Bariloche proved to be the outlier as far as towns in Patagonia go. Good. It also was the last place where I would have somewhat passable Wi-Fi. Not good. I’ve made a quick detour to the town of Esquel, relatively unknown as far as Patagonian hotspots go. I have no idea what there is to do in this town, but in the hopes of my hostel having better Wi-Fi, I decided to go anyway. I mean, do you expect me to go on the 20 hour bus ride to EL Chalten without anything downloaded on Netflix?
Thankfully, the gamble paid off. I left the remote town of El Bolson and started pulling into the even more remote town of Esquel right around sunset. After seeing my first group of gauchos on a hike earlier that day, my imagination ran wild watching the landscapes pass from the comfort of my bus. It would have been like playing Red Dead Redemption in real life. If the U.S. had the Wild West, then Patagonia was the world’s even wilder south. After leaving the safe confines of Bariloche and Villa La Angostura, I started getting a glimpse of the Patagonia that I was yearning for.
I grew to enjoy my time in Bariloche, knocking out a few incredible hikes and even considering extending my stay. Eventually, the call of the wild was too strong and I called it quits after six beautiful days. After an overnight trip to Villa La Angostura, I decided I would bust out a long travel day with back-to-back buses to continue my adventures south. I arrived in El Bolson in the late afternoon, and for the first time in a while, didn’t know what to do. There were no blogs telling me how to get around. There was no Instagram follower sliding into my DMs telling me that “omg I have to go do this”. After lugging around my heavy backpacks for about 20 minutes, I finally caved and visited the Tourist Information Center.
I waited at the bus stop, paid my 35 peso fare and asked the bus driver to drop me off as close to my hostel as possible. About 20 minutes later, I was on a dirt road with no cell signal and no people around. There was a chicken, though. I followed the signs to my hostel, absolutely gleaming that my dreams of roughing it in Patagonia were becoming a reality. I got to my hostel and it looked like a cottage where a princess would go in hiding from an evil witch. Cute, cozy, and comfortable. But hey, the Wi-Fi was bad so I was still, technically, living in the wild, right?
The puzzle pieces kept falling into place. After sulking around in Bariloche about how Patagonia felt like a lonely place, I finally found myself in a hostel with fellow travelers. I was even able to have English conversations for a few days! Until the French invasion occurred and the entire hostel was almost entirely French people. Including a motorcyclist that I had last seen 6 months prior back in Huaraz. The world is a small place.
The next day, I went off on a short hike, sulking about how I didn’t have a car to drive off to any of the much cooler hikes in the area. I finished about two hours before the next bus could take me back to my hostel. I passed the time by eating empanadas and thinking about eating empanadas. Once you’re in these small towns where you are at the mercy of public transportation that is few and far between, or expensive taxis, then that is when the burden of not having a car really kicks in. I finally was able to hop on my bus. As I was getting off the bus, there was a girl getting on the bus. A girl that I had met several months ago, 3,600 kilometers away in La Paz, Bolivia. The world is a small place.
I managed to utter a few “what the f’s” before telling her to get on the bus so it didn’t leave without her and she’d have to wait another two hours. On back to back days, the travel gods answered my calls to no longer be doing Patagonia Pat-alone-ia. What a difference a few people can make. Although I found El Bolson a beautiful town and enjoyed my relaxing time there, I was ready to scratch the town off as a loss. One of those towns that I tell myself “I’ll come back to do it properly when I have a car”. Three days in the town and all I managed to cross off was an hour-long hike that you could access from town. Unless…
I had a bus booked for 5 the following evening. I usually book my tickets online but with so much time to kill before the local bus would take me back to the hostel, I decided to go to the bus station on a whim. I tried to book it for 3 PM but for some reason, the guy at the reservation desk pushed me to book it for 5 PM instead, claiming it would be better.
