Argentina’s Route 40 is one of the world’s epic road trips. It travels nearly the entire length from North to South in this large South American country. Traversing through remote deserts, to lush wine country with charming small towns, to wildernesses with glacially carved mountains, a trip down Ruta 40 has it all. Where else could you see glaciers, red rock deserts, ancient archaeological pictograph sites, taste vintage wines, trace Butch Cassidy’s footsteps, see a sculptured forest, experience Welsh culture in a South American setting, traverse through desolate valleys and visit thriving towns all on the same road? Nowhere else but La Ruta 40!
Ruta 40 is one of the longer road trips in the world. At 5,000 kilometers long, it is longer than America’s Famous Route 66 which goes from Chicago to Los Angeles. Since its orientation trends from North to South, Ruta 40 covers different latitudes, which correlate with different climate zones. That make for quite varied ecosystems along the way. The road starts in the south near Rio Gallegos on the Atlantic Ocean and ends at La Quiaca near the Bolivian border in the northern province of Jujuy (pronounced “hoo- hwee’). The road has been decades in the making, and there are parts that are well paved and others that are gravel. There are plans to pave it all sometime in the future, similar to the plans of the Alaska Highway through Canada in North America. The low point is near sea level on the coast, but the high point in Salta Province climbs to a lung-busting altitude of 16, 200′ at Abra del Acay.
There is no right way to travel the route, so we will start in the north and continue southward, which is the way I experienced it. The elevation at La Quiaca in Jujuy province at the start of our trip is 11, 344.
THE FAR NORTH
In the far North, you will encounter high mountains, as Ruta 40 runs just east of the Cordillera of the Andes Mountains. This is the latitude of the subtropical high pressure area where there is little rainfall, and desert like conditions. The landscape seems lunar in appearance. Nonetheless, there are well preserved pre-Colombian ruins in the area.
A long way away from the town of Cafayate, we found this old man gathering wood to bring back to his home near town. We offered him a bottle of cold water, which he was really thankful for. Nights get cold in the desert with clear skies, and one has to travel far and wide to find scarce wood for fuel. Life is not easy in these parts.
In high altitude, dry areas of Bolivia and Northern Argentina, one also might spot a Vizcacha. It is a strange looking animal, as if a rabbit, a squirrel, and a possum had a three-way, with the resulting offspring being a Vizcacha. Actually they are of the rodent family, similar to the chinchilla.
The town of Cafayate (not to be confused with the of El Calafate in Patagonia), is a good sized town that has some wineries and is a good place to stage day trips to the surrounding region. One can also reach Cafayate on a day trip from the much larger town of Salta. You won’t want to miss the Quebrada de Cafayate, with its unique geological features.
Another popular day trip excursion in this part of the world is a ride on el Tren a las Nubes (Train to the clouds). It is a full day excursion from the city of Salta, where you will take a coach to San Antonio de las Cobres and then board the train at an altitude of over 12,300′. The ride takes you ever higher and crosses the very high Polvorilla Aqueduct. You will not likely see any clouds in this desert environment, but if there were enough moisture in the air, you would be high enough to be in cloud.
Further south, you will go through the center of wine country in the Mendoza region. Most of the Argentine wines you find in your grocery stores or bottle shops at home will come from this region of Argentina.
The map below shows only the southern portion of Ruta 40 through Patagonia. The further south you travel, the more remote it gets.
Much further south from the desert north, and further south from the Mendoza Wine district, the central part of Ruta 40 passes through the relatively moist Lake Districts near San Carlos de Bariloche. Bariloche is a heavily touristed town, full of chocolate shops, and located on the shores of Nahuel Huapi Lake, in Rio Negro province. It is a ski town in the winter and a center for trekking and adventure travel in the summer and a magnet for other tourists. Its alpine style architecture gives it a hint of Swiss charm at the foot of the Andes. There is also a road link over the mountains to Chile from here. You could imagine yourself being in Austria, if only they spoke Spanish in Austria!
