Exploring an Untamed Land: Across Patagonia by 4×4
Patagonia is a vast territory, stretching more that 2,000 km from North to South with a total surface of more than 1 million square kilometers. Argentine Patagonia comprises about 80% of the total Patagonian territory and outside the main tourist centers of the Lake District and a couple of cities on the Atlantic coast, the rest of Patagonia in an immense void in terms of human population. Just the southernmost Santa Cruz province, the second-largest in Argentina with almost 300,000 km2 is much larger than the UK and with a population of around 275,000 it has barely more than 1 inhabitant per square kilometre.
Route 40, or Ruta 40 as it is commonly known is one of the longest routes on Earth, running across the entirety of Argentina for more than 5,000 km from North to South. The Patagonian part of the route covers some of the most dramatic landscapes on Earth, going from the pristine lakes, forests and mountains of the Lake District, then changing to the huge empty spaces of the windswept Patagonian steppe to finally reach the impressive peaks of Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre and the amazing Perito Moreno glacier, all of them within Parque Nacional Los Glaciares – Glaciers National Park.
A road trip along Ruta 40 is the perfect way to enjoy Patagonia at its best, getting away from the obvious tours offered by the travel agencies and experiencing the pure nature and wilderness of one of the most untouched areas of the world. And that is exactly what a friend of mine and I did some time ago, travelling to the southernmost part of Argentina using a 4×4 vehicle to travel along Ruta 40 from the Lake District to El Calafate.
The Lake District
Starting in San Martín de los Andes, a lovely alpine-style village by Lago Lácar, we took the famous Seven Lakes Route, a partially unpaved winding road that connects with Villa La Angostura through a series of wonderful lakes surrounded by the Andean-Patagonian forests of the Lanín and Nahuel Huapí National Parks. After Villa La Angostura, another tourist town by the shore of one of the arms of Nahuel Huapí Lake, Ruta 40 goes down to San Carlos de Bariloche, the main tourist centre in Patagonia. By crossing the Limay River the route leaves the Neuquén province to enter Río Negro.
We did not enter Bariloche but continued on our way by Ruta 40 passing by Lago Gutiérrez and Lago Mascardi towards El Bolsón, a town of 20,000 inhabitants at the foot of the Cerro Piltriquitrón blessed with a pleasant micro climate and filled with a bohemian and artistic spirit, as it was the preferred settlement for the hippie movement during the 60’s and 70’s. We walked by its famous handcrafts market, which is really colorful and filled with very creative stuff. After El Bolsón we entered Chubut province and headed to Los Alerces National Park but missed our way and ended up entering Parque Nacional Lago Puelo (Lago Puelo National Park), near El Bolsón. We took advantage of our mistake to make a brief visit to Lago Puelo, which was filled with locals from El Bolsón and the neighboring town of El Hoyo who were enjoying its small beach. We hiked up to the viewpoint over the lake to take some nice shots and then went for a refreshing swim by the beach, which was greatly needed as the temperature was over 30°.
From there, instead of following Ruta 40 we took a detour to go straight to Parque Nacional Los Alerces (Los Alerces National Park), as we wanted to spend the night in one of the camping sites inside the park, instead of in the town of Esquel. We passed by Cholila, located in a lovely green valley, and famous for being the place where the American fugitives Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid hid for several years from prosecutors in the US while living as respectable ranchers. After Cholila we passed another beautiful valley and the small town of Lago Rivadavia to finally reach the north entrance of Parque Nacional Los Alerces, the first big goal of our trip.
Parque Nacional Los Alerces
We paid the entrance fee and got some information at the visitor’s center. It was getting late so we decided to try the campsite located near Lago Verde (Green Lake), an excellent spot for trout fishing. That proved to be a right decision, as the campsite was beautiful, filled with Arrayanes (Chilean myrtle) and with excellent services. Once we had set up the tent (just bellow an Arrayan) and had some mates over a fire, we had a good chat with the campsite manager and the ranger of that section of the park. The ranger told us about the great amount of work they have during summer, as a result of having so many visitors and the hardship of their life in winter, with low temperatures and having only firewood for heating. Then we had a light dinner and went to sleep.
