Ruta 40 – Road Tripping Argentine Style

I have come to the end of a very long road. I left off about four days ago in Bariloche planning a trip down route 40. I´ve now arrived in Puerto Natales and am getting ready for the NOLS trip. The last few days have been interesting. Before leaving Bariloche I ate at a relatively famous restaurant (apparently). It was a steak place…if you are going to eat meat anywhere in the world, eat it in Argentina. I had a filet mignon, but it was actually three filets, each about two inches thick, rare as could be despite my request for medium well. Tried to climb a mountain the next morning, but failed when we missed the bus and it started pouring. On Sunday I left on Route 40….here´s that story:
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Ruta 40 – Road Tripping Argentine Style

Jorge told me the bus would pick me up at my hostel at 6 AM. Standing next to my duffel and backpack on the curb at 6:30, I began to wonder if I´d been had. The ticket from Bariloche, Argentina to El Calafate via Ruta 40 had cost me nearly $150 and was the only way I could get to Puerto Natales in time for my NOLS course. A few minutes later, two fellow hostel residents from Ireland and Argentina dragged themselves up the curb, returning from a long night at the disco.

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¨Hola Phil! What are you doing up?¨ the Argentinian girl asked. I explained my situation, and my anxiety.

¨Ah….no te preocupas! This is Argentina….if the bus is not here by 9 AM, then begin to worry,¨ she expained.

Sure enough, the bus, an oversized Peugot minivan, lurched to a stop on the curb at half past seven. Damn Argentinian time. The two drivers lept out onto the sidewalk, tossed my bags in the first row of seats and directed me into the back of the micro. I took one of the two empty seats and nodded off to sleep as ¨Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds¨ crackled from the radio.

Ruta 40 is one of the major north south highways in Argentina, running from the far north all the way to the south end of Patagonia. Our trip would cover nearly 2000km and some 6 degrees of latitude. I shared the back of the micro with six others: two sisters from Switzerland, a slightly senile Japanese fellow, Marcelo from Argentina, and Pepe from Spain. The morning ride took us through the Andes of Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi, which surrounds Bariloche. Around 10:30 AM we reached the town of Esquel and picked up a Californian of Indian descent, Ritesh. The morning passed without incident, speeding down the paved road. Gradually the snow-tinged mountains
gave way to more open, drier terrain, reminiscent of eastern Wyoming. We were heading into Patagonia.

The micro stopped every few hours, at towns, estancias, or gas stations…each a bit smaller and dustier than the previous. As the hours passed, our views became steadily more desolate. We drove along the meseta patagonica, a plateau guarded from moisture by the Andes to the West and home to little more than sheep and armadillos. In the afternoon, a deep arroyo appeared to the west with a brilliant blue streak of a river meandering down the middle. Our road took a turn and dropped into the arroyo, nearly 100m deep and a few kilometers across. In the middle of the arroyo, we rolled into the dusty outpost of Rio Mayo.

Rio Mayo is the most desolate, depressing place I have ever seen. Dust blows constantly down the dirt streets, and the wind howls nonstop. There is no color, nothing but brown and grey, and the worn facades of a few shabby buildings are the only indication of civilization. So when our driver asked, would it bother me or the other passengers if we picked up a pair of stranded Argentinean backpackers, no one objected.

So we piled into the micro, now eleven in total. Every seat was taken, and the afternoon sun brought temperatures in the van to the very limit of bearable. As we gained the opposite side of the arroyo, the dirt and gravel road stretched on as far as the cracked windshield of our little Peugot allowed the eye to see.The ripío had begun.

Dust. It poured in through every crack and fissure, and billowed through the windows when the temperature became more than we could take. The dust coated our clothes, tinged our hair brown and gray, and choked our noses and throats. We bounced and skidded along the gravel at 50km/h at best, flung out of our seats at every guardagranado, bars laid across a gap in the road to prevent livestock from crossing in lieu of a fence. For two hours we were silent, overpowered by the dust and constant clang! and ping! of rocks on the undercarriage.

