Patagonia’s a huge region – Argentina’s sector is about the size of Texas and Chile’s is roughly the same as Germany – which means that the region provides almost limitless opportunities for a road trip. I’ve written here often on Chile’s scenic Carretera Austral, but I’ve paid less attention recently to Argentina’s Ruta 40, which parallels the Chilean highway.
Connecting northernmost Argentina’s border with Bolivia to the southernmost tip of its continental territory, facing the open South Atlantic, Ruta 40 is a legendary highway – comparable to Route 66 in the United States. Many US musicians have covered the rhythm and blues standard “Route 66,” but Argentina’s Dylanesque singer-songwriter León Gieco has recorded a series of albums covering the geographical (and musical) distance from La Quiaca (in the north) to Ushuaia (in the south), with assistance from Oscar-winning composer Gustavo Santaolalla. Their musical route strayed from Ruta 40 at times, but always pointed in the right direction.
I have driven most (but not quite all) of Ruta 40, most memorably in in 1991, when my wife, a friend and I took four days in southern Patagonia to cover the distance between El Calafate and the more northerly town of Perito Moreno on what was then a precarious gravel road – though now it’s an almost entirely paved parallel to its Chilean counterpart. In a rattling 1969 Peugeot panel truck (pictured below) I got from my father-in-law, we covered some 500-plus kilometers in four days and saw a total of three other vehicles. En route, our transmission lost first and fourth gears, so we made most of the trip in second and third (eventually we were able to repair it in Bariloche).
Unlike the forested Chilean route, the Argentine side consists mostly of scrubby steppes which, however, in the words of Charles Darwin, were notable for “the free scope given to the imagination.” Many times I’ve crossed the “Big Sky Country” of Montana, but this was even “Bigger Sky Country.”
But there were individual sights to remember. One was a westward detour to the splendid isolation of Parque Nacional Perito Moreno (pictured above, not to be confused with the Perito Moreno Glacier), where we were the only visitors on the eastern front range of the Andes. Another was the desolate settlement of Bajo Caracoles, still home to the only gas station along the route and a landmark roadhouse hotel. Then there was the Cueva de las Manos - now a UNESCO World Heritage Site - for pre-Columbian paintings of human hands, wildlife and even abstract designs in the canyon of the Río de las Pinturas (pictured below).
In the ensuing years, I’ve driven this segment and more at least another dozen times. The road and its services are constantly improving – guest ranches and even restaurants are more common – but it’s the vast landscape that brings me back to an area that, to paraphrase Darwin, has taken “so firm a hold on my memory.”
There is also public transportation, at least in summer, from El Calafate and El Chaltén north to Los Antiguos (and beyond to Bariloche), with Chaltén Travel and Taqsa. At those destinations, and at several other locations, it’s possible to cross the border and continue the road trip on the Chilean side.