Ruta Cuarenta - Route 40 Road Trip

Trip Start Nov 15, 2006
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Trip End Ongoing


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Where I stayed
La Leona Hotel

Flag of Argentina  ,
Saturday, April 28, 2007

The fabled route 40 ("Ruta Cuarenta") runs the entire length of Argentina from north to south parallel to the spectacular spine of the country - the beautiful Andes mountains - and passing through vivid and varied scenery.

At the time, we were fortunate on two counts - firstly to be travelling when public transport along the most inaccessable section of the route (El Calafate to Esquel) had stopped for winter, and secondly to be travelling with two like-minded companions - Wim and Ria from Holland - willing to devote 7 days of their life to this worthy pursuit!

There is something deep in the male psyche that is excited by the thought of isolation, adventure and danger (though not too much). Iīm sure Wim felt the same way as we planned the trip with military precision, bought large quantities of food, fuel for our stove, and carefully selected a family-run rental car company to assure the best chance of reaching the other end.

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Wim and I are standing, hands on chins as Luis from Nunatek Car Rentals assures us that the large, cumbersome 2-wheel drive people mover will be sufficient to run the gauntet of muddy roads, ice and snow. It's certainly not the beat-up landrover we are expecting or hoping for, but at least Wim and Ria will have a place to sleep if we canīt find a friendly estancia!

We depart from El Calafate driving the behemoth of vehicles in high spirits, take the obligatory ruta 40 photo huddled round a road sign in the freezing-cold early morning. Forty kilometres down the road Ria notices diesel leaking from the van and we return to El Calafate.

"Take 2" in a pocket-sized 4x4 Suzuki Vitara, more fitting for such an adventure, although more rust and less shine would be better.

We stop at La Leona hotel named for the mountain lion that attacked one of the pioneers at this location, and also famous as a hideout for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. At any rate, they make a great hot chocolate here, and have perfected the art of "get the key on the nail" a challenging game where a key suspended by string from the ceiling is swung pendulum-style until it catches on a hook on the wall. Not much else to do here to pass the time.

The next town is miserable Tres Lagos, a one-street forgettable pueblo memorable only for the youth that grabs his crotch when Anna waves to him.

Most of the driving is on gravel road (ripio) in reasonable condition, recently 
groomed for the last bus-run of the season a few weeks ago. Itīs late-afternoon when we hit our first difficult driving on a 200km detour to Lago San Martin - deep mud that makes a worrying but somehow satisfying scraping sound on the underside of the vehicle. Anyone who has driven a 4-wheel drive will know the familiar feeling of a vehicle taking on a life of its own as it slithers through ice and mud.

Lago San Martin is an opaque milky-turquoise colour so reminiscent of lakes in Patagonia. Large enough that the opposite shore seems distant, but small enough to be cradled neatly in a basin between mountains.  The track runs beside the lake through private estancias (giant farms) and as the sun sets, itīs here we meet the generous caretakers of Estancia Castillo. We ask if we can camp on their property and they show us to a basic concrete room with old foam mattresses - the shearers quarters.

It turns out our hosts are Parilla (a shepherd, amateur butcher, nomad and hermit whose name means "mixed grill") caring for the 10,000 sheep on the property over the winter, and Ruben (a conversation-starved father and ex-husband) who has been commissioned to paint all the farm buildings over the next month. They welcome us into the small kitchen lit by gas light and a wood stove and pass round a cup of mate (the strong bitter traditional tea of Argentina) - a wonderful tradition akin to smoking a peace pipe, or being invited to "join the inner circle" (a la Robert Dinero in Meet the Parents). We feast on fresh roast lamb, mashed potato, with home-made chimi-churi (a spicy argentinian salsa), special because this is not a paid experience, but an impromptu and random meeting with two genuine and warm-hearted people.

A brief aside here to describe Wim and Ria our travel companions, Wim an imposing figure with a wicked dead-pan sense of humour, and Ria with short unruly curly brown hair and an infectious laugh. Both are easy-going, keen travellers and in some ways very Dutch. Let me explain.

Anna had a Dutch father and was well acquainted with her Dutch relatives from the north of Holland, and she noticed a Dutch preoccupation with peeing at night - that is, being able to pee in the night with ease and comfort. To this end the Dutch sometimes use piss pots to alleviate the need to walk more than a couple of metres.

Wim and Ria improvise, Wim with a small untested metal coffee tin and Ria with a large plastic bucket. Personally I would choose the bucket (bigger target, greater capacity) and most importantly, water-tight. Fortunately for Wim, I have the forsight to suggest he gives the tin a test-run with water. It fails, miserably. The coffee tin becomes a much appreciated gift for Parilla. Full marks to Ria for choosing the best tool for the job.

The journey continues for seven days through deserted landscapes, front gates to estancias with no other evidence of any human existence, and countless rheas and guanacos. For lunch we usually stop by the roadside and pull out some bread rolls, cheese and salami with some fruit juice. Dinner is usually tuna pasta cooked in a tiny kitchen, in a cabin, or campsite, in some out-of-the-way place. One night we camp in the back yard (junk yard) of a mechanic amongst old tires, paint buckets and wire. The man says we can camp for free, but cannot use his toilet. In the morning, I pull out our trusty orange plastic spade, dig the regulation 30cm deep hole in the corner of the junk yard and Bob's your uncle.

We also visit an archeological site called "Las Cuevas de las Manos" (The Cave of Hands), where there are 8000-9000 year-old stencils in vivid yellows, oranges and reds, of hundreds of hands formed by blowing paint over hands pressed onto the rock wall. There is even a few six-fingered hands, suggesting that the genetic pool of the family groups inhabiting the caves was too small.

Later we reach a petrified forest set in a lunar landscape, towers and hills, shaped by the wind, and petrified trunks jutting out at odd angles.

Only once during the whole trip does the car not start and this was because the corrugations in the road had shaken one of the battery cables lose.

We finish our trip in Esquel after a visit to Parque Nacional Alerces where we stayed a night in a cabin in the forest. The park is famous for its mirror-like glacial lakes and the 3000 year-old Alerces pines that survive there. In this pristine wilderness we get tangled up with a group of noisy pensioners (behaving badly) from Cordoba (Northern Argentina). A break-away group of old ladies at the back of the pack with a severe need to pee encountered Ed taking photos and asked him kindly not to look while they dropped their panties. Afterwards, one was heard to comment to Anna, "Now your husband knows what good Argentinian meat looks like!"
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