The following morning the plan was to go to the nearby Puerto Chucao to take the boat that goes by Lago Menéndez to the Alerzal Milenario (Chilean false larch forest) with specimens over 1,000 years old and even one, “the grandfather” of 2,600 years old, the oldest living thing in Argentina. We parked the car, crossed the footbridge over the Rio Menéndez and hiked down the path to Puerto Chucao. The boarding time was unclear and there was neither information posted, nor anyone from the company operating the boat, so we decided to take a short walk to a beach on Lago Menéndez which provided excellent views over the Torecillas Glacier.
When we arrived back to the port, we found others gathering there to wait for the boat; like us, most of them had no information about the times, prices, and how to get tickets for the boat excursion. Finally someone from the company arrived and started colleting the tickets of those who had previously bought them some days earlier in the town of Esquel. For the rest of us, it turned out that the boat was sold out, as there was a reservation for another group of people coming from a previous excursion from Puerto Limonao, on Lago Futalafquen, which resulted in great anger and complaints about the bad information provided by the tour company. We decided not to waste any more time there and made our way back to the parking area to continue exploring the National Park in our 4×4 truck. We drove along the entire right side of Lago Futalaufquen, visited the lovely and clean Villa Futalaufquen, and arrived at Puerto Limonao.
Trevelin and Esquel
From there we exited the Park by its central gate and took Ruta 71 down to Trevelin, a town founded in 1879 by Welsh settlers who built a flour mill in 1889 and named the place “Mill Town” – “Trevelin” in Welsh. Most of the population is descended from those first Welsh settlers who over the years mixed with other immigrants coming from Spain, Italy and other European countries.
From there we took the unpaved Ruta 259 to visit the Nant and Fall waterfalls, 3 lovely cascades in a protected area, and then drove down to Nan Fatch watermill, a replica of the first one built by the Welsh settler John Daniel. We could not visit the mill, as the field nearby was burning and the firefighters were working in the area, but in exchange we witnessed the spectacle of an aircraft passing just above our heads dropping water to stop the fire. We had an interesting chat with the leader of the firefighters, a military officer who explained to us how they had used a helicopter to collect firemen from the different towns around the region and transported them to the spot that was burning.
From there we made our way back to Trevelin and headed to Esquel, the main tourist destination on the Andean side of Chubut province. It is quite a big town of nearly 40,000, much larger than I expected and not especially beautiful. Its main attractions are being the base for those visiting Parque Nacional Los Alerces and La Trochita, an ancient Patagonian steam train that still covers a part of its old route through the valley. We visited the train station, but the service was suspended as a result of a strike by the railway workers. Some of them where there, planning to occupy the station to reclaim their demands. We spoke to them and got their view of their conflict with the provincial government, another of the permanent labor conflicts in Argentina. After that we found our way to one of the camping sites in the town and spent the night there looking forward to leaving the Lake District and making our first contact with the immense Patagonian Steppe the following morning.
Los Antiguos and Lago Buenos Aires
South of Esquel, Argentine Patagonia is a vast landscape of emptiness, the only significant towns being Comodoro Rivadavia and Río Gallegos, both on the Atlantic coast. Early in the morning we departed Esquel and took Ruta 40 again towards the big emptiness. After passing by Tecka, a small town with a gas station 87 km away from Esquel we covered 300 km to Río Mayo over a huge plain surrounded by virtually nothing, except some rough bushes, sheep, the first Guanacos and the proverbial winds of the Patagonian steppe. Until Río Mayo the pavement was good, but there it ended abruptly to show up again as soon as we crossed the border between the Chubut and Santa Cruz Province. Another 125 km and we were in Río Mayo where we filled the fuel tank and attempted to get some information about the time it takes to visit Cueva de las Manos (The Hands Cave) but, no surprise, the information office was closed despite being a Saturday afternoon in the middle of the summer season.
From there we left Ruta 40 and took a 55 km detour by Ruta 43 to reach Los Antiguos, a small town by the side of the huge Lago Buenos Aires, where we planned to spend the third night of our trip. During the way we had wonderful views of Lago Buenos Aires, which looked more like a sea than a lake, as it is so large that you cannot see the other side of it. Los Antiguos is just 6 km away from the Chilean border and the lake continues on the other side of the border under the name of General Carreras, being the largest lake in Chile and the fourth largest in Argentina.
