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Winding the Way Through the Andes

 

 

In stark contrast to Buenos Aires, the peace and serenity of the Andes, on the border between Argentina and Chile, is a tranquil journey.  

 

 

Whether you choose to rent a car, take a local bus, or join a tour to wind your way through the Andes, the scenery of this geographic Mecca is simply breathtaking. From dry, enticing vineyards to the perilous terrain of snow-capped Aconcagua, it’s a perfect way to see all you can of the countryside and the small villages that are common to this region.

 

 

Heading northwest from Mendoza, your first stop should be the snow-capped, Aconcagua, at 6,962 meters (22,841 feet) the highest peak in South America. The apparent brown of the mountains shrouds an array of color; purples, maroons, iridescent greens and yellows are visible to the roving eye, bouncing off the bright blue, cloudless backdrop.  You may wish to pinch yourself just to make sure it is real.

 

 

A trip to Villavicencio, the source of the national bottled water, begins by winding through the Pampas and then up into the Pre-Cordillera, the lower-lying part of the Andes that precedes the Cordillera. Hotel Termas is an Alpine style chalet nestled in a 7000 hectare nature reserve full of native flora and fauna. Although no longer a working hotel, it is the well-preserved symbol of the popular eau minerale that is bottled nearby from Aconcagua’s streams. The hot springs are a product of the same water, which enters the heart of the mountain and re-emerges at only 1,700 meters (5,577 feet), driven by pressure and high temperatures, forming springs. A meander around the hotel’s grounds is enjoyable and tranquil at any time of the year.

 

 

Journeying onward through the barren landscape brings you to Ciudad Fantasmal, an abandoned Jesuit mining village. Ghost-like and silent, all you can hear is the echo of the Cordillera. A wander around the ruins leads you to an odd looking cross adorned with all sorts of goodies, from plastic flowers to tin pots. It is a shrine to Gaucho Cubillos, “Don Quixote of the Andes,” a well-known bandit who was known to have a weakness for the local ladies.  

 

 

Nearby, find a local guide and explore the dark tunnels of the inconspicuous mines of Paramillos, originally carved out by the monks who lived in Ciudad Fantasmal.  They were later mined by the English, who abandoned them after the invasion of the Falkland Islands. They are fascinating if not a little eerie, as you cautiously negotiate the old train tracks and remnants of hand-chipped mineral that carpet the floor. Make sure that you ask your tour guide, with the all-essential phrase-book in hand, to take you to eat asado, beautifully grilled beef and lots of it, at the only restaurant for miles around. It is a raw and rustic dining experience, but the food and family service are first class. Make sure you get a glimpse of the local farm animals huddling nearby, especially the guanacos. They’re similar to their cousins the llamas, and spit just as well.

 

 

Head up Cordillera, for it truly should not to be missed. A brief stop at Penitentes, the popular ski-station, allows you to take the chair-lift to the top of the mountain, even in summer, to take in the extraordinary views. Bundle up, because the snow may well fall at your next stop, which is Cristo Redentor, a bronze figure that was erected in 1886 to promote peaceful relations between Argentina and Chile. It marks the frontera between these two feuding countries and the statue is made out of the melted down cannons that were used to defend national pride on both sides. A visit to the Thermal Baths on the road home will warm you up and the natural salts in the water will address your ailments.    The hot chocolates are absolutely delicious and the local craft stalls are worth a peek, or even forking out a few pesos for a hand-made textile.

 

 

There are many organized tours in this area that are great value for money and they are the best way to discover the secrets of this unspoiled, largely unknown terrain. They are also a great way to immerse oneself in Argentine culture; locals fill the tour bus, passing around the mate (local tea), as is the social norm throughout this country and with spontaneous clapping, cheering and singing there is never a dull moment as the wheels navigate another hairpin bend.  The linguistic benefits are second to none as English is, refreshingly, broken and sparse.

 

 

One final thing—make sure you go white-water rafting down the Río Mendoza. Take the day trip and you will enjoy four hours of rafting, including a leisurely lunch stop, on this river that is accommodating for the beginner and challenging for the expert.



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