Monday, March 3, 2008

The Romance of Ruta 40 (Route 40)


In the States, we had the legendary Route 66 that personified the United States in the 40s and 50s and featured the diversity of our cities and landscapes. It passed some our most prized natural treasures like the Grand Canyon. The ultimate road trip was to travel its length from Chicago to LA.

The equivalent in Argentina is Ruta 40. It runs tip to tip up Argentina's western region. It passes through Salta, Mendoza, Bariloche, El Chaltén, El Calafate and on down to Tierra Del Fuego.

Most all of the natural treasures Argentina offers are a stone's throw away from Ruta 40. The biggest attraction though is the shear sense of isolation one feels once they leave the lake region south of Bariloche.

Between Bariloche and El Chaltén the road diverts away from the mountains and crosses the Patagonian plains. It is mostly flat empty desert spotted with dried pampa grass and shrubs. And it goes on and on for 1,000s of kilometers.

Nothing but you, your car, the dirt road (yes it is mainly a dirt road) and endless nothingness as far as the eye can see.


I was drawn by the mystique of traveling this stretch of Ruta 40. Only we had no car and rental cars were outrageously expensive. The one-way drop off fee alone was over $700. We even looked into buying a car because it would of been way cheaper than renting. Only, the red tape was too daunting.

Chaltén Travel to the rescue. Chaltén Travel offers a two day bus trip tour between Bariloche and El Chaltén, with an option of continuing on a third day to El Calafate. They can even tack on a side trip to the Cueva de Los Manos.

¡Perfecto!. Or so we thought.

We paid more than we would have if we had used a normal bus service like Andesmar. But, we were told that we would stopping for lunch and breaks along the route. Plus, anytime we wanted to stop and take pictures all we had to do was ask.

No problem. We thought it sounded better to have a guided tour bus than doing the overnight bus and sleeping through it all.


We'll the bus was old, dirty, uncomfortable and had no air conditioning. The only stop for lunch was at a gas station for 15 minutes where we all fought over 3 day old ham and cheese sandwiches. When we got to the town with our hotel for the night, we were told it was the only one with a grocery store and we better buy provisions for food for the next day's 12 hour ride.

The only problem, our bus arrived in the town a quarter till 9:00. The stores all closed at 9:00. So all thirty of us rushed to closest of the two stores and fought over the last remaining bits of bread, deli ham, and cheese. I picked through the mostly rotten and bruised fruit they were selling.

The next day was a twelve hour ride. Our crew and bus were switched out and our new bus was even more beat up with cracks and holes all over the windshield. We lost our "host". And the new crew didn't speak English. And when we did ask them questions they shrugged as if they didn't know and refused our requests for stops.

Fortunately, we didn't need an English guide. It was just that everyone else on the bus (mostly Europeans) were told that we would have a tour guide who spoke English.

As far as Route 40, it was truly awe inspiring in its vast emptiness. Only it was hard to get a sense of its true isolation when you are surrounded by 30 other people.

If you want to get from Bariloche to El Chaltén, fly or take a regular coma-class bus (one were the seats convert to a bed). Please don't waste your money on Chaltén Travel's non-tour.

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