Today we have 333 kms to cover including around 100 km of roadworks and unpaved roads. By day’s end we will have travelled nearly 3000 km along Route 40 from Rio Gallegos and can’t help being impressed by the investment being made to make it a first class tourist road. It doesn’t appear to carry much truck traffic, most of the trucks use the highways radiating out from Buenos Aires and the other major coastal cities. Route 40 just happens to link all the interesting old towns following the path taken by the original settlers who arrived from Peru and Bolivia. They and the new towns which have sprung up as ski resorts and bases for adventure on the eastern side of the Andes are a tourist mecca. When the road it fully completed it should attract tens of thousands more tourists which should be good boost to the local economies. For people who love driving, the roads are among the most exciting and challenging in the world especially where we are today as we get closer to the Andes. In some distant future landscape, the government may spoil the fun by enforcing speed limits and other road rules but for now all speed limits and double lines are treated by the locals as discretionary only. Fortunately most Argentinian drivers are pretty sensible and way ahead of the standards of driving expected as we head into Bolivia.
Volcanic activity has formed an extraordinary landscape which is so different to any we have encountered so far. We climbed up steadily winding our way around treeless hills covered in stubbly salt bush interspersed with rocky outcrops to around 2000 meters. In the distance we would glimpse views of the Andes proper. Unfortunately we also discovered the unpaved roads which included some of the most tortuous so far. Occasionally we came to an oasis marked by tall poplar trees as the Rio Grande wound its way through the valley. We kept criss-crossing the Rio Grande for a half an hour or so until we got to a small bridge over a deep gorge with steep cliffs formed from black volcanic rock. Nearby there were half a dozen small shrines, in one of which a candle was still burning. Another featured a battered number plate from a car – was the driver careless enough to lose his life at this spot or is there another story? At mid-morning we said goodbye to Patagonia and drive into the province of Mendoza.
At one of our photo stops we met biker Ron, a Californian who told us he learned to ride his BMW when was 68. He is still 68! Ron wasn’t a big bloke and struggled to keep his bike upright on the steep gravel surface. He said he had lost count of the number of times he had dropped it. He is travelling a similar route to us and has seen us a number of times along the way. Ron had owned two MGBs and a TD, then changed to Triumphs which he said weren’t much more reliable. He thought we were totally crazy!. We thought the same about him! We hope to catch up again as he would have some stories to tell.
Malargue is described in Lonely Planet as “a mellow little town that is a little rough around the edges” and is a base for Las Lenas, one of Argentinia’s more upmarket ski resorts. Our hotel is a little up-market and uninteresting compared with recent nights but perhaps we are just being prepared for the Park Hyatt in Mendoza, our next stop.