The Andes or the Final Argentine Frontier: Uspallata and Aconcagua

Aconcagua reserve There they were, tantalizing us all throughout these last few days. Tall and proud, like sentinels protecting the precious vineyards in the valley. They’d teased us even more on our little Christmas day drive. Could we go even further, to the very heart of the Andes… to its tallest peak, the mighty Aconcagua? Since we had a little more time in Mendoza having flown there instead of driving the whole way, we actually had two extra days. I could have happily sipped our way through the rest of wine country, but adventure called. When we were looking around for things to do in the Mendoza area not related to wine, the options were actually rather slim. Apparently rafting and going to some hot springs were popular, however, we were in the middle of summer, the river was virtually all dried up and we were hot enough without needed to get even hotter in a bubbly spring. Yet there were a few other mysterious sites that had come up in our googling.

Though we were having trouble finding real information as to how exactly to visit them, there appeared to be some ancient petroglyphs and a few other obscure sites up in the mountains. From the patchy images online, the area up in the mountains looked spectacular… and if we were ambitious enough we could go as far as Chile, or at least to the base of Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the world outside the Himalayas. With a quick scan of our accommodation options in the desolate area, we found what seemed to be a cute little collection of adobe style cottages with the backdrop of the mountains. In a few clicks we were booked and off our little rental car climbed towards Uspallata.

Yes, I know what you are thinking, it took me ages to wrap my tongue around pronouncing the name of this wild west town. The great thing about many of the towns and sites up in the mountains is that they’ve often kept their indigenous names. This was not the only thing we found to be stuck centuries back in time… Since we didn’t have GPS, we did get a tad lost on our way, taking the road that went to the aforementioned hot springs and appeared to connect with the highway leading to Uspallata further on.

Arriving at the hot springs town, a sketchy begone tourist resort (leaving us relieved we hadn’t chosen to stay here), the rest of the road was barricaded off, guarded by a policeman. Before we could even get up to him, supposed parking attendants were haranguing us to park (and of course pay them money). But we didn’t want to stay here! In the chaos we just turned around and backtracked the 30 minutes we’d just traveled.

Finally on the right road, we pushed past the little town we stopped in on our previous drive and as we cruised, the landscape became more barren, the mountains more jagged. Luckily there were few cars on the road because I wouldn’t have wanted to compete with the locals for leverage on this tiny two lane highway, with its passes hugging the curves and cutting through the mountain side (yet definitely far better than the mountain road I’d crossed in Morocco!). On the other side of the dried up Mendoza riverbank was a narrow, abandoned railroad. A pity that it hadn’t been maintained, however, I later found out that its long ago closure was due to the high amount of treacherous accidents, squashing my nostalgia.

We eventually rounded another bend coming up to what looked like an oasis, I guess it was indeed one: the verdant town of Uspallata. Despite it’s pretty setting, it was practically a one-horse town, or rather a one-gas-station town, surrounded by dismal looking parrilla steak house and a few convenience stores. Part of the adventure, right? We followed the road indicated on the map to get to our posada, consoled in the idea that we at least had a cute place to stay. The further we went along the road, passing family friendly cabin rentals and horse-grazing meadows, we were beginning to wonder if we’d gone the wrong way. Just as we were about to turn around we spotted the posada sign, leaving nothing but the desert plain beyond.

Pulling into the posada lane we quickly realized we had a few more surprises in store. While it did look like the photos online, they must have been from many years back. The property was very under-maintained, tumbleweed drifted by the scene in my mind. It was buzzing with flies, probably attracted to the various debris mostly left behind by her dogs. Our “cottage” only had one small double bed and so my poor brother was offered to brave the sofa bench that night. On the possibly only positive side the owner was very friendly, exuding new age hippieness. Too bad those positive vibes couldn’t magically clean up after her dogs, but maybe she was still working on those specific skills.

