A December 2005 trip
to San Juan by Robert Raymond Ingledew
Quote: Calingasta is an irrigated valley very near the Andes, dedicated mostly to mining, apple, walnut, and garlic plantations. It is a small town, near the Andes. There is good trout fishing in the area. It is near Uspallata, Mendoza, (some 95 miles away).
Calingasta is an irrigated area, and you can see the Andes from any part of the village. There are regular bus and traffic van services from San Juan. The trip takes nearly 4 hours. Even though it is the administrative center of the Department of Calingasta, there is no bank, nor even an ATM in the village, that has some 8,000 inhabitants. The nearest banks are at Barreal, some 25 miles away. There are only 2 small hotels, of which I prefer the Hotel de Campo Calingasta, that is some 2 miles away from the downtown, since it has a swimming pool and weather can be very warm. The other option is the Hospedaje Nora (Nora Lodge) that does have air-conditioning, but no swimming pool. Both hotels charge some 10 dollars per night. There is good trout fishing in the Los Patos river, IF the river is clear. Otherwise, you have to go some 25 miles away to river Castaño on a taxi.
Taxis are not expensive, and cost slightly more than half a dollar per mile. There is a national park in the area, with the most important astronomical observatory of Argentina (El Leoncito). You will be driving along the Los Patos river valley, will see some irrigated walnut plantations, and the Andes in the background. El Alcazar is also a very interesting natural formation, and is only half a mile to the left of the highway to the National Park (you should tell the taxi driver that you want to make a stop there also). The most intelligent way of handling this is to take a taxi all the way to the Leoncito astronomical observatory. However, if you want to see the stars through the telescope you will have to make prior arrangements. The Andes will accompany you all the way, and you will see at a distance the natural clay racing track where Marlboro runs the wind-driven vehicle national and international races, that is some 7.5 miles long and 2.5 miles wide, naturally formed by erosion without any human intervention. Combined with a visit to Mendoza and Uspallata, it is an interesting alternative. There are bus services from Barreal to Uspallata, once or twice in the day. It is highly recommended that you check tourist information at the San Juan bus station. You will find no travel agency here.
This is the most interesting part of the trip. Unfortunately I went on December 24 and the observatory was closed, but in any case I enjoyed thoroughly the trip. At Barreal there is a National Park office where you can check the visit hours of the Astronomic Observatory. In this sense, Barreal is better organized than Calingasta, even though it is a similar (or maybe smaller) village. Here you have banks, ATMs, supermarkets, restaurants, and a couple of good (and more expensive) hotels. Although I cannot recommend any, you might want to know their names and phones:
DEPARTAMENTOS CORDILLERANOS, Roca s/n, phone (54-2648) 44-1016; HOTEL BARREAL, San Martín s/n, phone (54-2648) 44-1090; POSADA SAN EDUARDO, Belgrano s/n, phone (54-2648) 44.1046. If you intend to visit the El Leoncito National Park, the National Park has an office at Barreal, where you can check visiting hours. As far as I know, you must request an appointment in advance if you wish to look through the telescopes, and understand that this activity is fairly restricted. Actually there are two astronomic observatories in the area, and here they will give you complete information regarding them. Fishing in the Río de los Patos is very good, but once the snow starts melting water becomes brown, and if you do not use natural bait (only spinners and fly-fishing are allowed), you may not catch any trout. As I mentioned in the previous report, river Castaño near Calingasta has clear water most of the year, and there you can enjoy a very rewarding fishing day. The road up to the National Park justifies a visit, even if you never get into the observatory, but you will be allowed in if you go during the visiting hours. I was such a fool: I went on December 24, and expected to find it open.
