The LBA Latin America awards

As the Latin American leg of the Let’s Be Adventurers world tour draws to a close, now’s the time to reward the best and shame the worst of our discoveries as latter-day conquistadors.

Best night’s sleep

Hostel Lao: Mendoza, Argentina

It’s just got everything. Hot water and decent pressure in the shower, good WiFi, convenient location to get the bus out to wine valleys, friendly and helpful staff, comfy beds, good social area and a nice garden, wine for sale and a great crowd of people. Fabulous place.

Highly commended

El Pueblito: El Bolson, Argentina

El Pueblito hostel, Argentina

A forest fire in the region gave the hostel an ethereal glow but it’s really not spooky, honest!

A beautiful old wooden chalet-style home from home in a stunning valley. It is nestled away from the main road, next to a clean and cool river that’s perfect for an invigorating dip before dinner. They bake incredible bread and the staff are simply wonderful, helpful, friendly, people. Rooms are a bit rustic, but that’s the charm.

‘What a dump’ award for shabbiest hostel

Favela Chic: Foz de Iguacu, Brazil

More favela than chic. The roof leaked so our bags got soaked through during heavy rain. The WiFi didn’t work, the food was garbage and the staff were beyond weird. The fact that there was no-one else there gave the whole place a desolate vibe and the owner tried to charge us twice. Click here for Franki’s amazing TripAdvisor review.

Best end-of-a-hard-day drink

La Vineria: El Chalten

After a long hard slog through the Patagonian mountains, enjoy their huge range of craft beers, a giant wine selection, brilliant music, friendly bar staff and tasteful decor, plus you can see Mount Fitzroy out of the window on a clear day. What’s not to love?

Highly commended

Havana: Cartagena, Colombia

OK, so it’s a Cuban theme bar with its fair share of tourists. But damn it’s fun. Salsa the night away among people who can dance much better than you, weaving around a huge well-stocked bar, to the sounds of a live Cuban band blowing their lungs out. Magica.

Worst hangover

Rio de Janeiro

After a night on the caipirinhas with a Polish pal we made that same night, Rio had us well and truly beaten. Some people talk about feeling like death warmed up. When it’s 40 degrees out, that phrase rings truer than ever. Ouch. Kill us. Kill us now.

Best street art

Valparaiso, Chile

A masterpiece on every flat surface, that’s the beauty of this soulful city.

Valpo, as the locals call it, is legendary for food and drink too. So there is plenty to look at as you reel homewards down its precipitous streets. Check out my blog featuring some of the best of Valpo’s open-air creations.

 

Highly commended

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Take one of the local street art tours and learn about the artists behind the giant, colourful murals found all over the city.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez award for magic realism

Salento, Colombia

Perhaps it ought to be sultry Cartagena, the fictionalised version of which is the backdrop for Love in a Time of Cholera. But for us, Salento was an other-wordly, dreamlike paradise.

Fog rolls through vivid green hills dotted with the world’s tallest palm trees, which look like they belong in a fantasy movie.

Highly commended

Trancoso, Brazil

A twinkly, groovy, tranquil, dingly dell of a beach town, the centrepiece a huge village green surrounded by ramshackle houses daubed in bright colours. At night the whole place is dimly lit with hundreds of lanterns, as overawed tourists and ageing hippies who came here long ago mingle beneath the stars. My sense of surrealism may have been enhanced by the strong muscle relaxants I was taking for a totally knackered back. Oh, the beach is gorgeous as well.

We spent Christmas there and you can read all about how wonderful that was – and see more pictures – here.

Best place to stuff your face

Siete Cocinas: Mendoza, Argentina

It ought to be good because it ain’t cheap. But if you’ve bought your pesos on the blue market, it’s not too bad. The concept is a mix of cuisines from Argentina’s seven regions. The tasting menu was exquisite and we finally achieved our ambition of getting through two bottles of wine with dinner.

Highly commended

Flor de Lis: Guatemala City, Guatemala

Confession time, this establishment is owned by our great friend Harold Caballeros-Arimany (pictured, with his lovely wife Monique) but we didn’t include it only for that reason.

Flor de Lis restaurant

When Franki’s hair was red and mine was plentiful.

Harold and his team of talented chefs have created an amazing degustation menu of genuine high quality, using Guatemalan ingredients in completely novel and delicious ways. A real treat.

Funniest menu translations

La Cevicheria: Cartagena, Colombia

What heart of stone could see “Lovely Wet Lobster Rice” on the menu and not order it.

Highly commended

Nice restaurant whose name we sadly can’t remember: Salvador, Brazil

“Chicken asleep on a bed of spices”. I don’t know how to break it to you guys but the chicken wasn’t just sleeping.

Hairiest moment

Threatened with police in Guatemala

You know you’ve said the wrong thing when a middle-aged woman starts filming you on her phone and says she has called the police. Run. Run really quite fast.

Highly commended

Running out of money in Patagonia

Patagonia

So…what now?

You have no cash, half a tank of petrol and you are 300 miles from the nearest working cash machine. Time to think laterally.

Catchiest tune

Rebellion by Joe Arroyo

If you spend any time on buses, you’re going to hear a lot of salsa and merengue and it’s going to get pretty tedious pretty quickly. But I just never tire of listening to this musical account of Latin America’s slave trade by Colombia’s Joe Arroyo.

OK, i’m basically obsessed with it. That whimsical piano solo, man…you can watch the whole video here.

 

Worst bus ride

Foz de Iguacu to Sao Paulo, Brazil

20+ gruelling hours. If you have any money at all, fly.

