Entering, leaving this particular region is not always simple. Specially if your car breaks down 150 miles away from the closest town. Get to know the subsequent events to the making of the Azara series.
My rental car being pulled over under a decent sunset at the southern stretch of the Ruta 40
By 3:30PM on Thursday, March 11th, I just had finished the Azara Circuit: A three day-long trek in the middle of nowhere, with harsh weather conditions, no showering at all and eating whatever I was carrying in my backpack. The car I rented for the entire trip was waiting on the parking lot, just at the trek's end: a 2011 Peugeot 206 in quite doubtful conditions, from the only rental company you could get. Before leaving the area I needed to announce myself back at the park ranger's office and let them know everything went ok.
So around an hour later, I already had handled my park's permission and was heading back to the town where I was supposed to spend the night: Perito Moreno, which has the same name as the national park I had just visited and also the very same name as the most famous glacier a couple of hundreds kilometers away, in the same province. Yes, it is a little bit confusing. So to clear things up, Perito Moreno (town-wise) is a very, very small settlement with three hotels and two restaurants (one of them inside one of the previously mentioned guest houses). I would then spend two more nights over there, visiting the highlights on the surrounding area, including the sacred Cueva de las Manos, then return the car in the city of Esquel and reach my flight back home on the town's airport by Sunday evening.
First I had to cover 55 miles of gravel road and after it, turn to the left on a crossroad and spend another 140 miles on the mythical National Route 40: The longest route in the whole country.
Beginning at the tip of the South American Continent, traveling tangentially through the eastern slopes of the Argentinian Andes, and ending at the Bolivian border.
The gravel part was in decent conditions, which allowed me to hit 50 miles an hour on the best sections of it. By 5PM, the sun made its first appearance, shining after a long three-day stretch: the road views were mesmerizing, with guanacos keeping a curious eye on the vehicle. I was singing along, looking back at the snowy peaks where I was coming from, enjoying the infinite steppe surrounding the path. Life was good. I could almost feel the smell of a hot plate of pasta with meat and the warm shower after a long ride.
“I was singing along, looking back at the snowy peaks where I was coming from, enjoying the infinite steppe surrounding the gravel road. Life was good. I could almost feel the smell of a hot plate of pasta with meat and the warm shower after a long ride"
Hold your horses, it's not that easy
If there's anything you can predict about your Patagonian journeys, is that situations can turn unexpectedly for the not-so-good in a matter of seconds. And I was about to know this road trip wasn't the exception...
20 miles before reaching the asphalt, with the car running downfield, I felt a stone hitting the bottom of the car and in the blink of an eye, the speedometer needles went back to zero. I was sitting completely incredulous. There was no way of starting the engine, the car was dead and smell of gasoline invaded the car's cabin. I stepped out and took a look under it and realized what was happening: there was a gas leaking.
I think most of us, coming from urban areas, are used to travel crowded roads, with towns close to each other and the chance of making a phone call if something goes wrong. My situation differed from the ideal one by long, long miles. It was almost six o'clock in the afternoon, there was no mobile reception, strong winds descended from the west and the road was completely empty. I spotted a house on the distance, approximately one and a half mile away. I came up with the idea of seeking for assistance there and in case the house was empty, I would go back to the car, call it for the day, get some sleep and make my way to the national route on the next morning. Walking 20 miles, if you are in good shape, will demand more than six hours, considering decent weather conditions.
“It was almost six o'clock in the afternoon, there was no mobile reception, strong winds descended from the west and the road was completely empty"
As I was reaching the house, the sun was getting closer and closer to the snowy peaks, while the sky turned to deeper blue colors on the east. A few moments later, I turned my head back to the road and realized an incoming car. Needless to say, I ran towards the route and got there by the time it reached my broken car. I raised my hands in seek for help. The pickup truck got closer and finally the window rolled down as the face of a man emerged.
The bounded biography of Eduardo Lada
I explained what had happened and told me he could drive me to the nearest stop in the route. As minutes went by, we got to know each other. He told me his name was Eduardo, he ran a touristic farm a couple of miles away after the entrance to the national park. When we arrived to 'Las Horquetas' (both a restaurant and route hotel near the route's intersection), I stepped off the truck and took a look. I noticed the place was temporarily closed: nobody was there. I was gradually realizing that a night under the coziness of a town hotel, after all those rough days, was slowly disipating. After talking the situation with Eduardo, he advised me on the best option given the time of the afternoon: going back to the national park's office, setting up the tent and let the insurance company know the state of the car, since there is satellite internet over there.
