Finally on the Ruta 40! The way had been long and not exactly easy (a lot harder than expected actually) but it doesn’t matter; we had made it and now we couldn’t wait to be part of something so epic that it’s difficult to explain in words, but this is a cycle touring Blog, so we have to try…
Having said that, we really don’t want this to be a typical blog entry in which we tell you what we did, where we went and when we went there, add some pretty pictures and slap it on the Internet. Actually, if you do want some more specifics and like watching videos, there’s a few short Vlogs dedicated to the 40 on our YouTube channel and you may see our precise itinerary (including all the places we slept) here. Anyway, as a way to give you as much pertinent information as possible, let’s actually talk about concrete aspects of our time spent there. Let begin with…
The actual road
Years ago, the Ruta 40 followed the foothill of the Andes and was just a very wide dirt path. Some remnants are actually still visible here and there but most of it was either paved (more on that later) or was renamed something else as the Ruta was rerouted. You see, a while back the government finally decided that it needed a face-lift and the 40 was moved slightly to the east, where it’s flatter and easier to construct. The result is a narrowish two-way single carriageway which has made road transportation a lot easier for locals, tourists, and long haul truck drivers, but has lost most of its awesomeness by no longer going through the mystical places it once served. It does kind of take you close to some of these, sometimes, but getting there by bicycle usually means taking a several days detour along very complicated gravel roads and with absolutely no infrastructure of any kind around (not even small villages for food).
Oh, and when we said “mostly paved” we meant that there are several famous parts which were “mysteriously” never completed and which are usually very adventurous… More info here.
Another annoying thing about this new 40 is that it seems to skillfully avoid any Estancia (ranch-like farms) along the way. For obvious reasons, these historically sat close to the road, now they are more often than not so far away that a homemade sign is the only clue as to where they may be found and, most importantly, are very seldom accessible due to the fact that their gates are always locked with no way of getting in touch with the people living there.
We spent Christmas in Malargüe meaning that the holidays season was upon us! In Argentina, like in most countries in the Southern Hemisphere, the summer holidays are mostly in January and February and, as far as traffic is concerned, we can only highly recommend staying away from touristic places such as those mentioned in the next part of this entry because it gets really busy! In some cases, such as La Ruta de los 7 Lagos (along the 40 between Junín and Bariloche) and El Bolsón, we’re talking bumper-to-bumper-traffic-on-the-actual-40 busy! And this, combined with the fact that most Argentinians are pretty bad behind the wheel (you often see them with a phone in one hand and the maté in the other), makes for lots of not so great souvenirs.
Apart from these tourist hot-spots, traffic is pretty quiet but fast so be prepared to use your rear view mirror often and to get at least one hairy moment per day.
Although La 40 seldom goes through the many incredible Patagonian national parks, it does however sometimes bring you very close to them. Good examples are El Chaltén (the only one serviced by a tarmac road and by far one of the most beautiful corners of our planet), Los Alerces, or Perrito Moreno. If you fancy stretching your legs for a while but you don’t want to go there by bike, a good option is to leave it with someone trustworthy (Argentinians are lovely and very loyal) and hitch-hike there (common, easy and safe) or just get a bus; tourism here is well developed and efficient.
So, you like the outdoors right? Well, you’re gonna love the 40! One challenge it offers is big, empty spaces and huge distances between burgs. Sometimes you have to pedal more that 200 kms before seeing signs of civilisation! This, of course, means carrying a lot of supplies and being ready to sleep almost anywhere. While “out there”, we experienced everything from an abandoned farm with a little stream quietly rolling through it, to a gutter (to be fair though, it was a pretty big one and it offered great shelter from the wind).
One very important piece of information that we’d like to share with you is that although the distances can be huge, there is often salvation to be found somewhere halfway; we are of course talking about the AGPV “yellow houses” A.K.A. Vialidad. They are basically road maintenance buildings scattered across the land (not only on the 40) and great places to sit and wait for a storm to pass and have a mate or a tea, a chat with a lonely “puestero” and, more importantly, sleep. They have saved us from cold nights or horrible weather more times than we can count and we’re incredibly thankful for it. Oh, sometimes these houses are not being used. Doesn’t matter, their walls still offer great shelter from the wind! Apart from these, another great piece of news for us cyclists are places such as Los Tamariscos (between General Costa and Rio Mayo) or Bajo Caracoles; remnants of a time when the 40 wasn’t paved and service stations where much more frequent and necessary. These “oasis” are just what you need and they are normally great places to meet other slow travellers and share tips about the road up ahead.
Most of the Argentinian Patagonia is considered a steppe and so people have the tendency to describe it as boring, but we would disagree with that; it’s true that it can be a bit “samey” but it definitely does have its charme and beauty, especially to us Europeans who have not often witnessed such vast spaces!
