. The rest of the time it was a scary pit toilet that was all pit and no toilet. And no light. And no latch. Anyhow there were about a dozen rigs of all shapes and sizes posted up on that dusty lot. We had a Belgian couple on one side of us and a French couple on the other. The best part was the squat armadillo who wandered between the vehicles looking for fallen scraps. For a parking lot, it was spectacular. We had clear views of Mt. Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre.
The trailhead we were aiming for was on the other side of town so we had to tack an extra mile onto each end of our 11-mile hike. That put us at the half marathon distance which is about as far as we like to hike in one day. The trail was popular but not crowded. We passed many groups of hikers taking yerba mate breaks on the way up. The trail started out steep but mostly leveled out for the last half. We knew from the name of the trail, Lago Torre, that we were headed for a lake, likely near Cerro Torre, but that was all we knew. What a wonderful surprise it was to round the bend at the end of the trail to see cheerful little icebergs bobbing about in the lake. Some clouds had rolled in and the peak of Cerro Torre was covered by the time we got there but considering the clear views we had been enjoying right up until then we felt we had no room to complain.
We made ourselves comfortable at the edge of the lake and took a wee nap in the sun. I did my best to channel my inner Wim Hof and dipped my toes into the icy water. It was so cold I almost peed my pants. I’m not sure what kind of evolutionary benefit that reaction would have but it was real. We waited for about an hour to see if the peak of Cerro Torre was going to come out and play. Eventually, we gave up and headed back down. About half an hour later we looked back to see the peak shining in all its glory. We took a couple of photos from afar and continued on our way. We were following the track of a single wheel on the way down. We speculated that it might have been from a ranger resupplying their cabin with a wheelbarrow. We were wrong. That wheel was from a cart carrying an injured hiker down the trail. The hiker was a very embarrassed-looking young woman tucked into her sleeping bag strapped to a backboard. We reminded each other to pay attention to where we were putting our feet so that we could avoid her fate and continued on.
The next day, the clouds rolled in in earnest. So, we shelved any ideas of hiking other trails, packed up our camp, and moved on to El Calafate. The town gets its name from a blue berry native to Patagonia. Legend has it that if you eat a calafate berry you are destined to return to the region within your lifetime. We were on the lookout for calafate bushes but we were a bit late in the season to find them. We camped just outside of town on the shore of Lago Argentino. A scrawny sand dune did its best to shelter us from the wind blowing off the lake but it was no match for the mighty Patagonian winds. After a less-than-restive night by the lake, we headed out to visit the main attraction in this region.
Perito Moreno Glacier. This monstrosity of ice had been calling our names since we first conceived of this trip. The toe of this glacier is three miles wide with an average height of 240 feet above the surface of the lake. Add to that another 300 feet of submerged ice and you have a lot of ice. Huge. There are boardwalks with benches across from the glacier that were perfect for sitting for extended periods of time. The best part was that in the afternoon when the ice is at its meltiest huge chunks of ice will frequently calve off and plunge into the lake below. Each time the glacier would calve we would hear the cracking of the ice reverberate and echo off the surrounding mountains. I have never had more fun watching ice melt. It was so hard to leave that glacier. It was the first time I have truly felt FOMO (fear of missing out). We were just sure that as soon as we left another big chunk of ice would fall. We stayed until the park was just about ready to close.
After staring at the glacier for the better part of a day we drove out to a free campground in the park (with a pit stop at a late-bearing calafate bush to snack on a berry!!!!). From our camp spot, we could still hear the glacier calving in the distance. That campground had the grossest outhouse of our entire trip. That is saying a lot. It was another iteration of a toiletless pit toilet except this one didn’t have a proper pit. It was a standard plastic construction-site/festival-style outhouse but instead of a toilet there was a metal frame with a toilet seat attached to it allowing for one to sit (not recommended) and hope that their deposit made it through the two feet of open-air free-fall into a shallow recession under the outhouse without taking any detours. This ablutionary abomination was not set on level ground so the likelihood of (and evidence of) depositional detours was high. We were thankful that we carried a shovel at all times and did not have to endure this particular atrocity.
On a lighter note, that campground was right next to the trailhead to hike up Cerro Cristales. The trail switched back for the first part of the hike gently carrying us up the mountain. About halfway to the top, it changed its tune and headed straight up the mountainside like a feral hog. The closer we got to the top, the steeper the trail became. I was definitely scared. I do not like steep slippery trails. Going up is okay, it is the descent that freaks me out. I decided to put off worrying about how I was going to get back down until I really needed to head down. We reached the top right after another couple of hikers. It was very windy up there. The four of us huddled behind a rock wall that had been haphazardly piled by hikers who had come before us. We were very thankful for that small respite from the wind. The other couple was from Buenos Aires. They apologized for not having any mate to share with us. They offered cookies instead. We took pictures for each other and chatted as long as we could endure the freezing wind. My thumbs were starting to go numb and I wanted to get that descent over with. It was not graceful, but I managed to make it down to where the trail resumed a reasonable gradient without falling on my rear. I looked like a nervous penguin baby-stepping my way down. Scott floated gracefully.
After hiking Cerro Cristales, we headed back to our tiny sand dune on the lake for one more night before leaving the region. That is when we got our first flat tire of the trip. It was the driver’s side rear. We were just cruising along when we heard a rhythmic swishing sound. It definitely sped up when we did. We pulled over and discovered an inch-long gash in our tread. We figured the tire had been weakened when the ball joint busted. We had since rotated the tires and that was the one the truck rested on when we dragged it onto the tow truck. Anyhow, Scott made short time of switching out the flat for the spare. All of the cars that passed us actually slowed down so we didn’t have to choke on dust while Scott diligently worked.
