"The most important thing to remember is you must go with a driver and a guide. The roads are terrible, and each hotel is isolated. There will be no place to stay if you cannot reach the next hotel. There are no gas stations between hotels, so you must carry extra gas," the South American travel agent insisted.
"What about just a driver? Do we need a guide, also?" I wondered out loud.
"Yes, of course, you need a guide. The drivers don't speak English. The guide is your interpreter. Plus, the places to hike are not easy to find, and you need so much information," she insisted.
"Okay. Don't worry; We'll use both the guide and driver." They convinced me that driving by ourselves would be foolish and life-threatening. I was sold on the safer plan.
This was the third time the travel agent and I had gathered around our computer screens to plan the trip. Our itinerary was to fly to Santiago and spend a week with our friends from Chile. From there, we would fly to San Pedro de Atacama and hike through the highest desert in the world. Five days later, we departed for a three-week road trip through Patagonia. The dirt roads crossed between Chile and Argentina and back. The political scene in Argentina was dicey, so our Chilean friends could not join us. Still, the border crossing was fine for Americans, so they said. We would drop off the rental car in Punta Arenas and continue onto Antarctica. Antarctica is another story in my journey to visit all seven continents.
On this call, I was anxious to discuss the over-ambitious agenda the travel guide had proposed.
"I don't want to visit so many sites. I like to spend my time in the afternoon relaxing. I also want to spend 3 nights in each hotel," I explained.
"No, we cannot cut out any of these stops. You will want to see Los Glaciares National Park, the Valle de Los Cáctus, and the petroglyphs in Piedra de la Coca."
"What happened to camping to view the sunrise? I got 2 knee replacements so I could make the 4-hour hike up."
"No, we cannot do that."
The inflexibility of the agent was frustrating. The agenda was set, 3-4 hours of driving between luxurious 5-star hotels with 3-day stays in most locations, but not all. The agent spent the next hour explaining why we were going where she said we would go.
That night Geoff received a package from Amazon, The Lonely Planet Guide to Patagonia.
"Hey Honey, look! The trip the travel agent planned is the same as in this book. I thought it was uniquely designed for us. Wait, here are the hotels we are staying in. And there's driving instruction. We don't need a driver. We can drive there ourselves."
A few minutes later, he tells me, "We can rent a truck one way from Rio Tranquilo to Punta Arenas. I got us a manual, four-wheel drive Chevy. They do not allow extra gas cans, but this truck was specifically designed for Patagonia. We can go 400 miles without refueling."
Here is why I agreed to go against professional advice and drive a four-wheel drive pickup on dirt roads in one of the most remote areas in the world. On Geoff's list of things he'd like to do before he dies was drive from the southern tip of South America to the United States. Since we'd only be going a third of that distance, I agreed. Besides, I am a travel writer and needed a good story.
If you are shaky regarding geography, here is a brief description of the South American continent. It can be divided into two halves. The broad northern part is the massive Amazon River basin. The southern region is shaped like a triangular and ends with the tip very close to Antarctica. We would drive from the center of the triangle to the bottom.
In our three weeks of driving, we would cover roughly 1700 miles, or the distance from New York City to Denver, Colorado. On interstate highways in the US, driving straight through, we could make it in 26 hours. On the dirt roads that crisscross Patagonia in the Andes Mountains, it would require 9 days to drive between hotels. With hotel stays, it was a 21-day road trip. I bought a Michelin road map of Chile and Argentina, and Geoff highlighted the locations to purchase gas in yellow. There are 9 gas stations, a chance to fill up between hotels.
Deciding to drive through Patagonia without a driver or guide was met with incredulous reactions from our family and friends.
"What about banditos?
"You're brave. I would never do that."
"I hope you make it."
I emailed our lawyer, "Geoff and I are headed to Patagonia in a truck on dirt roads. We could very well die. Please send me a copy of our will for the kids."
Geoff also took preemptive action. He started taking Spanish lessons. I suggested he learn a few phrases, like the octane value of the gas our truck required.
"Ask how to say, My wife is trapped in our truck. It went over the side of the mountain. Can you help me get her out?" I told Geoff.
"When we run into banditos, learn to say, I don't have any more money."
An Argentinian friend reassured us, "Don't worry. The banditos just want your money. They won't kill you."
I wasn't concerned about the bandits as much as the weather. The mountain roads would be passable most of the time. But what were they like after a storm? I worried we would be crossing snow-covered mountains and knew a blizzard was possible any time of year. Was it physically possible to get to our location if we had the gas, could find the way, and weren't kidnapped?
I was apprehensive; Geoff was thrilled; the trip was on.