Ruta 40 and Gas Shortages

As soon as we hit Ruta 40, our road trip South turned into a full adventure – some fun and some not so fun. Ruta 40 starts in the very north of Argentina and makes its way to the very south of Argentina. It’s 3050 miles long, a mixture of dirt and pavement, and a lot of overlanders pride themselves on driving parts of it, if not the whole thing. It has been our main route from just before San Carlos de Bariloche to southern Patagonia, not to mention several long stretches in the north of Argentina.

One of the many dirt sections on Ruta 40

As with every time we cross into or out of Argentina, it comes with its own anticipations and reservations. In Chile, everything seems to be more expensive but yet it also seems to be a bit more organized. We never have a doubt that the gas station will actually have gas or the ATMs will actually have cash. We know there will be a wider variety of food and we can stock up on essentials like peanut butter and tortilla chips which are nearly non-existent in Argentina. However, when we’re in Chile and crossing to Argentina, we know gas, camping, food, and nearly everything will be cheaper. At first appearance, there also seems to be a more preserved culture with everyone from the gas station clerk to the border crossing official with his gourd of mate and everyone religiously practicing weekly family asados (“grilling out” as we say in Texas!). However, the Argentine charm can fade just as quickly as it appears.

After leaving Valdivia, we headed along Ruta 40 to San Carlos de Bariloche. We were excited to see Argentina once again. We decided to splurge on a hotel in Bariloche and explored the surrounding sites like the Circuito Chico – a beautiful drive near Bariloche and the Tronador – an impressive mountain with huge glaciers crumbling down its steep faces (which sounds like thunder, hence Tronador, Spanish for thunder).

Pass from Chile to Argentina. Still a ton of ash from the volcano that erupted last year.

After Bariloche, we headed to El Bolson. I was looking forward to El Bolson since I had started researching our trip months ago. They have a great artisan market with non-typical argentine food like crepes and waffles as well as local arts and crafts. It’s also known as a bit more of a laid back, hippie town compared to its neighbor Bariloche which to us seemed more like Breckenridge, Colorado. We spent a few days perusing the market and climbing Piltriquitron, a substantial peak outside of town.

Bosque Tallado in El Bolson where artists have carved the trees

Summit of Piltriquitron overlooking El Bolson

Crazy lines at the Gas Station in El Bolson

After spending a few wonderful days, we decided to fill up on gas before we hit the long haul south to El Chalten and El Calafate. This ended up being easier said than done. We had problems getting gas in Argentina before but mostly it was just that the gas stations were out of Regular and you had to pay the extra cost to get premium. However, in El Bolson, there was a shortage of all gas. In fact – there was none. After we had already asked all the gas stations in town and they all gave us the same answer as if they’d already told 200 people before us, luckily we spotted a gas-filled semi driving around. We decided to follow it to its delivery point and proceeded to get in line when it finally stopped at one of the 5 stations in town. Not 5 minutes after we secured our place in line, the rest of the town proceeded to get in line behind us. Locals started calling their friends and soon the line grew to at least 60 cars (at least that’s as far as I could count). Finally, after a 2 hour wait for the truck to unload, we filled our tank and headed out. I was quite frustrated at this point and James and I had a long standing argument where we weren’t sure if it was worth the 2-hour wait or if there would be gas in the next town. There wasn’t. In fact, the next town was worse. There was a line of 30 cars BEFORE there was even gas. They we just waiting on the hope that gas would arrive at some point.  We continued driving to the next town – same story. By this time it was about 8 pm. There were rumors that gas would come “in the morning” – at what time, no one knew. We decided to sleep in the parking lot and hope that a truck would magically appear in the middle of the night. At this point we still had a ½ tank but with long stretches on Ruta 40 having no services, you can’t just depend on the next town to have gas. You have to know it will be there or else you will use all your gas just to get to an empty gas station.

Yes this is a gas station; no, there is no gas

I have to take a second to give props to Argentines. You would think that after all this, they would be as frustrated as I am as I swear to myself that I will never complain about anything in the US ever again. However, they aren’t. They get out of their car, realize there is no gas, seem mildly annoyed, and then proceed to whip out their mate kits and realize this is a good time to stretch their legs. All the while, I’m thinking, this would be a national crisis in the US. If they can make such a big deal out of full-body airport scanners, how much bigger of a deal would they make out of a gas shortage threatening 1/3 of the country? Surely Fox news, at least, would paint this as the end of the world as we know it. When we insist on knowing why every station is of gas, they shrug their shoulders and explain “there are just a lot of people driving around”. Finally, after there is no gas the next morning, we laboriously try to get the gas station clerk to call the town 200 miles away which we know we can barely make it to with the gas we have. She finally gets through and the news is in – they have gas!!! It ended up being touch and go all the way to El Chalten on Ruta 40 with some stations having gas and others empty.

The view that made the drive worth it

But when we finally arrived after driving hundreds of miles on Ruta 40’s dirt roads, we pulled into El Chalten with the view of Fitz Roy  and decided it was all worth it! We’re hoping the gas situation improves and are looking forward to the next adventure as we continue to explore Southern Patagonia.

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