The Cons and Cons of Hitchhiking
The Tiger is in the workshop now, waiting for spare parts. And what can we do meanwhile? Right, travel of course! So, we start a backpack trip to the North of Chile from Santiago.
First, we want to go further to the Andes from our campsite, before we travel to the sea. We take the bus to the little town where public transport ends. The new adventure “hitchhiking” can begin.
We are not the most experienced hitchhikers, but it is a welcome change to riding the motorcycle. Down in the south, we’ve met many travelers who were hitchhiking. Seems like it is not that hard here… So, we’re standing curiously next to the road. A friendly smile and see there – the first car stops. That was easy! Quickly, we hop on the back of the jeep to be dropped about two miles later. We didn’t come as far as we were hoping. So, the game starts again.
But now we have to wait longer until the next car comes by. There’s eye contact to the driver, he’s waving us. But when we hurry up to put our backpacks on, we see that he’s just driving past us. Huh? We both misinterpreted his gesticulating as a commitment. What else was he telling us? Anyways, we’ll try our luck with the next one.
The following cars often give us incomprehensible hand signals and then drive past us. With every car that rushes past us, my initial euphoria drops a little bit more and a strange feeling comes up in me. Somehow, I feel like a beggar which gets turned down with every time a car which actually had enough free seats just skips. Some drivers even step extra on the gas or switch on the other lane as soon as they see us. Like otherwise, we could get the idea of throwing ourselves on the truck bed… But we don’t have any other option to move forward here without our own vehicle. It’s devastating. I’ve never liked to ask someone for a favor or to be dependent on someone. But now we are dependent on the kindness of other people and can’t do anything else than smile to every car that comey by, anticipating a rejection with fear.
It makes me think, too. How would I react in such a situation? In Germany, you never see a hitchhiker. Only one time, I remember that I saw a couple at a roadhouse. I passed by because my car was already full of fellow passengers. I often offered rides via the common websites. It was, of course, nice to share travel costs, but apart from that, always a positive experience. It was exciting to talk to the most diverse people you might never would have had a conversation with. It’s inspiring. I remember that some people would wonder how I would let “stange guys” ride with me in my car as a young woman. Boohoo… Sure, each one of them is just waiting to put a knife next to my throat… Now, I wonder if the people in the passing cars may also have such thoughts. Or are they just not interested in social interaction? What do they think when they see us?
After some time, another car stops. We get a ride for a few miles, then the couple reaches its goal. But the further we get into the mountains, traffic gets rarer. Who knows if we can make it our destination today? If you’re hitchhiking, you can’t have any expectation.
With the third car and muuuuuch time, it works: we reach our destination. The next morning, we can go for a small hike in the national park El Morado.
And since we come back quite early from the hike, we decide spontaneously to try and hitchhike further today. We want to reach the end of the road, deep in the mountains, where there are hot thermal baths. Because of the fresh temperatures that we have to deal with every night, we can’t wait to get there.
Now, it’s even harder to find a ride. There’s just not a lot of traffic left here. We almost want to give up, when we are picked up by four nice ladies in a small car. They even squeeze up just to take us. That’s impressive :)!
The route to the thermal baths is adventurous – an offroad fun that we can now experience in a tiny car. Wow, how fast the scenery is changing. It’s a strange contrast to be sqeezed in the car, constantly bumping with my head against the ceiling, while trying to look outside into the endless heights of these majestic mountains. The woman in the passenger seat is filming the view with her phone. She does that in a continuous video that’s already lasting for eleven minutes. Even the fact that the recording of the ride will be so jittery that no single person on this earth can ever look at this video without a headache doesn’t seem to bother here. The phenomenon “video by phone” is brought to a new level by her! Can’t you just experience the moment without staring at the screen? And can someone explain to me why any sense of quality has been lost here?
At the thermal baths, the punk is going on. In the seven different hot basins, awfully many people are taking a bath. Well, since it will be a particularly cold night today, we skip the bath, and quickly set up our tent and start cooking. When I get into the tent, I’m as frozen as I’ve never been. I discover happily that the floor is full of pointed stones that drill you in the back. The wind blows stormy against our tent, while some Chileans are celebrating throughout the night in this cold. Hardcore.
After the short night, we are finished. Only a few meters walk, then we can throw ourselves in the wonderfully hot pools for the sunrise. And now, we are all alone. What a blessing!
We hitchhike back on the next day. We want to head to two special national parks, north of Santiago. First, we visit the National Park Pan de Azucar. Here is the atacama desert – the dryest place on earth! – meets the sea.
As there are no proper railways in Chile, so we buy a ticket for the night bus which brings us to the nearest city of the national park. Twelve hours of traveling are surprisingly comfortable in the bus. Germany’s long-distance buses could learn a thing or two from them.
Finally, when we arrive in Chañaral in the morning, a unique desolation awaits us. Now, we are in the desert. Decomposed sheds are placed next to each other on the emptied dusty paths, and the sea also looks terribly depressing. Just depressing.
Still, it’s twenty kilometres to the National Park. This is not a distance that should normally become an obstacle. But a taxi is too expensive for us, public transport is not available again. So, we have to try hitchhiking again. Unfortunately, no car comes by because noone wants to visit the park. Season is over.