Best bus ride

Bariloche to Mendoza, Argentina

Bus bingo with a bottle of wine as the prize! We didn’t but the sheer novelty cheered us for the 13 hours of sadly bingo-less bus journey that followed. The trip through the Andes is pretty eye-catching too. Thank you Andesmar bus company.

Booze of the World ‘Tippler’s Choice’ award

Ron Zacapa, Guatemala

Repeatedly voted the world’s best rum for a reason. Pure, heartwarming joy in a glass. The original Booze of the World post about it can be found here.

Highly commended

Malbec in Mendoza. So much to choose from, so little time.

So that was the end of our time in Latin America. Now the small matter of a 13-hour flight across the dateline to New Zealand…hasta luego Latinoamerica!

Mount Fitzroy in the background, Franki and Rob

Bye bye to scenes like this…

Advertisements
What to do in Argentina

Argentina: The Debrief

A quick guide to what we did and what you can do too…

Eat: Lamb

You expected us to say steak, didn’t you? Well yes, Argentinian steak is world renowned for a reason. The quality of the beef is amazing. But when Patagonian lamb is done right… dios mio it’s good. Juicy, flavourful, tender… you can’t beat it.

Patagonian lamb

Drink: Torrontes

Again, we defied your expectations right? Don’t get us wrong, the Malbec is divine but Torrontes was a new one for us, a white wine we hadn’t had outside Argentina and for that reason we have to recommend it as the most “local” experience.

We’ve covered both grapes extensively in our round-up on the Mendoza wine region and Rob’s latest installment of Booze of the World.

Try: At least one Patagonian hike

Patagonia is heaven for walkers and climbers of all abilities. Even if you’re not much of a hiker, you’re bound to find a trail that works for you and believe us, whichever you choose, the pay-off is sure to be spectacular.

Cerro Catedral Bariloche

In the north of this wild and lovely region is Bariloche, an Alpine-style haven for skiers in the winter and walkers and campers in the summer. The walk to Refugio Frey is steep and challenging but rewards you with the delightful glacial lake beneath the jagged peaks of Cerro Catedral.

A touch easier is a trip to Llao Llao and the loops around it, which affords amazing views of Lago Moreno.

Lago Moreno Argentina

Down south, El Chalten is the place to visit. Check out the best of El Chalten in our Patagonian blog, here.

Buy: A mate cup

If you really want to blend in in Argentina, forget the red wine and tango and get sipping on one of these.

Mate (pronounced “ma-tay”) is a sort of bitter – and highly caffeinated – tea made from the leaves and twigs of the yerba mate shrub. It is traditionally served in a hollowed out gourd with a metal straw but you can also get some stunning engraved metal versions.

Mate cup

It is not uncommon to see people walking around the streets carrying one of these as you might see people in New York or London carrying take-away coffee cups. Seriously, walk into a shop, police station, customs office, hospital (ok, I don’t know about the last one) and you will see someone sipping mate as they work.

It has no known health benefits but given the caffeine content it is presumably a stimulant and potential appetite suppressant. Either way, the Argentinians love it so much that they can’t bear to be parted from it. They actually carry it around in thermos flasks so the mate cup never runs the risk of being empty (and you thought the British loved tea!)

Do: Change money on the ‘blue market’

When we were there (Jan/Feb 2015) you could get 8 pesos per US dollar in the bank and 13 on the street. Frankly it’s a no-brainer. Even the best steak and red wine tastes better when it’s almost half the price.

The reason for this is rapid inflation, due to the dismal economic record of Cristina Kirchner’s government. Frustrated Argentinians would rather hold foreign currencies such as US dollars and Euros as savings, because unlike their pesos, they know they won’t depreciate.

Technically the blue market isn’t legal but it is completely accepted all over the country (hence “blue” not “black”). Head down to the shopping streets of Lavalle and Florida in central Buenos Aires, you’ll hear “Cambio, cambio! Change money!” every five yards. Go with them into a nearby shop to do the transaction, rather than on the street, it’s safer. And make sure you check the count and watch out for counterfeit notes.We only had one fake in the entire month-and-a-bit we were in Argentina but it was annoying and furthermore embarrassing when we unwittingly tried to pay for our dinner with it.

US dollars are accepted and some will change British pounds and Euros as well. Larger notes will get you a better rate so withdraw your cash in 50s and 100s if possible.

San Telmo Buenos Aires

NB you cannot withdraw foreign currency once in Argentina so make sure you bring it with you. We were able to get ours at the Bureau de Change in Sao Paulo airport when we left Brazil. We’ve also heard of people making the trip across the border to Uruguay to get dollars but didn’t try it ourselves.

If all that sounds too hairy, you can also use Azimo, an online service that gives you a good rate. You transfer your money online then then pick up the pesos at an office in one of Argentina’s larger cities. We did this in Mendoza and it went off without a hitch… unless you count the fact that we over-estimated how much we’d need. Let’s just say our week in Mendoza was preeeeeeetty goooood.

Don’t: Mention the war.

To be fair, in our experience when the Falklands came up in conversation, most people really didn’t seem to have strong feelings on it… but perhaps they were just being polite.

This 30-year-old conflict is referenced EVERYWHERE you go and anger about the war is still simmering away in some communities, stoked by a government that needs a bogeyman to distract from its own failings. Best avoided unless you’re sure of your company.

Las Malvinas son Argentinas

And not forgetting…

…the time we ran out of money in the middle of Patagonia. No cash machines that would accept British cards for hundreds of miles, no food and only half a tank of petrol.

Were it not for the help of a kindly petrol station worker, who agreed to ring up a petrol transaction and give us cash instead of gas, we would still be working in a hotel in the one-horse town of Gobernador Gregores. Yikes.

