It was supposed to be a fun road trip, a chance to see Patagonia at our own pace and save a little money while doing it. We were excited to visit this legendary region of Argentina, home to bright blue glaciers and soaring, snow-capped mountains. It would be a great adventure – a highlight of our three-month backpacking sojourn across South America – and we couldn’t wait to hit the road.
If only we hadn’t “hit the road” quite so literally…
Unexpectedly surviving the fifth-largest earthquake on record had shaken up our travel plans, and now we found ourselves traveling south through Argentina instead of Chile. Thankfully, there are few places better to end up by accident than western Argentina. After a few days drinking malbec and sunshine in the wine mecca of Mendoza, we moved south to Bariloche. There, in the foothills of the Andes, we admired the beautiful lakeside city’s German architecture and rafted the white waters of the Rio Napo.
Next on our itinerary was Argentinian Patagonia, the town of El Calafate to be exact. For two months we had traveled exclusively by bus, but after checking schedules and prices we decided to try renting a car. We had read that La Ruta 40 – Route 40 – was Argentina’s Route 66, a scenic drive well worth the effort.
And maybe it is for some. For us, it was a disaster. But we didn’t know that as we loaded up our small, newly-rented Chevy Corsa, purchased matching Ruta 40 shirts, and headed south out of Bariloche in the mid-afternoon.
Little did we know, we had already made our first – and perhaps biggest – mistake. As we were checking out a number of car rental agencies in Bariloche, we thought it was pretty strange that none of them had cars to offer us for the drive on Route 40, only SUV’s and other four-wheel drive vehicles. We weren’t sure if we were being scammed – that kind of car was obviously much more expensive – or if there was just low inventory of smaller cars. Either way, we were on a backpacking budget and looking for the cheapest car possible, so we kept searching until we found a Thrifty Car Rental willing to rent us a small sedan.
What we should have realized is that there was a reason that we couldn’t find someone to rent us a car: it’s completely foolish, and even downright dangerous, to attempt La Ruta 40 south of Bariloche in anything but a four-wheel drive.
Our naïveté – or perhaps our hubris – won out, however, and we left Bariloche in a cheap, lightweight sedan that had nothing within it that was not absolutely essential for the car to run.
That first afternoon was great. We had been backpacking South America for almost two months but that point, but this felt like a whole new adventure. For the first time, we were completely in control of our transportation and could stop wherever and whenever we wanted. The road before us wound through the rugged foothills of the Andes, past pristine lakes and through pretty forests. We traveled through small towns and grassy meadows, and when the sun went down we were treated to a glorious sunset that set the whole world aglow. We were practically giddy with joy, freedom, and youth.
The farther south we went, the longer the distances grew between towns. When we finally spotted one, we stopped for a quick supper at a tiny, shabby comedor, or roadside restaurant. By that time, a thick, moonless darkness had fallen, adding to the lonely feeling of the road. Soon, we were traveling dozens of kilometers without seeing so much as a house or another set of headlights.
It was so remote and so dark that at one point we decided to pull over to check out the stars. When we got out of the car, we were absolutely blown away. The heavens were ablaze above us. There were more stars than I had ever seen, twinkling brightly in their groups and galaxies all the way down to the horizon. It was like being suspended under an upside-down bowl of sparkling diamonds. I remember feeling so very, very small and so very, very awed.
Our plan was to drive straight through the night to maximize our time, but soon after we got back in the car the asphalt came to an abrupt and unceremonious end. From then on, the road was dirt, gravel, and big stones that thudded alarmingly against the Corsa’s low undercarriage. The going was slow, and the sudden, violent banging of the rocks against the car was nerve-wracking. When we finally came across another tiny town – by that point it was well after 3:00 AM – we found a tiny guesthouse in which to crash until morning.
When the sun came up and we got back on the road, we really got a sense of how desolate the region is. There was nothing but flat scrubland as far as the eye could see.
The only breaks in the monotony – other than the jarring thunks on the poor, abused undercarriage – were the wildlife sightings. We spotted drab, flightless birds called ñandús…
… as well as small groups of llama-like animals called guanacos.
I was behind the wheel, and the going was almost painfully slow as we rumbled over the slippery, round stones that covered the road. The first town we came to was called Rio Mayo, and we grabbed a quick breakfast from a supermarket before pressing on.
And then… disaster. From my journal:
“We were about 60 km outside of Rio Mayo when it happened. I had to give the car a bit of extra gas when we came upon a hill, and at the top was a bend in the road. Suddenly, the back wheels were fishtailing on the smooth and slippery stones, and then we were spinning. The front tire hit an embankment on the side of the road and the next thing I knew the ground was falling away from the windshield in a cloud of brown dust as the car flipped onto its right side. Thank God it didn’t roll onto the roof but stopped there. My seatbelt had me held sideways and as the car stopped moving I began to slightly freak out.”