Without a car, and with buses running even more irregularly, it looked like it would just be a long and lazy Sunday spent lounging around the hostel. This was about an hour before I ran into my old friend and a few hours before she fed me a few glasses of wine and convinced me to go on a 7 hour hike before my bus ride. We could split a taxi, which both ways would end up being a pretty reasonable price.
Our 8 AM departure turned into a 9:20 AM departure and I was beginning to regret sacrificing a lazy Sunday in. I had slept with the windows open and winter decided to hit Patagonia overnight, apparently. There was nothing I wanted to do less than get out of bed and finish packing. It was an hour round trip by taxi, and we paid our guy a little bit in advance to make sure he’d be back to pick us up at 4 PM and whisk me away to the hostel and then to the bus station. Then, damn. When we arrived at the trailhead, I immediately stopped caring about whether I would miss my bus or not. These were the types of adventures I was craving.
Being 7 months into my South American journey, I was beginning to look forward to lazy days as much as adventure days. I was content with doing nothing, and admittedly growing a bit complacent. Nathi, the Brazilian girl, was only a week in and had a contagious energy that gave the growing Scrooge in me a little more enthusiasm. I still couldn’t really wrap my mind around our completely unexpected reunion that left me literally at a loss for words.
Even more, all those series of events that led to me being able to even do the hike. Had I booked my bus ticket online, or had the bus station employee not pushed me to book a later bus, I wouldn’t even have had time to go on this adventure. I was actually supposed to do this hike the day before. 10 minutes before the local bus came to take me to Wharton where the trailhead was, I decided to just not go. All of this was before I even ran into Nathi. Sometimes it does feel a bit like there are ulterior forces doing a bit of pushing and guiding. Shout out, travel gods. That ray of light even makes it look like she was sent from the heavens, hey?
The brisk mountain air was everything that I had been craving for so long. It felt much different out here, and being in a small town made us the talk of the trails. A Filipino guy and a tall, lion-haired Brazilian girl amongst a sea of locals of all ages. Of the hundred or so people on the trails that day, I’d estimate that we spoke to about 95 of them. The worry of missing my bus went away after about 20 minutes when I just accepted that I should enjoy the moment and accept that the universe probably wanted me to miss my bus for a reason.
I also forgot just how swole my legs have become after all the previous trekking on this trip and that we could knock out a 7 hour roundtrip in nearly half the time. We reached Cajon del Azul, a refuge/campsite that we were told would be a good ending point for our hike. We admired the sheep around us for a good three minutes before mutually agreeing that the turquoise waters of the Rio Azul would be a much better spot for a lunch break. We spread out our makeshift picnic and took in the unbelievable views. The waters were an incredible colors, the mountains were lush with the green pines, and the occasional gaucho would pass by on his horse and poncho.
The way back was a breeze, despite being the same exact trail. It felt like we were walking slower, and with our already tired legs, I imagined we would make pretty bleak time on the way back. Not accounting for a second and third picnic break, we knocked it out in less than two hours. I still don’t know how, considering it took us almost 3 hours to reach Cajon del Azul on fresh legs while borderline running at times.
We made it back to the trailhead at exactly 4:00. Our taxi driver was talking with some other hikers, presumably crafting up a back-up plan in case we ended up being no-shows. No worries, fam, we out here. I made my bus with plenty of time to spare and the exhaustion following an early morning wake-up call and a 20 kilometer, 200+ floor incline hike overwhelmed me. There was no signal and I had nothing on Netflix downloaded, remember? We were out in the wild.
I woke up just as the sunset colors started basking the vast and empty Patagonian countryside in gold and purple. Despite the clothing company using the mountains as their logo, the reality of Patagonia is that is a vast nothingness. The glaciers, the mountains, the forests, the lakes, you add them all up and they are only a fraction of what makes up the million square kilometers known as Patagonia. These vast distances of arid and inhospitable terrains were what I will be calling home for the next several weeks. It is time to get my gaucho on, y’all.