Hasta luego, chicos!

Mount Fitzroy El Chalten

Booze of the World 5: Argentina

It’s finally here! After three long months of wine-free gloom, we arrive in Argentina, home of the world’s best Malbec and plenty more Bacchanalian delights besides.

Wine: We’ve been greedily awaiting this moment like vultures circling a wounded wildebeest. Argentina’s wines are many and marvellous. They are also inexpensive as long as you’re changing your money on the blue market (read about how to do that in our upcoming blog Argentina: The Debrief).

Malbec

The Malbec grape was brought to Argentina in the 19th century at the request of Argentine statesman Domingo Sarmiento. They’re still naming streets after the guy in Mendoza, where wine is such a big part of the culture that they even have fountains of the stuff.

Wine fountain

Disclaimer: Didn’t actually try it but i’m pretty sure this isn’t actual wine.

The city of Mendoza is the beating red heart of wine country and its dry, hot and mountainous terrain makes for some incredible Malbecs. From here you can tour the traditional wine-making valleys of Lujan de Cuyo and Maipu, or the Uco Valley, which is globally renowned for the art of high-altitude wine-making. Check out our post on Mendoza wine tours here.

Alta Vista winery Argentina

It would take a whole separate blog to go into the glory of Argentinian Malbecs but here are some of our faves, either from tastings (in which case potentially unaffordable to buy by the bottle!) or meals out:-

Alta Vista Premium (any year)

Domaine Bousquet Gran Reserva 2011

Pulmary’s Donaria Reserva 2008

Gimenez Riili Gran Familia 2014

Altos Las Hormigas 2011

Domaine Bousquet

Visit Domaine Bousquet on the Ampora Wine Tour

Not Malbec

Malbec isn’t the only red wine in town. You can find good Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo and Bonarda. And while red wine is dominant here, we fell in love with Torrontes, Argentina’s only native grape. It makes a delicious white wine, sometimes nicknamed ‘The Liar’ because it is very sweet and fruity on the nose (reminiscent of Gewurztraminers or Muscat) but crisp on the palate.

I was partial to Sol Fa Sol and the Sylvestra (pictured below), but Alta Vista also do a nice Torrontes.

Sylvestra Torrontes

Goes beautifully with the fish at Maria Antonieta in the city

Remember, if you’re in Mendoza, you mustn’t miss out on the fantastic wine tours, which you can do by bus or by bike, visiting beautiful wineries set in stunning scenery. Tastings are cheap and generous, while there are also great places to have lunch along the way too. We did no fewer than three tours while we were in town – read about them here.

One last thing to mention… Argentina is the only place we’ve ever been where you can buy wine by the pinguino. This is obviously an opportunity not to be missed.

Pinguino of wine

It might look like this penguin has suffered horrific internal injuries…

Beer: The omnipresent local brew is Quilmes, nothing too special but a cut above the watery pilsners available in neighbouring Brazil.

However, there is a delightful range of craft lagers and ales as well. In Buenos Aires, the Antares restaurant and brewery serves up bar-snack style food with a large range of brews such as Stout, Porter, Koelsch and IPA (pronounced ‘eepa’ here).

But the real highlight for beer-lovers is Patagonia. This wild and beautiful region is home to some amazing small breweries churning out cracking cervezas artesanales.

For the most part, you’re offered a simple choice of rubia (meaning ‘blonde’ but really just a golden ale), roja (red/amber) or negra (bock). The quality varies greatly as some of these places are really small operations out in the middle of nowhere.

El Bolson craft beer

The El Bolson brewery in the hippy town of the same name has an incredible malty red ale that I absolutely fell in love with.

The Berlina cerveceria, in the small village of Colonia Suiza near Bariloche, is another winner.

Berlina beer Patagonia

They also sell it in bars

If you find yourself in the trekking and back-country skiing mecca of El Chalten, way down in the south, there’s a wonderful little bar called La Vineria that has a huge range you should check out.

But I’ll reserve particular praise for the Manush bar and restaurant in Bariloche. Unlike Antares, you won’t find their stuff selling for top dollar in Buenos Aires supermarkets. I didn’t see it anywhere but in the bar itself but my God was it good. Their IPA is rich, powerful and smooth, erring on the right side of uber-hoppy. My favourite though, German lager fanatic that I am, was the Koelsch. Smoky but fresh, it was the best example of the style I’ve sampled outside the Ruhr.

Fernet: Very popular among locals, this is an incredibly bitter spirit usually drunk with full-fat Coke, presumably the only thing sweet enough to render it drinkable. I can see how it might be an acquired taste but when there’s Malbec and craft beer on offer, I can’t fathom why you’d opt for this.

The verdict

Top tipple: It ought to be a Malbec oughtn’t it? But that Manush Koelsch lager won my heart. Name your price Manush, I’ll have that stuff shipped over by the boatload when I get home.

Gourmet’s choice: Alta Vista Reserve Malbec

Bubbling under: Sol Fa Sol Torrontes

What to slur drunkenly: ‘Las Malvinas son Argentinas’. They are literally never going to stop going on about this so you may as well join in.

Colonia Suiza Argentina

Rob enjoying a local brew at a festival in Colonia Suiza

Malbec grapes

Mendoza: A feast for the soul in Argentina’s wine capital

Whether you’ve been scaling mountains in Patagonia or dancing a frenetic tango in Buenos Aires, Mendoza is the place to come and indulge in the less wholesome pleasures of stuffing your face with food and glugging gallons of wine.

To be fair to Mendoza, there’s more to this city than just wine and meat. It is blessed with wide, leafy streets and a large, attractive central square, surrounded by four smaller plazas designed in contrasting styles.

