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Argentina's Ruta 40: Traveling the Backroad

In the Americas, there are highways that define the character of a country. In the US, it's Route 66. Chile has its Carretera Austral. For Argentina, Ruta Nacional (RN) 40 is the most famous and longest road. This 5,100-kilometer (3,060 mi) highway begins at La Quiaca on the Bolivian border and skirts the Andean cordillera south to Río Turbio near the Chilean border, then makes a sharp eastward journey along that frontier, ending at Cabo Vírgenes, southeast of Río Gallegos. The most sought-out section of this ruta by travelers is the stretch from Río Turbio to Esquel. As far as El Chaltén, the road is frequented year-round, for the many tourist hot spots along it. From there northward to Esquel, Ruta 40 is the loneliest of highways, with hundreds of kilometers between services and bus transportation only during the summer months. In winter, the road is essentially closed, as most support services shutter up. The only beings seen are guanaco, giant Patagonian hares and ñandú in this landscape of endless desolate plains edged by snowy mountains.

South from Esquel in Chubut Province, the well paved RN 40 zigzags through the quaint villages of Tecka (93 km / 58 mi; gas and other services) and Gobernador Costa (85 km / 53 mi; gas and other services). Just south of the latter, Ruta Provincial (RP) 20 aims east to Sarmiento (146 km / 91 mi), a small town between Lagos Musters and Colhué Huapi, and home of Monumento Natural Provincial Bosque Petrificado Sarmiento and dinosaurs roaming in Parque Paleontológico Valle de los Gigantes. RP 20 continues to Comodoro Rivadavia on the Atlantic coast’s RN 3.

From Gobernador Costa, Ruta 40 heads to Río Mayo, the National Sheep Capital of Argentina (210 km / 131 mi; gas and other services) and the end of the paved highway. Ruta 40 becomes a rough gravel road to Perito Moreno in Provincia Santa Cruz, an important crossroads town with all services (130 km / 81 mi). Located at the junction of RN 40 and RP 43, it connects Fitz Roy on RN 3 with Los Antiguos on the Chilean Border, gateway to that country’s famed Carretera Austral (paved, 82 km / 51 mi).

South of Perito Moreno to just north of Tres Lagos near El Chaltén, Ruta 40 is largely unpaved. Bajo Caracoles is the next settlement of significance (128 km / 80 mi; gas station, lodging, restaurant). Between Perito Moreno and Baja Caracoles are several estancias off the highway that are open only during the summer: Telkén (26 km / 16 mi, Tel.: 02963-43-2079, E-mail: telkenpatagonia@yahoo.com.ar), Los Toldos with its Hostería Cueva de las Manos (60 km / 36 mi, Tel.: 02963-43-2319) and Casa de Piedra (75 km / 47 mi, Tel.: 02963-43-2199, URL: www.cuevadelasmanos.net ). At Bajo Caracoles, RP 97 heads northeast to Cueva de las Manos, Argentina’s most important archaeological site painted with thousands of 10,000-year-old handprints (gravel, 40 km / 24 mi). RP 39 turns westward from Bajo Caracoles to Lago Posadas, also known as Hipólito Yrigoyén, with two lakes providing wonderful birdwatching, hiking an fishing opportunities (72 km / 45 mi).

Ruta 40 then enters its loneliest stretches. For 332 kilometers (206 mi) are no gas stations or mechanic garages. At Cruce Las Horquetas (104 km / 65 mi), RP 37 branches west-bound, deadending at Parque Nacional Perito Moreno, one of Argentina’s least visited national parks (80 km / 48 mi). Estancias Menelik (lodging, food; Tel.: 011-4152 5500, URL: www.cielospatagonicos.com) and La Oriental (02962-45-2196, E-mail: gesino@fibertel.com.ar) are just outside the reserve.

Fifty-six kilometers (35 mi) south of Las Horquetas, RP 29 branches off to Gobernador Gregores, a major mining center and the starting point for a tour following the steps of the 1920s striking estancia workers. Plans are underway to reroute RN 40 through Gobernador Gregores. From this city two highways head east to RN 3: RP 25 to Puerto San Julián (paved, 209 km / 130 mi) and RP 27 / RP 286 to Piedra Buena (partially paved, 210 km / 131mi).

Between Las Horquetas and Tres Lagos only a few estancias dot the highway, the two most important being La Angostura (158 km / 98 mi; Tel.: 02962-49-1501) and La Siberia on the shores of Lago Cardiel (22 km / 14 mi south of RP 29, Tel.: 02966-42-6972; camping, restaurant).

