"Two-foot driving," called out Jim Swett, Camel Trophy veteran and Land Rover driving instructor. "Left foot on the brake, and gently squeeze the throttle with your right foot." Following this verbal instruction, Swett's hand signals directed me first to steer left, then a little more left. Next came the edict to steer right; and, finally, a sequence of squeezed fingers along with a downward motion of his arms, helped me to guide the nearly 3-ton Land Rover to the bottom of a rugged and steep rock face. Now, switching this 4x4's Terrain Response system from rockcrawl to sand mode, I played follow-the-leader through a deep sand wash that snaked in and out of a redrock canyon that stretched high above to an indigo-colored sky.
We were now two days and mucho kilometers along some of the hot, dusty trails in northwestern Argentina on a quest to drive a passel of Land Rovers along sections of the legendary Ruta 40 across the highest roadway on the South American continent. Our model was the diesel variant of the midsized LR3. Outsidem of North America, it is known as the Discovery 3, with the popular diesel version marketed in many countries around the globe. Good news now comes to the U.S., as we will get a version of this diesel model in 2009.
We were on a five-day adventure joining in the Argentina "Road to the Clouds" trip, which is now one of Land Rover's Experience program locations, open to clients throughout the world. The ever-changing landscape we were motoring through looked like patches of Utah, Arizona, northern California, and even the Baja, as the terrain morphed from vineyards to sand dunes, rock formations to endless fields of cactus, with the magnificent peaks of the Andes forming the backdrop.
Our group was a collection of auto writers from the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and Uruguay. Meeting at the airport in Buenos Aries, we took a flight on a northwesterly vector across the Andes in a Lilliputian 18-seater aircraft that bobbed about like a bass plug on wind-whipped waters. It was a great way to connect with some wellknown -along with a few new- colleagues, in a Survivor-like task that had us supping on local delectables and hydrating for our upcoming high-altitudepass adventure, while bonding around the fact that there was no bathroom onboard.
After three hours of white-knuckle air travel, the change in pitch in the engines' sound signaled that we had arrived in the Calchaqui Valley, in the northwest region of Argentina, known for its natural beauty, wine growing, and archeological sites. At first, it seemed impossible that we would survive the landing, as our dual-prop dove straight toward a small patch of tobaccocolored dirt, like a hawk zeroing in on its prey. To heighten the excitement, we could see the flashing lights of fire engines on stand-by that punctuated our airstrip arrival. Suddenly, the dirt opened to a paltry patch of tarmac and we bumped to a stop, and saw the happy faces of the staff that represent this British adventure brand welcoming us to the small city of Cafayate, situated in the mile-high "Enchanted Valley."
True to Land Rover form, we were sent pretrip reading material to help us learn about the region's archeological sites and settlements, such as the hillside ruins of a pre-Columbian fortress in Quilmes, a ruined city that hails as one of the most important archeological sites in Argentina -although many Argentines associate the name with a well-known lager. Also, of note, are the pre-Columbian rock-art sites and fossils of the Parque Nacional Talampaya, and the deep canyons of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Quebrada de Humahuaca. And, upon our arrival in the area, there were field trips offered by Land Rover staff to see the nearby natural and man-made wonders.
After an overnight stay at the Patios de Cafayate Hotel, a spa for the ber-rich (this is a Land Rover trip, after all), our caravan of vehicles began its journey northward toward the mountain pass, Abra del Acay, the world's highest suitable roadway for vehicles. Motoring through twisting canyons, across waterways, and crawling up and down huge boulders and vertical cliff faces, we followed the hand signals of our guides and soon grew trusting of the vehicle's electronics.
We drove along a variety of surfaces ranging from pavement to 4WD farm tracks, using the best terrain and tracks for the season, and following Tread Lightly! guidelines. Leaving the main routes of travel as often as we could, we engaged low-range and began to experience this SUV's trick technology that allows you to select for a variety of different driving conditions, with a general driving program; one for slick and slippery surroundings, or grass/gravel/snow; and three distinctive off-road modes-mud and ruts, sand, and rockcrawl. Smarter than a Baja Trophy Truck racer, Terrain Response controls the locking and unlocking of differentials; ride height; throttle and gearshift response; braking of select wheels; and Hill Descent Control limits downhill travel to 2.5 mph, all with the twist of a knob or the push of a button.
This collection of vehicles-and the staff that drove them-was a comfort throughout, but particularly as our second day of travel came to a close, deep in the pockets of the backcountry near Colome, where we set up individual tents and gathered as a group under a panorama of twinkling stars. True to Land Rover form, our cadre of canvas tents contained thoughtful and well-appointed washrooms, a dining area with linen-clothed tables, as well as a collection of locals cooking a gastronomical potpourri of meats over an open fire, others strumming Spanish guitars and crooning, and a gaucho horse whisperer to entertain us after our meal's end. At the close of the evening, the cooking of s'mores around a bonfire was them cross-cultural equalizer.
