Argentina - Ruta 40 / Perito Moreno Glacier photos
Mar 23, 2005
|Ruta 40 is the longest national highway in Argentina stretching over 4,600 kilometers from north to south. Doing the "Ruta 40 Roadtrip" (traveling around 700km between the Patagonian cities of Bariloche and El Calafate) is considered one of the highlights of any South American adventure even though in the heart of Patagonia, where it runs along the eastern side of the Andes, the road is rough, unpaved, dusty, desolate and almost unchanging for hundreds of kilometers at a time!
I did the roadtrip as I traveled northward in Argentina. Some people do it in 3-4 consecutive days - sounded like a total mind and bum numbing experience to me - so I broke it up a bit by stopping in a couple of places along the way.
The Roadtrip Begins
I crossed the border from Chile into Argentina again, arriving in the cute touristy town of El Calafate from where my Ruta 40 journey would begin. El Calafate is the gateway to Los Glaciares National Park, a World Heritage Site that shelters 356 glaciers. Quite honestly I didn't even know there were that many glaciers in the world, let alone in one park in Argentina!
Like most people, I came to see the Perito Moreno Glacier, one of the biggest and most impressive glaciers in the park. It's a huge ice mass of deep crevices and beautiful jagged peaks that pushes down from the mountains into Lake Argentino. Its front wall rises straight up for 60 meters - the equivalent of a 20-floor building. The best way to see the glacier is by tour boat which gives you an amazing close-up view and a real appreciation for its size as you cruise within 10 meters of the front glacier wall.
The glacier constantly emits strange moans and groans as it advances outward up to 3 meters/day, and thunderous cracking noises when huge blocks of ice break off and fall into the water. I almost jumped out of my skin and hit the dirt a couple of times, initially mistaking the loud ice cracks for shotgun blasts ... what can I say, sometimes I really am blonde!
Leg 1: El Calafate to El Chaltén
Okay, so my introduction to Ruta 40 wasn't all that bad, but then we only traveled around 5 hours that day and we were in a comfortable regular-sized bus at the time. Sure, the road was gravelly, flat and had little more than shrub brush to look at for most of the way but, hey, I grew up in the Canadian prairies so dirt roads and flat/boring countryside were nothing new to me!
El Chaltén is a tiny village (population 200) located within Los Glaciares National Park, nicknamed the "Capital City of Trekking" because it's surrounded by some of the most gorgeous mountain scenery in the world. Hiking enthusiasts of all levels flock to El Chaltén - from laidback day trekkers like myself who come to slog along the great network of hiking trails, to hardcore world-class mountain climbers trying to summit Mount Fitz Roy (3441m), a challenging vertical granite peak.
I did a short hike the day I arrived, but by late afternoon the wind picked up to mini-hurricane level, we had heavy rainfall that evening, and there was even fresh snow in the mountains overnight. With unpleasant memories of my rain-filled Torres del Paine hike still fresh in my mind, I was starting to wonder if maybe it was too late in the season to be hiking at El Chaltén, but taking an optimistic (read: stubborn) approach, I set off on a long hike the next morning. Heavy clouds (but thankfully no rain) accompanied me for a number of hours, but eventually blue skies prevailed and I actually had perfect warm and sunny weather for the rest of my days at El Chaltén.
I'd have to say that the trails of El Chaltén provided some of the most enjoyable hiking of my whole South America trip. The scenery really was spectacular with views of mountain peaks, glaciers, emerald green lakes and waterfalls around almost every corner, all showcased against a beautiful backdrop as the change of seasons turned leaves to rich shades of gold and crimson.
Leg 2: El Chaltén to Perito Moreno
Well now, this stretch of Ruta 40 was a bit more challenging. The road seemed to become narrower and bumpier, the scenery even more desolate, villages of almost ghost-town status became fewer and farther between, and our vehicle was now a small minibus. The roadtrip was starting to live up to its reputation! Small amusements were watching the occasional choique or ñandu (ostrich-like birds) speed along the road in front of us in roadrunner-cartoon fashion, watching little families of armadillos march across the road (which I only later found out has the same bad luck superstition as a black cat), and spotting a few sheep and guanacos (similar to llamas) in the distance. But finally, 12 long hours later, we arrived in the town of Perito Moreno where I probably spent another hour trying to shake the dust out of my clothes and backpack!
The town of Perito Moreno isn't particularly memorable, but located in a nearby canyon is "Cueva de las Manos" (Cave of the Hands) with prehistoric paintings from the ancient Tehuelches civilization, hunters who lived in the Patagonian steppes ten thousand years ago. It is believed to be one of the most important archaeological places in South America's history.
More than 890 paintings appear along only 200 meters of canyon walls and caves. The images are mainly human hands, the great majority being left hands (only 31 paintings are of the right hand), but also guanaco shapes, geometric figures, lines, dots and representations of hunting scenes.
The paintings were prepared with mineral pigments to create colors of red, yellow, green, white and black. It is believed that the pigment was mixed inside the mouth and blown against the hand placed on the wall. Paintbrushes and fingers were also used as painting tools.
Unlike the prehistoric cave paintings I visited in Europe that were strictly climate and visitor controlled, these paintings are pretty much out in the open, exposed to the elements, and yet they've survived for thousands of years. Also, even though it's a World Heritage Site with thousands of visitors annually, the area is only accessible by crossing private ranchland so sometimes visitors are at the whim of whether the owner wants to open the gate that day!
Leg 3: Perito Moreno to Bariloche
12 more hours in a small van ... "ARE WE THERE YET"?! More than once I thought maybe I'd fallen asleep and somehow been transported to Saskatchewan (which, for those who don't know, is perhaps the most flat and unexciting prairie province in Canada & also my hometown). Thankfully, around halfway to Bariloche, the road became smoother (paved) and more interesting again (back in the mountains).
San Carlos de Bariloche is a beautiful city surrounded by mountains and sitting on the shores of Nahuel Huapi Lake. It's considered a major tourist mecca with chocolate, jam, souvenir and sportswear shops lining the streets and competing for attention. There's more great hiking in the area, but the weather became wet and dreary again which left me unenthused, especially after my great hiking in El Chaltén. So, after dealing with the haircut issue once again (holy colonel cut this time!), I soon pushed off, hoping to catch sight of the orcas over on the Atlantic Coast.
So, in the end, Ruta 40 wasn't really all that bad. The road itself was definitely dull and dreary, but I decided it actually could be considered a SA highlight because it took me to some pretty amazing places along the way.