The Lonely Planet Journey: Argentina's Patagonian Highway

Begin your homage to Patagonia

Known officially as Ruta Nacional 40 (RN40), the Patagonian Highway runs nearly the length of Argentina, a distance of more than 5,000km. In the north of the country, it begins just south of the Bolivian border and continues almost to Tierra del Fuego in the south.

To do the full trip requires a combination of vehicles, because much of the road is unpaved. Some stretches require just a regular car, others need a 4x4. Of course, walking is an option for part of the way, in which case good shoes, plenty of food and water and an appetite for adventure are essential.

With the exception of the hubs of El Calafate and El Chaltén, rutted Ruta Nacional 40 is a no-man's-land. It parallels the backbone of the Andes, where ñandú birds flit through sagebrush, trucks whip up huge storms of whirling dust, and gas stations dominate the horizon like oases.

Nonetheless, the paving of RN40 is under way, with long stretches of the road smooth enough for cycling. Still, if you want to experience this lonely highway at its most evocative, get there quickly before the renovation is complete. Its raw state is, after all, the mythical road to nowhere that has stirred the loins of many, including Butch Cassidy and the writer Bruce Chatwin.

The paving of RN40 will clearly end this identity, which has defined a generation. When the reconstruction is finished, most motorists are likely to whiz from sight to sight, bypassing the quirky, unassuming settlements that provide so much joy for connoisseurs of the trip. For the moment, public transport stays limited to a few summer-only tourist shuttle services, and driving requires both preparation and patience.

THE JOURNEY TODAY

You've been on the road for a week and everything about the trip has been monumental, including the repairs. Gravel punctured your petrol tank a while back, and you dodged flying rocks and sheep that think they own the road.

You've negotiated blind curves on windy days when it seemed your car would fly right off the road, and all the while you've been struggling to process the sheer amount and variety of experiences that have come your way. You've seen massive frontier horizons dwarfing the gauchos that ride their horses on the steppe, and you've imbibed the monumental silence that accompanies such a space – a wild, barren emptiness as thrilling and as awesome as the craggy peaks and unspoiled rivers.

Now you've arrived in Patagonia itself. The map tells you it's a very large place and you've seen that for yourself. It's almost a country within a country with its oil boomtowns, petrified forests, spectacular Península Valdés and splendidly isolated Welsh settlements. You've heard about the trendy Patagonia, too: the tourist hubs with designer shops which seem worlds apart from the RN40.

But it's been hours since the last town. You've been driving for what seems an eternity. The weather is cunning and the gravel dastardly. You're not in a hurry because the conditions won't allow you to be.

Your car is rattling, as are your teeth, as you trundle along this bumpy stretch. But then, a magical moment: the view ahead suddenly cracks apart with brilliance and radiance as glacial peaks and gem-coloured lakes make their presence felt with preternatural charm. And then it hits you, like a flying rock from the side of the road. This is why you came.

THE SHORTCUT

The Patagonian stretch of the RN40 provides a potted summary of everything that makes the journey great. Through inland Patagonia, highlights include the Perito Moreno and Los Glaciares national parks, the rock art of Cueva de las Manos and remote ranches. The iconic character of the road is also intact – from Esquel, it continues paved until south of Gobernador Costa, where it turns to gravel. From there on it's mostly gravel, with slowly increasing numbers of paved sections, mainly near population centres.

Extract from Great Journeys, published by Lonely Planet (£29.99). Readers can buy a copy for £25 including UK P&P by going to shop.lonelyplanet.com and using the code INDEPENDENT

Essential experiences

* Become mesmerised by the magical, blue-hued Moreno Glacier, and be entranced by icebergs crumbling – each time with an almighty boom.

* Step back in time to explore the wonderful millennial forest in the Parque Nacional Los Alerces.

* Accept the challenge and trek the exciting Fitz Roy range near El Chaltén.

* Commune with nature and enjoy the sight of southern right whales up close in the waters of the Reserva Faunistica Península Valdés.

* Play the gaucho by riding the wide-open range and feast on fire-pit roasted lamb at a traditional estancia (ranch).

Argentina's Patagonian Highway

Distance: 5,000km Countries covered Argentina

Ideal time commitment: One to two months

Best time of year: December to March

Essential tip: Assuming you feel safe to do so, always offer to help anyone who you see stranded on the side of the road; there's no roadside assistance and mobile phones don't work in the area.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
musicBand's first new record for 20 years has some tough acts to follow
News
peopleAt least it's for a worthwhile cause
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
News
Liam Payne has attacked the media for reporting his tweet of support to Willie Robertson and the subsequent backlash from fans
peopleBut One Direction star insists he is not homophobic
Life and Style
healthFor Pure-O OCD sufferers this is a reality they live in
Life and Style
Sexual health charities have campaigned for the kits to be regulated
healthAmerican woman who did tells parents there is 'nothing to be afraid of'
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Affiliate Marketing Manager / Affiliate Manager

    £50 - 60k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Affiliate Marketing Manager / Affiliate Mana...

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Day In a Page

    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments