Preamble: what follows is a first-hand account from our friend Willy – most of you will know him as Dandy Driver – (and, frankly, if you do not know Willy as yet, it’s high-time you discover him) latest road-trip…. enjoy it as much as we did, especially as it is so reminiscent of the TC mad rallyes from yesteryear…
Memories of the Ruta 40.
For years, I dreamed of touring route 40, one of the longest routes in the world, going from La Quiaca, a city in the Argentine north just across from the Bolivian border all the way to Ushuaia, called by some ‘the world’s end’.
Route 40 is 5,080 kilometres long, crosses 21 national parks and 18 major rivers. To better picture this, if we drew a line of the same length on the map of Europe, it would go from Lisbon to the Siberian mountains. It also connects 27 mountain range passes and climbs to 4,895 meters above sea level.
Another dream was to tour the route, but in a “baquet”. What is a “baquet”? It is the typical Argentine racer of the 1930’s. Most of them were American engines built into light racing cars, ideal for dirt roads, which still abound in Argentina.
To infinity and beyond.
The day to make that dream come true arrived: me and three friends boarded a flight to Jujuy, where we were received by the truck that had carried our two baquets: a 1932 8-cylinder Buick for my friends Patricio Raitzin and Javier Busto, and a 1929 6-cylinder Dodge for us, brothers Estanislao and Willy Iacona. The cars were furnished with the light, basic equipment we could take on our trip. It was mostly survival gear in case we were stranded in the desert: a tent, sleeping bags, thermal blankets, tools and water.
We left San Salvador de Jujuy, heading north, with the idea of driving up to La Quiaca, so as to start our journey from there the following day. However, only a few kilometres away, the first malfunction appeared: the rotor of the Buick’s electronic distributor, made of plastic, broke into pieces and Patricio was not carrying a spare part since his mechanic had told him it wasn’t necessary. Once we understood this, we had no choice but to stick the pieces back together in order to continue. So I towed them several kilometers up to Purmamarca. There, we found a modest garage that lent us a tin welder we used to join the plastic pieces. See the pictures to understand the beautiful craft that, once in its place, made the 8 cylinders roar again, and with this repair it worked without further troubles for the rest of the 2,100-kilometer first stage.
The delay forced us to stop for the night in Humahuaca, a town in the Argentine north famous for its joyful and intense carnival and for altitude sickness suffered by visitors, including us. We were only able to overcome it when we left the following day. To avoid the effects of altitude, the inhabitants usually chew coca leaves during the entire day. Thank you, but no, thank you for us.
Stage 1 La Quiaca – Cusi Cusi
The following day, after posing by a “Route 40” sign in La Quiaca where all the travelers post their stickers, we set off on our adventure. The spectacular gravel road led us to Cusi Cusi with its “Valle de la Luna”, passing through places that seem from another planet, such as Quebrada de Paicone.
In Cusi Cusi we stayed at a small, modest hotel made of adobe, where we occupied 4 of the 6 beds available, and Ms. Soledad served us llama and quinoa stew.
We got up and, after a quick coffee, Patricio found out that my car had a broken suspension spring (see picture). The solution came from Don Bernardo, a kind man who, in addition to selling firewood and fuel cans, acts as the town’s tire repair shop and garage. He suggested we fix the spring with wire and tire rubber, and after we did, the racer was ready to go. Following other repairs and further delays, we left close to noon. We had 350 kilometers of gravel and difficult roads ahead up to San Antonio de los Cobres.
Stage 2 Cusi Cusi – San Antonio de los Cobres
The stage to San Antonio is also full of incredible landscapes, flora and fauna. One travels through infinite vastness, total silence, and with an intense feeling of absolute freedom. That’s how amazing the landscape is. And we started off so late that it got dark on the road when we still had another 100 kilometers or so to go, which meant, at the slow dusty mountain road pace, two long hours. Everything was going well until a few kilometers before our destination.
We were passing below one of the highest bridges of the famous Train to the Clouds, when I noticed I could not see our friends’ car anymore, who had been following some 50 meters behind us. We went back looking for them and found the driver and co-driver seriously concerned: they had heard a mean noise under the hood and then the engine had died.
This seemed to be the end, but when I lay down below the car, I found out that both front engine supports had broken and the engine was leaning on the radiator, miraculously without breaking it. We sighed, relieved, hitched a strap and towed the other baquet to San Antonio de los Cobres, more specifically, to the small but picturesque Portal de los Andes hotel. My brother entered first into the dining room where about 20 guests were having dinner. Upon seeing him dressed in Suixtil overalls, covered in dust, with goggle marks around his eyes and obviously feeling very cold, they fell into dead silence (a dining room in Argentina is as noisy as one in southern Italy). They all stared amazed, and one of them asked me in awe: “How did you get here?” When the car arrived, the windows in the room trembled! Yes, that’s how the 6-cylinder flathead roars.
