Escape to the North: Workaway fun and the questionable delights of Rio Grande

My day to leave Ushuaia was well timed, with torrential rain set to stay. Hitching wouldn’t have been much fun, but the sympathy points would have been immense!

I arrived in Tolhuin in the same downpour. My destination was the Posada de Las Ramirez, a family restaurant in the centre. My mission- A new Workaway placement, helping out with the family with a few projects. Turning up was an instant culture shock, having not stayed with any families so far! We sat down to lunch, and my survival Spanish was instantly tested to the nth degree by conversation around the table, all good- Even the constant, but good-natured jibes about the ‘Malvinas’ by Leo’s father… It’s a sore subject here still, and the more time I spend in Patagonia I understand how much of a prat Jeremy Clarkson was for stirring up said sentiments…

Tolhuin is a pleasant small town with a rugged country feel. Tourism is descending in a big way, with loads of new cabaña compounds dotted around, and plenty of restaurants and inevitable tourist tat shops. It gets seriously busy at the weekends with Argentine tourists here. Few of the roads are paved, and if it hasn’t rained for a while it’s a dusty place.

Leo and Eugenia live in a wooden house just on the outskirts of town, along with two crazy dogs Marciano (Huge guard-dog, but a big softie at heart) and Frankie (Insane long-haired sausage dog hybrid). Gas is subsidised heavily here, and as a result their house was constantly baking hot, nice to escape from the distinct chill in the air outside.

La Familia Ramirez (And a few adoptions)

They and their family have an incredible range of projects on the go- As well as the restaurant Leo’s mum runs a tourism agency, the family is in the process of building a huge bar next to the restaurant (Affectionately dubbed the ‘Money Pit’), and Leo and Eugenia both have an active role in the local music and art scene, as well as developing new materials to promote local tourism. Oh, and Eugenia has a thriving business on Facebook making notebooks. Oh, and the graphic design business. Not to mention the video editing. Get the picture?

Their latest project (alongside everything else) is the construction of a campsite and hostel on a beautiful plot 7km out of town, south on the main Ruta 3. Previously a horse ranch, it enjoys incredible views down to Lago Fagnano, and is set in lush woodland. It’s an enormous site with a lot which needs doing to it!

Truckin’- In the back of the pickup going to the site

I was working at the site with Leo, and also a young Venezuelan guy, as well as an older Argentine. First task was to clear the land of rubbish- Easier said than done when you realise how much stuff the previous owners dumped everywhere! A good hard day of work in the sun and fresh air was really welcome after so much time loafing around on the road. 

The site also contained the scattered skeletal remains of many horses requiring clearance- Not what you want your camping guests coming across! Not the most pleasant of tasks but all part of the work. The day was broken up by the delivery of a huge lunch from the restaurant, which helped keep energy levels high!

I was also joined by fellow Workawayers Ben and Ana from France, who were far better prepared on the camping front so actually stayed at the site. I’m not sure who was stalking whom, but over the coming weeks I bumped into them a few times moving North.

Clearing the site with Leo and my fellow Workawayer Ana 

A big job needs a big truck…

Looking down from the site towards the nature reserve and Lago Fagnano.

On Friday night after closing the restaurant we went to the opening of a new bar in town “Me Mayan, limon”. Basically about killing lemons. It’s a reference to a popular song about killing a gangster, I think. No matter how many times people explained it to me I didn’t fully understand. The bar was however festooned in Pablo Escobar memorabilia! It was a late night, given that we didn’t leave the restaurant until 2am and the bar was very much not closed when we eventually left it at 5.30am. A good night- Loads of really friendly locals, not one bit of stick about the Malvinas and another victory for my weirdly fluent Spanish whilst drunk.

I’d managed to hit an extended holiday weekend for my visit, which meant that I actually ended up completing an embarrassingly small amount of work during my stay, despite my best efforts! I did help out painting some stuff around the house and wherever I could. Also, this meant plenty of time to explore the surroundings of beautiful Lago Fagnano.

