Camping in Canterbury New Zealand

New Zealand is expensive. Get a campervan

Of all the countries I have visited in the world, New Zealand is the one with the best PR.

“LOOK AT THIS PLACE!” The tourist board screams, from the television, from glossy magazines, from billboards on the London Underground (and probably the metro or subway where you live too). “HAVE YOU EVER SEEN ANYTHING LIKE THIS!”

Lake Hawea New Zealand

We-ell… actually…

Bariloche Argentina

Ok, look. There are lots of beautiful places in the world, some of them jaw-droppingly so, and we’re not about to start trying to play them off against each other. The point is, we were well prepared for New Zealand’s scenery. What we weren’t prepared for were its prices.

Luckily I have relatives in Auckland who we were able to stay with – at least for the first and last parts of our trip – and who generously fed us up with delicious New Zealand lamb and fine wine. But for those lacking in a Kiwi branch to the family, I recommend hiring a campervan.

This was something we had been both looking forward to and slightly dreading. We’d already been travelling for five months and were definitely feeling the challenge of being constantly together. Now, instead of giving each other some space, we were taking things up a notch. For two weeks we would be eating, sleeping, and travelling all within eight square metres. Still, we would have our accommodation and transport covered. And providing we didn’t kill each other, it ought to provide the perfect way to explore this incredible country.

In terms of campsites, you can go from the full complement of facilities (pool, TV room etc) to nothing at all. For the occasional hot shower and communal kitchen we liked Top Ten holiday parks where a non-powered site costs about $40 NZD (£20). For the basic end, check out New Zealand Department of Conservation’s full list of rural camp grounds at www.doc.govt.nz.

Camping in New Zealand

Our “Spaceship” came with a small (let’s just say it’s a good thing we’re both under 5’8”) double bed, gas hob, fridge-freezer, a full set of crockery and pots and pans and an array of nifty fold-away storage areas and gadgets. It’s only the size of a family car although if like us you’ve never driven a campervan before, this is a serious plus point.  In terms of what they’ve done to make it work – everything folds up and packs away underneath everything else – it’s pretty nifty. But we quickly realised that we were going to have to establish a pretty strict regime if we didn’t want it to become a chaotic mess.

Spaceships campervan New Zealand

We began our adventure in Auckland, home to more than a quarter of New Zealand’s 4.5 million inhabitants. “This is the last you’ll see of the traffic,” my relatives laughed as we packed up the van. They weren’t kidding. The drive south to Hamilton is only an hour and a half but even on that short stretch we noticed the cars begin to thin out and the road open up before us.

My uncle lent us a GPS but to be honest once you’re out of the city, you don’t really need one – there are at most only two or three directions you could be going in and everywhere is well signposted. If you do go for it, make sure you get one that comes with novelty Kiwi instructions to help you learn the local lingo… who wants to be told “You have reached your destination,” when you could get “Sweet as! Grab your jandals and let’s go!”

That said, actually getting out of Auckland proved trickier than expected and by the time we’d heard the words “Turn around where possible, bro, and let’s go and get ourselves a mean steak and cheese pie,” for the ninth time, we decided to switch it back to plain old Brit.

Our first stop was the Waitomo glow worm caves. We’d heard so many stories about how incredible these caves are that we had decided to go full whack and fork out for the “Lost World” full day Epic Tour (or should that be “Ipuc” Tour?). It ain’t cheap – $412 NZD (£206) each but it does include lunch, a slap up BBQ dinner plus all drinks and snacks. And, to be honest, it is every bit as epic as advertised.

Waitomo glow worm caves

Decked out in wetsuits and wellies, we started the day with a 100-metre abseil down into the caves. After taking a last look at the sunlight we headed upstream, walking, swimming and climbing through caverns, past stalactites and stalagmites, around rocks and up waterfalls.

Waitomo glow worm caves New Zealand

Then – on the count of three – everyone turned off their torches and the cave was transformed into a magical grotto, dotted with tiny glow worms shining brightly in the darkness.

