Driving the Legendary Roads in Patagonia

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Ruta 40 is meanders for about five thousand kilometers along Argentina’s western border, through the Andes Mountains and the vast plains of Patagonia. It evokes images of the Wild West, of a vastness void of civilization, where for hours on end, no other humans cross your path.

Well stocked up, we leave Argentina’s southwestern town of El Calafate and have six hundred kilometers of Ruta 40 in front of us in order to reach the Chilean border.

Driving in Patagonia – the Ruta 40

The laterite road consists of gravel with thick stones. When passing another vehicle, drivers hold one finger against the windshield. It is said that this prevents the shattering of the windshield when it is hit by a stone. Whether this is true or not, we don’t know.

Coen keeps the Land Cruiser in the middle of the road so oncoming traffic has no other option than to slow down, which minimizes stones flying around. An advantage of the Land Cruiser is its straight windshield, which is easily replaceable. The modern, rounded windshields may look fancy, but in Argentina they may be a disaster when they need to be replaced because they are difficult or impossible to find.

A motorcyclist lies on the verge of the road. The Italian slipped on the gravel and probably broke his collarbone. He will remember what it is like to drive in the Wild West! For hours he lies there, moving as little as possible, while his three companions have returned to the nearest village, 150 kilometers away, to arrange an ambulance.

We have seen road workers twenty kilometers back. Maybe they can radio for help and we get ready to leave to check with them. There is no need, though. Just then the ambulance arrives: a pick-up truck bringing a large, wooden plank on which they will tie the motorcyclist. It will be a long and painful ride to the nearest hospital that lies somewhere beyond those 150 kilometers.

Eight Hundred Hands on a Rock

Bajo Caracoles is a dusty hamlet with a hotel, a campsite, three houses and a gas station. The latter is out of diesel, we have to wait three hours for a new supply. The few inhabitants make their living by providing services to the tourists that come here to visit the Cueva de los Manos.

To visit this Cave of Hands we first struggle across a horrendous fifty kilometers of deep craters and dizzying washboard. Because of the steep ascent the Land Cruiser can’t achieve the right speed to stay atop the rims, and our bodies are thoroughly shaken while the Land Cruiser develops a new squeak.

At last we arrive on a high plain where the earth has split and the Canyon with Rio de las Pinturas appears into view. Along the stream a narrow line of vegetation snakes through an immense emptiness and barrenness of yellow and brown.

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Cueva de los Manos houses Argentina’s oldest cave paintings and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Contrary to what we expected, there is no cave but images have been painted on the outside of a rock wall, protected by a cliff.

Over a length of six hundred meters are thousands of years old images of guanacos, hunting scenes and, most intriguing, about eight hundred images of hands, of which 95% are left hands. They are diapositive prints of hands. The artist sucked up some fluid with pigment through a blowpipe, placed his hand on the wall and sprayed the colored liquid over his hand, thus leaving the outline of his it on the wall.

Driving in Patagonia – The Carretera Austral

The border crossing of Argentina and Chile lies along a lake, which in Argentina is called Lago Buenos Aires, and in Chile Lago General Carrera. Whatever the name, the deep blue lake is mesmerizingly beautiful, with rock formations and peaks sprinkled with white on the far side. More potholes and megasized washboard; more shaking and bumping for us, and additional squeaks for the Land Cruiser.

It is all part of driving in Patagonia, where these types of roads are more the rule than the exception. No matter how fancy or robust your vehicle, it is bound to break down somewhere down the road.

The sun glistens in the water, coloring it silver, and in the far distance the snow-topped mountains beckon us to explore them. The Carretera Austral, just like the Ruta 40 in Argentina, appeals to the imagination of travelers. It is a 1200 kilometers’ long artery that connects north with south Chile – from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgings.

Due to the inhospitable nature of the area, colonization only started here in the late 1800s. Until then no more than a handful of indigenous tribes inhabited the area; most have been wiped out since the arrival of the white man. The Carretera Austral was mainly constructed in the 1980s under the dictatorship of Pinochet, and initially the road bore the name Carretera President Pinochet. Despite colonization, even now large areas have never been explored by man.

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Valle dos Exploradores

In the village of Puerto Río Tranquilo I hunt for groceries. Their availability is not self-evident with a few tiny stores all offering the same canned goods.

“No, we don’t really eat vegetables,” the shopkeepers tell me. “We mainly eat meat and potatoes.”

My catch consists of one capsicum and two avocados, which after much negotiation I bought from a cook in a hotel. Fortunately, the shops do have bread and the gas station does have diesel, so with our basic supplies stocked up we are ready to go.

Valle dos Exploradores calls out to us, a dead-end, uninhabited branch of the Carretera Austral. 

The track winds along a wildly rushing, sparkling river whose water we can drink and which is fed by numerous waterfalls that tumble off steep ravines. We are dwarfed by a savage countryside that is ruled by soaring mountains with never-melting, hanging glaciers. We explore various nooks of wood and water and, after having been chased away from several spots by aggressive horseflies, we find the perfect place to set up our first paradisal camp in south Chile.

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Cornering a Bull

After a couple of days we return to Puerto Río Tranquilo, where we are told a rodeo is about to begin. Along the edge of the village is a medialuna-arena (a half-moon shaped arena), where men on horses have to corner wild bulls. In Argentina cowboys are called gauchos, here they are called huascos. Most huascos work on estancias, where they herd cattle.

