Tuesday, September 27, 2011

lonely planet does not recommend hitchhiking

There are lots of things that lonely planet recommends. I, like many other thousands of travelers, have always considered my lonely planet the best source of information. Almost with a sense of patriotism, proudly stating my route is inspired by the flawless word of a lonely planet. The last few days have shown me that my lonely planet is sadly, not flawless. Sure, there are wise words of advice, good thought starters there, safe routes to follow. But I have also learned not to trust it blindly, that the information printed on it´s pages may in fact be outdated, misquoted or irrelevant. It´s fine, I won´t die with this discovery. True, it´s almost as traumatic as telling a small child that Santa isn´t real, "I´m sorry silly traveler, Lonely Planet was written by humans, and there will come a time that you will find its suggestions will not help you. In fact, you may find yourself in the middle of some dry, desolate desert, sratching your head, wondering why and how you got there." This has been my reality. Although not broken, I still find myself searching the pages of my lonely planet as if the horror of what I´ve discovered can´t be true. But if I just believe...Santa? Could that be you?

So where has my guidebook failed me? At first it was in smaller ways, in ways that were easy to overlook: the cost of things. I made excuses for it at first, the exchange rate, maybe it was just that one museum, that one bus ride, that one hostel....but it has shown me time and time again that whoever it was that determined these prices, clearly has not been to Chile in a while. I mean, it´s  not a difference of hundereds of dollars a day, but when you expect to pay a certain price then find its $5 here, $2 there, $10 here, it starts to hurt, like a lot. At first I took it, thinking it must be the "gringo tax" but after a while you start to realize that it isn´t a gringo tax, it´s just that things just cost more than when lonely planet was last here..even if the copyright date says its not that old.

Fail number 2, I´m still a little sad about it. The town/city of Arica chile, is a desert beach town. It´s the northern-most city in Chile. It´s a port town. It´s a surfers haunt. It´s got the haphazard laziness of any beach town that´s grown bigger than expected. It serves as a major hub for two main highways, one running north and south and the other running east and west. The main city center is walkable, there are a couple beaches within an easy walk. All the others require a bus or a taxi or a....bike! Lonely planet recommended that I rent a bike and ride down to a beach about 7 miles away from the city center, not to swim, but to explore some caves and see some sea critters. I was all about it, even went to the place that they recommended renting a bike only to find that it didn´t exist. No one had any recollection of there ever being a bike rental place there. Huh, well that´s a bummer. So I started asking around, is there anywhere to rent a bike in this town?

I´ve come to learn that Chilean people are very nice, very friendly, very willing to help you in any way they can...they will not however, admit that they don´t know something. I asked a lot of people if they new where I could rent a bike. I got a lot of people telling me yeah, go down to such and such a block and turn such and such a direction and it will be right there. I tell you now, BULLSHIT. I spent three hours looking for such and such a bike shop with no pedals under my feet at the end of it. I admitted defeat, it was getting dark anyway.

The next day I went to a museum recommended by lonely planet. This was one of those golden recommendations that restored my faith in the book. Great stuff, lots of history about the region and some of the oldest known mummies in the world are preserved there. I happened start my tour of the museum at about the same time as a group of 4th graders....excellent. I tagged along behind their group, listening to the guide explain the significance of the displays, in a level of language I could understand. Maybe if I hung out with kids all the time my spanish would improve. I can understand their vocabulary. Anyway, the museum was good, but didn´t take as long as I expected. So I found myself back in Arica, determined to get a bike.

This time I thought I would outsmart the system. I would go directly to the tourist information office. They told me 4 places to go. So I took off, with map in had, smiling at my victory. On the way, I figured I´d drop by a travel agency to ask them about something I planned to do the next day. I wanted to take a bus to a small town called Putre and use it as a jumping off point for what was supposed to be a stunning national park with mountains and lakes and general gorgeousness (both the town and the park were highly recommended in the LP). They told me what I needed to know, and offered to call the places the tourist office gave me as bike rental places. One number was disconnected, one went to something that was closed, and the third answered and they said they had bikes to rent. Now I had a plan for the bus the next day and was on my way to get a bike. I was almost skipping through the streets with my joy.