For the same reasons as those described in the previous part, weather is also a big player while on the 40 and the king here is definitely the wind. Yes, locals will warn you about it incredibly often and their stories are true; Patagonian wind is out to get you! While we “know” wind, it must be said that some parts of the Ruta are very well known for being consistently windy… like real REAL windy; over 60km/h with gusts of up to…well, a lot more. We dedicated an almost whole Vlog to it here. Anyway, it’s advisable to download a Wind app just to keep an eye on that. A couple of times we decided to have a day off after seeing the forecast and we were super happy about it! One of our main concerns was crossing path with other vehicles. As we said, the road is really not that wide and drivers tend to have a heavy foot in these areas. Add a strong cross wind and you have a pretty dangerous situation…
Unfortunately, the 40 mostly runs through some pretty barren areas. To be frank, there are a lot of animals but 90% of them are Guanacos; lama-like creatures which you’ll see a lot of… whether dead or alive! They are especially common south of Esquel. Although it’s true that you will see a lot of dead ones next to the road (victims of the fast traffic), most of these elegant jumpers are actually killed by the fences that farmers put up to keep their cattle from wandering the land endlessly. Apart from these, there’s lots of Condors whenever you get close to any biggish rock formations, Dwarf Armadillos and Ñandú (smallish ostriches) are pretty common too and, last but not least, very little vegetation, so much so that the few waterways which are significant enough to get the appellation “river” are visible from very far away because of the green growth around them!
Maybe the biggest surprise for us was learning that the lakes and rivers around here are teaming with trout and salmon… something worth thinking about if you like fishing (or would like to learn).
We hope we didn’t sound too pessimistic, we did truly enjoy everything that we saw, we just want to warn readers not to expect a tropical rain forest!
Well, of course there’s people! However, as you head south, towns and villages do become more and more scarce and, although locals are used to seeing crazy people on bicycles fighting against the wind like mad along eternal straight lines, most of them are fascinated by “what we do” and do enjoy a bit of a chat. Sadly we very seldom tested their hospitality because but whenever we did, people always helped us the best way they could. The truth is that anytime we had the chance, we would always try to rent a cheap room somewhere in order to rest (and work, don’t forget that we’re also “cyber-nomads” now XD!) Accommodation, by the way, gets systematically more expensive the further south you go.
One of those rare places where the Ruta 40 is still almost at its original best is between Río Gallegos and La Esperanza. They didn’t alter the road here simply because they actually built a huge shortcut across the steppe thus saving many kilometres to those not wishing to go all the way around Río Turbio. But we didn’t want to save kilometres, we wanted to see what was there (and we wanted to avoid the boring straight line ahead of us), and we loved it! Along the way, we got a glimpse of the Torres del Paine National Park which sits across the border in Chile, near Río Turbio we cycled through a pretty awesome canyon and, probably what we actually preferred about this section, it was mega quiet. Utterly recommendable “deviation”.
Logically, what can be found in a town or village varies enormously but, generally speaking, in this part of the world most settlements will normally offer: a shop or two, a main square/park, some kind of fast food joint, a police station, possibly a bar, a campsite, and at least two hotels or similar (normally a cheapish one and a fancier one). So fear not, you only have to carry supplies for the time you will spend in-between towns. We’d thought we’d underline this fact since we would often get told that we wouldn’t find food in the next place but then always did.
Last but not least, a personal word of advice; don’t think that you have to stick to La Ruta 40 just because you said you’d do that, there are heaps of interesting spots just next to it and it’s always very rewarding to leave the 40 on the side for a while and take a small, parallel detour for a while. We did so several times and we were always thrilled. Here’s a quick list;
- Between San Rafael and Malargüe; the Atuel River Canyon, a geological masterpiece.
- Between Barrancas and Chos Malal; the Tromen Trail, difficult but truly beautiful.
- Between Las Lajas and Junín de los Andes; Pino Hachado, Villa Pehuenia and the Aluminé Valley; simply breathtaking and quiet.
- Between Epuyen and Esquel; Los Alerces National Park, a smaller (but equally beautiful) and less known version of 7 Lagos.
This time around we only experienced the bottom half of the Ruta 40 and, all in all, we had a blast! Looking back now at all those landscapes, food types, people and challenges that we faced does bring a huge smile to our unevenly sunburned faces. However, we have said this before and will probably say it many time again: it wasn’t easy and it should not be taken lightly. Its physically demanding long distances, its mentally strenouos winds and very complicated logistics make it a route that not everyone will be able to face and fully appreciate but which leave you with hundred of stories with which to annoy your friends over and over again, thousand of memories to cherish and a great insight into a n amazing corner of our unique little planet.
As always, don’t forget that you can also find us on Instagram, Facebook and YouTube where, among many others, there’s also some great videos about our time spent on the Ruta 40. If you don’t follow us on any social media sites but enjoyed reading this blog entry, please consider following us as this will enable us to grow and will keep you updated on our progress, publications, etc.