Patagonia is the ultimate travel destination, but the long distances don’t exactly offer affordable transportation. The journeys are long and depending on the time of the year can be completely unreliable. For many, the most budget friendly and fun option is to hitch-hike north or south. So how do you make sure to catch a ride, safely and quickly? These are the tips we would like to share with you from our experiences hitch-hiking through the Argentinean and Chilean sides of Patagonia.
1. Be aware of the season
In some parts of the world, like Patagonia, seasons will strongly impact your journey and your attempts to catch a ride. In the winter months, Patagonia runs very slowly. Buses are almost non-existent, and when it’s not the weather that dictates the road conditions, it’s the lack of cars that are willing to make the journey that keeps you from reaching your next destination. Cars also drastically decrease during winter as many locals leave to the warmer parts of the north of the country or stay indoors and reduce their travel to zero… Going north or south along Argentina’s famous “Ruta 40” ? You might just end up needing to take a “detour” via the east coast of Argentina and the sad cities of Rio Gallegos and Comodoro Rivadavia. In short, be prepared to wait long hours or even days.
In Summer, the roads are crowed and backpackers actually “queue” on the side of the roads, hoping to be picked up. There are obviously more cars travelling on the Carretera Austral and the Ruta 40, but you will have to compete with many more travelers.
We traveled in Autumn and it was a mix of the two scenarios above. Sometimes being picked up within a couple of minutes and sometimes having to wait longer. In general, hitch-hiking was easy, there were still many cars traveling and yet, there was a very low amount of backpackers doing the same road as us. This meant we had little competition for the few cars that did pass.
2. Start early
Even for short rides, it’s always best to start hitch-hiking at the first light of the day. For long journeys there are more cars traveling early, the sun is not too hot and you might even be the first one on the side of the road, which gives you a better chance to catch a car. You also won’t be in a rush or on a short deadline since you should have all day.
3. Avoid dogs
If there is one thing mad about South America, it has to be the stray dogs! It’s not that they are aggressive, on the contrary they love the attention and being pet, but they tend to follow backpackers. We are not really sure why, but when we walked on the streets in Patagonia, we constantly had dogs following us. It’s really cute and funny, we even imagined that the local agencies hire the dogs to guide and keep tourists safe. But trust us, you don’t want them near you when you hitch-hike, and this is for two reasons. Firstly, you don’t want the drivers to think you are travelling with a dog. Many won’t stop, that’s a certainty. Secondly, stray dogs are badly educated!
They can’t stand wheels and attack anything that moves in a circular motion. As soon as they hear the car coming, they position, run and try to bite the wheels, no matter if it’s a bicycle, a motorbike, a car or a truck… We once ended up hitch-hiking for 5 hours with two cute but mad dogs attacking every single car passing by. We had to turn back and the next day, use cunning to avoid them following us and then got picked up within 30 minutes! So if there is one thing to remember : avoid dogs on your way!
4. Make your bag smaller
If you are like us and are traveling as a pair with a big backpack plus a daily one that seems heavier than your big one… well, let’s be honest, on the side of the road it looks like a humongous mount of unwanted things to be picked up!
The bigger the bags are the smaller are the chances to get a ride. You therefore have to be smart about it and find a way to make your bags look small. We usually hide our two daily backpacks behind our big ones…
5. Respect other hitchhikers
If you arrive at your spot and there are already people waiting for a ride, respect the fact they arrived before you and place yourself 20 to 30 meters behind them. Don’t try to be cheeky and stand in front or 100 meters ahead, that’s not cool and definitely not fair play. Eventually karma will return the favour and you wont be happy to wait for hours while others get picked us as soon as they arrive.
6. Bring something with you to offer
In Patagonia offering cookies or mate is very well received by the drivers. If you have a hot water bottle, Argentinan’s will love you and will refill their mate a couple of times while driving. So before heading to your hitch-hiking spot pick up something you will like to share with your host…
It will also work both ways, if you offer them cookies they may also share theirs too. We even had an offer of whiskey to help warm us up.
7. and make a sign advertising it !
As we were stranded 70 km away from El Chalten, in the middle of nowhere, and as the 10th car passed us without stopping, we made our sign “we have cookies” a bit more obvious. A family stopped and while driving to the town, the dad turned to us and said “so where are those cookies?”. I guess they didn’t mind stopping and we where delighted to share our Oreos.
You can also write whatever message on that board, be creative and make them laugh !