The following day we drove the two hours to Rotorua, the heart of New Zealand’s volcanic region and home to an array of geothermal attractions. As a self-confessed complete volcano geek this was one of the places I was most excited about. The town itself is not much to shout about and like pretty much every major attraction in New Zealand, it’s eye-wateringly overpriced. There are a plenty of visitor parks to go to but the entrance prices are extortionate and I’m not even going to bother recommending any of them. Those who want them will have no trouble finding them.

Pohutu geyser

We, on the other hand, were imposing strict austerity measures in order to make up for our blow out at the glow worm caves. Luckily there are plenty of ways to experience the volcanic wonders for free, some of which my family tipped me off about, some of which we discovered online but all of which I shall share with you, now:

  • Kuirau Park in the centre of Rotorua has an impressive collection of steaming rocks, sulphurous ditches and boiling mud pools. Oh and it’s completely free. They also have clean, purpose built foot spas, fed with naturally heated water, to dibble your feet in after a walk.

Kuirau Park Rotorua

  • The famous Pohutu geyser erupts to heights of up to 30 metres (100 feet) but to get close to it, you’ll have to fork out $50 NZD (£25) for entry into Te Whakarewarewa Thermal Valley tourist park. Head instead to the Silver Oaks Hotel on Fenton Street where you pay just $8 NZD (£4) for access to their viewing room. OR simply park up in the car park and catch a glimpse of it through the fence for FREE!
  • On the drive between Rotorua and Lake Taupo there are dozens of stopping points where you can see mud pools and steaming lakes, hot springs and volcanic landscapes, often for free. Just follow the signs. We stood for ages snapping pics of the boiling mud pools on Waiotapu Loop Road, just next to the Wai-O-Tapu tourist park.

Wai-o-tapu free volcanic mud pools

  • For free bathing in natural hot springs, head to Kerosene Creek, a hot spring 30km (18 miles) south of Rotorua on the SH5. Look for a sign to Old Waiotapu Rd, take a left here, and then drive straight down the gravel track until you reach a small car park with a toilet hut in it. There’s no sign but head down the banks and you’ll find the creek. Get changed in the toilet or else duck down behind your car.

Kerosene Creek Rotorua

After Rotorua we spent a couple of nights near Lake Taupo which I have to admit was something of let down. Even with our money-saving campervan we just couldn’t stretch to any of the nearby trips or activities, and apart from one frankly hellish excursion on a mountain bike (the track described itself as easy – it lied) we mostly spent our time drinking supermarket wine on the campsite and planning our next stop:  Tongariro National Park

[Side note: Wifi access in New Zealand is practically stone-age. Some cafes, hostels and campsites will give you a voucher with a code that gets you a handful of free MB but more often than not you will be expected to pay. It’s mad. We’d been all around Central and Latin America by this point where wifi is thrown at you from all sides so then to arrive in NZ and have to pay $5 NZD for 50MB or whatever was a bit of a slap in the face.]

The Tongariro Crossing is a 19km walk – or “tramp” as they say in NZ – across three active volcanic peaks. It’s completely free to do although you’ll need to stay somewhere nearby that offers a drop-off and pick-up because the start and finish points are quite far apart (we liked Discovery Lodge inside the National Park for its rustic vibe and beautiful views). Having not climbed a volcano since Nicaragua, there was no way I was going to miss out on this. But all the information I was reading was starting to freak me out.

DO NOT attempt the Tongariro Crossing without proper hiking boots. Hikers MUST have a good level of fitness and telescopic hiking poles. The weather could change AT ANY MOMENT, do not leave the house without a full complement of weatherproof Goretex. DO NOT attempt this walk without a full first aid kit and a helicopter on standby. Hikers without volcano permits and full geological qualifications WILL NOT be tolerated. TONGARIRO CROSSING IS NOT A JOKE.”

Tongariro Crossing New Zealand

Ok, it didn’t really say that. BUT STILL. By the time the morning of the hike came around I was convinced I was going to die or at the very least suffer a grievous injury or humiliation at the hands of a bigger volcano geek than I. Needless to say this was very very far from the truth. The Tongariro Crossing is… fine. Completely fine. I wore my non-proper hiking trainers, I wore trousers that DID NOT wick my sweat, let alone repel water, I took a handful of plasters and a lot of water and I was… fine. It’s just a hike. Well alright, it’s not just a hike.