The bike rental place was actually a hotel. I walked in to the lobby, and saw them there. Shiny mountain bikes that looked like they were well maintened. Mountain bikes are necessary, not because it´s hilly, but because the roads have potholes big enough to lose a child in and paving seems to be done in a patchwork fashion. There was a woman at behind a small counter. She looked to be the only person who worked for the hotel, so I walked up to her and began to explain in spainsh: "Hi, I was just at the travel agency, they just called, and you said you had bikes to rent. I would like to rent one for the afternoon." 3...2...1..."We can only rent our bikes to people that are guests of our hotel." Dreams crushed!! My jaw dropped. This can´t be happening. I explained to her my toil, and how many hours I had spent looking for a bike to rent. Wasn´t there anything she could do? I could leave a credit card? Like a stone-cold heartless statue, she just looked at me blankly. "No," she said, "there was nothing she could do." So, in my defiance, I walked to the beach. I didn´t make it the 7 miles to see the caves, at that point I didn´t care anymore. There were closer beaches that I could easily walk to, so that was exactly what I did. And whenever a local on a bike would pass me, I´d have a sinking feeling of jealously. Yeah, the walk is nice....but it´d be better if I were on a bike.

The third and most significant blow to my faith in Lonely Planet was when I got to that tiny mountain town called Putre. There is only one bus per day going from Arica to Putre. It leaves at 7am, when it´s still dark, from a quesionable part of town. I didn´t care, I was super excited to get to Putre so I could get to Lauca. I didn´t have a reservation at a hostel in Putre. I knew where I wanted to stay, but when I tried to call the connection was bad. I could hear the gentleman, but he could not hear me. I figured that I would be fine, and I´d chance it. I had learned that this time of year was the off season for this region. The hostel that I was staying at in Arica was mostly empty, and they told me that this was part of the challenge I faced trying to get a bike. It was the off season...so with that information, I assumed that I would be space at this particular hostel.

I was wrong.

I ended up walking about 2 miles back to town. This was no easy feat, the elevation of said town is above 11,000ft and I was carrying everything I owned on my back. But what do you do? I didn't have a reservation, the guy who owned the place felt bad, but he had no space to offer me. Bizzare I thought, for such an empty town, that his hostel should be full. He recommended I try another place, so that's what I did. They had A room. You'd think this town would be hopping with all its hotel rooms booked up...but you'd be wrong. They were full, not of tourists, but of workers. There was road work being done on the highway. Lest I remind you, it's the off season. No harm no foul, I had a place to sleep. It was clean. It was mostly quiet. It was fairly cheap. I'm not complaining.  Now it was time to secure my way to the park that my infamous lonely planet recommended with such vigor. The LP as I will now call it, said this town had all kinds of travel agencies offering trips and tours to the park. Maybe they do...I only found 2. Neither of them were willing to take me there. Was it just me, they would ask. Yes, I would tell them. Then this look would come across their face, wait for it....yeah, no, we can't take just one person. If you were part of a group, maybe 3 or 4 people, but not just one person. This is not the high tourist season. There are no buses or any other way to get there, you have to go with a tour, but we won't take just one person.

You have got to be kidding me. I feel this is important information that should have been printed in the LP. But instead it tells me that any time of year is a good time to come, clearly they never came here in the off season. LP, you fail. But I am not one to give up so easily. And if I find another person? Will you take me then? Sure. I walked around for a bit, went for an easy hike around the town, and stopped by a few other hostels to see if any other travelers were around. No luck, all I found were construction workers, who would have loved to go. Gross. By then it was getting dark so I headed back to the town center. If I don't find anybody else, I thought to myself, I'll just go back to Arica since there is nothing for me to do here. Just as I had made this decision I heard the stumbling conversation of 2 people speaking English, when neither of them really spoke English. Excellent....here is my chance.

There was a frenchman there. He was stuck in the same predicament I was in. We both wanted desperately to get to that damn park. He had it even tougher than I did though, because he did not speak any spanish. I volunteered my services to help him get his point across, to translate what the travel agent guy said and to ask if they would take just the two of us. That they said they would do...but it would cost us. It would still be better if we had 3 or 4 people. I told him that we had to think about it, but that we would be back. We decided to go for a hike around Putre the next day and come back in the afternoon to see if any newbies showed up. It was a really nice hike, about 16kilometers. We took our time, walked slowly, stopped to have lunch. It was amazing to me how much this place looked like Arizona, except that perfect snowcapped mountain in the distance and the occasional llama.