For the occasion the huascos are decked out in traditional outfits: striped trousers, short vests and ponchos, and fancy, leather boots with heavy spurs. While riding in pairs they have to pin the bull against a specific spot along the fence three times. When I ask a local how much time they get to achieve this, he looks at me with a bewildered look.

He reflects on the question for a moment before answering, “It is not important, the point is that they corner the bull three times. No, time is not important”. 

It typifies life in this part of the world. Time has no meaning, or at least a different one than ours.

Rodeos are all about machismo, about men showing their strength and riding abilities, and these Chilean huascos are indeed quite masterful. However, I am more impressed by how fast these bulls can be, and how at times they even outrun the horses. Whether is a question of fear or cleverness I don’t know, but quite a few bulls evade the cornering tactics, which costs the huascos penalty points.

Who Will Win the Battle?

We drive northwards. In the 1940s colonization advanced rapidly along this area. Europe needed agricultural produce and Chile decided to bring more land under cultivation. At the time, wood had no value and, for years on an end, forests were burned down to create new farmlands. For many kilometers we drive along eroded mountain slopes where blackened trunks still bear witness to this drama.

Through the years wood has increased in value and many international wood processing factories would like to buy up the forests. At the same time, civil engineers see the potential of this area to generate electricity by constructing dams. Supporters and opponents of the conservation of nature manifest themselves on billboards. Mira Como progresa Chile, (‘Look how Chile develops’) shout project developers of infrastructure and factories. Patagonia – sin represas, (‘Patagonia – without dams’) call the protectors of nature.

The Charm of Driving in South America

The Carretera Austral leads through valleys where slopes are covered in primeval rainforests and where verges consist of bamboo, ferns and huge rhubarb. The latter is called nalca. Locals eat it raw with a bit of salt. Snow-covered mountains and volcano tops, hanging glaciers, fjords, and glacier lakes teeming with fish all make this one of planet’s most extraordinary regions.

We stop to allow two huascos to herd their cows quietly along the Land Cruiser. A broadly smiling, heavy-set huasco in a wide, grey poncho and with a blue scarf around his neck halts his horse along the car. He has all the time in the world for a chat. For a while he is silent, just looking at us, as if absorbing what he is seeing.

“Here we have time. The whole day we are herding our cows,” he says finally. “Here life is good, contrary to life in the city. Here we have time and pure air.”

These are typical sayings of locals here, as well as in Argentina. Listening to these people makes us slow down even more, and we smile to hear them tell us how content they are with their lives, and the places they live.

The Downside of the Carretera Austral

Whether they are tropical or temperate, the word ‘rainforest’ imply lots of rain. Even though we have a couple of days with good weather, rain starts to fall and appears to let up anymore. On one of these wet days we drive to Puerto Cisnes, a quaint fishing village 32 kilometers west of the Carretera Austral.

A track leads along mountain walls with waterfalls that vary from a tiny stream to meters-wide masses of water that crash down in rivers and lakes. We are traversing one continual shower, and with all the holes the Land Cruiser has accumulated, this is a mission impossible – we are about to get mildewed.

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The pouring rain doesn’t stop anglers with knee-high boots from standing in the rivers and catching their fish. Salmon and trout are especially popular and we give the salmon a try in Puerto Cisnes. It is only later that we learn that salmon is not caught in the wild but is mainly cultivated, and is full of chemicals to battle diseases among the overly crowded salmon population.

Outside the village is a cemetery. The graves have no stones but consist of a heap of sand, surrounded by wooden or metal frames. They are decorated with plastic flowers. Thanks to the rain the flowers retain their colors and have not been faded by the dust.

There are too many children’s graves, also bedecked with flowers and toys – apparently the latter are not stolen. Too many babies who are born and die on the same day, it still happens. It shows the other side of the coin of this idyllic, remote countryside: medical care often comes too late or is unavailable for too many who live in these remote surroundings.

A Grumbling Land Cruiser

Back on the Carretera Austral the headlights stop functioning, hooting only produces silence and during another rain shower the windshield wipers go on strike. The combination is hardly desirable when you are trying to conquer a trail through impenetrable rainforest, in the mist.

Oh, the exhaust broke off again as well. We camp for a day so Coen can tinker with the Land Cruisre to make some improvised repairs. At least the headlights function again. It continues raining cats and dogs and we give up the idea of hiking in the region. No more views, no more idyllic camping; we are anxious to leave these now-less-than-idyllic rainforests.

By the time we arrive in Chaitén we look like drowned rats.

Our mood improves immediately at the sight of overlanding friends of ours, who started driving the Carretera Austral only days before we did. Together we drive ten kilometers north, to the beach of Santa Barbara.

One of the tough moments in Patagonia is to tear ourselves away from this lovely beach. In fact, it becomes one of our favorite rough camps. Daily dolphins come in groups and show off their jumps and leaps right in front of us. It is a rewarding end of our exploration of Patagonia’s legendary roads.

This article was first published in Toyota Trails.

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2 thoughts on “Driving the Legendary Roads in Patagonia”

  1. Extremely interesting article, as usual. This one is among those at the top of my list. Great photography and writing. I feel as if I were there and really wish I could actually be there. Thanks for sharing your travel adventures.

    John

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