Even now, twelve years later, I can still see the dust swirling across the windshield as we spun and feel the swooping sensation in my stomach as our tires left the ground. I so clearly remember hanging sideways in the driver’s seat, suspended over the center console and panicking that my traveling companions were ok. Thankfully…
“We were all miraculously ok – not a scratch on any of us, even Kyle who had been laying down without a seatbelt in the backseat…
“We crawled up and out through the left side doors and jumped to the ground, and as soon as my flip-flops hit the road I began to sob, doubled over and practically stumbling across the road.
“A man went by in a pickup but couldn’t help us because he had to get to the airport, but then our rescuers showed up. They were a couple from Buenos Aires named Gustavo and Bettina, and they were absolutely phenomenal to us. They helped us right the car, and then the next while was a blur for me as tires were inspected and changed and damage was assessed. Another truck stopped and three more people helped while we three gringos stood around a bit uselessly.”
The windows were all right except for the tiny triangular one on the back dash. The two tires were flat thanks to the rocks, and both hubcaps were broken. The side mirror was snapped off as well, and the whole side of the car was scratched and dented.
“Guess we’ll be paying that 2,000 peso deductible.”
When everything was done that could be done at the scene of the accident, we needed to get our two popped tires repaired or replaced. Since I spoke the best Spanish, it was decided that I would go with Gustavo and Bettina back to Rio Mayo, with Kyle accompanying me. Curtis, who also spoke decent Spanish, would stay with the car in case anyone came by.
And so, Kyle and I crowded into the backseat of our new friends’ truck and made our bumpy way back to the town we had left hours before. Along the way, Gustavo and Bettina told us what we had so violently figured out for ourselves: no one attempts La Ruta 40 in anything less than a 4WD SUV.
Rio Mayo is tiny, so it didn’t take long to find a tire shop. There,
“[Bettina and Gustavo] went absolutely above and beyond the call of duty and I was so grateful for their help. Gustavo did all the negotiating with the tires, which was great because Kyle and I totally could have gotten ripped off, and they also helped find someone to drive us back to the car. I don’t know what we would have done without them.
“After a quick stop at a gas station to get food, we had to say goodbye. I almost cried again at the parting, but sobered up as we got in the car with a guy who was charging six pesos a kilometer to drive us back. Ironically, he got a flat tire as well no more than 10 km into the drive. It was nice, though, because he had been pretty condescending to me and that shut him up.
“When we arrived, we found that Curtis had done some MacGyver-esque repair work, taping the mirror in place with an ACE bandage and athletic tape and using his poncho and more tape to cover the broken window.”
The driver helped us put the tires back on, and then we carefully made our way through a beautiful sunset to Perito Moreno, the closest town to the south. There, we bought some better tape to reinforce our repairs and changed another tire that had slowly leaked air as a result of being popped when we pushed the car back over.
Afterward, we found a restaurant and finally had dinner: our first real meal of the day. We also began to process everything that had happened. We were overwhelmed with gratitude that the car was the only casualty of the adventure; there wasn’t so much as a scratch on any of us and the only thing rattled was our nerves. We were also incredibly touched and humbled by the kindness of the strangers we had met that day.
After that, we decided to abandon La Ruta 40 and stick to paved roads for the rest of our road trip. That meant heading almost due east across the entire bottom of the country and following the coastline to Rio Gallegos, then returning northwest to El Calafate. It was a massive detour (1,181 kilometers one way, compared to 628), but it couldn’t be helped.
We drove through the evening and most of the night along flat, boring stretches of road that were blissfully free of slippery stones.
Around 4:00 AM, we pulled into a rest stop in Tres Cerros (population 28) to sleep for a couple of hours in the car. Come morning, it was another round of gas station food and back in the car for another full day of driving. (In my journal, I wrote, “It was pretty flat and boring scenery, just scrubby brush, guanacos, ñandús, and low hills forever.”) Thankfully, the scenery started to get more interesting after we hit our southernmost point outside Rio Gallegos and turned to the west.
At long last, we rolled into the Patagonian tourist hub of El Calafate and found a hostel with glorious showers and comfortable beds, as well as a real, not-gas-station-food dinner.
As scary and inconvenient as our accident was, it was absolutely worth the pain to experience the beauty of Argentinian Patagonia. El Calafate, and the neighboring trekking mecca of El Chaltén, are indescribably gorgeous, and there’s so much to do that we immediately regretted not allowing more time for the region.
Eventually, we turned our car back north toward Bariloche. Or rather, we went east, north, west, and then north again to stay on paved roads: another 300 kilometers out of the way. We spent two more nights in the car – one parked on the street in a desolate town called Tres Lagos and another on the road taking driving shifts – but finally we made it back.
We had flipped a car on its side, slept three nights in a cramped sedan, eaten terrible gas station food, gone for days without showering, and traveled almost a thousand kilometers out of our way to stay on paved roads. Months later, I would be enmeshed in a frustrating fight with Thrifty Car Rental when they significantly overcharged me for the car damages. But we had also spent two nights in a great hostel with amazing showers, stood in awe of one of the world’s last advancing glaciers, hiked a fun trail to a viewpoint of famous Mt. Fitz Roy, been humbled by the generosity of strangers, and returned with a story to tell.
In the end, it was worth it.
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