Driving the Andes
Published: April 2009
By Josh Dean
<em>The Motorcycle Diaries</em> proved there's no better place than South America for a free-spirited road trip. We trace Argentina's epic Ruta 40 and find jaw-dropping scenery, pre-Incan ruins, and the country's best <em>chivito</em>
We were somewhere around 9,000 feet when it dawned on me
why the car was struggling. A few miles back I had hit a
gaping hole hard enough that the trunk of the VW hatchback
had popped open. For the next half-hour, I had figured that
was the reason this little four-cylinder was wheezing. But,
no, it wasn't that at all. It was the altitude. For two
hours I had been navigating hairpin turns, watching the
spectacular Argentine countryside fall away as we climbed
ever upward, the wheels kicking up clouds of dust that now
covered every surface inside the car, including those of
its three occupants, myself and two friends.
Back in Salta, the rental-car shop owner had pulled out a
map and highlighted his recommended route for our five-day
trip to Mendoza. His was a meandering, often ridiculously
inconvenient way that stuck entirely to major highways.
"But we want to go out here," I said, pointing at
the green line that marked the dirt of Argentina's hallowed
"No," he responded, pointing back at his highlighted lines.
"This road is good."
And so I smiled, took the map, and headed in the opposite
direction, up over the 10,000-foot Piedra del Molino pass
toward Cachí, where we would pick up Ruta 40 and
begin the long journey south.
Commonly called La Cuarenta, this famed stretch of pavement
and dirt covers more than 3,000 miles from Argentina's
northern border with Bolivia all the way to Cabo Virgenes
in the south. It is one of the longest roads in the
Americas, and along the way it crosses 18 major rivers and
236 bridges, touches 13 lakes and salt flats, and passes by
20 national parks as it follows the spine of the Andes
across all manner of ecosystems and jaw-dropping
The road, though, is largely unknown outside of Argentina.
I was drawn to its mystique: I had read that Che Guevara
traveled down this very highway on his year-long motorcycle
journey through Latin America. I was also eager to sample
the country's famous—and famously
affordable—wines and beef. Though Argentina has
recovered from its 2001 economic collapse, in which the
peso plummeted and citizens took to the streets to demand
the government's ouster, the country is still a bargain for
Starting in Salta, a lovely city at the foot of the eastern
Andes known to Argentines as La Linda (literally, "the
beautiful"), we drove through a stretch of red dirt
littered with darker red rocks, a vista eerily reminiscent
of the lander shots beamed down from Mars. Every half-hour,
it seemed, the landscape would change. Outside
Cachí, the snowcapped Andes appeared at last,
towering 7,000 feet over a plain dotted with saguaro cacti
and signs warning of crossing llamas. Then it was on to the
moon: the dirt turned a pale yellow as we approached the
sandstone formations known as Las Flechas, jagged knives of
brittle rock that stick up from the earth like, well,
arrows, which is how they got their name.
We finally hit pavement at kilometer 1,078 (the markers
count down from Salta to Mendoza, and then start again at
zero as you head farther south), just outside San Carlos,
where we witnessed a sunset unlike any I'd seen—a mix
of bloodred and deep orange and purple-tinged clouds that
made the sky over the town's cathedral look as if it were
on fire. San Carlos is the entrance into an enormous valley
between two ranges; Ruta 40 is straight and smooth here,
surrounded by vineyards that are some of the highest on
The Viñas de Cafayate Wine Resort, hidden by vines
and ringed by mountains, is a mile above the village of
Cafayate. A fireplace crackled off the lobby; we sat down
in front of it and ordered a bottle of the local varietal,
a white called Torrontés de Cafayate that smelled
sweet but was actually dry and crisp. At the hotel's
restaurant, we selected a handful of the menu's oddest
dishes: llama pâté; pacú, a
local river fish served lomo-style (tenderloin);
more llama, this time a loin in a Malbec reduction. Each
dish was excellent, and was even better once I did the
math: the most expensive entrée on the menu was $7.
