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Ruta 40 North

During the morning we packed and prepared ourselves not only with our bags but also with our minds to finally cross the border. But since our PCR tests did not show the result we were hoping for, again, it was clear now for us: the illusion to visit Chile was slowly fading away in the distance – even though it was only 3 km away. We had read online about an exception to enter, which was worth a last try. We loaded the Gaucha with our luggage and also with two boxes of food for the coming weeks, which we had purchased in case the border crossing would work out. After 15 minutes we reached the border crossing Rio Jenimeni, where we first had to explain the Argentine border officials of this special permit. They agreed, stamped us out and assured us beforehand that we could stamp in again immediately if our plan didn't work out. Apart from us, there was only one mother with her sweet little 2 year old daughter at the border, who wanted to return to their Chilean homeland. Turns out the two of them were on foot and planned to hitchhike the approx. 6 km between the borders. Since apart from us there was hardly anyone else, and the Gaucha was loaded up to the roof and we had no further seats had to offer, they got ready to walk. With a banging sun and what felt like 30 degrees, a large suitcase and the little girl on her arms , we felt wrong not helping. So we rearranged our luggage and offered them the only option we could give them; to lie down on our mattress between our luggage and to drive with us to the Chilean border. With big gratitude they accepted our offer and mother and daughter climbed into the Gaucha. Even though the ride was quick, it was a great adventure for our two guests on and we had fun too. Arriving at the border, and when we saw the sanitary control, it quickly became clear that they would be very strict about checking our data and documents, and our hopes that we would still have Chilean soil under our feet, quickly looked blurrier. Although we were able to convince them that we were right about the exemption at first, since we were missing some details, it didn’t work out for us, so it was time to say goodbye to our two guests as well as to our travel plans to Chile - it was worth a try and we had at least tried everything. Disappointed, because we were so close to our goal, we rolled back with the Gaucha, stamped in Argentina again, bought a kilo of cherries to kill our sadness, treated ourselves to a pizza in the restaurant of an emigrated Dutchman from Amsterdam and spent the rest of the day chilling in the sun on the beach of Lago Argentino - not such a bad alternative! When the friendly owner of the fishing club offered us to spend the night on his mini campground at the lake, the plan seemed perfect and we pitched our tent in the sand for the first time. We used the wifi restaurant from around the corner to make new plans, we watched the full moon over the lake on the way back, and after a hot shower we went into the tent, on a windy night - Chile will have to wait a while longer for us: in the meantime, Viva Argentina!

The next morning we went to have breakfast again in the village, in the restaurant of the Dutchman. The scrambled eggs they served were not the only reason - we had noticed during the night that Mari's bank card and ID were missing and that we had forgotten them in the restaurant the day before! Fortunately, there are honest people everywhere in the world, like the waiters here in the restaurant, who kept it safe for us: Muchas gracias! Later on we were alrady on the Ruta 40 for 600 km north. The day was cloudy with moderate wind and pleasant temperatures - ideal to drive. Stopping every two hours to change the wheel of the Gaucha, we made it to Esquel around 8 p.m., where we were lucky to find shelter for three nights in the same cabanas as on the outward trip. Our food supplies for Chile were due and so we cooked pasta for dinner after a long time, and we had a delicious Malbec =) The next day we packed our hiking boots and we went to Los Alerces National Park. On the first part of the journey we had already explored the central and northern part of the park in detail, so the southern part was still undiscovered. We left the house to find out soon that we had brought zero cash but because we were sure, from our previous visit, that we didn’t have to pay an entrance fee, we drove without much worries. When we got to the entrance we found out our calculation did not work out. Since we were now in the high season, they were charging a fee, and the nice ladies at the park entrance unfortunately did not want to make an exception – this were not the best days to get exceptions for us =) So we drove half an hour back to the cabana, got the money and in the second attempt we could get into the park. Although Esquel was fully booked, there were relatively few visitors at the national park - better for us. To our delight we saw only three cars at the parking lot of the hiking trail up to "Laguna Toro". It was a steep climb, but every meter of altitude was worth it, as we had an increasingly beautiful view of the forested park with green and blue lakes in the background. After almost three hours we reached the lagoon, where we took a break and enjoyed the unique tranquility up here, before we went steeply downhill again. Once we reached the bottom, we realised how tired we were. We surely needed a little break, after so many hikes during the past weeks, we felt it in our bodies and in our energy. But the park had one more highlight to offer: The dam project "Hidroelectrico Futaleufu". This is a quite controversial energy generation project from the 1970s, which produces more than 2.5 billion KW of electricity annually and once brought a lot of employment to the region. At the same time, of course, it involved considerable interference with the surrounding nature. Today, you can drive around the entire site by car and get a glimpse of the power plant. From the 120 m high dam wall you have a great view and it is quite impressive how the amount of water is dammed up at the top, channeled through the pumps and then led back into the river at the bottom. At the same time you can see the former river bed, which is now a canyon long overgrown with plants and trees. With these impressions we went back to Esquel, stopping on the way on a small brewery with home-brewed beer in Trevelin.

