Sun, Salt, and Sand

Last Sunday Stefje and I set off from the town of El Bolson with our sights set on a multi-day hitchhike Northeast towards Argentina’s Atlantic coast. It’s an area home to the country's best beaches; after three and a half months living the rugged camping life of Patagonia, we were eager to experience the next phase of the journey. 

On the outskirts of El boson we had no problem picking up a ride to Bariloche, as during the summer months this gorgeous, lake-lined route between the two tourist locales is one of the busiest highways on the continent. From there it was another deceptively quick wait until a van retrofitted into a house on wheels left us at the turnoff for where Route 237 began. 

In this austere, inconspicuous intersection we would be bidding farewell to both Patagonia and the tourist trail, but we didn’t have time to get emotional; just 10 minutes later we were speeding North in the flatbed of a pickup. For the next 400 kilometers we kept our heads low and our legs comfortably stretched out while crossing endless miles of barren pampas and farms. Our only companion for the ride was a Che Guevarra revolutionary lookalike who barely spoke a word, but the landscape kept me fully entertained. 

Under a bright sun and a cloudless sky, we circumvented two long lakes of crystal clear water, then spent hour staring at nothing but the barely perceptible hills and low-lying bushes of the steppe. In a desert climate, not a single tree or living animal had the audacity to survive, leaving the area deeply emotionless, as if everyone had just left in a hurry. 

Just as signs of civilization and nature began to materialize, our driver dropped us off 15 kilometers from the city of Neuquen. Although we just barely missed the next local bus into the center, we were able to grab just one more ride and reached our final destination right before darkness hit. 

Immediately I was floored by the scope of the city, which is home to 200,000 inhabitants, has plenty of high-rise apartment buildings and served as a severe culture shocks after months of shuttling between tiny hamlets in Patagonia. The big city vibe contrasted with a dearth of travelers, making good value accommodation tough to come by, so it took us more than an hour to find a comfortable place to rest our weary legs. But once we did I immediately flipped on ESPN deported and almost exploded with joy upon discovering that I would be able to catch the 4th quarter of the Super Bowl that night! 

We still had a long way to go, but after enjoying the hotel's free breakfast we wandered around the city streets on Monday morning, oddly finding them eery and deserted. While waiting in line at the grocery store, the only spot in town open at the time, a local told me they observe Carnaval as a holiday, even though there weren’t any crazy decorations or jubilant parades in sight.

Concerned that there might be a dearth of traffic on the roads, we decided to start hitchhiking but first took the city’s bus line to the end of the town. An ancient and no longer functional train line ensured it would take us two hours to get there as we wove in and out of increasingly abandoned towns. Yet the land here is still fertile and Neuquen’s farming industry is booming; fruit trees and endless grape vines sped by our window seat view. At the last stop the bus pulled over next to Ruta 22 and we positioned ourselves to hitchhike towards the beach town of Monte Hermosa, a daunting 500 kilometers away. We settled in for a long wait, but it was barely half an hour when a retrofitted tourist van pulled over. The driver was actually headed almost directly there, causing an instant feeling of joy as we lounged in the spacious backseat. 

By the time we got picked up it was 4 in the afternoon and we would end up riding with him until almost 11pm, passing through endless barren landscapes and killing time by learning about each other. The unbroken blue sky stretched interminably long in every direction, complimented perfectly by the ridiculously long stretches of grasslands that we’ve grown so accustomed to in Patagonia.

Argentina is a vibrant country, home to monumental glaciers, the highest peak in the Western Hemisphere, and some beautiful cities, but one thing most travelers don’t realize is that for the most part, it’s overwhelmingly empty. You can drive for a whole day throughout most of the country without encountering anything of note, involuntary filling the mind with the open space is needs to reflect, to contemplate, and to move forward. 

