Maps can be so deceiving!

Last week I completely fell for information I took from several maps. I was in Argentina briefly because my 90 days in Chile were coming to an end and I had to leave the country. With no clear destination (other than coming back to Chile) I spent most of the time around Uspallata, a tourist town in the Andes. The weather was beautiful and warm and the scenery around Uspallata quite stunning. I only had to do go to Mendoza to do some shopping (many things are cheaper in Argentina with the Dolar Blue exchange ).

To get to Mendoza I took the busy Ruta 7, the same way I had driven to Chile in May; to return to Uspallata I decided to take a different route, Ruta 52, marked on my Reise-Know-How maps as a scenic route.

deceiving paper map: Mendoza to Uspallata

Reise-Know-How paper map Mendoza to Uspallata

Things in Mendoza didn’t go to plan again, as I found the “all year open” Camping Suizo closed for the second time (or still!). This had happened to me in May, when I got moved from a park, in the middle of the night with a police escort, to another rather yukky and expensive campground – I won’t go into details. Anyhow, this time I was a bit better prepared and it was a little earlier in the evening, so I drove out of town and slept next to a quiet gravel road I sort of knew about.

Next day I went searching for a supermarket. I first checked my navigation app, Skobbler, which has all sorts of ‘points of interest’ in its database, but it wanted to send me into the town center – not a good idea with a truck, because supermarkets in Latin America often only have enclosed parking. Since I knew that I wanted to leave town along Ruta 52, I marked a spot at the start of it as my next destination in the hope I would find a supermarket along the way. Despite extensive searching up and down some main streets I had no luck, so I finally asked somebody in front of a bakery, who sent me back up the hill to where I had come from. Long story short: I wasted at least one and a half hours searching and ended up at a Walmart – not my preferred choice…

Deceiving: Ruta 7 and 52 - displayed on GPS

Ruta 7 or 52 – displayed on Skobbler GPS map

Deceived by my paper map and my GPS map

I finally left at around 2pm, ready to drive back to Uspallata. This is where I was completely led astray by all maps I have access to: it should have been easy, as it is only a bit over 100 kilometers and I was already in the North of Mendoza where the road begins.

It started rather well: I found Ruta 52, there was little traffic, and the road was made from small, rather bumpy, concrete sections, so I took it slowly and crawled at around 60-70 km/h up a gentle rise, enjoying the sunshine, and thinking “why should I hurry?”.
I had been behind the wheel a lot in recent days, so I was in the mood to stop early, have some rest, and drive the remainder the next day. Unfortunately there wasn’t anything really attractive either side of the road. The landscape was almost flat, with mountains in the distance, and covered fairly densely with low dry scrub. Most of it was also fenced, with no roads going off left or right.

After about 40 minutes, just when I reached the foot of the first hill, I noticed a small gravel patch to the left. I stopped and inspected it but didn’t like it very much because I could only get 10 meters off the road and would be very exposed. It was still early, and I thought there should be something better and cosier ahead in the hills… What a mistake!

Bing Map: deceiving route choices Mendoza to Uspallata

Bing Map: route choices Mendoza to Uspallata; Google maps has a section of 52 missing right outside Mendoza…

You see, from all the information I had, the drive should take around 2 to 3 hours. On maps I had looked at there were no major zigzag lines marked (less than on Ruta 7 to the South), so I expected the road would mostly follow valleys between the mountains, or something like that – easy to drive.

Then the bumpy concrete changed to relatively narrow tar and the incline got steeper. I had to change gears up and down and I encountered a few fairly wide but sharp bends, but nothing major – after all, these are the Andes, so it can’t all be flat. Then it slowly got even steeper and for several sharper bends I had to go another gear down until finally, I didn’t get out of third gear anymore (Berta has five gears). I was in a narrow valley where the sun didn’t penetrate, but still nothing out of the ordinary…

I passed something which looked like a Ranger’s station to my right, but didn’t stop since I was only passing through and my Spanish isn’t that brilliant. And there the tar stopped – turned into gravel. Then I reached the first really narrow hairpin, then a second, then a large gate to a closed hotel in the third. The road got steeper; second gear now. The surface was not all gravel; large sections were bumpy blasted rock surface with corrugations in between. Soon I was almost always in second gear, going maybe 10-15 kilometers an hour, and even slower around the hairpin bends. Sometimes they came one after another, sometimes there was a straight bit in between tempting me to try third gear at around 20-25 km/h – but it never lasted very long.

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17 Responses

  1. Tony LEE says:

    Isn’t this sort of experience why we are bumming around here instead of sitting home on the back patio waiting for the grim reaper to call.

    • Juergen says:

      You’re right! I also hope that my post made it clear that I thoroughly enjoyed the region around Uspallata – only the stress that one evening I could have done without…

  2. Johanna says:

    Yep, I agree with some of the others … go once and tick it off! I would have needed a tranquiliser! I’ve done a few sort of similar drives on mountain passes in Lesotho … as you say, a map can’t always be trusted.

    • Juergen says:

      I’m still not sure if we shouldn’t return, as my lovely wife Yasha wasn’t with me this time (she had to stay behind in Santiago). Time will tell!

  3. Love drives like this. Grew up driving jeeps up and down the old mining and logging roads in Colorado. It can get a bit hair raising, more than once I had a wheel hanging in mid air off the road.

    • Juergen says:

      I would want to have that happen with our truck (wheel hanging in the air), which is also our home! The high point of gravity alone makes this a scary prospect…

  4. Michelle says:

    What an incredible adventure! Your photos are amazing. I never dare drive in other countries (I don’t even like to at home), but I’d love to see what you did on this drive.

  5. WOW; I’m glad you made it OK and didn’t meet any crazy drivers! I really enjoyed following along as you were shifting gears and white-knuckling your steering wheel!!

  6. Leigh says:

    What an exciting drive. But I can feel your anxiety the more I read. I think it’s not knowing how it’s all going to end or work out that is the biggest stress but what scenery!

    • Juergen says:

      That exactly was my main reason to be anxious! That’s why I recommend to leave Mendoza early and take it slowly, which would remove the main pressure and make the drive much more enjoyable…

  7. Yes, maps can be deceiving. I have a few stories, too! But the upside of your experience is that you have turned it into a blog post and now others can be forewarned and perhaps enjoy the same journey. :)

  8. Getting lost can be fun . . . until it isn’t. If it’s any consolation, there are lots of blind spots on the mainland US and on our island of Kawai. Not fun when you’re trying to find a destination by a certain period of time.

  9. Looks like a good place to go only once, cross off the list and enjoy the photos to keep you from returning. How people traveled these roads without a worry is amazing to me. We’ve driven the Miracle Mile in Colorado and considered it a miracle that we got to the end, but then had to drive it again to return to our motel.

  10. I would have needed medication just to be a passenger on this road. When we visited Mendoza, we flew from there to Santiago. The flight doesn’t go up and over the Andes as much as through them. That was scary enough for me.

    • Juergen says:

      I’d think that as a passenger this road can be more of a challenge. You’re not in control of the vehicle, you are sitting for most of the trip on the side where the edge plunges down for several hundred meters, you will concentrate more on the washed out edges and other obstacles ahead… My wife is not sure either if we should repeat this journey with her in the passenger seat ;)

  11. Shelley says:

    Brilliant views but I was holding my breath just reading about the high altitude hairpin turns! Glad you arrived safely.

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