Monday, March 23
Since we had somewhat of a late night last night, it was hard to pull ourselves out of bed earlier than 8:30 am this morning. We ate a healthy breakfast of yogurt and fruit we purchased yesterday and were on the road before by 9:30 am. The border crossing was fast and easy. The Argentinean aduana official warned us that “La Cuarenta” (the legendary Ruta 40) will be hard because of the strong winds combined with poorly maintained loose gravel (ripio) surface. Yes, we had heard this before many times and were prepared to hit one of the most remote and difficult stretches of this 5,224 km road albeit much later in the day than we should have.
After the border we followed a paved road to the town of Perito Moreno for a quick fill up on gas and an ATM withdrawal, and got on RN-40 which for the first few kilometers was paved but turned quickly into dirt. The scenery was mostly dry and flat pampas, passing occasionally through harsh meseta, rocky outcrops and patches of desert.
The road condition did not make for a pleasant ride and demanded the outmost mental and physical concentration. The two most hindering factors of the road were the excess of ripio on some patches of the road which were extremely slippery and unstable, and the deep and sometimes narrow tracks made by cars that once chosen were really hard to get out of. The wind was strong and sometimes pushed us over the bend to the next track as we tried to maneuver through the ripio, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as we expected. It is an advantage of traveling in Patagonia later in the season in March/April, although it is definitely colder, the winds are less severe and there are less tourists.
I did not enjoy this stretch of the road. Having heard so much about Ruta 40, I really could not understand why people are so fascinated by it. It was boring and laborious. While navigating through the dusty ripio I was reminiscing about the beautiful and enjoyable Carretera Austral in Chile. The road conditions weren’t any better there, but the scenery was so much more rewarding.
We reached the town of Bajo Caracoles around 3:15 pm, surprised at having done very little progress. This was the last island of civilization before 350 km of nothingness. We filled up on gas and had a quick bite to eat. Two insipid sandwiches, a bag of chips, two ice cream cones and two cokes set us back $18. I guess you have to give them credit for having ice cream available in the middle of the desert.
We were back on the road by 4 pm, knowing we had a long-drawn-out evening ahead of us. Near Las Horquetas, the 40 turned east and to our great delight it was paved. Riding on cloud nine with wind at out backs did not last long, and we were soon back to dirt.
The late afternoon’s sun angle was illuminating the land that stretched to the horizon revealing the kind of panorama that embodied my concept of Patagonia. We stopped frequently to take pictures and very much enjoyed the scenery, though it did not seem foreign to us. Some stretches of our last two days in Bolivia were very similar to this Patagonian landscape.
We had a choice of spending the night at an estancia (a working ranch that provides lodging for tourists) about 160 km from Bajo Caracoles, but decided to press on. As the sun was setting we decided to switch to clear shields. We’ve only worn them once before on this trip, but discovered that they got all scratched up in the case. With darkness fast approaching we continued the journey, and marveled at the western horizon lit for hours as a blue band with soft streaks of peach color in between.
The last three hours we rode in complete darkness, and both of us nearly fell on a few occasions hitting unexpected patches of deep gravel. There must have been about 50 rabbits (not an exaggeration!) crossing the road. They were all on a suicide mission, as they would wait for us to approach and then charge across the road right in front of us. Sometimes realizing they won’t be able to make it on the other side without getting run over they would stop half way and run back. I had a few close encounters, but am proud to announce that no rabbits were hurt despite their best efforts.
To Matt’s great delight the night sky was clear, so we stopped a couple of times turning off the bikes, to gaze at the starry sky and the clearly pronounced milky way above us. The experience of being in complete darkness and silence, just the two of us on our bikes, gazing at the stars far away from everything in the middle of Patagonia was very special.
Finally, exhausted from a long day’s ride (350 miles on dirt) we reached the small village of Tres Lagos at 11 pm. A black cat welcomed us and we quickly located the only hostel in town. To our surprise it was quite nice, comfy and warm, and the owner’s wife fixed us some dinner before we dozed off to sleep.