The Road Is Deep And Wide

We left El Calafate and set out on Ruta 40. (On the way out of town, we stopped at the airport to pick up the papers to take the car into Chile, but the agent wasn’t there even though a flight was arriving. And he didn’t answer any of the posted phone numbers.)

Ruta 40 is famous for its not being paved in the southern portion. We’d hoped to take a side trip to El Chalten and do a little hiking, and the road there was mostly paved, but after a stretch of gravel and some more considered calculation we realized that there wouldn’t be time to drive there and get to our next reserved stay at Estancia Cueva de las Manos, let alone do any hiking.

After Tres Lagos the road became gravel for a long time. Lots and lots of gravel. Lots of flat land with nothing on it, so the road could be quite wide. And it went on for miles. Ocassionally we’d stop and be impressed by how windy it was out there.

We encountered one 55-km stretch of pavement which seemed like a dream or a mirage, but then the gravel returned.

We got gas at a tiny place called Bajo Caracoles, which is where everyone buys gas who is taking Route 40. Not only are stations rare, but it’s not unusual to come to one that is out of gas, or out of your particular kind of gas. The truck was there filling up the gas station when we arrived. The operation was about as sophisticated as fueling a chainsaw, just a big hose and a big funnel.

The price for gas is fixed by the government in Patagonia at 2.192 pesos per liter. There is a small general store there that surprisingly doesn’t charge a huge amount for water. They have all sorts of food-like substances there, too, none really edible. You can buy 80 grams of Lay’s Potato Chips for 6.50 Argentine pesos. For people who are reading this a year from now, this is a high price. Since we arrived, the peso has slid from 3.30 to 3.50 to the dollar; gold has gone from $800 to $900 US dollars per ounce, and it’s very difficult to give any shorthand impressions of prices to anyone who doesn’t have today’s newspaper in hand and the OANDA currency converter open on his browser.

After Bajo Caracoles, the scenery got more interesting, tne hills higher, the canyons deeper and eventually more colorful. Even the road became more colorful. In places where it had been cut directly through red and yellow sandstone, it was red and yellow in stripes. Bright red and yellow and pink. There was a shrine to Mary in blue and white with some Santa Claus figurines on the roof, beside which someone had planted a tree which must have been watered daily despite its appearing to be in the middle of nowhere; and an arroyo of columnar basalt had a red shrine to Gauchito Gil (shrines are as rare as gas stations on the hard core part of RN40) and also a ram skull painted magenta off to the side.

The hills are full of caves painted with the outlines of hands. Archaeologists make up stories describing what these hands (also guanacos, pumas, stick figures, ostrich-prints, but overwhelmingly left hands) meant to their creators. What is really known is that 8000 years before Banksy, humans were making stencil graffiti. The process appears to have been blowing air through a bone filled with paint with mineral pigment. This process can be duplicated and it has been, but the results fade after about 30 years. It’s not known what substances must be mixed with rock dust to make the hands last eight thousand years.

UNESCO skimmed off the most artistically dense and accessible several of the caves and enclosed them for a World Heritage Site. The folks at Estancia Cueva de las Manos will drive you on a 4×4 for a long day trip and hike to others on their 100,000 hectare ranch. They will also feed you — some government agency hooks up kids going through culinary or hotel management school with estancias hosting tourists in the summer, and the results are delicious. They also hooked up a young American woman studying Spanish to work there, and she was our 4×4 driver and guide to their large cave. Their cave didn’t have quite as many hands as the official site, but it was a much nicer experience not to be rushed by the one-hour tours, and not to have a fence in the way.

After spending a day and a half looking at hand paintings, we drove the rest of the officially unpaved part of Ruta 40. Now it’s only frequent road reconstruction which gets us back onto the gravel.

Yesterday (1/28) we drove to Alerce National Park. An Alerce is like a sequoia. We only saw one of them since they are way away in the back country and would have required a day long boat ride (all the nearby ones having been logged) but there are a number of other species including a native bamboo with a solid core, the usual Southern Hemisphere beech suspects, an incense cedar which is sort of like those in California — the Andes near Esquel are sort of like the Eastern Cascades just generally, which is not surprising since they are the same mountains on the same landmass. The most special thing on this day out of all others, is that a legume of some kind that looks like broom, was at the moment releasing its seeds. Imagine a locust-like seed pod 4-6 cm in length which has dried out completely. As the last bit of water leaves the slightly twisted pod, there is nothing to hold it together and the pod snaps open, scattering seeds all over. As we walked down the trail, hundreds of little clicks followed us.

They also have daisies that climb trees in vines. Orange ones, and white ones. Traveling is rad.

After our walk through the bamboo and beech and broom forest, we got back into the car and drove to Bariloche. Failed to spot Butch Cassidy’s house from the road. Lonely Planet says it’s there, near km 21 (which is not actually marked) 8 km north of Cholila, but as part of their residual hip image, they adamantly refuse to include any more information in their guide than was available to 13th century sailors: verbal descriptions.

Hello, Lonely Planet! It’s 2009! GPS has been public since the Clinton Administration! I know you want us to get chummy with natives in bars and be personally guided by guys with dreads and Che t-shirts to your cool sites, but lat-long is all that is required.

Bariloche is a total hole. It is the next step in the progression Ushuaia-Calafate-Esquel-El Bolson, as tourist towns march on their inevitable Hertzsprung-Russell path toward the doom of malldom.

I’m not including the lat-long of the private sites on the Estancia because I don’t want to contribute to the stuffed animal store, the pizza cafe, the chocolateria, and the Gap/North Face/Benetton outlet soon enough to arrive in the pretty little canyon. Here’s the location of Cafe Lo De Garcia instead.

Now it’s time to get some chocolate that this “town” is “famous” for (one of the intimate chocolate stores is called Del Turista and fills a city block) and get back on the road and drive past some awesome mountain scenery.