Though it may not look like much, Sierra Grande is still a welcome sight to southbound motorists on Argentina's Ruta Nacional 3, the highway that starts in Buenos Aires and ends, 3,200 km later, at Bahía Lapataia, in Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego. That's because Sierra Grande is the northernmost point where motorists like myself can fill the tank at, "Patagonian prices," a discount from rates in the rest of the country.
That's presuming fuel is available, which is no sure thing this summer. Monday morning, I left the city of Viedma with three-quarters of a tank, plenty to cover the 300 km to Sierra Grande, where I could fill up more cheaply. When I passed the city of San Antonio Oeste, though, I became a bit concerned – a little more than halfway to Sierra Grande, it had huge lines at its only service station, and I wondered whether northbound drivers had been unable to fill up there. I’d already seen long gas lines in Villa La Angostura, San Martín de los Andes and elsewhere, so this might become an issue.
As it turned out, my concerns were overblown. Sierra Grande has several service stations, and the longest was at the state-run YPF, which is the cheapest – high-octane super costs 7.14 pesos per liter (roughly US$3.94 per gallon at the official rate, but only $2.71 per gallon at the “blue dollar” rate). This is about 20 percent cheaper than fuel farther north.
Some years ago, longer than I care to remember, “Patagonian prices” for fuel were barely half what they were in the rest of Argentina, thanks to a tax break that supposedly encouraged settlement and economic activity in this thinly populated part of the country. Given how the differential has declined in recent years, that may be on the way out and, in any event, the price doesn’t matter much if there’s no supply. When I arrived at the village of Puerto Pirámides (pictured above), gateway to the wildlife paradise of Península Valdés, its only station had been without fuel for several days, with the nearest available at Puerto Madryn – a distance of nearly 100 km.