Another ‘Top Ten’ post devoted to roads leading to some of the best South American offbeat travel hotspots through Argentina and Chile we’ve experienced over the last few months. The ‘Top Ten’ riding roads below aren’t ranked; if they’ve made the list means they get our thumbs up.
Top Ten: Riding Roads, South America
Carretera Austral, Ruta 7: Chile (approx. 1,240km)
The Carretera Austral through Chile is a road that will satisfy your soul beyond conscious comprehension. It begins from the seaside town of Puerto Montt in the north where Chile’s Lakes District ends to the village of Villa O’Higgins in the south, snaking south for 1,240 kilometres into a land of dense forests, snow-tipped mountains, glacial streams, islands and swift-flowing rivers. Don’t let the potential wet and windy weather put you off (we rode it in May 2014).
We spent a week riding Carretera Austral’s dirt roads, which was well worth the extra effort involved through the gravelly, muddy and corrugated parts. The pothole-peppered track took us hundreds of metres above sea level on Mount Jeinemeni, which gave us day long views of a lake the size of a city. It was so lofty from atop, I felt like I could see half the world. Mammoth-sized mountains engulfed us as well as voluminous lakes under even bigger skies.
Everything was super-sized – the only missing piece of the jigsaw was the dinosaurs. Feeling like a dot in the landscape, we wound our way up. Everything was – the only missing piece of the jigsaw was the dinosaurs. Feeling like a dot in the landscape, we wound our way up and down the mountain passes taking extra care; there were no barriers on some of the steep hairpin bends, which were loose and corrugated to add to the fun and games. Some had described these mountain passes as “hair-raising on two wheels” although it was often so stunning, forgetting I was on more technical terrain was made easier.
Further north past Chile Chico, the ground either side of the Carretera Austral changed dramatically where barren plains gave way to a grassy, lush landscape. The orange, reds and russet leaves of autumn were just appearing for us here. Soaking up the vegetation-dense vista was like having a sponge bath, it was good to drench the soul in something green for a change. Incredible. Queulat National Park is definitely worth the detour off the Carretera Austral too – here you’ll find The Hanging Glacier.
San Pedro de Atacama to Paso de Sico, Ruta 23: Chile (approx. 209km)
Some fantastic off road riding and your efforts over the loose gravel, stretches of sand and corrugations will reward you with a pastel watercolour painting scene of soft textures. The landscape is intermingled by a myriad of harmonious hues on the colour wheel. Chiefly creamy mochas, milk chocolate and swirling dark browns. You’ll chance upon Laguna Miscanti & Miniques. Two sparkling brackish lakes, one a blue curacao liqueur and the other starkly beautiful in its crystallised white but beckoning us by its inky midnight blue. En route, you’ll also come across Salar de Talar. A glittering salty lake in the same aquamarine blue found in the Indian Ocean and you’ll get to dangle your legs over the edge of iron red rocks, perfectly rounded and smoothed by the blasting winds. It’s possible enter Argentina at the border of Paso de Sico but remember to stamp your passport out in Chile’s San Pedro de Atacama, 145 miles away.
Susques to Salta, Ruta 51: Argentina (approx. 300km)
What you’re store for is an earthy, rollicking, lip licking feast of fun. In August 2014, we bobbled over loose gravel, frozen streams crusted over in ice, slushy mud and oodles of slippery sand. I imagine there wouldn’t be any ice in the summer months. The 176 mile ride was worth it just to see what I labelled ‘Boulder world’ alone, bestowed on us in its breathtaking enormity. There sat an incredibly impressive legion of stand-alone rocks bigger than an average sized house. Some were the size of ships. It was a movie set from Raiders of the Lost Ark. The unpaved road became a dirt road, which became a track and the track a mere suggestion of one. Both our bikes went down but survived the animated fun. Not for the faint hearted or those that prefer the smooth tarmac.
Zapala to Caviahue, Argentina (& if you’re feeling feisty onto Copahue), Argentina (approx. 173km)
Imagine a wanderlust cocktail of Freddy Flintstone boulder-lined desert, mountain lakes and pehuén forests but best of all, monkey puzzle trees amid big snowy mountains dominating the landscape. Welcome to the road between Zapala and Caviahue. In the nineteenth century these evergreen coniferous trees, native to Chile, were named in response to a remark that an attempt to climb one would puzzle even a monkey, uh uoo!
The roads left the senses tingling as we were riding into the onset of the ski season. In June 2014, we ventured the ten mile ride over on thick gravel ripio to Copahue. We’d heard the mud baths and hot natural springs were still open to invitation of the slightly crazed. I got four miles in when the dirt road dwindled to a pebbly thread, finally to a mere suggestion. The stones, slushy mud and injurious ice were too much for me although the return ride felt like a piece of cake with my back to the unwanted wind. I hear Copahue is a sight to behold, shame the snow prevented us from getting there. During the summer months, the ride to Copahue would be straight forward in easy conditions.
Ruta de los Siete Lagos – Seven Lakes Road, Argentina (approx. 107km)
The Road of the Seven Lakes is the popular name given to the provincial route 234 between San Martín de los Andes and Villa La Angostura in the Neuquén Province, Argentina. Definitely not one to be missed, this is popular with folks on four wheels, two and on foot. The 107 km road that crosses the Lanín and Nahuel Huapi national parks provides access to several lakes in the forest area of the Patagonic Andes, as well as to other sights. The seven primary lakes of the road after which the route takes its name comprise:
Machónico, Escondido, Correntoso, Espejo, Lácar, Falkner and Villarino. Other lakes accessible through secondary paths include the Meliquina, Hermoso, Traful and Espejo Chico lakes.
