Why driving over the Andes is an experience to add to your bucket list
Crossing the Andes by road puts all those words we use so freely into their proper context. Awesome, amazing, breathtaking - it is all those things and more.
We crossed last November on the Santiago to Mendoza road with the team from Vina Montes to visit their Argentinian winery Kaiken. You drive slowly through the foothills then suddenly, dramatically start to climb up a series of hairpin bends. Curva no 1, curva 2 - I stopped counting but apparently there are 28. Our big Ford truck nipped in and out of the crawling trucks - it doesn’t pay to look over the edge.
The mountains around us were black and volcanic and of a terrifying power and size - slightly menacing even on a beautiful early summer’s day. It looked at any moment if the precariously balanced piles of boulders would come crashing down - a disaster movie waiting to happen.
At around 3000 metres we stopped at a Swiss style hotel the Portillo which overlooks a lake of intense acquamarine blue (right) - apparently due to the large amount of copper in the rock below. Suddenly life seemed bizarrely normal again - you have a beer or, if you’re driving, a coffee and cake but when I walked a few yards and back to take a shot of the mountains I was shocked at how breathless and slightly nauseous I felt. A touch of altitude sickness.
I somehow imagined you’d go right to the top of the Andes, like conquering Everest but in fact the mountains are always above you. You weave in and out of them through long tunnels.
You pass through the border then face Argentinian customs - a long and tedious process involving much cross-examination and form-filling. We were lucky being with Chileans who knew the ropes. The border officials often insist on inspecting the entire contents of your car or truck and there can be incredibly long queues. (There’s a good description of the experience here)
Once through that hurdle the landscape changed again, basalt rocks being replaced by sand-coloured ones with occasional dramatic streaks of colour glowing in the late afternoon light: pink, green, even a splash of canary yellow draped over a rock like a loosely folded shawl. The descent was much more gradual and less precipitous than the Chilean side.
We passed a long sheer vertical rock wall which turned out to be a glacier, formed where water must once have rushed through. Walking along the river bed among the small shrubby trees you could see the contours where the water had flowed, imagining what it would be like in full-flood. Apparently there had been little snow the previous winter - all the rivers were scarily dry.
After around 50km of this lunar landscape we unexpectedly hit a patch of green and were surprised to find a lively small town with shops (Uspallata). The tantalising smell of grilled meat by the roadside made it seem comfortably familiar and reassuring. Back to civilisation sooner than I’d thought, but in fact it was just a mountain village. The wild mountain road resumed for a couple more hours before we finally arrived in Mendoza (the whole journey took around six hours)
When we flew back to Chile two days later it only took 40 minutes, soaring up over the Andes, seeing them spread below us with their snowy peaks, the occasional dab of azure blue from those extraordinary lakes. That was pretty amazing too.
If you get the chance to do this, go. It's definitely one to add to the bucket list.
I was invited to Chile and Argentina by Vina Montes and Errazuriz
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