It had already gotten dark by the time we passed through the main arteries of Bahia Blanca, whose city lights we could see twinkling softly on the edge of the ocean from 20 miles away. The city is the region’s largest and an important shipping hub, but on this day our destination was the tiny beach town of Monte Hermosa, where we pulled in just before midnight. 

On Tuesday Stefje and I arose with one thing on our mind: the beach! From our overcrowded campsite it was just 15 minutes until the Atlantic Ocean began unfolding before our eyes. A 60km long sandy beachfront lay just beyond the center of town, the view blighted by high rise apartment buildings yet the ocean omnipresent. The beachfront atmosphere has turned the crowd into a curious collection of long-term residents and vacationing families. Having arrived during a holiday weekend smack dab in the middle of summer, the town’s population ballooned from 8,000 to over 80,000.

In a tremendous display of human force, umbrellas turned huge swaths of sand into shade and every hotel, campsite, and house for rent was completely full. Throngs of people accounted for a rude awakening in our return to the civilized world; that kind of environment on the beach was a sight unparalleled in my travels so far and we spent our entire time in Monte Hermosa watching with endless curiosity the quirks of the Argentinian beach comber. 

Their number one activity came as no surprise after 3 months of traveling in the country: Mate rules the day here and you’d be hard pressed to find a single group on the beach without their thermos and gourd. A close second was a game called Tejo, which largely resembles Bocce played in the sand with wooden disks. The last piece of the puzzle was plenty of chairs, umbrellas, tables, and even tents, as I’ve never encountered a group of people with such an abhorrence for sitting on sand. 

The first dip in the ocean drowned out all the soreness from Patagonia and mental fatigue of hitchhiking the last two days. In the temperate rolling waves of the Atlantic, feelings of warmth and relaxation turned the long beachfront into our own personal spa. 

The thickness of the crowd ebbed and flowed through the day, as we posted up for as long as possible and took it all in. After the mid-afternoon siesta, the energy reached a fevered pitch. The low-sloping beach filled up and the tide subsequently rolled in, compressing the bulk of humanity into an area too small to live comfortably, destroying kids lovingly constructed sand castles and making it impossible to walk 5 consecutive steps in a straight line. 

By the time we started walking back to the campsite that evening, the police had to intervene to direct traffic and help cars get out of town, even though the road was not much a highway, but rather a long red snakes of brake lights in bumper to bumper traffic.

Even though to us the town’s energy and crowd felt more like a music festival than real life, somehow this was just a normal weekend at the beach in Monte Hermosa. But despite the proliferation of people, the single weirdest aspect of the whole town is that we are the only international backpackers. Walking down the street while talking in English draws long stares, and attendants at shops immediately pick out the foreigners and are interested to know where we’re from. 

Wednesday we resumed that beachside vacation cadence which must be scientifically proven to replenish the body, mind, and soul. If you’re too hot, go for a swim. If you’re too wet, dry off on the beach. If you’re getting hungry, stroll down the boardwalk and hunt for some cheap eats. If you’re getting sunburnt, find a relaxed shady spot in the park. Truly, the simple life is the best one. 

Over the course of Thursday afternoon Stefje and I worked our way over the 330 coastline kilometers separating Monte Hermosa from it’s older sister city, Necochea.

6 times we stood by the side of the road with thumbs extended and smiles on our face; 6 times smiling Argentinians would slow down and offer us a lift, progressing over the lush and productive farming land responsible for producing and manufacturing much of the country’s sunflowers, wheat, and corn. Confounding large processing and packing machines accompanied by the slow coming and going of truckers were the only things that broke up the monotony of the fields of green. 

In Necochea we navigated our way by local bus and on foot to the highly rated camping Miguel Lillo. Flanked by a national park and just steps from the ocean, it was to be our beachfront property for the next three nights. Compared to the shanty-town vibe of all the campsites in Monte Hermosa - overflowing with camper vans and huge tents pitched on top of one another - Miguel Lillo was a resort. From the spacious, sandy campsites you could hear waves crashing in the background and the grounds were so large the staff provide maps to get around. 

