In my Roaming Argentina journal, I described a bus trip from La Quiaca to Mendoza. Essentially, the trip from Salta to Mendoza needed for this trip is not different and equally spectacular, crossing the Argentinean northwest very close to the Andes Range. Eventually, after crossing Catamarca, La Rioja, and San Juan, Mendoza is reached.
Before reaching it, Mendoza statistics seemed impressive: it is Argentina’s fourth largest city. That’s true, but the town has just above a hundred thousand inhabitants. Even including its metropolitan area, it doesn’t reach the million people. Yet, it offers a few interesting views, especially from an historic perspective. In 1861 a major earthquake hit the city, killing more than five thousand people and destroying much of its center. As a result the city was rebuilt in an urban design aimed at minimizing the damage of future earthquakes. A huge park named Parque General San Martín was built at its western side and the town’s center features larger parks and wider streets than any other in Argentina. In its style, it is the role-model of an Argentinean city.
Being on the main route connecting Buenos Aires in Argentina with Santiago in Chile and nearby the Aconcagua Mountain – the highest in the Americas – ensure Mendoza a steady stream of tourists. Other industries like oil and uranium transform the city into the main urban area in Argentina’s central western side.
Mendoza was re-built around a central square, called Plaza Independencia in this case. A perfect grid of 8x8 blocks surrounds it and forms downtown Mendoza, in what is known as classical Spanish Colonial style. The four avenues delimiting the downtown are: Las Heras, San Martin, Colon and Belgrano, most of the commercial and cultural centers are within this square. A stylish Shopping Tranvia bus travels along them during the day. A walking street called Sarmiento runs through half of its center and is the focus of social life in the area.
A dangerous characteristic that must be kept in mind while touring the town is the deep and often wide open ditches running along the streets. Aimed at supplying water to the trees, they pose a real danger to innocent visitors; there was no reason to leave them uncovered. For other attractions in the downtown area, please see my Mendoza journal.
In Nepal I have walked for three weeks among the highest mountains on earth and then got a breathtaking view of a Goliath. All the mountains around me were white with snow, except for the colossus. The Everest was so high that the wild winds prevented the snow to stick on its top; the last shone black amidst a sea of white peaks, a white plume of drifting snow crowned the mountain. I watched that from near the Pumari (a mountain that is higher than the Aconcagua and well over the 7000 meters), another giant which near the Everest looked as a small hill. In sharp contrast, the Aconcagua is just one of the many peaks in the Andes higher than 6500m but lower than 7000m. Without having been told it was the highest, I couldn’t have known that. Having traveled there by bus from a major city also took away part of the fun.
Moreover, the Nepali side of the Himalayas enjoys monsoon rains and thus is lush green and densely inhabited. It is a feast of life. However, the Andes are generally dry, with very few people living on them. The brown altitude desert is not an attractive place for trekking. Yet, I was there, trying to spot the summit. The Aconcagua was almost completely hidden behind its neighbors and at least from the Mirador’s area none of the glaciers could be seen. Moving around the place, I finally got a clear view of the snowed peak but the overall effect was a bit disappointing.
A small hut with a slanted roof marks the spot of the Mirador. It is located at the exact beginning of the road leading from the highway to the Aconcagua’s base camp.
After the bus disappeared, I entered the hut.
"Which peak is the Aconcagua?" I asked the couple keeping the place.
They showed me around, and I found the hut offers information regarding the mountain and how to climb it, but nothing else. Then, we went out and they show me the Aconcagua summit.
"How did you arrive here before the first bus?" the traveler in me wanted to ask. There were no cars in sight. Thinking twice, I said thank you and left for a walk in the area.
Puente del Inca
A couple of kilometers before the Mirador, the Puente del Inca (Inca’s Bridge) is a natural bridge of a sulfuric yellow color spanning the narrow Vacas (cows) River.
Apparently it was an official stop of Inca messengers connecting remote locations of that empire. Nowadays, it serves as a small commercial center catering for travelers and climbers; it offers snacks, souvenirs and a lodge.
This is the last opportunity for a coffee before visiting the Mirador; otherwise, it is possible to walk a couple of kilometers down the road from the Mirador to the Puente, drink a coffee there, and then catch the bus to Mendoza from there.
The Puente del Inca was one of the last stations of the Transandine Railway in Argentina, before the train reached Chile through a long tunnel under the Andes. As most of the passengers’ trains in the country, it does not work anymore, though eternally delayed reactivation plans do exist.
When active, a journey from Argentina to Chile involved two breaks-of-gauge and changes of train, one at Mendoza and the other at Santa Rosa de Los Andes in Chile. This is similar to what happens with several trains in China, especially in Yunnan, where three types of gauges are in use.
This meter gauge railway is an impressive sight, especially since it is partly covered by an artificial tunnel designed to protect the train from the harsh winter. Walking alongside the tunnel is possible and recommended since along it are awesome sights of the surrounding mountains and valleys, perhaps better than those at the Puente del Inca and the Mirador del Aconcagua.
Back to Buenos Aires
Was that all? Is that the way a trip crossing South America ends? Well, Argentina is vast. If having time, the trip back to Buenos Aires can be spiced up with two interesting stops: Tucuman and Cordoba; both can be reached by bus from Mendoza.
Few cities in Argentina have an historical importance comparable to that of Tucuman. Since its peak days during the early 19th century the city has been constantly declining in prominence; yet, with half a million denizens, it is the largest city in Northern Argentina. Moreover, the fertile plains surrounding it provide few touristy attractions. These have transformed Tucuman into a paradise for the tourist attempting to avoid crowds fighting for the best photograph’s angle while nearby they can purchase it as a postcard. Despite its mild latitude, Tucuman is very hot, maybe due to the lack of a moderating sea nearby; the result is that during the noon and early afternoon the denizens are busy with their siesta. There is no better time for the worldwide pilgrim for taking a look around. Downtown Tucuman is tidily arranged around the Plaza Independencia, the central plaza. This was the site of the city foundation in 1685, after being translated here from Ibatin; accordingly the plaza displays a colonial setup. Being the main travel hub in northern Argentina, most travelers in the area would reach it at some point or other.
Cordoba’s image transformation in my mind from an unknown to a riddle took years. I knew that together with Rosario it was considered to be the on the second line of importance amidst Argentinean cities after Buenos Aires. Both had over a million denizens and while Rosario was an industrial center, Cordoba was known for its universities. Once there, I found an agreeable town, not too different from other Argentinean major cities.
Visiting Spanish-Speaking Southern South America in a month is not difficult, unless of course, the traveler falls in love with the sights along the way and the trip goes on until the end of time.