We reached a stretch of paved road again near Perito Moreno late in the afternoon. As the dust settled in the micro, Ritesh looked over his shoulder at me, eyes wide, and said simply ¨Wow.¨ Marcelo let out howl and we opened the windows full wide, blasting the settled dust out into the desert. Before long we arrived in downtown Perito Moreno, stretched out sore legs, and established ourselves for the night in one of the two local hotels.

Perito Moreno is the biggest town around, and consists of a main street with a few side streets, a few restaurants, a little mercado, and two hotels. Ritesh, Marcelo, Pepe and I wandered out of town into the ëmpty countryside a few hundred meters. Marcelo stretched, hair blown wild by the wind, looked at us and said ¨Bienvenidos a Patagonia!

A few hours later, the four of us sat around a table in a local restaurant, freshly showered,devouring three dollar pizzas. The elderly Japanese fellow, my roommate for the trip, declined to join us, nodding at a large beer and telling me in halting English that he would drink his dinner. Marcelo, 42, and Pepe, 26, had met the day before in Bariloche and had coinciding travel schedules, prompting them to team up for a trek around Cerro Fitz Roy in Patagonia. We talked in Spanish, discussing climbing the world over, politics, and our respective stories. Ritesh, 26, and I managed to hold our side of the conversation, hardly resorting to English for the two hours that we shared a table. I walked back to the hotel late under the brilliant stars of the Southern Cross and Orion.

The following morning we left promptly at 10AM Argentinian time….11:30AM for the uninitiated. We had a new vehicle, larger, this time with four cracks in the windshield and a trailer for the bags and four spare tires. Our journey for the day would be 700km on entirely ripío roads.

It is impossible to convey the desolation that is Argentinian Patagonia. There is nothing, as far as the eye can see, just rolling scrub and desert that never ends. The radio alternated from Norah Jones to eighties rock to powerful Gothic chorals, the latter being most appropriate for the imposing desert that spread away under a blanket of creamy lenticular clouds. We had some new travelers in our entourage, Argentinians, who passed a cup of yerba mate as the kilometers rattled by.

Even the mate, the ubiquitous bitter tea drank through a silver straw-filter here in Patagonia, couldn´t keep us awake for the duration of the drive. The hours dragged on….ten, twelve, fourteen hours passed. We became numb to the rough road and entraced by the desolate beauty of the country. From time to time we caught glimspes of armadillos by the roadside, or slowed to allow herds of guanacos to cross the road. A few ñandu, flightless birds related to emus, ran about the hilly desert. As it grew dark, the Cordillera de los Andes grew on the horizon, veiled by a tower of black clouds reminiscent of the evil places of fantasy novels. We arrived in el Chaltén shortly after midnight, dusty and exhausted.

In the morning, I hiked with Ritesh under the looming mass of Fitzy Roy. That montrous spire remained hidden from view, but the smaller but no less impressive Aguja Poincenot and Ajuga St. Exupéry graced us with their presence. We hiked the whole day, covering some 20km on foot, before I said farewell to Ritesh and caught a bus to el Calafate. Passed one night in Calafate, and this morning I came to Puerto Natales.

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My journey on Ruta 40 ended without fanfare, turning off the gravel by a colorful little gas station onto a freshly paved road. I glanced back at the gravel road stretching into the desert, marked by a simple white and black sign: ¨Ruta 40¨ and contemplated my experience over the last few days. They are paving the road to Puerto Natales, and the road to el Chalten. One day, not too far in the future, the dusty three day adventure I just had will be forever vanished, gone the way of cruises down the Three Gorges of the Yangtze. What an experience!

I´m sure my account is incomplete, but I haven´t the energy to write much more right now. Nor I imagine would you care to read it at the moment. I am in Puerto Natales now, relaxing for a day or two and warding off a cold. My NOLS course begins with a meeting tomorrow night, today I will eat well and wander about to find some of my coursemates. I will email again tomorrow, if you need to talk to me for whatever reason email me before tomorrow morning!

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