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Published: August 21st 2012
Don't know when I'll make it to Everest, but here I am at the highest mountain outside the Himalayas! Mighty Aconcagua, at 6962 meters/22,841 feet, and her sister mountains and volcanoes soar at the apex of the 7000 kilometers of the Andes Cordillera. From the trail, they seem so accessible, yet they've filled the Climbers' Cemetery below with an international throng.
It's winter, and I've slip-slided my way up an icy trail in Aconcagua Park to view the peak somewhat up close. Occasionally, I stepped off the slippery, 3-hour trail to avoid falling but then sank knee-deep in snow--much more dangerous. In my beloved Caviahue, I'd once sunk so deep, all my thrashing to extract myself proved futile, and I had to wait for someone to come along and pull me out. Here, there was no one who would come along. I'd been the last to enter the park and the last to leave.
Los Libertadores Pass
A year earlier, in winter's August, I'd crossed this same pass from Santiago, Chile, to Mendoza, Argentina. I'd had to wait four days (in which time my visa had expired--oops: Immigration, please) because the pass
had been closed, as it often is, due to fierce snow storms. When I finally crossed, I was sitting in the front seat atop a double-decker bus with a condor's view.
Once past the deserts of the Chilean precordillera, we began our ascent of the snowy Andes up Los Libertadores Pass. We snaked up 30 tight, steep switchbacks to reach the high mountains where an incredible vista of rugged, snow-drenched mountains stretched in all directions broken by the thin ribbon of highway. We passed huge caravans of 18-wheeler trucks that had been stranded in the mountains during the storm and were now slowly descending. Although it was cloudy on the Chilean side, it was still stunning.
This was avalanche country. Over a dozen, long tunnels, many partially buried in snow, protected the highway at bends in the road. Fortunately, the tunnels had windows, and we could see the gorgeous mountain scenery. There were also lots of other avalanche features--massings of 2-meter-high hills and Cristo-like waving lengths of plastic fences to try to reduce disasters.
On both sides of the pass, I was surprised to see ski resorts within sight of the
international highway. Chile's premier ski resort, Portillo, had chair lifts carrying people over the highway and up the mountain. In their descent, skiers sailed over us on the snow that covered the tunnels--pretty bizarre! Yet, as I realized when I went up a ski lift at Los Penitentes, the mountains are so immense that the highway is barely noticeable.
Finally, we crested the Andes, left the clouds of the Chilean side and had a vista of endless snow spread across the narrow Argentine valley below. After a glimpse of Aconcagua, we breezed through customs--my easiest crossing ever. On my second visit, in a warmer-than-normal July, snow blanketed only the valley's floor and the mountains on its north side, leaving bare those on its southern side. On this visit, we were stuck in customs for three hours, my longest wait ever--thank goodness for gorgeous views and my IPOD!
After seeing these magnificent peaks last year, I'd vowed to return for a bit of a stay. I was lucky, for in my second crossing, I was in a little minibus that was able to drop me off at the little ski village of Los Penitentes.
Los Penitentes ski resort, 2580 meters high, is named after the nearby rock pinnacles that resemble a line of monks. Getting off the bus by the side of the road, I had no idea where the Hostel Base Camp was. People kept pointing further to the edge of the resort until my by-now, non-rolling suitcase and I were stuck in the snow. Fortunately, a friendly giant appeared and hefted my monster to the hostel. I really need to get rid of some of my books.
The rustic wooden hostel was cute and cozy and run by a great former guide, Martin. At $US25, it was the most expensive lodging of my two-year journey, yet it was well worth it. I met many fine people and made a couple of long-term friends. I extended my stay and enjoyed great day hikes and friendly evenings.
Fortunately, it hadn't begun to snow sufficiently for the ski runs at Los Penitentes (thank you global warming). Thus, the hostel was only half full, and I could take great hikes. One of the chair lifts at Los Penitentes was open for walkers and gawkers, and I
had a great day tramping and sliding in the snow. Other days, I visited the Parque Aconcagua, Puente del Inca or watched skiers at the many small ski areas squeezed between the highway and the snow-covered north side of the valley.
In mountain areas, I've always found hitchhiking easy; yet here, it was impossible. Thus, I often had to walk along the highway. Fortunately, there wasn't much traffic and the views were great. When I really needed to catch a ride, I'd go to a car park, wait for someone about the leave, knock on their window and request a ride--it always worked!
Puente del Inca
In this Anden Cordillera, full of volcanoes and geothermal outpourings, the hot sulphuric mineral waters of the Rio de las Cuevas (Caves River) had carved from the stone, a natural bridge over the river. In the 19c, a British company harnessed that water into baths in an upscale spa. When an earthquake and floor destroyed part of the spa, and the British abandoned it.
Unfortunately, diverting the water to the spa had undermined the natural flow of the water that had preserved the bridge. Now,
wildly colored, intruding strata of rocks
near Uspallata where 7 Years in Tibet was filmed
the bridge, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has become fragile and can only be viewed from across the river. Still, beneath the canyon's snowy sculpted mountains and the river's yellow/orange, mineral-covered rocks, the natural bridge is a gorgeous wonder.
Colored Hills & Seven Years in Tibet
After delicious days in nature, I wasn't quite ready for a big city. So, after my friends at the hostel gave me a great send-off, I headed to Uspallata, an hour further down the valley. The snowy mountains gave way to a wider desert valley surrounded by fabulously colored hills cut through with multicolored intrusions. This area had been the setting for the Brad Pitt film, Seven Years in Tibet, and a little cafe displayed prayer wheels and props from the film.
The town was expensive and had little to offer. I spent the night, had a couple of hikes out of town and was finally ready for the big city. Mendoza, here I come.....
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