We were supposed to rent a car to drive the 1,500 miles to Patagonia, but my losing my driving licence the day before we left put paid to that idea (I’d left it sat in a press car at work). We decided to catch the bus.
The thing was running ridiculously late – by UK standards, at least, not so much by Argentinean standards – and listening to the announcements in the bus station turned into the GCSE comprehension exercise from hell. More than two hours clocked by, waiting for this strange bus in a foreign land. The name of the company was 'El Rapido', an irony that packed a delicious punch.
We got to know our surroundings quite well. Retiro bus station is right at the end of the long highway that takes you from the international airport into the very depths of Buenos Aires, just down the road from the main railway station. This transport hub is hemmed in by an intimidating slum to the rear and a ramshackle rabbit run of tourist-baiting stalls and pavement sellers to the front. The inside is like a hellish 1970s Hungarian shopping centre, full of tat and robbers. Endless people flow constantly through, on their way to magical far-off lands.
There are a hundred bays for double-decker coaches going the full length of South America, buses the like of which we just couldn’t comprehend in Europe. Our own trip across the merest sliver of Argentina was almost 1,500 miles long, more than you would need to get from London to the Black Sea in Romania. If you go by National Express standards then the 26 hours of travel time would seem like the rawest hell, but it turned out that long-distance bus travel pissed all over the aeroplane option.
Dinner on the way down was steak and pureed potatoes, for goodness’ sake. There were three other meals, various snacks and a smorgasbord of films chosen by the driver. There was even a surreal 1am run of Bryan Adams’ best work from the early 1990s, culled from YouTube.
The seats were impressive on the way down, a standard four-up layout made better by decent legroom, and blankets and pillows handed out as we left the city. We managed to score the last two seats in the fancier downstairs section on the return journey: three seats across, more legroom and 25 degrees extra rake in the seatback. A thousand miles never passed so enjoyably.
The view out of the window was intimidatingly bleak. Once we left the surprisingly luscious farmland of Buenos Aires behind (lots of horses and bison and the sort of deep green hues you’d expect to see in the UK) there was just hundreds of miles after hundreds of miles of unrelenting desert.
There was no spark of recognition here, just endless straight roads flanked on either side by dust and dirt all the way to the horizon, punctuated only by scruffy bushes that look like something off a cheap train set. The further south you go, the landscape is increasingly peppered with lakes and the sort of epic mountains you only ever dreamed of.
The ride in the coach got ever more tremulous as the bends tightened and the horizon got higher and more jagged. We just about slipped into Patagonia under the cover of a rising dawn, full of mountains and trees and rain.
It might not be desert as such, but Patagonia still has this deserted quality, just to underscore the fact that you’re arriving at the end of the world. The cartoonish extremity borders on overkill, almost too much to take in for the mortal eye. It was an epic trip, the sort of thing that South Americans apparently seem to take in their stride, coach trips that last for days the norm.
5 hours ago