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La Ruta 40: The gnarled spine of a nation

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La Ruta 40 is as intertwined in Argentine folklore as Route 66 is a part of the American psyche, and traveling its 3100 mile length is a pilgrimage undertaken by intrepid modern pioneers – many of them on motorbike and even bicycle. Obviously there is an allure to completing the route in its entirety, but if you don’t have that kind of time on your hands even a day trip through its desolate Northern or Southern extremities can be cathartic.

La Ruta 40 stretches from La Quiaca on the Bolivian border, all the way to Punta Loyola in Santa Cruz – the Southern-most province on the Argentine mainland. It is one of the longest roads in the world, and the terrain it passes through is as varied as Argentina itself.

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Somewhere in Salta (Picture: Jesus Dehesa)

In the North it is a high-altitude, desert road with a rocky unpaved surface and a veritable trickle of traffic. In the belly of the country, around San Juan and Mendoza, it is a busy paved highway, with little to recommend it. In the so-called Lake District is passes through some of the most verdant, picture-postcard mountain scenery in the world. And in Patagonia proper it is once again desolate, windswept and arid – albeit consistently about 30 degrees colder than it is in its Northern reaches.

Numbers can be deceiving, but they can also be illuminating. La Ruta 40 passes through 18 national parks, and reaches a high point of over 16,000ft and a low of 127ft below sea level. We’ve picked out a few of the absolute best sections of the road for your reading pleasure. Be sure to add (at least some of) La Ruta 40 to your Argentine itinerary.

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A biker in Santa Cruz province. (Picture: Mr Hicks)

Cachi to Cafayate

This section of the road passes through the Northern province of Salta. Argentina’s North-East is quite unlike any other part of the country. It’s mountainous and dry (it’s in the rain shadow of the Andes) and is home to the vast majority of Argentina’s Amerindian population. It’s a land of whitewashed chapels and cacti; crisp fruity white wines and photochromic sedimentary rock formations.

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Quebrada de las Flechas (Picture: Jan Hazevoet)

Cachi is the archetypal sleepy outpost, while Cafayate is as close as this sparsely populated corner of the globe comes to being a tourist mecca. The road between them is narrow, rock-strewn and humbling and it passes through some of least hospitable country you’ll ever see. The dramatic Quebrada de Las Flechas resembles arrows shooting skywards, while the multi-colored (mineral deposits turn the rocks red, orange, green and purple) Valles Calchaquies are a photographer’s dream.

Learn more about the wines of Cafayate, here.

Ruta de los Siete Lagos

The ‘Route of the Seven Lakes’, as it is known in English, could not be more different to the northern section we’ve just described. This circuit, which is legendary among Argentines, but little-known by foreign tourists, joins the towns of San Martin de los Andes and Villa La Angostura, passing no fewer than seven picturesque pine-fringed lakes; namely lagos Nahuel Huapi, Correntoso, Traful, Falkner, Villarino, Hermoso and Lacar. And that’s not to mention seven more lakes that are a stone’s throw from the official route.

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Lago Traful (Picture: Carlos Bau)

If you’re planning a Patagonian adventure, you should seriously consider taking in Northern Patagonia as well as the big name destinations in the Southern half of the region. The North of Patagonia is gentler and less austere, making it more charmingly picturesque. The towns have a quaint Alpine feel to them and there’s fantastic skiing (during the Southern Hemisphere’s winter) and fly-fishing (in Summer) and an amazing year-round foodie scene. Think microbreweries, organic berry farms and artisanal chocolatiers.

To find out about our favorite hidden gem in Northern Patagonia, check out this blog.

Tres Lagos to Rio Turbio

If you’ve seen ‘Ruta 40 adventures’ advertised on the internet, this is most likely the section of the road they are referring to. Although this section is now paved, it is still as remote as ever and is one of the essential Patagonian experiences. With the snow-capped Andes on one side (they’ll be on your right if you’re heading South) and the seemingly endless, windswept Patagonian steppe on the other, the landscape is torn from the pages of Chatwin’s In Patagonia and Paul Theroux’s The Old Patagonian Express.

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Pure Patagonia (Picture: Advencap)

But, this section of La 40 is also the access point to some of Patagonia’s biggest tourist attractions. Click on this link to read about the awe-inspiring glaciers near El Calafate, the peerless hiking around El Chalten and unparalleled mountainscapes of Torres del Paine.

Like all true icons, La Ruta 40 is so much more than a road. It is a rope which joins this vast country together, and your life will not be the same once you have explored it. This site is a treasure trove of information on the most famous road in South America, but it is entirely in Spanish. If your linguistic skills aren’t up to the challenge, just contact us – we’d be happy to help.

Thanks to Juan Carlos Martins for the cover photo of this post.

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