Shores of Lago Fagnano

But every good thing must come to an end. After 5 days I realised I wasn’t doing much work and also that I was burning time to return north. So, onwards… 

And so, with heavy heart I bid farewell to the extended Ramirez family and headed out onto the main road for the start of, hopefully , a long successful hitch to the Chilean border. After about 5 minutes I was joined by a Czech couple, who politely indicated that they would stand a few metres down the road. Hitching etiquette and all. Within 10 minutes a pickup truck stopped. I can’t possibly comment whether he was stopping for me or the lovely Czech woman, but stop he did, and we all piled in. All the way to Rio Grande. Absolutely ideal.

My first impression of the town related to the wind. Lots, and lots, and LOTS of wind. Howling, freezing wind. The second? Well, the unmentionable about these parts, The Falk… Malvinas conflict. Rio Grande is a big military town, and the number of Malvinas monuments was staggering. Way to make an Englishman feel nervous!

On the cusp of a diplomatic incident

Together with the Czechs, we walked on through the town’s outskirts looking for a good place to hitch. Nowhere was looking particularly promising- There were no lay-bys, nor enough room for 2 cars to pass on the lanes, therefore anyone trying to stop would be instantly accosted by the multitudinous horns of Argentine fury.

We eventually got to the roundabout between the main Ruta 3 and the road into town. This too looked a bit fast for cars to stop so the roundabout had to be worth a go. Er, no luck there either. Since it was by now past 8pm, and freezing in the cold wind, I very rapidly lost interest, bidding them farewell and resolving to check into a hotel in town before trying again tomorrow.

Wandering into town, the first modest Hostal was far, far too much for my new budget. So, time for Plan B. Couchsurfing! It’s rarely successful at such short notice however I sent out a message to Nancy, and in the meantime trudged down to the main petrol station to ask around for a lift. Sadly this was unsuccessful, with some spectacularly unfriendly French tourists being the lowlight of the experience. 

As luck would have it, Nancy replied very quickly in the affirmative, so a windy schlep a couple of miles back from where I’d come from it was. She was lovely, however the rate of speech she managed virtually without breath was quite incredible. Another test for my Spanish, I think I was down to understanding about 1 in 10 of the words spoken such was their fluidity but we got on fine nevertheless.

This brings me onto another travel lesson: Never fully believe travel advice. “Yeah, it’s fine, hitching in the South is mega easy, loads of cars will be going to the border…” I’ll give that one a big fat NOPE. Having left Nancy’s at 8am in the morning, I headed straight back to the petrol station to ask around, since the main road didn’t seem feasible again. Zip, Nada, Nowt. It being a holiday weekend none of the tempting trucks outside were moving for the next day, and every motorist I spoke to (Well, the ones who weren’t obviously fobbing me off) was going South. Arse.

I admitted defeat around 4pm and texted Nancy. Ever the diamond, she had two OTHER Couchsurfers in but would make it work. Ideal. And so it came to pass that I ended up eating her homemade Sushi around the table with the other guests whilst watching incredibly good magic performed by her charming son (Who also spoke perfect English, and confirmed to me that yes, his mum doesn’t understand the whole ‘speaking slowly to foreigners’ thing)

The next morning I was determined not to piss around any more with hitchhiking, so left Nancy’s at 7am to the bus station, for the 8am Punta Arenas service. I was surprised that it came to a hefty £25 for the ticket, but this seemed to have been partially explained  when the bus turned up in full off-road regalia and a riot shield. I hadn’t realised it was a dirt road!

As we passed the turning for Nancy’s off the main road, I saw the two Argentines waiting for a lift still. Might well have been a long day…

Border formalities passed, we pressed on into Chilean territory and caught the ferry across the Magellan Strait. Here I found out why my hitching had been so unsuccessful- They revealed that the ferry had been cancelled yesterday due to high winds (A common occurrence apparently) so I wouldn’t have been able to get to PA in any case!

We rolled into Punta Arenas 9 hours after leaving Rio Grande- I’d completely underestimated the distance but with this revelation the bus journey actually ended up being a relatively cheap one, distance and road considered…

BRING ON THE PENGUINS.

 

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