From Buenos Aires we rode across the pampa towards Mendoza and from there, we took the famous Ruta 40 with the intention to go south and see the parts of Argentina that we had missed the first time there.
Argentina is big! We know it, but we need to keep it in mind every time we hit the road, because distance is relative. What do I mean? We are from Greece, a country that is about 21 times smaller than Argentina. To make it even more precise: the cumulative area of Greece is 131,957 km2 (50,949 sq mi) while that of Argentina is 2,780,400 km2 (1,073,500 sq mi). So, now you can imagine how an Argentinian's short trip for the weekend looks like to two poor Greeks on a small scooter!
From Buenos Aires, we took the RN7 and at that same day we rode for almost 300 boring kilometers (186mi) to the town of Junin (Buenos Aires Province). The monotonous infinity from one place to another, crossing the endless Argentinian pampas was not new to us. We knew it well, so we were prepared for straight lines and plain fields. The second day was as dull as the first one: 260kms (161mi) to Bernardo Larroudé (La Pampa Province), a very small town with a very big municipal campsite, where we spent two days resting. Then, 220 more kilometers (136mi) to Unión (San Luis Province), a small village and a rather creepy night at the backyard of a fuel station. The place was on a dusty field outside the village, next to a small swampy lake – hotspot for all the mosquitoes of the area – with no protection from the wind. And apparently, it was not only the mosquitoes that frequented it, but also some youngsters from the village, with a noisy clunker that had a surprisingly loud stereo!
Happy that we survived the mosquito attacks but exhausted from our sleepless night, the next day we rode the last 250kms (155 mi) to San Rafael (Mendoza Province). We arrived relatively late at what seemed like a decent campsite in the dark, some 25km (15 mi) south of San Rafael, on the RP173. From what we could see on the map and from what we could hear around us, we knew that we were in the heart of the Atuel Canyon, just next to the Atuel River. Only when we woke up the next morning did we realize that the place was in fact amazing! We had pitched our tent in the shade of a tree and the river was only some meters away. Our neighbors Jo and Susie, a lovely couple from the UK, were waiting to have breakfast together and we couldn't be happier that after some absolutely boring days on the road, we were at such a beautiful place.
The Atuel Canyon is a famous tourist destination within Valle Grande. It's a popular location for adventure sports such as rafting, hiking, climbing etc. For us, it was the ideal destination for relaxation and of course, a short ride to the nearby reservoir, where the view was breathtaking! The high season hadn't arrived yet, so there were only a few people around and the place was really quiet. After two days there, we said goodbye to the condors (yes, we saw a couple of them!) and continued southwards to Malargüe.
At last, the route had become more interesting and in about 90kms (55 mi) on the RN144, exactly after passing the “Salinas del Diamante”, we reached the famous RN40. RN40 is the longest route in Argentina and one of the longest in the world. It's famous for its amazing views and at the same it's notorious for its endless straight lines of nothingness and the unbelievably strong gusty winds. Before we reached our destination, the town of Malargüe, we passed from El Sosneado, a very small village with a story known all around the world: the Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 plane crash in 1972, that happened in the mountains of the area.
Malargüe was another small town with a big municipal campsite. We spent 3-4 days there for two reasons: first, because we could feel a tremble coming from our scooter's front wheel and we needed to see what was going on and, second, because shortly after we got to the campsite, Jo and Susie, the couple we had met earlier in San Rafael, also arrived. What I didn't mention earlier is that they were traveling by bicycle all the way south from Peru! We admired their strength, their courage, their resilience and their great sense of humor. And, since spending time with travelers who combine all the above with an appetite for good food and wine (or beer) is something that doesn't happen very often, we decided to make the most of this rare opportunity. We shared countless stories about our travels, our lives and most importantly, we laughed a lot!
Almost three months had passed from the day we crossed the border and entered Argentina and our tourist visas (90 days) were about to expire. The easiest way to renew them was to cross the border, go to Chile for some hours (or a day) and re-enter Argentina with 90 more days' permit stamped on our passports. So, from Malargüe we followed the RN40 and in Bardas Blancas we turned west on the RN145. Our initial concern when we realized that the fuel station in Bardas Blancas was closed, faded away soon. The feeling of remoteness and helplessness at these vast areas is often exaggerated and in cases like that, we try to keep in mind that since there are vehicles, then there is fuel! So, we enjoyed the ride to Las Loicas (to the border checkpoint of the Argentinian side) and filled our tank – and jerrycan – at the nearby despensa (convenience store).
The Chilean checkpoint is about 65kms (40 mi) away and it's strictly forbidden to spent the night in the “no man's land” between the two checkpoints. So, we went on climbing the steep mountains towards the Pehuenche Pass which, as we were climbing higher and higher, became covered with frozen snow. The headwind became stronger and small rocks and gravel kept sliding from the hillsides next to the road, hitting us. The ascend proved to be way steeper than we had calculated and we couldn't wait to get to the immigration office! Fortunately, the building was at the highest point (2,500m – 8,200ft) and from there we started descending towards the place we were planning to spend the night. The procedure at the border checkpoints of Chile was something we had done many times in the past. The rules for importing goods are very strict and no one gets away with their luggage intact. So, when we were finally ready to go, the sun had almost set.
We spent that night wild camping by the Maule River, not far from the thermal springs of the Campanario River. The view was amazing, but as we were resting next to the tent looking the scenery around us, we realized that the climb back to the border checkpoint, was a really steep one and we weren't at all sure about the quantity of fuel left in our tank. We opened the map and found out that the next pass (Pichachén Pass) was only a few kilometers south and the elevation was only 2,000m (6,560ft) – that means 500m (1,640ft) less than the Pehuenche Pass we had just crossed. It was a good idea and this way we would see regions we hadn't seen before. Improvisation is our thing, so we seized the opportunity for a short trip in Chile. What could go wrong?
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