Tongariro Crossing

Tongariro Crossing Emerald Lake

 

Obviously parts of it were steep and parts of it were hard but it wasn’t anything like I was dreading (and I can’t help thinking that meanwhile back in Patagonia there’s a hike that nearly destroyed me with only the words “Refugio Frey, 10km” and an arrow to prepare you for it). I suppose what I want to say is that while a lot of the NZ PR is designed to draw people to the country, I can’t help thinking that it might occasionally put people off. All the focus on “extreme” activities and the “action and adventure” theme they promote makes it seem like it’s non-stop adrenaline and… well, hard work.

Does this look like hard work?

Spaceships campervans

Next up was Napier. The charming – but somewhat sleepy – coastal town in the Hawkes Bay region of the north island, was razed to the ground by an earthquake in 1933 and rebuilt almost from scratch in the art deco style, popular in the early part of the 20th century. The result is almost unreal. In recent years, donations to the town’s art deco trust have allowed them to repaint some of the facades to produce some of the most striking – and colourful – buildings I’ve ever seen.

Napier art deco New Zealand

Weirdly, we noticed a lot of the stores were up for sale or rent which suggests the town’s economy isn’t quite as vibrant as its architecture. A shame, since it’s a sweet place and they hold an annual art deco festival where everybody dresses up in 1930s vintage and they drink gin and champagne and dance to jazz which sounds pretty much like my idea of heaven.

Napier art deco new zealand

Napier art deco New Zealand

From here it’s down to Wellington, the nation’s capital. Perched on a beautiful bay, surrounded by lush green hills, it deserves a few days to explore properly. It’s a cool little city although Rob’s family friends – who very kindly put us up for the night –  assured us we’d arrived in unusually good weather.

Sure enough when we woke up the next morning, the skies had reverted to form. Our experience of the Cook Strait – the body of water that separates the two islands and something of an attraction in itself thanks to breathtaking views across the Marlborough Sounds – can be summed up in one word: grey.

Cook Strait New Zealand

Still, we couldn’t feel too gloomy. We’d arrived in Marlborough and that could mean only one thing: wine times! After spending a night in Nelson and treating ourselves the next morning to a mini coffee-shop crawl through the town’s surprisingly charming centre, we head to Blenheim –  the capital of wine country.

There are loads of different wine tours to choose from but we went with Marlborough Wine Tours who do a four hour personalised tour – including all tastings but not lunch – for $55 NZD (£27) per person. That seemed like a lot after Argentina but looking at it a few months later, isn’t bad value. We had lunch at Giesen – a fantastic mixed platter of cold meats, cheeses, seafood and salad. They did veggie options and their wine isn’t bad either… although the last stop of a wine tour is always going to come off favourably, right?!

Lunch at Giesen winery Marlborough

Marlborough Wine Tours New Zealand

It’s fair to say that given the budget and the time we could have happily spent four or five days idling around the countryside in a semi-drunken state (See our Mendoza blog for evidence). But our two weeks were almost up and we had to get the campervan back so onward we went.

No trip to New Zealand would be complete without some wildlife spotting and so the next day we headed to Kaikoura in search of whales. As usual it’s prohibitively expensive. The surprisingly educational boat tour costs $145 NZD (£68) but they’ll refund 80 percent of that if no whales are sighted. Luckily for us no refunds were necessary…

Whale watching Kaikoura

…although on the other hand this did mean we could only afford half a crayfish between us for lunch!

Kaikoura crayfish

With (half) full bellies we began our final stretch down to Christchurch. Oddly, we discovered early on that most campervan companies only have depots in Auckland and Christchurch so if you want to continue to Queenstown you’ll either have to do a full loop and come back up to Christchurch or you’ll have to drop the camper and switch to a car. We opted for the latter and although it did seriously stretch our budget, it was a relief to be sleeping in a proper bed again!

