02-03/12/14 - Ruta 40

Two days on a bus!  Were we mad to choose this way of getting from El Calafate to Bariloche?  Yes - and no!

Day one started well, with the taxi arriving promptly at 07:15 for the ten minute ride to the bus station.  All very organised, with the municipal tax paid, we had half an hour wait for the departure at 08:00. Anticipation mounted as buses arrived at the loading points, including ours. 

We knew the journey would be in three parts as we had separate ticket coupons and a covering email which assured us that the connecting service would wait for us, but when the bus arrived with a good many passengers already on board, it was unclear what should be happening, although the driver gladly loaded our bags and nodded when we mentioned Bariloche.  Each coupon had assigned seats, but when we boarded the double-decker posh long distance bus, it became clear that it was free-seating.  We took seats downstairs which were lacking space for any hand luggage so all was a bit cramped.  Anyway, the bus set off soon after the appointed hour - but still no announcements as to destination (it was clear that not everyone was bound for Bariloche) or where we would change.  The route took us along the southern shore of the 100km long Lake Argentina, before turning north.  At this point, we had a wonderful view of the lake with its milky water from the glaciers and snow-capped peaks of the Andes in the distance - all topped off by a brilliant rainbow!

After one and a half hours we pulled in to a wayside cafe and, almost immediately the driver vanished!  Was this the changeover point?  It seemed a logical place as other buses were coming and going, but earlier than the time mentioned on our tickets.  After a brief pit stop, passengers started boarding, including an American who lives in the Netherlands and who we knew was bound for the same destination as us.  She was unable throw any light on the matter either, even though she had some Spanish ......

Another twenty minutes driving and the bus pulled off the tarmac at a road junction.  The driver called us off and unloaded our luggage.  It then became clear that there was a second bus which was to collect us and a couple of others.  Still no real information, but the drivers were friendly and transferred our luggage to the new bus assuring us that it was the Perito Moreno service, where we knew we would be spending the night.  This bus was smaller, single decker, but again free seating.  No cramped space this time - reclining seats, good leg room, overhead luggage racks and air-conditioning.

The journey is advertised as Ruta 40, but is not an end-to-end tour as we expected, but three interconnecting bus services.  No announcements, commentaries or tourist services - just seats on a bus.  Once that was clear and we were on our way, we relaxed as most of the passengers were for Bariloche, with a night-stop in Perito Moreno, as were we.

These two days showed us just what a vast country Argentina is.  Mile after mile of flat, scrubby land, properly fenced to indicate that it is someone's property and livelihood, but little in the way of stock - some sheep and horses - and even fewer signs of human activity.  We did see one farmer attending to his fences on horseback, accompanied by his two dogs and another doing much the same, but by ute and similar canine company.  Occasionally, there was a gate and a mail box for an estancia, but usually no sign of housing, and no trees either.  Australia doesn't have the monopoly of "nul arbor".  Soon after the changeover, we went off the paved road on to the dirt for over three hours.  It was galling as the new road was largely there alongside us, but not open yet.  But then back on to a paved surface - and off and on as road works were encountered. 

The first day we covered over 630km and passed fewer than a couple of dozen vehicles going the other way. The government is investing a lot of money in getting the road built to a high standard, but little traffic at present.  The paved sections are in very good condition, with a full complement of bridges, culverts, road signs and breakdown phones every so often - although we did see a truck with a puncture, with three other truckies helping him to change the wheel.  I don't think anyone in trouble would be left to their own devices.  The dirt sections are rough and ungraded, but not long until the new road is opened?

Fauna is a bit light on too!  Guanacos (a wild relation of the llama), a couple of rheas and a few birds were the sum total!

Reading, gazing at the vastness and dozing were the order of the day, with stops at wayside houses or small settlements every couple of hours, for refreshments, toilet facilities (clean enough, but not for the most fastidious - bring your own paper and put it in the bucket, not down the loo!) and stretching passed the time until we arrived at Perito Moreno at 20:15.  Despite the uncertainties in the morning, it all worked well.  There were two drivers for each bus, who changed over at each stop and always drove steadily keeping within the speed limits and observing road signs.  No white-knuckle ride this!

We were viewing our overnight accommodation with some trepidation.  It was booked through the bus company because that seemed the easiest option, but subsequent Internet searches revealed almost unanimous bad reports.  The reality was much better.  It was a small room, but clean enough and a comfortable bed.  Bathroom definitely on the cosy side - the only way to sit on the toilet was to put your feet in the shower.  The meal in the restaurant that evening and the breakfast were more than adequate.  After all, it's only a one-star hotel.

Departure on the second day was scheduled for 08:00, so we were promptly waiting on the kerb outside the hotel for the third bus, which was equally prompt.  While waiting, we were able to watch three students and a teacher walk into the primary school opposite, count a couple of cars going by - all of which observed the traffic lights, even though there was no traffic and the lights took ages to change!

The new bus had already picked up at another town, so this time we were told to sit in our assigned seats!  Much the same as yesterday's bus - but with a toilet and an entertainment system, which showed bad films for most of the journey, but you didn't have to look at them. 
Much the same routine for the morning as yesterday.  It was interesting to see the small towns and settlements.  Despite being dusty, the streets were clean and often tree-lined.  Most of the towns had the same street names (Argentina names many of its streets for past presidents, national heroes and significant dates.  No self-respecting town is without its Avenida Roca, San Martin or 1 de Mayo).  All had facilities - schools, hospitals and private enterprise businesses, albeit on a small scale.

About 16:00, things started changing.  The vegetation became greener and larger, trees started appearing and mountains in the distance.  From then until we arrived in Bariloche at 21:30 we were treated to ever-changing vistas of mountains and lakes.  The road climbs from the plains into the Andes over a couple of hundred kilometres and is spectacular.  Even though the snow has largely gone from the lower peaks, the rock formations are works of art in their own right.  Some smooth, others jagged.  We passed lake after lake - some small, but others vast, and in between the road climbed and dropped from valley to valley.  In addition to the rock and water, there were vast arrays of lupins in blue, pink and white and bright yellow broom for mile after mile.

Just as we thought we must be reaching Bariloche further along a lake, the bus climbed away once more and into another wider valley and soon we saw the outskirts of the town.  Not such a pretty sight!  But then, what country town is completely picturesque?  The refuse tips, petrol storage tanks and warehouses must go somewhere.  The bus wove through the streets on the plateau before descending steeply towards Lago Nahuel Huapi where all the businesses, shops and hotels are located.  A long day covering over 820km from Perito Moreno.

We certainly wouldn't repeat the journey by bus, but by flying we would have missed the tedium, excitement and experience of a fascinating route.  Our hotel awaited, a quick meal and bed by 23:30, ready for the next chapter.