Argentines fondly refer to the RN-40, or Ruta 40, the country’s longest road, as La Cuarenta (The Forty). Stretching from Cabo Vírgenes, the southernmost point of the Argentine mainland, to northernmost Ciénaga, on the Bolivian border, it’s more than just a highway. Like Route 66 in the US, the road has its own ethos – inspiring songs, books and arguments – and is as central to a visit to Argentina as a football match or a milonga.
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By far the best way to approach Ruta 40 is to rent a vehicle and drive yourself – it’s worth investing in a 4WD, even for the paved sections. Special care is required, though, especially further south where strong crosswinds and poorly maintained gravel (ripio) roads make it extremely easy to flip over.
A long and winding road
La Cuarenta runs a staggering 5224km – the distance from Amsterdam to Afghanistan. Partly to make it more attractive for tourists, the road’s itinerary has been changed over the years. Ruta 40 now starts at the ocean at Cabo Vírgenes and winds north through eleven provinces, past twenty national parks and across 24 major rivers, before reaching the altiplano. There it breaks a record: the dizzying Abra de Acay, at 5061m, is the highest point on a national road anywhere in the world. Although sections are relatively busy, notably around Bariloche and between Mendoza and San Juan, most of La Cuarenta runs through Argentina’s magnificent open spaces, seldom more than 100km from the majestic peaks of the Andes. Many visitors are drawn by the road’s rugged mystique – a result of its inaccessibility and frequently poor condition – while others are put off for the same reason. The Argentine government has pledged to pave the entire road, but hasn’t completed the task yet.
South to north: the route
Between a navy lighthouse at Cabo Vírgenes, La Cuarenta’s starting point, and Chos Malal, in Neuquén Province, the road zigzags across the Patagonian steppe, a barren, windswept expanse thickly blanketed with snow during the winter.
North of Neuquén Province, Ruta 40 enters El Cuyo, Argentina’s western midlands. It meanders through La Payunia, in Mendoza Province, a land of rosy lava and ebony gorges, deep karstic caves and flamingo-flecked lagoons, before passing near Laguna Diamante, an all-but-inaccessible lagoon from where you can admire the silhouette of Volcán Maipo. Further north, in La Rioja Province, the road skirts sunny valleys and hugs the Cuesta de Miranda, a serpentine corniche winding through polychrome mountains.
La Cuarenta’s last – and highest – stretch cuts through the historic Northwest. Rippling hills, herds of goats and crumbling adobe houses are typical sights here. For a top-notch poncho, stop off at Belén, in Catamarca – local methods of weaving have been maintained in this highland village since pre-Hispanic times. You’ll also want to stop in Cachi, for a photo of the surrounding snow-topped sierras and valleys. Just before Ruta 40 reaches Bolivia, it is spanned by the mighty La Polvorilla viaduct, a fabulous feat of engineering.