Bus all the way to .. Antarctica

Very interesting concept here. Does it minimize one’s carbon footprint? I’m not sure.. if a trip has many stop-overs, then short distances are better off traversed by ground transportation.

Written by Andrew Evans, bits and pieces from the September 2010 issue of National Geographic Traveler

Ten weeks, 14 countries, and 10,000 miles – a bus trip from Washington DC to Earth’s frozen continent. Travel writer Andrew Evans decided he was going to Antarctica, but wanted to get there without spending a boatload of money. So he came to us with a proposal: He’d take the bus—a guaranteed adventure—and post entries to our Intelligent Travel blog en route.

I craved the haphazard polar voyages of men before the era of airplanes and travel brochures. Those early travelers seemed so sincere as they set off for the bottom of the world with their optimism, simple dogsleds, and year’s supply of stationery.

I traced an imaginary path on a map from Washington, D.C. down to the seventh continent. Where there’s a road there’s a way, I figured, and much of the distance to Antarctica was paved with roads. All I had to do was head south some 10,000 miles until the road ended in Tierra del Fuego.

From there it was less than a knuckle’s width of mapped sea to Antarctica. The catch was to figure out an affordable way to travel. My research revealed there were public buses in every country I’d pass through to the frozen continent. If I made no reservations and had no daily itinerary, bus travel would approximate the journeys of early explorers. For the spots of water I’d cross—the Strait of Magellan and the Drake Passage—it looked like I’d have to forsake bus for boat.

I eagerly mapped out a rough ten-week plan and on New Year’s Day carried a backpack stuffed with clothes, a camera, and a new National Geographic flag. I paid $1.35 to ride the S2 Metrobus down 16th Street past the White House. An hour later I boarded a Greyhound bus to Atlanta, nervously anticipating the long road ahead. The bus driver took my ticket and asked routinely, “Your final destination, sir?” “Antarctica,” I mumbled. Greyhound wouldn’t get me all the way there, but it could take me at least a thousand miles closer to my dream.

After three days of riding silver buses across the American South I found myself at a roadside rest stop in northern Mexico at midnight. I felt overwhelmed by the obscure scene and the utter darkness. I’d been to Mexico before, but not like this. The bus had delivered me to an invisible part of the world.

I hopped from one bus to the next over the coming days, grabbing any seat that was going south. In Guatemala, my ride was a reincarnated Blue Bird school bus painted with a rainbow of trim and with unhappy chickens wedged beneath the seats.

When the bus cruised around mountain turns, our jam-packed bodies slid from side to side. Audio speakers blared a sound track for the jungle landscape, but the CD skipped every time we hit a bump, turning sappy Latin love songs into thumping Spanish rap and back again.

After Guatemala’s hairpin-turn highways, the bus careening along the edge of every mountain, we trailed through El Salvador’s smoky backyards and the hacienda-feeling countryside of Honduras. The giant volcano hovering in the distance marked Nicaragua.

In Costa Rica, the road became all twisty and pimpled with gaping potholes. We crossed into Panama, then over its famous canal on the mile-long Bridge of the Americas.

The next hurdle was the geographical difficulty between Panama and Colombia known as the Darién Gap, a swath of jungle and swamp that forms a tricky hundred-mile interruption in the Pan-American Highway. My options around it: boat or plane.

Taking a tip from noted adventurer Paul Theroux, who for his best-selling book The Old Patagonian Express chose a plane ride, I flew to Cartagena, Colombia.

There I boarded the next bus and within hours was traveling through the beautiful, and steep, Colombian Andes. These eventually gave way to Ecuador’s endless green banana fields.

Then came a jungle road in Peru that turned into a desert track; I tasted the dust on my teeth. Bus by bus I motored on into Bolivia, where, halfway across, the road vanished; the bus just followed tire tracks across the stratospherically high Uyuni plain.

Asphalt, smooth asphalt, returned in Argentina. Eager to catch my boat across the Drake Passage to Antarctica, I raced down these last 3,000 miles—the length of Argentina—in just seven days, watching the landscape transition from Córdoba’s flat green pampa to Patagonia’s dry brown hills, to the snow-sifted mountains of Tierra del Fuego (where we detoured briefly into Chile). The air cooled as we proceeded, and I noticed the austral sun setting later and later.

Still, I can’t think of a greater disappointment than rushing a first visit to Bolivia; it’s like taking a kid to Disney World for the first time and telling him it closes in ten minutes—forever.

During my week traveling through it, Bolivia delivered some of the most memorable landscapes on a journey through remarkable places. The town of Uyuni, in southwestern Bolivia, for example, gives its name to the largest salt flat on Earth, which occupies a vast, dried-up prehistoric lake. At 4,000 square miles 40 times larger than the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, Uyuni’s arid salt flat gives the odd sensation of standing on a blank piece of paper—a wide-open feeling of nothingness that attracts thousands of sightseers yearly.

The surprise upon our arrival was that heavy seasonal rains had turned the salt flat into a saltwater flat. I found myself walking through six inches of lukewarm brine that crystallized up my leg on contact. Equally curious was the extraordinary way in which the sun reflected off the forever horizon of salt water—which burned my skin to a crisp.

Descending from high-altitude Bolivia into the desert hills of Argentina’s Jujuy region proved another scenic highlight. Drab rock landscapes suddenly turned into pink-tinted rock formations, colored sandstone swirls, twisting mountain streams, and saguaro-like cacti. It felt as if we were driving through the arid reaches of southern Arizona—and it was HOT. How hot? My thermometer claimed the temperature was 48°C. That’s 118°F. Still, traveling in Argentina was a relief because everything was suddenly easy. Need a shower and nap before your next bus? There’s a hotel with rooms for a few dollars an hour around the corner. Plus you can check your e-mail and recharge any batteries.

My last night, on the final bus, it snowed. Finally, we rolled into a rainy parking lot in Ushuaia. This was it: the end of the road at the bottom of the continent. We stopped next to a dock for ships with reinforced hulls. On board one the next day I would spot my first icebergs.

Looking back now, I see my transcontinental ride as a road for which only I know the directions. My bus fare from Washington, D.C., to Antarctica? A total of $1,102.60—about eleven cents a mile, half the price of a plane ticket for the same distance. I got to see everything we miss out on when we choose to fly: The gradual changes from one place to another—and the real size of Earth.

Earth is small—so much smaller than I once believed.

3 thoughts on “Bus all the way to .. Antarctica

  1. It always is amazing to me just how blog owners such as your self can find the time as well as the dedication to keep on producing exceptional content. Good stuff. Just wanted to say hello and thanks.

  2. well, you can bump your head against a streetcar or subway window on your daily commutes.. or an office cubicle
    I guess the bumping of the head will always be there

  3. Wherever the loved ones are they hope and pray for their health & a safe return.
    …And while you are eager to measure the rhythm of so many landscapes from bumping your forehead against countless boat, plane and bus windows, feverish about the unknown and the new that you will encounter far away from home, light-headed and careless, I will, anyway, continue to pray.

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