High Adventure on Argentina’s Loneliest Highway

Excerpt from the Moon travel book Patagonia Trip of A Lifetime:

From the Bolivian border near La Quiaca to it’s terminus near Rio Gallegos, RN 40 has been Argentina’s great, unfinished interior highway. Some segments have been smoothly paved while others remain rough and rugged. None of those has enjoyed the notoriety of the segment between the El Calafate junction and the town of Pertio Moreno, on the cusp between the Patagonian steppe and the icy southern Andes. 

January 7, 2017, our plan was the route above going from north to south, from Perito Moreno to El Calafate. We never made it…..

A trip on La Cuarenta (Spanish for the 40) still requires preparation. With accommodations and supplies few and far between bicyclists and motorcyclists MUST carry tents and cold weather gear, even in midsummer, and plenty of food. A GPS and maps, are essential. Motorists might feel more comfortable with two spare tires. Also carry extra fuel – between El Calafate and Perito Moreno the only reliable supplies are at EL Chalten, Tres Lagos, Gobernador Gregores (which sometimes runs out) and Bajo Caracoles (which sometimes also runs out). 

Reading this excerpt the night before we attempt this leg gave me some pause. Tents? No. Cold weather gear? Hmmm, I suppose so given our heavy riding outfits. Plenty of food? “Hey Deby, save those leftover sandwiches for lunch tomorrow on the road.” Two spare tires? Really? Well I do have a spare tire but it’s permanently attached to my body. Extra fuel, check. We bought 5L containers and strapped them to our already overloaded bikes for good measure. Probably enough fuel for an extra 50 miles. The commentary about stations running out were in the book as above. We found out both of those places indeed did run out.

Hazards remain. Powerful winds can knock cyclists down in an instant. Deep gravel adds to the danger in some spots. Even high clearance vehicles are vulnerable to flipping on loose gravel, especially when braking suddenly. Chipped, cracked and even shattered windshields are par for the course. 

We arrived in Perito Moreno relatively early and stayed at a rather nondescript but inexpensive hotel. Strange place really, here is pic of the luxury we were becoming used to. 

The window had some storm blinds on the outside that were permanently fixed in that position. When we arrived we found a place and had some really great Lomo sandwiches, they were huge, you get the idea below. We cut them in half and saved half for the next day. We would need it. I’m really starting to like fried eggs on my sandwiches.

In the evening I heard some motorcycles pulling into the parking lot. “Call of the wild”, our friend Carrie calls it, so of course I had to check it out. I found out I could climb out the window under the shutters and onto the roof to see into the parking lot.

Sure enough 4 more adventure bikes getting ready to tackle La Cuarenta. We met them in the lobby, 3 guys from Paraguay on a KTM 1190, Triumph Tiger and a BMW. Another guy on a GS1200 from California joined in a little later. Just about all the brands were represented in this picture.

We decided it would be best to get an early start on the 40. In honestly it is mostly paved except for a 50 mile gravel section. What makes it tough is the unpredictable gas situation and high winds.

For perspective here is how far we’ve gone.

And this was our route for Friday January 7th.

The yellow section is the “challenging” gravel part.

Like most hotels there was free breakfast in the morning, except breakfast in most cases means coffee, juice and leftover bread from the night before with some butter and jam. That was the case when we scoped out the situation while getting our first cup of coffee. At least it wasn’t instant.  We took the cups to our room and decided to have our leftover meat and egg Lomo sandwiches for breakfast. So much for spare food.

According to my GPS log we hit the road at exactly 8:00 AM with full tanks heading south out of town. It wasn’t long before the wind starting picking up but we were getting used to this. After about 80 miles we came to the first gas stop. A small place with a big sign, 15 liter limit. Fortunately that was well above what we needed but maybe a warning sign. It was apparent that all motorcycle travelers make this stop to top off before the next long stretch. 

Of course, we had to add our sticker. Right on the lower part of the pump. “X” marks the spot.

Our new amigos from the hotel were all there so we took time to take a few pictures and hang out. This guy was there on a totally loaded down V-Strom 1000.

Martin Romero and Margarita Quintero from Jasisco, Mexico on their way to Ushuaia after riding all the way to Alaska. Amazing. This is them in the orange.

The next stop would be Gobernador Gregores 120 miles away. Gas would be necessary there unless someone wanted to chance the even smaller town of Tres Lagos another 100 miles down the road. My range on a good day is 200 miles and with the extra gas maybe 50 more. It didn’t seem like a chance I wanted to take and it might not be that good a day.

