Sunday, December 16, 2007
Waiting for Godot's Gasoline Tanker
Saturday's plans were to drive from El Chaltén, Argentina (more on this destination in another post), to the Chilean town of Cochrane via the remote Paso Roballos border post, the southernmost land border in the Chilean region of Aisén. I left El Chaltén around 9 a.m. and, as much of Ruta 40 (Argentina's loneliest road) is much improved and part of it is paved, I covered the roughly 500 km to Bajo Caracoles in seven hours even with stops for photo ops.
Bajo Caracoles, a desolate desert spot known for its namesake hotel (a handsome stone-block construction dating from the 1940s), has the only gas station in nearly 500 km between Tres Lagos and the town of Perito Moreno. Often, though, it runs out of gasoline (though not diesel)--the last time I wanted to use the Paso Roballos crossing, I had to continue 120 km north to Perito Moreno, another 70 km west to Los Antiguos, and then south to Roballos via the spectacular Monte Zeballos road that parallels the Chilean border. In fact, I'm glad that I was able to take the scenic Zeballos route that time, but I had no desire to do it again.
Bajo Caracoles, though, had run out of gasoline again, and several cars had been waiting since the day before (both the hotel and the nearby hostel were overflowing). I had enough gas (in a 20-liter container that I keep as an emergency supply) to get me to Perito Moreno, but not to Cochrane, so I decided to wait an hour to see if the station's owner was correct that the supply tanker would arrive from Comodoro Rivadavia. When I had just about given up, the tanker pulled up about five minutes before 5 p.m. and, even though it took another hour and a half to discharge the gasoline and get us all filled up, I finally got on the westbound road to Paso Roballos by 6:30 p.m.
Fortunately the border was open until 9 p.m. and, since I was probably the only person to cross all day here, things went quickly with both the Argentine Gendarmería (border guards) and the Chilean Carabineros. After driving the 100 km or so to the border, I emptied nearly all my surplus gas (from the can) into the tank but there remained a few liters; the Chilean official was at first insistent that I could not take Argentine fuel across the border (this is technically illegal, but his Argentine counterpart was not even interested). Finally, though, he graciously relented and I carried my last few liters of cheap Argentine gas into Chile. I arrived at Cochrane around 10:30 p.m., having done much of a spectacular route in fading daylight as we approach the longest day of the year.
For motorists on RN 40, Bajo Caracoles will continue to be a problem spot, even as the road south from Perito Moreno gets paved. When supplies are short, they will sell northbound drivers only enough to get to Perito Moreno, though they'll fill the tank for southbound vehicles headed for Tres Lagos. If they're utterly without gas, though, all bets are off.
A related matter: a Swiss couple who arrived at Bajo Caracoles shortly after I did had taken a 70-km detour to Gobernador Gregores in search of gasoline and found none there, thus wasting time and gasoline. Fortunately, they stayed at Estancia La Oriental, in Parque Nacional Perito Moreno (no relation to the town of Perito Moreno which is much farther north, nor to the Perito Moreno glacier which is much farther south) and the estancia sells gas to its guests in need.