As the wheels roll it’s about 100 miles from Mendoza to the Chilean border, but that’s only the short of it.

Andes Mountains near Mendoza, Argentina

Most of the serpentine route winds upward into the Andes, sometimes for miles at a time behind a semi truck or tour bus, and on the way it passes through several micro-climates and a thousand or so years of human history.  Even now in the heart of the Argentine summer there is snow on every peak in sight at the far end of the trip and a couple of the waystations resume their real lives as ski lodges every winter.  There you can stop for coffee and a hot meal, purchase bottles of Malbec or boxes of chocolates made in local villages along the route, or collect campy souvenirs.

The trip starts out feeling like the westward drive from Northern California or the state of Washington; the first vineyards appear within twenty minutes or so.  In fifteen minutes more, though, they give way abruptly to an arid landscape in which grows only sagebrush and wisps of desert grasses.  Later in the trip lichens and button-sized flowers  join this minimalist botanical garden and in a few small, fertile valleys oases of trees briefly appear, but these are not your Doug-fir-and-redwoods kind of mountains.

Here the earth is laid open in great, tilted slabs.  Sometimes it is stratified like slices of a giant layer cake and sometimes it lies congealed like icing dripped down its slides, but everywhere it is awe-inspiring in its grand scope.  Here primeval, molten earth is set in stone as a palette of  ochre and basalt and teal.  Where aeons of erosion have dissolved it into flake and silt, the cracks and crags and crevices are filled in smooth with a rainbow array of watercolor streaks.  Boulders ranging in size from refrigerator to boxcar litter the landscape, sometimes interrupted mid-slope in their rolling fall and elsewhere littered in mounds at the mountain’s base.

Bridge used to pass into Peru by liberator José de San Martín

A third or more of the way to the border a section of the old highway makes an off-road loop.  I follow it to the remnants of a stone bridge built across a tributary of the Rio Mendoza in 1817 by the army of General José de San Martin as his army, fresh from the liberation of Argentina from the Spanish, went on to liberate Chile and much of Peru.

Two-thirds of the way I encounter along the roadside clustered sheds and lean-tos of a bazaar from which hang brightly colored blankets and clothing in native patterns.

The work of artisans in leather and wood and silver and glass is displayed among them upon dozens of tables, but at the first I see everyday objects like running shoes that look as if they have been wetted and dipped in mustard-colored sand.

Shoes calcified by the hot springs, El Puente de los Incas, Andes

Just beyond the tables and booths lies a giant crevasse split by a stream, and from a building perched on the opposite side giant, fantastic shapes in the same color seem to drip into the water below, streaked also with white and pink and gold.  It is a hot spring, and the molten shapes are mineral deposits laid down over the centuries.  The running shoe sculptures that first greeted me have been suspended in their water until covered by petrified mineral shells.

El Puente de los Incas, Andes Mountains near Mendoza

This place was known to the Spaniards and long before them regularly visited by the Incas in their western-most travels.  It is in fact called El Puente de los Incas: Inca Point.  Ruins on the opposite side in the shadow of the mountain beyond are the remains of a modern spa crushed in 1971 by a landslide.

A railroad once ran alongside the river back in the day when Butch and Sundance were robbing banks to the north in Bolivia, but now only its skeleton tracks and decaying bridges remain, crisscrossing the road carrying the busses and semis and cars  that have replaced it.  Fallen timbers and rockpile foundations of  long-gone depots and coaling stations punctuate the tracks.  In places the split ends of rails curve upward like coiled springs sprung.  In others they lie draped like melted strands over gullies where wooden bridges have long ago decayed or their timber has been pilfered.  Decades of falling rock have in some places obliterated the railbed with piles of stone and in others made swiss chees of corrugated iron rock-fall shields as if in some giant shooting gallery.

Abaondone rail terminal at Chilean-Argentinian border

At Las Cuevas, the last station before the Chilean border, a faded sign at a long-closed customs station whispers “Bienvenido a Argentina.”

The new highway border station looks a lot like a toll-booth, and this is the place to turn around unless you’re going on to Santiago, Chile.  Even as a non-stop drive the trip back feels long, but it’s a one-of-a-kind that can be experienced no other way.  To come this far and miss it is to leave an important page missing in your catalogue of the Argentine experience.