Two friends and I roamed the enchanting vistas of South America for five months, hitchhiking through Patagonia, camping on beaches in Peru, working on coffee farms in Ecuador and bar tending in Bolivia. We did all of this on a budget of less than $7 a day through volunteering our time in exchange for food and accommodation. Here is how we did it.
To avoid the unnecessary costs and boredom of bus travel we decided to take to the roadside with our thumbs held high and our spirits even higher. We were going to hitchhike down from Buenos Aires through southern Patagonia, across the Andes and into Chile.
We found that waiting around gas stations early in the morning was a good strategy to get lifts with sleepy truck drivers who needed company. Further south, through the desolate pampas of Argentina, friendly sheep farmers are more than happy to throw you in the back of their truck.
On one such ride along a road following the Rio Colorado, we sat on the back of a truck facing backwards craning our necks from left to right as we passed alongside daunting sheer cliff faces and around huge red and orange mountains.
Facing Backwards in a Truck
Sitting facing backwards, not knowing what beautiful vistas were awaiting us felt like a fitting analogy for our type of travel: we lived from moment to moment not knowing what to expect, being at once humbled by our lack of control over what was to come, and liberated through realizing that it is all part of the journey.
The sunsets in Patagonia are epic dramas, soaking the horizon in a flaming red passion that gives the weary traveller inspiration. Inspired by such sunsets, we would leave the road and walk off into the distance to pitch our tents for a night under the Milky Way. Drinking a gourd of mate (traditional Argentinian herbal tea) under the roof of stars in the vast wilderness of Patagonia replenishes
Hitching through South America is simple and free. We are three guys and experienced an average waiting time of two hours. If you are a couple, it dramatically decreases your waiting time. Patagonia has a wealth of empty land to camp on and Chile is scattered with lakes where it is legal to camp within twenty meters of the shore. Security was never an issue for us. Instead we felt constantly welcome and shared many interesting conversations over gourds of mate and cookies with truck drivers and farmers.
For more information on specific hitching routes in South America check out www.hitchwiki.org
Working on farms in Ecuador
To keep in line with our free-range travel theme we decided get some inspiration from real free-range chickens by working on organic farms in Ecuador. We were connected with farms through Wwoofing (World-wide Opportunities on Organic Farms – www.wwoof.org) and other volunteer
The few hours of hard work in the garden is all worth it when you get to lie on a hammock in rural Ecuador, eating chocolate banana pancakes with a cup of coffee, all made from ingredients that you harvested earlier that day. The farms are generally located far off the beaten track in areas of spectacular natural beauty.
During our time off we hiked beautiful mountains, swam in waterfalls or took in the view from our volunteer house deck. These are the type of places that make you want to drop out of the rat race back home, buy some property in rural Ecuador and grow some bananas.
The type of work we did was varied and in one day you could go from planting garlic to building an adobe brick wall, or from milking goats to harvesting lavender in the hue of a golden sunset. In the evenings we would help prepare a local Ecuadorian dinner with the family.
This gave us a chance to practice our Spanish through this cultural exchange and learn about the lives of rural families in South America. In addition, we met like-minded travelers who were also volunteering on these farms. Many hitch hiking and freerange travel stories were shared whilst weeding the garden or harvesting fresh vegetables.
Working in hostels in Bolivia and Peru
Leaving the country side behind, we traded pouring organic fertilizers on farms for pouring beers behind a bar in the city of La Paz, Bolivia. We stumbled into Adventure Brew Hostel when we heard we would receive a free beer every night. Soon we saw they received volunteers and we immediately started work behind the bar in exchange for a bed and two meals a day.
In stark contrast to farm work, bar tending involves late nights and lazy mornings. We became experts at pouring pale ales, dark stouts and amber lagers – all brewed at a micro brewery connected to the hostel. The evening festivities that we were in charge of ranged from beer pong to table tennis tournaments.
We found that volunteer sites such as Helpx, Workaway and hostel job forums (www.hosteljobs.net) do not produce as much fruit as good ol’ hostel-hopping. This involves moving from hostel to hostel asking if they have any work for you. We moved up the Peruvian coast like this hopping between beach towns asking for work.
Rejection only meant we would have to go camp on the beach, have a surf and make a bonfire for the night – we took it in our freeranging stride. Every third town or so we did find an offer to work and we stayed for a few weeks working behind the bar or building structures on the beach.
After five months, five countries, 35 hitchhiking rides, six organic farms and three hostels we concluded our freeranging adventure. We calculated that we volunteered for an average of three weeks out of every month and our total expenses averaged on just under $7 a day. Some of our adventures were literally priceless.
Now that I have discovered this type of nomadic travel, I will never go back to the long bus rides, pricey hostels, expensive tourist attractions and throngs of other picture-snapping tourists associated with the beaten path of mainstream backpacking.
Zander Venter,23, finished his studies in South Africa in Environmental Sciences and is now traveling South America on the cheap, discovering that life is much more exciting as a freerange nomad.
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