Aconcagua – the Summit of the Americas

My plan today was simple – to drive off to Aconcagua National Park to see the highest mountain in the Americas. It was a three-hour drive away, but this turned out to be one of the highlights of my trip so far. The road led west into the Andes, first passing through the foothills….

Approaching the Andes
In the Foothills

As I climbed, the scenery became increasingly rugged and spectacular……..

Reaching the high mountain

The road was beautiful almost all the away along its 190km length. I am a small teddy, but I felt much smaller as I contemplated the majestic landscapes. Shortly before my destination, there is a quirky natural rock bridge called Puente del Inca that I visited briefly. It was popular with people taking a break from the long drive from Mendoza to Santiago in Chile.

Puerta del Inca

The entrance to the park was just before the Chilean border. I found to my surprise that you needed to pre-register a visit on the internet. This must have been a new procedure, since it wasn’t mentioned in any of the websites I had seen or my guidebook. Luckily there was a small shop next to the park office, which had wifi (no mobile signal here!) and the friendly owner helped me navigate through the park authority’s registration website. The permit I bought allowed me to walk a short distance into the park to a point with a great view of the mountain – going in any further would require a very expensive climbing permit. The park ranger told me that the walk would take around 2 hours – especially for someone with little legs like me. However, his advice was based on visitors who were not acclimatised to the 3000m altitude; since I had already spent several days in mountains, I could walk much faster and got there in under an hour. I smugly passed several other walkers, who were struggling for breath.

On the way to Aconcagua
Aconcagua comes into view….
A selfie to prove I was there!

The mountain soon came into view. It is 6,960m tall (increasing by 2cm per year!) and easily the highest mountain in the Americas. Although it is very high, it is supposed to be technically an easy climb; I had been briefly tempted by this idea until I discovered that at least 10 days acclimatisation to extreme altitude is needed before attempting it.

I was lucky to have brilliant sunshine; as with any tall mountain, the top of Aconcagua is often covered in cloud. I soon reached the bridge that marked the end of the route for non-climbers. I stopped for half an hour to admire the view and met some new friends…….

The Magnificent Aconcagua
Mountain, Bear and Bear’s New Friends

The drive back was equally spectacular, giving a different perspective to the mind-blowing views I had seen on the way up.  

The way back was just as impressive as the outward trip

I finally arrived in Mendoza, returned my hire car, and headed to Western Union for some more pesos. I was both lucky and unlucky – they just had enough money left in their branch to pay my latest transfer but had to resort to paying part of my 200,000 pesos with (a lot of) 100 peso notes. I left with all of my pockets filled with wads of cash.

It was now time for dinner. I was tired of eating meat and wanted to have fish for a change.  My guidebook had listed seafood or vegetarian restaurants for all the towns I had visited so far, but these recommendations had all closed! It seems that the life expectancy of a restaurant not serving meat is very short in Argentina. A long internet search revealed one (and only one) restaurant that specialised in seafood, so I headed there to have a nice paella.

More Mendoza Street Life

Back in my flat I collapsed into bed and fell fast asleep. I was very tired. So far, almost every day of my holiday had started early, finished late, and involved lots of driving. There was so much to do, and the never-ending display of beautiful landscapes was almost overpowering. It was getting harder and harder to write my blog. I resolved to take it a bit easier at my next destination, Bariloche in Argentina’s lake district.

Mendoza – Argentina’s biggest wine region

From Cachi, I was thinking of driving along a large loop around to the south to visit the wine growing area of Cayafate, but after the long drive through the desert, I realised that I did not have time. So instead I retraced my steps to Salta airport along the same road I used when I came. It was another chance to absorb some brilliant mountain and desert scenery.

More mountain scenery

My flight left on time and I arrived in Mendoza in the early evening. I stayed in a quirky house that was 100-years old and still partially occupied by its friendly owner, who bombarded me with information about what to do in the city. Mendoza is a pleasant, rather laid-back city laid out along a grid with several pleasant parks and with lots of outdoor cafes and restaurants.

Mendoza Street Scene
One of Mendoza’s pleasant squares

In itself, it would be a nice place but not a major tourist destination. People come here for two things – the vineyards around the city and Aconagua National Park, a three-hour drive towards Chile into the mountains.

On my first day, I decided to check out the wine growing area. There are several to choose from. The closest to the city are Maipu (very close to the centre) or Luyan de Cuyo, where wine has been made for a hundred years. I chose to make a one hour drive to the Valle de Uco, where production only started in the 1990s.  The road first went along the busy and boring RN40, before turning off onto smaller provincial roads lined with trees and surrounded by vineyards and mountains.

Driving through the Uco Valley

I decided to visit the Salentein estate, which was founded by a Dutch expat who fell in love with the area – the owners claimed he was the very first wine producer in Uco, although others also claim this title.The estate had a visitor centre with restaurant and art gallery (it seems many of the estates invest in art), where I spend time before my tour started.

Many of the Estates have Art Collections

Outside of the visitor centre we were surrounded by vines and, in the distance, the Andean foothills.

Salentein Estate’s vineyards

The guide explained that the valley offered many different climates depending upon the altitude, with each area having its own types of grapes and styles of wine. We walked through the fields to a large, low, modern building where wines are fermented, then stored in oak barrels and bottled.

It was an interesting construction, designed to resemble a cathedral, with four wings leading off from a central area where wine-tasting concerts are performed. Most of the structure was underground, and the total volume was much bigger than its looked from the outside.

Inside the “wine cathedral”

It was hot outside – maybe 30C – but inside, the temperature was pleasantly cool. This was achieved naturally through clever ventilation and without air-conditioning. There was a very pleasant, almost overpowering smell of wine permeating the cool air.

Fermentation in Steel Vats….
First maturation in wooden barrels
Further maturation in smaller barrels
Storage of bottles…

After visiting the various steps in the wine-producing process it was the time everyone had been waiting for – tasting! The estate offered some of their best wines showing the different styles they could produce.

Tasting! Before….

I am very happy that I had invited my editorial assistant to join me on the tour; it meant that I could drink, whilst my driver-assistant had to taste and spit. After the tasting, we were of course invited to visit the shop. I chose to buy a bottle of Petit Verdot, a grape usually found in blends but here offered on its own. Back in my house in Mendoza I enjoyed my purchase with some sausage and cheese in my private patio. A nice way to end a day devoted to wine.

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