In Chile, you will encounter Route 7, known worldwide as the Carretera Austral; in English, the Southern Highway. The road begins in Puerto Montt, in the Region of Los Lagos and ends 1,240 Km further south, in Villa O'Higgins, in the Region of Aysén. Construction began in 1976, under the direction of the military regime. It was one of the most expensive and ambitious projects of the twentieth century for the country. Most of the work took place during the 1980s and 1990s, by a mix of civilians and members of the Chilean Army, connecting Patagonia with the rest of the country via national routes, after a long history of isolation.
In 2007, the Ministry of Public Works announced upgrades of the road, paving 330 Km, north of the Undiscovered Patagonia Circuit, between Chaitén and Coyhaique. Construction was also completed for the overland route between Hornopirén and Caleta Gonzalo, crossing the Pumalín Park. Yet, the road is not complete; several sections must be traversed by ferry, including the crossing of the Mitchell Fiord, in Stage 4 of the Circuit.
In the future, the entire Carretera will be paved; however, today, much of the route is gravel, especially in the southern sectors, where you will be traveling. The complicated geography and weather make realization of these goals an enormous challenge and contribute to the reality that the Carretera Austral will always be in constant repair. As you travel, be prepared for changing conditions, detours, and waits.
Argentina’s National Route 40, created in 1935, originates in Cabo Virgenes, Santa Cruz, and travels more than 5,000 Km, before reaching La Quiaca, in the Jujuy Province. The road provides incredible adventure; a few of its features include:
- Climbing from sea level to almost 5,000 meters,
- Crossing 236 bridges while passing 18 major rivers and lakes, including 13 large salt lakes,
- The chance to visit 20 National Parks and Reserves, and
- The crossing of 27 mountain passes!
Perhaps the most amazing aspect of National Route 40 is the opportunity to travel in the comfort of your automobile, motorcycle or bicycle, immersed in natural landscapes with no human distractions; many days you may not even come across another vehicle!
Similar to the Carretera Austral in Chile, Route 40 is not yet entirely paved. In fact, Route 40 had very little pavement until it received a boost, in 2004. After receiving recognition as an outstanding national tourism product, funds were allocated to improve the route of the road, its signage, and its conditions. By 2006, 48% of the route was paved; owing in large part to the projects implemented in the Santa Cruz Province. Routing was changed in some sections to focus the course through paved alternate roads that allowed visitors better views of the Andes. Today, the Neuquén and Rio Black Provinces are 100% paved, in contrast to the Salta and Jujuy Provinces, which offer the most "rustic" road conditions. In Santa Cruz, where the Undiscovered Patagonia circuit is concentrated, you'll encounter a mix of road conditions, allowing you to experience a bit of everything!
As of July 2012, there were more than 45 road improvement projects taking place simultaneously along the 5,000+ Km of Route 40. Two of these projects have the potential to effect your travels. The first project is a stretch of 40 Km, between Perito Moreno and Bajo Caracoles, which provides access to the UNESCO World Heritage Site, The Cueva de las Manos (Cave of the Hands). The second stretch runs 55 Km, from the Las Horquetas Sector, within Section 2A of the Circuit and the bridge over the Chico River. Both projects involve re-routing of the road, installation of new culverts and signage, and the accompanying delays and discomforts that are hard to avoid.
Without a doubt, road work in Patagonia adds additional elements of adventure and risk to your trip. A road under construction is less stable, more susceptible to weather conditions, more apt to take detours or have intermittent closures, has no permanent signage and thus; presents conditions that require special knowledge and skills on the part of the driver.
We recommend that you consider using a professional driver for your trip, who has experience driving within the context and conditions of Patagonia. These professionals are well prepared to face the challenges and problems that often arise. Also, having someone else do the driving allows you to relax, unwind, and immerse yourself in the incredible scenery.
Until the completion of the projects we have mentioned for Route 40 in the Santa Cruz Province, you should plan your route according to the defined Sections, which include a detour from the most direct route, along Provincial Routes 25 and 27, and National Route 288. While this option travels more kilometers, it will take you less time; it is much more relaxed with less risk. Moreover, it provides you with the opportunity to visit Governor Gregores, an interesting town with hotels and shops, historical routes, hiking, and a unique local industry; tulip farming! Imagine fields of brightly colored tulips as a colorful surprise, amongst the yellows and golds of the Patagonian Pampa.
If you decide to go directly to El Chaltén on Route 40, be prepared for extreme conditions, flooding, loose debris, lack of services and signage.
Consider these suggestions:
- Check that your vehicle is equipped with the following obligatory equipment: a functional jack, a lug nut wrench or wheel nut wrench, a spare wheel, and a fire extinguisher.
- Plan your travel, considering the distances between places of interest.
- Carry extra food and fuel.
- Before leaving, ask about route problems at local Police Posts.
- If you are carrying equipment or gear outside your vehicle, make sure that is properly covered, tied and secured.
- On gravel roads, do not over-inflate your tires (25 lbs recommended).
- Consider carrying an extra drum of back-up fuel, in accordance with local laws and regulations.
- Maintain a speed below 80 Km / hour in straightaways and 40 Km / hour in curves, as a general rule.
- Drive defensively and obey road signage, resting every couple of hours, especially in graveled sections of the Circuit.
- If you stop, pull your vehicle off the road in a place where it is visible from both directions and make sure to engage the emergency brake.
- Use a GPS and carry maps.
- Pack the kits we describe in the Self-sufficient Travel article of the Undiscovered Patagonia Circuit.