The Meander North

It is 1500 kilometres, give or take, from Esquel to Mendoza so you can imagine that we had exactly zero desire to rush that. As much as I love driving, any more than six hours behind the wheel can bugger right off. We intended to stick to ruta nacional 40 the whole way back up to Mendoza and started the journey back with a couple of nights in El Bolsón. It’s a cute little town but we didn’t get up to much, just hung out in a couple of places drinking beer. We had some dinner at a place because I do love ramen but I feel like if we attempted to live off noodles and eggs for much longer we’d contract some manner of medieval wasting disease.

Cheeky little side trip to Cascada Irigoyen before we left the national park.

We did visit a couple of little cascades but our hearts weren’t really in it, after the mind blowing wonders we’d experienced over the last week a bit of water trickling over a rock wasn’t going to do it for us. They’re probably a lot more impressive in the spring as the snow and ice starts to thaw as opposed to the arse end of a bastard hot summer to be fair. So we just hung out in the shade and enjoyed the town.

Catarata de Mallín Ahogado. You pay AR$300 for this which, whilst is two tenths of fuck all, is a bit of a cheek for what you get.
They have this market four times a week and there’s loads of cool stuff to help you part with your money.

The drive from El Bolsón to San Martin de los Andes was an absolute stunner though, with the evergreen covered mountains flanking us as we wound our way past panoramic viewpoints looking out across impossibly blue lakes. The roads were narrow though with sod all safe opportunities to overtake so we pretty much just trundled along behind slow moving vehicles which was great for petrol consumption but less great for my sanity. There were several bum clenching moments as those with less patience than us overtook queues of traffic on blind corners. I feel like it’s seen as a fun national sport rather than something that could leave your brain matter splashed up a photogenic cliff face.

The cute little town of El Bolsón. Part of it anyway.
I’m not drooling, you’re drooling.

RN40 runs right through the middle of this small town and shitting hell, it’s busy. Traffic was loud and constant and we battled our way through to the campsite we were aiming for only to find the entrance blocked by cars queueing for the petrol station. I think left turns are frowned upon here if not outright illegal so I think I’d fucked up by even attempting it, then when I tried to get out of the way no one would let me into the flow of traffic and eventually when we made it to a roundabout to come back the other way so we could turn right into the site we had no choice but to join the petrol queue to gain access. Fucking hell, San Martin! And you looked so lovely on paper!

San Martin de los Andes as seen across Lácar Lake. You just know it’s going to be nice before you get there.

Once we’d paid and pitched though it all got a little better and it’s a very lovely town if you’re not trying to drive through it at lunchtime. We walked down to the lake and took a moment to appreciate the gorgeous little beach, then fucked that off in favour of a place with shade and beer. There we remained for a while before heading back for the best damn shower I’d had since we left Mendoza. The campsites haven’t had great showers. Even if the water has been hot there’s only been a curtain between you and the outside world and nowhere to hang your shit without it getting wet. I relished having a whole, locking cubicle to myself and hung all my stuff all over the hooks with glee.

The beach was lovely but every scrap of shade was taken so we bailed to a bar.

San Martin de los Andes to Chos Malal was a very different drive. We were straight back onto RN40 and the lush greens and blues of the previous two days were replaced with scrubland and dry, brown hills stretching across the horizon. It was a whole different kind of beautiful. The roads were long and straight, we belted along at the speed limit, overtaking trucks and cars that had important bits missing. Honestly, do they not have safety inspections in Argentina? The amount of vehicles we’ve seen with the front bumper torn off, or lights completely gone has been mildly terrifying. We saw one guy driving his car around with a shattered windscreen, still in place, but there’d be no way he’d be able to see through it. One chip on the driver’s side in the UK and you’ve got to replace the whole bloody thing.

I mean, it’s still not hideous.

There are stark reminders of road safety or lack thereof all along the sides of roads. You’ll see smashed up vehicles long burnt out, or newer accidents, we saw two cars that had obviously gone head to head before leaving the road. They have yellow stars painted onto the road with names underneath, tragic victims of a crash. On one road we saw six stars all together.

This star is a little bit more homemade looking than the usual one. There’s also a shrine to Rata in a layby behind me.

Another thing you’ll see a lot of are shrines and whilst some of them might be to honour loved ones lost on the road it turns out, according to the mighty Google, most of them will be for a saint unrecognised by the church called Difunta Correa, and an outlaw known as Gauchito Gil. We’ve seen loads that are unmistakably for the latter and now we know what we’re looking for we’ve seen several for the former too. Hers are the ones with the water bottles stacked outside as offerings from truckers to quench her eternal thirst.