You may imagine why this observatory is in this area. It has one of the clearest skies in South America. I should remind you once more that you do not need to go back the same way. From Barreal there are buses to Uspallata, and from there you can go up to the Andes or down to the city of Mendoza. Uspallata is a very nice place for staying, there is a very nice hotel there that is not expensive (Gran Hotel Uspallata) and regular bus services from Uspallata to the city of Mendoza. The trip from Uspallata to Mendoza takes some 2 hours on the bus. This way you can complete a very interesting scenic circuit. I have just found an interesting alternative: a 5 day tour visiting Talampaya, Valle de la Luna (Ischigualasto), Barreal, and the Astronomic Observatory plus the Winery tour in Mendoza city. Check this page for more information. (I do not know the travel agency, nor do I have any references, either good or bad.) www.moneytour.com.ar. Check it out with your travel agent. I have just discovered a VERY COMPLETE one day tour to Calingasta, Cerro Alcazar, Barreal, the astronomic observatory AND ALSO Quebrada del Zonda and the Ullum dam. Check this page: www.e-mountain.com.ar/SJuan/Excursiones/Escursiones.htm A minimum of 3 passengers is required.
San Juan is an important wine producing area and there are many vineyards and wineries in the area. Vineyards and wine production are concentrated at Caucete and Albardon, and you can visit these towns by bus, or on local tours. The city of San Juan was nearly destroyed by an earthquake sixty years ago, and is today a modern city, although in my opinion Mendoza has far more vegetation. The city has a beautiful park (Rivadavia), where you can rent boats, and a well-known car racing track at Quebrada del Zonda, that also has nice places for bathing. The Ullum dam forms one of the most important lakes in San Juan, where you can fish rainbow trout, and that is far from the city.
A taxi drive to the dam may cost you some ten dollars. Howard Johnson has a 4-star hotel in front of the lake, that has a surface of 1250 acres. If you decide to stay overnight in San Juan, these are some of the hotels where you can stay: remember that you are only 4 hours away from Valle Fertil, from where you can visit Ischigualasto (Valle de la Luna) and Talampaya.
Alkazar Laprida 82, Este, phone (54-264) 421-4965/ 4966, fax: 421-4977; Howard Johnson Bahía Embalse del Ullum - Ruta 60 Tel/Fax: 494-3141; Viñas del Sol, Ruta 20 y Gral. Roca, phone (54-264) 425-3921 / 22/ 23; Gran Hotel Provincial, Av. José I. de la Rosa 132 Este, phone (54-264) 422-7501/ 7505; Capayán, Gral. Bmé. Mitre 31 phone (54-264) 422-5442; Arenales, Arenales 559 Oeste - Esq. Av. España, phone (54-264) 421-8285 / 420-1893; Alkristal, Av. de Circunvalación 1055, phone (54-264) 425-4145 / 3169; Selby, Av. Rioja 183 Sur, phone (54-264) 422-4766; Bristol, Entre Ríos 368, phone (54-264) 421-4629.
The trip on the bus from San Juan to Mendoza takes two hours and a half, and buses run about every hour. The trip from San Juan to Valle Fertil takes four hours (Empresa Vallecito). From there you can continue in traffic vans to Talampaya and Valle de la Luna. There are two excellent bus services from San Juan to Córdoba, to Buenos Aires and to Mar del Plata, served by these companies: Autotransportes San Juan, and San Juan-Mar del Plata. Both companies go to all three destinations. There are also direct bus services from San Juan to La Serena (Chile).
There are direct bus services of Andesmar from San Juan to La Rioja, Catamarca, Tucumán, Salta and Jujuy, and to nearly all the rest of the country changing buses in Mendoza. Nueva Chevallier and La Estrella also come to San Juan. I imagine that by now you have discovered that one week is not enough for Argentina… Maybe two months is not enough time to enjoy all the beautiful places that this country has to offer.
I have traveled about 70 per cent of the road, but not between El Leoncito and Uspallata. In any case, the scenery is beautiful on both sides, so you can only expect more beautiful sceneries... Calingasta is North of Uspallata, and therefore going towards Uspallata the Andes will always be on the right-hand side. Keep this in mind because since you will be travelling on a bus you should get a seat in the right-hand side when travelling from Barreal to Uspallata. And if you are coming from Uspallata to Barreal, on the right-hand side.
