Argentina’s Andean northwest is a wonderland of absolutely epic driving roads. The fun starts in Tucumán province on Ruta Provincial 307: a mad jungle climb of 5512 feet up the Río de los Sosa gorge.
Viewed from the Northern Hemisphere, it is as if Argentina is nothing but weird stellar constellations, Buenos Aires, steak, and killer whales feeding on the beaches of the Valdes Peninsula in the windswept vacation wastelands of Patagonia. However, wedged in between Chile, Bolivia, and Paraguay, Argentina also comes equipped with a large patch of Andean high desert. If you’re looking for the driving trip of a lifetime, forget the penguins and the Buenos Aires–Ushuaia flight: head northwest.
The gateway to this wonderfully diverse region is the sugarcane capital of San Miguel de Tucumán, the birthplace of Argentine independence. It is home to a swarm of disfunctioning ATM’s, bad restaurants, and no fucks to be given about either of these inconveniences, for it is in Tucumán that you can get a car, fill it up, and head for Ruta Provincial 307. A casual glance at Google Maps will give some sense of the fun ahead.
The only dull part is the 20 miles out of town on the Tucumán–Catamarca highway. It’s flat, flat, flat, nothing but boring sugarcane plantations and coked-up sheepdogs, but then you take the exit at Acheral and the fun begins. The road ascends more than a mile over 40 miles of non-stop switchbacks in the steaming, subtropical, impenetrable, almost vertical forest that covers the eastern slopes of the Sierra del Aconquija and through which 307 follows the Río de los Sosa gorge to the mountain resort town of Tafí del Valle, where you can laugh at the postcard-perfect Bavarian scenery which appears out of nowhere at 7,000 feet above sea level, then eat some excellent local artisan salami and cheese.
307 is awesome on the way up, but if you’re lucky enough to catch onto the tail of a fast local driver making his way down to Tucumán and have the mountain driving skills to keep up with his pace, it’s the Nordschleife on steroids, 45 minutes of blissful Hohe-Acht-to-Schwalbenschwanz flow at speeds which bear no particular relation to the posted speed limit. If you can hold on all the way to the Tucumán-Catamarca highway and manage to not die a violent death in the gorge, you will even get a round of applause.
But it’s better to underestimate your skills here because violent death lurks around every corner. In January 1950, a certain 22-year-old Buenos Aires medical student named Ernesto Guevara traveled this road on the first of his many grandiose motorcycle trips across South America, riding a bicycle equipped with a tiny Italian engine. Jon Lee Anderson’s 1997 biography Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life recalls the perils of the Sierra del Aconquija jungle:
Finding himself in a forested region north of Tucumán on the road to Salta, he halted and got off his bike to walk into the dense foliage, and he experienced a kind of rapture at the natural world surrounding him. Afterward he wrote: “I realize that something that was growing inside of me for some time…has matured: and it is the hate of civilization, the absurd image of people moving like locos to the rhythm of that tremendous noise that seems to me like the hateful antithesis of peace.”
Later that same day, he met a motorcyclist riding a brand-new Harley-Davidson, who offered to pull him on a rope. Remembering his recent mishaps, he declined, but he and the motorcyclist shared some coffee before going on their separate ways. A few hours later, arriving in the next town, he saw a truck unloading the same Harley-Davidson and was informed that its driver had been killed. The incident, and his own close escape from the same fate, provoked a new bout of introspection.
Drive safe and enjoy. Next up: the kandy-kolored tangerine-flake journey through the Quebrada de Cafayate.
How to get here?
The easiest way to approach Argentina’s Andean northwest is to book a flight to Buenos Aires, then either take a domestic Aerolínas Argentinas flight or an overnight coach from there to Tucumán. The flight to Buenos Aires will cost a lot of money ($1000 and up), the round trip from Buenos Aires to Tucumán is around $200 by coach and $400 by air. You can rent a car for around $90 a day from franchises of various international agencies in town. Don’t spend the extra bucks on a 4×4: a little front-wheel drive hatch will be perfectly fine.
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Photo Credit: Peter Orosz, Cuban Council of State Office of Historical Affairs