We retook the way back to The Andes and needless to say, I was completely exhausted and overwhelmed by the situation. My point is, and don't get me wrong, I love getting lost and wander around remote places, but after a couple of days, I'm willing to go back to the civilization, get some decent food, drink something, take off my trekking boots and so on.
However, by this time Eduardo had become an almost life saver. If it wasn't for him, I would have spent a freezing night inside the car and taking an endless walk to the National Route on the next day. So it was my time to get some conversation going on and make the journey more pleasant.
His family had took the ranch's reins more than forty years ago but eventually, he came up with the idea of turning the estate into something more touristy. You see, this whole section of the Santa Cruz Province is awaiting for a touristic boom. There's been a silent job going on to turn the area into another hiking sanctuary for years: the idea is to decompress the both overcrowded town of El Chaltén in Argentina and the national park of Torres del Paine in Chile. That is why the NP administration along with conservation foundations built up hiking routes and new mountain huts along the whole extension of the park I've just visited.
There is also a tourism-focused town being built up near the Chilean border while you're reading this article, called Tucu Tucu. The main goal is to exponentially increase the bed capacity and take advantage of a whole Andean stretch of unmatchable and currently unaccesible beauty.
Eduardo told me he couldn't operate the hotel during the whole pandemic due to government restrictions. As you can imagine, the business was deeply stroked, specially after complying to a strict lockdown for more than six months. By this time I've been sharing the ride for more than two hours. Eduardo not only was driving me to, what at this point was salvation, but he had also made an attempt to reach an hotel on the opposite direction (Las Horquetas), adding almost one and a half hour to his pre-planned itinerary. So the least I could do was asking for booking and spending a night at his hotel. Let me tell you something: these Southern Patagonia estancias are pretty far away from what you can call 'accessible' both in economic and logistic terms, specially when you're finishing a two-week trip and considering the closest ATM is probably 200 miles away from your location. Anyway, before reaching the park ranger, Eduardo agreed, I was spending the night in one of the most remote spots in the entire Patagonia: Estancia La Oriental.
A pleasurable evening at World's end
We reached the National Park entrance and I turned on my wifi: texted the insurance company, let them know about my situation and reminded them I was not having any internet until the next morning. I would arrive at the farm, get some dinner, have a hot shower, sleep and after breakfast turn back to the national park and wait for the mechanical assistance. By the time we left the office, the sky was completely dark and we drove the five miles between the park and the estancia's main house. I knew in advance the next day would be pretty tedious, but words can't describe how pleased I was to spend a night under a roof and have a decent meal.
We had a late dinner with Eduardo and we spent quite a while chatting about how he runs his business, my photographic project and his family's tales in the area. Turns out having an immense ranch in this particular spot is very, very challenging. Food and basically any kind of supplies need to be carried on the truck's bed. A picturesque detail: the day after I left the farm, was the first time ever they would count with internet service.
After a chicken with rice and a lemon pie, I called it for the day. It had begun on the western-most point of the park, included an almost 20 mile hike, a failed car trip and a miraculous rescue, deep in the immense golden steppes.
“The next morning I woke up to clear skies and calm conditions. was the first time I could appreciate the farm's sights and they were truly astonishing. Green fields covered up with sheep and cows close to hand and the mighty Andean peaks on the back"
The next morning I woke up to clear skies and calm conditions. Trust me: experiencing this kind of weather at this portion of Patagonia is quite rare. It was the first time I could appreciate the farm's sights and they were truly astonishing. Green fields covered up with sheep and cows close to hand and the mighty Andean peaks on the back. Sunlight hits thirteen hours per day during mid-March (Summer's end) but by the last part of June, sunrise doesn't occur until half-past nine and you only get a few hours of dim Winter light. By the mid-term of the year, the estancia becomes unaccessible as snow blizzards are frequent from May to October.