On the way the wind really started picking up. Patagonia is known for it’s fierce winds and as the book said it’s capable of blowing over trucks. Great. There was a couple of times where the road twisted and turned and the wind was actually at out backs. Ahhhh, how good that felt. We were going 65 mph in an absolute cone of silence, flying with the wind. Hmmm, wait, think about that. I let go of the handlebar and stuck my hand straight out into the slipstream off my windscreen. Nothing…. nothing at all. No air flow. Ummmm, ok, it didn’t take my engineering degree to tell me that the only way this could be possible is if the tail wind was equal to my speed….. 65mph! Oh ooooo. Then the road curved back to the right and the full force of the 65mph cross wind hit us with renewed vengeance. We were tipped sideways holding on for dear life. Deby said here helmet was crushing her face so hard it was pushing her cheek into her teeth and causing a sore on the inside of her mouth. Yes, it was that strong. All day…

Here is a picture of the wind… doesn’t really work but you get the idea.

While we were riding with our heads permanently tilted at 30 degrees we had a good view of the side of the road where we saw hundreds of these animals. I can’t believe I got a good picture with one hand while going 60 mph in a stiff cross wind. Probably not the safest thing.

These are Guanaco’s. An amazing animal that is related to lamas and native to South America. Click on this link to learn more, it’s really amazing.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guanaco

The other crazy thing we saw was these big birds called Lesser Rhea or Darwin’s rhea. Below is from Wikipedia, link HERE. We saw a lot of them but I couldn’t get a really good picture. Here is the one from Wikipedia.

Darwin’s rhea (Rhea pennata), also known as the lesser rhea, is a large flightless bird, but the smaller of the two extant species of rheas. It is found in the Altiplano and Patagonia in South America.

Windblown and tired we arrive at  Gobernador Gregores at noon. (What kind of a name is that for a city? I got tired of saying it and started calling the city Governor Greigoire after a recent governor of WA state) We get to the YPF station and there is a huge line, onto the street, down the block and around the corner. Everyone is waiting, we find out there is no gas and there hasn’t been any since yesterday. Some of these people had been waiting all night in cars and hotels. The good news, the truck would be there in one hour. Right, but it did finally arrive at almost 4:00 PM.

The line was turning into a party, these guys were in the car in front of us.

Yes, beer, wine, home made ham and bread. That was just the start. Soon it turned into loud music, card playing and much more drinking. What a crew.

Shared chips with this cute kid. His parents are from Mexico but currently are in NYC working on a MBA.

He seemed to like the Honda. 

It was a long line.

We met this guy in line from Germany. He just graduated from college and was traveling for a few months before getting a real job. He flew to Santiago Chile and bought this Honda 125 for $1200 USD. He is riding it to Ushuaia. All kinds of bikes….

Finally to the cheers of all the people waiting the YPF truck shows up. 

By 4:30 PM we were on the road, only a 4 and a half hour wait, not too bad and fun too boot. On to the rough part. Sure enough, right outside the city the tarmac turned to gravel. I actually stopped for a picture, right here. 

The wind was howling, it was getting late, we hadn’t eaten much more than chips and water. 110 miles to the next gas stop and half that on wind blown gravel. We made it, but it was challenging hanging on to the bikes as the wind wipped us sideways over the rough roads “ripio” is the word in Spanish for gravel roads. We had lots of ripio. “Viento” is the word for wind, we became very familiar with that word. Fuerte is the word for strong, we learned that in our Spanish class. Never thought I would use it. Today the words Viento Fuerte were used often.

At 7:30 we arrived at Tres Lagos, last gas stop before out destination of El Calafate. If we pushed and used our extra gas I thought we could make it to El Calafate, another couple hours ride away, without filling up here. It would be getting dark but no worries, right?

Sure enough at the gas station there was a line, nobody was pumping gas… a bad sign. Yes, they were out of gas. Ok, we go for it, making the run to El Calafate and hope out gas holds out. First thing and short rest and bano stop so we cut to the front of the line to park by the building. I’m getting off my bike when I hear Deby in my helmet communicator with a panic in her voice “my pannier is missing”!!!

What? The? Oh no, sure enough it’s gone. This is not good, not at all. In it is all her warm clothes including her Gerbing heated liner and other necessary stuff. Now what? It’s getting late, we are low on gas, what? Think, think. First thing first I head to the bano, a good place to clear my head, bladder and try to think more clearly. What to do.

I come out and there is Deby have a big conversation with a group of guys in Spanish, she’s really getting good at this… I walked up and she said one of the guys saw the bag in the road about 50 KM back. We tried to get a more exact location but that was it. 50KM from where we were? 50KM from where the gravel started? Not sure….

Split up and I look for it with both gas cans? Stick together and hope we find it not too far away? We go with sticking together and riding back north on the gravel. It’s 110 miles back to the governor city, we are tired, it’s getting late and mostly all we had to eat all day was some chips. So we ride, and ride and ride looking and looking. After 80 miles my gas light comes on, we ride. An indicator that says how much gas I have clicks down from 0.7 gallons to zero and goes blank. The bike keeps running, it’s past 10:00, it’s getting pretty dark, we keep looking, nothing. Deby’s gas light comes on, mine starts flashing warning of imminent fuel starvation. It’s getting cold. Deby doesn’t have anything warm to wear. Somehow with 222 miles on my odometer since filling up and exceeding my 200 mile range we arrive at governor city. No bag but we didn’t run out of gas and reach the only city (if you would call it that) for 100 miles any direction.

