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 Ruta 40.
"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 topography.
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 Americans.
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 earth.
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.