Everyone thinks they come from a small town. Even those in New York City believe they come from a small town. It’s just what happens when you know every road and recognise every face.
Los Antiguos, found on Ruta Nacional 40, the road running down Argentina’s Andean spine, really is a small town. Apart from the visitor centre and orange town hall, the buildings are single story and you can walk from one corner to another within 10 minutes. When I arrived, the main street was rammed with bicycles, the medals from an earlier cycle race being rewarded. Three girls caught my eye. Marie Rodriguez (top left), Julia Sandro (top centre) and Pilar Fischer (top right) were standing by the finish line holding a checkered flag. We started talking and soon we are walking through the town.
“There is nothing to do here,” says Pilar with the elongated tone of a girl bored of her surroundings. “When something like this race happens, it is exciting.”
“I don’t like cycling,” says Julia. “But it gives us something to do.”
The town’s main industry is cherry farming and apart from a few shops, the town is residential and the shore by Lagos Buenos Aires is occupied with fancy hotels.
“Nobody comes here,” says Marie, speaking for the first time. “The only tourists who do are pausing the journey to El Chalten or Bariloche or they want to see the cave in Perito Moreno.
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“It’s funny when they turn up looking for the glacier and meet a boring town.”
There are two Perito Morenos in Patagonia. The famous glacier in El Calafate and the dead-end town that is home to Cueva de Los Manos (The Cave of Hands). All three girls work in local travel agencies and speak strong English. They could move to bigger towns and find better-paid work.
“It’s too expensive at the moment,” says Julia. “I know a girl who has moved to El Chalten from Buenos Aires only to work in a camping shop, and she can’t live in the town. She and the locals who work there have to live kilometres away .”
Tourists use El Chalten as a base camp for exploring the Los Glaciares National Park and have turned the town into hiking equivalent of a ski resort, filled with aprés-hiking bars, hotels and inflated prices. Argentina is generally expensive, but in the popular Patagonia tourist towns a small pasta dish will plunder your wallet.
“We have better wi-fi,” says Pilar waving and greeting most of the people we walk past. “Tinder isn’t the best when you’ve either dated the boy or your friend has.”
We can still have fun. We can still get drunk!
“And the centre of our town is changing,” says Marie as we pass a slate water fountain in surrounded by wooden huts echoing the Swiss Alps, a nice tip of the hat the early Swiss colonists who settled in west Patagonia.
“For somewhere little, it is flourishing,” says Julia. We reach the end of the main street and the buildings become tall trees. We walk along the road. Marie whispers into Julia’s ear and she laughs. The ladies exchange something in Spanish, giggling as they walk. On the left of the road is a campsite. It is decided we should cut through the tents and cut out the corner. I follow when I’m approached by a group of kids who ask for a picture.
“They’re not used to seeing a gringo,” laughs Pilar as she snaps the moment on a phone that belonged to one of the children. We push through the bushes surrounding the campsite and appear onto the long road that stretches along the edge of the lake. The sun is beginning to set as we wander past the lakeside hotel and villas. A jetty reaches out towards the centre of a massive lake and two lovers are entwined at the end. Out on the lake, kayakers are having one last paddle before the light vanishes.
“We can still have fun,” says Pilar. “We can still get drunk!”
“Not too drunk,” says Marie, confirming my suspicions that she is the mum of the group.
“Maybe a bottle of wine,” says Julia.
More images from the towns along Ruta 40: