Bus2Antarctica: Argentina Long Haul

Andrew Evans recounts his race to reach Ushuaia before his boat left for Antarctica.

One country, five buses, seven days. Argentina is a huge country. I suppose I was aware of that fact beforehand–subconsciously–but traveling the entire length of the country in person really drives the point home. Pun intended, I guess.

I entered into Argentina at La Quiaca, a tiny border town across the river from Bolivia’s much bigger city of Villazon.  The “Welcome to Argentina” sign over the bridge brought me false comfort: I had arrived in my last country–I was almost there! But then I walked onward and saw the first Argentine road sign announcing: Ushuaia 5,121 km. I had to double check on my calculator but quickly confirmed that equals 3,200 miles, one-third of the total distance of my overland journey. Ack!

Argentina’s northernmost road sign only announces its southernmost destination, Ushuaia. Just like in Texas, Argentina’s welcome sign functions as a boasting device, rubbing it into newcomers: “Welcome to our country which is THIS BIG!”

3,200 miles is a helluva long way. For some perspective–the drive from New York City to Los Angeles, California is 2,462 miles. I had to do all that and 800 miles more–in a week. As I trundled into La Quiaca’s maze of a bus station, I was feeling some real pressure–if I made a mistake, took the wrong bus, or chose the wrong route, my whole journey would be screwed up.

Luckily I was in Argentina, which is a land of buses. I had a lot of options to choose from–dozens of bus companies that linked to nearly everywhere in the country. Argentina may be huge but it also has more road infrastructure than any other Latin American country. That gave me comfort.

I had several options and listened to the various bus company representatives sell me their route–many counseled that I go straight to Buenos Aires. It was out of my way by a long shot but everyone said that it was the major bus hub and I would be able to get a direct bus all the way south. Others said the best way was to follow the mountains–to go to Mendoza and Bariloche and then continue on to the wondrous icy beauty of El Calafate. All options were tempting–Argentina’s attractions are all too numerous and too grandiose–and yet my mission was Antarctica. After staring at the map for thirty minutes, I chose south. I would just keep taking buses due south until I got to my goal. I love Buenos Aires (love, love) but it was out of my way. I dream of seeing Mendoza someday, but I think I’ve had my quota of buses in mountains. Instead, I bought a ticket to the first largest city south, San Salvador de Jujuy.

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Descending from high-altitude Bolivia into the desert hills of Argentina’s Jujuy region was incredibly scenic. Very drab rocky landscapes suddenly turned into colorful sandstone swirls, pink rock formations, twisting mountain streams and noble saguaro-like cacti that thrive in the dryness. I honestly felt like I was driving through southern Arizona–and it was HOT. How hot? My phone claimed the temperature was 48° C. That’s 118° F and I’m really not lying–it was that hot. Yes it was dry heat, but it was still uncomfortable and burned my skin even through a bus window. By the time we reached Jujuy’s capital of San Salvador, I was a sweaty, red, grimy mess. I immediately bought my next bus ticket–due south on an overnight bus to the city of Cordoba. Then I went to find a shower.

Traveling in Argentina was such a relief because everything was suddenly so easy. I found that on buses, all things were possible–ask for any itinerary and almost every time, your will is done. Need a hotel room for four hours until your next bus so you can take a shower and a nap? There’s one right around the corner for just a few dollars an hour. Need Internet, need to recharge? No problem. Everything was so easy to find, except food. I quickly learned that Argentines have very fixed mealtimes: dinner doesn’t begin until well after 8 PM and no respectable restaurant is open until that time.

I grabbed some street food, got all cleaned up and repacked, then headed back to the San Salvador bus station. There I boarded a bus that for me, wins the award for best bus on my entire journey: a first-class, double-decker Flecha bus. The ride to Cordoba was smooth and uneventful–I slept all through the night and awoke as we pulled into the airport-sized bus station of Argentina’s second biggest city.

I knew I wanted to see Cordoba but I also have learned not to delay buying my next bus ticket. And so I head straight down into a row of over 50 bus station counters trying to purchase my next ticket south. What I found was discouraging–nearly every company was booked full for days. This was the first week of February–the height of summer vacation, equivalent to the first week in August in the States. Families were all traveling across the country and space was tight.

After much wrangling I bought a single ticket for a 24-hour bus to Trelew that left the next day–the last space available for a week. I rested up in Cordoba, enjoyed the city a great deal and was back at the bus station the following morning ready for the long haul.

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Crossing La Pampa on a bus is like driving across Nebraska four times.