Soon it was time to say goodbye to Esquel. For breakfast we drove up to Laguna Zeta, high above Esquel, where we knew that was a great picnic spot, and we enjoyed mate tea, with the sun shimmering through the clouds from time to time. Despite peak season, we never felt like Esquel was fully crowded during our entire stay, which was a pleasant surprise. We drove on Ruta 40 for two hours to El Bolson - a village between Esquel and Bariloche, which is especially popular amongst young people, offers fantastic hiking opportunities and exudes a distinctly alternative vibe. The crowded streets here indicated even before we arrived that the village was really full, but we were lucky again and had reserved a very nice cabana for three more nights. Patricia gave us a warm welcome, we unpacked briefly and then used the afternoon to go up to the mountain "Piltriquiltron" which raises over El Bolson. The 15 km of gravel road were no problem for the Gaucha, although it was steeply uphill throughout and we only switched back and forth between second and first gear to get ahead. The parking lot was pretty full despite the late hour, but fortunately most visitors were already up there. From here we walked up another hour on an easy trail until we got to the "Bosque Tallado". In a piece of forest, artists from all over South America had immortalized themselves with carved figures, which can be admired on a circular path. In addition, there are many barbecue areas and a kiosk, which offered homemade "tortas fritas" - a special dough that is fried on fat over the fire. Of course we couldn't say no and took a bag full of tortas fritas up the last bit to the refugio at 1500m. Here there was very little going on so all we could do was enjoy the great view of El Bolson and eat our warm snack. As the wind increased and the sun gradually disappeared, we went into the Refugio for a hot chocolate before returning to the Gaucha and descending the 15 km down. As expected, there was a bit of traffic on the steep road, so we were constantly using our breaks. This was obviously too much for the Gaucha and when we arrived at the end of the downhill, we smelled some smoke, definitely something was not right. What happened, is that from all that stopping, our brakes had too much and did not survive. The brake fluid had apparently become too hot, we could push the pedal completely through without breaking at all. After the first shock we decided to wait until the breaks were back. We read online that there is not much more that you can do about it at this point. So we waited and around 40 minutes later and then rolled slowly downhill using the handbrake and the left breaks during the remaining 3 km back to the cabana. Hoping that it was not a major problem, we contact our mechanics, informed us online and finally decided to make a check in the workshop around the corner the morning after.

The friendly mechanic looked at the brakes and gave us the green light to continue. Apparently only the brake fluid had overheated, brake pads and discs still looked good, although he recommended changing the rear pads as soon as we got back to Buenos Aires. With that solved, nothing stood in the way of our plans for the day, and after a fortifying porrdige breakfast in the cabana, we headed to the mountains. To avoid the tourist crowds, we chose a remote route and our plan worked out perfectly. Only a few hikers met us on the path, which led us first through a forest, then along the river with constant ups and downs through flower meadows to the Refugio "Encanto Blanco". Here we felt a chilled out hippie atmosphere with colorful tents, yoga mats and siestas by the river. The guys from the Refugio served delicious pizza from the stone oven, after which we joined the siesta team. On the way back we were surprised by a gaucho on horseback, who rode his horse skillfully along the narrow hiking trail and greeted us in a friendly manner. We went back to the village, where in the evening there was a lot going on and a super summer evening atmosphere. After a beer we started the retreat and were looking forward to the hot shower and bed. Next day - next hike, we passed by the famous craft market in El Bolsón, which had a lot of nice things to offer. While the previous day we did a relaxed hike, this day we chose a much more challenging route. The parking lot was full of cars, but after a short distance we split ways and to our surprise there was even less traffic on our route this day than the day before. For several hours we climbed steeply until we crossed the river and here we met the only tourist of the day. Since it was over 30 degrees today, we were more than happy to be walking the shady path. The path meandered further and further up through the forest and the last meters became exhausting, until we finally arrived at the Refugio "Dedo Gordo". Here exactly two tents and three guys were waiting for us - that's all that was going on. We unpacked our sandwiches and then moved off to a quiet spot with an outstanding view over El Bolson and held our routine siesta in the grass. The three campers were visibly surprised that we wanted to descend on the same day and wished us good luck. We went much faster than uphill and after two hours downhill we were again in the estancia at the lower riverbed. The animals were all running around freely here and we were greeted by dogs, horses, sheep, chickens with chicks and alpacas - what a welcome committee =) Finally, we toasted to our two great days of hiking in a rooftop bar with live music in El Bolson, and prepared for our onward journey the next day.

The village of Villa la Angostura, 80 km north of Bariloche, had pleased us particularly well on the outward journey so we decided to spend two more nights here. After we reached Bariloche after almost 2 hours on the Ruta 40 and had done some organizational things here, we went again for an hour on the road to Villa la Angostura. After checking in with our host Alberto, we made it to our favorite beach at Lago Correntoso for the last rays of sunshine of the day and to swim in the transparent water, that was still warm enough. A bit tired from our days of hiking in El Bolson, we enjoyed the sunset on the beach of the lake with homemade bread from a lady that lives there and makes a bread that Mari´s mum had recommended. For a change to all our four legged friends, we had a visit from two little kittens, who felt very comfortable in our room after a short pat-down and immediately started to play. Under the bed was particularly exciting and also the bath held all kinds of interesting things for them. The owner assured us that they belonged to the neighbour and since they didn't want to leave on their own, we carried them out. The next day we decided to visit a remote beach of the Nahuel Huapi lake called "ultima esperanza" (last hope). Our hope that there was less going on here than on the other beaches was definitely fulfilled. But the reason was soon very clear: a 45 min walk down and uphill was the only way to the beach. That was definitely too much for Argentine tourists, some of whom already reached their limits with a 20 min round trip in the national park. Walking with flip-flops was not so comfortable, but we had the beach almost to ourselves, we could swim in the cold refreshing lake, we enjoyed the sun and let the day end again chilled. The way back uphill was quickly and back home we played with the kittens, who were already eagerly awaiting us. The next morning it was time to say goodbye to the two playmates and the beautiful Villa la Angostura. One last breakfast on a small beach in the sun and we were on our way back to Bariloche. Here we booked ourselves into two different cabanas for another week and were very curious to see with how many tourists we will have to share our favorite city =) Vamos a Bariloche!