Queenstown New Zealand

New Zealand: The Debrief

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

Do: Hire a car

Or, even better, a campervan. It is absolutely the best way to get around. Public transport is basically inexistent so you’re reliant on tourist coaches and flying, both of which are pretty pricey. Meanwhile you can hire a small car for less than $50 NZD (£25) a day and the roads are beautiful and largely empty so you’ll be able to see far more of the country if you have your own wheels.

Hiring a car in New Zealand

You can read about our adventures in a campervan HERE.

Don’t: Always believe the hype

As Franki said in her last post, New Zealand has fantastic PR. Everything from the hikes to the wines to the mountains and lakes are billed as being the Best You Will Ever See In Your Life. And while many of the experiences you have in New Zealand will be one-of-a-kind, they won’t all be (after all, we have mountains in Europe too) so it’s important not to expect every waking moment to be a sensory rush. NZ is nothing if not laid back and it is totally okay to not spend your entire trip rushing around trying to have ALL THE EXPERIENCES and then ending up disappointed when that Mega-Extra-Stunning-Best-Ever view turns out to be shrouded from earth to heavens in thick cloud.

Marlborough Sounds

There are plenty of things to do and see in New Zealand. Some will blow you away (hello Tongariro Crossing), others will leave you feeling a bit… meh (Milford Sound, I’m looking at you). When it comes to deciding what to do, it’s always best to go with your own tastes and judgement and not what the tourist billboards necessarily suggest.

Try: An extreme sport

Confession time: We went to New Zealand and did NOT do a bungee jump. Neither did we partake in sky diving, jet boating, white water rafting, glacier trekking or any of the other adrenaline-fuelled activities on offer. To be honest, we’re surprised they didn’t deport us.

NZ has styled itself as the extreme sports capital of the world. Because simply looking at beautiful scenery isn’t enough, you have to leap off it, soar around it or otherwise conquer it with the combined forces of modern technology and your limitless enthusiasm. If that sounds like your bag then this is absolutely the place to get involved.

For us it wasn’t. This was partly to do with money (turns out jumping off a bridge with an elastic rope tied round your ankles doesn’t come cheap) but mostly to do with the fact that jumping off a bridge with an elastic rope tied round our ankles sounds a lot like our vision of hell. We did, however, go caving which was utterly exhilarating and you can read about that experience HERE.

Waitomo caves New Zealand

Buy: Internet time

When it comes to the internet, New Zealand seems stuck in the dark ages. Most hostels, cafes and bars will have WiFi but they’ll charge you to use it. Some will offer a preliminary half hour (or 50MB) for free but after that expect for fork out. Some charge by the minute, others by the megabyte and you can usually buy blocks of either (though be warned your MB may have a 24 hour time limit on them).

Eat: Seafood

Green-lipped mussels, fresh crayfish, Bluff oysters, paua, scallops, clams… New Zealand has a fantastic array of seafood available for pretty good prices.

Fresh Crayfish in Kaikoura

We didn’t actually manage to sample the oysters, though. These babies sell out the minute they come in so despite three separate attempts to procure them in Hawks Bay, Christchurch, and Queenstown we’re sad to say we left NZ un-oystered. Never mind. If in doubt, there’s always good ol’ fish and chips.

Fish and chips Kaikoura New Zealand

Drink: Pinot Gris

If you thought NZ was all about the Sauvignon Blanc, think again. By far our favourite tipple was the local Pinot Gris. The crisp, dry, acidic Italian version, Pinot Grigio, has long been a British pub staple (not to mention a regular in the Tesco half price offers!) so we were pleasantly surprised to discover this smoother, more aromatic take.

Sample it at Gibson Bridge, a tiny “boutique” winery in Marlborough where they specialise in the stuff. In fact of their eleven wines, eight are Pinot Gris. Yes please!

Gibson Bridge winery New Zealand

And not forgetting…

… the time when, stuck in traffic in Auckland, we were both near the ends of our respective tethers when Rob checks the rearview mirror and nearly has a heart-attack because it turns out the car behind is being driven by a clown in full dress and make-up, bobbing along to whatever he was listening to on the radio. Terrifying.

Milford Sound

Laters y’all! Next stop… Australia.

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Kush coffee shop Nelson

8 cool things to do in New Zealand that have nothing to do with hobbits

Eat at Pedro’s House of Lamb

This Queenstown eatery does just one dish: slow roasted lamb shoulder with rosemary potatoes. But by God is it good. You can’t actually eat in, it’s take-away only. Pedro and the team start up the slow-roasters in the morning and come dinner time simply walking past is enough to have you keel over in a mouth-watering stupor. Which is why you should never walk past but instead go directly inside and pay $40 (£20) for a box of lamb and tatties that will keep you and a friend happy for… oh at LEAST twenty minutes. And if you’re lucky you might even have leftovers. Our next-day cold lamb was easily the highlight of our Milford Sound trip and I am NOT EVEN KIDDING.