Once we arrived to Los Antiguos we took a walk by the town center, which did not have much to offer apart from the preparations for an upcoming fruit fair, and then went by the lakeside where some locals were enjoying themselves and even kayaking despite the gusting wind. We were surprised to find that the beach along the lake was made of little stones of all shades of beautiful colors: grey, blue, green, red and even pink. In the evening we camped at a site owned by the “police circle”, where we encountered a funny situation: The campground is very big and was almost empty – there was just one family camping besides us. The woman in charge of the camp administration said we could park the car and camp anywhere we wanted. We said we would do it at the back of the camping area, as it was quieter and shaded by surrounding trees. Suddenly the police in charge of the campground showed up and started to restrict our options for lots of different reasons, finally proposing the worst place possible for us to camp. To that, the lady who had said we could camp anywhere could only say, “I am not in command, the police officer is.” Finally we reached a good agreement and the police officer calmed down as he drank one beer after another, which was no obstacle for him to drive away in his car afterwards.
Cueva de las Manos
We headed downtown again to buy something to eat, and returned back to the camp to prepare our dinner and then went to bed. Our sleep was disturbed all night by the violent winds that threatened to blow away our tent, despite the place being surrounded by high poplar trees that we thought would afford some protection. In the morning we made our breakfast and packed our things to continue our way south. Our next goal was Cueva de las Manos (The Hands Cave), an archeological and cave painting site located on the formidable Cañadón Río Pinturas (Pinturas River Canyon). We drove back to Perito Moreno and then, after some doubts caused by disastrously poor signs, we found our way back to Ruta 40 towards Bajo Caracoles. On our way we saw big herds of Guanacos on both sides of the road. The Guanaco (Lama guanicoe) is a camelid of the same family as the Llama that is native to the Patagonian region. We were surprised by their beautiful dark cinnamon fur and especially by their demeanor – elegant and proud. They stood and stared as if asking, “What the hell are you doing here?” making you feel just like you don’t belong in this strange and beautiful land.
120 km away from Perito Moreno we found the exit to the unpaved road that takes you to Cueva de las Manos, an impressive up and down route through the desert leading to the Pinturas River Canyon. At the end of the road there is a vistor’s center with plenty of information about the site where you can leave your car and for a small fee you can take a guided tour through the path through the small part of the canyon where the paintings are. The paintings are dated from 9,000 to 3,000 years old and were made by the ancestors of the Tehuelche people, the native Indians of this part of South America. The main feature is negative painted hands of each of the tribe members; they put their left hand on the wall and blew the paint over it using a spraying pipe. Other paintings show hunting scenes depicting human beings, guanacos, rheas and felines. The whole site is rather impressive, being one of the oldest artistic expressions of the South American native peoples and declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999.
The Big Steppe to El Chaltén
We left the cave and drove back to Ruta 40 planning to drive down to El Chaltén to spend the night there. Just before Bajo Caracoles we picked up two French backpackers who were sitting on the side of the road looking in a sorry state as a result of the fierce wind. They were going to El Chaltén as well, so we had good conversation for the rest of the long day, as we had 450 km ahead of us – most of them unpaved, as the work to finish the pavement of the entire Ruta 40 progresses slowly due to the harsh weather and the huge distances to be covered by the construction teams.
The landscapes on this part of Patagonia are incredibly dramatic: no vegetation, no towns, not even a single building for miles and miles and miles; just the fiercely blowing wind, the infinite horizons and huge clouds that seem to cross the entire sky from one side of the world to the other, making you experience how the Earth might have been before any human being, or even any living thing, walked its surface. From time to time a glimpse of the snowy Andes Mountain Chain in the west made the views even more spectacular. We passed by Lago Cardiel and finally reached Tres Lagos in the evening, the first little village in many hours. Then we exited Ruta 40 and took the paved Ruta 23 to cover the last 90 km to El Chaltén, passing by Lago Viedma and wonderful views of the Fitz Roy massif, although our joy was not complete as the clouds covered most of it.
