Having travelled down to the Chilean capital of Santiago (which is as far south as I’m going to on this trip), it’s now time to start heading east, and finally go over the mighty mountain range that I’ve been following ever since northern Colombia. And what better place to do that virgin crossing (and pop my trans-Andean cherry) than in the shadow of the tallest mountain in the Americas.
Along with the Amazon jungle, the one geographical feature that defines South America is the Andes. The mountains travel the entire length of the continent (for over 7,000 kilometres), from the tropical Caribbean coast of Venezuela in the north to the fjords and glaciers of Patagonia in the south. In fact, they’re even longer than South America, with the Caribbean islands of the Netherlands Antilles being a northern extension of the range, plus the Chilean Antarctic islands of Diego Ramírez in the far south.
And almost everywhere I’ve travelled in this continent, the Andes have been there too (and they’ve accounted for many of my South American highlights). In so many of my photos, they’ve been in the picture somewhere, like a popular teenager in other kid’s selfies. In Colombia, the Spanish colonial towns of Barichara, Villa de Leyva, and Popayán are all nestled in amongst the mountains. The Cocora Valley, with its rolling hills and towering wax palms, is the perfect spot for a hike. And the ancient ruins of San Agustín and Tierradentro are scattered among the lonely hills of the country’s south.
Ecuador is where the Andes really start to look mountainous, with Cotopaxi (one of the highest active volcanoes in the world) and Chimborazo (the summit of which is the furthest point from the earth’s centre). Not to mention the spectacular crater lake of the extinct Quilotoa volcano, the bustling market town of Otavalo, and the white-washed buildings of Cuenca.
Peru has the highest mountain range in the tropics (the Cordillera Blanca), which contains the highest peak in the tropics (Huascarán); plus numerous turquoise glacial lakes. Further south are the colonial cities of Cusco and Arequipa, with the former being the start of the Sacred Valley, which has enough Inca ruins to satisfy a team of holidaying archaeologists (including the daddy of ’em all, Machu Picchu). And at the end of the country, bordering Bolivia, is the vast blue expanse of Lake Titicaca.
Further into Bolivia are more cobblestoned Spanish towns, like Sucre and Potosí (plus more cloudless blue skies and freezing cold nights). And in the far south-west are the salt lakes of Uyuni, and the smoking volcanoes, empty deserts, and strikingly-coloured lakes of the altiplano. And all that is just the northern half of the Andes.
Another 1,600 kilometres south of the Bolivian border (that’s 1,000 miles, and it’s still just a third of Chile’s total length!), past many more mountains (including the 6,900m Ojos del Salado, the world’s tallest active volcano), and I’m in Santiago. The city sits at the foot of the Andes, at just 500 metres above sea level. But such is the skinny shape of Chile that the mountains are never far away, and there are plenty of viewpoints from which to admire them – like the top of the 400m-high San Cristóbal hill (reached by cable car), or the 61st-floor viewing deck of Gran Torre Santiago (the tallest skyscraper in Latin America). The border with Argentina, where the highest peaks are located, is less than 100 km away, as the condor flies.
I spend most of the day before roaming around the less-than-salubrious surroundings of the international bus station. And that’s after I eventually find the damn place – every country in Latin America has its own local (and often strange) setup for bus terminals, and Chile is no exception. It’s not a problem in a small town (where there’s only one terminal), or a village (where everything on wheels just stops on the road, or at the football field); but in the cities, it can take as long to get to the bus station as it does to do the main journey. In Nicaragua’s cities, there’s a certain logic at work, with terminals at (roughly) the four cardinal points (so all buses north go from the northern terminal, and so on). In otherwise-modern and developed Costa Rica, every destination is served by many competing bus companies, and every company has its own terminal, somewhere – getting out of the underwhelming capital San José is akin to being stuck in the first of Dante’s Circles of Hell. South American countries seem to have combined the two systems, by having one or two terminals in each city – but inside each one there’s an array of windows for all the competing bus companies, all serving seemingly-random places, and all vying for customers’ attentions by shouting out their most popular destinations and waving their arms through the window gaps.
Finally, having found the appropriate terminal, and compared all the different companies and their schedules and prices (and then booked with the only vendor that actually had seats available for the following day), I’m all ticketed-up.