I never knew farmland could be so thrilling to watch, but for me it was: the endless (and I really mean endless) bright green fields filled with summer crops, the insect-like irrigation contraptions that rolled across the fields, the little farming towns with combine harvesters and tractors parked in the driveways, and the black-and-white-spotted cattle herds holding court under remote trees on the horizon.

From my bus window, I fell in love with La Pampa. I grew up in America’s Midwestern heartland, so the forever flatness of Argentina’s own heartland was very close to home. Even if I was 8,000 miles away from the place I know best, the grain silos and barns and Massey Ferguson dealerships were all very nostalgic for me. Summer lightning storms made it all even more romantic-looking as the sky flashed like a camera, freezing each countryside view into my own frame of memory.

The land began drying out before we got to Trelew–the once-upon-a-time Welsh settlement that marks the beginning of the traveler’s dream that is windswept Patagonia.

Like a lighthouse for my soul, the Trelew bus station sported a giant plastic penguin that was taller than me. I was definitely making my way south, definitely getting closer to Antarctica.  The postcards, picture posters and generic tourist fanfare all hinted at Antarctica. I wish I could have visited Trelew in depth and investigated any remnants of Welsh culture, but I refocused on Antarctica and caught the first bus that was going the farthest south. My ride was due south and lasted 16 hours, arriving at the windiest city I’ve ever known: Río GallegosRío GallegosRío GallegosRío Gallegos.

The drive across Patagonia was indeed beautiful. For anyone who lives in a big city or feels cramped at home, Patagonia offers the ultimate refuge–untouched olive-brown landscapes of random rolling hills that go on for eternity. It is a place that has inspired many and understandably so. It is an ocean of land and I was sailing across it.

Ríío Gallegos marks the very bottom of Patagonia. By the time I arrived–at six in the morning–I had completed a 48-hour non-stop travel sequence. My body was willing to keep going if it really needed to, but parts of it were whining like kids in carseats. The morning air was cold and the Ríío Gallegos bus station looked like a homeless shelter of backpackers and local travelers who had spent the night sprawled out with their bags on the polished floor.

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I learned that Ushuaia is a coveted destination and yet only two buses go per day–less than a hundred passengers. Asking around the bus station, I heard rumors that confirmed my worst fears–all tickets to Ushuaia were sold out for days–maybe even a week. Some people even said the 14th of February–way past my departure date on the National Geographic Explorer.

I know not to panic–there is always a way to get somewhere–I’ve learned that much. I also know that sometimes you have to be aggressive. Latin Americans are good at many things. They are not good at forming lines or waiting in lines. With this acquired knowledge, I found the bus company window–still shuttered with a “Cerrado” sign–and then hugged it like it belonged to me. I shot venomous glares at anyone who even looked like they were trying to cut in front of me. When the white shutter opened–even just six inches, I stuck my face in the crack and shouted, “Ushuaia”. The woman smiled and shrugged.

“All full. No puedes.” Yes we can, I thought, and still hugged the window away from the other passengers.

If there’s one Spanish phrase I’ve perfected, it’s “el más rapido possible”–the quickest possible way. Whenever I’m asking for a ticket, that’s the kind that I want. In response, the woman at the counter hummed and held her face in one hand, flipping through papers and clicking on her keyboard. She kept shaking her head, no puedes. I pleaded, told her I’d sit in the aisle–anything. Then suddenly, she found a spot on a bus two days later. If nothing went wrong (which never happens), it would get me to Ushuaia with one day to spare before my ship left for Antarctica. I bought the ticket–paid cash, then waited out my two-day sentence in Ríío Gallegos (which is another post, my friends).

I boarded my last bus on February 9th, 2010–exactly 40 days after leaving National Geographic headquarters in Washington, DC. It was my 40th bus and I was assigned to the back, in seat 40. I’m not superstitious, but I figured all the 40s meant something. I was cheerful to be making my last leg of bus travel but nervous that something would go wrong and it did: crossing the Strait of Magellan turned into a 12-hour ordeal that meant we arrived in Ushuaia on the morning of February 10th (still, another post). The temperature was 3º C (37º F)–a stark contrast from the north of the country.

Honestly, at that particular moment I just felt lucky to be alive which somewhat dampened the thrill of making it to the end of the road.

Still, I did it. I rode all 3,200 miles of Argentina in a week and made it to Tierra del Fuego–the very end of the world, yes, but not the end of this story.

This is only the beginning.

Follow Andrew’s Twitter feed @Bus2Antarctica, and the map of his journey here. Bookmark all of his blog posts here, see videos here, and get the full story on the project here. Photos by Andrew Evans.