Route 40 is the iconic trail slash gravel road that travellers wear as a badge of honour. For many years, it has been a rock and dust riddled test of patience. To drive Route 40 is to hear the Lonely Planet theme in your head for hour after radio-free hour.
However, it seems we are among the last to drive on the true Route 40 experience. Much of it is paved and there are two lanes for much of the rest, one rugged, half-carved line of gravel, rock and mud flanked by another line of untouched pavement. Looking at the ‘new’ Route 40, I don’t know whether to feel privileged or jealous. Regardless, it is a long trip at 30-50 kilometers per hour.
Occasionally, Guanacho line the ditches, gravel piles and horizon. Their tails curve when they feel agitated. They stop and stare before skirting the on-coming vehicle. I cannot tell if there is less or more traffic here than Peninsula Valdes but the Guanachos are not as wild.
Heading north from El Chalten, the land is rolling now, the road bobs and weaves through hills, sierras and canyons. Sometimes the horizon stretches to reveal passing weather systems and rafts of sunlight before closing in again tot eh dusty yellows and greens of the steppe.
Traces of road construction appear like archeological sites. Diggings start and stop erratically, flanked by abrupt borders of natural vegetation somehow making it a bit un-natural.
It feels like there is a bit of a race going on in Argentina; one between the government and money. Inflation is rampant and wages no longer keep up with it, yet development seems to be on over-drive here. The government is pouring money into road infrastructure, looking to link the country and to establish a trade corridor to rival the Panama Canal. It seems to be an all-or-nothing gambit – finish the roads and stimulate the economy or bankrupt the country once more. It is looking to be a photo-finish.
As the government’s hair whitens, Argentines are hunkering down during yet another financial crisis. Access to US dollars has been severely limited ($250 per week I believe) so residents with any amount of income or savings appear to be transferring them to real estate (and, of course, the occasional US bank account).
Multi-million dollar skyscrapers tower in the cities to the east, hosting vacant condos and rental units. New hostels, hosterias, cabanas and restaurants sprout up in the west. Anything that can fit anywhere seems to attract investment. The goal is not so much to make money as to create an asset that can be converted into US dollars, if and when the peso is devalued yet again. It would seem that trucks loading up all the money from the national banks over night and driving away sticks in people’s collective memory.
On that note, we are closing in on Estancia La Siberia, an interesting choice of name but one not unsuited for this stretch of road. Lago Cardiel makes for a silvery-blue sigh of relief on the horizon; apparently the gods and the giants had a battle here and the waters are not so good. Looks okay from here though.