No use sticking around there, so off me went exploring. We started with the petroglyphs which were just down the road. Again the wild west reigned! there was barely a sign indicating where to find them, no attendant watching over this national patrimony and a small worn out panel from the 1960s giving a brief introduction. The argentinian government did have other things to worry about. This didn’t bother us too much because it meant having the site completely to ourselves. It was unclear if were were allowed up close, but since no one was there to tell us, we approached right up to respectful foot or so from these unique carvings into the stones of what is thought to be a sacred site, the petroglyphs themselves approximated to 5-700 years old.

We then ventured into town for a late lunch, finding the town practically all closed up for siesta time. We did manage to find a friendly little place still open and after our meal of pizza and salad (a staple of us vegetarians around here)… and a car adventure which I’m saving for another post, we dropped into the tourist center to get more advice on other things to do. I’d been able to gather from her descriptions of the various local highlights in Spanish (and luckily for her little x’s on our map), off we went to see a few more places. In one direction there were two sites of interest, a mirador lookout and the Mountain of the Seven Colours.

The mirador was first, though since the sun was edging further and further west, it wasn’t the best time of day so we kept going towards this mysterious mountain we hadn’t even read about. “She said to turn at the fork in the road!” was my defense after I’d led us to yet another garbage dump. I don’t think this was what she meant by colourful mountains. We slowly crawled along the “main” dirt road not wanting to miss the fork, yet after a good ten minutes we were beginning to wonder if we’d either missed it or this was a ploy to trick tourists down an abandoned road to be attacked by bandits.

“Hey what’s that…” from a distance, down an even smaller dirt road, was a shimmer of green. We risked the road and hypothetical bandits to go investigate. Sure enough, making our way past the defensive outer mountain we found this exceptional geological wonder, with swaths of pink, peach, gold, green… and I’m not sure what the other colours were supposed to be, the camera does them no justice. Satisfied with our little outing we went back to the posada hoping to have some cervezas and vino while admiring the sunset. The flies also thought this was a great idea, so alas, we had a take refuge inside. Nevertheless after we cooked up scatterings of leftovers we’d accumulated, we dared go out after dark on to wow at the expansive South American sky, reminiscing to our childhood stargazing on the other hemisphere.

the following day we woke up early (hello sun!), and thus decided we’d keep driving up the mountains until we thought we’d better head back to Mendoza for our flight. Chile seemed out of reach when we heard about the horrible hour-long lines at border, better leave it to visit properly on another trip. Exiting Uspallata we spotted a hitchhiker with a hug pack: should we stop? In climbed Juan, a Chilean working in Argentina heading home for New Year’s Eve. He was a friendly guy, with a thick accent of which I understood maybe not even half. I was a little nervous when I saw him eyeing up my iPhone, but this was followed by a “you don’t wanna buy my phone do you?” No gracias. “And your brother?” I guess he was trying to make a few extra pesos before arriving at home and wasn’t going to be the bandit I was suspicious of coming across the previous day. Chatting away as we dug further into the rocky cliffs, we actually missed the stop for Aconcagua, so we dropped Juan off in the next “town,” wished him well and circled back.

It was well worth going the extra mile to see this majestic peak. The hippie posada lady had given us each a postcard of Aconcagua, saying that it’s almost always covered in a blanket of clouds. Her psychic powers mustn’t have foreseen the forecast for today because there it was, standing crisply against a deep blue background. We were the lazy adventurers, taking a little stroll around the base camp natural reserve, however, we saw several groups of trekkers setting off either for a day hike or with a mule pack to go all the way to the top, something which takes a week. Our 45-minute amble was about all my lungs would bare. Winding our way back down the mountains, taking in the last of the striking landscape I was sad to be saying goodbye to this gorgeous yet contradictory place. Nevertheless, there would be other adventurous destinations on my horizons. Maybe not resembling the moon like some of these landscapes, but awe-inspiring in their own right. Uspallata plain

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