But most people come here to visit one of Mendoza’s hundreds of wineries, so here’s a rundown of how to do it.

Wine tours and tastings

There are plenty of tours to choose from but the best way to check out the local wine hotspots (assuming you’re blessed with moderate levels of fitness) is by bicycle.

Lujan de Cuyo: This valley is a wonderfully green stretch of some of Argentina’s best vineyards, usually known as bodegas, all within a few kilometres of one another.

It’s pretty easy (with the advice of your hostel or a friendly local) to get a local bus for the 45-minute trip out to Chacras de Coria and rent a bike from Baccus.

Bacchus bikes Mendoza

They’ll give you a handy map of local bodegas and some suggestions on where to go.

If you arrive around lunchtime, stop in at Pulmary for utterly delicious Argentinian steak and a tasting tour.

Steaks at Pulmary bodega

This is an organic winery, usually a red flag for me as my experience with European organic wines hasn’t been great. But the reliable climate means they can produce delicious wine without the need for additives.

Pulmary bodega Mendoza

Wine and sunshine in Pulmary’s pretty garden

On the larger and slightly more upmarket side, check out Alta Vista.

Alta Vista Premium

The Alta Vista Premium Malbec is among the best we had and we liked the Torrontes (pictured) so much we went back for seconds.

Here’s a quick wine porn pic for you…the personal collection of the owner (who also owns Taittinger champagne and Hungary’s Tokay dessert wine).

Wine collection at Alta Vista

Further down the road there’s Carmelo Patti, a small operation where Senor Patti offers free tastings, partly for the sheer, unadulterated love of wine and partly as cheap publicity. He’s a charming old fella and his wines aren’t bad either. Here’s Franki enjoying his patter and his wine at the same time.

Franki at Carmello Patti

Valle de Uco: This is the place to pair top quality high-altitude wine with stunning scenery. At up to 1200m, this is high by any standard of viticulture but it makes for some amazing wines. It’s far from Mendoza though so a bus tour is the best way to do this (and ensures you can sleep on the way back).

We splashed out with Ampora wine tours but it was certainly worth it. They whisked us around some breathtakingly beautiful wineries and plied us with plenty of tastings.

Gimenez Riili Mendoza

Sampling young wine straight out the the vat

Lunch, one of the best we had in Argentina and included in the price, was at O Fournier, a striking hotel of ultra-modern design set in the grounds of a large vineyard with views of the snow-capped Andes. These were unfortunately hidden from view, as we visited on one of Mendoza’s dozen or so rainy days per year. In the absence of a great Andes shot, here’s the annual harvest getting underway.

Harvest time at O Fournier

Another highlight was Bodega Gimenez Riili, where the tasting was accompanied by some light snacks. One of the elder statesman of the family dropped by and took a liking to me because I spoke some Spanish. He was kind enough to top me up with a bit extra of the most expensive wine on the tasting, so that’s as good a reason as any to speak Spanish.

Rob and winery owner
Me, one of the Gimenez Riili clan and some random Australian bloke.

Maipu: This valley boasts some of Argentina’s oldest vineyards. We got here by public bus and rented bikes from Mr Hugo, a jovial character who has become something of an institution in these parts. There is a fantastic range of wineries here, from historic old places such as Di Tommaso, to snazzy glass and concrete bodegas such as Tempus Alba, where we stayed for an extra glass.

Last glass of the day at Tempus Alba

Despite being one of the best areas for great tastings and tours, Maipu sadly isn’t as easy to get around as Lujan de Cuyo. The road is long, potholed and busy with heavy goods vehicles so cycling can be arduous and hair-raising at times, especially after the first few tastings. I reckon we cycled about 20km on the day, not something that should be accompanied by alcohol. So I’d suggest taking a bus tour for this one.

Mendoza bike tour

Our new Dutch friends were better at cycling while drunk

Back in the city, try the tasting room run by The Vines of Mendoza for a tasting in a more relaxed setting, where you can stagger home on foot rather than having to weave around startled pedestrians on a bike.

Tasting at The Vines

Eating out

In most parts of the world, wine accompanies the meal. In Mendoza, their priorities are reversed. However, there are some mouthwatering meals to be had at the city’s upmarket eateries if you really must have something to go with your wine.

We went above our usual budget here, as a mix-up with currency meant we had a lot of pesos and not much time to spend them before leaving for Chile. As no-one wants Argentinian pesos (the exchange rate on the Chilean border is miserly) we felt we might as well spend the cash on great food rather than lose half of it at the bureau de change.

Here are our highlights. Click on the restaurant name for TripAdvisor reviews:-

Siete Cocinas 10/10

The undisputed king of our Mendoza meals. The ethos of this classic and peaceful establishment is to draw together the cuisine of seven regions in Argentina (hence the name, meaning Seven Cuisines). It was here that we fulfilled our ambition of managing two bottles of wine with dinner, a degustation menu packed with a succession of delights.

Azafran 7/10

Meaning ‘saffron’, this place is listed among Mendoza’s top restaurants but we thought it was a touch overrated. They make a big deal of the sommelier’s wine suggestions but by the time he got to us, we were halfway through the meal and it was too late to order a bottle. However, the lamb cutlets were juicy and delicious, which is about as important as anything else in life.

Anna Bistro 8/10

Less pretentious (and cheaper) than the first two but a really nice spot with a beautiful garden. I’d say it’s better as a lunch venue, with a good value Menu Ejecutivo (best translation: ‘working lunch menu’). Try a delicious pasta nicoise and indulge yourselves with the macaroons and other pastries from the bakery a few doors down.