We had no worries about food either, as onsite there was a restaurant, snack bar, and small supermarket, not to mention a beachside shack whipping up strawberry daiquiris. But the most relaxing spot was in the cool water of the pool, the perfect spot to take a dip after a long morning walk on the beach.

Immediately upon arrival it was clear that despite the amenities, the employees are the real reason the place is so highly rated and beloved by families who return year after year. This was a friendly, happy group of people who treated us exceptionally well at every turn, even trying to learn some English from us. Oddly enough we were again the odd men out, as Necochea is just a day’s ride from Buenos Aires, but firmly off the tourist trail. In Necochea we ended up drew plenty of long stares, but plenty more charming interactions with the generous and affable people who call this country home. 

The next morning we were living the beach life once more. Compared to Monte Hermosa, Necochea is a a larger town, making it easier for the streets, restaurants, and facilities to handle the summer onslaught of vacationers seeking some sand between their toes. The beach stretches longer here, dispersing the crowd over an immensely straight coastline I couldn’t see from one side to the other. The water is so shallow for so long, meaning when the ride is out a flat section of beach materializes and facilitates games of soccer, paddle ball, and Tejo.

Nevertheless there were tons of people around, most of them with big groups and multi-generational families packed in among all their essential ingredients. Stefje and I felt out of place with our books, as long walks through the afternoon crush of beachgoers reveals very few readers; more likely they are talking or arguing with each other over copious and constant round of mate. 

By the time we retreated for lunch, the town is deserted and masses of humanity fill the prime beach hangouts, wading into the water by the thousands. Since we have progressed further East towards the tip of Argentina that sticks out into the Atlantic, the bay offers less protection and the waves here are strong enough to invite a smattering of surfers and a few classes on the beach. 

Most visitors wade up just to the waist to cool down, but a brave few swim out to where the barrels crash, body surfing the big ones. Depending on the wind, the waves can range from tranquil foam that washes over you to dangerous, earth-shattering forces of nature that had me retreating from the dangerous riptide more than a few times. 

Sunday I took one last refreshing dip in the pool, followed by one last exhausting and exhilarating swim in the ferocious sea, and then we were off, packing up and heading North once more. From a gas station at the beginnings of the highway we were quickly picked up by a delightful couple, married 33 years this month, who were headed straight to Mar del Plata. It was our destination in mind, so we quickly hopped in an thoroughly enjoyed the ride as they regaled us with funny, quirky tales and brushed us up on what to expect in the bustling seaside destination of Mar del Plata. The ride was so enjoyable and they were so eager to to show us a taste of Argentinian hospitality that they invited us to their house to end the trip with a relaxing round of mate. 

Compared to the laid back vibe of the two other beach cities, Mar del Plata was an upscale shock to the system. When we ventured outside that night to search for a restaurant, high-end boutqiue shopping options dominated the main drag, accompanied by their fair share of platform-shoes-wearing, designer-handbag-toting Argentinians. Mar Del Plata serves as a beach getaway for the upper crust of Buenos Aires, even though it’s hard to reconcile that these folks are citizens of the same country as the old-school gaucho cowboys of Patagonia. 

A local crowd of grey-haired retirees mingled with families on vacation and 20-somethings looking to party, giving the town a real city vibe. The main drag in the center was lined with fancy restaurants, but as in any city the following day we saw the flip side of the coin as there were plenty of homeless on the other side of town. 

Even though Mar Del Plata is technically on the ocean and there is sand, I’m not sure the town can actually be qualified as a beach destination, as the beach was disgusting. The next day we worked our way through the maze of high rises and finally the ocean came into sight, but people covered every square inch of land. Good luck swimming, walking, or relaxing in this mess of humanity. 

Immediately upon our first sight of the beach, we decided to wrap up our week long beach excursion and head North to Buenos Aires, but not before taking one more day to ogle and observe the uniqueness that is Argentinians on the beach.