PATAGONIA ROAD TRIP
Ruta 40 to Bariloche, El Bolson and the Seven Lakes Circuit
When it comes to dream holiday destinations, Patagonia places pretty high on most people's list. Covering the south of Argentina and Chile this fairytale land is one the most beautiful places in the world. Luscious green forests, rolling mountains, roaring waterfalls and sparkling lakes are just some of the wonders to be found here. Fed up of the bus we hired a car to tackle the wild Patagonia.
In need of a little detox following our 3 weeks touring Argentina's north and wine regions we decided to keep heading south into the stunning natural surroundings of Patagonia. Having spent an absurd amount of time on buses, and missed so many amazing views (and photo ops) along the way, we were ready for the road trip of a lifetime. Safe from speeding tickets in our sexy little 1.4 Chevy Classic, it was time to hit the road. All that stood in our way was 3,000 km of the famed RN-40.
Starting in Mendoza we had 7 days and no time to waste. The RN-40 is the famous road which takes you deep into the beating heart of Patagonia. 3 hours (& 240 km) south of Mendoza is San Rafael, where we got our first small taste of things to come. Here the RN-40 changes from a highway to a winding, single lane track which traces the outskirts of the beautiful Valle Grande and Los Reyundo lakes. The latter being towered by a giant dam of the same name, we stopped atop of the dam to take in the sights.
Ready to continue our journey we were met with some bad news. Thanks to some earlier bad weather our onwards route had been closed off due to risk of falling rocks. As we prepared ourselves to back-track some 150 km we spotted an Argentinian guy we had made friends with at our hostel in Mendoza. He was heading the same way as us and suggested that the closure was merely a precaution and it would be fine for us to go that way anyway. Readers please note that we do not encourage or endorse blatant disobedience of rules in a foreign country. So, with safety in numbers, we decided to disobey the warning, move the official, pre-historic sign (made from a tree trunk) and adventure onwards.
Conscious of the possibility of being crushed by tumbling boulders we made our way at a nice steady pace along the edge of the cliffs lining the lakes. At one point a massive Condor was flying alongside us. Along the way we drove through some incredible scenery - deep ravines, multi-coloured rock formations and canyons. Whilst this route may have prevented us from a 400 km detour it was the WORST single road we have ever experienced. I'm surprised the car (or one of us) didn't disintegrate from the endless shaking and rattling. Nonetheless we survived and made it to our stopping point for the night, the town of Malargue..... Not much to say about Malargue. Sorry, Malargue.
Day 2 consisted of driving. A lot of driving. Seriously, A LOT of driving. 809 km to be precise. The first 300 of which were painfully reminiscent of the earthquake simulation we experienced the night before. Once back on wonderful, underrated tarmac we ate up the miles. Passing through thick forest and feeling so tiny and insignificant under enormous trees, we have never felt so free. Up and down over the hills and around the mountains you can see for miles and miles. We lost count of how many times we stopped to go explore our surroundings and take a thousand pictures (you're welcome, Instagram - @lagoonwithaview). The pictures truly do not do the beauty justice. Whilst down in a creek by the river we saw some adorable baby otters but the sound of an angry mother otter fast approaching nipped any chances of a photo in the bud.
After a long and tiring but incredible day we made it to north Patagonia. The town of San Martin de los Andes is as adorable and expensive as the name suggests. It looks like a fairytale Christmas wonderland come to life. Buildings made of logs of wood, the snow capped mountain backdrop and the smell of chocolate in the air gives this town a warm and cozy feel. If you find yourself here with some free time you may want to try skiing on Cerro Chapelco, check out the Chachin waterfall or explore the Lacin national park. Unfortunately, we had no time to spare as tomorrow we would be following the Road of the Seven Lakes to Bariloche.
The road of the Seven Lakes (Route 234) is exactly what you think it is. The road starts with Lake Lamar in San Martin and, over 107 km, passes lakes Machonico, Escondido, Correntoso, Espejo, Falkner and Villarino before arriving in Villa La Angostura. Shortly after setting off we diverted to look for a waterfall we saw on our map. Getting out of the car and making our way into the woods it wasn't long before we realised that our Converse and Air Force Ones weren't quite going to work in this terrain. There are also a number of other lakes and waterfalls you can find by following some of the smaller roads along the way. There are no words that begin to describe the beauty of what we witnessed. Just enjoy these pictures.
The city of San Carlos de Bariloche is a popular base for travellers looking too ski and explore the surrounding mountains and lake district. It is as wonderfully enchanting and surrounded by incredible beauty as San Martin previously. Although used as a base, be sure to check out the city itself. The central square is pretty impressive and, being famous for it's chocolate, there are choccy shops everywhere. We found one called Beethoven which had a picture of the famous St Bernard as it's logo. Even though all the chocolate inside smelled incredible and was priced as high as you'd expect top end sweet treats to be priced, they were all shaped in bones and other dog related goodies. Was this a shop that stocked nothing but expensive treats for executive canines? Or were they for human consumption but comically shaped like dog treats? These are not questions we would ever have thought we would have to ask and with so many unknowns we decided to pass on this particular purchase.
The next day (xmas eve) we headed towards El Bolson, 120 km SE of Bariloche. Not going to the town itself though. Instead, we went to Cajon del Azul which must be the most beautiful place we have ever had the pleasure of seeing with our own eyes. To get there we had to hike through the woods for 3 hours whilst being towered over by the biggest trees we've ever seen. We crossed crystal clear glacial rivers and climbed rocky peaks to make it but it was so worth it. The Andes mountains lining the background, thick green trees in every direction and stunning blue water rushing around our feet. This was a scene straight out of a movie. The only drawback of visiting here was the walk back which culminated in a 45 minute straight incline which was a leg killer. Great for the buns though.
As it was Christmas the following day, we decided to treat ourselves. Having now been on the road for 2 and a half months and missing our family, we rented a lovely little cabin in a skiing park for a few nights for some well needed comfort.
We spent Christmas Day talking to our family back home, drinking champagne. And wine..... And beer, feasting and chilling out in the hot tub. A well earned day of rest and the perfect preparation for the 1,200 km drive back the next day.
We wish we had more time so we could have gone deeper into Patagonia and made it to the likes of El Calafete and Ushuaia. I guess we'll have to save that adventure for another time.
For those of you wondering about the costs of hiring a car -
⇒ 7 day car hire - 7,000 ARS (£295)
⇒ 3,000 km of fuel - 4,385 ARS (£185)
There are certainly cheaper options available but none of them will give you the freedom to explore and experience the thrill of the open road quite like this. We wouldn't change it for anything.
Next stop - Santiago, Chile