Crossing the Andes has long been the stuff of legend; a daunting task for the bravest pioneer climbers. The steepness to such high elevation and the harsh climate amidst rugged rock faces throughout this imposing South American range have provided a barrier that is especially difficult to traverse. If you’re a passenger in a coach on the trans-national highway, you often have serious doubts about whether you’ll reach your destination.
There is a single, skinny roadway crossing the 3800-metre high range between Santiago and Mendoza, linking Chile with Argentina. This crude slab of tarmac is slashed by about 30 switchbacks, and is constantly heaving with heavy transport and overcrowded passenger vehicles. It is often closed because of the danger posed by rocks falling due to storms. You can see machine wreckage as you pass by.
It is especially hard to relax when, after noticing more than a few burned-out metal skeletons of cars and buses, we see a crowd of vehicles stopped ahead. A host of onlookers is peering forlornly into the ravine, and as we pass, we notice a freshly-crushed vehicle still smoldering.
This upsetting scene is out of sight in a fleeting moment as the bus lurches violently around the next switchback. It is enough for any passenger to feel queasy, except perhaps for the patient grandmothers sitting opposite, calming sucking on a jar of the mild herbal infusion they call ‘mate’ – crushed green leaves brewed in hot water. If they see you looking anxious, they lean across with a smile and offer you a suck on their metal straw. It is most impolite to decline.
It is more calming to become mesmerised by the geology, with rock faces shooting high above us at dramatic angles. Ancient they may be, but they appear new, raw and alive. There is no vegetation up this high, only sheer faces glistening in the sunlight and crumbled rock debris. Among the grey pebbles, we notice the odd tower threaded by a wire. This is a ski resort in the winter – Escuela de Alta Montana, with basic hut accommodation, where technical training is conducted for mountaineers and the military. It is bereft of luxury.
Realising that a ski run sits atop the highway reminds me that this stretch would be especially treacherous in winter – and reminds me that there are snowstorms here even during the summer. It is the most rugged country imaginable; Aconcagua (the highest mountain in the Americas) is visible next to the road.
Still, it is a thrill to see all of this in daylight. We had earlier made the east-bound journey through the night, having no idea about the terrain, except for the constant lurching and weaving of our bus, negotiating hairpin bends. Our only relief from this was the bizarre border crossing from Chile to Argentina – Paso Los Libertadores, where Chile Route 60 becomes Argentina Route 7. Within a giant shed at 3200 metres, everyone disembarks, all the luggage is removed, and then you escort your bags down a table before they are opened and all of their contents examined. It is 2am in freezing darkness at the crown of the Andes, and the process is maddeningly slow and inefficient. You shiver in the gloom and wait in silence.
It is not until you are deep into Argentina, having driven through a three-kilometre tunnel carved beneath the mountain, that you understand the significance of the mountain pass name. As you exit the tunnel, a four-tonne statue of Christ the Redeemer of the Andes (Cristo Redentor de los Andes) makes an imposing monument, erected in 1904 on the encouragement of the Catholic Church to remind warring Chileans and Argentinians of their Christian kinship.
The bus journey may be long, but is well worth it, because it takes you to the glorious wine country of Mendoza – one of South America’s great surprises, since the region is home to more than one million people and 900 wineries.
It looks like the Canterbury Plains in New Zealand’s south island – big blue skies over flat alluvial high plains, with dramatic snow-capped peaks in the near distance – although the elevation is much higher at 1000 metres.
The predominant wine here is malbec, and you will taste unique artisan styles because most of the wine produced in Argentina is consumed domestically. Therefore, the vast majority of Mendoza’s wineries – and the 40,000 labels that are produced – have never been introduced to Australia. And so, upon arriving in Mendoza with a decent thirst, a very different type of Andes exploration begins
All photos by David Sly – All Rights Reserved