Central Patagonia: A lot of Nothing that is Really Something!

If you want to really get away from it all, mid-Patagonia is a great place to go.  While the package tours head south and west in Patagonia (to admittedly super destinations - Ushuaia, Calafate, Bariloche) you can outflank the crowds and fly to Comodoro Rivadavia as a starting point for a wonderful tour of the “outback of Argentina.”  

Comodoro, as the locals call it, is the Houston of Argentina (it’s fitted out with surrounding cliffs and a gigantic windfarm, the biggest wind energy park in South America, so not exactly Houston. . .).  You can enjoy a comfortable overnight here in one of the nice hotels fronting the Atlantic (we stayed in the Lucania Palazzo and it was very nice indeed).  In the nearby port area are very good restaurants,  (during our visit they were the Puerto Cangrejo and La Barra; the names may have changed).  (The locals will tell you they’re on the Costanera, but the street sign might say Luis Mara.  It’s a short walk or drive from the hotel once you’ve identified the location.)  Lobos marinos, sea lions, frequent the Prefectura wharf area of the waterfront, perhaps coming from the wonderfully-named Rada Tilly, a beach town 10 km south of Comodoro, where there is a colony.

The next day, get a reasonably early start after stocking up with provisions in one of the convenient supermarkets; head south for eight km on Rte 3, and turn right onto paved Route 26, which eventually joins the (paved) Route 20.  The landscape along the way is initially green and hilly, with oil rigs dotting the landscape - the only objects larger than the size of a scruffy bush that you will see for most of the way.  Sarmiento is 156 km west, just south of two enormous lakes, Colhue Haupi and Musters, connected by the Senguer river.  Just after you enter the town you’ll find to the left a gravel or ripio (rip rap as one translation puts it) road leading south to the Bosque Petrificado Sarmiento Ormachea Petrified Forest 32 km away.  This is a protected area belonging to the province of Chubut, with a small entrance fee payable at the visitor center.  The visit is by foot - on easy trails -- through a lunar, stunning landscape.  Huge chunks of petrified araucaria trees, 60 million years old, litter the ground, along with chips - as if a sawmill had been stopped in full operation.  The texture of the trees is completely visible and you have to touch them to believe they are not recently-felled trunks.

Back in Sarmiento, fuel up at one of the stations, following the rule for driving in Patagonia - if you see a filling station, use it!  Human fuel is also available at several restaurants on the main street (San Martin) or just off it.  Then continue west toward Rio Mayo on paved Route 20.  The road borders the two lakes for a while and then turns away into an empty landscape.  We were lucky enough to encounter a sheep-herding gaucho and dog along the way - and that was it, no cars of any kind for over 100 km.  Nearing Rio Mayo (pop 2600) veer left to join the fabled Ruta 40, and here the pavement ends.  Once you reach Rio Mayo (home of the national Sheep Sheering Festival in November) it’s 130 km plus to Perito Moreno town, with only 12 km (on Route 43) paved.  You are not likely to see any vehicles in either direction on this stretch - most guidebooks say that it is one of the loneliest stretches of road in the country, and it was certainly not a good place to hitchhike - or have a breakdown.

Perito Moreno (pop 3000) is a convenient stopping point for trips going south along Route 40 - and also lies just 60 km from the border with Chile.  A most enjoyable diversion can be had by heading that way, to Lake Buenos Aires and the small town of Los Antiguos.  Lago Buenos Aires is part of the second largest lake in South America - the larger, Chilean portion, Lago Carrera, drains to Rio Baker and the Pacific.  There is little boating on the Argentine segment - the winds are too unpredictable and the year-round water temperature is 10 degrees Celsius (hence the depth of the lake is unknown).

Los Antiguos has one very nice inn, the Antigua Patagonia, just at the eastern entrance to the town.  You’ll be very comfortable here after the long day’s drive, and it’s a beautiful setting, with the always snow-capped Andes as a backdrop to the huge turquoise-blue lake.  A second option, Estancia La Serena, lies on the eastern edge of the lake.  It’s run by Belgians (practically a guarantee of good food), and offers simple cabins; they’ll also organize excursions.  In the morning, explore the magnificent scenery along provincial route 41, which parallels the border and Rio Jeinemeni; there are interesting rock formations, huge cliffs carved by the wind into what look like giant chessmen, and always the Andes in the distance.  Some 50 km of the hard-pack dirt road can be managed in almost any car; after that the road begins to resemble a track and those without a sturdy 4x4 should turn back.  The mountain in the distance is Monte Zeballos, over 2700 meters high.  A handful of estancias dot the road; if you are travelling in the early summer you might encounter itinerant sheep shearers plying their trade.  Take some water and something for the munchies - and at the same time keep in mind that there are no bathrooms - and there’s nothing big enough to hide behind!  On the return leg of a summertime trip, you can stop at one of the cherry farms on the outskirts of town and lay in some fruit nibbles for the next stage of the trip (Los Antiguos enjoys a microclimate that allows it to grow very sought-after export-grade cherries.  You might not get the premium grade, but if we were perfectly happy with our “rejects!”)

