MINI Road Trip Day Eight: We find Argentina's best road

Updated: 
Andes trail
Blackball Media

If Argentina was saving its best hand for one final flush, today's events can well and truly be classed as a royal.

I've been on the road for seven days now, each one of which has ended with an attempt to put the events, the sights, the Lord of the Rings backdrops into some form of words. I can't help but feel I've totally and utterly under-delivered.

There simply aren't enough adjectives in the dictionary to describe the hidden jewels this beautiful South American country has been shielding from the rest of the world.

Yes, Argentina and Blighty might have form, and yes that form might still be simmering ever so close to the boil, thanks to recent exploits on Top Gear, but I can assure you every single person I've met has been nothing but utterly charming. These are amazing people, living in an amazing place.

We left the tiny conurbation of Tolar Grande, nestled in the bosom of the Andes at 3,600m this morning after a sweet cake and coffee breakfast to head north on to the Antoplato.

MINI Road Trip: Day Eight

MINI Road Trip: Day Eight


We rolled out in convoy into a Californian-like mountain range, all bubbling sandy rock, rolling like waves into the distance. Our 15 MINI Countrymans spread out like toy cars in God's own playground, sending huge plumes into the sky like jets taking off on a wet runway.

The track was sandy slate, battered for years by hoof and rubber. Deserted, desolate and stark, we plunged into a canyon that could have been plucked straight from Mars. The trail dipped and switched between huge rock formations, penetrating up from the ground. It was other-worldy, like a computer screen saver you swore was CGI, but now realise is real.

If the road had been paved, I'd have been in heaven. Tight twisting turns down the side of the clay rocks on a trail a giant had palette knifed into the contours of the cliff.

Our MINI tackled the track in full attack mode and as Satsuma orange dust turned to White Cliffs of Dover chalk we started to enjoy our Countryman's four wheel drive. Wheel skipping in my hands, back end loose and floating I fishtailed my way towards a lunch stop in San Antonio de los Cobres.

I eat my first salad in days (even the beetroot, and I hate beetroot) and watch the high altitude winds whip clouds into cotton like streaks across the sky. A small boy with a baby llama walks over and offers a picture for two pesos (less than £1). I like his style, and his llama, so pay up.

The afternoon's route is aiming for a huge "salar", or salt flat. Unlike yesterday's, this one could be driven on. It's thick salty surface deep, crisp and hard - more than capable of affording us some fun.

The road there is long and horrendously dusty. In convoy it's lethal, a total white out, even huge anti-ice road truckers come out of nowhere, like oil tankers in the fog. It's scary stuff. We slow down to let the dust settle, but not enough. When we pull up for the group picture the Germans point at our tyre and laugh. It had finally succumbed to the battering.

I've no idea how long the Countryman's run flat tyre had been deflated - we didn't get a warning and the loose gravel masked the lack of handling. When we removed it the rear of the rubber was slashed to pieces. Around 10 holes peppered the circumference of the Bridgestone, all big enough to get a finger in. Scary.

Tyre changed, I ticked a box on the to-do list as I rolled onto the Salmos Grandes salt flat. Stretching for around 50km, its retina-ruining white stretches rolled out until they meet the clouds in the sky, only the distant Andes peaks of Talao give any sense of scale. Group picture bagged, we drive off in a 15-car wide line, all smiles and cameras. As an end piece, it was pretty special.



But then Argentina had one last card up her sleeve. The route from the salt flats to the final stop was quite simply the best road I've ever driven in my life. Part of route 52, the small bends on the map were in fact code for South America's winning hand in a game of trumps with Italy's Stelvio Pass.

We descend 2,000 metres in 30 glorious minutes. Tyres squeal on hairpin after hairpin, as we drop deeper and deeper into the valley. Corners are tight and well surfaced, the asphalt road works fresh.

I laugh like a mad man, my driving partner simply clings on and lets me get on with it. This was our MINI's swan song, an encore to the most epic of drives, a reward for a week on the rough. Engine stretched, brakes burning, rubber frying-pan hot, we park up at the last stop before we start two days of air travel home.

I can't help but give our little MINI a pat. What this little machine - on road tyres - has achieved this week is truly remarkable. If we'd been alone I'd have billed it a freak, but parked up next to it are 15 others. All equally – and incredibly – intact. Fair play MINI, fair play.