Friday, October 22, 2004

Seven Years in Mendoza...

Two hours of sleep wasn't a great prelude to my "Alta Montaña" tour, but with 85 Chilean tourism students determined to party in the hostel patio every single night, it was a case of if you can't ignore them, join them. Still could have been a little bit less enthusiastic with the beer, and I was cursing myself when they woke me up from my dead-to-the-world slumbers to go on the tour. It almost felt like Puno & Lake Titicaca all over again.

Turned out to be a minibus, stop-and-snap trip, which normally I avoid like the plague, but am keen to see as much as possible in the short time I'm here. The other passengers all turned out to be other Argentinians, mostly from Buenos Aires, and included two distinct honeymooning couples and another couple of retired schoolteachers. Together with the bubbly, enthusiastic guide Noelia, it made for a pretty jovial atmosphere on the bus, which I didn't appreciate that much at first, but cheered me up as the day wore on.

Two hours out of Mendoza we reached Upsallata (sp!), a picturesque town in the shadow of the front ranges, or Cordón del Plata, famous because in the surrounding area Brad Pitt & co. filmed "Seven Years In Tibet". Notable for me because the countryside, with rows of tall poplar trees and dry hills, bore an uncany resemblance to the Cromwell area of Central Otago. They even have a local föhn wind, called "El Sonda", when fronts from the Pacific sweep across the Chilean Andes; apparently it creates heat, dust and irritation in Mendoza. As we returned inthe afternoon familar big lenticular clouds were forming over the mountains.

The main objective of the trip for me turned out to be a disappointment: Aconcagua was well and truly clouded over at the one point in the road from where it can be seen. If I had had more time, I would have done the three-day trekking trip to the first base camp; I also have to admit that the idea of one day attempting the 15-day trip to the summit is starting to nestle persistently in my head. It's not El Misti though - I'd have to do plenty of immediate climbs first. Noelia said the previous year had been a "good summer"; only four people had died on the mountain.

The highlight of the trip turned out to be the Puente del Inca. High up in the main ranges, only 20 km from the Chilean border, it's a massive natural stone bridge over the Las Cuevas stream, under which flow thermal waters rich in iron and sulphur. It's though that it was formed during an ice age, when an landslides dumped rocks onto a bridge of ice. As the ice melted, the mineral-rich thermal waters cemented everything together, leaving the petrified form of the bridge. The waters leave an oily yellow coating on everything they flow over, and nearby souvenir stalls sell all kinds of trinkets which have been left in the waters for 20-25 days to obtain this coating.

At the turn of the century a hotel was built over the bridge, and tunnels led from the bedrooms to provide each guest with their own private bathroom of natural thermal waters. Gives new meaning to "ensuite"!! Later, more landslides wiped out the hotel, but the ruins are still there, and we were able to walk through the remains of the bathrooms. Truly a unique and surreal experience.

At lunch the retired teachers talked to me about what was wrong with Argentina. "Chile is doing better than us now" they said. One of the reasons given was that Pinochet sided with Britain and the US during the Falklands War, and Chile has been cut all the good deals since. "Las Malvinas are Argentinian territory" I was told.

On the way up the Mendoza river valley, we passed a familiar site - the ruins of an Incan tambo or roadside lodge. Now, I've seen enough blessed tambos to last me a lifetime, and I'm well and trly Incaed-out. But I have to admit it was impressive to think that, 20 hours bus ride, 3 hours plane flight and another 7 hours bus ride from Cusco, I still wasn't far enough south and west to escape the bloody things.

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