Those nice people at Land Rover tell white, puffy lies. They gave their exotic Argentina trip the jaunty and adventurous "Road to the Clouds" moniker, but from the moment we step out of the plane, there are few clouds to speak of-plenty wide open, impossibly blue skies, horizon-bending vistas, and the promise of an unforgettable 4x4 expedition to the highest driveable pass in North and South America, sure, but few feathery cirrus or pillowy cumulus clouds.
Truth be told, there doesn't seem to be much in the way of roads, either.
The trip starts with a 33-pound luggage restriction, given the cigar-tube turbo prop we must take out of Buenos Aires. No bathroom on the plane means a fluid-intake restriction, too. When we hit the tarmac just outside of Cafayate, roughly 800 miles north in the province of Salta, we're greeted by a convoy of Land Rover LR3s and a bevy of handlers and guides.
With 12,000 inhabitants, Cafayate is one of the larger cities in the region, but it feels much smaller. Its quaint and quiet city square is bordered by shops, cafes, a church and museum-and is seemingly the lifeblood of the city, after the local vineyards.
Our journey begins in earnest following a restful night at the Patios de Cafayate, an expansive resort on the grounds of the Michel Torino vineyards. The excellent wine and cheese at dinner make it a bit slower start-we're already over 5300 feet above sea level and going to ascend at least twice that elevation in the next few days, so we're reminded to watch our fluid intake: more of the clear stuff, less of the red and white.
We team up in twos and threes, one Land Rover guide riding shotgun, and head into the wild. We're taking Ruta Nacional 40 (Route 40) toward Salta and passing the highest driveable pass in all of the Americas, Abra del Acay.
CAFAYATE TO CAMP COLOME
The dust is different up here: light and fine, like beige talc in the way it clings to pores, hair, and fleece outerwear. It kicks up easily and hangs in the air, making tight mountain passes even more treacherous. On one side there's a sheer drop-off-no guardrail or even an earthen curb providing a barrier to calamity. On the other side, a sloping rock wall meets the dirt road as piles of sharp rocks-drive too close, and you'll rip up the tire sidewalls. Steer too far the other way, and you'll send a tire off the cliff, attached to a 6000-pound SUV. Not that it's stressful; we're comfortably ensconced in Land Rover's latest-the LR3 TDV6 diesel-humming to tunes on the iPod and trying our best to follow the driving instructor's advice.
We pass by one of the highest vineyards in the world and cut through the vintner's massive estancia. He's been nice enough to leave the gate open for us, but there's no time to stop. We've got important business to attend to: pick up some bread for lunch and drop off supplies-both at a local school.
Along the way, we hit water crossings and bash our undercarriages during some gnarly rock-crawling detours-all fully supervised and improvised by the Land Rover staff. Can't ding them for that, as this entire trip is premeditated; if we really wanted to get to our final destination of Salta, we'd hop on Highway 68 and be there in two hours.
Speed is not the point. Land Rover's objective is to let us experience how well its LR3 diesels do off-road at extreme elevations-and we're getting plenty of both. We've been twisting the LR3's Terrain Response knob periodically, thumbing through the five different settings recommended by our guides. By the time we pull into camp, over 8000 feet above sea level, we're beat and ready for our camp-out under the upside-down canopy of southern-hemisphere stars.
CAMP COLOME TO SAN ANTONIO DE LOS COBRES
The glossy guidebook has failed to mention that the rite of spring in Argentina is a lonely affair. Forget the spring of Walt Disney or Animal Planet; though the chill has left the thin Andean air, life apparently hasn't returned to these rugged lands. Aside from some prickly bushes and Joshua trees, a few goats and vicua (think small llama), there seem to be no other living creatures save us and our team of handlers.
They're a motley crew of off-roaders and adventure junkies, mostly former Land Rover G4 or Camel Trophy competitors who travel the world helping with demos and dealer training. These are salt-of-the-earth fellas, all incredibly competent and genuinely friendly-despite having the unenviable task of riding shotgun with us offroad novices. I can't fathom how they're able sit on their hands and quietly suck in through their teeth as we rookies stumble through this spectacularly treacherous terrain.
Head instructor Bob Burns informs us that, for every thousand feet of elevation we ascend, the LR3's 2.7-liter common-rail turbodiesel loses about three percent of its power. By the time we hit the summit of our journey, the LR3's 188 horses will be cut by more than half.