After a quick stop at the gomeria (tire repair shop), and another stop to shower, and one more stop to take a moment to cook all of our fresh veggies while eating all of our fresh fruit, we were ready to head across the border back into Chile to visit Torres del Paine National Park. It is impossible to drive to the bottom of Argentina without cutting through Chile so we popped over the border (losing all of our dry beans to bureaucracy) very close to the park.
We arrived at the park entrance right at closing time. We also arrived without a campground reservation. We liked it that way. Camping in Chile is too expensive. We talked to the ranger as he was locking up and confirmed that we could park next to the other overlanders in the parking lot for the night. He reminded us that although we could sleep there we couldn’t make ourselves comfortable. No cooking. No washing dishes in the bathroom sinks. Also, no washing ourselves in the bathroom sinks. It seemed like he was annoyed that we were allowed to “camp” in his parking lot. He reiterated a couple of times that it was not a campground. Cool. The soup we had made in Argentina that morning to use up all of our fresh veggies was still warm. And we were recently showered!
The next morning, we awoke to the gentle roar of tour buses arriving at first light. Perfect. We didn’t need that alarm after all. We scraped the sleep from the corners of our eyes and headed into the ranger station to pay for a three-day ticket to the park. We had originally hoped to go backpacking there. Unfortunately, most people who visit are also hoping to backpack. The popular treks are called the W and the O. Reservations to hike these trails must be made months in advance. One thing we have learned on this trip was that we are not good with schedules. They require too much planning. And sacrifice if things don’t go as planned. Plus, anyone who makes backpacking reservations months in advance has to have an in with the weather gods. Anyhow, we decided that we would be okay with day hiking in the park. The most iconic hike to see the Torres themselves can be done as a day hike. So that is what we did.
The hike started on private property where we had to snake through a gift shop to access the trail. A ranger checked our tickets at the rear of the shop and we were on our way. There were so many people hiking. So. Many. People. Scott and I wove our way between groups of hikers in our bid for continuous unfettered steps. About a third of the way up we passed by a campground that had a café and bar. We refilled our water bottle and resisted the urge to linger with the crowds of hikers lunching at the picnic tables. The trail soon became steeper and narrower. We could see the tips of the Torres as we got closer to the end. Soon the trail became single file. There was a lot of time spent standing still, waiting for the people ahead of us to navigate the rocky trail. We tried to be Zen about it. If I were Queen of the Universe I would implement a rule that you have to pull over and let people pass if more than five are lined up behind you. Like any civilized highway. On the bright side, all of that waiting allowed us time to eat some snacks. The trail opened up a little bit and we were able to get around a group or two when we hit another snaggle of people. This time it was because a man had a heart attack on the trail. There were half a dozen vacationing health care workers on hand administering CPR. Tour guides with radios were running supplies to the site and arranging for more formal emergency treatment/evacuation. We were asked to just give them space. We did. I saw him as we passed by. He looked young. Our age. He had a hairy belly and his face was so pale it looked blue. We sent out a prayer for his safety and got out of the way.
Arriving at the base of the Torres del Paine felt strange knowing that 300 yards away a man was receiving CPR. At every moment, no matter where we are, someone somewhere is fighting for life. Giant glaciers are calving, vicuñas are grazing, water is pouring off of impossibly high cliffs. Each moment, the world is full of beauty and tragedy, simultaneously, always. Soon the majesty of the Torres erased all other thoughts from our minds. The lake beckoned us to her shore. We were happy to sit in the sun, eat our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and dip our toes in the water. We watched the other hikers take their photos while the sun cast lengthening shadows over the cliffs. We even saw some familiar faces from our time hiking and camping in El Chaltén. We all have roughly the same itinerary down here in Patagonia.
They close the lake at 4:00 pm and we wanted to beat the crowds heading down so we left around 3:00. The obstructions on the return hike were few and far between. Plus, since we were headed downhill the slow folks weren’t as slow. We stopped for a chocolate break about halfway down. As we ate our chocolate, pairs of Andean condors circled overhead. The trail was carved into the side of a deep ravine and at one point a condor swooped so close to us we could hear its wings cut through the air. We readied our cameras in case it made a second fly-by but it was a one-time thing. So cool.
After our hike, we returned to our not-a-campground to sleep again. The next morning, we drove around many of the roads through the park. The day was gray and drippy. We were very lucky to have caught the Torres on a clear day. We had planned on hiking up to a mirador that day but a combination of clouds and fatigue led us to scrap that plan and find a hot shower instead.
After leaving Torres del Paine National Park we made a bee-line for Ushuaia. We were excited to be so close to a destination we had been driving towards for the better part of the last two years. With one border crossing and a ferry across the Strait of Magellan to go, we figured that it would take us two days of driving to get there. It took us three days because we found a sweet little forest campsite that convinced us to take a break.
Aside from being the southernmost city you can drive to in the whole wide world, Ushuaia is the main hub for trips to visit Antarctica as well as being an active shipping port. There were people everywhere. People trying to get business done and people trying to have a tourist experience. As far as the tourists were concerned, it was a different demographic than we were accustomed to. The sidewalks were full of European retirees in matching adventurewear fresh off their cruise ships. As I looked out over the port at the giant cruise ships and container ships I could hear their hiking poles clacking along on the cement sidewalks that lined the waterfront. These were not the gritty overlanders we were accustomed to rubbing elbows with. We gave our fellow tourists a wide berth. All of the news had been dominated by warnings of a virus that was especially bad in Spain and Italy. We eyed the cruise ships warily as those things are floating incubators of disease. We had just crossed the border between Chile and Argentina two days prior and the only evidence of the virus was a notice that people should pay attention to their health if they had been to China recently.