For more on that leg of the trip, as well as what else we got up to in New Zealand, you’ll have to wait to check out our other posts. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to grab my jandals and go get myself a steak and cheese pie…

Driving a campervan in New Zealand

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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…

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.

 

 

 

 

Ruta 40 Argentina

Driving the Ruta 40: What you need to know before you set off

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

Read our other posts HERE:

Argentina’s infamous Route 40 (or just La Cuarenta) runs down the western edge of the country, alongside the Andes. Starting in La Quiaca in the province of Jujuy it runs some 5,000 km (3,107 miles) north to south, finishing in Cabo Virgenes in Santa Cruz province.

With its notoriously poor surfaces – just dirt and gravel in sections – hairpin bends, and endless straight sections buffeted by violent gusts across the deserted steppe, it is considered one of the world’s most epic drives.

Ruta 40 Argentina

Just your standard view from the driving seat

Unfortunately we didn’t have time to do the whole thing but we were determined to sample a hefty chunk of it. We arrived in San Carlos de Bariloche – the gateway to Patagonia – by plane from Buenos Aires and decided to rent a car to travel down to El Calafate. And then, because the one-way drop-off fees were prohibitively expensive, we would drive all the way back making it a round trip, including detours, of 4000 km (2485 miles) over two weeks.

It’s not the kind of trip where you can just hop in the car and set off. Large stretches of Patagonia are completely deserted and we’d heard horror stories of people who broke down hundreds of miles from the nearest town, people who’d spent the night freezing in their cars in the middle of the steppe with no food, people who’d had their tyres blow only to discover their spare was also flat, fuel tanks pierced by sharp gravel un the unpaved roads… I’m not going to lie, a little part of us wasn’t sure we were cut out for it.

Ruta 40 road trip Patagonia

Red wine at the ready as we settle in for a planning sesh

Thanks to some serious research, a couple of precautions and a healthy amount of common sense, we were fine. In fact we had an absolute blast and driving the Ruta 40 remains one of our stand-out experiences of the trip. Of our lives, even. But that’s not to say we didn’t learn things along the way and you do need to be prepared.

Here’s what you need to consider before setting off on a Patagonia Road Trip:

1. What car?

We’d read several accounts that advised against hiring anything but a 4×4 to handle Patagonia’s treacherous roads. Unfortunately this was well out of our budget and so, after a lot of umming and ahhing, we opted for a Ford EcoSport. Even though it’s not a 4×4 (in fact it is very definitely marketed as an “urban car”), it felt sturdier than some of the smaller cars on offer.

Driving Ruta 40 car hire

Getting the feel of left-hand drive

That said, having done the drive I would say you could manage it in a compact car. We saw everything on those roads to gigantic off-roaders to rusty old hatchbacks that looked on the verge of falling apart. If you have the money to spend on a 4×4, go for it, I’m sure it would be great fun. But be assured you don’t have to. The only problem you might encounter is car hire companies refusing you certain cars if you tell them you’re planning to take Ruta 40. As far as we could tell, this is for insurance purposes rather than because they don’t think the car could handle it. We’ll therefore leave it to you to decide whether to tell them where you’re going or not (and whether you take out extra insurance). If you want peace of mind, it’s probably best to go with something bigger than urban hatchback.

The “Ecco-port” as they call the Ford EcoSport in Argentina cost us $125/£80 per day from Hertz.

2. The roads

As of February 2015 (when we did the drive) the stretch of Ruta 40 between Bariloche and Calafate is about 80% paved. The only permanently unpaved section runs for 72 km (44 miles) between Lago Cardiel and the tiny hamlet of Tres Lagos.

This particular stretch is rough and uneven, gravel in places, dirt in others. And, if you do it after rain, as we did on the way down, all this is churned to mud, riddled with water-filled ruts. And… it’s great fun. Honestly! We actually came to enjoy the change and the challenge of driving on ripio (gravel).