Planning the rescue
So after breakfast, I packed everything up, left La Oriental and headed back to the National Park where Eduardo dropped me. As soon as my internet became available, I insisted to the insurance company. The forecast was not the most promising one: mechanical assistance would take another 24 hours since their truck was located more than three hundred miles away from the car wreckage. At the same time, the rental company guy told me he had a wrecker's contact at the closest town to the park: Gobernador Gregores, 80 miles away heading south on the route intersection, that means on the opposite direction where I was supposed to go. I reached the mechanic, Damian. He was ready to come and help me but he didn't have relation with the car's insurance company.
The hours went by. By noon I realized how empty the road actually was. Only two cars came up towards the park's direction (one was a pickup from the internet company, ready to install a satellite at La Oriental and the other one dropped a baby guanaco at the office, which was found hurt close to the road) and just one vehicle left towards the pave road. After insisting for more than two hours I came to an agreement with the insurance company: they would cover the cost from Damian's assistance.
Those were amazing news: it meant I didn't need to wait until the next day for the assistance. Since it was Friday afternoon and my flight was leaving on Sunday's evening, I needed to get the fix done as soon as possible. Besides, spare parts are not always easy to find for every car in Patagonia, specially if it's not a business day.
There was, however, an extra inconvenient: I had left the broken car more than forty miles away from the ranger's office, and you guessed it, I had to figure out how I would travel to the spot.
There is one thing and one thing only I truly believe in this life: events run on streaks. The day before my car broke down at the worst stretch of the whole Patagonian Geography: I didn't have mobile reception, weather was harsh... However, a few moments after getting the company's approval (trust me, the hauling was really expensive), the park ranger told me a group of biologists who were working in one of the park's lakes, were leaving, meaning they would eventually pass by the car.
As the biologists' delegation arrived, I let them know about my situation and told me they were able to drop me by the car. So at five in the afternoon, I texted the mechanic in order to sync up the time where I was reaching the car, since it would be my last time with internet connection and jumped in the biologists pickup.
Damian, Picho, Pichicho and a memorable sunset
At the time we got a sight at my rented car and the assistance was there, it was a huge relief. I stepped of the truck and realized the weather was rough. I greeted Damian, his assistant, Picho and his dog Pichicho (I can't be making this up), but I couldn't hear thing of what they were saying due to the brutal winds. I was holding my stuff so it didn't fly away. So I loaded my belongings to his truck, he tied my car to the back of his vehicle and we began our almost 100 mile journey to Gobernador Gregores, where his shop was.
The drive was held at a slow pace since the tie cut loose a couple of times. However, I was just directing the steering wheel and letting the car flow with the impulse. Knowing the assistance was there and I would eventually get my vehicle fixed, relieved me. It was probably one of my absolute favorite rides, ever. The light was spectacular and the sunset taking place that afternoon was something else. Orange and reddish tones dominating the lower parts of the scratchy clouds, the sky turning from a deep blue to a more purple, airy gradient every minute, the sun hitting from a low angle, the steppes acquiring a shinny, golden tone. I enjoyed the totality of that ride, even if I couldn't take that many pictures.
“ The light was spectacular and the sunset taking place that afternoon was something else. Orange and reddish tones dominating the lower parts of the scratchy clouds, the sky turning from a deep blue to a more purple, airy gradient at every minute, the sun hitting from a low angle, the steppes acquiring a shinny, glowing golden tone"
We arrived to Gobernador Gregores around 9PM, we left my car at his shop and Damian dropped me in a nearby hotel. He would take care of it the next morning. The town lies on the bottom of a green valley between arid plateaus, in the center of the Santa Cruz province, the southern-most considering the continental section of the country.
Dropped my bags, left the hotel and headed to a close food place seeking for some empanadas and beer. Called it for the day.
I was woken up on Saturday by a call from Damian, telling me my car had a broken oil filter and he already got a new one, so it would be ready to roll after noon. So I walked down to his shop, had some lunch talked for a while and about three o'clock. I started my journey back to Esquel, where I had to handle back the rental car and take my flight back home: a 500-mile stretch that at this point looked like nothing. Luckily the car didn't got any new issues and I was able to reach my flight the next day without a problem.
Yep, there you have it, creating a new Patagonian series is not always as easy as it may seem!
Damian and Picho enjoying some mate at their workshop
Special thanks to: Eduardo, Mariana, Damian and Picho.