8. Ask your hostel or a local for advice
They are used to seeing young travellers hitch-hiking from their town/hostel. If they don’t know the best place to hitch-hike they will still be able to guide you and tell you which road leads out of town.
If they still can’t help a great website for the best places to hitch-hike is Hitchwiki*. A wikipedia of the best places to hitch-hike, just search for the town and you will find details.
*We can’t guarantee that all the information is correct, from our experience it has been very useful.
9. Choose a strategic place
Preferably outside of town on the main road going towards your destination. If that road starts in the city centre, walk towards the edge of town and hitch-hike on the way. Look at the map before starting your day and look for a roundabout, traffic lights or speed bumps that force cars to slow down. As the cars have to slow down this is the best opportunity to catch their attention. No cars will stop to pick you up if they are already travelling past at 80 mph. Make sure you don’t choose a dangerous place for the car to pull over like a turn or a hill. Try to find a spot with a hard shoulder and place yourself in the middle.
10. Smile, sing, juggle and play…
Nobody wants to be miserable on the side of a road. However, when hitch-hiking you can get bored as hell, so while waiting do something you like. With Steven, we often sing and make up terrible songs about our experience on this particular road…
Make the most of your time and have fun. It keeps the motivation up and since drivers often pick you up for your company, better to look entertaining.
11. Have a back up plan
Stop by the bus station to know when the last bus leaves to your destination if you really need to get somewhere that day or make sure you know where to return and spend the night if you have to. If you are flexible and decide not to use paid transport, make sure you are not too far from town. Except if you have a tent, avoid hopping in a car that will leave you later that day at a junction. You don’t want to find yourself in the middle of nowhere at night.
12. Know your route
It is always best to know the route you are traveling. Not every driver will be going to your destination and you don’t always have the luxury of refusing a ride. It can be better to take a ride half way to your destination and trying again from there. If you don’t know your route and the smaller towns along the journey it can be harder to accept a ride, even if it is still the correct direction.
13. Wear colourful clothes
Get all your colourful clothes out and brighten up the road. This way, you’ll be seen from far and inspire trust a bit more than if you were wearing dark clothing.
14. Be aware that drivers don’t owe you anything
There is nothing worse than being angry and shouting at cars that don’t stop. If they don’t stop they have their reasons. It can be frustrating and disappointing as the 10th car passes by, but there is no need to be pissed off. Firstly because it’s not really respectful, and secondly if you are annoyed the next driver will definitely feel it and won’t stop either. Keep calm, forget about that empty car that didn’t stop and focus on the next one. If this one doesn’t stop either, it means there is something better to come.
15. Be patient, it can take time
In Patagonia, you can wait 5 min or 5 hours. Be prepared for all the eventualities or weather.
16. Be cautious of risks
Patagonia is a safe place to hitch-hike and many local people use this way of travelling from town to town. However, be aware and if you don’t feel it don’t take it. You have the right to refuse a ride… It’s awkward to say no but, you know what, we have the perfect way of getting away from this situation.
If someone who looks obviously drunk or scares you a bit, play dumb! If you don’t have a sign ask about going the opposite direction… The driver will think you are stupid, but they will let you know you are hitch-hiking on the wrong side of the road and you will get away with it. If you have a sign, well, we don’t really have a tip except taking it on yourself and refuse the ride…
17. Know how long the drive should take
If the ride is supposed to be 2 hours, stop hitch-hiking at least 2 hours before sunset except if you have booked a night somewhere or have a tent. Looking for a hostel at night is never enjoyable. If you don’t mind, be reasonable and remember that in certain places there are no many accommodations and depending on the season, they can quickly fill up.
18. If your knowledge of local language is limited, talk about food!
Try to know the usual greetings and apologise for your limited knowledge of the language. Don’t be scared to make mistakes, that’s how you will progress with learning. During our stay in Patagonia, we tried to ask a couple of questions about the specialties of the region or what was the favourite food of our driver. We were always surprised by how excited they were to share it with us. In Chile and Argentina, food is an important part of the culture and it’s quite easy to understand! Take notes of the dishes they talk about and try to find them on your next stop, you won’t regret it. You will learn about their moms recipes and the neighbours that make Emu Empanadas.
There is no better moment to learn about a culture and the population than hitch-hiking. Enjoy those moments and do not hesitate to share about yourself and your culture. Most people are as interested in your travel and country as you are about theirs.
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