As the cowboy stood up from the table and took a last swig of coffee, he folded his newspaper and casually walked down the steps of the saloon to the side of his stead. Annoyed at the slow pace of his partner, he hopped on the beast and road down the street, trying to raise the ire of his fellow traveler. Dressed head to toe in riding gear and packed for weeks of riding, he looked ready to battle the rough, windswept countryside for months to come. Eventually, his partner finished his own coffee, and joined the cowboy as they rode off into the desert.
I sat watching this scene, not in Doc Brown’s DeLorean transported to the 19th century American West, but in the similarly sparse Patagonian town of El Calafate, Argentina. Though the travelers in question wore body suits of leather for their modified dirt bikes; with a few changes they could have been taken for Wyatt Earp or John Wayne. And just like the wagon trains of yore, travelers today follow the “Patagonian Circuit” like a family of homesteaders setting out for Oregon. Constantly as I traveled through the greatest hits of Patagonia, I found myself loathing my fellow circuiters, but in awe of these cut-off outposts.
Briefly, the Patagonian circuit involves traveling through the following towns in Argentina and Chile: Ushuaia, Punta Arenas, Pureto Natales, El Calafate, and El Chalten. Travelers start at both ends, but most invariably travel to all of them in order. As a result, the towns are largely miniature tourist rest stops, catering to the travelers who come to visit the nearby natural attractions like Torres del Paine National Park or Mount Fitzroy. The towns feel less like authentic communities and more like a stopover on the pony express.
El Calafate, for instance, has a population of around 20,000. To get to the town, you have to take a bus for 10 hours, and almost the entire route is through the bleak Patagonian steppe. Traveling from Puerto Natales, the bus navigates small two lane roads and is only interrupted by the occasion sheep or cow and scattered shrubs. Every few hundred kilometers, a small “estancia” or ranch appears, but the landscape largely retains its natural look. Finally after traveling all day, the town comes into view like an oasis in the desert. It sits beside an enormous lake, but lacks any native vegetation because of the dry landscape. Houses on the outskirts have dirt or stones for yards, while the mainstreet sits flanked by barren hills rising into the distance. All of the town’s commercial options exist for tourists, with restaurants, bars, and even a casino dominating mainstreet.
While the towns look like glorified rest stops, the weary travelers trudging along their streets similarly fit the landscape. Since the transportation options are infrequent and lengthy, most of the backpackers have just arrived on a long-distance bus, most likely after completing an epic trip. Like a cowboy arriving in Silverado, these backpackers look ready for a drink and a distraction. Even the waitresses and hotel workers in the towns appear wearied by their distance from society – moving a step slower than their urban counterparts and embodying the isolation of the town.
El Chalten’s lack of internet proves the point. Since the less than 1000 residents live hundreds of kilometers from the nearest settlement, no company has taken the time to install a fiberoptic cable. Instead, hostels have to buy satellite internet at the cost of tens of thousands of dollars per year. While Doc Hollywood would have scoffed at the idea that such an inconvenience counts as a “disconnect,” in today’s ever connected world where hostels and buses are booked online, the slowness really impacted logistics.
After a month of traveling on the circuit, I was more than ready to end my time in Argentine Patagonia. Whereas the Pacific’s moisture gets dumped on the Chilean side, the lack of vegetation and wildlife in Argentina proved disconcerting. Finally, I arrived in El Bolson where I was transported from the 19th century west to San Francisco in the 1970s. Walking through the local crafts market with goods like dream-catchers and incense burners for sale, I didn’t see any cowboys looking to cause trouble. And as I made my way to the campsite, only Argentines flooded the streets – enjoying their Easter holiday. Like a 49er headed for California, I loved the experience of traveling through Patagonia, but I was ready to move on to a warmer, wetter climate with the trappings of normal life, not just tourist kiosks.