Less than an hour from Cafayate, just across the border of
the Tucumán province, are the remnants of an
indigenous civilization called Quilmes. Part of the
regional Diaguita/Calchaquí culture, the Quilmes
came under Incan influence in the 15th century and then
fiercely resisted the Spaniards before falling to them in
1667. At its height, in the early 17th century, the Quilmes
tribe numbered nearly 5,000. In the ruin's small museum, we
examined arrowheads and pottery shards; outside we
scrambled over rock walls and peered into the stone houses
built into the cliffs. The sun was high and hot, and to
reach the shrines atop the village's tallest peaks, we had
to hike straight up a trail for 20 minutes. From our perch
we could see additional ruins, hidden by brush, that had
clearly not yet been restored.
Driving south on Ruta 40 the next day, we cruised for hours
through the high desert on an arrow-straight paved stretch
of highway. Our destination was Talampaya, an under-visited
national park sometimes referred to as Argentina's Grand
Canyon. It was here—a place of towering red cliffs
and 2,000-year-old petroglyphs etched in black by
indigenous nomads—that we were tipped off by some
locals to what would be our best meal in Argentina. Our new
friends drew up a crude map that, if I was picking up their
high-speed Spanish correctly, would lead us to the best
And that is how we found ourselves at La Palmera, a
clay-floored restaurant with puma and wolverine skins on
the walls that has no menu and serves just one dish:
chivito, baby goat, a tantalizingly tender meat
cooked a la parrilla in a kitchen that is open to
the elements. Our waiter, a 60-year-old with a huge smile,
brought serving after serving, piled on a single plate that
he refilled and dropped in the center of the table until we
couldn't eat any more. Unlike adult goat, chivito is not gamy but has a rich, buttery flavor reminiscent of
suckling pig. During the course of this authentic
Argentinean feast—10 platters of
chivito—silverware was never offered, and we
did our best to clean off our hands with the thin, waxy
paper napkins you ﬁnd throughout Argentina. It
hardly mattered. Sometimes the most memorable meals are the
ones that you happen upon.
Three bottles of local Malbec, three empanadas, three
salads, three creamy flans and untold baskets of fresh
bread later, we stumbled out having spent just $30. As we
left, we danced with the handful of other patrons, posed
for photos under the wolverine skins, and bought a dozen
beef empanadas for the next day's car snacks. The waiter
also gave us three small bottles of red wine with which to
chase them down. Fortunately we had no driving ahead of
us—our hotel was a few hundred yards away.
The very charm of a road trip is in its unpredictability.
And so, sometime after lunch on day four, we made a
spur-of-the-moment detour. Hanging a right off a long
stretch of smooth pavement, we headed directly toward the
Andean cordillera on Ruta 436. The road pointed straight at
the massive peaks, which were almost completely covered in
snow, and pitched into a narrow sliver between two of them.
There it followed a dry river and climbed steadily upward.
Barreal is a small mountain town in the Calingasta Valley
that sits in the shadow of the Andean peaks Aconcagua and
Mercedario. A farming town known for its garlic, onions,
lavender, and anise, it has forests, lush fields of green,
and air that smells of licorice. After more than three
days' driving through the red and brown semiarid deserts of
northwestern Argentina, it was as if we'd opened a portal
into another world. In Barreal, life was flourishing.
Posada San Eduardo, a smartly restored 19th-century
farmhouse, is owned by Ricardo Zunino, a former Formula One
race-car driver. When we pulled into the driveway, Zunino
emerged wearing boots, a full-brimmed hat, and a quilted
shirt. A cat and two dogs trotted out behind him; birds
chirped from the nearby apple orchards. After inheriting
the property from his parents, Zunino gave up the fast life
in Europe and retired to Barreal to tend to his horses.
It's not hard to see why he chose to stay.
"Here," he said, gesturing at the tiled patio and a small
brick building, "is where we serve breakfast in the
morning. If you like, you can also ride horses. Make
yourself at home."
