Trip Start Jan 24, 2009
Trip End Dec 08, 2009

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Hospedaje Del Inca

Flag of Chile  , Mendoza,
Sunday, November 15, 2009

We hired a car in Mendoza for 3 days and headed back out east into the Andes towards the Argentinian/ Chilean border. Our aim was to go and see Aconcgua, the highest mountain in the world outside of the Himalayas.

Standing at some 6,975m above sea level, it's a fair old lump of rock to climb by most peoples standards. Unlike the 6,000m peaks in Bolivia, which you can normally do in well under a week, this baby normally takes 15 days to climb by the time you've acclimatised.

So, for the next three hours or so, we headed along Argentinian Route 7 through the wine fields and foothills of the Andean Mountains. Irrigation has an enormous importance in this area. Mendoza and the surrounding countryside actually sit in the middle of the desert. They hardly have any rain at all and experience monumental amounts of sunshine which we can only dream about in the UK. It's green because of the irrigated meltwater from the Andean snow. Apparently these conditions result in one of the world's best places to have vineyards.

Once you get beyond the vineyards, you can see it really is a dry and arid place and rightly called a desert area. However, it is beautiful in its own right. Some of the geology is stunning with gigantic canyons carved out by rivers carrying the Andean meltwater. We stopped at a place called Los Penitentes where vertical rock formations are supposed to resemble a cluster of monks standing high up on the mountainside. A beautiful place and if you squint really hard after consuming three bottles of vino the resemblence happens! 

As the road steadily wound its way higher and higher into the Andes, it ran alongside the old Transadine train line which used to connect Chile and Argentina. This has been out of operation since 1984 and has taken a fair old battering from the harsh condition of the mountains. Apparently, one year a glacial flood tore away 124km of track in one go! Large sections of the line required tunnels and snow sheds to protect trains from avalanches and parts of these look like they've been ripped apart by giants who live in the mountains. The old support buildings have become ghost towns and it has a real "Scooby Doo" type of feeling about it in places.

The line roughly follows the ancient route taken by travellers and mule-trains crossing the Andes between Chile and Argentina and rises to a height of almost 3,200 metres at Las Cueves where the track enters the Cumbre tunnel, about 3.2 km long, on the international border. Like many of the rail lines in South America, it was built and operated by a now long gone British Company opening in 1910. Whilst the British never colonised South America (except of course Guyana) our fore-fathers certainly had their fingers in a lot of pies. There's lots of talk about reconstructing the track though not so much progress given the new road which nowadays takes all the freight between the two countries.

At one point we ended up driving too far and accidently ended up driving through the tunnel and popped out into Chile by mistake! This was the umpteenth time we'd crossed the border but this time we did so illegally and a quick u-turn found us heading back through the tunnel to Argentina before we were asked for our papers.

We stopped at a place called Puenta del Inca which literally means Inca Bridge - I suppose it doesn't take a genius to work out its history. The bridge is a natural structure formed from strange sulphuric action as it crosses the main river valley. All manner of yellow and white formations provided a rather bizarre spectacle. There was once a health resort built under the bridge but the sulphur gradually advanced and is now literally taking over, eating the man-made buildings. These days it's too fragile and the authorities ban you from walking on the bridge itself.

The hostel at Puente was rather deserted as the skiing season had just finished. There were perhaps just another 6 or so people staying here. Food was included in the room price which was just as well as there was nothing around for about 30 miles in either direction. In fact we had a choice of overcooked chicken, chicken, chicken or chicken. It was just like being back in parts of Peru again!

The following day we walked to a viewing point at the base of Aconcogua. It's a pretty bizarre mountain because at first you think it doesn't look that bad and it's difficult to see why it would take so long to climb. The more you stare at it however, the more you realise the scale of the beast and it's a big boy! Even the mountain streams around have gigantic boulders in them which have been washed down from the higher parts. The power of nature involved in forming these areas is immense.

Walking back to the car, a group of 5 condors were soaring high above on the thermals; obviously, they have the best grandstand view of all.

It was just coming into the climbing season and in an ideal world, given we'd already acclimatised in Bolivia and Peru, we'd have like to have hooked up with a guide to go climbing here. Sadly, we had no time on this occasion. However, the plan is to come back in two years time to have a crack at the mountain. Well to be precise, one of us is going to have a crack at the mountain whilst the other is planning on spending two weeks slowly getting sozzled on the wonderful wines of Mendoza. No prizes for guessing who's who!

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Lisa on

I do hope Jim enjoys the wine next time you visit!!!

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