Find it at: 17b Papanui Road, Merivale, Christchurch and 47 Gorge Road, Queenstown

Pedros house of lamb

Drive Arthur’s Pass

One of the on-the-road highlights of our New Zealand trip, this winding pass takes you through yellowed Canterbury fields, past the mysterious boulders at Castle Hill, across the gorge of the Waimakariri River, past the Alpine peaks, and down again through the now-verdant hillsides of the West Coast.

Arthur's Pass New Zealand

Instagram some art deco

I raved about Napier’s architecture in our last post on campervanning in New Zealand but it’s worth a second mention, not least because it appears to be somewhat off the beaten track. Tourists, desperate to get to the South Island often seem to bypass the East Coast of the North Island, heading straight from Rotorua and Taupo to Wellington. Don’t make the same mistake. Even if you can’t get there for the annual Art Deco vintage festival, it’s still well worth a visit to see the jaw-dropping 1930s facades.

Art deco Napier New Zealand

Visit a brewery

You’d have to be an idiot to come to New Zealand and not visit the wineries but what about the beer? There are tons of great craft beer breweries (see below for details on Nelson’s “beer trail”) which offer tours and tastings. We liked Monteith’s in Greymouth which provided some much-needed cheer after a long drive in relentless drizzle.

Find it at: 60 Herbert St, Greymouth

Hang out in Nelson

The geographical centre of New Zealand, this small town on the northern edge of the South Island is often used as a base from which to explore the stunning Abel Tasman National Park or the equally attractive gastronomic delights of the nearby wine regions. However a combination of crappy weather and time constraints put paid to our plans to do either and we ended up simply hanging out in the town, hopping between cafes, bars, and coffee shops.

Coffee shops Nelson New Zealand

As it turns out, we couldn’t have found a better place to do it. Nelson has long been a magnet for arty types and as a result it has a quietly hip, creative vibe. Plus, as the self-styled New Zealand “capital of craft beer” it has at least a dozen breweries to tour and try. We spent less than 24 hours there and even with the dismal weather, we really wish we’d had longer.

Spend a penny in a (designer) public loo

I can honestly say we’ve never recommended a public toilet to anyone before but New Zealand is nothing if not surprising. For those visiting the Northland, be sure to swing by Kawakawa for a toilet stop at the colourful public bogs, designed by Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser.

Hunterwasser public toilets Kawakawa

Oh and there’s a good coffee shop opposite.

Take a dip in the natural volcanic hot springs – for FREE

I wrote about all the free things to do in Rotorua at length in our last post but of these, our favourite was definitely Kerosene Creek, a natural hot spring complete with steaming waterfall, that you can paddle, swim and bask in for the grand total of zero dollars. Find it by heading south down SH5 from Rotorua towards Taupo for about 30km. Turn left at the sign for Old Waiotapu Rd then follow the gravel track down to the car park.

Kerosene Creek New Zealand

NB: Don’t put your head under the water in any thermal hot springs. The warm temperatures provide an ideal breeding ground for all sorts of amoebic nasties that absolutely want to get into your brain via your ears and nose and wreak havoc there. Not cool.

Party on Cuba Street

We loved New Zealand but as city-dwelling, chaos-thriving, grit-loving Europeans we have to admit we found it, at times, a little on the quiet side. So upon arriving in Wellington we were delighted to discover Cuba Street. With its vibrant cafes and bars, vintage shops, tattoo studios and possibly the only street art we saw in the whole of NZ, it provided a welcome hit of urban cool and a much-needed antidote to all that clean air and laid-back charm.

Cuba Street Wellington

Charquipunk street art

Chile: The Debrief

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

Eat: Sandwiches

Did you know Santiago was famous for its gourmet sandwiches? No, us neither. But these are no ordinary sarnies. They’re at least three inches thick and packed with fabulous meat, veggies, sauces, pickles and preserves. The classic is the chacarero, a pile of thinly sliced, churrasco steak, tomatoes, lettuce, avocado, mayo, green beans and – because this is Latin America, baby – a good helping of aji verde chilli.

To my mind, there is not yet a satisfying round-up of all the best places to get sandwiches in Santiago (though I’m happy to volunteer!) but these blogs are worth a look if you’re heading that way.

On the Chacarero Trail: Where to Eat Santiago’s Favorite Sandwich

Chile Restaurant Guide by Nathan Lustig

We were only in town for a couple of days so didn’t manage to get round them all but we really liked Bar Liguria – both for its sarnies and its decor.