Maria, the resident cook, housekeeper, and hostess, lit
fires in our rooms' adobe fireplaces, and we settled on the
patio for some dinner. Zunino appeared with a bottle of
Colón Malbec from Mendoza and pointed out the moon
and two extremely bright stars that turned out not to be
stars at all. Jupiter and Venus were in perfect alignment
with the moon, something that happens only once every 28
years. The skies here are so clear that two major
observatories have been built in the hills looming over
Barreal to the east.
The region is also, we learned at breakfast, a violent
seismic area. As I finished off the last of our
medialunas (croissants), the one constant of all
breakfasts in Argentina, the patio began to rumble. It went
on that way for 10 seconds or so, no one paying it any
mind. A server smiled and refilled my coffee. Not even the
dog, lying at our feet, flinched.
Somewhere around San Juan, the vineyards begin to come fast
and furious. This is Mendoza Province, the heart of
Argentina's thriving wine industry, which ranks fifth in
global production. Though we were tempted to turn off at
one of the many wineries, we pressed on. We'd tasted many
fine wines over the past few days, and we had to get to the
city of Mendoza for our flight to Buenos Aires the next
day. Our last hour on Ruta 40 was unremarkable, and we were
feeling melancholy. Adding to the mood was the arrival of
the first clouds we'd seen in days, followed by a soaking
rain that rolled in fast over the semidesert south of San
They say Mendoza has more trees than people, and, as we
drove into town, that seemed about right. It is a
cosmopolitan city speckled with landscaped parks, boasting
wide avenues lined with leafy sycamore and eucalyptus
trees. Our destination, the Park Hyatt Mendoza, faced the
main square, the sprawling Plaza de la Independencia.
Behind its white colonial-style front was a modern hotel
with a slick, red-lit lounge, two high-end restaurants, and
a beautiful palm-shaded pool that steamed in the thick,
That final night, in the hotel's bistro, we met Francis
Mallman. A dashing man in a houndstooth blazer and
well-worn leather boots, he is, it turned out, one of the
country's most famous chefs, a man with restaurants in
Mendoza; Buenos Aires; Punta del Este, Uruguay; and
Westhampton, New York. Francis recommended a Familia
Marguery Malbec and sat down to talk travel. When we
mentioned our trip, he smiled. "Beautiful road, that one,"
he said; he told us of a special that he was planning for
Latin American television. The idea: he would drive Ruta 40
from top to bottom, stopping in towns to sample local
specialties and talk about food.
"So," he said, looking around the table. "Who wants to come
Josh Dean writes for Men's Journal, Outside,
and Rolling Stone.
WHEN TO GO
Argentina's northwest is mostly high desert, and thus mild
and arid. It can get very hot in summer (December to
March). The best seasons are spring (September to November)
and fall (March to May).
Aerolineas Argentinas, the country's national airline,
flies direct from New York and Miami to Buenos Aires, where
there are several daily flights to both Salta and Mendoza.
WHERE TO STAY
Viñas de Cafayate Wine Resort
25 de Mayo Camino al
Divisadero, Cafayate, Salta;54-11/4522-7754;
www.tenriverstenlakes.com; doubles from $80.
Posada San Eduardo
Avda. San Martín and Los Amorados, Barreal;
54-26/ 4844-1046; doubles from $50.
Park Hyatt Mendoza
1124 Chile; 54- 261/441-1234; mendoza.park.hyatt.com/; doubles from $165.
WHERE TO EAT
Ruta 15 (near the intersection with Ruta 40), Villa Unión; no phone; chivito for two $20, including wine.
1188 Belgrano, between Godoy and Cruz, Mendoza; 54-261/424-2698; dinner for two $40.
WHAT TO DO
Parque Nacional Talampaya
34 miles from Villa Unión, Ruta 76; www.talampaya.gov.ar.
30 miles south of Cafayate, km 1001, off Ruta 40; 54-3892/ 421-075.