Miraculously, we close the last zipper of our packs minutes before our 5:15 AM taxi creeps to a halt on the gravel road, tent dry, folded, and tucked away neatly thanks to the confines of the communal kitchen, cold but well-lit, a much better alternative to packing up an entire camp site in the woods before dawn with only a headlamp.
Today, we go to Puerto Natales, Chile, gateway to Torres del Paine, visions of mountain fairies and sugarplums dancing in my head ever since I see a spread of the magnificent blue towers half my life ago.
We are so close to realizing this childhood fantasy, I pinch myself, for this day long journey is less about covering actual mileage than it is about passing through border crossing bureacracy and crazy Patagonian landscape, our three hour minibus ride between Ushuaia to Rio Grande–with, mind you, a breakfast stop for pasteles and café and a horse crossing the street–sequeuing to a seven hour bus ride to Punta Arenas.
Made up, of course, with a ferry crossing of epic proportion: After scarfing down our arsenal of apples and oranges minutes before crossing into Chile–fresh fruit and veggies a no-go in this skinny country–we traverse the Strait of Magellan with giddy anticipation after an hour of pins and needles and follow it up with an afternoon foray into horses and guanacos and shorn sheep and estancias and arid, rolling hills and gauchos and other slices of decorum that merge this landscape with visions of the West’s bygone days of ranching and cowboys.
This massive road trip fuses Wyoming, Idaho and Colorado with a splash of seaside splendor, notes of sea breeze and salty stench coloring amber fields of grass.
It seems our entire bus downloads at Punta Arenas only to upload together for the final hurrah, a cake walk of a ride, only three hours left to our final destination, Puerto Natales, and here, we have the pleasure of a sunset cruise, the sun touching spring greens and yellow straws with firey pinks and oranges, all of us gringo passengers kids in a candy store of dreams about to be realized.
By 9 PM, a full seventeen hours after our initial wake up this morning, we roll into Hotel Geminis, our budget habitacion matrimonial with shared bathroom registered under my new name of Wendolin for the definitely-not-in-Asia-anymore price of $33 / night.
Time for dinner, y’all, and unlucky for us, the delicious lomo pimiento we share at La Tranquera finds us in a panic, for we underestimate the power of local currency, completely amateur in our attempt to pay with anything but Chilean pesos, realizing that Chile gives a rats ass about what my iPad app says the exchange rate of the day should be, and instead, it has us by the balls with its set-in-stone exchange rate of screw-you-over, tourist.
Here, the Argentinian peso is dick, our waiter asking us to cough up almost $40 worth for a $20 meal, so it’s a mad scramble for an ATM, none of which accept foreign credit cards because given our panic, we neglect to see the clear-as-day “foreign cards” button one needs to compress in the bottom left of the panel to activate foreign exchanges, and just when it seems like we might be washing dishes for a day or two, our waiter grants us a Hail Mary.
Dollars work their magic here, a huge sigh of relief, and we poney up the bills to pay for our pepper steak and fries and ensalada and happily accept Chilean cash in return.
Because, oh my god, we are exhausted, and I would rather over pay than wash silverware right now.