Traveling 6000 miles south without a plan: San Francisco to studying Spanish in Patagonia

by Dan Fey on April 12, 2012

Bariloche Landscape

The beautiful mountainous landscape of San Carlos de Bariloche

Without a plan, after 24 hours in an airport, 14 hours on airplanes, and 16 hours on buses all within five days, I ended up in San Carlos de Bariloche, one of the prettiest places I’ve ever seen located on the northern tip of Patagonia in Argentina. From San Francisco to CouchSurfing in Santiago, taking very long buses south through Chile and over the Andes to Argentina, see how I made it to Bariloche without a plan.

San Francisco

It was April 2nd at 11pm in San Francisco, the night before my flight to Santiago Chile. I decided I wanted to study Spanish in South America and was aggressively researching Spanish schools for cities in Chile and Argentina. I had a few options:

  1. Study Spanish on the Pacific coast in Valparaiso, Chile aka the “Little San Francisco”
  2. Study Spanish in the Argentinian wine country in Mendoza
  3. Study Spanish in Santiago and take short trips to Valparaiso and Mendoza

These all seemed like good options, but I also really wanted to see the beautiful mountains of Patagonia in south before South America’s fall made it too cold to enjoy. Around 1am, after sending notes to a few schools, I decided I wanted to get to South America first before making my decision.

The next day, after making it to my gate in SFO airport, I find my connecting flight to Dallas is CANCELED due to deadly tornados. I spend an hour waiting on the phone before rescheduling my flight for 24 hours later. I stay in the airport and am finally on my first flight at 2:40pm on April 4th. After a short layover in Dallas, I board my 10 hour flight bound for Santiago. The flight wasn’t too bad because I slept most of the way. I snapped the pic below on the descent into Santiago.

Descending into Chile

Descending into Santiago, Chile after a 10 hour flight from San Francisco


Next thing I know, I’m in Santiago airport alone with my backpack.  All I have are text directions for how to get to Sergio’s place in the city. I found Sergio on and he offered me a place to stay on April 5th. I take the Aeropuerto Centro bus into the city and walk to Sergio’s. Sergio warmly welcomes me into his apartment in downtown Santiago around 11am.

We start talking about my plans to study Spanish. Sergio advises against Mendoza – it’s a nice place for one or two days, but not two weeks.  He says Valparaiso is probably a better option. I’m still not satisfied.

Should I go to Patagonia first? Should I study Spanish first so I can get around South America easier? It’s now Thursday and I really need to make a decision if I want to study on Monday.

Sergio leaves for classes and I explore Santiago. I find Santa Lucia Hill, a hill in the center of Santiago with a fort on top you can climb up to see amazing views of the city with the mountains in the background.

Santa Lucia Hill

Sitting on top of Fort Hidalgo on Santa Lucia hill in the center of Santiago

I return to the apartment, take a much needed two hour nap, and return to my research on Spanish schools. I looked back at some notes I jotted down from an Argentinian man I met at a hostel in Eilat, Israel and see he recommended I visit a small town in Patagonia called San Carlos de Bariloche.

I think to myself, “Maybe Bariloche has Spanish courses – I could study in Patagonia!” Sure enough, I find a couple schools online and send emails for more information.

Sergio comes back from class around 9pm, and it’s time for dinner and drinks before heading to check out the clubs. In Latin American culture, it’s customary to eat dinner at 9pm or 10pm and get to the clubs at 12am or 1am. On a Thursday night, the club is full until 4:30am, complete with two live DJs and non-stop dancing.

The next day (on Good Friday), we wake up at 1pm.  I check my email for responses from the Spanish schools – nothing.  We head to the fish and produce markets and buy some salmon and vegetables, stopping at a beautiful church along the way.

After cooking and eating an amazing salmon feast, I decide Bariloche is the best place to study Spanish. I make a last minute decision to leave that night even though I did not confirm a spot in any class. In order be in Bariloche on Monday morning and hopefully start classes, I need to take a 10 hour overnight bus south to Puerto Montt, spend the night there and then take a six hour bus east over the Andes into Argentina and then to Bariloche.


Doggis hot dogs in Puerto Montt, one with tomatoes and mustard, the other with guacamole and cheese sauce

Fortunately, the double decker coach buses throughout South America are both cheap (about $25 one way for each trip) and are very comfortable. I choose a semi-cama (cama means bed in Spanish) bus with seats that recline 60 degrees and have a pull down pad for your legs.