But why’s she so thirsty?” I hear you cry. So her husband was conscripted during a civil war but was abandoned by the army when he was injured. She set out with her newborn babe on her breast to find him. She never did, and when her body was found several days later the baby was miraculously still alive having continued suckling from her milk which never dried up. Probably best not to think too hard about the details of that hey. Anyway, now she’s the unofficial patron saint of travellers.
Gauchito Gil though, the dude has some epic shrines, huge red things with flags and some even have statues of him. Apparently he was a Robin Hood style outlaw hence the reason he’s a bit of a folk hero. A gaucho is basically an Argentine cowboy, the ~ito is the diminutive, so it means Little Cowboy Gil. Yeah I think Gauchito has a better ring to it.

Chos Malal doesn’t seem to be more than a hot, dusty town plonked at the side of RN40 with two tenths of fuck all going on but it has a municipal campsite and it’s a convenient distance along the route. We were just here for the night, it’s a cheap place to break up the journey as we head back to Mendoza. It is not any manner of quiet though, fuck me, worst night’s sleep ever. Loud music over yonder was pumping til the good lord above knows when. Then the dogs started. Then a family rolled up at midnight and loudly pitched up to the dulcet tones of a child who was a walking, screaming advert for contraception.

The campsite was full of these little chooks. Several came to visit us. We called this one Nugget.

“Mama. Mama. Mama? Mama? MAMA? MAMA! MAMA! MAMA!! MAMA!!!” Ad. Fucking. Infinitum. Rising to a crescendo until she hushed him, sixty second break, aaaaand repeat. It started feeling like a punch to the head with every word. It didn’t help that my new earplugs are so fucking ineffective I could probably hear someone fart in Caviahue. Then the dogs started again. Throw in the odd vehicle clearly missing its muffler, and the three mosquitoes in the tent terrorising us all night, and damn right I’m drinking three Red Bulls for breakfast.

We’ve already done this section of RN40, we travelled south along it. It’s outstandingly gorgeous albeit with a bastard of a corrugated, gravel road for over eighty kilometres. It’s lined with rough, black volcanic rocks with a backdrop of red-brown mountains. It’s tedious to drive it but your eyeholes will be ecstatic. It was an uneventful drive, we pulled into Malargüe at an incredibly sane hour. We probably could have made it all the way to Cacheuta but nah, fuck that. We headed back to the campsite we’d stayed at on the way down, bought some beers, hung our hammocks up and had a chilled afternoon.

We don’t use the hammocks often but when we do it makes bringing them worthwhile.

Malargüe to Cachuta which is just outside Mendoza is probably the most unremarkable section of the RN40 that we’ve driven ourselves. The long, straight roads were perfect for overtaking, part of it was even a duel carriageway, then we turned off and crawled through a suburb and finally wound our way to Cacheuta which pretty much exists on account of the thermal springs. We were more here as it’s less than an hour from Mendoza and we had to get the car back before 10am the following morning.

Part of the unsealed section between Chos Malal and Malargüe.

Good job too, we did try and check out the pools but a parking attendant with good English fell into step with us, struck up a conversation and told us not to bother if we’d not already booked.
“No ticket, no hope!” he told us. Thanks, Eric, you saved us a dusty walk in the heat and to be fair, we probably didn’t want to be neck deep in hot water whilst my eyeballs were sweating anyway. It’s gotten noticeably hotter as we’ve made our way north. We’re going even further north soon. If I don’t blog for a while it’s because I’ve melted.

A popular stop on the unsealed section. There’s a place you can nip off for a nature wee too, just follow the stench of stale piss. It’s very pretty but it’s infested with horse flies and those bites don’t heal for a week.

Obviously we found a place for some beers which was a lot cheaper than we we expecting, then we bought a bottle of wine and headed back to the campsite which had a small, freezing cold pool. We dipped our feet in. I swear I could feel my veins carrying the cooled blood from my legs to the rest of me. It was glorious. The sweaty night in the tent was less glorious. I think my internal organs might have stewed.

I just want to address this Argentine obsession with drenching everything. They’ll often hose things down to settle the dust, and obviously the green spaces need water to live, but they drench everything to a swamp. We were looking for somewhere to sit in El Bolsón under a tree but everything was mud or ankle deep puddles.

