After leaving El Calafate, where we had seen the incredible Perito Moreno glacier, we knew there would be a long slog through Argentina around the impassable southern ice field before we could re-enter Chile. Ruta 40, the highway through the pampa in Patagonia, has a reputation for being featureless, long, and boring, and we can now attest to this from personal experience.
The scenery was predominantly dry, dusty grassland, occasionally very flat, then rising to low rocky hills. We could see the snowcapped mountains in Chile to the far west but where we were was utterly, utterly dull. Some interesting rock formations occasionally, but basically a long, straight, unvarying road. Mainly tarmacked, with a large section of 70km of rough gravel, it was more of a slog than the twisty windy mountain roads in Chile. Junctions were rare, rivers a cause for excitement, and the only sign of habitation the rather whimsical names of estancias (ranches/farms) scrawled inelegantly on concrete bridges over the ditch at the side of the road that led to trails that disappeared into the distance. We saw estancia tranquila, estancia serena, estancia bonita and loveliest of all, estancia esperanza. I couldn’t imagine what life must be like on these remote ranches, with the nearest shop hundreds of kilometres away, no mobile network, and the harsh Patagonian weather.
We had in fact planned to stay at an estancia that allowed camping and had received good reviews about 400km north of El Calafate – pretty much the first option we found heading north. I checked the website and it said it was open until April, and we were looking forward to hot showers, shelter from the wind, and possibly even electricity to charge our multiple devices. The estancia required a 90km detour off ruta 40 on local roads, but unless we wanted to stay at the side of the road, or push on another 300km, it was the only option. The local road was slow going but fine if I concentrated (when I didn’t the van veered about and complained), but we were both ready for a cup of tea and some time out of the car by the time we arrived.
Imagine our disappointment when we arrived to find the track to the estancia closed, and a big red ‘Cerrado’ sign across it.
Theoretically, we are self sufficient and could stop anywhere. In actual fact, all the roads are fenced and the land is all private, so we would have to literally stop at the side of the road. While we’d almost certainly be fine, I haven’t quite got over a desire to be somewhere protected and close to others. It was Lauren that remained positive (when I was kicking the tyres and mumbling about everything being complicated in bloody Argentina) and stoically climbed back in and said, come on mum, you always say to look for the positive. I’m almost certain I’ve never said that in my life, that must be her alternative zen mother, but it was a good philosophy at that point, and we spent the next 200km coming up with more and more ridiculous ‘positives’ we could think of (not having to have a shower was one of Lauren’s favourites; being closer to Chile was mine).
We set off and rejoined the ruta 40, which after an hour or so unexpectedly degenerated into really bad gravel and mud. The sign said not to pass if it was raining – which would have meant a many-hundreds-of-km detour so at least the weather was good ….. This lasted for 70km, which took 2 hours.
Eventually, we stopped in a tiny village (the first habitation since the estancia, 250km further on) with a population of 16. They had a petrol pump (also few and far between, I have had to get used to climbing up on the top of the vehicle securing extra diesel tanks) and we filled up. Turns out the pump attendant was the owner of the ‘hotel’ (a couple of rooms by the pump) and I asked where best to park. He said we could pull up alongside the hotel.
Once we opened up the van, utterly exhausted, starving, cold and ready to simply eat and fall into bed after such a slog, we were confronted with a huge mess in the back – the cooking oil had been loosened from its place by the rough roads, split and spilled everywhere. Again, Lauren showed great maturity (more than me) by starting to clean up – it took us a good half hour, I had to boil hot water to get the oil up, and we had to wash all the other food items that had been covered in the stuff.
What a day. I was so proud of Lauren for her positive attitude – she could easily have made a tough day worse by whining or complaining, but instead she helped, and actually made things easier. She’s a good kid.