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On the Wheels of Jesus: Hitchhiking the Carretera Austral

Apr 30th, 2006

Stuck on the border
Couldn't buy a ride outta town.
She said, try the padre.
Hell, it's Easter.
The Bunny nowhere in sight..

It was the very special, and very inconvenient Semana Santa -- the week before Catholicism's big dance. South Americans either rush off to vacation, or wall themselves in with family & friends, drinking liters of maté, one sip at a time. After two days encamped on the edge of town, there was nothing left to do. To escape Chile Chico, I could either pray for space on the Tuesday bus or I could start my trip on the Carretera riding with the word of Jesus from town to town.

You see, the Carretera Austral (Southern Highway) in Chile is a special place. The spinal cord of Chilean Patagonia, it winds through smoky purple mountains, hanging glaciers, and volcanos. Rivers running alongside glow turquoise. Unfair turquoise, like Cancun or the South Pacific. People live here, but not nearly enough to make many parts of this 1000km dirt road "populous". In addition to the lack of people, paranoia has all but blown away with the sharp winds, so hitching is a question of space, not serial killers.

Lucky for me, the padre has space in his white Nissan pickup. He smiles quickly when I ask him for a ride. Instant charm, borrowed by politicians and owned by old souls. Speeding along the shore of a deep blue lake at 1pm, I have no idea that the hitch will last until the next day.

The road winds along the superblue Lago General Carrera. The padre insists on stopping to let me snap a picture or two, with no urgency in his trip. The third time, he speeds off ahead and stops at a house. Parishioners he's happy to visit, who also happen to be related (not the last time). I'm introduced as his friend from the United States, and invited into the farmhouse. The whole family is visiting (Semana Santa..), and breaks out into an impromptu jam session of guitar and keyboard. Then, we all eat incredible salmon ceviche and lamb stew. As with every other stop, we pick up a passenger, his cousin, a local guide.

Soon we're on the road again, swinging around this highway chiseled out of a cliff. At about 4pm, we pull into the small town of Mallín Grande. Perhaps 200 people live there. The padre unlocks the padlock on the church door and disappears into a closet. Milling around outside, I whip around as the church bell starts ringing, with a small giddy-up at the end of several long tones. It's a summons for Easter service; 30 people percolate into the small church.

As he starts mass, the padre is grinning -- he breaks out a guitar and starts playing to accompany the a-capella hymnal harmony. I sing too, reading the hymnal and faking the Spanish through the creeds. Nobody else eats of the Jesus, so I donít feel left out for not being Catholic, let alone for being the weird gringo.

Back on the road from Mallin Grande to Puerto Guadal, we have another rider, but she gets off 5 minutes outside of town. Just as the sun sets, we arrive in Guadal, and the padre explains that he'll be doing mass again, and if I want to meet him at 8pm, I can continue on to Puerto Bertrand for the night. Milling around for dinner, I only catch the last 30 minutes, but am incorporated into this larger and much more lively sermon. I'm now from California, which sounds good until you get the tax bill. Several college kids at the service from Santiago are purifying themselves through monkhood for a month or two and introduce themselves.

But soon we are off again, towards Puerto Bertrand. Arriving at 10pm, the town of 250 might as well be comatose. As I'm contemplating which hospedaje to go knock on, I discover that I'm welcome at his cousin's house for the night.

In the morning, it's my favorite moment of the whole hitch. He specifically asks me to come as he drives 5km away from Bertrand. We stop at a small house on the bank of the ultraturquoise Rio Baker. The parishioner he's visiting is asleep, but quickly starts a fire in the wood stove and shaves in the basin outside while chatting with the padre. Both of them sit down inside, with the soft morning light filtering in. They are talking like old friends, handing mate back and forth (herbs + hot water, sucked through a filtering straw, the bombilla.) They hand the mate to me, and the padre starts playing the accordion. Expertly. I'm welcome not because I'm with the padre or from Gringolandia, but because I'm human.

(All Chile)
Treks ahoy!
Wonderful Wild Road
Lucky Name
. .