Many years ago, when I was a geography grad student at Berkeley, my mentor Bernard Nietschmann stressed the significance of participant observation fieldwork in the anthropological tradition of Franz Boas, Margaret Mead and others. I followed his advice, if not quite with his activist immersion, in my own academic work on environmental conservation in northernmost Chile and cultural-historical geography of the Falkland Islands. Since leaving academic life for travel and guidebook writing, I’ve done that to some degree, but a few days ago I had a sardonically amusing experience in that vein.
|Chile Chico, as seen from the panoramic overlook of Plaza del Viento
Throughout most of my travels in the Southern Cone countries, I’ve had the advantage of owning an automobile, which has often freed me from air and bus timetables. Last week, though, I found myself in the Patagonian border town of Chile Chico with the need to cross into Argentina for the day without using my car. Unfortunately, the usual minibus shuttles to the town of Los Antiguos have stopped running because of a punitive Argentine tax that makes the route economically unviable, so I needed an alternative means of getting there.
|The bus station at Los Antiguos is where many travelers on Ruta 40 start or end their adventure in Argentine Patagonia.
The border crossing here is an important one for backpackers, as Los Antiguos is the endpoint for buses from the more southerly Argentine Patagonia destinations of El Calafate and El Chaltén (and, conversely, the starting point for southbound travelers on Argentina’s Ruta Nacional 40). With no shuttles, though, travelers without their own vehicles are having to walk roughly four miles (6.5 kilometers) between the Argentine and Chilean border posts, and this is where my “participant observation” comes in.
|The Río Jeinimeni separates Argentina (left) from Chile (right)
It’s another six kilometers or so from Chile Chico proper to Chilean customs and immigration—probably less than a mile from the Argentine post as the crow flies, but for the waters of the Río Jeinemeni—so I decided to drive and leave my car there. En route, I saw several backpackers walking toward the border post even though local taxis can take up to three passengers there for about US$10. After parking, carrying only a daypack, I left Chile and started walking south toward the bridge across the river.
|As I left Chile, a line of Argentine vehicles waited to cross the border for shopping
Fortunately, it was a mild day with relatively gentle winds and, as I left the border complex, there was a lineup of vehicles waiting to enter Chile (cross-border shopping is a popular activity for Argentines even when there’s no holiday). En route, I met at least ten backpackers, including a 71-year-old Israeli, who were trudging in the opposite direction. After an hour and a half, I reached the Argentine border post and then took care of business in Los Antiguos, updating some key information and paying for a pasta lunch with a packet of Argentine pesos still in my wallet.
|The Argentine border post at Los Antiguos
Then I started walking back and, shortly thereafter, I noticed that a series of markers indicated that, for Argentines, a parallel trail to the actual border was part of a “Stations of the Cross” memorial and that I had just passed “Jesus falls down.” My cross wasn’t that hard to bear—I’m not a believer, anyway—but, about a mile from the Chilean border post, an Argentine family in a pickup truck stopped to offer me a lift. Having already walked at least 10 miles, I decided to accept and spoke briefly with them about their shopping trip to Chile Chico—another form of participant observation, I guess, though it made my own story a bit less epic.
|Only toward the end of my walk did I realize that, for the faithful, it was part of a "Stations of the Cross" route
Later, in Chile Chico, I visited a bicycle rental and tour company and learned that they allow clients to ride into Argentina. As a daily recreational cyclist at home in California, I’ve missed that while I’ve been in Chile, and I had to reflect on a missed opportunity.
|Had I realized that I could have taken a rental bike across the border, I would have done so