It's already starting to feel sluggish as we begin our assault on Abra del Acay-the highest pass of Ruta 40. Throttle response is wheezy; matting the pedal induces a several-heartbeat delay before the turbo churns faintly and acceleration halfheartedly proceeds. The wait is even longer if you're looking for an automatic downshift.
Yet it doesn't matter: We have torque to spare and are in no rush as we snake back and forth up the switchbacks, looking for signs of life amidst the prickly scrub brush and lunar landscape. Almost everyone in the convoy, human and vehicle, is suffering from the altitude. A few more seriously plagued by altitude sickness have already headed down to Salta via the highway, while the G4 Challenge support LR3s, with their gas V-8s and heavy loads of gear and equipment, are laboring harder than the diesels.
Most of the trip so far has been T-shirt and jeans weather, a slight chill in the shade but springtime warm in the sunlight. At the summit, it's more like being inside a blast chiller-turbulent, loud, and chicken-skin cold. One of the instructors screams that the wind must be blowing at over 60 mph. At least, that's what I think he says.
Despite the wind, the landscape below our feet is magnificent. We're at 16,059 feet above sea level, but it doesn't look that high because all around us are craggy Andean mountains of similar height. It takes the cold, swirling air, and whiter, brighter sun to remind us how high we really are.
A few in our crew are giddy at making it to the top and ignore the warning about running around at altitude. They'll pay for it later, with headaches and oxygen tanks. We pose for some photos and take in the scenery with shallow breaths, before piling back into our LR3s. We're an hour away from our hostel in San Antonio de los Cobres, and there's only about as much daylight left, so we must make a hasty descent. Navigating rock-strewn roads using headlights is no fun.
SAN ANTONIO DE LOS COBRES TO SALTA
Day breaks to the bleating of goats in this railway city of the clouds. Compared with its immediate surroundings, the old borax mining town of San Antonio de los Cobres is not merely a bustling metropolis situated some 12,300 feet above sea level, but an oasis of activity.
The rest of the trip is a breeze after what we've been through. We drop over 8000 feet in our six-hour drive, but the only drama is when the road surface changes from rock to chalk dust. Billowing white clouds limit visibility to only tens of feet, forcing us to hang back and keep an eye out for the oncoming traffic of heavy trucks.
Amid the confusion and narrow streets of Salta, our LR3s seem huge. They do offer advantages: We're high up with great visibility, which provides a preview of the interesting traffic customs. We're secure, too, knowing that few of old local vehicles could do much damage if we did happen to be caught unaware.
We pull into our hotel like conquering heroes, dusty but victorious. We're the last crew to make this journey; over seven back-to-back weeks, Land Rover sent the same set of LR3s up and over Ruta 40 with dozens of different journalists from around the globe. Naturally, our North American crew is the only one to break an LR3-a simple incident of busting a bit of the rear suspension. It's an impressive feat; everyone has made it safely back to civilization with memories of some of Argentina's most breathtaking sights. Well, except for the clouds.
HOW DOES A 6000-POUND SUV AMBLE 16,000 FEET UP THE ANDES?
Quite nicely, thank you, due to several key innovations. First is the engine. Our LR3 TDV6 is powered a 2.7-liter high-pressure common-rail turbodiesel V-6 engine making 188 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of torque. Despite the incredible elevations, our diesel LR3 never fails to get us where we need to go. Near the 16,000-foot summit, throttle response suffers noticeably, but all it takes is a simple mental recalibration to take care of the delay. And at lower elevations, all that torque is more than enough to tackle the serious rock-crawling situations Land Rover has set up for us.
The ease with which we skedaddle through tight crevasses and over steep inclines covered in loose rock is also due in part to Terrain Response, Land Rover's patented traction-control system. We simply turn the chunky rotary dial on the center console to one of five settings recommend by our instructors-general driving, slippery (aka grass/grave/snow), mud and ruts, sand, and rock crawl. Terrain Response does the rest and with little drama.
Terrain Response controls ride height, engine torque response, Hill Descent Control, Electronic Traction Control, as well as transmission and differential settings. Given all of this technology, it's no wonder we spend more time simply enjoying the amazing scenery ahead of us and less time worrying how we'll actually get there.
For 2008, U.S.-market Land Rover LR3s receive some minor interior upgrades. Plans to bring the TDV6 here have yet to be finalized, but we're hearing it could arrive as soon as 2010.