Getting to El Chaltén around 8:30pm, we said goodbye to our French mates and looked for a place to camp. Two of the three camp sites in the town were full so we went straight to El Refugio campsite to find out that there was nobody in charge and the administration building was closed. We did not have many options so we decided to camp first and ask later. Once we finished setting up camp, there was still nobody around so we left to have something for dinner as it was getting late. Walking by the town, we could notice that El Chaltén is a strange place: being the Argentine capital for trekking and climbing, you can find climbing fanatics from anywhere in the world who go there to give the extreme Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre a try, together with tourists just looking for a soft trek in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares (Glacier National Park) and groups of posh people from Buenos Aires whose main goal seemed to be to show off their latest fashionable mountain attire.
We had dinner over a beer and headed back to the campsite and went to sleep and there was still no sign of the camp owner. The night was once again unpleasant as the strong winds shook the tent a lot but we were so tired by the long journey that we managed to have a good sleep nonetheless. The following morning as we prepared our breakfast, a dark haired rugged-looking man who happened to be the person in charge of the campground, appeared asking “if the black 4×4 car was ours”. We said yes and explained that we decided to camp as it was late and there was nobody there. He said that there was no problem as last night he had been “somewhere else”. Then we asked if we could take a hot shower to which he replied, “Do you both want to have a shower?” It was a funny conversation that we laughed about during the following days.
We packed our things, put everything in the car and went to the start of the trail to Cerro Fitz Roy, planning to do some trekking during the day before leaving for El Calafate in the afternoon. The weather was miserable, with a persistent rain and a strong wind so we did not know what to expect, but we decided to start walking towards the Los Tres Lagoon and see how far we could go. After 75 minutes walking uphill through the magnificent Andean-Patagonian landscape we reached the Capri lagoon: The rain kept on falling but we decided to keep walking, hoping to reach our goal in a few more hours. After passing by the Poincenot and Río Blanco base camps we reached the hardest part of the trail, 45 minutes of hard ascent via a stone trail.
The high trees turned to bushes and the rain turned to snow, that together with the strong winds made the trek quite challenging.
We managed to pass a big group of middle-aged Germans who were carrying huge packs, so they were slow but reluctant to give way. Another young German couple followed in our steps. Around 200 meters from the top, the yellow sign marking the way was lost and we had some doubts about the direction to take with such poor visibility.
Finally, by climbing one last slope we were able to see the lagoon, a beautiful sight, surrounded by snow and with its pristine and icy waters lashed by an unstoppable wind. Supposedly we would have magnificent views of the stone walls of the Fitz Roy massif from there, but unfortunately the treacherous weather deprived us from those. We took some pictures in the middle of the snow and the wind, ate something by the shelter provided by some big rocks, and started our trek back. On the descent we met a lot of people who were climbing uphill, some of them well prepared with waterproof clothing, others surprisingly dressed like they were going for a walk in the park, outfitted in jean jackets and Lycra pants. I still wonder how far they went, considering we ended our hike completely soaked.
Once we arrived back at the car, we changed our clothes, had a hot coffee at a local restaurant and hopped in the 4×4 again to go to El Calafate, where the world-famous Perito Moreno Glacier was waiting for us.
We made the 90 km trip back to Ruta 40 by Lago Viedma and then turned south towards El Calafate; Ruta 40 follows the course of Río La Leona that goes from the Viedma to Lago Argentino. There were a lot of hitch-hikers trying to go from El Chalten to El Calafate or vice versa, as well as big groups of bikers doing the Ruta 40. The first views of Lago Argentino were amazing, with its turquoise blue color contrasting with the brown and yellow earth-tones of the Santa Cruz soil.
Arriving in El Calafate, I was surprised by how crowded it was, I had been there before in a lower season, and I did not recall seeing so many people. We took a short walk to the town center, bought something to eat and made our way to the local campground. Beside the camp there was an excellent parrilla (Argentinean Barbecue), so we changed our plans of a dinner in the camp and rewarded ourselves with a good dinner of beef, chicken and lamb to recover from the trekking efforts of the morning. After dinner we had some mates sitting in the terrace before going to sleep.