Arriving in Ushuaia was not the momentous occasion we had envisioned. The months on the road were beginning to wear on us. We were more focused on being able to refill our propane and procure some groceries. Once we had taken care of the necessities we headed towards the big USHUAIA letters down on the waterfront. Exhausted or not, we had some serious picture taking in our future. The sign was very popular, but we had nothing but time on our hands. Eventually, we caught a lull in the crowd and were able to monopolize the monument to create a series of awesome/ridiculous pics.
Before leaving Ushuaia, we decided to get an alignment for The Joan. She was sometimes pulling to the right and ever since that one time when the wheel fell off the truck we lost confidence in ignoring her subtle cries for help. We spent the night at a municipal campground (free!) outside of town so that we could make our morning alignment appointment. The mechanic place was a small Pop and Son’s type of place. They offered us morning pastries and let us watch them work on the alignment. Scott felt pretty confident that he was understood when he explained that the truck sometimes pulled and sometimes didn’t. Turns out that The Joan had a screw loose! Actually, shorn in half. A big bolt in our lower control arm had broken in half causing some play in the steering. He was able to replace the bolt but things were still a bit jiggly down there so she didn’t steer perfectly but she did steer predictably and would likely do so for the next couple of thousand miles. We really just needed to make it to Montevideo, Uruguay by March 26th to get her in a shipping container bound for the USA. We had 16 days and 2600 miles to go. We could deal with anything else after we got her home.
Feeling a little bit more confident about her steering we took one more road south. Ushuaia may be the southernmost town but it wasn’t the end of the road. There was one more road we needed to take. It would terminate at a military base that is further south than Ushuaia. We planned on driving down there and having our southernmost camp. Right after the turnoff to the road, we checked in with the military. The guy at the checkpoint told us we wouldn’t make it to the end and that there was a nice restaurant if we took a different road. He also told us that he once had long hair like Scott and wished he still had it. We drove on reminiscing about how military checkpoints used to really freak us out. They have never been anything but a friendly interaction… with big guns.
As we were warned, we were unable to make it to the bottom of the road. A bridge was out and we did not have any way around it. So, we took a moment to take in the scenery at the southernmost point that we would ever drive. It was beautiful. The light was amber and shorebirds were flying around gracefully reorienting themselves to our presence. That was it. Our turnaround point. No sign, no monument. Just us and a disheveled flock of herons.
After an appropriately long moment of reflection on our journey thus far, we turned around and headed north. We popped in at our favorite little forested nook where we had slept on the way down. This time we parked so that our tailgate coffee making station would get the morning sun. The next morning, despite our well-laid plan, the sun never broke through the clouds. We made coffee in a bitterly cold drizzle feeling winter’s approach. We needed to get ourselves to a warmer latitude.
We crossed back into Chile for the last time. This time at the border we had to fill out a form self-certifying that we felt healthy and did not have any contact with any known sick persons for the prior 14 days. Everyone crossing the border filled out that form… using the same pen. We were headed for the town of Cerro Sombrero. There isn’t much there to attract the average tourist but they have their weary traveler attraction game down pat. In the center of town is a Tourist Center. There they have a bank of computers and a person employed full time to orient passersby to the attractions of that region of Chile. Plus, the whole town has free WIFI broadcast from the town square. Add to that the heated bathrooms with hot showers available for free every day and you have a weary traveler haven. The strange bit is that the giant campground they built just outside of town does not have a bathroom. It was an almost perfect setup. It felt strange to be using a public shower facility when every time I turned on my phone I all I saw were warnings about COVID-19. I looked at every surface suspiciously. I was not happy when the resident bathroom cat, who was friendly enough to try to crawl up on my lap while I used the commode, said her goodbyes to me by shredding my wrist with her teeth and claws. Great, Now I had to worry about COVID-19 and cat scratch fever (is that a thing?). I spun my arm in giant circles to encourage my wrist to bleed out any infection, washed with hot water and soap, hissed at the cat and got out of there.
Before leaving town, we purchased plane tickets back to the states. Thanks to the virus, air travel was suddenly dirt cheap. Our plan was to fly to Miami, rent a car, and go stay with my aunt up in Georgia while we waited for our truck to make its way to the States. We bought tickets for April 8th from Buenos Aires, Argentina to Miami, Florida. That gave us a week from the time The Joan would set sail from Uruguay to when we would have to be back in Buenos Aires to fly. Flights straight out of Uruguay were a couple hundred dollars more expensive. Plus, we thought it would be fun to visit Buenos Aires. Maybe catch a tango show or something. Anyhow, that was our exit plan. Our near future plan was to head back into Argentina and go visit some penguins!
The second-largest colony of Magellanic penguins breeds on a beach just over the border from Chile. There are so many birds there. These penguins are burrowing birds and they are monogamous. Apparently, each year the male of the pair will arrive first, find the nest, and call out to his mate to join him. She recognizes him from the sound of his call. They take turns sitting on the eggs (typically 2 of them). By the time we arrived, it was pretty late in the season. The baby penguins were still scruffy, but sporting quite a bit of their adult plumage. Both parents would leave for the day to go out fishing to return in the evening and feed the chicks. We wanted to time our visit to see the adults returning from the sea. We pulled into the visitor’s center but it was closed. There was one van parked in the lot. It was our friends Colin and Lucia again! They were still southbound in their journey and knew that if they waited until they were northbound, like us, to visit the penguins it might be too late. We were so excited to see them again. The four of us chatted away until it was time to see the adult penguins make their evening return. There is a roped-off walkway through the penguin’s nesting area. We sat down quietly on the walkway and waited at a spot where the penguin highway crosses the tourist walkway. I set up my phone to take video and just sat and waited. I had imagined that they would be as cavalier about our presence as the blue-footed boobies had been in Ecuador since we are not a natural predator. Nope. Us being there definitely slowed their progress back to their chicks. They would wait until they had a sizeable enough crowd and then they would all cross the path at once. We annoyed the penguins for about 15 minutes. When it became clear that they were never going to just collectively decide that we were not a threat and go about their business we left them to it.