Stage 3 San Antonio de los Cobres – Cachi
The following day, we turned the hotel parking lot into a garage. David, the hotel manager, called a friend of his who was a mechanic in the area and he came with a welder and some other tools. Applying great ingenuity, we managed to lift the engine, weld the supports almost in their original place and straighten the fan blades and the alternator’s blades so that they worked well despite the noise they made when spinning. By lunch time, the Buick was already on the go and the Doge had had its spring repaired. We had covered only 600 kilometers out of 5,080. We had some excellent “empanadas” (typical pies) for lunch while we discussed whether it was logical to continue on the road or if we’d better wait until the morning. We decided to leave, given that the weather conditions were optimal. Not even a cloud was in the sky.
This phase was the ‘main course’ in the journey: climbing 4,985 meters up to the Abra del Acay. The exact time of departure was 15:05 (that’s what the information on my phone picture indicates) and, after climbing for an hour and a half through wonderful roads, we reached the peak of Route 40: the Abra del Acay, one of the highest navigable mountain range passes in the world. What a place! It is so difficult to describe something as colossal, that not even the photographs can do justice to such an impressive landscape.
We took The Picture, stuck our sticker on the sign of the plus 4,985 and started to descend, with a view as spectacular as the one on the other side of the mountain. We will never forget a stretch of approximately 500 meters, when the road narrows to the point where only one car barely goes through, without spare room, and the abyss right there. You have to drive very slowly, looking straight ahead and remembering that to your left there is a 3,000-meter fall, a swooping mountain at an almost 90-degree angle.
Reaching the end of the descent, we stopped to buy some souvenir crafts from the only family in the entire length of the Acay pass. We crossed some very difficult rivers and arrived in Poma, where we refueled, had something to drink and once again decided to drive through the night up to Cachi. Such beautiful roads, such richness!
Stage 4 Cachi – Santa María
The main attraction of this stage is Quebrada de las Flechas, a geographical feature located in the San Carlos District, in the province of Salta, continuing for some 20 km within the Calchaquí Valleys, from Angastaco to the Calchaquí River. It is another unique landscape that looks like a petrified glacier, but with yellowish, russet and reddish colors which change depending on how the sun hits them.
At that point, no longer in high ground, the cars worked very well, and so did we. That permanent mild headache was gone.
The road crossed several towns, ranging from barren landscapes to valleys that led us to Cafayate, a city famous for its good vineyards. The route was paved there. We reached the amphitheater, a red rock formation in the shape of a large canyon.
After having coffee, we refueled, cleaned the air filters and lubricated the cars (on passing from the dirt road to the paved route, noises can be heard everywhere). We continued the road towards Santa María, where we arrived at night, extremely tired and cold, and we landed at a very bad hotel full of mosquitoes.
Stage 5 Santa María – Villa Unión
This stage took us again along a paved road that crosses the provinces of Catamarca and La Rioja. Some 500 kilometers of very good road that led us through the desert, passing very beautiful and imposing landscapes on both sides, all wilderness, without any type of human intervention other than the rail tracks of an abandoned train which accompanied us throughout a large portion of this path. Many of the rail tracks were in a perfect state of conservation, and we could see their casting seal with the year of manufacture, 1928, the same year of our baquets.
We were able to fully enjoy the cars, which ran very well on the pavement, the clean air with no dust and away from the heights. Without noticing, my brother and I moved away from the Buick and when we got to Chilecito, a man told us that the Buick had had to stop about 20 kilometers behind. When we reached the place, a local man was already towing them to an excellent, well fitted garage where, after several tests, they removed the carter and found that the oil pump pressure regulator had become loose. The task of fixing it required a couple of hours. Though night had settled in, we set off to drive the last 110 kilometers to Villa Unión, crossing the famous Cuesta de Miranda, a very nice winding road but which is best driven through in the daytime. Exhausted by the strain, we finally arrived at the resort, this time a nice, clean and comfortable place.
Stage 6 Villa Unión – Mendoza
This last part of the journey was the most tedious and boring one, after so many different landscapes and dirt roads. It is a long, straight, paved road through the desert, but not in such good conditions as earlier roads, which made driving harder and more tiring.
Without a doubt, the best part of this stage was arriving in Mendoza, where our friends from Autiqcars welcomed us at their garage, inspired in the old Centenario winery. They lodged us in an ancient 1914 house. In the evening there was a party and an “asado” with a lot of guests.
The cars were left in garages, where they are being tuned up to hit the road again in a few days.
And here are some additional photos, for you all to get a real flavor (llama included😂) of the journey…