Saturday, February 2, 2008

Mendoza: Alta Montaña

Road Up to Christ the Reedemer of the Andes

If you ever find yourself in Mendoza and get tired of touring bodegas, rent a car and head north and west of town to the mountains!

We took two days last weekend and headed up into the Andes west of Mendoza. Outside of wine tours, this should be the highlight to any visit to Mendoza.

We really recommend splitting it up into two days.

Highlights of our trip included:

  • Villavicencio and a trip to the abandoned spa that graces the front of all those mineral water bottles people drink in Argentina

  • The pictographs near Uspallata

  • A wonderful parrilla (grill) at an old abandoned silver mine

  • Puente del Inca – a bizarre looking natural bridge formed by sediment from sulphurous hot springs

  • Aconcagua: at 6,959m, the highest peak in both the western and southern hemispheres

  • Christ Redeemer of the Andes - A mountian top view overlooked by a tall statue of Christ. Worth the long trek up a dirt road to the top of the mountian on the Chilean border

This post would be way too long if I went into detail on each one. Instead I'll post several mini-posts on each. Below is just the basic route and suggested itinerary.

Day 1: Hit the road early!

The Road North of Mendoza City to Villavicencio

There is a lot to see and do, you need to head out no later than 9:00 to pack it all in.

We recommend heading out Ave. San Martín north of town. This will turn into Route 52 and will turn towards the foothills and the village of Villavicencio.

When you see the familiar logo of the mineral water, skip the first stop and head further up the road the the abandoned hotel for a look around.

Villavicencio Hotel

After the hotel of Villavicencio, the road will turn into a dirt road and start its climb through a long series of switchbacks providing wonderful views of the hotel and the valley below.

Once on top, you will see numerous Guanacos, an orange llama like mountain animal found all over this part of the Andes. You'll probably spot several horses and cattle too.


Further, down the road you will find a split in the road with a turnoff to the balcony overlooking an impressive gorge. It is worth the slight detour.

Several kilometers more you will be rewarded with an impressive view of Mt. Aconcauga, the highest peak in this part of the world. Next too the Aconcagua overlook is a road of wooded crosses recently installed to honor the Jesuit priest who settled here and worked the silver mines.

A few kilometers more you will see a sign for a tour of an old abandoned silver mine. Skip the mine tour and have the lunch they offer there. It was one of the best parrillas (BBQ mixed grill) we have had in Argentina since arriving six months ago. This place is also popular we tour groups.

As you get closer to Uspallata, the road will turn back into a paved road. Near here is a turnoff for some ancient pictographs painted on rocks atop a small hill. The view alone is worth the climb.

Pictographs near Uspallata.

Further up, you will start to see the the town of Uspallata stretch out below you. We recommend staying the night here. The only decent option is the Gran Hotel Uspallata. During busy season, book in advance. They had no room when we showed up.

If you want, you can turn onto Route 7 and drive west to stay the night in Penitentes. There is only one hotel and hostel open during summer and the rooms are very rough. The plus side is you will be surrounded by mountain climbers from all over the world who have just climbed Aconcagua. An interesting bunch to say the least.

Day 2: Up the Andes to Chile

Head west on Route 7 out of Uspallata around 10:00 after a nice breakfast at the hotel. Your first stop will be just after the ski village of Pentitentes.

Just past Penitentes, there will be a pulloff on the side of the road to view Mount Aconcagua. There is a trail that leads from the road and will take you to some awesome viewpoints of the mountain. The trail ends at a small mountain lake.

Next stop down the road is Puente del Inca a cool natural bridge with an abandoned spa underneath. You just have to see this thing in person. Words are hard to describe it.

Puente Del Inca

Just before the tunnel that heads into Chile, you will see a turnoff to the village of Las Cuevas and the road to Christ the Redeemer. Someone will be there to recommend you stop for 5 minutes to get acclimated to the altitude.

We recommend stopping for much more. Mainly because there is a great place for lunch on the second floor of the building you drive through to get to the mountaintop statue of Christ the Redeemer.

The lunch is served cafeteria style from a small serving setup, but it is some of the best regional fare you will taste. You'll need the energy for hiking around on top the mountain.

After lunch, take the dirt road way, way on up to the top the mountain to see the Christ the Reedemer statue. You will be rewarded with great views down into Argentina on one side, and Chile on the other. You will also have a great view of Aconcagua. You can even step foot into Chile from up there and take your picture in front of the a Chilean Flag.

Mountain top border with Chile

Next stop is Chile. Once you drive down the mountain and return to Route 7, you will cross under the mountain you were just on and into a long tunnel. Once on the other side, you will be in Chile and will notice the streams and creeks are now flowing towards the pacific.

It is $3,000 Chilean pesos to enter and there is a lot of paper work. On top of that, you will have to get restamped to enter Argentina again. If it is a weekend, that could mean about 1 hour on the Chilean side of customs and over 2 hours on the Argentine side. Don't think you can pop over to Chile for a quick peek. It is just not worth it.

If you have decided against the long lines at the border, turn around and take a nice drive down the Andes and enjoy the view with several stops for pictures. You should be back to the city of Mendoza in time for 5 o'clock tea.

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