Another warm and sunny day in Patagonia. Just a slight breeze and already around 20 deg when we leave for our first day driving south on the famous Route 40. Right outside the hotel is a police check point and there seems no way around so we pull up and say ‘Ushuaia’ in response to the question from the very young policeman. No idea what he wanted to know but it seemed to do the trick and he waved us all through.
This is the recently sealed section of Route 40 and what a fabulous road. Billiard table smooth and the first section around the lake is one sweeping curve after another. After around 50 km we run out of lake and head into much harsher and more desolate country very similar to the Stuart highway around Coober Pedy. Instead of roos we have to dodge llamas which, apart from one who didn’t make it, seem to be smart enough to run away from the cars. Emus are replaced by their South American cousins, Rheas, and they appear similar enough to suggest very little evolution since Gwondana split up (about 20 million years ago?)
All the guide books recommend filling up at every opportunity in this remote area because the infrequent fuel stations regularly run out of fuel. Luckily no shortages at Bajo Caracoles described by Bruce Chatwin in his 1975 book “In Patagonia” as “a crossroads of insignificant importance with roads leading in all directions apparently to nowhere”. The best bit was that we were given the names of a few wineries to visit in Mendoza on our return trip – we’ve sampled a few Mendoza Malbecs so far and haven’t found a crook one yet.
There was much discussion the previous evening about the correct route to take to reach our destination, Estancia la Angostura. Our written instructions seemed to be contradictory and further complicated by inconsistent highway numbering. We stopped for a bite to eat at an intersection which we were fairly sure was the one we needed to take and our GPS agreed, contrary to the GPS in all the other cars. We were in the lead so elected to leave the tarmac and take the heavily gravelled side road. All looking good for around 20 km until the GPS suggested turning off at barely visible track which hadn’t been used for many years. Not looking so good now, but a few km further along we found a signpost to the Estancia about 4 km away on the banks of a river. A beautiful spot in today’s beautiful weather with white washed houses and farm buildings overlooking a wide wetlands area and the river in the distance. The house is well sheltered from Patagonia’s winds by a 20 metre range of hills directly behind. It would still be pretty bleak in winter though.
Estancias were originally sheep stations established in Argentina’s ‘Belle Epoque’ in the 1880s when Argentina had the greatest wealth per capita of any country in the world. In recent times they have turned to eco-tourism to help balance the books although this station is still a working sheep station in the hands of the family whose ancestors were some of a large group who emigrated from Croatia in the 1910s. The house was full of mementos and photographs of the early times including some showing deep snow all around the house. Mario and Antonio were good hosts and delivered a spectacular assido – a whole lamb barbecued on the fire burning in one corner of the large dining room. Lorraine was also well looked after with vegetables and empanadas and Antonio kept finding more bottles of pretty reasonable Malbec to keep everyone well lubricated.