The camping area in penguin-land is a couple of miles away from the rookery. The four of us camped out in the designated area. Our friends woke up before the sun to go back and watch the penguins head out to sea in the morning. Scott and I are not big pre-sunrise people. We slept in and had a leisurely morning before going back out to the rookery and communing with the chicks. Colin and Lucia reported that we did not miss much. It was not the wobbly parade that we had imagined. It was a more diffuse migration out to sea. We wandered through the tourist walkway again to say hello to the chicks in the full light of day. There are about 130,000 breeding pairs of penguins with 1-2 chicks per pair. That is a ton of birds! They made amusing noises, had beak wars, and pooped a lot. They had an endearing way of flipping their heads to look at you sideways. They were very cute but we had places to be. We said goodbye to Colin and Lucia (and warned them of the attack cat at the bathrooms in Cerro Sombrero) and headed back up north.
From that point on, our trip just got weird. All of the news we were getting was that COVID_19 was spreading and spreading fast. Travel to and from Europe was halted. The number of cases in South America was low but they could see the writing on the wall. They were making moves to shut down travel. It was a frantic game of Musical Chairs and we really wanted our chair to be in Uruguay. From this point on we just drove and slept. Stops were for gas and groceries only. We weren’t being really picky about where we camped. We just hoped for some protection from the ubiquitous wind. It became a tour of Argentine gravel pits. There was one that doubled as a guanaco butcher station. Guanacos are like vicuñas but less delicate. And they have a gray face. There were sun-dried guts and bits of pelt strewn about. A fox came in the night to shout at us. I think it was disappointed that we were not butchering guanacos. The next night we stayed at a gravel pit by the sea. People had been littering there for so long that there were identifiable plastic layers in the sides of the pit. The view was nice though. After that, we stayed in another roadside pit. This time there were a couple of abandoned tires but nothing creepy to speak of. The owner of the land stopped by to make sure we didn’t need any help. He was one of those salt of the earth rancher types. He shook our hands and asked us not to start any fires on his ranch. Out of respect, we waited until he was out of sight to hit the post-handshake sanitizer. It is a strange transition to go from “I don’t want people to think that I think they have cooties” to “maybe the fact that they might have cooties should be brought to their attention.” One more night in a seaside gravel pit and we were making good time.
We had learned that the exchange rate for USD was about 30% better if we sent money to ourselves through Western Union so we headed into the nearest town to pick up some cash at the local Western Union office. We arrived just before they closed for siesta and they told us that we couldn’t pick up any money until 5 pm that night. We were in a hurry to head north and didn’t feel good about waiting 4 hours for Western Union to open up. My Western Union App indicated that there was an office inside of a local grocery store as well. When we arrived, there was a line wrapping around the store because they were only allowing 50 people in at one time. We did not feel like standing in line in the bright sun to get inside the store especially since there was a high probability that the Western Union was also closed for the afternoon. So, we picked a town further along our route that looked like it might be an affluent/resorty type of place where we could stop and try our luck. We had heard from other travelers that they often don’t have enough money to pay out transfers until the afternoon and that they sometimes had very low limits on the amount. As we approached, it looked promising. We took the high-rise hotels on the coast as a sign that there might be enough money in the till at the Western Union to pay out the money I had transferred to myself. We turned off the highway to head into Puerto Madryn and got stopped at an agricultural inspection station. Normally we are waved through these types of checkpoints. Not today. The police officer indicated that we needed to pull off the road. He asked us where we were from and how long we had been in the country. We gave him a confusing answer because we were in Argentina for a while before we went back to Chile and then Argentina again and then Chile again and now we are in Argentina. He went inside the inspection station office and talked to somebody. He came back out, this time wearing a mask and latex gloves. He asked for our passports. Maybe our stamps could explain our trajectory better than we could. We were feeling naked without our passports. He came back to our truck a few times to ask us questions. Did we feel any symptoms? No, we feel healthy. Have we been to a hospital? No, we have not been near any hospital. Have we been in contact with any Europeans? No, we have been camping alone. Each time he would pop by to ask a question he was very apologetic. He gave us explanations we never asked for. He was sweating profusely in his gloves. After about 45 minutes he told us that an ambulance was on its way to come and check our health. We asked if we could park in the shade. We had been driving north for four days and the climate had gotten significantly warmer. We pulled under the shade of a tree on the side of the building to wait for the ambulance. We were trying to stay positive but our minds were reeling. What if they detain us? Where would they force us to stay? Can they put us in jail? What if they want to put us into a hotel? They have our passports, we can’t just take off… can we? The cop came back and apologetically asked us for our names, phone numbers and the names of our parents. He tried to keep his distance as he wrote down our information.
Right about then the young Belgian couple that we had camped next to in El Chaltén and seen again in Torres del Paine rolled in and parked next to us. We filled them in on the whole waiting for an ambulance thing. Great, they were going to find out that we lied about not having contact with Europeans. Technically, we hadn’t. We never touched them… They had been shunned out of a grocery store and were on their way to an Airbnb to hide out and wait for the virus to pass. At this point, all foreigners were pariahs but it was far more egregious an offense to be European than American.
The police officer returned with our passports and a deep apology that the ambulance was not going to come and check on us and that because we had not been in Argentina for at least 14 days we were not going to be allowed to enter the town. Our passports were back in our possession. We were not sad. By this time, we really didn’t want to go to town anymore. We wanted nothing more than to be free to drive to Uruguay. He let us know that there was a gas station on the highway that we would be able to use but there was no way he could let us into town. We wished goodbye and good luck to our Belgian friends and got back on the highway with a quickness.
