Returning to the bustling city of Santiago was difficult after a short but peaceful visit to Easter Island. Since we had already visited the city, we made a quick grocery stop and left the city. When we left, temperatures soared close to 100 degrees so escaping to cooler weather was necessary. We headed west to visit a camp site we had visited just before going to Easter Island. Our favorite puppy we named Suave whined and eventually howled when he saw us again. It melted our hearts!
Over the course of the next few days, our route would be to the east to visit the city of Mendoza in Argentina. We returned to the west side of Santiago one last time, then headed north before catching the final highway to the Argentinian border. As is typical with the borders in South America, the elevation was very high at over 10,000 feet. Just before the border, the highway began to resemble a snake as 27 switchbacks brought us right up the mountain. Check out the screenshot from our navigation app below!
Since we have already done a border crossing blog post and will be crossing between Chile and Argentina many times, we will not be doing separate posts for these countries. That said, we did want to mention that the border crossing here was a bit unusual. For people coming from Argentina, you drive up over the pass to the Chilean side to do all paperwork for leaving Argentina and entering Chile. For people crossing to Argentina, you drive to the Argentinian side for leaving Chile and entering Argentina. On the Argentinian side, a very odd looking building holds all of the offices for completing the process and everybody must drive through the building. Apparently this pass gets some very nasty winter weather and this building is the solution for making the process during the winter.
Right on the Chilean/Argentinian border was the location of two of our first tourist destinations in Argentina. The first is the Inca Bridge which is a natural bridge crossing a small river. The bridge is believed to have been formed by mineral deposits and salt. Over the course of time, the salt gradually dissolved leaving a bridge behind. Nearly a century ago, a hotel and spa was built right on the hot springs to attract visitors. It has permanently marred the natural beauty of the site, but has been closed for more than 25 years in order to “restore” the site and maintain the bridge.
The next and more impressive attraction is Cerro Anconcagua. This mountain holds the title of the tallest peak in the Americas. In fact, it is the highest peak in the world outside of the Himalayas with an elevation of 22,838 feet. Opting for the two hour mirador hike versus the three week trek to the top, we found our way close to the peak and experienced spectacular views. On the southeast side of the peak is a sheer cliff that is capped with a large glacier. As the glacier slides down, it breaks off sending enormous chunks of ice falling thousands of feet to the valley below. We enjoyed the hike greatly and captured some pretty good photos of the peak.
Also worth noting is that while we began our hike back to the truck, two other hikers approached us on the trail. As we got within shouting distance I heard one of them yell “Powder River!” Of course I immediately responded “Let ‘er Buck!” This is a University of Wyoming tradition that is very common to hear throughout Wyoming but not so much in Argentina. The guy who yelled it saw our UW license plates and happened to be from Vernal, Utah and attended UW himself. Small world. Anyhow, the two guys informed us that climbing the peak doesn’t require much special gear and is not a technical climb but does takes nearly three weeks to complete.
After Anconcagua, we dropped off the mountain to the valleys below. It quickly became apparent that we were back in a dry, dusty desert landscape with very warm temperatures to boot. We followed the highway to the south for an hour then returned back to the north, eventually ending up in Mendoza which is the wine capital of Argentina.
All around Mendoza, vineyards large and small, new and old filled every field in and around the city. To our surprise, the city is much larger than we expected with a metropolitan population of over 1 million residents. Bodegas and Vinotecas were everywhere and our excitement to experience the wine culture grew.
Our first order of business in Mendoza was running errands. Immediately we were reminded that we were back on Spanish time. By this I mean that businesses are open in the morning until about one in the afternoon. Then, they close for an afternoon siesta and reopen after the heat of the day has passed, usually around five or six. For us, this is difficult to get used to as we typically run all of our errands in the afternoon and try to be parked for the evening by five or six. Our propane refill, tire rotation, and car wash would have to wait until a different day. We were able to get our clothes washed and opted to air dry our clothing rather than have it dried. It was a bit awkward hanging all of our clothes at our truck stop camp site but the money saved was so sweet!
In the morning, we packed up camp and drove to Mr. Hugo’s Bikes for a bike rental. For $5, Mr. Hugo rents bikes and provides a map of nearly a dozen wineries nearby. We hopped on the bikes and stopped first at a large winery and museum. The museum had a great collection of antique hand tools and other machines used to produce wine. Many of the signs indicated that some wineries in the Mendoza area still use the same equipment from centuries past. We enjoyed the visit then hopped on the bikes to begin tasting wine.
A couple miles away, we tasted four wines at a very nice winery. We tasted a Chardonnay, two Malbecs and a Syrah. Argentina is famous for three main types of wines although many other types are produced as well. The red varieties famous in Argentina are Malbecs and Syrah. The third is a white variety called Torrontes which is unique to Argentina. We enjoyed the tasting and the tour.
