Heading east out of Mendoza we made our way through Uspallata and eastwards towards the Andes. Driving through the dramatic valleys was an awesome daytrip in itself with some impressive rocky peaks, gorgeous colors, and railroad tracks that seemed to lead nowhere.
We often felt that we were back in the American southwest.
We stopped to snap a few photos of an interesting natural bridge formation atop thermal springs, where we also took in a local parade of some sort.
Our poor little van kept climbing and climbing until we reached our goal: Aconcagua, the highest peak in the western hemisphere at over 6900 meters.
Since the climb requires a solid two weeks and a bit more mountaineering experience than I can claim, we were there just to check out the scene and possibly do a little day hiking.
We were amazed when the entry fee was AR$20 per person, just under USD $2 per person. We settled on what seemed to be the only day hike option available to us and took our time checking it all out. From our vantage point, the peak didn’t seem all that high or far away, but we decided against attempting a world record single-day summit :) We watched the pack mules coming barreling down the mountain and decided we were happy with our little day hike. Next visit we’d summit.
After visiting Aconcagua, we turned back towards Uspallata, and eventually headed north again.
We had read some really positive things about National Park Leoncito so we decided to see if we could camp there for the night. Our route brought us through a huge, arid valley where we came across a pair of German overlanders who were stopped on the side of the road working on their car and chatted with them before continuing off the main road and into the park.
Leoncito turned out to be a fun little find, covering a huge expanse of beautiful desert-like landscape.
Even cooler than that, the ranger we talked to told us that the park was created in part to protect the night sky from light pollution on behalf of two historical observatories situated within the park boundaries. Park entrance and camping were both totally free, including warm showers and wifi – all pretty amazing. We made mental notes to tell all the other overlanders we encountered. When evening rolled around we were excited to go check out the show at the observatory.
Deciding we were tough enough to walk the few kilometers there, we got partway down the road when we realized that we had perhaps bit off a bit more than we can chew. Just then, a car stopped and an Argentinian couple popped out and asked us if we wanted a ride to the observatory. We happily accepted, and ended up spending the whole evening chatting together about their travels and adventures. For me, it was a fun win because the conversation was nearly all in Spanish and it made me feel like I’ve really made some progress. They even hooked us up with contact information for a mechanic in a nearby town since we had started hearing a new sound that we wanted to get checked out. The observatory itself turned out to be a bit of a bust; we waited and waited for the clouds in the sky to clear up and finally the team running the show called it off. We were a bit disappointed, especially when we arrived back at our campsite to find that the skies had completely cleared, and we could see more stars than perhaps ever in my life.
The following morning we took a quick little nature walk to check out the waterfalls before setting off.
Then, a quick wifi check at the visitor center turned into some bonding with the local wildlife:
Our goal was to make it as far north as possible before stopping. The Argentinian couple we had met the night before had raved about the Valle de la Luna, which seemed to have a camping option and was situated directly along our chosen route, so we pointed ourselves in that direction. We meandered through some pretty beautiful valleys and and along some beautiful rivers.
The days had started to get pretty darn hot, and driving through the desert all day we may as well have been sitting in a sauna. We sweated our way through a long day of driving.
Our saving grace was that we had recently become addicted to the Serial podcast, and spent the car ride listening to back-to-back episodes. We arrived at the park late in the afternoon and set up camp, showered and started dinner before walking out to the overlook to enjoy the sunset.
The red rocks across the canyon glowed bright orange in the sunset, putting on a nice evening show for us.
We saw quite a few foxes wandering around the campsite and the park, as well as lots of crazy bugs and creepy crawlies, always my favorite.
The next morning was hot and intense again and we set off for another long day. Our first stop was the town of La Rioja where we did a bit of grocery shopping which mostly involved waiting in long lines, and Wolf ran a few errands at the local version of Home Depot. We sought out the city park for our lunch stop which ended up being a bit of a dump. The road out of town brought us through a lovely series of winding canyons and mountain passes. A mostly uneventful day of driving brought us near the town of Belen where we found the campsite we had targeted for the night. We pulled in to an insanely crowded campground, complete with a massive pool. The entire town must have been in the pool; you could barely see the water. We squeezed ourselves into a parking spot and surveyed the chaotic scene. After a long day of driving all we wanted were cold showers and a bit of downtime. I trekked across the campground, fantasizing about finally being cool and clean, turned on the water… and was rewarded with a single drip. And then thirty seconds later, another single drip. I couldn’t believe it. The day had been so long and hot and all I wanted was a shower, and the single drips weren’t going to cut it. I met Wolf back at the van and after a bit of discussion and a few stress-tears, we decided this would be a night to splurge.
Belen certainly isn’t a huge town and options were limited, but we decided on the one that had a couple of overlander motorcycles parked out front – usually a good sign. And we were right: the shower alone was worth every penny. We even treated ourselves to dinner in the hotel restaurant (which didn’t end up being very good). The next morning we met the motorcycle tourists at breakfast and had a good time comparing notes – they were spending four months riding from Seattle to Ushuaia – and we were happy to get a few tips about the road we’d be taking north.
And so began another long, sweaty day in the car. At one point we came to a small town which, on our map, seemed pretty straightforward and logical in terms of how our highway ran through. But when we actually followed Ruta 40 through town, we ended up in a muddy dirt patch that seemed to end in a big field. Baffled as to how this could be the main highway, we gave up and chose an alternate route; just another lovely example of a complementary detour courtesy of Argentinian roads :)
A few kilometers down the main route we arrived at Quilmes, a pre-Hispanic site dating back to AD 1000. We stopped in to check out the ruins and fortress and somehow while we were trying to explain to the tour guide that we didn’t want a tour and instead we just wanted to walk around and check it out ourselves, one of the other tourists valiantly volunteered to be our personal interpreter.
We ended up having a ball laughing at the translations we received from our Brazilian volunteer. Our guide would rattle off five minutes worth of interesting facts, and our volunteer interpreter would turn around and say five or six words, most of which were contrary to what the guide had actually said. Afterwards she told us that she remembered some facts from her last visit 20 years ago and she had conveyed that to us for our enjoyment, rather than actually translating what the guide was saying. How helpful! The site itself was interesting, although it had essentially been completely reconstructed.
Eventually we got too hot and hit the road again.
Our destination for the day was Cafayate, another stop for Argentinian wine-lovers. We had low expectations given our experience in Mendoza, but it was about the right place for us to camp in terms of distance, so we gave it a shot anyway. The road leading into town was a pleasant surprise, with vineyard on each side in long straight rows, except where they jogged around huge cacti.
With lovely mountains on each side, we actually found Cafayate to be quite lovely. Again, it certainly didn’t have the same vibe we had come to expect from Napa or Sonoma, but still a fun little town and some attractive surroundings. We found a campsite on the outskirts, set up shop, and decided to walk into town to see if we could catch a tasting.
Just a few hundred meters down the road we found our first tasting room and ponied up about $1.00 each for a tour and tasting.
Midway through the tour I felt a bit like I was watching how the sausage is made; you could stick your head in the vats where the grapes were fermenting or watch the wine get sprayed into big tubs, or even stick your hand in the barrels sitting outside collecting flies…
Even so, it was still a blast and there were plenty of colorful characters to keep us entertained.
Afterwards we grabbed the most delicious quesadillas from the vendors across the street – you could watch them rolling out the tortilla by hand and cooking over a fire on the spot.
After a stroll through town we wandered back to the campsite.
We spent the evening fighting with incessant flies and then listening to our neighbors sing and play the guitar for hours under the stars.