Friday, January 21, 2011
Over the past twenty years, I have driven Argentine Patagonia’s legendary Ruta 40 (“La Cuarenta”) about a dozen times, but until this week, I’ve always done so from south to north. Last week, though, I entered the country at Los Antiguos and drove south from the town of Perito Moreno to El Calafate, where I am presently staying with my cousin Elisa Rodríguez (a guide at Parque Nacional Los Glaciares) and her husband Sebastián Bruni (also a guide here and beyond the region).
La Cuarenta has changed dramatically over those two decades - when I first drove the route in 1991, with my wife María Laura and our friend Bruce Caplan, we took four days to cover the roughly 600 km (or perhaps I should say the rough 600 km, as it was all rocks and gravel) from El Calafate. We made detours to destinations such as Parque Nacional Perito Moreno and, in the course of the trip, we saw a grand total of three other vehicles.
Almost half the route is paved now, and work is proceeding quickly, and not so quickly, almost everywhere else. In the interim, there are washboard detours and one segment near Estancia La Angostura that will continue to provide a taste of the original as La Cuarenta is rerouted east to pass through Gobernador Gregores, which has gasoline and other services, including hotels and restaurants. In fact, despite the increased traffic - I saw hundreds of buses, cars and motorcycles, and a few bicycles en route - there seem to be fewer services on the original route than in past years.
Over the many years I’ve traveled throughout the region, one of the highlights has always been an overnight at Estancia Telken, a poplar-sheltered sheep ranch roughly midway between Perito Moreno and the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Cueva de las Manos. My hosts there have always been Coco and Petty Nauta, descendents of Dutch and New Zealand immigrants respectively, who also welcomed tourists to the ranch - in fact, they even welcomed backpackers and cyclists, for whom they set aside a grassy campground with an enclosed kitchen and hot showers.
It was the guests in the main house and adjacent cabañas, though, who got the real family treatment - evening meals were a communal celebration that recalled the days when it would never have occurred to Patagonian ranchers to ask any visitor for payment. Rather, you felt that they simply enjoyed having guests and you felt like their invitee.
Unfortunately, as they aged, Coco and Petty finally acknowledged they couldn’t continue the strenuous task of running a ranch, and sold the property two years ago to a family from Comodoro Rivadavia. Still active, the Nautas retain a smaller property just outside Perito Moreno, but they are no longer innkeepers.
After two seasons as absentee proprietors, Telken’s purchasers finally decided it should be a simple sheep ranch rather than a roadside inn - one of few along this newly paved segment of La Cuarenta. There are other estancias alongside the highway, but none of them can match Telken’s hospitality, and the sign still standing along the highway is a reminder of what’s been lost.