Our next stop heading south is at the charming little town of El Bolson, at the end of Rio Negro Province. Cerro Piltriquitron is the mountain in the background in the picture below, and where the famous Bosque Tallado (Sculptured Forest) is located. I wrote a post on that location earlier this year. El Bosque Tallado: The Sculptured Forest
Heading south into Chubut province there will be a road off to the right of Ruta 40 which goes to Cholila, the site of the cabin of the famous outlaw Butch Cassidy. I really wanted to visit there, but the bus service only went to Cholila once a week and the timing didn’t work out. But being a fan of Butch and having visited his hideouts of Hole-in-the-Wall, Wyoming, Robbers Roost in Utah, and his grave site in Bolivia, I still feel like I have hit the Butch Cassidy trifecta.
You might also want to make a stop in Trevelin, where you will experience Welsh culture in Patagonia. Stop at a Welsh Tea House and you might think you are in Cardiff, until you look out the window and see the Andes in the distance. These tea houses look and taste like Cardiff, but the sounds of Spanish mixed with Welsh architecture, dress and gastronomy will blow your mind!
The bus I was riding stopped at the town of Esquel for the night and we found lodging there. One of the attractions of Esquel is that it is home to “La Trochita”, a famous narrow gauge steam engine train. For those interested, I would recommend author Paul Theroux’s book “The Old Patagonian Express” about train travel in this remote region.
THE FAR SOUTH (PATAGONIA)
South of Esquel, the country is wild and sparsely inhabited. You pass through sagebrush valleys with the majestic snow capped peaks of the high Andes in view to the west. A day of riding the bus will put you in the hamlet of Perito Moreno where you will find a cafe and lodging for the night. The bus will not leave until late the next day to give passengers time for an optional morning excursion to the Cueva de las Manos (the cave of hands), which is a world famous archaeological site of hands painted by indigenous peoples over 13,000 years ago.
Any trip through sparsely populated lands will have to have a safe stopping place for a night’s rest. Nestled near the shores of Lake Cardiel about 240 miles south of Perito Moreno you will find the Estancia Siberia, a welcome outpost of civilization in the midst of the Patagonian wilderness. Our bus stopped here for the an evening meal and then for the night.
Ruta 40 gets close to the Cordillera near the far south. The jagged peaks of Cerro Torre and Mt. Fitzroy are some of the most iconic mountain landscapes you will ever experience. The harsh winter weather and the rugged glaciers have sculpted this landscape over the eons of time. Usually the mountains are shrouded in clouds, but it was absolutely gorgeous the day that I was there.
One might also spot a guanaco on the side of the road in the far south. The guanaco in the picture below didn’t seem too concerned with me getting so close to him.
I got off of the bus in El Chalten, and then caught another bus to Chile, so I did not finish all Argentina’s epic Ruta 40. But if you would like to quickly travel the route from south to north, I found a good you tube video for you.
The you tube video below is narrated in SPANISH, but even for those of you who are not fluent in Spanish, you can still get a good feel of what this magical route has to offer. The trip starts in the south of the country, passes by the Glaciers, and travels all the way up to the deserts in the north. May your geographical journey be an epic one!
12 thoughts on “Argentina’s Epic Road Trip: La Ruta Cuarenta – (Route 40)”
Absolutely fascinating country. I had no idea there was so much varied European influence throughout. I am embarrassed to say the extent of my knowledge of the area is the Top Gear Patagonia special. eek I should rectify that and learn more about such a cool part of the world.
Now you know why Yvon Chouinard, the French founder of Patagonia sportswear chose that name. Outdoor clothes for the harsh climate of the Patagonia region. Thanks for reading!
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Did you see he just donated the company to fight climate change? Hopefully it does some good!
Interesting journey on la ruta. Bariloche…I want to go there. Wow. When looking at the image from the Caves of Hands I couldn’t help but think about the human desire to create and leave a representation of ourselves. Painting graffiti aka street art is a shouting distance from the handprint. Thanks for the journey.
Gracias por acompañarme en el viaje. Ojalá que pudieras ir temprano!
Oh my goodness it looks like such an amazing trip. I want to go!
I’ll help you plan it when you are ready to go….
Thanks for sharing another amazing journey!
Wish I could have stayed and finished trip with you.
Such an amazing journey!
I’d like to do it again, but with a car next time!
I really like this journey…thanks…in particular I like the passage…
the central part of Ruta 40 passes through the relatively moist Lake Districts near San Carlos de Bariloche.
I know I am about 12 years old…..MOIST 🙂
Jay A. Geier
Shogun Consulting, Llc