Driving over Paso Abra del Acay on Ruta 40 in Argentina was “Reggie’s” first test of altitude in two years. Luckily for us today was a good day!
Being the highest point on Argentina’s national Ruta 40 and with an altitude of 4,972 meters (16,312ft), it was a dream really. I always had it in my head that we would travel this route meandering across the high Andes with not a care in the world. The anticipation of getting there was very high, would Reggie, our 1995 Range Rover Classic, make it? Would we make it? Would the lack of oxygen force us to turn back? Well we found out in a grand way just how amazing, beautiful and thrilling driving over Abra del Acay can be.
Many of the passes over the Andes are very rugged, high in altitude, remote and at times the roads can be very bad. In good conditions Abra del Acay can be crossed in any vehicle but there are times during the year that you must have a high-clearance four wheel drive, and in winter forget it.
Driving at altitude can be a challenge not only for a human but also for our diesel-equipped Reggie, or so we thought. It was a gorgeous day, the sun was shining, and the sky was that amazing deep blue. The last town we encountered was Payogasta, a small village in a landscape much like Arizona, with low vegetation and the occasional cactus. As we continued towards our nemesis the road started to become more inclined and a bit more harsh. Being used to corrugations we didn’t think much about it until things started to dance around inside the vehicle to the beat of the road instead of the music we had on. We were really seeing the Argentinian financial crisis on the roads during this trip, and today kept that thought going. The financial crisis of 2008 is still hitting hard and even more so on the remote roads and villages.
Working our way towards the summit we were loving the scenery and the lack of people, we haven’t seen a single person since we left Payogasta five hours ago. We really like that feeling of being the only two people on earth - we enjoyed that a lot in Australia and now that feeling was returning. It was starting to get dark so we decided to stop for the night and found a great place to pull out around 3500 meters (11,482 feet). The valley we were in was amazing and it was quiet, very quiet. The next morning we awoke after a pretty cold night and started off towards the top. Reggie was doing great! After about an hour I glanced at the altitude and we were getting there, around 4200 meters and thought “no problem”! On we went without a worry, doing a steady 30mph, bouncing, dodging, and weaving through the mine field of holes and rocks in the road. Once or twice we hit a “big one” as we call them and Shannon smacked her head on the b-pillar and gave me that look like I had something to do with it, but we laughed and kept on track. We kept watching the altimeter tick up all the while watching the amazing views presenting themselves for us, just us - this view at this time was here and we were the only ones enjoying it - amazing. Shannon yelled for me to stop and I thought in my head, whats wrong? Nope, just wanted to stop and take a picture, again. After I stopped and looked I realized that she did have me stop at the perfect spot - I would have missed it, paying more attention to the road. Thank God I have a partner to wake me up every once in a while so I don’t miss these amazing views. When it was time to move on Reggie fired right up, I put him in gear and we pulled away like a wounded dog. Reggie coughed black smoke and just clawed forward until that turbo kicked in and then off we went - that was a different feeling. I looked at the altitude and realized we were now at about 4600 meters (15,091ft) - far higher than we have ever been. This is what driving in high altitudes feels like, I thought, well thank heaven for turbos. We had to laugh again as we just kept climbing higher and higher!
We had another 400 meters to go until the summit and now we knew we could do it. Finally we rounded a small corner and there in the distance was a small rock pile by the side of the road and a sign. When we arrived there we saw the altitude carved into the sign: 4895 meters (16,060ft). It took about two minutes for me to say “wait a minute” - our altimeter is either wrong or the sign is wrong. I walked back to Reggie and sure enough the altitude we showed was 4980 meters (16,371ft), and thats a big difference. It turns out that the sign is old, and incorrect, but it was left there. It doesn’t look like they think a new sign is too important, and I would have to agree.
It took a bit of work to get here, and we now believe in Reggie’s driving abilities even more strongly, and the pass has been stunning. What an amazing tribute to such a magical place - we couldn’t have had it any better. After about an hour snapping picts and selfies we decided it was time to continue down the other side and to our amazement the best was still ahead of us!