From that point on we decided to stop futzing around with the Western Union; there were plenty of ATMs around. No stops unless it was for food, gas, or sleep. Many countries were closing their borders to foreigners and we were racing to Uruguay.
We were aiming for a city park that was listed on iOverlander for the night. The reviews mentioned a park guard and a 2am closing time for certain sections of the park. Right before the turnoff to the road that would take us there I asked Scott to pull over so we could rethink our night’s sleep. Our interaction with the police that day had me feeling like I didn’t want to stay anywhere with rules and guards. If we took a different road to Uruguay (same distance) we could wild camp at a lake about a mile off of the highway. We both agreed that the lake sounded like a better idea so we altered our course and headed for some lakeside slumber.
About five miles before we got to the turnoff to the lake we encountered our first peaje (toll booth) in all of Argentina. This was not good. Because we had anticipated getting money at the Western Union we had used up all of our pesos at the last gas stop. We made a U-turn and headed back to the last town we had passed, Trenque Lauquen to find an ATM. We were very paranoid that there would be a police check to get into town. We practiced how to explain that we just needed money and would leave as soon as possible if we were to get stopped. Thankfully, we passed through town unhindered. The second ATM we tried worked like a dream. Now we had some pesos for the peaje.
Our next stress was the peaje itself. What if the police had commandeered the booth and were using it to control foreigners passing through their jurisdictions? Well, we weren’t going to sleep on the side of the highway, so we were about to find out. It was not worth our stress. 70 pesos and not a second glance at us. Pfwew! By this time, night had fallen and we were staring intently into the dark to find the turnoff toward our lake. We found the narrow dirt road exactly where it should have been and turned right into the tall grass. We crossed a bridge and turned off that narrow road onto an even narrower road. We stopped at the first wide spot and set up camp wondering what the landscape would look like in the morning.
We woke up to a very different reality than the one we fell asleep in. Word on the traveler’s pages we follow on the internet was that the border between Argentina and Uruguay was closed. We were only seven hours away. We discussed driving up there and trying anyway. We couldn’t find any official proclamation of the closed status. I was looking into a safety net for that option. Finding potential places to stay if we got up there and couldn’t cross the border. It was slim pickin’s. Airbnb was not an option. The hosts I messaged let me know that they would be fined if they rented to foreigners. Campgrounds were being closed and the people in them were being kicked out. Finally, we found official information. The border was officially closed. It was a one-way valve for residents to return to their home countries and nothing more.
We looked around at our little lakeside camp spot and decided it looked like a good home for now. We didn’t want to find ourselves stranded in the city. Everything we were finding online indicated that we needed to shelter in place until we had been in Argentina for 14 days continuously without symptoms. Then we might be able to move about more freely.
To do this we would need supplies. We packed up the truck with the intention to return to Trenque Lauquen to stock up on groceries and then come back to the lake and settle in for the long haul.
We renewed our stress about the peaje. A lot can change overnight but it was still business as usual there. Back in Trenque Lauquen we headed to a familiar supermarket chain called La Anomina. We waited in a spaced-out line to get in. We didn’t talk to each other. In Argentina, we blend in pretty well until we open our mouths. I watched through the glass doors of the supermarket as the people before me in line entered. There was an employee in gloves but no mask just beyond the doors. I saw her greet the entering customer with a hug and kiss on the cheek. Seriously? I mentally filed her away as a person to avoid. Eventually, it was our turn to enter. Never had grocery shopping felt more like visiting a library. Everyone was quietly minding their own business. Scott and I were whispering about whether we wanted red lentils or green when the gloved kissy employee asked us loudly if that was English she heard us speaking. We backed away from her as she honed in on us. Apparently, she loves English and knows about three words of it. We got away from her as soon as we politely could. Scott thought she was going to report us and get us kicked out. The rest of our shopping trip was uneventful. Our cart was loaded. We hadn’t bought so many groceries at one time in the entirety of our trip. We also bought bottled water. The water in the lake where we were planning on making our home was salty. Our filter is powerless against salt. We had prided ourselves on not buying single-use plastics for water on this trip. We cut ourselves some slack. These were special circumstances.
Once our groceries were loaded up we made one more stop at the gas station to fill up the tank and the extra tanks. Back in Ecuador, when the country had essentially ground to a halt due to nationwide protests, we learned that full tanks of gas provide peace of mind. Scott and the gas station attendant performed a graceful refueling dance making sure neither of them had to touch any surface that the other had touched. It was quite elegant and we could tell the attendant appreciated it. We also filled up our extra water bottles there. We were fully loaded for two weeks of isolation.
One more uneventful passage through the peaje and we were turning back onto our narrow dirt road. This time we drove a little further out toward the end of the road to get a touch more privacy. We parked up under a tree, angled ourselves diagonal to the prevailing wind, and went about setting up camp proper.
We were constantly second-guessing our decisions. Were we doing the right thing? Should we have tried to go to the border and cross with a sob story? I was feeling slightly unhinged. Had we made it into Uruguay, we were going to camp at a place that had WIFI, hot showers, laundry, roaming horses, and fresh-baked bread in the mornings. I was really looking forward to that level of civilization and the disappointment I felt about missing out on that experience was immense. Our tranquil lake was lovely. There were flamingos, roseate spoonbills, cormorants, herons, parrots, and funny little groaning jays keeping us company there. It was beautiful and natural and yet I still had to ask Scott to remind me that everything was going to be okay. Amazingly, the words, “everything is going to be okay,” are just as soothing when uttered upon request as when they are unsolicited.
We reached out to home to let everyone know our location and situation. We got in touch with the shipping company and the friendly Canadians we were to be sharing a container with and let them know that we were not going to make our shipping date. We let that great campground in Uruguay know not to expect us. We were put in touch with friends of friends in Argentina just in case we needed any help while we were navigating our way through this time.
