Reasons to visit
- Geology & scenery – the scenery is ever changing and surprising. The horizon is so vast in places that all you can see is 180 degrees of sky. Steer briefly off-route and you will enter deep canyons with petrified forests, volcanic craters filled with volcanic plugs, basalt dikes and staggering cliffs.
- Archeology – explore the extensive Cueva de las Manos with it’s beautifully preserved hand prints, unveil numerous archaeological secrets, and see the cultural artefacts at the Centro de Interpretatión Histórica in El Calafate.
- Birds & wildlife – stretching, more or less, the entire length of Argentina, the route is home to an astonishing wealth of birdlife and wildlife. Look out for guanacos, hairy armadillos, foxes, pumas, condors, caracaras, and the Chilean flamingo.
- Culture – despite the low population density, there is a strong local indigenous culture expressed in traditions, farming, the estancias, buildings and food. The distinct influence of the Welsh remains strong in Esquel and Trevelin, where local guides specialise in Welsh history.
Places to visit on the Ruta 40
Bariloche is the gateway to an extraordinarily diverse variety of landscapes from the jagged peaks of the high mountains, the open plains of the Patagonian steppe, the winding rivers filled with trout and different varieties of lush forest. There are high mountain refugios, historic estancias and lakeside luxury spa hotels.
The town itself is big and sprawling, it doesn't really sit on a beach and will get choca-block with tourists in the summer months. From the city centre, stretching out for more than 25kms along the lake shore, is a road which has pockets of hotels, lovely restaurants, beaches and stunning views out to the lake.
Perito Moreno National Park
Not to be confused with the Perito Moreno Glacier, 560 kms south in the Los Glaciares National Park, nor the mining town of the same infamous name 320 kms north, the Perito Moreno National Park has more than 200kms of newly laid trails and unmanned hiking refugios.
There is no public transport that services the park so it's very hard to get to without your own vehicle or on a private tour. The park houses endless turquoise glacial lakes, beautiful virgin beach forests and the soaring snow capped peaks of the Andes as a back drop.
Los Alerces National Park
Los Alerces National Park, is an area of 2,630 square kilometres and is noted for its temperate rain forest (which is only present in 7 regions of the world), lakes, rivers, glaciers and marine fossils.
It also has the largest population of the Alerce tree in Argentina, one of the longest living trees on earth. This incredible environment supports a wide diversity of wildlife, including the Andean Condor, the puma, wild boar, mink, the elusive Huemul deer and, surprisingly, a native marsupial, the Colocolo Opossum.
Cueva de Las Manos
Sat in the spectacular Río de Las Pinturas canyon carved out over thousands of years, the Cueva de Las Manos, translating to Cave of the Hands, is a series of prehistoric caves containing paintings of (mainly) hands. The perfectly preserved paintings are the imprints of indigenous hunters who lived over 9,000 years ago, while there are also a few paintings of traditional hunting scenes and native animals.
You can take a few different hiking routes around the canyon, observing the scenery and wildlife as you walk alongside condors. Cueva de Las Manos is open every day of the year with guided tours offered, however, the nearest accommodation is in Los Antiguos, Gob Gregores, or Lago Posadas – there is none at the site.
Esquel & Trevelin (Welsh Patagonia)
Esquel is a bustling provincial capital of 40,000 people with tree lined streets, intriguing independent shops, cafes and restaurants. It is a lovely place to wander around of an afternoon, window shopping or people watching in the leafy main square. The town is also famous for La Tronchita, the narrow gauge railway which you can now travel 18 of the 402 kilometres of.
Drive 20 minutes from Esquel and you'll reach the charming little village of Trevelin. Here there is the Old Mill Museum, Welsh Chapels and the home of John Daniel Evans – a great hero of the Welsh settlement.
Although classically thought of as a self-drive route, there are many advantages to doing some parts or all of this route with a local guide. Not only will it make the whole landscape come to life, but it is also worth considering that these are very remote parts of Argentina and some backup is always prudent and helpful.
Both the name of a sleepy little village and the immense lake home to the iconic limestone arch. Lago Posadas and its neighbouring Lago Pueyrredón are connected by an isthmus which is also the only access round to the estancias on the western shores of the lakes.
The lakes are surrounded by extensive salt flats with abandoned estancias at their shores, and volcanoes, lush plains and barren high passes showcase all sorts of colours – from blue, to purple, yellow and orange. Lago Posadas is also the starting/ending point of the lesser known, beautiful, Ruta 41, which is passable only by 4x4 and connects with Los Antriguos following the Andes.
Lago San Martin
Known as Lago San Martin in Argentina and Lago O'Higgins in Chile, this vast glacial lake spans the border of both countries. It is surrounded on one side by the imposing flat topped Mesetas Mountains and on the other by the snow capped Andes.
