200 Miles by Thumb

The smile that Inferno Canyon had plastered on my face didn’t even have time to fade before I was frantically organizing my gear and trying to get out of town. It was Monday afternoon in Futaleufú and my flight out of Coyhaique, 200 miles away, was at 8:00am Wednesday morning. This wouldn’t be too much of a stretch if it weren’t for the fact that I had missed the only scheduled bus out of Futa and I had no car of my own (both cars we had rented during the journey were with Eva and Justin or back in Coyhaique by now). That left hitchhiking along rural, lightly-traveled dirt roads as the only viable option; a task greatly complicated by my continued ignorance of Spanish.

Within an hour of leaving the river I was standing on the outskirts of town with my thumb extended. Actually “thumb extended” is a bit of an exaggeration since the lack of passing cars left me, for the most part, sitting in the dirt contemplating the odds of getting to Coyhaique in time. The goal for Monday was to make it to La Junta which was roughly 1/3 of the way to Coyhaique. I figured this would leave all of Tuesday to complete the final 2/3. See link below for a map of the route.


The 200 mile trip South


The first – and what would prove to be the most difficult – hurdle that lay in my path was the 70km road from Futaleufú to the junction with Route 7/Carretera Austral. I learned that this road sees very little traffic during the day and essentially none at night. After sitting in the dirt for about 30 minutes, I caught my first hitch in the back of a logging truck along with another local. I can’t say that the ride was comfortable since there seemed to be no suspension to speak of and we were forced to sit on damp wood scraps; but the views were nice.


The view as I waved goodbye to Futaleufú from the back of small logging truck.


My companion for the first 10km of a long journey. Conversation was lacking but at least there was a friendly ambiance.

The logging truck only took me 10 of the 70km I needed; a meager start. The sun was warm and I indulged in the mountainous landscape as I waited for my next hitch. However, after waiting more than an hour, I started to worry about the prospects of getting to Carretera Austral by night. If I didn’t make it to the junction by Tuesday morning, I didn’t see any possibility of getting to Coyhaique by Wednesday morning. Finally, mercifully I grabbed a ride with a family heading home. In quick succession I also caught one with some road workers who were finishing up for the day. Unfortunately these only got me another 15km-20km down the road; no one was driving all the way to the junction at that time of day.


The backdrop of my second hitching spot

With somewhere around 45km left between me and the critical junction with Route 7, I decided that there was no point just sitting and waiting for a ride; I may as well start hiking down the road. I figured that every small farm I passed was another opportunity for someone to be driving into Santa Lucia (the town at the junction of Route 7). It was also better for my mood to keep moving. Within an hour the sun had dipped behind the mountains and it started to cool. Donning an extra layer, I kept on the move.

My next ride was with three young men who seemed to have just finished work. This ride was a bit less comfortable as they seemed to find something about me very amusing; something that couldn’t be conveyed through their broken English or my broken Spanish. Even more unsettling was the fact that, after 10km of driving, they turned around and headed back to spot we started. Worried that I was going to get dropped off where I started (and the paranoid corner of my brain worrying that it was something worse), I tried to explain that they could just let me out anywhere. They insisted that I stay and when we arrived back at the start it appeared that they were just looking for something that may have fallen out of the car when they stopped to pick me up. We then continued down the road without incidence, showing my fears to be unfounded.


Tres Monjas (Three Nuns) with the Rio Azul in the foreground


Tres Monjas during my hike toward Carretera Austral

The three men dropped me off about 25-30km from the Carretera Austral junction. With dusk coming on quickly and very little hope of another ride that night I decided that I had no choice but to hike the final leg to the junction. It was vital that I arrive there by morning and I was determined that, if I kept a strong pace with few or no stops, I could make it there by sun up.


Video: The author trying to get out of the Futa valley

Around 10pm, after a few hours of hiking and no cars passing, I was fortunate enough to get picked up by the only passing car. It was an older couple who seemed to be on their home from a weekend trip. Initially they passed right by me – probably uncomfortable with the idea of stopping for a stranger on a rural, dirt road in the middle of the night – but they must have recognized how long I would have to walk and took pity. If it weren’t for that couple I would have given myself about a 10% chance of catching my flight.

We made it into Santa Lucia before 11pm and they dropped me off at the Route 7 junction. I futilely tried to catch a ride further south to La Junta, but after not seeing a single pair of headlights in 30 minutes, I gave up and resigned myself to try again in the morning. Luckily there happened to be one hostel – a quite beautiful one at that – in town that was still open. I got a few hours of needed sleep in a warm bed.

Waking at 5 am I was out on the road with 10 minutes. The sun was still an hour from rising but the locals were stirring. I learned that the major income for the village must be from road work. The Carretera Austral is undergoing a mass paving (likely to ease access to Patagonia’s rich natural resources; a discussion for another time) and there seemed to be an unending demand for manual labor. Buses full of workers were departing from town, but none were willing to pick up a hitchhiker.

Before the sun rose, my luck had changed. I was picked up by a man driving a bus. I’m still unsure if he was an official bus driver for the region or just a man who happened to own a bus. The man didn’t ask for a fare until I asked if I was supposed to pay (which involved me pointing at myself and then at him and saying “dinero?”). He thought for a second and then came up with the amount of $4.

I spent the majority of the day with him as he took me all the way to the point where Route 7 is continually paved. We parted ways around 3pm and within 15 minutes I had already caught my next ride. A father and son who had just finished hunting rabbits drove me to within 20km of Coyhaique; within the daily bus routes of the region.

Before sun down I was booked in a hostel, enjoying a Completo and beer, and appreciating the Chilean hospitality that made my poorly planned, 200 mile journey possible. My flight home the next day was uneventful save for the severe sleep deprivation caused by traveling for 36 hours.