We got back to town in the early afternoon, and thought to reconvene later to see about the tour. While I was buying food from the only open bodega in the whole town (because all the others were closed for the offseason) this guy started talking to me. I just looked at him blankly. I couldn't get the sounds coming out of his mouth to relate to his features. He looked like he could be american or german maybe. But the language...is that spanish? It's so fast, it sounds like spanish, but I can only recognize a few words, the rest...it's just crazy sounds. All I could do was look at him and with a very confused look go, huh? I think he was just as confused as I was, because he heard me speaking to the lady who ran the store in spanish. He was dressed like a tourist, the uniform of a backpacker. Dirty quick-dry convertable mountaineering pants, hiking shoes, a fleece jacket - pick your brand, north face, quecha, mammut, sunburned face.  My confused face didn't stop him, he kept talking at me. Finally I got the point, you've got food, I've got food, you want to sit out in the plaza and eat it? Why not, there was nothing else to do.

Eventually I got the story. He was Chilean, from Santiago. Him and his brother were there after finishing up a mountaineering expedition of sorts from the next town, Parinacota. They were both architects in Santiago and took a week vacation to come up north for the mountains. They were leaving the next day to go back to Arica and then fly home. Shoot...they can't go to the park. I told him the challenge I was facing. He had a couple of suggestions. They all seemed like good ideas, but in the end, none of them worked out. Eventually the frenchman found us in the plaza, and a few minutes later the chilean's brother showed up. We all sat there on a bench in the plaza and watched nobody walk by. I suppose it's like when old people sit on their front porch and watch the sky, because, there is nothing else to watch. We were waiting for the restaurants to open...several were closed for the offseason, but there was one we knew would open. Eventually it did, so we went in, we were the only people there...and it mostly stayed that way with the exception of construction workers.

The frenchman ordered a bottle a wine to share with his new friends - you know, because he's french and that's what they do. :) I wasn't really that hungry, so I ordered a tea while the 3 of them devoured their steaks and quinoa, glasses of wine and a couple beers. It was fun, we exchanged stories, made fun of one another, touched on topics you aren't supposed to touch on, but it was all in honest curiosity and friendliness. We all had our plan for the next day. The frenchman was going to try to hitchhike to Parinocota. The two chilean brothers were going to hitchhike back to Arica. And I...I kept seeing that line in my guide book. LONELY PLANET DOES NOT RECOMMEND HITCHHIKING. Well, perhaps Lonely Planet should have done more research. There were no buses to the park, and only 1 a day leaving late in the afternoon to get back to Arica. The brothers had to get back earlier than that because they had a flight to catch. With all that information, what was I to do?

I was hitchhiking back to a town called Poconchile, about 40 km east of Arica. The brothers offered that we all hitch together. It would be safer than me going alone. I very willingly accepted. I wasn't too excited about hitchhiking in the first place, but really not happy to do it alone. The next morning we all met up together outside the hostel. We said goodbye to the frenchmen and the three of us took off toward the highway. The town of Putre is about 6 miles away from the highway, down a steady hill. I was not thrilled about the idea of walking up that with 21kilos on my back. We got maybe 3/4 of a mile before we started thinking, maybe we should try and hitch this road too. One of the brothers put out his thumb and soon after a construction worker pulled over. Sweet! We unloaded our pack and hopped in the truck. During the ride, I kept thinking how glad I was that we didn't have to walk it. He dropped us off on the turn off to the main highway, we said out thanks and walked a little down the road. There were two women waiting there. They had been waiting there 2 hours already. No buses they said, and hardly any trucks either, mostly just workers they told us. About 2.5 hours passed after we got there, before a semi stopped to pick them up. And now it was our turn to wait. We  got lucky, only another half an hour went by before the next truck. He stopped for us too.

I made it safely to Poconchile. I had to walk about 4 miles down a desert highway from where I was dropped off by the semi to get to the town, but I got there. So thank you LP for your recommendations, but sometimes, I have to do exactly the opposite of what you recommend. Sometimes, hitchhiking is the only way to keep going.

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