I’ve been traveling to the Tour de San Luis for three years, and sometimes I still wonder why. Like Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, San Luis province doesn’t bowl you over with its exotic nature. Buenos Aires, in term terms of sheer beauty, cannot compare with say Rio de Janeiro, its Brazilian neighbor. But there’s an undeniable mystery to the city that instills itself over time. That same mystery stretches all the way to modest San Luis.

Words/images: James Startt

Perhaps it’s the incessant heat that blanket the Argentinian landscape, one that instills a certain poetry into the pace of day-to-day life. Time is virtually suspended in San Luis, and this timelessness is part of its charm.

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Then there is what can only be described as a touch of Cuba in the heart of Argentina. Like the Caribbean island, San Luis boasts an inordinate number of vintage cars. Here, 1960s’ Ford Falcons are a cherished possession, much like the mythic Fiat Cinquecento. Most are far from collectible. No, such vehicles—apparently indestructible—remain a standard means of transportation, and can be seen gently snaking along the country roads. They may struggle to keep pace with the increasing number of modern vehicles, but they constitute an integral part of the funky fabric that is San Luis.

Founded in the 16th century, San Luis sits in the center of Argentina, due east of Buenos Aires on the road to Chile. Germans and English once migrated here to exploit the land’s wealth of minerals, and they were joined by large numbers of Italians in the 20th century.

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In recent years, the region has banked on hosting major international events to continue to attract visitors. San Luis was a candidate for the 2017 Pan American Games and the Dakar car rally frequently blasts through the region on the way to its final destination. The region has also hosted international film festivals and chess tournaments. And every year the streets of San Luis close down as the locals welcome the Carnaval from Rio de Janeiro. But for the past 10 years the Tour de San Luis has undoubtedly been the region’s main attraction.

Here, every January, many of the world’s top professionals start their seasons, preferring this race to Australia’s UCI WorldTour event, the Tour Down Under. The summer heat of Argentina attracts riders such as Vicenzo Nibali, Peter Sagan, Mark Cavendish and Nairo Quintana. “This is a good place to start the season,” world champ Sagan said before the start of the 2016 edition. “The weather is good. The peloton is not crazy and there is not so much pressure.”

A wealth of flat, arid roads is ideal for building base miles, while a diverse selection of mountain climbs that shoot up from the plains provides the perfect testing ground for riders looking to push themselves. That same terrain is ideal for hiking, rock climbing and hang gliding. And no visit is complete without seeing the Sierra de la Quijadas National Park. In the heart of this breathtaking red-rock mountain range, visitors can stumble across well-preserved dinosaur footprints.

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But, really, more than any of the sites or events, the best reason to visit San Luis is its conviviality. Life moves slowly here in the heart of Argentina, but it is often accompanied by a gentle smile. And while San Luis may not be an international destination on its own, it is an ideal stopping point on any South American road trip.

From issue 51. Buy it here.