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Day 83 – Two Days on Ruta 40: The Legend. . .

January 1, 2011

Location: Ruta 40 between El Chalten and Perito Moreno, Patagonia, Argentina

Date: Saturday, January 1, 2011

Ruta 40 is such a fabled road that even in non-Spanish speaking countries it still goes by its Spanish name: Ruta Cuarenta (in English: Route Forty). At nearly 5,000 km (3,100 miles) long, it’s one of the longest roads in the world and spans Argentina from its northern tip to the south–from the Bolivian border town of La Quiaca to Rio Gallegos in the depths of south. Like Route 66 back home, it supposedly reminds travelers of a time when traveling on it meant going out into the new, untamed wilds. Mostly unpaved and traversing wide, human-less expanses, it’s also renowned for its natural beauty. For me, it is, the best (the only?) way to get from El Chalten to the Lakes District surrounding El Bariloche further north.

Which is why, to start out the New Year, I’m spending the next two days on a bus. Fourteen hours a day for two consecutive days on a mostly gravel road, on a bus. The first day 663 km (411 miles) of unpaved rock, averaging 50 km/h (30 mph). On A BUS.

It was like a dream come true if that dream involved being stuck in Andy Dufresne’s Shawshank hole–unchanging scenery for hours, the only thing to entertain you is the numbness in your ass and the sound of your mind going mad. It’s sorta like if I’d kept an office job.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. For the first day, the road lived up to the legend.  

Only one bus company runs between El Calafate/El Chalten and El Bariloche: Chalten Travel. Buses leave on even numbered days, which explains why we’re not taking a day off after New Year’s Eve–a one day break turns into two and God knows there’s nothing to do in El Chalten other than hike and, at this point, I’ve had just about enough of that. Buses. . .well, I guess that’s another matter.

The bus churned through gravel roads for hours. After a gas station a couple hours in, the expanse was only broken up by two outposts—Lago Cardiel and a drop off for those headed to Los Antiguas. Both had just enough facilities to allow us to evacuate ourselves into the most rudimentary toilet facilities and buy a snack to reload for the next primitive stop.

Actually, there were a few unofficial stops. Our bus was a little needy and our driver had to massage its undercarriage every few hours. This gave us time to snap pictures of, um. . .land?

[Note: I spoke to someone who took this bus two days later. It was raining and the downpour turned the gravel road into a mud slick. The bus didn’t have enough traction to get over even slight inclines, hence at every hill everyone had to disembark, let the bus ascend on its own, then hike to catch up and reboard. In the rain. Through mud. They stopped for the night at 1 a.m., three hours later than planned. Which goes to show it can always get worse.]

The scenery was amazing, not because it was beautiful, but because there was so much of it. Call it the cheerleader effect—one, on its own merits, might not stir your soul, but a hoard of ‘em to the horizon has its own kind beauty. Here, it was hours upon hours of wide open plains with only an occasional car or motorcycle. So few that every oncoming driver exchanged waves with ours—human contact out here is in short supply.

That night we stopped at Perito Moreno, this time the town not the glacier, which had a certain symmetry to it. After hours and hours of seamless, unchanging scenery, I’m in a place I’ve been before.

GALLERY: No bonus pics today. Pictures of unchanging scenery tend to all look the same.


Mervyn is a traveler who brings too much, eats too much, and writes way too much.  To learn more, read his overwritten FAQ or flip through the archives.

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