Road trip Patagonia

2,300km. 13,000-year-old hands. Gauchos. Guanacos. Glaciers still growing. Estancias still shearing. Lakes. Peaks. And mile upon mile of epic emptiness... Welcome to Argentina’s wildest highway...

4 mins

I had six hours’ drive still to go, a brooding sky above, rain all around, a snail-slow, insanely wide, ultra-long vehicle in front and, at the end of the asphalt, the prospect of another gravel track to nowhere.

And I was loving every minute of it.

Argentina’s Ruta Nacional 40 – which everyone calls ‘La Cuarenta’ – is a legend still awaiting universal recognition. Established in the 1930s, and tweaked over the years, it runs for more than 5,000km from the Bolivian border at La Quiaca to the Cabo Virgenes lighthouse at the bottom of Argentina. It is regarded as a wild, untamed version of America’s iconic Route 66, but until recently only owners of tough 4WDs would risk the long stretches of barrier-free, deeply rutted gravel roads. In the past five years, long sections have been paved, car rental firms have becomes less precious about the odd scratch, and – suddenly – the epic highway is open to all.

I was driving the Patagonian section and had started at San Carlos de Bariloche in Río Negro province. It’s an ersatz Alpine town beloved of Buenos Aires’ middle-class and Brazilian skiers, but a place I was happy to skirt as I set off on my adventure. I lived in Argentina between 1991 and 2001 and, a few years ago, wrote a book on Patagonia. I had been waiting for two decades to drive La 40 – and no slobbering St Bernard dogs and chocolate shops were going to stop me.

Big Sky country

The first leg took me through narrow valleys cloaked in forests of nothofagus – the beech trees that dominate northern Patagonia’s lake district. At first, the huge blue mass of Lago Nahuel Huapi was on my right, followed by a string of smaller lakes. Then I pushed out onto higher, drier land: the Patagonian steppe, the defining topography at these latitudes. Soon the jagged peaks of the Andes were beyond view and the land turned dun-coloured – dead-looking but harbouring plenty of life.

I was doing the drive with my girlfriend, Kathryn – La 40 is for sharing, if possible, so you can take time out to observe and relax. We decided to pick up some food in El Bolsón, a hippie town that took off in the 1960s when the Buenos Aires cast of rock opera Hair decamped there. A few kilometres south and we were at turquoise Lago Puelo, snacking on jamón y queso sandwiches and gawping at the snow-capped peak of Tres Picos. Rearing above us to the east was jagged Cerro Piltriquitrón, a Mapuche name meaning ‘hanging from the clouds’. On the west was temperate rainforest, cutting in through low passes from Chile.

It was March – late summer – and as we drove on, the sky sometimes threatened rain only to clear and reveal huge cumulus clouds on the horizon. Patagonia is one of the planet’s Big Sky countries, rivalling the likes of Australia’s Outback or Central Asia. Most people fly over the region, but through a car window you begin to appreciate this luminous landscape.

Eventually we came to Esquel, a convivial town with links to Patagonia’s Welsh colony. We slept at the Hostería Canela, a lovely B&B, to the sound of rain on the roof.

Next morning Esquel’s mountains were daubed white. Passing through the town we stocked up on coffee and medialunas – sweet, buttery croissants. It’s an illusion, but when you depart a Patagonian town you feel you’re leaving civilisation behind; as well as refuelling, you buy comfort food, fruit and chocolate.

Living the gaucho way

Esquel is in Chubut, the province that occupies most of unpopulated central Patagonia. The Ruta 40, mainly paved, runs through Tecka, José de San Martín, Alto Río Senguer. Lacking attractions, these are not touristy towns, but they have a charm of their own and their names – which honour generals, Indian warriors and pioneering colonists – evoke Patagonia’s history.

Along the way we spotted guanaco, the llama-like native of the Patagonian steppe, and lesser rhea birds, still called by their Tehuelche Indian name, choique. Before the settling on Patagonia at the end of the 19th century, the nomadic Tehuelche would hunt these flightless birds using weighted lassos called boleadoras. Nothing remains of this hunter-gatherer civilisation except place names (Putrachoique, Güer Aike) and a handful of reservations.

At Estancia Don José, our next stopover, I saw a guanaco at spitting distance – which is just what he did to me when I poked a camera into his face. To the west of a wind-blasted military town called Río Mayo (‘The National Capital of Shearing’), the estancia was a bucolic affair. As well as a main house with cosy bedrooms, there was a separate cottage, which we were given. It was small, simply furnished with oil lamps and equestrian paraphernalia, and warmed by an old stove. I could have happily wasted a week there, drinking mate tea, reading and walking up the steep, stubble-covered hills that protected the estancia from the winds.

In the evening we joined owner Norma Mazquiarán and her mum, Cirila, to eat capon – the traditional grilled meat hereabouts – and drink some malbec.

“People don’t come to Chubut for luxury, they come to see a certain way of life,” said Norma. “They want to know how the estancia got its name [José was her granddad], what the gauchos do, how the local economy works.”

She told us how, after a terrible winter in 1984 – when heavy snowfall killed 350,000 sheep – and the eruption of Volcán Hudson in 1991, which wiped out up to 40% of flocks, estancias became unviable and were abandoned. Some turned to tourism; others diversified.

“We rear guanacos now,” explained Norma. “It’s indigenous and it’s finer than merino wool. It’s difficult to farm, as you need to put up higher fences.”

She showed us film of a guanaco being shorn – three men were needed to hold it down and keep its legs from kicking the shearer. Don José now exports wool to Italy.

Hidden hands

We passed into Santa Cruz – Patagonia’s southernmost province – the next morning. The road improved tangibly at the border so we upped our speed, donned sunglasses and wound down the windows – then the asphalt ended and the road-movie fantasy fell apart.