After the Los Antiguos excursion, return to Perito Moreno and pick up Route 40 again for 26 km of pretty good ripio road into the Patagonian steppe, leading to Estancia Telken, the heart of this visit.  Petty and Coco Nauta have been running this estancia for decades.  They are delightful and knowledgeable hosts, conversing in English, Dutch, and Spanish.  You dine at the family table, and take breakfast in the large kitchen.  Petty presides over the cooking and Coco over the asado rack, and you’ll not want for quantity or quality of food.   Rooms are simple but comfortable.  A newly made road leads behind the farmhouse up to the ridge, where fearlessly curious guanacos will inspect you.  And the Nautas’ son, Jari (or Harry), can provide a sturdy vehicle and the expertise to accompany you to the World Heritage site, Cueva de las Manos. To see its location, click here.

There are two ways to approach the gorgeous canyon of the Rio Pinturas where the cave - or more accurately, the cliffs, of the painted hands are found.  Either route will take a full day for the visit.  The first leads you through another estancia, Casa de la Piedra, to the rim of the canyon.  Then it’s up to you to make your way down, across the river, and back up.  This will take several hours at a minimum.  Second is the longer but simpler, entirely by road, approach from Perito Moreno/Estancia Telken.  This involves driving about 100 km, almost to the wonderfully named but miserable spot, Bajo Caracoles, and then heading east along the ripio provincial route 97 another 45 km, to the site itself.  If you are touring with Jari, he will not only show you the paintings and explain their history, but unlock the ugly gratings that have been set up to counter the efforts of visitors to chip these paintings from the rocks, or cover them with their own handprints.  Only four guides have a key to these bars.

I did not expect to be so moved by the visit -but the sight of all those hands - over 800 of them - at least 9000 years old in most cases - was tremendously affecting.  The charming drawings of guanacos and various curious doodles added a bit of spice.  The golds and reds of the paintings, against the black and white background sprays are faded in some spots but in others appear as new.  It’s almost impossible not to sense the artists of that time saying, here I was, here’s my handprint, remember me...

A second valley to explore is the Arroyo Feo, which is anything but; the Telken staff can help you with this one as well.  There are more caves decorated with hands around the area, and more fantastic spots for trekking, riding, or just walking and looking  It’s simply a question of how many days you have available.

The return to Comodoro is straightforward: back to Route 43, and 450 kilometers across a Texas Panhandle landscape on the long, boring - but paved - road, with only petroleum wells for scenery until you reach the coast.  (Detour about 2 km on the outskirts of Pico Truncado for a look at the Wind Sculpture Park, with six structures that make interesting sounds as the result of the never-ending winds, after having a nice lunch at the Casa de Piedra on the main road.  The artists are from Argentina, Chile, Paraguay and Bolivia.  A longer detour south on route 12 will take you to the edge of another sculptured landforms area, which runs for another 60 km; this is the upper valley of the Río Deseado).  For Comodoro and the airport, turn north on route 12 at Pico to join Route 3 at Caleta Olivia, where the route begins to parallel the coast.  Caleta Olivia has been a petroleum center since 1944 when the first well was dug.  In the middle of town is a dramatic, 13 meters-high, statue in homage to oil workers.  The coastline itself is attractive, with many high cliffs, and the road is quite curved in spots.  After that it remains only to turn in your vehicle and take the late flight back to BA. 


Car Rental.  Key rental agencies are available at the Comodoro airport, or will meet you there (i.e. Localiza, which has an off-airport site; tel 0297-15-5924-093).  If you’d rather rent a 4x4, try www.Aónikenk@satlink.com, which can can provide a standard rental or a vehicle and driver.  Tel (0297) 446 6768.


Lucania Palazzo in Comodoro:  Moreno 676.  (0297) 446-0100.

Estancia Telken, at telkenpatagonia@argentina.com, or Casilla de Correo 5, Z9040, PM.  (2963) 432079  (this is a radiophone, so be patient).  If Telken is full, they will help you find a place at Estancia Los Toldos, also a fine choice for visiting the Cueva (02963) 432856.  La Serena can also organize excursions to the cave.  And Estancia Casa Piedra is the third option in the area.

Our tour guide to Cueva de las Manos: Jari (Harry, to anglophones) Nauta, who has a fine old Russian precursor of the Humvee that will take you in style to the Cueva.  Jari is the son of Petty and Coco, proprietors of the Telken.  Contact him at Guanacondor, Perito Moreno 1087, Perito Moreno; jarinauta@santacruz.com.ar, or tel (2963) 432303.

Los Antiguos.  PatagoniaAntigua; tel 02963-491038.  La Serena (0297) 444-2245.

For general information on estancias in Santa Cruz: http://www.estanciasdesantacruz.com; or call at the office in Buenos Aires, Suipacha 1120, 4325-3098. )

© Copyright 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, Richard W. Tripp, Jr.