From Mendoza there is a natural route west through the imposing barrier of the Andes, which provides an important land link between Argentina and Chile
. This crossing is officially named "El Paso de la Cumbre" (Summit Pass), but is more often referred to as the "Pass of the Liberators". From way back in the middle of the 16th century, when the city of Mendoza was founded, this whole area came under Chilean jurisdiction. It was not until towards the end of the 18th century when the Spanish crown established the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata, centred on Buenos Aires as Capital, that the basis of modern day Argentina was created. However, control of the Viceroyalty by Spain was short-lived and by 1810 the revolutionary movement had started which was to culminate in the formal declaration of independence in 1816. Under the dynamic leadership of General José de San Martin the Liberation Army of the Andes streamed through the Pass on their way to a glorious and triumphant liberation of Chile from the tyranny of the imperial Castillian yoke. Not that everyone necessarily lived happily ever after, but this particular route through the Andes played a significant historical role in the political development of Spanish-speaking South America.
Before the snowy summits start, the beginning of the pass is marked by the small mountain town of Uspallata, and this is where we set up our base for exploring the area. It is a rather desolate sort of crossroads town at about 5,500 ft altitude, whose most recent claim to fame is that it served as the location for the filming of Annaud's "Seven Years in Tibet"starring a young and ruggedly handsome Brad Pitt
. The surrounding area of spectacular sierra and multi-hued rocky hillsides easily pass as the highland Asian setting for the epic movie, and presumably filming here did not incur the wrath of the Chinese Authorities. Heading further up the pass we were often reminded of the San Martin campaign by Liberation Route historical markers, and of even earlier times when we arrived at the Puente del Inca. This naturally formed bridge was used by the Incan armies as they penetrated south during the late 15th century in their conquest of the Diaguita and other indigenous people of the southern Andes. Today this natural rock feature is a major tourist attraction, and at one point had a thriving hot springs spa constructed alongside. Flooding has long since rendered the infrastructure derelict, but the glowing rusty-orange sulphur deposits and the mildly acidic warm waters continue to sculpt and etch new perspectives on the underlying rock formations. Just above the bridge the simple stone chapel dedicated to "Our Lady of the Snow" provides a few moments of peaceful sanctuary from the stream of tourists visiting the souvenir stands and other somewhat tacky attractions that have sprung up in the area.
Further on up the pass the small resort of Las Cuevas is dwarfed by the surrounding icy peaks, and we turned back just before reaching the border with Chile - a tunnel that has replaced the original hairpin road over the summit
. No hassles with Customs and Immigration for us today! We had to take a raincheck on a visit to the Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) statute which was erected in the mountains at 13,000 ft altitude after this particular border dispute was settled in 1902. The views are reputedly outstanding from the vantage point of the statue, but unfortunately the access road is generally closed by snow except for the high summer months of January and February.
Instead, we opted for a stroll in the park - Parque Provincial Aconcagua. This 70,000 ha Park protects the environment of the wild country surrounding the highest peak in the Western Hemisphere, commonly referred to as the 'Roof of the Americas' - Cerro Aconcagua at 22,829 ft. We spent the afternoon hiking one of the park trails. Most of the time the snow was only a few inches deep, but sometimes we were slogging through accumulated drifts of a couple of feet - should have thought to bring our snowshoes! We struggled somewhat in the thin mountain air, but thoroughly enjoyed the bright sunshine and wide open spaces with nary a soul in sight. Our thoughts turned to Mike, and of how much he would have loved this unspoilt country. He used to relish spending hours as a teenager cross-country skiing through the bush behind our farm, with just Jem his dog as companion. It also brought back memories of how he would wake us up after midnight to say that he was going skating to clear his head after a long evening of studying (or more likely playing computer games!)
. He'd walk down to the creek with a snow shovel, his hockey stick and puck, and clear enough snow to spend an hour or two shooting pucks at an imaginary net in the bright moonlight. No wonder he excelled at winter bush survival during his time with Air Cadets!
On our way out of the park we stopped to lend a helping hand to a Chilean family who had managed to get their 4 x 4 stuck in the snow near the entrance. With the aid of our trusty MEC folding shovel and a bit of extra muscle power, they were soon on their way heading through the pass back to Santiago. We took the opposite direction and were soon ensconced in our cozy cabaña in Uspallata for the night. The next day we made our leisurely way down out of the mountains to Mendoza by the back way through the Caracoles - a scenic road with spectacular panoramic views, and reputedly 365 curves and hairpins (don't worry, we gave up counting after the first dozen or two). We stopped to check out the Natural Reserve established by the Villavincencio bottling company to protect the source of their pristine mineral waters, which grace the tables in most cafés and restaurants around Mendoza.
Once we were back down to the desert plain and within 40 km of the city, it seemed that every tree alongside the road that provided some measure of shade had been claimed by an Argentinean family enjoying an afternoon picnic. At each spot the campfire parrillada had been fired up and the menfolk were busy barbequing the usual huge assortment of steaks, sausages, ribs, intestines, sweetbreads and kidneys for their carnivorean Sunday treat. The tantalizing aromas in the air reminded us that after our exertions in the snow maybe we deserved a culinary treat of our own - our customary Sunday evening boiled eggs and toast!
Before we set out back east across the pampa towards Córdoba and Buenos Aires we felt we needed to bid farewell to good friends that have been at our side for most of the past year - the Andes. We were first introduced on this trip in Ecuador, and we have since spent a lot of time getting to know each other in Peru, Bolivia, Chile and especially in Argentina. From the amazing active volcanoes in the Cordillera Real south of Quito, to the magnificent snowy peaks of the Cordillera Blanca north of Lima, and then the jagged summits of the FitzRoy Range, the stunning glaciers and icebergs of Perito Moreno, and the spectacular pillars of Torre del Paine all in the Cordillera Patagonica - these natural beauties have provided some of our most memorable highlights to date. How could we drive away without a farewell party? So what better than a hike in the snow!