Ruta 40 Argentina

Learn to love the ripio and your drive will be a whole lot smoother (not literally, of course)

Seriously though, as long as you drive carefully and don’t hesitate too long in the muddy sections (we saw a campervan having to be dragged out of one particularly nasty puddle), you shouldn’t have too much of a problem.

The other thing to be aware of is that the paved road itself is pretty worn out in places, full of potholes and frayed edges where the desert has begun to devour it. As a result some of these stretches are being re-paved which may mean an unexpected desvio (diversion) onto gravel tracks. We encountered two of these between Esquel and Rio Mayo, the first lasting for about 20km, the second as we came into, and drove out of Rio Mayo itself.

Ruta 40 Argentina

Uh-oh…

When driving on ripio there are two key things to be aware of. Firstly, to avoid skidding on the lose stones, try to stay in the tracks already there. Secondly, watch your speed. Speed limits along these stretches are marked as 40km/h (25mph) but Argentinians pay little attention to speed limits so expect cars to pass you at up to 80km/h (50mph) sending gravel ricocheting in all directions. High speeds increase the risk of both skidding and damage from flying gravel. We found 60km/h (just under 40mph) was about the fastest we felt comfortable going on these sections of road.

3. Potential damage to the car

If you’re researching a trip through Patagonia then like us you’ll have read all sorts of awful stories of burst tyres, cracked windscreens, and pierced fuel tanks. Thankfully we don’t have anything as dramatic to share although we did end up with a whining fan belt after it became embedded with hundreds of tiny stones from the gravelled roads.

When we took it into a garage in Rio Mayo the mechanic disappeared underneath and emerged with a hunk of plastic which he chucked aside saying we didn’t need it. We remain unsure as to what it was but are reasonably convinced that it was protecting the fan belt in some way. It must have got cracked by stones on the ripio, leading to the fan belt getting damaged. To be honest, I’m not sure what we could have done to prevent this. Ultimately it seems like fair wear and tear, particularly on a car that travels this route  a lot. And the car still ran fine which is the important thing!

Driving Ruta 40 Argentina

Behold the mighty Ecco-port: muddy but triumphant

The most oft-cited issue for people driving the Ruta 40 is burst tyres. To be honest, as long as you check the tyre pressure before you set off (and in theory the water levels and the oil although most hire cars will have had a once over between rentals anyway) you’ll probably be okay. Many people advocate taking two spare tyres. We only had one. We didn’t need it (and thank goodness, neither of us was exactly relishing the chance to change our first tyre). Go slowly over the ripio  and take care on the potholed roads, break up the journey into manageable chunks, and you give yourself the best chance of making it through with tyres intact.

Chipped windscreens and scratches from the gravel seem like a more immediate threat but again, drive carefully and you should be fine. We were given a tip when faced with speedy oncoming or overtaking Argentinians and that was to press your palm against the windscreen as they pass. Apparently the pressure helps prevent it cracking if stones hit the windscreen. We did this for about the first twenty minutes and then got bored.

Ruta 40 Argentina

Look on the bright side, it can’t be as bad as this

4. What happens if we break down?

Ok, don’t panic. Yes, Ruta 40 runs through the wilderness, yes there are vast stretches of empty steppe disappearing into the haze, and no, there is no phone signal. But it is not as remote or as untravelled as it once was. Stories that bang on about “not having seen another car for hours” are, in our view, wildly exaggerated. The truth is there are other tourists doing this route and moreover, as the road becomes better, it’s increasingly becoming the thoroughfare of choice for locals. So although there definitely are times where you feel like you’ve got the place to yourself, I think the quietest stretch we had was when we only saw three or four other cars in the space of an hour.

Ruta 40 Argentina

Your view for the next seven hours

In any case, all anyone can really do in this situation is wait and flag somebody down. Everybody on this road knows how remote it is and there is a real feeling of solidarity (people flash their lights to say hello to one another as they pass) so whatever happens, you WILL get help eventually. One piece of advice we read was to bring a blanket or sleeping bag in case you get stranded overnight. To be honest, it seems reasonably unlikely this would be necessary as long as you don’t drive late into the evening. The worst case scenario as far as I can tell would be to abandon the car, hitch a lift to the next town and return with a mechanic either later that day or the next day.

