The Gringo Trail of South America is, as far as backpacking routes go, fairly well defined. Many of the travelers follow a strikingly similar path, the differentiating factor being whether one goes through Brazil or not. For those in the No Brazil camp, the Map section of this very blog shows an accurate approximation of the most popular route. Start in Bogota, zigzag your way north to that beautiful coast, meander southwest until you hit the Pacific, become a beach bum until you’re forced inland by the draw of Machu Picchu, enjoy the slow traveling that the cheapness of Bolivia allows, then head due south into the wonder of Argentina, ending up Buenos Aires, wondering where the time went. Or do a similar route, only in reverse.
There are variations, to be sure, as there will always be when the planning of something is in the hands of such an erratic group as backpackers. For instance, some people trade the mountains of Patagonia for the diving offered by the Galapagos, others aren’t so intent on staying near the coast and take trips east into the Amazon from northern Peru or Ecuador.
But the general adherence you find to this route means a lot of people are either starting or ending trips in Bogota or Buenos Aires. They are the two natural, international-airport-equipped starting and ending points for the long-term South American backpackers. And as every backpacker knows, the start and end of a long trip are two vastly different things.
At the beginning of a trip you’re full of bundled energy. Everything feels strange and vividly colorful and new. You’re excited, fascinated by the people you’re meeting, fueled by nerves and exotic alcohol that seems impossibly cheap. It’s like you’re finally being allowed off the sidelines into a game you’ve always wanted to play. People with strange accents are giving you rapid-fire tips and, while you realize you’ll hardly remember any of this advice, you agree that all the things these incredibly alluring people are describing do sound “fucking awesome”.
When you’re one of those bright-eyed, almost manic, backpackers right at the start of an adventure to come across someone at the very end of their own long trip feels strange and disconcerting. Especially for the aimless, figuring-out-life vagabonds, its like looking into a future you’re not ready for.
“You’re going home? Tomorrow morning? Holy shit man. After 10 months? Back to real life? What are you gonna do? Are you gonna like get a job?”
You try not to be too obvious in your pity of this dead man walking, too overly giddy that you’re not in their position.
“Well alright man, have a safe flight.”
You leave the dorm and feel like you can finally breath again, now that you’ve got some distance from the dude with Going Home Disease. You go join the other newcomers.
“Did you guys meet that Canadian guy in the dorms? He’s going home tomorrow. After 10 months. Whew.”
A pause, a moment of silence for the fallen comrade.
“Alright! Did you guys hear about this place Palamino?? With the rafting and the crazy bar?!? The Kiwis told me about it. Sounds fucking awesome!”
It feels like you’re never going home.
And then there’s a blur. You’re a few thousand miles north or south or east or west. You’re tan, in a faded t-shirt and beat-up flip-flops. You’ve got about a hundred new Facebook friends, some of whom you have no recollection of ever meeting, others of whom you’ll never forget. You know places, the places you’ve just been, intimately well. You know where all the best things are, the cheapest things, the crazy local characters, the unique road discoveries. You’re telling people about them, the people that just got off a plane from their home countries. You know you’re speaking too quickly and randomly, that you’re overloading these new backpackers with too much information, but the telling gives you a chance to relive the times you spent in those little towns and you can’t help yourself. Your trip is almost over.
You’ve become one of those people, the elder statesman of the dorm room with only a few days left. You’re savoring things, and highly conscious of “lasts” now – the last meal you’ll have from a favorite street vendor, the last wild night out, the last hour spent with friends from across the world. The new people you meet now view you with that kind of fearful pity. But, at least in my experience, you realize their compassion might be undeserved.
Everyone starts a trip for the same basic reason – a desire to discover things. For all the diversity you find in the hostel bar, there is a shared current of curiosity running through the travelers. They launch out into the world hungry for newness and in this way, in only this way, they are all the same.
Yet just as there’s a communal motivation to start a trip, trips end for reasons totally unique to each traveler. There is no uniform emotion felt by all those with booked flights home. Some people act like they’re escaped convicts being dragged back to prison. Others can’t wait to get off the road, to stop lugging all their stuff around, to sleep alone in a room. Backpackers get worn down or burned out or go broke or get hurt. They have family obligations or jobs starting or classes to attend.
When you’re new to the road and crossing paths with someone on their way home you assume they must be your emotional opposite, the negative trip-ending bitterness ying to your positive trip-starting excitement yang. But, in reaching the end, you happily realize that’s not the case. As hard as it is to imagine at the beginning, you may look out onto one more spectacular view, side by side with your fellow wanderers, and, instead of dreaming of The Next Place, you might think about going home. And be as content with that thought as you were in any moment of the whole adventure.
At least that’s how it was for me. It was time. My camera was full of photos, my bag weighed down with the things I’d collected. I’d gone farther and longer than I ever thought I would, spent months in entire countries I had never planned to visit. I’d done the trip on my own terms and at my own pace. If I liked a place I stayed. If I didn’t, I moved on. I saw some things hardly anyone gets to see and I met some people I’ll always remember. I passed the time in some of the most beautiful places on Earth with an international crew of traveling all-stars. But I missed home. I was ready.
The last people I met were a pair of Australian brothers. Fresh off the plane, flush with money from long stints as ranch hands, they were like bulls just out of the gate. These two were high on anticipation, on the possibility of things, and I couldn’t blame them. They were headed north. I knew what awaited them and it was all wonderful.
We went out and went wild in Buenos Aires. I woke up hung-over but content. I packed my bag for the last time, paid my final tab, and then ran into one of the brothers on my way out the door.
