There are many reasons to visit Mendoza above and beyond going wine tasting. One of those reasons is the Andes. Mendoza City’s skyline is dominated by the impressive mountain range looming above it. Stretching the entire length of South America, the Andes also boasts the highest mountain in the Americas: Aconcagua. Situated conveniently close to Mendoza’s capital, you can visit this peak, and other mountain highlights with the Alta Montaña (High Mountain) Tour.
This full day tour starts with an early pick-up at your hotel in Mendoza, before setting off on the National Route 7, or Paso Internacional Los Libertadores, that connects Mendoza with Santiago, Chile. If this tour did nothing but drive this route it would be worth doing, because the scenery is absolutely spectacular. It is one of the most dramatic settings, with stark vegetation set against towering mountains of varied hues. As the tour crosses from the pre-Andes to the central range, and finally the mountains on the frontier with Chile, the mountains change colours, ending in white, with the highest mountains under a permanent blanket of snow.
As we drove along the road, besides the winding Mendoza River, our knowledgeable guide filled us in on the geography and history of the area, as well as the importance of the Mendoza River to the otherwise dry and desert-like Mendoza province. It’s incredible to think that all the greenness in the tree-lined city, not too mention the millions of rows of vineyards, are all watered by the Mendoza River.
This Andes excursion stopped first at the Potrerillos Dam, built as a back-up water source in case of low water levels in the river. After marvelling at the blue waters lapping at the base of the mountains, we moved on to Uspallata, where we stopped for a quick coffee and bathroom break. This strange little town, with a casino, a gas station, a few buildings and not too much else, serves an important purpose. Truck drivers using this pass – one of the most important trade routes in the southern half of the continent, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans – often have to stop at this point for days on end when the border closes due to bad weather in the mountains.
The history here is also important to the region, since this was one of the crossings down by General San Martin during the liberation of Chile and then later Peru. Although he himself crossed at another point in the Andes, this route was traversed by another group from the liberation army.
This area’s great historical importance is marked in the stops the tour makes. The tour wound down a dusty road off the National Route 7 to visit an old stone bridge built by the Spanish and used by messengers to cross the river as they passed through the mountains between Argentina and Chile. It is still in remarkably good condition, surrounded by an amphitheatre of mountains. Shortly past this point, the tour also passed the remains of an old fort – a reminder of this area’s military importance – before rejoining the main road.
The tour continued through more spectacular scenery, with a great sighting of Condors flying above us, and more multi-coloured hues and jagged peaks. The landscape started changing as we gained height, ascending the road alongside the old Transandine Railway, long out of service. This Alta Montaña Day Tour then made a stop at the Los Penitentes Ski Resort, situated right alongside the main road. While the ski slopes were not open at the time, since we were there outside winter season, there was still plenty of snow to see at the top of the mountain. Here there is a ski lift you can take to the top for spectacular views. This activity is optional and costs around $100 pesos. Because of the blistering cold wind (which was about to usher in a snowfall), our group did not take this option. In nicer weather, I imagine the panoramic views here would be breathtaking.
Finally we arrived to the Andes mountains’ star performer: Aconcagua. Considered to be the highest non-technical mountain in the world, the fact that summiting this peak doesn’t require much technical equipment means it is extremely popular with thrill-seeking hikers, who are looking for a challenge but aren’t quite up for Mount Everest. This mountain does come with its own dangers though: the cold and bad weather, as we found out when we reached the lookout point to Aconcagua only for most of the peak to be obscured in thick cloud, as the weather started worsening.
The good news about the weather, however, was that snow started falling as we left Aconcagua and headed to Las Cuevas, the town at the entrance to the tunnel to Chile. The bad news was this meant the tour itinerary had to be adjusted. As the world around us was softly coated in a layer of white, we tucked into a delicious and homely buffet lunch (cost not included), which did a good job of warming everyone up!
From here, we headed back down the pass to the Inca Bridge, or Puente del Inca, an incredible naturally formed bridge, caused by a steady erosion from the river and conflicting cold and heat from the nearby hotsprings. The area around the bridge is eerily desolate, yet peaceful. The hotel that once stood here, capitalising on the hotsprings, was destroyed by an avalanche. All that remains is the unscathed church and the tunnels under the bridge that led to the springs.
Finally we drove back along the same road, taking in the scenery from the opposite direction, which was no less impressive, before being dropped off at our hotel. Note that the Alta Montaña tour usually includes an additional activity, where you can walk from Las Cuevas to see the massive Christ the Redeemer of the Andes statue. Because of the conditions at the time at the top of the pass, the tour itinerary was altered for everyone’s safety. Please be aware this is always a possibility because of the unpredictability of weather at this altitude in the mountains.
This truly remarkable landscape is breathtaking, in its grand scale, quiet isolation, and striking scenery. While I went on the tour looking forward to seeing Aconcagua, in the end the highlight for me was the scenery during the drive, along with the tour guide’s narrative which added to my appreciation of this region. So if you’re in Mendoza, tear yourself away from the vineyards for a day to take in the Andes Mountains with this High Mountain Tour. I can highly recommend it!Click here to book this activity
Written by: Nicole Eberhard