Obviously if you know how to fix the problem yourself and you have the necessary kit, then you’re golden and can continue smugly onto the next point.

5. Food

Fill up the car now because there is not much to eat on the Ruta 40.  Anyone entertaining romantic notions of pulling over for an impromptu lamb barbecue in a delightfully rustic Patagonian village can scrap those now. Plus, when there are still 400km between you and the next town, it isn’t always convenient to wait. Likewise going to the loo. We quickly got comfortable with going by the side of the road. There are no trees or bushes to hide behind but really the only thing likely to see you is a guanaco and I’m pretty sure they don’t care.

Guanacos: Giving zero fucks since 7300 BC

Guanacos: Giving zero fucks since 7300 BC

In the unlikely event that you break down, you definitely do not want to be without provisions so we went for the maximalist approach. We took so much food, we almost didn’t think we’d get through it. In fact at one point we had to turn down hitchhikers because our rear seats were jam-packed with bread rolls, ham, cheese, avocados, tomatoes and cucumber, tinned tuna, crisps, cereal bars, chocolate, fruit…. etc. But get through it we did.

Patagonia road trip

Eating tuna straight from the tin as local cats circle the car (you think I’m joking?)

We also took about ten litres of water and a couple of bottles of red wine (well, we are in Argentina). And I’m sure I don’t need to tell you we got through that as well.

6. Petrol

Fill up the car because there is not much gas on the Ruta 40. The best rule is to top up EVERY TIME you see a petrol station, even if you have three quarters of a tank left, because you don’t know how long it’ll be before you see another.

Gobernador Costa

At the beginning of the trip we considered this a long queue. We were wrong.

Yes, even if there’s a queue. We made the mistake of driving on through one town because of the queue for gas only to find an even longer one at the next town.

And never forget that even if a town has a gas station, you always run the risk that it is out of petrol. In Tecka we queued for two hours in a line that went round, not just the block but almost the entire town, before being told that a tanker was on its way from the next city (an hour away) and even after it arrived it would take another hour to refill the pumps and then a further hour to get through everyone in the queue. We still had just under a quarter of a tank left so we made the decision to continue to Esquel, 100km away. We drove at a constant 90km/hr and coasted all the hills to save petrol and thank goodness it worked. We made it with gas to spare but it was an excellent lesson in driving economically.

Here’s where we found petrol stations on the Ruta 40:

  • Bariloche
  • El Bolson
  • Esquel
  • Tecka
  • Gobernador Costa
  • Perito Moreno
  • Los Antiguos
  • Bajo Caracoles
  • Gobernador Gregores
  • El Chalten
  • El Calafate

Apparently there is also one in Rio Mayo but we couldn’t find it.

Bajo Caracoles Argentina

The gas station at Bajo Caracoles, complete with pump attendant

7. Money

Between Esquel and El Calafate the ATMs do not accept foreign cards. I repeat: The cash machines in this 1,160km stretch of Patagonia will not take your card. To withdraw cash here, you have to have an Argentinian current account and corresponding bank card.

In addition, many hotels, supermarkets and restaurants are also unable to take foreign cards because the machines have a problem with the chip in the European “chip and pin” cards (so it’s possible American cards would work, I’m not sure and personally I wouldn’t risk it). This goes for both credit and debit cards.

Rio Mayo Argentina

Even if you can find a cash point in Rio Mayo it probably won’t take your card

Consequently it is vitally important  to make sure you have enough cash to last you the whole way to El Calafate, where there is a cash machine that does the job. We discovered this the hard way and very nearly had to kip in the car for the night. Luckily our hotel owners were the nicest people in the world and let us give them everything we had on us in a mixture of pesos, dollars and euros and then let us off the remaining amount. Even luckier, we had a car full of food and, crucially at that point, wine (see above).

Ruta 40 Patagonia

A much-needed copa de vino after a long day

Now to begin the journey itself! To find out how we broke it up, where we stayed and what we learnt en route, click here:

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

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