Maria Antonieta 7/10

A great spot to sit outdoors and watch the world go by as you feast. This place seemed very popular with locals and for good reason. I wouldn’t call it haute cuisine exactly but the simple fish dish I had was cooked to perfection, flaky but with substance and bags of flavour.

* A quick word as well for Hostel Lao, one of the best hostels we found in Latin America. Friendly, helpful staff, clean and quiet room, fast WiFi, good kitchen, nice guests and a decent location, all for good value. Stay here if you can.*

Driving the Ruta 40: Our Patagonia road trip – Part 2

Join us as we drive from San Carlos de Bariloche to El Calafate… and back again.

Read our other posts HERE:

Day 10: El Calafate to Gobernador Gregores

We’ve bought a jack for our iPod and are slightly overexcited about it! On the journey down we had two CDs, bought from a man hawking them at a gas station, one of reggaeton and one Argentine folk which seemed to be predominantly about people stealing each other’s wives/horses. We alternated between these and occasionally switched on the radio to see if there were any local stations. There usually weren’t.

Tres Lagos Argentina

We have decided to return to Gobernador Gregores despite previous experience. There aren’t many other stopping points around here and we didn’t want to continue all the way to Perito Moreno. This is where an estancia stay would have come in handy. Many of the farms along the way will put you up and feed you. It’s one of our Ruta 40 regrets that we weren’t able to do it. Unfortunately they can be pretty expensive which, after the car hire, put them well and truly out of our reach. Also, the majority don’t have an online presence meaning that you have to call them to book which, if your Spanish is limited, is a little daunting.

So we find ourselves back in Gob. Greg. (as we have come to refer to it). Luckily this time we have enough cash to pay our way.

Gobernador Gregores

Mileage: 333 km / 207 miles (approx. 72 km of which is ripio)

Where we stayed: Hosteria Kaiken again. We were so grateful to them after last time, we decided to go back.

Day 11: Gob. Gregores to Perito Moreno

We’ve woken up feeling good this morning. This stretch of road runs through some of the most impressive landscape of all. From Las Horquetas to Bajo Caracoles the road runs in a seemingly endless straight line that disappears into a shimmer beneath the 180 degree sky.

From here on, it’s just us and the guanacos.

Ruta 40 Argentina
At Bajo Caracoles we stop for lunch and petrol. The gas station is just two pumps in a dirt yard and the village itself is little more than a cluster of shacks and sheds. Incredibly it has a guesthouse and a small shop where we sit and order surprisingly good espressos while a local woman leans in through the window and chats to the bartender. What there can be to gossip about in a town this tiny, we aren’t sure.

Bajo Caracoles

As we continue north the landscape becomes more dramatic, the endless flats giving way to craggy hills and rugged canyons. This is what driving is supposed to feel like.

Ruta 40 Patagonia Argentina

It’s a beautiful day and as we approach Perito Moreno we’re almost sorry it’s over. Still there’s always dinner to look forward to… is it actually possible, I wonder, to get tired of steak and red wine?

Mileage: 343 km / 213 miles

Where we stayed: El Austral. Email hotelelaustral@pm-patagonia.com.ar. Dingy with a lingering smell of cigarettes. The town does not offer much choice and this was the only place within our budget. For dinner, Hotel Americano does a decent steak.

Day 12: Perito Moreno to Esquel

In the desert, no one can hear [a guanaco] scream. This will be our longest stretch of driving so far but we’re not worried. Having done the journey down, we know what to expect. Don’t we?

Ruta 40 Argentina

We pass through Rio Mayo mid-morning. Just outside town I pull over.

“Can you hear that?” I ask Rob. Yes, that’s right, the car’s making a noise it’s not supposed to be making.

“It’s probably just the fan belt,” he says. But we turn back into the town anyway. Better to get it checked while we still can.

Ruta 40 Argentina

We find a mechanic. It is the fan belt. Well, that and the chunk of black plastic he pulls out from under the car and throws to one side.

No necesita,” he tells us. Um… are you sure? We’re not in a position to argue, though, and if it’s only the fan belt we can easily get by. We head off again.

The roads are broken and torn at the edges as though the steppe is slowly eating them. We stop for a break and a young man on a heavily-laden bicycle comes puffing over the horizon towards us.

“Is this the way to Rio Mayo?” he asks.

We look back down the only road for hundreds of kilometres. “Si, seguro.”

Despite the setback we reach Gobernador Costa in good time. The queue for petrol is the longest we’ve ever seen so we opt to continue to Tecka, the next town. Of course, the accepted rule for the Ruta 40 is to fill up whenever you have the chance. Like idiots, we ignore it.

At Tecka the queue is even longer. People in it are having to push their cars. We get through two episodes of The Wire, the engine off, Rob’s iPad propped up on the dashboard, before we decide to go and see what the delay is. It turns out the pumps are empty and the gas station is waiting for a lorry to come from the next town. The lorry will be about an hour, they say. Then it will take another hour to refill the pumps, then a further hour to work through the queue.

Tecka Argentina

We have a quarter of a tank of petrol left and there are 90km between us and Esquel, our destination. Can we do it?

“I think you’d better drive,” says Rob, the only time he has ever deferred to my driving skills (I’ve only had a licence for a year and while I’m a good driver it’s fair to say I’m still learning). But we both agree I am, if nothing else, a smoother driver. So off we go in fourth gear, keeping a constant 90 kmph, coming off the gas every time there’s a downhill slope. We make it to Esquel with petrol to spare.

Mileage: 560 km / 348 miles

Where we stayed: La Chacra. Delightfully chintzy B&B run by a Welsh-Argentinian woman. With its retro lines and pink frills you’d be forgiven for thinking you were at your grandma’s house.