Perito Moreno Glacier
In the morning we made our breakfast, had a good hot shower, packed our things and filled the tank to cover the 80 Km. from El Calafate to Glaciar Perito Moreno (Perito Moreno Glacier), located within Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. The road to the national park is in excellent shape, with long straights until you get to the park entrance. After paying an entry fee (40 AR$ for nationals, 100 AR$ for the rest, the highest compared with the rest of the national parks we had visited), the road becomes tighter and winds for around 30 km until you reach the access point to the footbridges from where you can see different views of Perito Moreno Glacier. I had been there before, but I did not recall how big the glacier really is and just how long the footbridges are. The place was filled with tourists and we were surprised by how people congregated only in the central part of the glacier and the famous arch that breaks from time to time, missing the lateral footbridges that give you a total perspective of the impressive dimensions of the huge wall of ice – 5 km wide by 30 km long and 60 meters high. It is an amazing natural wonder that makes you want to say there for hours, shooting pictures and listening to the pieces of ice crumbling into the lake from time to time. We stayed there for a few hours before starting our way back home.
Parque Nacional Perito Moreno
The plan was to go back to San martin de los Andes in two days, trying to get to Parque Nacional Perito Moreno (Perito Moreno National Park) (do not confuse with the Glacier of the same name, which is in Glaciers National Park) to spend the first night there and get Esquel for the second night. We left El Calafate at 2:30pm and arrived to Gobernador Gregores five hours later, where we refilled the tank and tried to get some information about the timetable to access Parque Nacional Perito Moreno, as they are normally restricted, but as usual the information office was closed and the guys in the gas station where not able to shed any light on the matter. We decided to continue on our way and at 8:59pm we reached the exit on Ruta 40 that leads to the national park, only to find a board saying that access was only permitted up to 9:00pm; being about one hour away from the park entrance we were far behind the schedule, but considering that this was our only chance to visit the park, as we could not afford to spend an additional day, we decided to press on and try to convince the park rangers to allow us to at least spend the night in one of the free camping areas of the park.
We reached the park entrance at 10:00pm and the park ranger’s building at 10:30. A young female ranger greeted us and we told her that we could not find information about what the times to enter the park were. It was a nice surprise to see how kind she was, telling us that there was no problem and how to we could get to the nearest free camping area. She said the ranger for that area would be there waiting for us to give further information. By that time we were in the dead of night so we drove to the camping area made of several sheltered areas made of stones to protect tents from the wind, but could not find anybody in the ranger’s building. There were a few other tents but no signs of life, so we assumed that their inhabitants were already sleeping. Quietly we took our things out of the car and started to set up the tent amidst the blowing wind. Just as we were finishing, the park ranger for the area showed up, telling us where the latrines and the water supply could be found. We managed to cook something quickly despite the strong wind, had dinner and passed out, enjoying a well deserved sleep. The night was filled with gusting wind, shaking the walls of the tent fiercely, but we had secured it with rocks and slept without fear of blowing away.
Early in the morning I woke up and got out of the tent to find with great surprise a herd of Guanacos walking by merely a few meters from the tent. We had arrived at night, so with the morning light we could really see the beauty of the Parque Nacional Perito Moreno for the first time – it was magnificent. It is located in an area of transition from the Patagonian Steppe and the humid sub-Antarctic forest of the Andes. Being so far from any urban center and the lack of good roads has made it the most wild and untouched of all the national parks in Patagonia, receiving fewer than 2,000 visitors per year. There was a lot to see, so following the recommendation from the park ranger we drove to the viewing area that looked out over the Lago Volcán and the Belgrano Península, where the views of the bright blue water of Lago Belgrano over the hills were absolutely stunning.
We left the park at midday and drove back to Ruta 40 to reach Esquel, as planned, by 9:00pm. Since we entered Esquel from the opposite side as our original journey we found a much better campsite, and had a great sleep without any wind and with much warmer temperatures than down south. The following morning we woke up late and began the final stage of our journey, arriving in San Martín de los Andes in the afternoon, where we enjoyed a refreshing swim in Lago Lacar that was the perfect end to a magical journey through the rugged Patagonian wilderness.
Spanish, but married to an Argentine, José Fernández fell in love with South America's vast outdoors, travelling extensively over ten years while on vacation. In 2011 he decided to turn his passion into work, quitting the corporate life in Madrid and moving to Argentina to set up Tierras Patagónicas, a small business that provides 4x4 tours across Patagonia´s endless roads. He loves trekking, photography and anything involving adventure and open spaces.