There is a line at the gas station, nobody is pumping gas. We know from experience this is a bad sign. There is a hotel next to the gas station it’s full, nada, nothing, go away. We walk out to our bikes feeling somewhat depressed, it’s late, it’s totaly dark,  were out of gas, the bag is missing, were tired, hungry and cold.   We’re getting on the bikes and a red pickup stops next to Deby. Some guys get out and are talking to her in rapid Spanish. I’m just watching from my bike not sure what to make of the exchange when Deby turns to me and says “I think they found my bag!” Really?

She talks with them some more in Spanish (how did she get so good at this) and they drive off. She said they want us to wait here and they will bring it to us. I’m amazed… wow. We decide to get in line at the gas station next door assuming they will just see us there waiting. As soon as we get in line the guy comes out and moves the cones and starts pumping gas! What? Ok, this is some kind of intervention. By the time it is our turn at the pump the truck returns with Deby’s bag. What a turn of events, didn’t see this coming. Deby thanks them profusely and offers to fill their gas tank, they refuse and eventually are on their way. It’s not exactly clear how they got it and how they found us or anything. How did they know we would return north? Were they watching for bikes coming back on the road? It was 10:30 at night, how long did they wait. Crazy!

With the bag back on the bike we look for a hotel, hotel 1, nothing. Hotel 2, nothing, Hotel 3 recommends Hotel 4 that has one room left. We’ll take it! We went inside the otherwise dingy room and booth said “this is the best room ever!” It had two small beds we just pushed together. 

A giant TV we never turned on. 

And a restaurant next door that served us a platter of meat that we couldn’t chew no matter how hard we tried. Deby took most of it outside and fed some of the stray dogs on the street.

No, we never made it for El Calafate, that would be for the next day. At midnight we crashed into he bed straddling the crack between the mattresses and held each other thankful for another amazing day.

Sorry for the long post but I thought it was interesting. Thanks for following, more to come.

Donn and Deby.

14 thoughts on “High Adventure on Argentina’s Loneliest Highway

  1. Hi Donn & Deby,
    What A challenge. You must feel like Lewis & Clark. This part of your adventure was scary enough as is. Loosing the pannier with vital necessities, Wow. I can feel the panic. I hope you never invite me on this adventure. I’m not tough enough. Donn & Deby You Two are Amazing. I look forward to your next post.
    Keep on keepin’ on!
    Jesse James
    P.S. Did you get my recent e-Mail? eBay is ok for this time of year.

  2. Excellent story! So glad the pannier was found and returned. Hat’s off to you two for documenting your travels… I know it can be a lot of work but we back here in snow-villle appreciate it. Good luck, hope the gas station waiting continues to be fun, and the meat becomes chew-able.

  3. Whoa!!!!!!!!! So I read the tale before bed, bad idea. I had nightmares about loosing my Mosko panniers somewhere on the rocky coast of England of all places and went to the garage first thing to see what size padlock/clip I’m going to put on the latch that holds the pannier to the rack. I’m sure if it happened to me I wouldn’t come out of it smelling near as sweet as you two, bravo due to great karma! Now if only the wind would die down, sounds much worse than the Gorge. Great pics and story as always

  4. Clearly, adventure called and you both answered loudly! What great stories you’ve had so far, can’t wait to see what’s next! Be safe out there.

  5. Oh my, I am gripping my desk and was probably more scared then either of you. WOW, God was watching over you for sure and if you were not a believer I am sure you are now. Safe travels ahead and remember your aunt is old and can’t take many more scares from you two so be safe. I want to see you both again. To think that Scully’s movie was good, just think what Hollywood could do with a movie about your travels. Love you guys,

  6. Donn, I couldn’t read your post fast enough as I it is unbelievable what you guys are going through, YIKES I would be a wreck. I hate it when my gas light comes on , could never imagine these gas stations running out of gas. Then Deby losing her bag and then suddenly someone finds it. You guys need to write a book when you get home. PLEASE stay safe as your travels sound challenging. Praying you have an easier day tomorrow.

  7. Very interesting chain of events, are you giving your children grey hair? I’m looking forward to speaking Spanish with Deby.

    We will all be talking about you this weekend at the NWNO party where you will be so missed.

    Ride on mis amigos!

    • Hey Kim, we are leaving out the parts that would give our kids grey hair, a few events best told over cold cervases. Bummed we will miss the party, wish we could transport all of you down here, now that would be a party!

  8. Hi Deby and Donn! I enjoyed reading your travels and all the trials and challenges its amazing the strength and perseverance when you are face with a situation. How you both handle it with calm and faith. Like the missing bag. Well God is good all the time. Take care. Stay safe and blessed. Love and miss you both. Red is well.

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