Day 13: Esquel to El Bolson

There’s a forest fire somewhere around Cholila. Driving into a dense white fug is an unsettling experience. Smoke smothers the hills and lies low across the road creating an eerie landscape quite far removed from the verdant alpine landscapes we recall from the journey down.

Ruta 40 Argentina

It’s a relief to arrive in El Bolson. The place is a renowned hippy town and the vibe is very laid back. Many people opt to stay a few days here, walking in the hills and swimming in the river before going our for coffee or beer in one of the charming cafes.

El Bolson Argentina

Mileage: 163 km / 101 miles

Where we stayed: El Pueblito. Gorgeous place, lovely people, life-changing bread. We can’t recommend it enough.

Day 14: El Bolson to Bariloche

We’re back! It’s hard to believe we’ve driven all the way down through Patagonia and back again but the sight of Lago Nahuel Huapi confirms it.

San Carlos di Bariloche

It’s been an amazing trip, one hell of an exciting ride and a learning curve for both of us. And if you love driving, we can’t recommend the experience highly enough.

Mileage: 123 km / 76 miles

Where we stayed: Green House Hostel. Lovely, laid back place a little way out of town. Gorgeous attic rooms and a small communal outdoor area.

If you haven’t already, you should definitely check out Part 1 of this blog post. The journey through the unknown was a real challenge – but an incredible one nonetheless. Read about it HERE: Driving the Ruta 40: Our Patagonia road trip – Part 1

If you’re thinking of attempting this drive yourself, make sure you have a look at our road trip checklist HERE: Driving the Ruta 40: What you need to know before you set off

Ruta 40 Argentina

Driving the Ruta 40: Our Patagonia road trip – Part 1

Join us as we drive from San Carlos de Bariloche to El Calafate… and back again.

Read our other posts HERE:

Day 1: Bariloche to El Bolson

A delay with the EccoPort (the Argentinian pronunciation of Ford’s “EcoSport” we quickly come to adopt) means it’s mid-afternoon before we depart. Luckily we don’t have far to go today.

As we pass Lago Guttierez, we catch a glimpse of Cerro Catedral where we hiked a few days earlier. About five minutes later we encounter our first stretch of shitty road, the edges ragged, the pot holes vast and crumbling. Better get used to this.

We arrive in El Bolson late afternoon and swim in the river as the setting sun casts shadows on the craggy rock faces.

Ruta 40 Argentina

Mileage: 123 km / 76 miles

Where we stayed: El Pueblito. A beautiful wooden farmhouse in the valley. Stay in an attic bedroom or a wooden cabañita in the garden. Breakfast included. Don’t leave without sampling the delicious home-baked bread.

Day 2: El Bolson to Esquel

After stopping for coffee at the delightful Cafe Paseo de Las Flores, we pick up a couple of hitch-hikers as we head out of town. Hitch-hiking is common in Argentina and if you’ve got the space, it can be a nice way to share in the Ruta 40 solidarity and to meet new people.

Matias and Aldana are students from Buenos Aires. They tell us they think there’s a feria asado (meat festival) happening in Cholila, a tiny village 30 km off the Ruta 40, so we go to have a look. We grab a choripan (chorizo hot dog) for lunch and browse the stalls selling gaucho-wear and mate cups.

Cholila meat festival

South of Cholila the road snakes away, and the landscape starts to flatten out, grey gravel merging with the beige and brown of the low, dry hills. We pass a car with no front lights, no front bumper, and no licence plates. We realise the bonnet is tied on with rope. In Patagonia it takes a lot for a car to be considered unroadworthy.

Ruta 40 Argentina

In Esquel we go to the saloon bar at the Hotel Argentino. They have several taps but no beer and they don’t sell red wine. We’re too afraid to ask what they do serve. The place is dusty and deserted save for a couple of men who eye us almost as suspiciously as the barmaid. Down a dark corridor we can hear music and see lights. We can only assume Selma Hayek is about to perform a table dance. We glance at each other and run

Latin America is full of dogs but Esquel is on another level. On the walk home from dinner we find ourselves followed (read chased) by five strays. We glance at each other and run.

Mileage: 163 km / 101 miles

Where we stayed: Planeta Hostel. Basic rooms and a decent-sized communal kitchen and living area. Breakfast included.

Day 3: Esquel to Los Antiguos

We’ve had our first wildlife sightings! Guanacos are small llama-type animals that graze on the otherwise empty steppe. Tiny ostriches called choiques (known as Darwin’s rhea) scatter as we drive past and if you look very carefully, you can spot armadillos scuttling across the road.

Guanacos in Patagonia

At Gobernador Costa the queue for petrol is round the block. Once filled up we find ourselves on a diversion. What’s going on? Oh, it’s just the annual fiesta del caballos. Of course it is.

Gobernador Costa

The land is truly flat now; the sky is everywhere. The map we bought in Bariloche shows the names of the estancias (farms) along the route. We tick them off as we pass them.

Patagonia Argentina

The road toward Rio Mayo is paved… after a fashion. The tarmac becomes more and more patchy until, finally, the sign we’ve been dreading: Fin del pavimiento. There are two stretches of ripio (gravel) today, each lasting us about 30 minutes. We drive carefully; it’s not as bad as we thought it would be.

It’s pretty empty out here. We’ve heard people flash their lights to say hello on the Ruta 40 so we give it a try. The oncoming car flashes back, the driver holding up his left hand in a peace sign.

