Ruta 40

Trip Start Jun 09, 2005
Trip End Jun 08, 2006

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Flag of Chile  ,
Wednesday, March 1, 2006

Three times a week El Chalten Travel run a bus north, following the famous ´Ruta 40´, as far as Los Antiguos 900km away. This rough dirt road is as far west as it is possible to be in Argentina.

We buy our tickets in advance for 165 Argentinian Pesos (about GBP 28.00), and get on the packed bus. We say hello to Pieter, a South African, who asks us about our vague plans to head further north on the Carretera Austral through the least populated parts of Chile.

We have become quite accustomed to long bus journeys in our travels and we sit back surrounded by books, food, an MP3 player, and of course each other, to while away the hours.

At first I am confused as we seem to be heading south, but then I remember that there is only one main road out of El Chalten, and our steps have to be retraced before we can head north again. At the point where we pick up the northbound road, we gain some more passengers, and amongst them is are the first Scottish couple I´ve seen in many months. He is tall and thin and deathly pale, and she is round and plump and cheerful. As he smokes a cigarette outside the bus he tells me he is relieved to be talking to someone with a Scottish accent.

After a very few kilometres, the tarmac runs out and the gravel road begins. As the bus slowly crawls along I understand why this journey will take 14 hours. I also understand why the tickets are so expensive, as this harsh road surface slashes the life expectancy of vehicle chassis components.

The journey passes slowly and after a few hours we meet our first car in the vast patagonian wilderness. The driver waves vigorously, happy to see another road user after so long. A while later I see a cyclist appear on the horizon. I can´t believe that people would choose to cycle through such a flat barren wilderness on the most lonely road in the world.

After a while we stop for a pee break at a little house in the middle of nowhere beside a river crossing. There is a baby guanaco in the garden that tries to steal food from anyone who looks like they might have something appetising. Eventually a guy eating a sandwich gives up and gets back on the bus because of the persistent youngster. Everyone stands round bored waiting for the bus to get back on the road again, and wondering if they will be the next victim of guanaco harrasment.

A couple of times the driver stops and indicates that this is a good place to stop and take a photo. On both occassions I look out at the expanse of flat brown earth and sky and wonder how any photograph taken here could have aesthetic interest.

Late in the day we stop beside a little roadside shrine where the words Gaucho Gil are daubed in red paint on the rocks. There is a red flag fluttering in the breeze and a little virgin mary inside a small shrine which contains some offerings such as biscuits and mineral water. After asking many questions of my fellow passengers I find out that apparently Gaucho Gil was a Robin Hood style outlaw who roamed Patagonia, and the red flag indicated he was welcome in these parts. Apparently these sites are dotted all over Argentina and people stop beside them in their cars and have picnics. I make a mental note to find out more facts about this strange custom, for example is he still out there?

Soon the sun is setting and the sparse clouds are lit up like huge chunks of orange peel in the reddening sky. We enjoy the light show for about half an hour until the last vestiges of red and orange are banished from the sky. I remark to Rachel that it was a pretty good sunset and she nods sleepily in her chair.

Soon we are in the town of Perito Moreno (not to be confused with the Glacier further south of similar name), and about half of the bus empties out there to continue their travels. As we are leaving town three Israeli boys start shouting in the back of the bus - Chico Baņo - which was their way of telling the driver to stop because one of their friends, a girl, is still in the toilets. We U-turn and collect a calm looking Israeli girl, who seems much less concerned about being left behind than her three male friends on the bus.

Two hours later, about 11pm we finally roll into Los Antiguos on the Argentine Chile border. I think we met a total of two cars during the 900km trip. We stay in a little hostel where the bus terminates (which costs 25 Argentinian Pesos or 4 GBP each per night), and share a room with Pieter, an Ozzie couple, and a Frenchman who inexplicably seems to have arrived before the rest of us.

We take a bite in one of the only restaurants in town and bump into a tall American called Jonathan who is seeking out the most innaccesible trout fishing places in the world. He has just spent the last four weeks travelling to wild and remote rivers in Chile, where he tells us that in the vast Rio Baker the water was 10 metres deep and he could see the bottom clearly. He caught several 4kg trout with a fly rod.

In the morning Rachel, Pieter, and I decide to try to get the bus the short distance over to Chile Chico on the Chilean side. The hostel owner Eduardo goes on at length in Spanish about how to get the bus, and eventually we understand that the bus will come to the hostel at 10am. Just after 10am there is no bus, and I see Eduardo who explains that it is not coming, and we have to take another at 11.30am from the shop round the corner. Rachel and I go off to the tourist information and take a quick look around the town before heading to the supermarket to stock up on food for the day. We have just filled the basket with fruit and veg when we remember that we are crossing the border and we cant take it into Argentina. After laboriously emptying it back out again we head to the checkout to pay for a couple of items and see a minibus outside with Pieter in it. Aha, we think - the illusive bus to Chile - but its only 11am.

The minibus driver takes us back to the hostel where we grab our bags and head round the corner to the shop, where eventually we leave at midday. Pieter is pretty annoyed as he has been driven all over the town, looking for passengers, for nearly two hours.

The short 8km trip to Chile Chico takes nearly another couple of hours because of the border formalities, but eventually we arrive in the windy, but colourful little town, having wasted almost half the day just travelling 8km.

We sort out our onward travel arrangements, deciding to take the bus on the long circuitous route around Lago Buenas Aires, to Coyhaique, because the ferry across the lake is fully booked, and we have also heard that the roadtrip is an experience not to be missed.

We meet Gaelle, a Belgian girl who we have seen on several occasions before, most notably in Torres del Paine. She tells us that Estancia Patagonia is good place to stay in town, and so Pieter, Gaelle, Rachel and myself head back through town to find it. The house is set in a pleasant orchard and all around it is liberally decorated with old farming equipment. Inside, the house is warm and welcoming and a cheerful landlady called Erica greets us and shows us the rooms. It is definitely the nicest place we have seen in South America and it comes as no surprise at 9000 pesos per person (about GBP9.00). However, Gaelle does some sweet talking and gets us a discount to 7000 pesos. Rachel and I look with satisfaction at the huge room, with large wooden double bed and crisp linen sheets - a welcome change from cramped and busy hostels or a cold tent.

I learn from Gaelle that the house is famous because it is the family home of Belgians who emmigrated to Chile in the 1950s. The life of those settlers was captured in the award winning film ´Le Reve de Gabriele´, composed of oringinal cine footage shot by the family, and some new material. Apparently the grandaughter of Gabriel still runs the guesthouse there, but is visiting Santiago when we arrive.

In the evening we eat a huge dinner in the house (for 5500 pesos or GBP5.50 each) consisting of steaks, potatoes, beetroot, carrots, lettuce, and bread followed by ice cream. Rachel brings along a good bottle of Chilean 120 Cabernet Sauvingon which cost just 1900 Pesos (about GBP2.00) in the local supermarket. After dinner, the landlady gives us a copy of Le Reve de Gabriel, and we sit down on a sofa draped with a (real)puma skin on it to watch the movie. After about 30 minutes Rachel and I can stand no more French with Spanish subtitles, and we retire for the night, leaving Gaelle and Pieter to enjoy the rest of the film (Pieter doesnt really like it either but we guess his interests lie elsewhere).

In the morning we wander back down through the town with our heavy bags to the tourist information where we can get the bus for the next leg of the journey north to Coyhaique. This will be the start of our trip on the Carretera Austral, a ribbon of gravel that connects some of Chili´s most isolated communities and some of the most beautiful unexplored parts of the country.
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