On our second full day in Mendoza we were off at 7:30 AM from the hotel to start the long 3.5 – 4 hour drive. We would travel northwest on Highway 7 (road to Chile) along the Mendoza river valley as it climbed steadily through the foothills of the Andes. Our final destination was to drive up the old Uspallata Pass road to visit the famous Christ the Redeemer of the Andes monument which sits on the Argentine – Chile border at about 12,700-ft above sea level.
We had several stops along the way, the first stop was at a scenic overlook on Lake Potrerillos (man-made lake above Potrerillos hydro-electric dam). Our guides Ailin, Estefan and driver Horacio setup a small table and served us coffee and pastries with the scenic backdrop of Lake Potrerillos and surrounding mountains to enjoy.
A brief technical or “comfort” stop in the small town of Uspallata which is in a wide valley surrounded by larger, more rugged mountains leading to the high Andes.
Mapping out or day trip to the Andes
Coffee Break at Lake Potrerillos
Two additional stops before we reached our final destination. A stop at an observation point where we viewed Mount Aconcagua, at 22,837 ft., the highest mountain in the Americas and actually the highest outside of the Himalayas.
Another stop at Puente del Inca (Inca Bridge), a natural rock formation bridge at a mineral hot spring. The site is a bit touristy with many gift shops. The minerals from the hot springs have created colorful rock formations at the site. There is also an abandoned railroad station as well as ruins of a former hotel at the hot springs (hotel was demolished by an avalanche many years ago). The abandoned railroad station is part of a discontinued rail line that ran from Mendoza to Santiago Chile and much of the rail bed and infrastructure follows the Mendoza river and can be seen from Highway 7.
The drive to the top of Uspallata Pass was quite exciting. The dirt road has many sharp switchback curves as it winds its way up the the top. The road is barely wide enough for two vehicles, so it gets interesting when another car or bus is heading our way.
Our tour guide Estefan narrated the account of Argentina’s patriot, San Martin who led the Army of the Andes up this same pass to defeat Spanish forces in the early 19th Century and establish Argentina’s independence. Estefan is very passionate and knowledgeable about his country’s history and he likened San Martin to George Washington.
At the top we had time to explore, but it was extremely windy and a bit cold, so we huddled into one of the gift shops where Estefan had the vendors give us samples of some local drinks. It seemed both the cold drink and hot drink had some alcohol content, but don’t recall the local name of these drinks.
At this high altitude, we were a bit light headed and uncomfortable, so we didn’t stay too long before we started heading down to the base village where we would have lunch.
View from Uspallata Pass
Video recap of the drive to the top of Uspallata Pass
We got back down to the valley floor (a mere 7,000 ft above sea level) at the village of Las Cuevas where we had “hiker’s lunch” at Portezuelo del Viento, a hostel for backpackers and mountain climbers. The lunch was home cooked, Kathie had the chicken milanesa and I had the gnocchi. Of course, Malbec was the wine of choice.
Estefan introduced us to the owner, Juan Pablo Sarjanovich, who is a world class mountain climber, having climbed in the Himalayas and elsewhere. He is a guide who takes climbers up to nearby Mt. Aconcagua.
After this long day, we headed back to Mendoza and in the evening would have our farewell dinner.
Lunch at Portezuelo del Viento
The next morning we would be up early to get to the Mendoza airport for our flight to Montevideo. The Viking Cruise part of our trip ended and we would be on our own for the remaining week where we will tour Montevideo and Colonia Uruguay, then finishing our trip in Buenos Aires.