Ruta 40 Argentina

Hills rise slowly and almost imperceptibly out of the steppe. Every time you reach the brow you wonder if there’ll be anything different on the other side and every time it turns out to be more of the same. The winds are so strong we can barely open the car doors. It also makes peeing at the side of the road interesting.

At Perito Moreno we fill up the car before heading west towards Los Antiguos. Suddenly everything is green again. Lago Buenos Aires is magnificent, a shimmering plate of light under the evening sun. Man, it’s good to have a horizon again.

Los Antiguos Argentina

Mileage: 598 km / 371 miles

Where we stayed: Hotel Mora. A slightly sterile place on the eerily deserted promenade of Lago Buenos Aires. Wifi was useless but the restaurant did excellent lamb. Breakfast included.

Day 4: Los Antiguos to Gobernador Gregores

Los Antiguos is the national capital of cherries but we can’t find any on sale.

Los Antiguos Argentina

Instead we stop at the supermarket in Perito Moreno before heading south again. Around us the earth – which yesterday presented us with a medley of brown and grey – turns vivid orange. It’s unlike anywhere we’ve ever been before.

Ruta 40 Argentina

Beyond this the land opens up once again as far – no, further – than the eye can see. There’s nothing on the road but you can’t help straining ahead, into the haze.

“It’s as if you can feel the earth spinning,” says Rob. We decide it’s time to switch drivers.

Ruta 40 Argentina

The main event on today’s itinerary is the UNESCO site of Cueva de las Manos, a spectacular series of caves along the Rio Pintura canyon featuring 9000-year-old cave paintings. It’s 47 km down a gravel track but it’s well worth it to marvel at the primitive art.

Cueva de las manos

There are two entrances to the track. The main one marked on the maps is south of the cueva (shortly after Bajo Caracoles if you’re coming from the south) but if you’re coming from the north, keep an eye out for a small turn off, about an hour south of Perito Moreno which will save you about 30 km (which on ripio is well worth avoiding).

Cueva de las manos

At Gobernador Gregores we run out of cash. There hasn’t been an ATM that takes foreign cards since Esquel and nothing we read warned us of this. We briefly anticipate spending the night in the EccoPort but the hotel owners come to our rescue when they agree to take our remaining 500 pesos plus the 15 euros Rob inexplicably has in his wallet.

The supermarket does not take “chip and pin” cards either so it looks like canned tuna and crisps for dinner. But what are we going to do tomorrow? Our next stop, El Chalten, does not have a compatible bank and the hotel owners can’t guarantee that places there will take our cards (even after ringing round a few of them on our behalf!). Thankfully the one thing we can pay for on card is petrol but right now it’s looking like we might have to drive all the way to El Calafate to get cash and then back to El Chalten.

Then, a miracle. The gas attendant comes to our rescue and offers to give us cash back when we fill up the car. “Unofficial,” he tells Rob meaningfully. But he lets us go back in the morning and do another transaction. Que buena onda! Everything’s going to be okay.

Mileage: 402 km / 249 miles (plus extra for the Cueva de los Manos)

Where we stayed: Hosteria Kaiken. Pretty much the only place in town that’s on Booking.com. Old-fashioned smoke-stained rooms are made up for by generous, helpful owners. Tea, biscuits and crockery included.

Day 5: Gob. Gregores to El Chalten

It’s ripio time! It poured with rain last night so the unpaved stretch is now a churned up mess of mud and gravel. It’s like driving on Mars and we LOVE it. For just under two hours we bump and barrel our way over this extraordinary landscape.

Ruta 40 Argentina

Afterwards, getting back onto tarmac feels like flying. We stop for lunch in Tres Lagos, a village that seems to be largely inhabited by cats who stalk around the now-muddy EccoPort evidently hoping for leftovers. It’s so windy we can barely get out of the car.

As we approach the El Chalten turn-off we begin to make out the craggy mountain peaks in the distance. Then, finally, the view we’ve been waiting for…

El Chalten Patagonia

We’ll be stopping in the tiny but charming town at the foot of the Andes for two days to rest and hike some of the beautiful trails before continuing south to our final stop.

Mileage: 294 km / 182 miles (approx. 72 km of which is ripio)

Where we stayed: Kau Si Aike. Delightful family-run hostel with clean, comfy rooms and home-made cake for breakfast (included).

Day 8: El Chalten to El Calafate

We’ve arrived! By now a three hour drive feels like nothing but nevertheless it’s exciting to finally be here. We’ve got a couple of days to explore and visit the incredible Perito Moreno glacier before we start the long drive back.

Ruta 40 Argentina

Mileage: 214 km / 133 miles

Where we stayed: Las Cabañitas. Adorable rustic cabins to make you feel like you’re living in a fairytale. Breakfast included.

To find out what we got up to in El Chalten and El Calafate, click HERE: Driving the Ruta 40: Exploring El Chalten and El Calafate

The journey back seemed like it would be a breeze but believe me, it presented its own challenges! Click HERE to find out how we did it: Driving the Ruta 40: Our Patagonia road trip – Part 2

Perito Moreno glacier

Perito Moreno glacier

Driving the Ruta 40: Exploring El Chalten and El Calafate

Your reward for driving, grim-faced, through hundreds of miles of featureless uninhabited steppe is the breath-taking beauty of southern Patagonia.

Read our other posts HERE:

Cards on the table, we did not make it as far as Tierra del Fuego. It wasn’t that much further but getting from Bariloche to El Calafate and back in two weeks was already a stretch.

So we made El Calafate our final staging post, stopping for a few days at El Chalten on the way. It’s not far between the two and by now, a couple of hours drive was beginning to feel like nipping to the shops.

El Chalten

The main reason to stop here, other than that you’ve been driving for eight hours straight and have nearly run out of petrol, is for the trekking.

