Route 40 is the longest route in Argentina and one of the longest in the world (along with the Route 66 in US, the Trans-Canada Highway in Canada and the Stuart Highway in Australia). This route runs parallel to the Andes mountains and has more than 5,000 km long, crosses 20 national parks, 18 major rivers, 27 passes on the Andes and goes up to 5,000 m above sea level.
This route starts near the city of Río Gallegos in Santa Cruz Province, where we've been too before arriving into Ushuaia, the southern city in the planet. We started our journey on this route after visiting Torres del Paine National Park and crossing the border from Chile. From there route 40 brought us to El Calafate and El Chaltén, both towns to visit Los Glaciares National Park.
We left El Chaltén knowing that from there and until the end of the Patagonia region this would be a very remote (and sometimes unpaved) road. Our first stop was at Perito Moreno town (don't get confused with the Perito Moreno Glacier with the same name!), approximately 580 km from El Chaltén. Since 72 km were in a very bad unpaved road and part of the remaining 508 km were not great either, it took us all day to arrive (around 8 hours driving). Route 40 is a well-known adventure tourism journey so driving it is part of the trip. Something to keep in mind is that there's almost nothing on the way. And when we say "nothing" it means "nothing", no coffees, toilets, services... Even other drivers are hard to see sometimes! So, as usual when we drive, we had our own sandwiches and drinks prepared beforehand for this long journey.
Cueva de las Manos Pintadas ("Cave of the Painted Hands")
Perito Moreno is a small town in the middle of the Route 40 and, as expected, there was nothing there to see. Nothing except being the closest place to sleep (with exception of Bajo Caracoles that only had one really bad hotel) before visiting Cueva de Las Manos, one of South America’s finest examples of rock paintings and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This place takes its name from the human hands graved in the caves, but there are also many figures of animals and hunting scenes.
There are 3 ways of arriving into Cueva de Las Manos. The first one is through an unpaved road of around 46 km (RP41) that starts in Bajo Caracoles town, the second one is through a shorter but rough unpaved road of around 26 km that starts in the middle of Route 40 (between Bajo Caracoles and Perito Moreno) and the third way is closer to Perito Moreno but there's no road for 3 km so one have to walk between the two sides of the canyon. We did the second one to arrive and the first one to left (although it's more km it compensates because the second road was really difficult to do with our car - one of the worsts we've made!). Currently there's no other way of visiting this place except through a guided tour that takes around 1h30 and costs 120$ARG per person.
The surrounding landscape by itself deserves a visit! It is a beautiful valley carved out over thousands of years, and the magnitude of the rock walls set an impressive stage for exploring the near-perfectly preserved paintings. As explained in the guided tour, the paintings were executed between 13,000 and 9,500 years ago with natural mineral pigments ground and mixed with some form of binder. Most of the hands are left hands, which suggests that painters held the spraying pipe with their right hand or they put the back of their right hand to the wall and held the spraying pipe with their left hand (the images are negative painted, that is, stenciled). Besides these there are also depictions of human beings, guanacos and other animals, as well as geometric shapes, red dots and hunting scenes. Fascinating place and a must-see!
Esquel & Trevellin
Our next stop on Route 40 and the last one in the Patagonia region was Esquel, a town in the northwest of Chubut Province, in Argentina. The founding of the town dates back to the arrival of Welsh immigrants in 1865 but the settlement was only created in 1906 together with the town of Trevelin (located 22 km south of Esquel). We stayed here mainly to visit Los Alerces National Park and as a stop before Bariloche (approximately 300 km north from Esquel).
Los Alerces National Park was created in 1937 with a main goal: protecting the pure forests of one of the most emblematic species of the Andean-Patagonian forests: the Alerce (Fitzroya cupressoides). It has a total surface of 236,000 hectares, comprising several different ecosystems, including the Valdivian Temperate Rain Forest, the Andean-Patagonia Forest, the High-Andean Steppe and the Patagonian Steppe. It is considered one of the most beautiful parks in Argentina, but honestly we didn't find anything special at the park. One of the reasons was that the alerces (the park famous trees) can only be seen hiring private tours - which we didn't do. Other reasons include not having many viewpoints to stop the car and admire the view and also limited information about trails/trekking around the park.
Trevelin is also know for its tea houses that serve the typical Welsh treat with cakes, homemade bread and scones. It is usual to say that Trevelin is the most Welsh of all the towns in Welsh Patagonia! We tried it too at Casa de Te Nain Maggie, a very traditional (although very touristic too!) place in the village center. Of course that although this was meant to be a "snack" we couldn't have dinner after it!
Next stop: Bariloche & The Lakes region (Argentina)