This writer and her family went on an adventure-filled 4,000km road trip in the Land of Silver. Did she go loco in Argentina?
THERE’S nothing quite like getting behind the wheel, activating the GPS and finding a new place to explore, in a foreign country. There’s freedom and flexibility to meander and mingle, and to get far from the madding crowd of tour buses.
We’ve experienced the narrow winding road to Hana, Maui, reached the Mauna Kea Summit, Hawaii, at 4,205m above sea level and spent three weeks exploring the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico – all on rented wheels. There was no terrain too rough, no road too winding and no destination off-limits: Have wheels, will travel.
I believed this held true – until Argentina.
Easily eight times larger than the whole of Malaysia, the fastest way to get from one province to another is by air. Otherwise it would mean spending long hours and even days on a bus, a popular choice among travellers.
We decided to fly and drive. We would pick up our rental car from the airport and drop it off the same way. Even then, driving within the area could easily take up the entire day, and some roads are notorious for being narrow, winding and unpaved.
Full-day drives on gravel roads, with two kids – could we be out of our wits?
After spending a week acclimatising in Buenos Aires, we boarded our first internal flight to Salta, a Unesco World Heritage site. Its famous museum, the Museo de Arqueología de Alta Montaña, showcases an impressive collection of Inca artefacts, including the mummified body of one of three children (rotated every six months) discovered in the Andean mountains during an expedition in 1999. From the photos, two of the children looked like they were sleeping. We saw the “girl who was struck by lightning” and, although charred, her features, plaited hair and costume were still visible and intact.
From Salta, we took a scenic loop south through the Valles Calchaquíes (Cacti Valley) and Quebrada de Cafayate (Cafayate Ravine), breaking our journey in Cafayate, famous for its wineries. The stretch through the Cacti Valley was mostly unpaved and bumpy; the only consolation was the magnificent scenery of giant cacti against the backdrop of orange-coloured hills. We didn’t reach Cafayate until 8pm, in time for dinner and wine ice cream.
Cafayate served as an overnight stop for us, although many would have stayed on to explore its famous wineries. The next morning we drove through Quebrada de Cafayate, thankfully on paved roads. The richly coloured sandstones with layers of hues were a feast for the eyes.
By the time we reached our destination, Tilcara, our white car was swathed in dust and had turned deep orange. That seemed to blend well with the town of Tilcara, with its houses made of clay, almost like the pre-Inca Pucara ruins nearby.
The next morning, we drove for three hours to Salinas Grandes, the largest salt flats in Argentina before returning to Salta. Here, salt flats stretch until the horizon, covering an area of 6,000sqkm, almost as large as Negeri Sembilan. The more adventurous would even drive on the salt flats. We walked on it – and tasted the salt as well.
When we returned to Salta, we’d covered over 1,200km.
From Salta, we flew to Trelew via Buenos Aires. The star attraction in Trelew is the Museum of Paleontology Egidio Feruglio. The museum houses an impressive collection of dinosaur fossils discovered in the region, up to the early Paleozoic Age. Each room depicts a prehistoric period, with detailed explanation of the climate and inhabitants.
Trelew is also the gateway to Peninsula Valdes, a nature reserve listed as a Unesco World Heritage site. It’s Argentina’s very own Galapagos, where whales, penguins and wild animals outnumber the human inhabitants. In an area three times larger than Penang, its only town Puerto Piramides has a population of 565, according to a census taken in 2010.
We spent the night in Puerto Piramides, which enabled us to spend more time exploring the peninsula. Like on a safari, we made frequent stops to snap photos of guanacos (which is like a llama), wild horses, birds and elephant seals. We encountered very few cars along the gravel and dusty roads; the hefty toll imposed to enter the peninsula certainly deterred day-trippers.
The next morning, we caught the last whale-watching cruise for the season and were in for a wonderful surprise. A Southern right whale and her calf frolicked a few metres from our boat and, on our return journey, we saw dolphins and sea otters.
Subsequently, we stayed in Puerto Madryn, a sunny seaside town popular with tourists. From here, we drove three hours to Punta Tombo Reserve, the largest Magellanic penguin colony in the world. The first sighting of penguins halted everyone on the pathway, but as pointed out by the ranger, “there are 500,000 more”. We saw penguins sleeping in their burrows, preening their feathers and waddling to sea, totally oblivious of visitors.
When we returned the car at Trelew airport, the rental car agent told us that we had clocked 1,400km.
From Trelew, we flew to El Calafate. Immediately upon picking up the car, we drove five hours to El Chalten. This was one of the most enjoyable and beautiful drives in Los Glaciares National Park – on paved roads with pristine scenery of towering snow-capped peaks. The temperature had dipped to -1°C (30°F). Los Glacieras National Park is home to over 40 glaciers, some accessible by boat.
A one-hour boat ride from El Chalten brought us to the mouth of the imposing Viedma glacier, the largest glacier in Argentina with an area covering 1,580sqkm, slightly smaller than Malacca. We disembarked and trekked for half an hour before reaching the glacier. Donning crampons over our shoes, we saw glacier formations, ravines and ice tunnels on the guided trek.
We discovered fewer tourists here than Perito Moreno glacier, which is far more accessible. Located 78km from El Calafate, it is one of few glaciers that is growing. Visitors would wait along the walkway to hear the thunderous sound of ice cracking and witness chunks of ice rupturing.
Like many other visitors to El Calafate, we wanted to cross the border to Chile and visit Torres del Paine, the hiking capital of the world. The popular 58km “W circuit” could easily take up to six days of solid hiking in the wilderness. For casual hikers, there are enough vistas to fill up the camera’s memory card.
On our drive to Torres del Paine, we saw sign posts with the word Baches for the first time but couldn’t decipher its meaning. We discovered soon enough. Potholes – deep, large and covered with mud – damaged the wheel and punctured a tyre. In the pouring rain, smack in the middle of nowhere, my husband attempted to change the tyre. Thankfully, the spare tyre worked and we trudged on to Torres del Paine.
The park has no shortage of stunning landscape – at every turn, we found ourselves gawking at waterfalls, lakes, snow-capped mountains or glaciers.
With our spare tyre, we covered a distance of 1,600km.
Our nomadic and hectic self-drive adventure of two weeks chalked up 4,200km. We stayed at 10 different accommodations. The question remains: Would we attempt another adventure of this nature? When we do, I’ll make sure to Google translate potholes into the local language.
Driving in Argentina
> Bear in mind, it’s left-hand drive and with manual transmission cars only. No automatic car can survive Argentina’s road conditions!
> Rent a 4WD if it’s available and within your budget. Compact cars are more commonly available while a 4WD costs thraee times more than a compact.
> Check weather and road conditions as certain roads can be flooded or closed due to fallen rocks or land slides.
> Turn on the headlamps. This is mandatory in many areas and provinces.
> Fill up on petrol whenever possible. Petrol kiosks are scarce and sparse in remote areas. There are no petrol stations in Torres del Paine and only one in El Chalten (which is closed on Christmas Day).