The lakes are aptly named for their salmon fishing, beauty, clarity and hidden aspects – we wouldn’t have missed this road even if it did feel a little wrong to be riding on so much asphalt through virgin coihue and colihue cane forests. The day’s song ended on a sweet note as we dared to hope that a steep trail would zig-zag us down to a mysterious looking lake. The day hit a harmonious crescendo as we stumbled upon it, Lago Lacar. A long, narrow bar of opaque blue mist hung beautifully over the freshwater. Behind me, I saw hills rising wild as far as the eye could see covered in trees that no axe had ever touched. I saw the sunlight glinting off the lake and clouds sweeping in from the west. I even saw a caracara circling. I waved at him as late afternoon drew upon us, shadows growing long. Dusk arrived and left to a tune of pinks and oranges. Overhead a half moon peeked out through the scuttling clouds, beneath which a stillness settled over my mind. The stars looked like eyes, watching over us in this secluded spot with only each other for company.
Cafayate to Cachi, Argentina (approx. 161km)
Via La Vuelta a los Valles – Return to the Valleys. Oh my, what a thrill ride waiting for you! Valles Calchaquies oozes a seductive, off the beaten track rugged landscape. We encountered: bee eaters flying above, gravelly sand, sandy gravel and well, more sand. Inevitably we stumbled through some rough patches of sand, me more than Jason. Vernacular architecture was common in the valleys that to my mind deserved some special attention – even I couldn’t fail to notice some of the adobe houses that boasted neoclassical columns and Moorish arches. Cachi was full of cobblestones, boasted a tranquil plaza overlooked by noble mountains and led us on a road that crossed the Parque National Los Cardones. Interestingly, the local furniture is made from the wood of cacti, cardon; in the treeless Andean foothills and puna. A superb little spot in the desert and one I’m glad we took the time to deviate from our route to Salta and discover.
Ruta 46 via Laguna Blanca to Zapala, Argentina (approx. 123km)
To my mind, Ruta 46 is in direct competition to the Carretera Austral. You won’t believe it until you see it. Church bells were chiming inside my head, rejoicing alongside the ring of a quieter alarm bell as to why this road is so unknown and underrated. It took us from one national park to another via a scenically steep mountain pass. We were riding 1,200 metres above sea level through big sky country where the striking volcanic deserts led us all the way to Laguna Blanca. The laguna was a drainage lake that formed when lava flows dammed two small streams; now host to coots, grebes, upland geese and the odd flamingo, primarily under protection for the black-necked swans. The road led us to Zapala, is a touristic city in the Patagonian province of Neuquén, Argentina for an overnight stop.
Puyehue National Park, Chile to Villa La Angostura, Argentina (approx. 100km)
Ruta 231 marked as the 215 on Google maps will lead you through Puyehue National Park, out of Chile and back into Argentina. After the 231 road, it appears on Google maps that the road comes to an abrupt halt. It doesn’t, refer to any good map and you’ll be taken on a road that most assuredly exists..! Around the sweeping roads you’ll ride, curving up around the mountains, back down until you’ll be hit by a powdery place of volcanic ash. Tall trees robbed of life and leaves perforate a thick carpet of brown flakes. For us, it was like riding through the land of the dead and apart from each other and the roar from our bikes, the world was awash in sepia. Nature woke up in Villa La Angostura, a village in the south of the Argentine province of Neuquén, on the northwest shore of the Nahuel Huapi Lake. It’s an upmarket town and ski resort.
Cachi to Salta, Argentina (approx. 160km)
Your passage from Cachi to Salta will bestow the prettiest proliferation of cacti you might ever see. In the space of an afternoon, the diversity of landscape becomes borderline ludicrous, at least it did for us. One minute it felt as Mexico as cactus populated sandy plains can get and around a corner we peaked our ride at 3,300 metres to feast our eyes on Icelandic foothills. They looked completely covered in cocoa-powder – not what I expected after the desert scene previously encountered. You may like we did decide to deviate off road down a rocky track with the odd sheer drop and holes gaping in the road like hungry bites from a sandwich; it got the appetite primed for a perfect picnic spot at the bottom. Back up onto the main drag on ruta 33 and a few miles further along, you’ll enter a New Zealand inspired Lord of the Rings scene that alters into a sub-tropical rainforest, which in turn transforms into Scottish hills and lush green English farmland. All in the space of an afternoon. All in the smallest segment of South America – a slice of Argentinian pie I could continue to dine out on for months.
10. Mendoza to Barreal via Uspallata, Argentina (approx. 235km)
If you swing a right westward off ruta 40 back onto the 7 north towards Uspallata, it’ll give rise to quite a dramatic scene-stealer. Dense clusters of brooding clouds, dark grey steely skies and the purply presence of the Andes with hoarfrost gripping at every low level bush was as Wuthering Heights as you’re likely to see that side of the southern hemisphere. In July 2014, we got lucky and hit an unpaved track between the 39 and 412 roads – the first time I’d off-roaded smiling in a smattering of snow!
Arriving in Barreal that afternoon felt like someone had turned up the colour saturation in Photoshop. Up to then, I’d been blasé to the bland landscape of wind-tortured plains and dusty mountains, the appearance and texture of elephant skin and had no idea what lay around the corner. I’d read that this part of the San Juan province gave locals around 300 days of ultra-clear, pollution-free skies each year. Like a tap of a wand to a magician’s hat, out popped stark poplar trees against fiercely blue rivers running clear and an ancient dried out lakebed ‘La Pampa del Leoncito’. Every square centimetre of the 10 kilometre mud-flat was a pattern of cracked crazy-paving. It turned the colour of Maldivian sand when the sun shone down. Needless to say, we spent nigh on an afternoon simulating spirals, figure of eights and playful attempts at crop circles leaving only traces of our tyre-streaked fun. Back in open country, a blending of the soul took place once again by means of my motorcycle and me.