Wednesday, September 21, 2011

In Patagonia: a Poorly Planned Road Trip

Last Sunday’s New York Times travel section featured Latin America and, but for a piece on Panamá and brief mentions of Belize and Nicaragua, it’s almost entirely on South America. It goes from the top (Colombia) to the tip (Patagonia), and even included a two-page spread on Suriname, an underrated destination that I once covered for a rival guidebook company whose name is best left unmentioned.

I almost always appreciate coverage of a region that gets so little attention from the mainstream press but, that said, an account of a so-called “road trip” through Argentine Patagonia was a botched opportunity. Author Brienne Walsh planned to drive the legendarily desolate Ruta 40 – which I have described as “Patagonia’s loneliest road” - south from Bariloche to El Calafate. In the article, she claims that a well-known international car rental agency would not allow her and a friend to take their vehicle down the route because of safety concerns, specifically “black ice and potholes.”

That’s not totally unreasonable. While I’ve driven this route at least ten times, I’ve never done so in winter. At the same time, it’s not so much the road conditions – much of Ruta 40 is now well-paved and potholes are fewer even in the remaining gravel sections – as the shortage of services.  Beyond Esquel, about 300 km south of Walsh’s starting point, fuel, food and accommodations are even scarcer than in summer.

Thus, Walsh and her companion had to make the long drive southeast across the steppe from Esquel to Comodoro Rivadavia. Even though they did take advantage of the route to visit the remarkable Bosque Petrificado Sarmiento (pictured above), a fascinating petrified forest, before heading south of Comodoro, they wasted much of the limited winter daylight.

In fact, poor planning caused them to miss at least one major attraction. Their hotel porter in Bariloche suggested they visit Puerto San Julián, which they finally skipped in favor of continuing south to Río Gallegos and El Calafate. I can’t disagree with that, especially in winter, but they totally missed the route’s most appealing destination, the dramatic headlands of wildlife-rich Parque Nacional Monte León (pictured above), midway between San Julián and Río Gallegos. While the wildlife is less abundant in winter, the scenery on this brief detour is still rewarding.

Certainly Walsh and her companion deserve credit for visiting the Moreno Glacier in winter, when there are far fewer visitors. But their trip would have gone much better had they started in Puerto Madryn – gateway to the whale-watching site of Península Valdés (pictured above) – and avoided the long drive across the Patagonian steppe. They could still have detoured to the petrified forest and had time to visit Monte León as well. As it was, poor planning led to lost opportunities.

Moon Handbooks Buenos Aires in Millbrae (San Mateo County)

Thursday September 29 will mark the last of four digital slide presentations on the fourth edition of Moon Handbooks Buenos Aires, at various branches of the San Mateo Public Library. This event starts at 1 p.m. at the Millbrae Library (1 Library Avenue, Millbrae, CA 94030, tel. 650/697-7607). There will be ample time for questions and answers, and books (also including Moon Argentina and Moon Chile) will be on sale (at a discount).

Next month, I will be on the road promoting the new third edition of Moon Handbooks Patagonia. Most of the events will be in the San Francisco Bay Area, but I will also be appearing in Seattle and Bellingham, Washington; Vancouver BC; Santa Fe, New Mexico; and Pasadena, California. Watch this space for details.

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