Bar Liguria Santiago

Drink: Pisco

Pisco is so beloved in this part of the world that Chile and Peru have actually fought courtroom battles over who can lay claim to it.

It’s a brandy, invented by Spanish settlers in the 16th century. The really premium stuff can be drunk neat but for the most part, the best way to enjoy it is in a Pisco Sour. It’s a simple cocktail of Pisco, sugar syrup and lime. In Peru they add whipped egg white and Angostura bitters, in my view the superior version. But never say that to a Chilean, they’ll go spare.

The best way to learn about Pisco is by doing a tour of the Elqui Valley near Pisco Elqui, covered, as you might expect, in the latest Booze of the World post.

Pisco tasting in the Elqui valley

Try: Your luck at whale watching

You can book a trip to see the tiny Humboldt penguins – residents of the Islas Damas – from the seaside town of La Serena, five hours north of Santiago. We almost didn’t because the price of the tour was out entire day’s budget and then some. But we can confidently say that it was money well spent.

Islas Damas tour

Don’t be put off by the weather… or the size of the boats. You’re guaranteed to see the cute little pinguinos (among the smallest in the world) alongside seals and a host of rare birdlife. If you’re lucky you might also get to see bottlenose dolphins and if you’re REALLY lucky you might even spy a humpback whale, flummoxing around in the chilly Pacific water.

We, as it turned out, were really lucky. We christened our whale Humpberto… because he’s Chilean and he’s a humpback whale. YES, we are that creative.

Buy: A Chilean phrasebook

OK, you probably don’t need a phrasebook but it is worth noting that Spanish speakers visiting Chile might be surprised by how different espanol chileno sounds compared to the accents and dialects used in other parts of South America.

It’s not just the pronunciation, either. Like Argentina, they frequently drop the esses (so desculpe becomes “de-culpe”) and both the (as in mayo) and the double ll (as in Guillermo) becomes a “sh” or even a soft “g” sound (so mayo becomes “masho” and Guillermo becomes “Guishermo”). In addition Chileans use a lot of words that derive not from castellano (“casteshano!”) but from the indigenous Mapuche language as well as chilenismos, their own idiosyncratic slang. Oh, and they talk really fast. Brilliant.

Mercado Central Santiago

Good luck in the market

Given that this was our last stop in South America, we were arrogant enough to think it’d be a breeze. Rob’s Spanish had skyrocketed from conversational to pretty proficient and even Franki, who spoke no Spanish at all before arriving was starting to be able to hold her own in basic conversations. So being sent straight back to square one in Chile was a bit of a shock! Luckily the Chileans are a pretty cool bunch and will do their best to help you out if you come to a comprehension impasse.

Do: A walking tour

We didn’t really consider ourselves walking tour people (perhaps due to the lack of gigantic trainers, khaki zip off shorts and bum bags?) but Chile really changed that. We booked onto the Where’s Wally tours in both Santiago and Valparaiso and found them excellent, both in terms of the information shared and the general ethos of trying to incorporate culture, history and a little bit of “real life”. The tours are “free” but you are expected to tip, and a suggested donation is around $10 per person.

Where's Wally tour Santiago

Can you spot him?

Highlights for us included the weird and wonderful stories told at the Cementerio General in Santiago and the fascinating history behind some of the street art in Valpariso (which was so impressive, we’ve dedicated an entire post to it!).

It also enabled us to find the best place to buy fresh fish at the Mercado Central in Santiago and discover the most delicious alfajores  made by this chap and sold from his front door just off a flight of stone steps in an alleyway in Valparaiso.

Alfajores Valparaiso

Don’t: Take your eyes off the pavement in Valparaiso

This quirky costal city is a joy to behold… except when it comes to the roads and pavements which is festooned with dog shit. It’s almost as though the neighbourhood canines have gone out of their way to liberally cover the place with crap in order that your every step be laced with hazard. By all means enjoy Valpo’s stunning street art and higgedly-piggedly UNESCO-protected buildings but never ever forget to keep an eye on your feet.

Valaparaiso Chile

Beautiful but treacherous

And not forgetting…

…the greatest ever name for a piece of art (and what, by the way, I am totally going to call my next band), discovered in the wacky Palacio Barburizza, Valparaiso:

Sex Eclair

The house – which is well worth a visit for the outlandish design, both inside and out – was formerly owned by Croatian Pascual Baburizza who had an eccentric flair for architecture and surprisingly conservative taste in art. The rest of the collection is dull as ditch water. In sum: Approximately 200 paintings of the ocean and two dozen dreary landscapes. It’s safe to say Sex Eclair is the highlight in more ways than one.

