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 Juan.
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, damp air.
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 along?"
Josh Dean writes for Men's Journal, Outside, and Rolling Stone.