Looking back over the 1,373 photos my girlfriend and I took during our 5,311 kilometre road trip through Patagonia, it’s hard to work out why the vast majority of them were taken in the first place…
212 of them are pictures of enchanting sunsets, mesmeric cloud patterns, epic mountains, curvy canyons and weird wildlife.
The remaining 1,161 are pictures of nothing. Endless nothing…
Covering the entire lower halves of Argentina and Chile, 98% of Patagonia is made up of nothing, or ‘Steppe’ as it is commonly referred to by geographers – wetter than desert but too dry for all but the hardiest of shrubs and grasses to grow. The total absence of trees (apart from those planted and irrigated by people) makes for a dusty, shadeless void of topographical features from horizon to horizon.
As we sped through the nothing at between two and three times the speed limit, the landscape melted from one 1970s bathroom colour to another – vomit green to puss yellow to gangrene brown to diarrhoea orange to tooth decay blue to nuclear winter white to nuclear holocaust grey to red.
When clouds passed overhead it was freezing. When the sun poked through it was sweltering. Whole weather systems could be seen in a single eyeful. Sunsets could be appreciated in 360 degrees of uninterrupted splendour. Everything we owned got coated with a thin film of dust.
There is nowhere else on the planet quite like Patagonia. This blog contains a small slice of the photographs we took there. Click any image to enlarge to full size…
The Road Ahead…
Our journey started in the alpine paradise of Bariloche, heading south to Welsh speaking Trevelin, cross country west to the seal/penguin/orca colonies in Puerto Madryn, south again to wind battered Rio Gallegas, cross country east to the glaciers in El Calafate, north to mountaineering mecca El Chalten, further north to the home of the infamous ‘Old Patagonian Express’ steam train in Esquel, and then back to Bariloche.
The vehicle of choice for our adventure of a lifetime was a 2013 Volkswagen Gol (not Golf), a South American only model of VW that feels somewhere between a Ford Fiesta and a Nissan Micra.
Before leaving civilisation we loaded up on bottled water, non-perishable foods and chap sticks. We carried extra petrol canisters in the boot. I googled how to change a tyre.
The time frame was 15 days. After that, the car rental company had been instructed to send out a search party.
The Open Road…
The highways stretched out in a perfectly straight line to beyond the horizon. Every hour or so, the monotony was rudely interrupted by a chain of hairpin bends. We had with us three separate maps – all of which marked out roads that didn’t exist, renamed roads and roads that led to nowhere.
Covering up to 700 kilometres a day, keeping our Gol from careening in to a ditch was the biggest challenge. Most people here just drive straight down the middle to give themselves maximum run off in the event of an emergency.
Not all the roads in Patagonia are paved – large stretches are pure gravel – particularly on the notorious ‘Ruta 40’.
Our Gol had a reinforced underbelly, which when charging over the gravel made it sound like being pelted by stray machine gun fire. When my girlfriend was behind the wheel on the Ruta 40, she slowed down. I preferred to powerslide in to the corners, kiss the apex and fishtail out the exits.
There was also the ever present threat of rheas (evolutionary cousin of the ostrich) and guanacos (cousin of the llama). Usually they would charge in front of the car, in packs of five or more, seconds before impact.
The prevailing south westerly winds of Patagonia regularly reach up to 100km/h. Our little Gol was shunted from one side of the carriageway to the other. Even though the roads were straight, we couldn’t just keep the steering wheel locked in the same position – microscopic adjustments had to be made every few seconds to combat random blasts of dusty air.
Stuff By The Side Of The Road…
Between the road and the scenery was the roadside – an oft neglected feature of any road trip. Patagonia’s roadsides have their own idiosyncrasies.
There were shredded tyres every 50 or so meters for the entirety of the trip – each one a symbol of disastrous road trips gone by.
Every now and again we would see a crash barrier but rarely did they correlate with the road hazards. Sometimes they would just be lying flat on the ground, having never been erected, presumably forgotten about when the road was being built.
And then there were the shrines. Little red or white houses adorned with water or whiskey or wine bottles, cigarettes, playing cards, baseball caps, CDs, car parts and other assorted road trip paraphernalia.
The red shrines are in honour of Gauchito Gil (‘The Little Gaucho’ – patron of gauchos), a legendary Robin Hood-esque bandit of Argentine folklore that died after having his throat cut by a policeman.
The white shrines celebrate Difunta Correa (patron of travellers and truck drivers), a woman that became lost in the desert with her baby. She succumbed to thirst and exhaustion and was found dead by passing gauchos days later. The child was alive, having survived by nursing at her miraculously ever-full breast.
Offerings are made at the shrines in return for safe passage through Patagonia.
Life On The Road…
As one of the lowest density population areas on the planet, when we did reach Patagonia’s rare outposts the most striking feature was usually that people (immigrants no less) had chosen to live there at all.
Why had they chosen to settle ‘here’? And by ‘here’ I mean, why not 1 or 10 or 100 kilometres further up the road where the geology, topography and availability of resources (or lack of therein) is almost identical?
The answer could often be found in the centre of most Patagonian towns. Here lay totemic monuments to the industry on which the outpost was built. This is a statue of a giant hand holding some giant cherries…
This is a tribute to the oil worker…
Also in these towns we found the most elaborate Falklands War memorials in all of Argentina.
These were the kinds of towns where teenagers go mad, listen to death metal bands and horde guns. The absence of traffic lights at cross roads meant a ‘who dares wins’ policy at junctions. Quite often we managed to pick up wifi, but rarely was that wifi connected to the internet.
Concrete chic is a major feature of Patagonian architecture. These were not cheaply or poorly built houses – it’s just that adding a coat of paint seems not to have occurred to anyone. We found many half built houses – abandoned mid-construction for reasons unknown.
Petrol stations regularly ran out of fuel, and it could be two or three days until being restocked. We refilled the tank at every opportunity. The thought of becoming stranded in the Patagonian nothing is even more terrifying than the thought of becoming stranded in a Patagonian town.
End Of The Road…
The great travel writer Paul Theroux once said Argentina is a first world country with third world politics. Our road trip through Argentinean Patagonia felt distinctly second world.
This landscape is still being tamed. There are huge oil reserves in Patagonia, and the Argentinian government has only just begun to exploit them. With oil revenues comes ever improving infrastructure.
Much of Ruta 40’s gravel roads are currently in the process of being tarmaced over. In 20 years time, they will all be paved and travelling through Patagonia will require significantly less bravado.
It was late March and winter was on its way. Soon these roads will be impassable and for the following five months the small towns of Patagonia will become further isolated. But one day all of these towns will be connected to super fast broadband and the rest of the world won’t quite seem so far away.
The roadside shrines only last a few years before succumbing to the Patagonian winds. As their contents are spattered far and wide across the dusty plains, more shrines will be built to replace them. Perhaps instead of CDs and cigarettes they will be filled with iPods and e-lites.
Patagonia looks prehistoric, but it is in fact ever changing. What we had seen was a snapshot in time, and our photographs were merely snapshots of that snapshot. The ever evolving nature of Patagonia is the only thing we could not capture in a photograph.