The diversion to the Cueva de las Manos – Cave of the Hands – looked like a short hop on the map, but the ungraded, undulating gravel road turned it into an expedition. As our 4WD groaned up one hill, I saw a bubble-car-sized Fiat in the rear-view mirror. I swore the driver would not make it, but he did – so anyone can. But for what we were about to see, the entry road was risibly low-budget.

Recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999, the cave is, quite simply, one of the unmissable stops on the drive south. Ancient, mysterious, artistic, it has captivated travellers since it was first described by palaeontologists in the 1970s. From photographs, I’d always imagined a single small cave, decorated with a few dozen hand-shaped negatives; I’d even entertained the suspicion that the whole thing was fake, a tourist-tricking joke that had turned into an actual attraction.

But the setting alone was comparable with Arizona’s world-famous canyons, and the 13,000-year-old artworks turned out to be a long series of wall paintings beneath a sheer cliff full of fissures, overhangs and sprouting vegetation. Hundreds of hands, guanacos and hunters chasing rhea, painted in natural mineral dyes, told the story of a pre-Tehuelche tribe that inhabited the canyon for centuries. Three separate stages have been recognised by anthropologists, telling a tale of nomads becoming settled and finally discovering a spiritual life. Carbon dating indicates that the cave was vacated more than a millennium ago.

We spent the night at Los Antiguos, which involved doubling back on ourselves – sometimes necessary unless you want to sleep in a tent or in a truckers’ motel – and taking a side-road west towards Lago Buenos Aires. Shared with Chile, where it is called Lago General Carrera, this immense body of water is South America’s second-largest lake (after Titicaca); our hotel was on its north bank.

I saw a grebe fishing and a flock of Andean geese foraging on the shores before night fell and the Milky Way came out.

Santa Cruz is archetypal. If it has some good roads, it also has – between Bajo Caracoles and the turning for El Chaltén – a lot of empty space. Because Argentine Patagonia was settled along the coast first and then in the mountains and then in the far south – to keep Chile and nasty imperial nations like Britain at bay – the central region of Patagonia has remained scant of population and development. We saw lots and lots of guanaco, choique and foxes, and a skunk. We saw high-altitude, cold-climate cirrus clouds and, occasionally, we’d spy a mountain peak or an isolated estancia. But, away from roadworks, we hardly saw any people at all.

The wind threw the words back down your throat in some areas (one sign declared: ‘Viva el Viento!’ – ‘Long Live the Wind!’). When we stopped for lunches by lakesides or on riverbanks, we sometimes found ourselves sitting on the tailgate, sheltering from the gusts. I imagined the winters, and shivered again.

To the end of the world

Our destination, El Calafate – with its new airport, glaciers and lake excursions – steals most of Patagonia’s middle-class tourists; tiny El Chaltén seduces its backpackers and walkers. But the Ruta 40 offers a sublime alternative, taking you to another Patagonia of estancias, sheep farms, guanacos, rich steppe and, eventually, to the coast. And all the while you are high on the freedoms of the open, car-less road. You revel in open space, which, as is the Einsteinian way of things, also has an effect on time.

On a bridge near Gobernador Gregores (we’d made a wrong turn but I didn’t care much by now), we met a friendly old chap and his son, driving a 1976 Ford Falcon. They were lost and had only 20 litres of diesel left, but they were grinning and in no hurry to get anywhere at all. Patagonia does that to people.

We didn’t have time for a hike at El Chaltén but we did eat a lamb stew from heaven. And at El Calafate, we got out on Lago Argentina, taking a day-trip to ogle the enormous Upsala Glacier.

We stayed in several hotels but the Estancia Monte Dinero, our final stopover at the end of the road, was the dreamiest of homes from home. At the very tip of Argentina, a few miles short of an isolated lighthouse and a colony of Magellanic penguins, it hugs the Chilean border. Surrounded by oil fields, it has no near neighbours, but has 20,000 merino sheep. Sharon Fenton, a fifth-generation member of the family that established the estancia in the late 19th century, oversees the hotel side of the operation with great warmth and enthusiasm – but this is a working estancia. Sheep are reared and sheared here, engineers come and go, gauchos round up the herds on motorbikes. We rode out on to the steppe with Sharon and her sister-in-law, Marcela, galloping the criollo horses along the Chilean border and chasing the wind. Afterwards, Kathryn and I climbed up the low ‘Money Mountain’ that gave the ranch its name and watched the westering sun set on the Magellan Strait.

We’d driven 2,300km on La 40 and about another 1,000km on detours. In six days. I’d do it all again, but slowly, and one day I shall go back to drive the entire highway. But it was a relief to park the car at last. Over barbecued lamb – cooked in the traditional manner, on a sort-of crucifix over an open fire – we could finally kick back, chatting to Sharon and her mum about the old days of estancia life (romantically), President Kirchner (less so), sheep, horses, weather and families.

Monte Dinero, however, is not on the Ruta 40. The planners of this iconic road, while they have erected the zero-kilometres sign beneath the lighthouse, have not got round to building a new road. So the journey actually ended on Ruta 1, which sounds neat enough. In any case, the Ruta 40 is one of the world’s great roads to –

and through – nowhere, and it seemed fitting to pose beside a sign that claimed, “The Ruta 40 starts here” and which pointed into the great Patagonian desert – that beautiful, stirring, vast nowhere at the end of the world.

Chris Moss is a travel writer and author of Patagonia: A Cultural History.

The author travelled with Audley Travel. A 14-day tailormade itinierary including six days driving the Patagonia section of the Ruta 40, three days at Estancia Monte Dinero and time in El Calafate and Buenos Aires, starts from £3,995pp. Proce includes all flights, transfers, 4WD vehicle hire and some excursions.

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