Patagonia is quite a bit larger than I imagined. It’s not until you look at the travel time between places that you realize it. For instance, getting from Bariloche to El Calafate takes 2 hours by plane and a whopping 28 hours by bus. I considered the bus for a split second, but opted for the flight instead.
As it turns out, though, the flight just wasn’t in the cards. On the morning of the flight, I arrived at the Bariloche airport and found that everything - everything was canceled. The workers were all on strike, protesting a proposed change in congress that would cut their pensions. None of the airline staff knew when the strike might end, but I got rescheduled to the same flight the next day with the hope that things might be sorted out by then.
My optimism was proven to be stupidity when I received an email that THAT flight was canceled as well. At that point, all of the flights for the next few days were probably booked out too, meaning that I might only be able to fly a full 3 or 4 days later than planned.
Well, bus it was then! At least I would be moving towards my destination, and I would make it to El Calafate only 2 days later than I had expected. I bought a ticket from the Marga office at the bus terminal, which looked like the only bus company that made trips down to El Calafate. Unfortunately, by then, they were out of cama seats for 2480 pesos and only had semi-cama for 2120 pesos. I wasn’t exactly sure what the difference was, but it sounded like it was going to be a loooong, long ride.
Even if I couldn’t control the bus ride, I could try to make it as comfortable as possible. The night before the bus ride, I packed almost as if I was going on an excursion. It could count as one, given that they only give you “dinner” and the bus only stops once for an extended period of time.
My 24-hour bus packing list:
- 2L of water, because there’s no place to refill on the bus
- Yogurt, banana, and granola for breakfast on the bus
- Bread, ham, cheese, and lettuce for lunch on the bus
- Apples, oranges, chocolate, and chips for snacks
- Knife and spoon
- Fully charged battery pack to recharge mobile devices
- Scarf to use as blanket
- Packets of tissues, to use as napkins and toilet paper
- Baby wipes, for nighttime cleanup without a proper bathroom
- Hand sanitizer, because again, no proper bathroom
- Ear plugs
- Feminine hygiene products, because I’ll be damned if my period starts on the bus ride and I don’t have any on hand
- Cable lock, because Ive heard many stories of people’s belonging getting stolen on overnight bus rides, and specifically in Argentina
The bus ride
Everyday, the bus leaves Bariloche at 6:30. I got to the bus terminal at 6:10 just to be safe, but the bus didn’t pull in until around 6:20. Our bus had a picture of the pope on it...that meant we would be blessed with a safe journey, right? The bus attendants loaded the pope with parcels for delivery, then they loaded our bags on the other side and ushered us on board.
I might not have gotten a cama seat, but I did at least get my favorite seat at the front of the second floor deck. Here, there’s a 180 degree view and a higher foot rest. I am just a little concerned about potentially hurling headfirst through the wonderful wide window in the event of an accident, but at least there’s a seatbelt across the waist. And the pope was with us.
For the first 3 hours, the bus wound through the mountains with some beautiful scenery, but I was so exhausted from rescheduling travel plans and waking up early that I passed out. 3 hours went by extremely quick, that was a great start!
I was hoping for some good movies, but no such luck. This first one was about a Chinese girl used by the Chinese mob for her extraordinary mental calculation speed and retention. For some reason buses here have Chinese films - on my way to Bariloche, the bus played a film about a group of men bonding with wolves in the Communist 1960s Chinese country side. ...why??
8 hours in, we made our first pit stop and were told that we had a 15 minute break. After using the bathroom and buying sandwiches, we all milled around the bus - not wanting to get back on it until absolutely necessary, but also not wanting to wander too far in case it left without us. 15 minutes turned into closer to 30, and some started getting antsy. If we only had one driver, though, as I suspected, then I hoped he took his time resting and recharging for the remaining 20 hours!
Around that time, the landscape started flattening out. So flat that you can see the reflection of the sky on the road as it fades into the horizon.
There are also some patches of road that are in need of serious repair. Like this meticulous patchwork here - why not just spread a layer of tar over the entire road?
I was told that the bus ride came with dinner, the only food that we would receive during the ride. However, there was no sign of food throughout the evening. I had just but given up at 9pm when the bus staff started serving out boxed food. Not bad, for food served cold. Although maybe I was just starving, so almost anything would taste good.
At 9:30pm, we were treated to sunset from the bus. 15 hours down, only 13 hours to go. From here, it’s just a regular night bus...right?
At 4:00am, I woke up to see the sunrise. 21.5 hours in, still going strong!
I dozed off a bit more after that and woke again when someone jostled me on her way to the front of the bus to take a picture. I quickly found out why - we were on the edge of a storm, and we could see a perfect, complete rainbow end-to-end in front of the bus. There was even some double rain bowing going on.
Finally, around a full 24 hours since getting on the bus, we arrived in El Chaltén, the last stop before the bus finished up in El Calafate. I cheated and got off here, since I was going to visit El Chaltén anyway. Without a direct flight to El Calafate, it didn’t make any sense to visit El Calafate first and add 6 hours by bus to El Chaltén and back. So I shifted my schedule around by getting off in El Chaltén and buying a bus ticket to continue onto El Calafate a few days later.
In the end, I didn’t make the full 28 hours, but I’d say that 24 is close enough. It wasn’t as bad as I expected it to be, especially with a seat at the front of the bus.
The ride came with an unexpected perk too - extreme productivity. For the first time since I started traveling, I was completely caught up on all my blog posts! I actually ran out of things to write. I fell behind again just 24 hours later, but it was nice to be on toP of things, even if just for a little while.