Traveling a dedo is surprisingly easy through Chile’s southern regions. For one thing, there’s only one main highway that runs north to south – La Ruta 5. Whether you’re heading north or south, it’s hard to lose the highway you need, and easy for drivers to pick you up since it’s pretty much just, “Going south?” And then, “Yep! Hop in!” In addition to the technical aspect, hitchhiking is also very much a part of the culture here.
In Brazil it can be difficult to travel in passenger cars; trucks tend to be the only ones who pick you up. They’re their own sort of viajero, and they see the backpacks and recognize that you’re a mochilero, not someone waiting to assault them. The luck that we did have with getting picked up by cars was with my companion’s Chilean flag — people are a lot more trusting and curious with foreigners than with Brazilians.
Although this wariness exists in Chile as well, it is far more common to find rides. On more than one occasion, people have stopped and asked where I’m going without me even asking! At a Copec gas station in Parral, a gentleman pulled up and offered to take us to Punto Montt. That’s about 700 km. In one shot. Without asking. Unfortunately we had plans to meet friends in Parral that night… Gas stations are a great place for others to approach, as it’s the summer season, and everyone is traveling to one destination or another. And people are fascinated by backpackers.
At one point we got stuck in the city of Temuco, and ended up taking a city bus out to the closest toll. Just after finishing a completo italiano, looking for a good spot to wait to catch a ride, a pickup pulled up and asked us where we were going! We initially just said Freire – the next town over, to at least get out of the city and back onto the highway. The driver replied, “Alright, I’m heading towards Pucón, so I can drop you off there.” Pucón was our next destination, so he brought us all the way!
Villa Rica and Pucón make up a small tourist area located in a volcanic lake region. The tourist area is packed with Chilean families and couples on vacation. A tranquil spot with lots to do, it also attracts a myriad of backpackers–the moment you enter Villa Rica, they appear. Every few hundred meters along the side of the road there’s another solo or pair of backpackers, or perhaps a group that has planned to meet up in the location. There are also the hitchhikers who grab a ride to the next lake, or up the mountain. When we got dropped off at the base of the volcano where we were staying and started to climb the 8km to the house, within two minutes another pickup stopped and we hopped in the back. The second ride we caught was a pair of guys heading to a campsite who had climbed the entire path the night before in two hours and wanted to prevent anyone else from having to go through that hike. We were able to catch rides up and down the mountain with ease for the few days that we were there, and left the city as well with an almost instant pickup that stopped when he saw our backpacks.
The kindness and willingness to help out a traveler is a beautiful part of the culture here. Amidst the wildflowers and the volcanoes and the crystal clear lakes, this part of the 9th region of Chile is a breathtaking summer destination.