Tres Lagos is an enigmatically named town, as its landscape is devoid of any substantial body of water (gas, lodging, food). From this point southward, most of Ruta 40 is paved. Tres Lagos is another major crossroads town, with RP 286 heading east to Piedra Buena. Further south, RP 23 cuts west to Argentina’s Trekking Capital, El Chaltén on the north side of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares (partially paved, 75 km / 47 mi; lodging, restaurants, gas). The second access point to this popular national park is RP 11 (paved), 65 kilometers (40 mi) south of RP 23 which leads to El Calafate is (paved, 33 km / 21 mi; all services) and Glaciar Perito Moreno, one of the mighty glaciers flowing off the Southern Continental Ice Field. Between RP 23 and RP 11 is the legendary Estancia La Leona where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid reportedly stayed (lodging, restaurant; 02962-49-7442 / 011-5032-3415, E-mail: parador@hoteldecampolaleon.com.ar, URL: www.hoteldecampolaleona.com.ar). Nearby is Bosque Petrificado la Leona.

From the RP 11 junction, Ruta 40 continues 49 kilometers (31 mi) on to the crossroads with RN 5 shooting to Río Gallegos by way of La Esperanza (paved, 211 km / 131 mi). From this junction, Ruta 40 is unpaved to Estancia Tapi Aike (49 km / 31 mi; lodging) and then paved into Río Turbio, the country’s principal coal mining community which also has a well-known ski resort (100 km / 60 mi; all services). Just north of the Chilean border RN 40 turns eastward towards Río Gallegos, where it meets up with Ruta Nacional 3, and finally finishes its long journey at Cabo Vírgenes on the shores of the cold South Atlantic Ocean. (This last part of the road was formerly Ruta Provincial 1.)


TIPS FOR TRAVELING ARGENTINA'S RUTA 40
Whether travelling by bus, car, bike or hitching, all travelers undertaking the challenge of Ruta 40 should plan the journey carefully. Pack plenty of food and water. A sleeping bag is also useful. For more information of the estancias within Provincia Santa Cruz, visit: www.estanciasdesantacruz.com.

Bus

Travelers who dream of doing Ruta 40 are disappointed to find out there’s no buses when they get to that Argentine region. Indeed, to travel the famed highway takes a bit of planning. From October or November to April, some companies such as Marga, Chalten Travel, and others run service from El Calafate to Esquel and Bariloche in buses that look like something out of the Road Warrior, with metal mesh over the windshield. The rest of the year, service is limited to the route covering Río Gallegos, Río Turbio, El Calafate and El Chaltén. Also, as weather permits, an El Chaltén – Piedra Buena service operates. Further north on Ruta Nacional (RN) 40, between Tres Lagos and Perito Moreno, no buses traverse the solitary ruta, though some of the highways connecting the RN 40 with RN 3 do. These include Esquel – Sarmiento – Comodoro Rivadavia, Río Mayo – Sarmiento, Los Antiguos – Perito Moreno – Fitz Roy – Caleta Olivia.

The long summer run between Bariloche and El Calafate takes 4-5 days. Rest stops are taken every night, and departures are early every morning. Tickets may be purchased for any length of the journey. Services differ from company to company, so check around. The scenery can get boring: take along a book, some music, or keep a tally of the different models of cars used on the road signs. Any type of writing activity is an exercise in futility.


Car, Motorcycle, or Bike

Travelers traversing the highway in car, motorcycle, or bike will face many of the same challenges. From spring through autumn, winds are fierce, often reaching over 100 kilometers (60 mi) per hour, which will affect gas consumption. Drivers should plan carefully, fueling up whenever the opportunity arises, as some of the smaller settlements run out. Traveling on gravel presents its own challenges: go slowly and do not make sudden stops, as traction is difficult. If you go into a skid, do not over-steer. Beware of flying gravel. Car renters should check the agency’s policy on windshield coverage. Be sure your vehicle and tires (including spare) are in good shape. Do not drive or ride at night, and use your headlights at all times (it’s the law). Once the summer ends, services become even sparser. Snow and ice will close parts of the highway. Especially at this time of the year, check road conditions before continuing on.


Hitchhiking

Hitching Ruta 40 is the dream of some travelers. Be forewarned it is a difficult trip. Even though hitching is common in Argentina's Patagonia, this highway has little traffic even in summer. The hardest stretch according to the daring that have done the adventure is between Esquel and Perito Moreno, with the Perito Moreno to Tres Lagos leg coming in a close second. (One German couple spent five days hitching this part.) Be prepared to have to camp at the side of the road when night falls.









By Lorraine Caputo

Upon re-declaring her independence at age 29, Lorraine Caputo packed her trusty Rocinante (so her knapsack's called) and began...

26 Oct 2009

Things to do in Argentina's Ruta 40: Traveling the Backroad

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