One of those people was Mono. He communicated with us via voice messages on Whatsapp. He sent us reassuring messages. Something about his voice made us feel deep in our hearts that everything truly was going to be just fine. There were a couple of times when we were feeling particularly unsettled that we would re-listen to his messages. They were medicinal.
By this time all of Argentina was on lockdown. The only allowable excursions were to the grocery store and the pharmacy. Our first night at that campsite, a couple of men drove by with a floodlight. They didn’t shine it at us, just along the shore. The next day they returned and told us that we were not allowed to fish at the lake and that we shouldn’t drink the water. No problem. We were surprised later in the day when a truck with two men and two young boys showed up to go fishing. I was annoyed to have the company. I was just about to go swimming when they parked blocking access to the beach. I was even more annoyed when they stayed the night. There was not a lot of cover for taking care of personal business out there and having four dudes frolicking on the beach didn’t help the situation. I kept staring at them trying to will them into packing up their tent and going home. My attempts at mind control didn’t work but the police arrived and told them they needed to go home. So that was good.
We had been expecting a visit from the police and were relieved to finally get it over with. They took our names, passport information, names of our parents, and our phone number. Apparently, we picked a good spot to be. They liked us there. They told us not to leave and that somebody from the hospital would be by to check on our health. They asked us if we needed anything. We told them we were fine for now but would eventually need water. The water we filled our tanks with at the gas station turned out to be salty. They told us they would bring us some sweet water. We emptied the salty jugs and gave them to the police. We figured they would bring them back to us the next day but they returned an hour later with jugs full of delicious water. They gave us a phone number to call if we needed anything and let us know that they would be back to check on us daily.
We did get a daily visit from the police. Every two days the faces would change. They were all very kind. Not all of the police officers knew where to get good water. Our next refill was salty again. So disappointing. We were pretty far from the ocean and surrounded by sugar cane fields. I had a feeling the salts were from fertilizer infiltrating the wells but was trying not to think too hard about that. We never got a visit from anybody from the hospital but we did get a visit from four police officers at once. They had us sign some papers saying that we would stay where we were for fifteen days starting on the first day that the police visited us. We told them that we had been there for two full days before they showed up but they didn’t care. It was a good thing they were bringing us water because we had now signed papers saying we would be there until April 4th. We had been thinking that we just needed to isolate until we had been in the country for 14 days. We were anticipating freedom on the 26th. I was feeling very disappointed at this turn of events. Scott told me everything was going to be okay without me having to ask. We were becoming accustomed to our new reality.
On the whole, things at our little lake were pretty good. Until they weren’t. Mosquitoes hatched and ruined everything. I have only experienced mosquitoes that bad one other time in my life. That was when I spent a summer working in Everglades National Park in Florida. The mosquitoes in the Everglades are legendary. These were just as horrible. When the wind was blowing with enough strength we could stand outside. But we would have to rotate ourselves because the mosquitoes would accumulate on the leeward side of our bodies. Getting up to pee in the night meant that we would have to have a mosquito murder session upon return to the tent. It was impossible to rid ourselves of them before crawling through the tent flaps. Each morning I would wash the blood splatters off the walls of the tent with vinegar. Not only to clean a disgusting mess but it made it easier to find them and murder them when they couldn’t hide amongst the carnage of their fallen sisters. After it became clear that the mosquitoes were not going to abate we dug deep into the truck to find the screen room we had brought. It zips onto our awning and we had been hauling it around for over a year without ever using it. When would-be overlanders would poll the Facebook groups for packing advice asking what you brought that you didn’t end up needing I would always list the screen room. It is big and bulky and we never used it. I take back every disparaging word I have ever said about that thing. It is gold!
Every couple of days we would brave the mosquitos and go swimming in the lake. Well, splashing in the lake. It never got deeper than our knees. The lakebed was smooth mud and once the depth exceeded six inches we would lose sight of our feet because the algae was so thick. We washed ourselves and our clothes in that lake water. Then we would run the gauntlet of mosquitoes waiting in the grass back to camp and zip ourselves into our screen room as fast as possible.
Our food supplies were holding out but just barely. We would cook a big pot of soup in the pressure cooker and eat it for two days. That way we would save on propane. Our propane bottle could not be refilled just anywhere and the nearest place that we knew was about 100 miles in the wrong direction. Soup and coffee. That was our life. We were feeling paralyzed by circumstance. We would start to work on things like writing this blog or making a video and would find ourselves unable to focus. We kept wondering if we were frogs in a slowly boiling kettle. I would hate to find that I was peacefully writing a blog post when I should have been plotting our escape. So we spent too much time watching the internet using frustratingly patchy cellular coverage. I got daily emails from Copa airlines asking me if I wanted to cancel our flights to Miami we had scheduled for the 8th. I ignored them. Eventually, the flights were cancelled by the airline.
We had registered with the embassy. They had much bigger fish to fry than a couple of self-sufficient overlanders camping by a lake but they were able to provide us with a personalized letter encouraging the police to let us drive on the highways to Buenos Aires when the time came to go home. There was a flight to Miami on Eastern Air. We didn’t take it. We were thinking that we would stay at the lake until the isolation period we had agreed to with the police was over. Then we would work on getting home. After that first Eastern Air flight had gone we got a personal email from the embassy. They basically told us that we should have gotten on that last flight and that there was going to be only one more flight direct to the US and if we didn’t get on that flight we should plan to stay in Argentina indefinitely. That is a big word. Indefinitely. It lit a fire under our butts.