When I arrive in Puerto Montt, I explore small city by foot and sample the local fast food at a large mall. About two hours later, I go for a run (hoping to cancel out my food choice).


I take the 8am bus the next morning to Bariloche. As we cross over the border, I start to see the beautiful Andes Mountains and get excited. I arrive in the Bariloche bus terminal at 2pm on April 8th, Easter Sunday and take a short cab ride to the city center.

I see signs for McDonalds and follow them, not because of the food. While traveling internationally, McDonalds means “free internet!” My goal is to find a place to sleep for the night and check in on the responses from the Spanish schools, hoping to start the next morning.

While waiting in line to order a salad at McDonalds, I hear a few young guys speaking English and ask if they’re staying at a hostel. Not only are they staying at a nearby hostel, one of them took Spanish classes in town and knew a great place! I follow them back the hostel and book a room.

Next, I watch a spectacular sunset from the balcony. The hostel, Penthouse 1004, is located on the 10th floor of the largest building in town and overlooks the beautiful Nahuel Huapi Lake with mountains in the background.

Bariloche Sunset

Beautiful Bariloche sunset over Nahuel Huapi Lake from my hostel, Penthouse 1004

Inside is a large group of young international travelers. I sit down with them and enjoying some drinks and chocolate from the Guiness Book of World Record’s largest chocolate Easter egg. Apart from being beautiful, Bariloche also happens to be the chocolate capital of South America and had a huge Easter festival.

At dinner, while enjoying some wine and steak fondue with young travelers from around the world, I think to myself, “I think I chose the right place to study Spanish”.

The next morning, I walk into the Acadmia de Bariloche and book two weeks of Spanish lessons. Because I’m the only student this week, they tell me I get private, one-on-one lessons for the same price as group lessons.

After four days of lessons, I still have much to learn, but I’m picking things up quickly since I studied Spanish in high school and one semester in college. Classes are in the morning, so I have the afternoons to explore the town and surrounding areas. Tuesday, I took an amazing bike ride with two girls from Holland.

After many days of constant travel, it’s nice to have a two-week home base. Next week, I’m looking to CouchSurf with a local so I can practice my Spanish after classes (everyone speaks English in the hostel).

My next adventure will be traveling north by bus double the distance from Santiago to Bariloche to get to Bolivia. I plan (yes, I’m planning now) to study for another two weeks in Bolivia before meeting my Mom, Dad, and brother Alex in Cuzco to climb the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

Have you or would you ever travel spontaneously?  What is your preferred method of travel? Leave a comment here.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Zach Weiss April 12, 2012 at 3:46 pm

It seems like the trip is starting off right! I would love to see some more pictures of Barlioche, I here it is so beautiful. Stay safe and enjoy yourself Feydan!


drew April 12, 2012 at 4:29 pm

Yeah buddy!

I’ve found traveling spontaneously can potentially be costlier, since you might be trying to get last minute transportation or accommodation if traveling. With more time to plan, often there are some cost savings you can find. Have you found this on your trip? How would you balance? Maybe larger things, such as transcontinental flights are good to plan in advance but buses and hostels can be done in the moment?



dan April 16, 2012 at 2:22 pm

Flights are definitely something that planning in advance can save you money. However I’m finding the buses and hostels don’t change in price in South America based on when you book them. Activities generally don’t change in price either.

I’m also finding that in other countries, it’s sometimes difficult to find the good deals online because they either don’t have a website or their website is in another language. Talking with a local you CouchSurf with or the hostel workers can give you some insight on activities that you may not be able to find otherwise.


Ed April 15, 2012 at 1:53 pm

Dan Fey = Freedom!

Buena suerte con su espanol!


dan April 15, 2012 at 4:24 pm

gracias amigo


Alex Bellink February 3, 2014 at 12:20 am

When sitting at home thinking about it, I say I want to travel with a plan. But once I’m on the road, I find the best way to travel is to have some sort of rough plan, but work out the details on the way (ex: have a route planned out but leave the time frame you’ll stay in each place/accommodations open).


Dan Fey February 3, 2014 at 7:31 am

Agree with you 100%. It’s way more fun and exciting to travel spontaneously than to plan every detail and get upset when it doesn’t go to plan (and it won’t go according to plan).


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