This tiny town didn’t formally exist until 1985, when the Argentine government made it a bulwark in a long-running border dispute with Chile. While the area has long been a Mecca for hardened climbers, trekkers and more leisurely walkers also flock here these days.

The real pros come to have a crack at the imposing crags of Mount Fitzroy (in Spanish: Cerro Chalten, after which the town is named).

Mount Fitz Roy

I know it looks that way but this isn’t a facade from a film set, honest.

But there are also plenty of options for jaw-droppingly beautiful alpine walks, many of which take you on the amateur leg of the journey towards this imposing peak.

The whole area is paradise for anyone whose soul is gladdened by dense woodland, mountain views, glaciers and crystal-clear alpine streams.

Every corner presents a new and stunning view…

View down the Rio de los Vueltos

Glacial valleys sounded boring in geography lessons.

…and while the walks require a basic level of fitness, there are plenty of places to stop and enjoy a sandwich. You can use the icy mountain streams to wash some of the fresh local cherries you can buy on the way out of town.

Washing cherries in mountain stream

Just washing my cherries in an icy stream. No big deal.

We did the walk from the village towards Laguna de los Tres, a spectacular glacial lake with great views (weather permitting) of Mt Fitzroy. We took a different route back past Laguna Madre (mother) and Laguna Hija (daughter). The circuit took about nine hours including stops. Ideal for anyone who’s up for a long old hike but doesn’t want to do the most difficult uphill climbs.

If you’re not sick and tired of driving, you can also take the car out on a winding bumpy road (piece of cake if you’ve driven from Bariloche) to the Lago del Desierto. From there you can pay a small fee (you’re on private land here) to walk up to the Huemul Glacier. This very steep but short (1 hour) climb takes you right to the lake at the bottom of the ice.

Franki at the Huemul Glacier

Whatever you do, don’t fall in the lake.

The boat ride to the Viedma glacier is a must-do for tour groups but can be missed if you’re pushed for time/money and you’re heading to Perito Moreno anyway. Viedma is bigger in overall surface area but you can’t get that close to it unless you’re paying top dollar for the tours that actually take you onto the ice.

Argentina flag at Viedma glacier

Get a photo from the boat, if your fingers haven’t frozen off.

It’s a hell of a sight, no doubt, but if you’re only doing one major glacier, make it Perito Moreno.

Stay: We stayed at the Kau Si Aike hotel, which I can’t recommend highly enough. Modern, clean rooms, while the mother and son team who run it are simply the most charming hosts I can remember. The Mama (I’m mortified to have forgotten her name) is a supremely talented pastry chef who knocks up the most amazing cakes on a daily basis. There’s always plenty to go round, so you can take them along on a hike for emergency energy. Yum.

Eat/drink: La Vineria is a fantastic cosy bar beloved of hikers, climbers and casual tourists alike. They have a huge selection of wines and beers at surprisingly reasonable prices, given El Chalten’s remote setting, as well as impressive deli platters.

Beers at La Vineria

Yes, the beer on the right has been poured abysmally. We were tired, give us a break.

The music selection in there is also pretty good, so this is a must for an evening out in El Chalten. Make sure to check out the cosy alpine-style pubs serving artisanal beers on the way back from most of the walks. A little taste of the Alps in South America.

Restaurants here are hit and miss but opt for lamb or steak and you won’t go too far wrong.

El Calafate

The place to go to visit the picture-perfect Perito Moreno glacier and the most southerly point on our road trip. Named after the Calafate berries that grow in Patagonia, this is a larger town than El Chalten and more oriented towards bus tours and leisurely sight-seeing.

Perito Moreno glacier

Big. Cold. Blue.

Once again we were limited by budget, so couldn’t do the trip that takes you out on to the surface of the ice. But it’s an easy (and stunningly beautiful) drive to the viewing Perito Moreno galleries, which are pretty close to the glacier wall.

If you’re patient, you are almost guaranteed to see huge slabs of ice falling from into the freezing water below, with an explosive crash.

Perito Moreno glacier

The aftermath of a mega-slab falling into the lake

It’s such a hypnotic and viscerally moving spectacle that it can be hard to leave. ‘Let’s stay for one more,’ we kept saying, before eventually tearing ourselves away.

The wild bird reserve, on the edge of Lago Argentino, is definitely worth a look too. Very peaceful and the bird life is fantastically varied.

Stay: Las Cabanitas

Cabanita

When Franki can touch both walls, you know the room is small.

Do you want to stay in a miniature version of one of Patagonia’s typical steep-roofed houses, bedding down in a tiny, cosy attic-style bedroom you can only reach via a ladder? Of course you do! Make sure to get one of these rooms if you can, the ones inside the main building aren’t much to write home about.

Eat/drink: La Zaina. We came for a drink one night and the chef ended up giving us a juicy piece of lamb he was cooking on a spit. It was a good move on his part because we were back the next night, salivating profusely, for dinner.

Patagonian lamb

Patagonia is no place for vegetarians

The entire town was suffering a power cut at the time, but the restaurant provided emergency lamps so that customers could see their food, while the chefs cooked by the light of their mobile phones. It’s a good thing it was dim in there because Rob’s lamb was not afforded the impeccable table manners it no doubt deserved.

It’s also worth checking out the Borges y Alvarez Libro-Bar for a nice pub-style atmosphere among stacks of books and a strong range of craft beers.

After 2000km of hard driving to get this far, we deserved a ‘We freakin’ made it!’ celebratory beer.

Sharing a beer at Borges y Alvarez, El Calafate

Richly deserved and swiftly dispatched.