The next day is a Saturday, which is perhaps why most of the tickets were already booked; and what looks like most of Chile is on the move for the weekend. After fighting my way through the scrum of people and luggage, finding my bus, and settling down into my reclining seat (Chilean buses may be expensive, but they sure are comfy), we’re off. Very slowly, that is, through Santiago’s suburbs, out of the city, and north. At the appropriately-named town of Los Andes, we turn east, and head up through the vineyards and orchards of the Aconcagua Valley, made (and watered) by the Aconcagua River, as it flows from (you guessed it) Mount Aconcagua to the Pacific Ocean. Just before the border (after numerous ear-popping bends and switchbacks) is the ski resort of Portillo (empty and snowless, as it’s not the season). And then we’re here. Along with hundreds of other vehicles.
At over 3,000m, the pass (Paso Internacional de los Libertadores) is high enough to be cold and windy, even in the fierce daytime sun. I’ve eaten my complimentary bus snacks (a dubious-tasting luncheon meat sandwich, some dry biscuits, and a carton of juice), and I can’t face any more complimentary films (Eat, Pray, Love really should be called Watch, Cry, Vomit). And so I wander around outside, while the queue slowly moves forward at the front (whilst quickly getting longer at the back).
Eventually, we enter a tunnel, which becomes an enormous hangar-like building inside the mountains (rather like what Ernst Stavro Blofeld might build, if James Bond’s arch-nemesis were a civil servant instead of a supervillain), and where we line up and get stamped out of Chile. Bizarrely, Argentinian passport control is in a booth right next door the Chilean booth, so it’s all of five paces over an invisible line to another queue, to be stamped into Argentina. Then there’s the x-rays and the bag inspections, the bus searches, and the suspicious customs officers, and eventually we’re off again. It’s taken about three hours to get here from Santiago, and at least another three to get through the border.
Out of the tunnel, and it’s a gentle downhill all the way to Mendoza. Except, due to the late hour (and my desire to have one last day in the mountains), I’m disembarking before Mendoza, at the small town of Uspallata. Almost immediately after the border, we drive right past Aconcagua (the tallest mountain in the Americas), the natural stone bridge Puente del Inca, and the deserted ski resort of Los Penitentes. At Uspallata, I remind the driver and his assistant (for the umpteenth time) that I’m alighting here (as we’re speeding right through the town with no indication whatsoever of stopping); and he dutifully screeches to a halt so I can get off.
Uspallata is in the rain shadow of the Andes, which act as an impassable barrier to the warm, wet weather of the nearby Pacific. And it’s a hell of a long way from any moisture from the Atlantic side of the continent. Which is why the Chilean side this morning was green (and at higher elevations, white with snow), while the Argentinian side is mostly dry and brown. The Himalayas act the same way, preventing the wet weather of India from travelling north into Tibet – and the clear blue skies and sunburnt mountains here bear such a resemblance to the landscapes north of the Himalayas that much of the movie Seven Years in Tibet was filmed here (there’s even a Café Tibet in town, with leftover props and photos of Brad Pitt).
The next day, I take a local bus almost back to the border, but get off at the entrance to the national park. At 6,962m, Aconcagua is the tallest peak in the Americas, the tallest mountain in the southern and western hemispheres, and the tallest one outside of the Himalayas (I don’t want to p!ss on Aconcagua’s bonfire, but to put it in context, there are no 7,000m peaks outside of the Himalayas, and in the Himalayas there are over a hundred; so as big as Aconcagua is, it’s still not even in the Top 100 tallest mountains of the world).
I don’t have the two weeks it takes to climb ‘The Roof of the Americas’, but it doesn’t require any time or mountaineering skills or crampons to walk from the small-but-surprisingly-educational information centre to the lookout at Laguna Los Horcones, about 2km away. Aconcagua comes from an indigenous word meaning ‘stone sentinel’, and that’s just what it looks like, sitting alone at the end of the valley, a great hulking mass of rock and ice.
As lovely as the mountainous views and clear skies are, it’s windy up here. Really windy. With nothing but flat pampas between the Andes and the Atlantic coast, it’s permanently gusty. That factor, and the altitude, is perhaps why an average of 10 people die on the mountain every year, and between 2/3 and 3/4 of all climbers fail to summit it. But despite those risks, Aconcagua is perennially popular, as it’s part of the Seven Summits, the mountaineering challenge to climb each of the seven continents’ highest peaks. I won’t be attempting that anytime soon, so it’s back down to Uspallata, and the slightly less-demanding challenge of finding somewhere that sells wine…