We agree to try it for an hour before we start walking with our heavy backpacks. Maybe we won’t make it today, but at least we’re getting a little closer. Here, we are only waiting in vain.
One hour waiting, not a single car. Just when we accept we may only be able to enjoy a hike next to the road today, the first car arrives and takes us. And really – just twenty kilometres further from the ugly Chañaral, we arrive at an absolutely abandoned area whose rough beauty is unique, quite fascinating. We stay for three days, because each of the absolutely lonely hiking trails has something charming to offer. The combination of sea, cacti and canyons is so appealing to us.
When we finally have to get back to Chañaral, the search for a ride continues. Riding the motorcycle here would be an absolute dream, but if you don’t have your own vehicle, it’s a nightmare. We are standing lonely on the road until it gets too cold. Although we already walked about 20 kilometres far today, we rather walk towards the town than waiting in the cold. We have no more food. Maybe we nhave to go to sleep with an empty stomach today, who knows that. After two hours, a friendly Chilean and take us with him. What a relief!
We continue by bus, traveling up in the north, where Chile borders the two countries of Peru and Bolivia. The Lauca National Park which is located there on 4500 meters of altitude is our next goal. Because spending time at such a height can make you get altitude sickness easily, we first wait to acclimatise ourselves in the small mountain village Putre, on 3600 meters of altitude.
We go on an acclimatization hike around the pretty village. There are spectacular gorges, prehispanic settlements and traditional terraces of altiplano farmers. As impressive as it is, everything is a bit more exhausting at this height. We need a few more breaks and feel dizzy setting up the tent.
Halfway acclimatised, we want to get to our actual destination now, the Lauca National Park on 4500m. Here again, public transport ends, and we don’t want to book an expensive tour from Putre, it’s time for hitchhiking again.
But this is now the real challenge. We wait in vain for hours at the main road, which leads directly to the border to Bolivia. Not because of a lack of traffic: numerous trucks are driving on the road. But none of them would take a hitchhiker. Bad luck for us. We stay until it gets dark. After all, we have to find a little hiding spot for the night in the bushes next to the street. Since there is no other place that is accessible by foot, we are in need to take a spot in the bushes, which also serve as toilets for truck drivers. When I step out of the tent the next morning and discover three steps further the first naked ass in the bushes, I am awed. These are the truly glamorous, romantic moments of a journey we all are striving for.
Today, we are also standing half a day on the road and send countless smiles to the drivers cabs. A waste of time! We’re cursed. But I don’t want to go without seeing a real rabbit mouse in the park (yes, they really are called so). But it is inevitable that with every rejection, the frustration increases. I can even dance on the side of the road, it doesn’t help. How lucky we are that we have a motorcycle normally. We can just go whereever we want with the tiger. Whenever we want. Thank god we’re independent. That is such a luxury!
We have to wait for one of the long-distance buses which go to Bolivia. In exchange for a few pesos, we’re lucky to get a seat. On the bus, we meet Lucy who also wants to go on a hike in the National Park. Even if the waiting was annoying, it was worth not giving up.
Even if I’d love to camp between the vizcachas, the pictures already reveal: it’s terribly cold up here. So, we have to get down again. Now we are three, which makes the chances of getting a ride now really run against zero.
Here we are agin. Since we don’t get invited to join one of the truck drivers, a van driver has mercy. We’re very lucky that he left the little village up here and has pity. He takes us in the back of the van – an experience of the very special kind. It’s dark – and by dark I mean a “I-don’t-see-my-own hand-straight-in-front-of-my-eyes”-dark. And like it common for a pass, there are mainly curves. If I would not cling on the wall, I would fall across the back of the van together with the boxes. At least that distracts from the somewhat strange feeling that you get that when you have no idea where you are going. Especially, when you know that oftenly the curves are being cut… I’m still joking about the fact that there are some similarities wit a kidnapping scenario – in the back of the van – when we suddenly realize that we must have to changed to gravel. Becuase we already took the same road up today, I know that we only drive only over tar. Something’s not right here.
The tension rises when we suddenly stop. Finally, the door opens and the sudden brightness almost blinds us, while the driver is laughing at us. He wants to know if we are fine. We are until now. “Are we already there?”, aska Lucy. “No, it’s just a stop. We have to bring something here”, the driver calls to us. Lucy looks out of the door and notes that we’re in the middle of a construction site. Okay, now that gravel makes sense. “Oh, and if you need to puke, just knock on the cab, then I’ll stop”, notices the driver while he closes the door again.
Even though I’m not going to forget about these rides, I’m glad not to hitchhike permanently. At least in Chile, we have quickly encountered the limits when it comes to getting to the places that are attractive for us. Sure, you get to know nice people, and you can spend money for other things which you save on fuel. But without perfect serenity, a lot of time and the willingness to not move forward, it doesn’t work. In comparison to other overlanders that come along with their fully equipped trucks, we have been the more minimalistic and comfortable ones. However, compared to the hitchhiking, traveling with the bike has become a total luxury – so, it is always a question of perspective!