Want to know what it looks like? Well, you’ll have to visit and find out…

 

Adios Chile. Adios Sudamérica. A continuación… Nueva Zelanda!

Valparaiso Chile

Valparaiso: Where cafes come with toy monsters for you to play with

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

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

Rio de Janeiro skyline

Brazil: The Debrief

What we did and what you can do to…

Eat: Fish

Whether you have it in a traditional spicy moqueca stew, fried with rice on the beach, stuffed into a bolinho, “by the kilo” in one of Brazils excellent buffet eateries, or served up raw in a sushi bar, Brazil is the place to develop a taste for seafood.

Rob went crazy for the late night prawn cupcakes at Belmonte in Rio while Franki loved the moqueca up in Salvador (white fish and prawns stewed in coconut milk and served pretty much everywhere). We tried Sushi at Soho in Salvador and at Azumi in Rio and the latter – thought not cheap – was sensational.

Moqueca Bahia

A note to vegetarians: It’s not easy to avoid meat in Brazil so if you do find yourself existing on side dishes, you can at least take comfort in the fact that the fruit in Brazil is possibly some of the best I’ve had anywhere in the world. In fact, Franki’s pretty sure she developed a pineapple addiction during our stay.

Drink: Caipirinhas

The classic Brazilian cocktail – cachaça, sugar and lime – needs no introduction. Though the hangover you get from consuming that much alcohol alongside that much sugar should probably be mentioned. Nevertheless, they’re delicious and astonishingly easy to put away – see the latest Booze of the World for more!

Special mention: Coconuts

Back home it’s been trendy to drink coconut water for quite some time but it’s taken me until I came to Brazil to really appreciate quite how glorious it can be. Of course it’s a bit different when you’re drinking it straight from the source. On almost every street corner is a kiosk with a cool box full of fresh coconuts. They hack the top off with a machete and hand you a straw. It’s heaven in the heat.

Coconut water in Brazil

Try: Playing football on the beach

Rob was barely able to walk due to back problems so didn’t have the chance to embarrass himself. But Brazilians really do play football on the beach and they are damn good too. One kid scored a goal reminiscent of Gazza v Scotland at Euro 96 and barely celebrated. If an Englishman had scored that in the park he’d never pay for a drink the rest of his life. Joga bonito!

Football on the beach in Brazil

Buy: Havaianas

Possibly Brazil’s greatest fashion export [can’t be bothered to actually research this so let’s go with it!] Havaianas are the footwear uniform for tourists and locals alike. You can find them everywhere, from supermarkets to shoe shops and of course the ubiquitous Havaianas stores in every town.

They’re comfy, colourful and best of all, you can pick them up for less than R25 (around £5/$8). At prices like that you can have a different pair for every day of the week!

Buying Havaians in Brazil

Do: Buy bus tickets in advance

Time for a public service broadcast: Buying bus tickets in Brazil is annoying. You can’t buy them online unless you’re Brazilian (the booking form requires you to enter your Brazilian social security number) so you have to go the bus station. But the buses tend to book up quite quickly so it’s a good idea to plan ahead and get to the bus station ideally three or four days before you intend to travel. If you have plenty of time this won’t be a problem. If you’re on a tight schedule [check!] and/or you’re travelling during public holidays [check!] you may well find yourself wanting to scream.

Don’t: Bother visiting Christ the Redeemer

He might represent heaven but we can honestly say we found the trip to get up close and personal with one of the world’s most famous statues to be hellish on all fronts. Even without the four hour queue, the heat, or the absolute joke that is the ticket-purchasing system, you’re still talking about a lot of effort simply to stand in front of a statue you’ve seen a billion pictures of and can be admired from one of the many rooftop bars around the city.

Sugarloaf mountain

And once you get up there… oh my gosh. As Rob put it, “Now, admittedly I’m Jewish but I think you would struggle to find less Christian behaviour than I saw up at Corcovado.” Now, prone as he is to acerbic overstatement, he has a point. Everywhere you look is selfishness and narcissism as people literally shove you out of the way, elbowing each other in the ribs to get a selfie with the art deco icon.

Corcovado
Our advice? Skip it.

 

And not forgetting…

The time we stayed in a Brazilian love motel.

These by-the-hour motels gained publicity during the World Cup and led to soaring demand and the opening of  higher end luxury versions. And it turns out they’re pretty good value! You don’t have to rent them by the hour and rooms start at R165 a night (£35/$55) which in Sao Paulo was actually cheaper than some of the double rooms in hostels. Plus how often do you get to stay in a hotel room with a glitter ball?

Lush motel Sao Paulo