I think now this camping trip is over we’re going to have to start splashing out a little extra for rooms with proper air conditioning rather than a fan ineffectivly pushing hot air around the room. Ten years ago I might have been able to hande it but I’m knocking on a bit now, my brain is too busy trying to remember my own fucking name, it hasn’t got time for something as trivial as temperature regulation. But this has been an excellent two weeks, we’ve really enjoyed it but I’m very much looking forward to myself and everything I own not being constantly covered in a fine layer of dust.

Jump to “Useful shit to know…”

El Bolsón, Rio Negro – San Martin de los Andes, Neuquén – Chos Malal, Neuquén – Malargüe, Mendoza Province – Cacheuta, Mendoza Province, – Mendoza, Mendoza Province, Argentina

Stayed at: Camping La Chacra, El Bolsón
Complejo ACA, San Martin de los Andes
Camping Municipal Chos Malal, Chos Malal
Camping Municipal Malargüe, Malargüe
Camping Miguel, Cacheuta
Hostel Estacion Mendoza, Mendoza

Camping La Chacra, El Bolsón. We paid AR$2500 per person per night. It’s walking distance from town and supermarkets. Pitches include electricity, a table and a grill. It’s quite a large campsite, they don’t take bookings but they said if we came before 22.00 they’d likely have space but no promises. The little shop/café sells cold cerveza artesenal. There’s WiFi in the café but it’s not great.
Complejo ACA, San Martin de los Andes. A longish walk to town but walkable nonetheless. They have fantastic showers! WiFi is at reception, I’m not sure how good it is. The campsite is right by the RN40 and as large as it is the pitches further away from the road are likely to be taken. If traffic noise bothers you you’ll need earplugs. We paid AR$2500 each and this included electricity. Tables were few, we didn’t get one. Grills/fire pits are shared.
Camping Municipal Chos Malal. Showers were alright, the WiFi is by reception and is actually remarkably good. Chos Malal is tiny so everything is walking distance. There are a few tables and fire pits for everyone to share. Loads of adorable little chickens running about the place. It cost AR$500 each plus AR$400 for the tent and AR$300 for the car.
Camping Municipal Malargüe. They cram you in here and there’s no hot water but for AR$1000 for both of us we coped. To the right of this photo is a large green space with benches for everyone to chill. There’s a large supermarket a 20 minute walk away and a small shop very close by. Be prepared to show your receipt if you want to leave and enter by car.
Camping Miguel, Cacheuta. Basic but functional and, surprisingly, has a small pool. Walking distance from the thermal pools and very close to a well priced restaurant. They have their own little kiosco. It was AR$1000 plus AR$600 for the car. If you’re not looking for it you’ll miss it, it’s not signposted.
Hostel Estacion Mendoza. I don’t know why we didn’t stay here the first time around. It’s got this lovely little garden with a pool and they put AC on in the room at 10pm. There are three individual bathrooms rather than shower cubicles which isn’t quite enough but I’ll take the trade off.

Useful shit to know…

  • None of these campsites take bookings but we had no issues getting a pitch on any of them. We generally rocked up mid afternoon. They did all get a bit busier as the day wore on though.
  • The hostel in Mendoza can be booked on
  • There are several car rental agencies in Mendoza. The local ones were weird about us taking the car out of Mendoza Province. One flat out refused us and one wanted to charge us for every kilometre over 3000.
  • Neither Hertz nor Avis/Budget asked us where we wanted to take the car. Kilometres were unlimited.
  • Avis/Budget gave us the best price by far but would only accept card.
  • We were charged AR$159,872 (US$793 officially, US$444 Blue Dollar) for 14 days.
  • As we paid by card we were originally charged the official rate but as per the new scheme we were refunded 44% four days later to make it close to Blue Dollar.
  • The deposit (and therefore the excess in case of an accident) was AR$80,000.
  • Whilst we could pay by Mastercard Debit card the deposit had to be a credit card.
  • English was spoken at the multinationals but not so much in the local places.
  • Petrol is cheap, especially by UK standards. We drove over 3700 kilometres and spent AR$34200 on petrol. At the rate we got at the Western Union, that’s only GB£80.
  • El Refugio in Mendoza rents all manner of equipment designed to get you up a mountain. This equipment is also fine for car camping.
  • Prices are quoted in dollars and you can only pay in cash.
  • If you want to pay in pesos they charge you Blue Dollar rate which was AR$360 to the USD at the time of writing so there’s no saving there.

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