Getting from Calingasta to Barreal is no problem, since the traffic vans normally have empty seats because passengers coming from San Juan get off at Calingasta. I am not acquainted with how much demand the bus service from Barreal to Uspallata has, because I have not made this trip. If you need reservations from Uspallata to Mendoza or up to Las Cuevas (the Aconcagua area) call Expreso Uspallata at this phone number (54 261) 4307676. The cover all the villages between the international border with Chile (Las Cuevas), including Penitentes ski center, Polvaredas (the mini museum), Puente del Inca (thermal baths), Uspallata, Potrerillos, and Mendoza. By the way, you might want to stay over at Uspallata, there is a very nice inexpensive hotel. Check this site (Gran Hotel Uspallata, 3 stars) www.atahoteleria.com.ar/uspallata/english/hotel.html. If you take your tours to Alta Montaña (high mountains) from this hotel, you are saving 75 miles of travel each way.
The road is beautiful; you see the Andes all during the whole trip, always on the right-hand side far beyond Uspallata going towards Mendoza. Once you arrive at Potrerillos, you will start bordering the Potrerillos lake, this time on the left-hand side. So if you can get a seat on the front row, far better... In any case, you will only see the lake at a few scenic points, while the Andes will accompany you nearly all the way, so the choice it clear. If you decide to stay in Mendoza (I would, it is a beautiful city), the tours suggested from there are: 1) City tour, or a taxi ride to the General San Martin Park and Chacras de Coria. 2) The wine tour, visiting wineries and vineyards. Both are half-day tours. 3) Alta Montaña (up to Las Cuevas or the Aconcagua Provincial park, depending on whether there is ice on the road or not. Both alternatives are just fantastic. 4) Cañón del Atuel (Atuel Canyon), a very nice tour to the Nihuil dam and lake, the Atuel Canyon, the rafting area of Valle Grande, with time to take a one-hour rafting tour down the river, lunch at the Valle Grande Hotel and Resort, and then visiting a vineyard and winery at Rama Caída, near San Rafael. 5) Las Leñas: The tour I recommend leaves only on Friday night and arrives back on Saturday night. It will allow you to visit Las Leñas for 27 dollars, with some ten hours over there to walk the village and ski center. The bus remains open for passengers to rest whenever they wish. It is sold by Andesmar Turismo and you can buy it at Estacion Sol (a travel agency) located inside the Mendoza bus station.
Remember that there are direct buses from Mendoza to San Luis, Córdoba, Mar del Plata, and Bariloche. Andesmar covers all these services, but is not the only bus company that provides them. Their website is www.andesmar.com.ar. They feature premium bed, standard bed, and semi bed services. The premium bus services have seats that lie down completely flat, with DVD and MP3, your choice of chicken, meat or vegetables for dinner, plus wine, whisky and champagne, all complementary. Argentina has been a bargain for foreign tourists for the past four years, although prices in dollars have doubled over this period. So don't wait too long, or it might no longer be a bargain. Enjoy your trip.
Along this road we see completely different elements: low hills modeled by erosion, the typical Andean desert, irrigated areas and the Andes in the background. We see some beautiful plantations, mostly of walnuts, but garlic is extensively cultivated also, enjoy the scenery of the Río de los Patos (Ducks river), the irrigated valley and the mountains.
We stop at El Alcázar, (the fortress) a natural formation product of wind and water erosion, that forms a sort of amphitheater in the rocks. We also pass through some historical points that would mean nothing to a foreign tourist, but that are historical evidences of the presence of some battalions of San Martin`s army on its way to Chile. After some 25 miles, we arrive at Barreal. Barreal is another irrigated area, but mostly dedicated to tourism (hotels are more expensive here) and to some extent to agriculture, but not as intensive agriculture as Calingasta. Here there is a good supermarket, where you can buy your photo films at lower prices than in Calingasta, and where you can also buy films for your Camcorder (in Calingasta no shops had any camcorder films).
Weather is very warm here, so buy some soft drinks at the supermarket before you continue your travel. This will be the last chance you will have to buy (or eat) anything on your way to the El Leoncito National Park.
Robert Raymond Ingledew
Villa Carlos Paz (Cordoba), Argentina