Estancias are dotted throughout the areas around the lake and spending some time here offers the opportunity to trek through the forests and uncover little-visited waterfalls and enchanted streams. You'll be in the company of woodpeckers, eagles and condors, and fishing enthusiasts will also be delighted by the salmon and trout that live in the pristine waters.
Sitting under the imposing face of the Piltriquitron Mountain, El Bolson is a bustling little town, made famous in the 70s by people from Buenos Aires moving here to live a more alternative lifestyle. During the summer months, it is still very popular with swarthes of Argentinian backpackers coming to enjoy the lifestyle, hiking trails and local micro-breweries. There are plenty of trails to explore and a collection of moutain refugios to be enjoyed self-guided.
Los Antiguos - Patagonia National Park
Los Antiguos is a charming small town of 5,000 situated on the shores of the Lago Buenos Aires (named Lago General Carrera in Chile). There are beautiful trees and irrigation channels running through the centre, as well as a plentiful fruit production – particularly cherries, being the national capital of the cherry. It is also the jumping off point for the Argentinian Patagonia Park, divided into three sections.
El Chalten is a small mountain village which is a famous launchpad for mountaineering expeditions, and well known for the wide selection of scenic day trails straight from the centre. El Chalten has far more to offer than just hiking. The rolling steppe can also be explored by horse and bike, an the Rio de La Vueltas offers a water playground for kayaking and rafting. Between activities, enjoy inspired local cuisine like the spicy mountain stew and sample locally-brewed pilsner and wine from across Argentina.
The biggest town in the area, a one or two-night stay in El Calafate is a great way to explore the Perito Moreno Glacier – whether you make your way around the walkways or choose the ice hike across the surface. In town, a modern museum details the history of the region’s many glaciers. Alongside various restaurants and bars, you'll find B&Bs, boutique hotels and hostels, while just outside of the city is a luxury lodge.
Ways to experience the Ruta 40
How to get there
If you are planning to hire a car on this route then you will have to start in one of the main hubs, for example Bariloche or El Calafate – it isn't possible to pick up cars in smaller towns. If you plan to do parts of the route guided or visit just one part of the area, then consider taking the very reliable and comfortable public bus between hubs where your guide will meet you and take you out to see the very best of the region.
Great hubs towns to aim for are Esquel, Los Antiguos, Bariloche, El Calafate and El Chalten. Don't underestimate the distances between locaations, they are large and even though the road is mostly paved, it is in quite a bad state in some places.
Where to stay
Once south of Esquel and north of El Calafate, the accommodation options aren't plentiful with many little villages just having one place to stay or there just being one farm within a sensible distance to the previous nights accommodation. Although few, the accommodation options on this route are charming, cosy and of a surprisingly good standard.
I was enchanted by this region because of its dramatically changing and surprising landscapes. From the endless Patagonian steppe, lunar like volcanic craters, to basalt dikes that look like soldiers standing to attention on mountain side. There are high grasses with the backdrop of the magnificent San Lorenzo peak and lush open valleys with grazing cattle – just a stone's throw from the lush temperate rainforests of the Chilean Andes. It is an area of huge contrast.
Sally Dodge Patagonia Specialist
FAQs about Ruta 40
While there are many options for renting a vehicle and self-driving, buses and guided tours do run along certain stretches of the route. There are some very knowledgeable guides who can really make the whole area come to life – and you can focus on the sights rather than sticking to schedule. Self-guided trips allow you more freedom but with the long distances and remote locales, you'll need to ensure considerable planning of your daily routes, and where you'll stay, eat and fuel.
With not insignificant drop off fees in Patagonia, many people choose to do a loop combining both the Carretera Austral in Chile and the Ruta 40 in Argentina – this way you see a really diverse and contrasting landscape plus reduce the driving time and costs.
When planning your road trip, think carefully about how much time you want to be driving and how much time you want to be out exploring the trails. Is driving the main event or is it simply a means to getting to more remote parts of Patagonia? If the latter, make sure you build enough time in for the actual doing.
The Ruta 40 is a vast open expanse of road; in contrast to the Carretera Austral which is both a stunning drive and also has stunning places to stop along the way. It is fascinating to see and there are some real highlights along the way, but we highly recommend looping in/out of Chile/Argentina and combining both roads. Argentinian Patagonia is mostly large areas of open desert; the extraordinary part is when you turn west into the mountains to the glacial lakes.
It’s paved the whole way between Bariloche and El Calafate, apart from a small section just south of Gobernador Gregores, near to Lago Cardiel, which can get flooded if it rains.