Day three was the centerpiece of the trip, the slow and carefully timed approach to ascending Abra El Acay, with its 16,310-foot-high pass, along the legendary Ruta 40. Our drive was along a nearly 200-mile segment of this spectacular route in the Northwest Andean region- home to the amazing engineering feat, El Tren a las Nubes (The Train in the Clouds). Knowing that altitude sickness could come on quickly and cripple even the healthiest of travelers, Land Rover's staff slowed our pace to accommodate some degree of acclimation, visiting the towns of Molinos, Cachi, and La Poma,on our way up to the top of the Andes. Despite that, two members of our group were escorted ahead to Salta when they showed signs of distress at an altitude of merely 10,000 feet.
We now continued our journey eastward and skyward, traveling through landscapes with snow holes appearing and disappearing as the dirt track hugged and zigzagged the mountain's face. It was here that our diesel-powered vehicles showed their duality. Prized in many other markets throughout the world for their fuel economy, but not yet engineered to meet the stringent emissions requirements of the U.S., we appreciated the boulder-pulling torque of the LR3's 2.7L turbodiesel V-6 that carried us and our gear along our route with ease. However, not surprisingly, the LR3s needed to be motivated by a light-but-steady throttle foot and geared down fully for slow-speed travel in the high elevations, where the diesel's abilities are compromised by some 30 to 50 percent as a result of the lack of oxygen. This high-pressure "common rail" unit uses variable geometry turbocharging that produces 190 brake horsepower and 325 lb-ft of torque and now has new technical advances including its CGI(compacted graphite/iron) block, which is lighter, stiffer, and more durable than conventional cast iron.
Our stay at what felt like the top of the world was brief. Stepping out of our vehicles to lay claim to the "I've been here" photo with the Abra El Acay summit sign-16,000 feet above sea level-we were whipped by fierce winds and caught off-guard by the incredibly thin air, but captivated by the panoramic vista that opened up hundreds of miles to every direction. Quickly on our way again, we descended to the remote mining town of San Antonio de los Cobres, one of the highest points in the Argentinean plateau, located at an elevation of 12,500 feet, near the La Polvorilla Viaduct, a majestic rail bridge of the Train to the Clouds. We tucked into a local hostel, where those of our group that were well-oxygenated enjoyed another display of wonderful food, while a smallnumber of our members were relegated to stay prone, inhaling oxygen, provided by the medical staff.
Day Four found us now tacking in a southerly direction, driving along paved roadways, as well as traversing an offpavement stretch of trail for more technical four-wheeling, before settling in to an overnight at a modern-day hotel, in the bustling city of Salta.
Our final day in Argentina brought us back together again on the 18-seater for another three-hour flight to Buenos Aires, but this time we were a seasoned covey of adventurers, bonded by the places our Land Rover vehicles had taken us and trained in the manners of true backcountry driving.
Outside of Argentina, few seem to know about legendary Ruta 40. The route was made famous by Ernesto "Che" Guevara's The Motorcycle Diaries, his youthful account of a year-long motorcycle journey down Latin America on a road that snakes more than 3,000 miles along the foot of the Andes, north to south. Ruta Nacional 40 begins at the northern border with Bolivia and continues all the way to Cabo Virgenes in the south, making it one of the longest roadways in the Americas, and one of the most scenically spectacular, as it travels from desertlike salt flats to snowy heights. If Ruta 40 is followed along its entire course, 13 lakes, 236 bridges, and 18 major waterways would be encountered, not to mention 20 national parks, protecting important archaeological sites, and natural geologic formations.
An enchanting 200-mile segment of Ruta 40 can be found in the Northwest Andean region-home to the amazing Tren a las Nubes (Train in the Clouds). Incredibly, this train zigzags 2.5 miles (13,716 feet) up the Andes. Hence, when it crosses the La Polvorilla viaduct (226 feet high and 882 feet long) at its highest point, it actually goes through misty, white clouds. And as travelers on Ruta 40 go through the Abra del Acay mountain pass, many find themselves slightly out of breath at 13,385 feet as well (our drive across the top of the pass was another 3,000 feet higher!). Undertaken by the administration of Hiplito Irigoyen as an economic engine to bring the remote region out of poverty and isolation, the public works project, engineering, and railway marvel employed thousands of workers in 1921.
Making this leg of Ruta 40 especially pleasurable are several welcoming cities, such as Salta, where the Train to the Clouds starts its journey up the mountains, until finally ending 100 miles away in San Antonio de los Cobres, one of the highest points in the Argentinian puna (plateau). Salta is also known for its picturesque colonial buildings, impressive Cathedral, numerous statutes, delicious empanadas, and its friendly town plaza. Other cities along the route include Quilmes, named for indigenous people who built it; Cafayate, celebrated for its highaltitude wines; and La Poma with its beautiful homes.
If You Go
Land Rover Experience: Land Rover offers events, such as the Road to the Clouds: Argentina Experience, for clients throughout the world, with adventures on many different continents. This brand also has three driving schools in North America. For further information, go to www.landrover. com, or visit a Land Rover dealer near you.