We stayed up late trying to book flights home. We couldn’t book online and our phone service was not reliable enough to make the booking over the phone. Scott’s parents made the reservation for us. The people at Eastern Air said that if the police stopped us from making the flight we could get a refund. That was a good assurance because we did not have the police permission to travel when we bought those tickets! As soon as we got those confirmation emails we knew we were making the right decision. We were flying home at 8:30 am on April 2nd. Only six days earlier than our canceled flight. I got in touch with a guy outside of Buenos Aires who was offering up his service to store vehicles for overlanders. He confirmed that he still had space for us and also said that he might be able to ship the vehicle for us when the ports opened again. The plan was coming together.
The next day we started to pack. I already had an extensive packing list of things we would want with us while the truck was being shipped. It didn’t change much with our new circumstances. Most of the things we had in the truck we could live without for the foreseeable future. It was a big task but I was so excited to have a plan I could act on.
The biggest hurdle was that we needed a permission slip from the police to drive on the roads. If we had stayed the full 15 days we would have had the isolation certification. This was a big ask. Scott texted the number they gave us just in case it was a mobile number (texting in Spanish is far easier than talking on the phone in Spanish). Then he called it. A woman answered and when we asked for the police she hung up on us. Then Scott got a response to the text. The woman asked who we were trying to reach. When we told her the police she apologized for hanging up. She thought we were crank callers. She called the police for us and told them that the gringos out at the lake wanted to talk to them.
It took about an hour for the police to arrive. We explained that we needed to get to Buenos Aires to fly home and that we needed a salvo conducto (safe passage certification) to be able to do that. The officers called their boss. They chatted back and forth for a while without coming to a consensus. We kept hearing that we had not isolated long enough to get a salvo conducto. We impressed upon them that this was likely our last chance to get home. They told us that they had to go back to the office and would return with an answer in a couple of hours.
Those were very long hours. We had to continue packing. If they said yes then we would need to leave first thing the following morning. If they said no we would be all packed up with nowhere to go. We were nervous but moving forward. Almost three hours later the police returned. They said that we were going to need to follow them to the clinic to get a health check and they would give us permission to drive. We were elated! This time we asked them for a couple of hours. We were just about to eat and needed to put away the tent and screen room before we could drive. They didn’t mind waiting. They gave us a cell phone number to call when we were ready. This time we checked to make sure it was the right number before they left.
Putting the tent away was horrible. It was sunset and that is when the mosquitoes are at their worst. We put on long sleeves and beanies to protect ourselves from the hordes swarming around us. We worked fast and loose. We didn’t bother zipping the tent cover closed, just tied the straps. When we called the police to meet us they were there within ten minutes.
It felt so good to be driving. Scott behind the wheel and me in the passenger seat felt like coming home. It was our happy place. We followed the police into the town of Beruti. It smelled like dairy country. When we arrived at the clinic it was fully dark outside. There were about one hundred toads congregating under the lights outside of the building. We were led inside and waited for the doctor to see us. We were trying to give the staff their space. They didn’t seem concerned with maintaining social distance. We got a little nervous when the doctor asked us for the isolation form that we signed before. She seemed confused that we were asking to get a health certification without it. The police officer explained to her that we were given special permission to drive without having isolated the full term. She seemed doubtful but wrote us a note that said we seemed healthy enough to drive to the airport but she included the phone number to the police station on the back. I guess if anyone questioned its validity, she didn’t want it coming back to her. We were just happy to have an official slip of paper from her clinic with her stamp and signature on it. It was actually happening! We were so excited!
One more night and morning in the mosquitoes and we were out of there. I don’t know if I have ever been more ready to leave a place in my life. We got an email from the airline telling us that our flight was delayed until the 3rd. We didn’t change our plans, it just meant one more night in a hostel. It was Scott’s birthday. Heading home was probably the best birthday present he could have asked for. We had about three hours of driving ahead of us to get to the place we were going to drop off The Joan. We padded our drive time by two hours. We needed to make sure we had enough time to go through any checkpoints on the road. We were nervous and excited. All of our paperwork was at the ready. Letters from the embassy and flight confirmations on our phones, passports, and medical certification in my purse. It took us four hours and we went through no checkpoints. We did see police stationed beside the highway restricting access to the towns along the road but not stopping highway traffic.
The truck drop-off needed to be quick. Cristian, the man who was going to be looking after The Joan, had left me a message detailing the drop-off protocol. We had to arrive exactly on time as the taxi would be waiting. Luggage and passenger (me) would wait on the sidewalk outside his compound. The driver would enter with the truck. Park. Keys and payment would be inserted into an open Ziploc bag. It had to be quick so that the neighbors wouldn’t complain about all of the disease-ridden foreigners hanging around his place.
We were an hour early. I texted him to see if we could move our appointment. He confirmed with the taxi and it was a go. The drop-off didn’t go exactly as outlined but it was pretty close. We both entered the compound. There was minimal chitchat. The keys and money went into the Ziploc. We grabbed our bags and left. The taxi was waiting. Once we were rolling, I asked the taxi driver for an estimate of the cost. He quoted us 3200 pesos. That was when we realized we had left our wallet with our pesos and debit cards in The Joan. Oops. We turned around, I texted Christian. At least we had our spare keys with us so we didn’t need access to the Ziploc.
The taxi driver took us to a hostel close to the airport. At this time in Buenos Aires most hotels and hostels were closed. There were a few open and they were only allowed to accept guests who were preparing to leave the country. The drive into the city took over an hour. We passed through four police checkpoints. Our suspicions about the peajes were confirmed. Every single one had been converted into a police checkpoint. Most of them were checking on the credentials of the taxi driver. He had to have a special certification to drive during the lockdown. There were hundreds of cars parked along the side of the road that had been impounded when drivers were caught on the road without permission. Only one stop required that we produce our documents. We showed them our flight confirmation on the phone, our passports and our health certifications. The police officer only looked at our documentation. He touched nothing. That was nice.
