The truth is, I never planned to hitchhike my entire journey across South America. After hitchhiking 30,000km from China to Spain, I thought it was time to travel like how a normal traveller would. However, a cruel twist of fate changed my mind. On my first official day in South America (I landed in Argentina in the evening on day zero), I was robbed at knifepoint and lost almost everything. Thankfully I still had my debit card with me. However, when I visited the ATM, I just could not bear to hit the “OK” button. I was only allowed to take about USD100 each time and I had to pay USD5 in fees! And so I began my hitchhiking journey. The mission: to get out of there!
Armed with just my backpack and with no money, I crossed 1,300km from Buenos Aires to Puerto Iguazu, where Argentina borders with Brazil and Paraguay. This journey took three hot and humid days, but it was all worth it once I crossed the border. It felt good to feel the fresh, warm money from the ATM without having to pay any fee. However, when I returned to Argentina, I was shocked to find out that the bus fare back to Buenos Aires was more than USD70! I really wanted to explore Argentina, but the ridiculous bus fares were just not traveller-friendly. And so, I decided. Let’s hitchhike!
Hitchhiking across Argentina became hitchhiking across Chile and then hitchhiking across South America. It slowly evolved into a mission: I wanted to hitchhike across South America without taking any long-distance buses, trains or flights. Hitchhiking from Asia to Europe was simple enough, so I thought maybe it would be the same in South America. Oh boy, how naïve I was to even think that way.
Some countries were extremely easy to hitchhike in, while others were just horrible. It was rare to wait for two days in Asia and Europe, but in South America it started to become really common. Hundreds, if not thousands of cars would pass by me and all I could see were the cold and expressionless faces of the drivers. Each time the public bus came close, I would have a strong urge to cave in and take the bus. However, somehow the competitive spirit kicked in and I would eventually resist that urge. After all, my journey would have been somewhat meaningless if I took the bus after waiting all those months!
Thankfully, the hours of waiting all made sense once someone stopped. Many of the drivers who stopped were incredibly friendly and generous. Some would introduce me to the various traditional dishes of the area, while others would invite me on their journeys. I was lucky to explore the beautiful Argentinian Patagonia with a driver, become family with a couple in Bolivia and go on a day trip with a mother in Ecuador. Also, I lost count of the number of times I was invited to lunch or dinner, or to crash at the driver’s house for the night. Though it might take a lot more patience to hitchhike in South America than in Asia or Europe, the people I met were simply amazing.
To some, hitchhiking might just be a way to save some cash. However, to me, it is more of an excellent opportunity to learn about different cultures, people and opinions. I had the chance to experience the proud culture of the people from Medellin, Colombia, follow a driver on one of his cargo deliveries, and hear first-hand the struggles of Latinos who moved alone to the USA for work. I was also lucky enough to celebrate the Lunar New Year with a group of Chinese tourists on a self-drive trip to Ushuaia, Argentina! It felt good to eat amazing Asian food on such a symbolic day, with a bunch of high-spirited tourists in the southern-most city in the world. Nothing can ever be planned when you hitchhike, but sometimes great experiences do come by even if you never asked for them.
Many people asked me, “Isn’t it dangerous to hitchhike in South America? Aren’t you afraid of getting robbed?” Indeed, South America can be dangerous, but with some common sense the danger can somewhat be eliminated. Looking back, the reason why I was robbed was because I accidentally ventured into a troubled neighbourhood. It was my first day in South America and I could not differentiate between a good and bad neighbourhood. The same logic goes with hitchhiking. I never hitchhiked from places that did not feel safe, and I always try to hitchhike in places with some police presence. In my nine months of hitchhiking, I never felt unsafe nor at danger. In fact, I always felt more insecure walking around the cities than looking for rides.
This 30,000km journey from Argentina to Colombia was definitely a crazy one. It was nine months of elements, from the crazy Patagonian winds to the freezing high-altitudes and the humid forests. It was challenging at times, but it was an experience that I would never regret. I learned so much about people, about politics and about life that no school can ever impart. Surprisingly, I also picked up Spanish pretty well from all the random conversations with drivers. I saw so many places that no tourists would normally visit, and had the chance to experience local life in beautiful villages and towns. Indeed, it takes hours to get a ride, but these experiences are worth much more than just a few hours of life.
If you missed the google maps of my journey at the start of the article, below is the maps of the 30,000km route that I took while hitchhiking from Argentina to Colombia:
Hitchhiking Asia: done.
Hitchhiking Europe: done.
Hitchhiking South America: done.
Now on to hitchhiking Central and North America!