A poetic trip up Route 40


With retired builder and part-time poet Don Walterio

Years spent working outdoors in the glare of the Patagonian summer sun and braving icy winter gales have given the elderly man’s wrinkled skin a deep burnished caramel tan.

Doffing his black grandpa cap in my direction, he eases himself down into the cushioned seat beside me on the bus we are to take through the vast, desolate plains of the Argentinian Ruta 40 from the tiny village of Los Antiguos to Bariloche.

With his plaid shirt turned up at the sleeves and a regal-looking deep blue cravat poking out from the top, he has the air of a gaucho, freshly stood down from his faithful steed.

In fact, his name is Don Walterio, I discover, and he is a 73-year-old builder. And part-time poet.

The Don’s quiet charm, mischievous sense of humour and flickering twinkle in his eye suggest if he were to write a book of his life, it would probably be a real page-turner.

The packed bus strains to pick up speed over the tarmac that slices across a massive expanse of uninhabited steppe, smothered with small, bumpy silver and gold-coloured shrubs.


Choiques in Patagonia. Flickr picture courtesy of PabloBD.

Don Walterio offers me a chewy sweet and points out of the window to a large group of long-necked baby choiques (rheas), currently leaving a trail of brown and white fluffy feathers in their wake as they speedily zig-zag across the road ahead.

Leading the escape is the adult male, who raises the chicks of several females while they go off to find another mate.

We chat during the 14-hour journey from the stark southern scrub, where the only other movement besides the jumpy choiques are the equally spooked huanacos who perform Grand National-worthy leaps over wiry fences to escape our noisy metal machine.

Some of them don’t make the jump and at various points we grimace at their pitiful carcasses, left draped over the wooden sticks like an offering to the gods.


Our driver’s red scarf honours Gauchito Gil

My new bus friend is a fount of knowledge. As we trundle along he recounts the legend of Gauchito Gil, a 19th-century Robin Hood-type hero who was murdered and has since become a kind of saint for many inhabitants of the Argentinian provinces.

People continue to leave symbolic red cloths and even bottles of red wine in small shrines at the roadside, as they pray to him for assistance in resisting injustice.

The Don is on his way to a small town over the border in Chile, where the landscape changes dramatically to towering mountains carpeted in the rich green of pine and fir trees, surrounded by fast-paced rivers and deep blue lakes.

Its name is Lonquimay, and he explains that although he moved away with his mother aged just three, when he first returned in 2009 it was ‘like coming home’.

At that point he opens a leather pocket book and carefully extracts a neatly folded single piece of paper, upon which he has written a beautiful décima poem in honour of his birthplace.


View from the Ruta 40 bus

It paints a picture of serpentine rivers, green valleys and trees. He refers to the place as an old friend.

He modestly reveals that he once won a prize for his poetry and is taking this latest composition to see if there is a cultural centre or museum in Lonquimay that might like to have it.

We snooze in our chairs as the thick heat fills the bus and slowly warms up my once-chilled bottle of grapefruit juice to bath water temperature.

In the distance, the outside air has taken on a dark, misty haze, a result of the fine cloud of ash still spewing from Chile’s nearby Puyehue volcano that started spluttering last year.

The bus pulls in with a jolt at the main drag in Bariloche, where locals and tourists bustle past chocolate shops and local breweries perched in front of the calm azure waters of Nahuel Huapi lake, now enshrouded in a purple-pink sunset.

As we step down I ask Don Walterio if he feels like Chile is his real home. He replies: “No, I am in love with Argentina. She is like my girlfriend. People ask why we don’t get married, but we just can’t get the papers in order.”

And with a flash of his grin and another doff of his cap, he is on his way.


Our friend Don Walterio


About travellingtoothbrushes

We are a couple of journalists with restless toothbrushes. Our teeth scrubbers seem unable to leap out of their respective washbags to take up a permanent residency on the bathroom shelf. So, we've decided to let them live the way they want to and take them on a trip around South America...
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