THE ROAD TO THE ACONCAGUA (PUENTE DEL INCA, POLVAREDAS, PENITENTES, AND LAS CUEVAS)
The second last time I took this tour (in September, three years ago), I was fortunate. As the road to the Cristo Redentor was blocked by the snow, they took us to the Aconcagua Provincial Park. The stop there was for nearly two hours, and there was enough time to walk to the Horcones lagoon. However, walking at an altitude of 12,000 feet is not that simple. I walked about half the way and as soon as I reached a place where I had beautiful views of the Aconcagua and Tolosa mounts I just stopped there, took beautiful photos, and returned to the bus.
The last time I went the road was open all the way to the Cristo Redentor (16,000 feet), the international border with Chile. There is a conmemorative plaque that says: "Let these mountains fall before the peace between Argentina and Chile is broken."
Most traffic does not go through here now, since there is a tunnel at an altitude of 12,000 feet (Los Libertadores) which last month (still in summer) was blocked by a snowfall for a couple of days. This happens three or four times every year, so if you are traveling by land from Chile to Argentina or vice versa, always check the weather forecast, just in case. It is not very nice to be trapped by the snow for one or two days. Normally, bus companies are aware of this, but keep it in mind. You could be stranded with low temperatures, and no food until the road is opened up by the Highways Department. This last trip was in December, and there had been a recent snowfall in the upper part of the Andes. This time, the Aconcagua was covered by clouds.
So we continued the way from at Puente del Inca and made a stop at Polvaredas where we visited a mini-museum directed by a hippie or hermit, I am not sure what he was, maybe a disciple of Silo. In any case, he seemed quite informed. He had set up a small museum with three rooms; one dedicated to the history of San Marin’s army, another one dedicated to the tectonic origin of the American Continent, the third one dedicated to the history of the Huarpes Indians, and finally gave us a short talk about how energy is generated. Not all the tours stop at this museum. The time they did, I traveled on a traffic van of Huentata tourism. Admission fee was very low, less than $2 per person, and I found it very interesting.
The next stop is at the Penitentes ski center for the chairlift. This is a modern ski center that I would rate as a three or four star timeshare and hotel complex. This time, the chairlift was not operating due to strong wind, so we continued towards Las Cuevas, an abandoned town where once Customs and Immigration functioned, not many years ago. Due to the altitude, both were moved to a lower site, Punta de Vacas, our third chance of eating something or having a cup of coffee. The tour will stop on the way back at Penitentes for lunch, but that will be after 2pm.
The road from Las Cuevas to the Cristo Redentor—the Christ the Redeemer statue, constructed as a testimony to the friendship between Argentina and Chile many years ago—is a winding, narrow, gravel road. The view from the top is just fantastic, but do not try to walk too fast, because you are at an altitude of 16,000 feet. I went there in December, but the weather was really freezing, maybe 5º-10ºF. The view is really fantastic, especially after a snowfall.
On the way back, the tour stops at Penitentes for lunch. Food is not cheap here, it is an international ski center, but if you take their lunch special, you can probably have lunch for $7-$9. If you are lucky when you buy the tour, you can probably get the meal included in the cost of the tour ($25-$30), but you have to bargain this when you buy the ticket.
We will come back along the same road, but the scenery will be different since we will be looking in the opposite direction. The tour will stop at Uspallata for a cup of tea, or at the rafting area between Uspallata and Potrerillos, with time for rafting or for having tea, where there is a very nice complex. Each tour has different stops for tea. Most of them stop for breakfast at Uspallata, about half-way between Mendoza and our final destination.
If you have not done the Alta Montaña tour (Aconcagua, Las Cuevas, Cristo Redentor) you have missed one of the most beautiful spots in Argentina. Keep this in mind.
The buses that go to Chile pass through all these places, except the Cristo Redentor, that is not on the international road. There are local buses to both Uspallata and Las Cuevas (Expreso Uspallata), but you would not know where to get off or what to see. Their buses are comfortable.
However, the tour is definitely the best option. It cost $22 at that time, so I imagine that now it should cost $25-$30 per person. The tour to the Atuel Canyon in the south is rather more expensive because it travels over 300 miles and includes lunch at the Valle Grande Hotel and Resort in the tour price.
Enjoy your stay in Mendoza.