“I’m out. Good times man.”
“Yea. You headed north or south?”
“Neither, I’m going home.”
“Oh shit mate…sorry.”
“Nah, it’s alright.”
“Yea. Yea, it is.”
“Alright then. Safe travels.”
“You too. Enjoy it man. You got a good trip ahead of you.”
We shook hands and I suddenly realized that we pitied each other. He pitied me for leaving this, this fantastical exotic wonderland that he’d just discovered, for home, which in his mind at the time still equated to a dull grey wasteland of repetitive experience. And I pitied him, for being blinded to what home really was and is, for believing that there is only value in novelty, for requiring so much distance in order to appreciate things.
But he’ll learn. Wandering, like he’s doing and I’ve done, can’t help but change a person. A few months from now he’ll be in the north somewhere, suddenly realizing that it’s time to go home, and being unexpectedly pleased with that idea.
And I’ll be at home, desperate for the start of a new adventure, longing to be back out on the road.
The first step on the long way home.
I've always wanted to be a "regular" at a bar. I'd walk in to nods from the staff and other regulars, order "the usual", get hassled by a gruff but lovable bartender about my ever-increasing tab, all that stuff. In making plans, friends and I wouldn't need any clarification about where we’d meet, just "The Bar." If someone I didn't know was looking for me, people would say things like “Check The Bar. He practically lives in that place!”, like in the movies. I’d have a regular bar stool that out-of-towners would sometimes accidentally sit on, only to get drunkenly berated when I found my seat occupied. It’d be the whole Cheers-home away from home-situation and it would be glorious.
The problem, of course, is finding a place worthy of such a commitment. For a place to become The Bar you need, among other things: a menu diverse enough not to get bored but inexpensive enough not to break the bank, drinks that veer towards the cheap but a few dusty bottles of quality booze for special occasions, an in-for-the-long-run staff that you can develop that classic “lovable bar fly” rapport with, and a reputation that makes it accessible but not too accessible to the public. But, while important, all of that is actually secondary to a characteristic far more difficult to capture. The Bar needs to have the right vibe, that homey feeling that personally suits a person so well that it makes sense for them to spend large amount of time there. And that’s obviously different for everyone. For some, that’s a dingy dive bar to commiserate with like-minded souls about an ill-fated sports team. For others, that’s a classy upscale place where you can loosen your tie and order martinis. For me, it’s something like this:
Look at this place!!! Comfortable, warm, a nice open layout. An eclectic-cluttered design with books everywhere. A place to sit and have in-depth discussions and fiery important arguments but also a place to have too many drinks and give long-winded toasts and celebrate things!!
Honestly, the only thing I can think of wrong with this bar is the fact that its 6,206 miles away from Baltimore.
Yes, forgive the pun, but Borges y Álvarez in El Calafate has raised The Bar. This is the leading contender, the standard by which all future potential The Bar candidates will be judged. I will continue my search, wandering into bars around the world, looking for an open seat to call my own. But if in that long global exploration I find nothing as good as this? Well, then you'll know where to find me. I'll be arguing about my tab in Spanish with the bartender at Borges y Álvarez.
On the final day of the W, I woke up at 3 AM, left the (relative) warmth of my sleeping bag, and ventured out into the cold black night. If you start hiking early enough, you can reach the Torres del Paine (the rock formations for which the park is named) by sunrise. Not only was the Torres sunrise supposed to be the highlight of the whole W experience, it was also the final test. After the sunrise hike, it was literally all downhill from there. I started up the mountain.
Hiking uphill in the pitch-black darkness is a bleak activity mostly because you can only see two things: the ground directly in front of you and other people's lights. The path up to the Torres is long and winding, with a series of very steep intersecting inclines. This makes the lights of the hikers ahead of you seem impossibly far away. I actually assumed for most of the first two hours that the lights I was seeing were from people doing some other sunrise hike. Lights coming from that high up and far off couldn't possibly coming from people headed to the same final destination I was. It was only when I reached the base of the final incline did I realize that everyone - all the lights - were headed to the Torres and that there was still a long, steep, way to go.
Finally reaching the lookout, I was initially underwhelmed. You basically walk into a bowl of massive boulders and all you can see are hikers braced against the cold. The Torres (literally "towers") are little more than black rocks jutting into a black sky. I wedged myself between two bolders and wondered what all the fuss was about.
As the sun slowly starts illuminate the canyon, you can see the little grouping of fellow hikers - the Japanese, the Israelis, the Kiwis, the Germans - all staring expectantly up at the Torres. You're still not entirely sure why everyone raved about this experience.
And then finally, the light comes over the ridge.
The Torres go from a beige-orange to a rich neon red and then, just for a moment, they seem to almost glow like heated metal.
It's an incredible effect that doesn't translate well to photography. Everyone sits watching the colors change before their eyes and, almost as quickly as it began, its over. The rocks that were so recently cartoon-crazy hues turn back to their natural shades of grey and tan. And everyone, thankful to have seen it, hikes back down the mountain.
The Torres is a living, breathing postcard. The amount of stunning landscapes you can record is only a function of how many memory cards you're carrying. There are no bad viewpoints.
Throughout the trek, multiple times a day, I found the same general scene repeated: reaching the top of a hill, or the edge of a cliff, or the start of a valley, I'd find another hiker frozen in reflection, quietly resting, pausing to take in the view. If any words were exchanged, they'd only be a minimalist acknowledgement of the beauty we were seeing.
(After a while.)
"Yea, see ya."
(One of us moves on.)