When we arrived at the hostel, check-in seemed almost normal. They told us that we could have food delivered or walk down to the corner market for food and use the kitchen. It was quiet. There were two other families staying there. We went into our room and hid out. We had brought couscous, canned vegetables, instant coffee, and our electric kettle with us. We wanted to minimize our mingling with the other guests. The bathroom was shared but we had plenty of hand sanitizer with us.
Things were pretty mellow until a minibus full of Germans arrived. The neighbors did not like all of the foreigners milling about and called the police. Pretty soon there were about five vehicles form three different branches of government parked outside the hostel. We had a room facing the street and got to see all of the action. The officers were dressed in full hazmat gear. One of them was even wearing a backpack sprayer and was sanitizing the sidewalks. Police cataloged each of the Germans. Photographed them, their flight confirmations, and their passports. Neighbors milled around taking video of the excitement on their cell phones. We stayed tucked into our room. The hostel workers let us know that we were not allowed out of the hostel to go to the store anymore. The police told them that they were not allowed to accept any more guests.
The police came to our hostel daily. Eventually, they cataloged us as well. Photos of our passports and flight confirmations were taken. We were killing time in our room, watching Netflix, and hunting the single mosquito that had been plaguing us in the night. The police seemed to like that we were keeping to ourselves. They seemed to appreciate that we wanted to limit our time in the lobby and avoid all of the chaos. Our flight got delayed again. We were running out of food. Our couscous supply had run out. We had a large bag of prunes and a little bit of peanut butter.
The hostel couldn’t or wouldn’t help us arrange a taxi to the airport. I texted Cristian and asked for the contact of the driver who brought us to the hotel. Unfortunately, that driver’s credentials had expired and the website to renew them was down. I was on a group text on Whatsapp for overlanders stuck in Argentina so I asked the masses for advice. I got a number for another driver. He was busy but connected me to yet another driver. Bingo! Third time’s a charm. Once we had shared with him our flight confirmation, social media handles (maybe to see if he liked the look of us?), and our health certifications, our taxi driver, Gabriel, was happy to get a fare. In normal times he ran tango tours in Buenos Aires. First thing when we got in his cab, he sprayed our hands with sanitizer from a repurposed Windex bottle.
Our flight was delayed from 8:30 to 11:30. At least the date hadn’t changed again. We were told that the delays were to allow more people time to get to Buenos Aires from out in the provinces. We arrived three hours early for our flight. There was a line snaking around the terminal. Ours was the only flight leaving that day. None of the concessions were open. The vending machines were unplugged. We still had a half a bag of prunes. The line was moving so slowly, there was no way we were going to be leaving on time. Once we had gone through security and were waiting to board the plane we learned that Scott’s cousin’s cousin was on our flight. Small world! She and her boyfriend were actually in the seats right behind us.
Around 4:30 that afternoon we finally departed Argentina. The plane was probably older than me. There was no in-flight entertainment. No movies, USB ports, nothing. We could see where the ashtrays used to be in the armrests. It was a 9-hour flight and we were on our own to entertain ourselves. The man in front of Scott immediately reclined his seat and had a habit of scratching his head for emphasis when he spoke. Unfortunately, he had a dry scalp and was frequently emphatic. There was not enough food for everybody. They ran through with mini bags of chips and threw them out to the passengers who yelled the loudest. We did get a creepy ham and cheese sandwich similar to those sold in blister packs at truck stops. We tried to separate the bread from the ham and cheese. It was permanently bonded and I ended up just shredding the bread. We ran out of prunes.
We had high hopes of procuring some food at the Miami Airport. We had heard that the governor of Florida wasn’t taking the virus very seriously so the odds of restaurants being open in the airport were good. We arrived just after midnight. I assured the man at customs that I had traveled to neither China nor England and he welcomed me home. Due to the late hour, there was nothing open. At least the vending machines were plugged in. Two overpriced granola bars and a bag of chips later we laid claim to a swirly red metal bench and tried to get some sleep. A succession of fifteen-minute naps ensued. The morning was elusive.
Finally, enough time had passed that we could check-in and pass through security. Behind security, the world was far more comfortable. The seats had padding, the cold wind from the parking garage didn’t blow through, and Starbucks was open. We comforted ourselves with soy lattes and croissants. Twice.
Crossing the US was a dream. We had all the amenities one would expect on an airplane in this day and age. Our flight was about 10% filled and little baggies of chips and cookies were abundant. We layed over in Atlanta. There we found burritos. Big, giant, veggie burritos with all the hot sauce we could want. They were our first belly-full of food in almost two days. We slept off the burritos while crossing the continental US. San Francisco greeted us with a rainbow.
As a welcome home present, Scott’s folks got us a hotel for the night and dinner delivered to our door. We took an Uber there. The driver gave us paper masks. I’m pretty sure he sprayed them down with Axe Body Spray or some other equally noxious substance. Our hotel room was big enough that we could lose each other if we weren’t careful. The bed was large enough for both of us to sleep diagonally without touching each other. We washed the air travel off of ourselves and slept the sleep of the dead until checkout.
We borrowed a car from his parents as well. They met us at the hotel with the car. We followed them back to their house so we could share a driveway moment. They sat in their car and we sat in the car we were borrowing and we chatted across the driveway at a safe distance. This was nothing like the homecoming we had previously imagined but it was the homecoming we got. They had loaded the trunk with groceries for us so we got to go straight to our little house in Chico without having to subject the world to any of the crazy cooties we may or may not have picked up on our epic journey from Argentina.
So, that’s a wrap. 40,949 miles driven. One year and ten months well spent. What next? We’re going to sit still for a bit and wait for the next big idea to come along.