Next on our bike tour was a tasting of local artisanal foods and liquors produced in the area. We tried two olive oils, vinegar, and two different ground olive pastes which were amazing! At the second table, we tried some different sauces typically added to ice creams. Finally, we sampled four different liquors, each of which would have been great on ice cream as well.
As we left the artisanal tienda, the heat of the day was upon us. At nearly 100 degrees with full sun on black pavement, we founds ourselves quickly melting and wine sounded terrible. Rather than force ourselves to continue exploring the vineyards, we found a beer garden instead. The cold beer and empanadas helped cool us off but nothing was better than cold water at this point. We finished our beers and returned our bikes to Mr. Hugo.
In the evening, very high temperatures lingered well into the night. At 10PM, temperatures remained at 95 degrees making for very uncomfortable camping conditions. We thought we left the miserably hot weather behind us in Central America but that was not the case. We scrapped our extra day in Mendoza and found cooler temperatures at higher elevation at El Leoncito National Park a couple hours away.
El Leoncito lies on a mountain range just to the east of the main ridge of the Andes Mountains. As we drove between the two ranges, we could see glacier covered peaks at over 20,000 feet right next to us. Although we have technically been in the Andes Mountains since arriving in Colombia, the mountains in this part of Argentina are the Andes Mountains we expected to see in South America.
Arriving at the park, we were met with lots of trees and a beautifully maintained park. Although it was still warm, a nice breeze and plenty of shade made camping much easier. Surprisingly, entry and camping at the park is free! It reminded me of my Uncle Mike’s saying that the best things in life are cheap or free. I think this is one of the things he is talking about!
In the morning after our first night, we put on our hiking boots and took off for a hike through the surrounding hills. We left the cool shaded park and found ourselves hiking through the rugged desert. After an hour, we made it to the top of a small hill with an unbelievable view of the Andes Mountains in front of us. We continued hiking for another two hours before returning to the camper for the afternoon. Places offering great camping and enjoyable hiking are what we dream of at night.
From El Leoncito, we drove north, then east, and eventually returned south to the city of San Juan. Only about a month earlier, we found out that Laughlin’s cousin, John, and his wife, Romina, would be visiting Romina’s family in San Juan for Christmas. Without any concrete plans for Christmas and realizing would be in the neighborhood, we took them up on their offer to visit for a few days.
Over the course of the three days, we were wined and dined in true Latin American style with tons of family and friends and entirely too much food (although it always got eaten). Since Christmas is during the Argentinian summer, the tradition is to celebrate at midnight on the morning of December 25th. Just before midnight, dinner was served. Dinner consisted of empanadas, chicken, cow tongue (it was actually pretty good!), a traditional type of pizza among other dishes that I can’t put a name to. As soon as the clock struck midnight, an eruption of fireworks began to develop all around us. Everybody ate, drank, danced and visited until late in the night. Finally at 4:30AM, we couldn’t stay up any longer and we returned to the camper to sleep.
Before continuing with the blog, I must tell a quick story about the big celebration. At sometime following dancing, I walked out to the street to try to catch some cool air for a minute. I heard some giggling and noticed four boys all younger than six with a lighter trying to light some sparklers. As soon as they saw me, they ran up to me and insisted that I help. Of course, I obliged and lit one at at time for them and supervised as well. The whole situation cracked me up and reminded me of something I might have done as a kid! Hi Mom!
In the blink of an eye, our visit to San Juan was over and we jumped in the truck to head south. Visiting John, Romina and their kids as well as all of their friends and family was a welcomed treat and a nice break from life on the road. We are certainly blessed to have been able to spend time with family over Christmas and it is a Christmas we will never forget! Thanks John and Romina!
When we talk to other travelers, we often ask if they are driving north or south. After they respond, they ask the same` question to us. Our answer generally indicates that we are heading south but we always say that we are, more or less, driving in circles. If you look at our “Where are we now?”map, since leaving Peru, we have stayed at basically the same line of latitude for several months. Finally, after leaving San Juan and Mendoza, we began pointing the truck straight south and began to make progress to the south. Somewhere south of Mendoza, we eventually crossed the 35th parallel, meaning we are officially further south than the tip of Africa!
Over the course of the next few days, we drove south at the foot of the Andes making our way back to Chile at a border crossing further to the south. The desert of San Juan and Mendoza gradually changed to grassy rangeland to the east and tall rugged mountains to the west. We camped at a couple different places with unbelievable views and nice cool temperatures.
Our quick visit to the Mendoza area of Argentina was complete and we returned to Chile to explore its beautiful mountains and forests. Check out our next blog post for our experience there!