Some of the Most Vibrant Mountain Scenery in Argentina
One thing is certain – if you find the scenery in this part of Argentina a bit barren and boring, just drive on a few kilometres and be prepared to be stunned once again! We left the ‘ripio’ (and our beloved Araucarias ) behind, and joined Ruta 40 about 30 Km south of the town of Chos Malal. As we left that town, we both commented that the vista was somewhat uninspiring after the rivers, lakes, mountains and volcanoes of the previous days… We drove on just enjoying the smoother ride. The next place marked on our map is Buta Ranquil – not much of a town, more of a spread out community – and after that the scene changed dramatically.
The word that came to my mind was ‘VAST’! The mountains seemed to go on into the distance forever. We were in the river basin of the Rio Colorado soon after it is formed by the confluence of Rio Barrancas and Rio Grande. The Rio Colorado runs right across Argentina to the Atlantic Ocean and is the northern boundary of Patagonia. And the colours and formations of the mountains here are amazing. It is sometimes frustrating that the colours don’t come out as well in photos as they are in reality, and the vastness of the formations are also difficult to capture. But the experience is breathtaking, as the awesome scenery changes around every bend in the road.
We came upon a sign to a mirador (lookout), which appeared to be fairly close to the road, along a dirt track. We took it because, as we often remind ourselves, we will probably only come this way once. It was actually a couple of kilometres of narrow, sometimes rough, track – only just wide enough for Berta – that had looked from the road like about 500m. The parking lot was also quite steep, and then we had to walk up a rocky path to the top, but the view was worth it. The Rio Barrancas in its enormous canyon was below us, to the left and to the right.
The mirador had a number of signs with information in Spanish and English about the geological development of this region. The most interesting explanation concerned the formation and subsequent partial destruction of Laguna Cari Lauquen, somewhat further up-river from where we were. The lake was formed over 2000 years ago when a seismic event caused an enormous landslide which formed a natural dam across Rio Barrancas. In 1914, the snow-melt from an unusually heavy winter filled the lake to overflowing and the massive amount of water broke the natural dam, flooded the river, and devastated communities downstream. The town below us was totally destroyed.
We could also see a bridge across it at the village of Barrancas, which would take us into Mendoza Province, leaving Neuquen Province (through which we had been travelling since crossing into Argentina) and Patagonia behind.
We had been enjoying the paved road and hoped it would continue, but had noticed on our map that there should be an unpaved section ahead. About 40Km into Mendoza there was a sign saying roadwork for the next 40 Km and the ripio began again. It was a busier road than the unpaved roads we had been travelling and passing traffic caused dust that made it impossible to see where we were going!
The scenery on this part did make up for the dust and poor road. We followed the Rio Grande for most of the way and it is a truly stunning river; the mountains were once again showing amazing colours and shapes; there were masses of black volcanic rock everywhere; and at one point, there were even sand dunes. The river changed forms a number of times. Sometimes it flowed between low banks, at others it had cut steep cliffs that changed from bright red sandstone to black volcanic rock. We reached pavement again and crossed a small bridge that announced the Rio Grande – it didn’t seem wide enough. But when we got out and looked, it was flowing through a very narrow, but very deep canyon. A short time later it spread out meandering through several channels in a wide valley. It’s truly amazing what flowing water can create!
We parted ways with the river in Bandas Blancas and from then on we drove a relatively new and rather straight road across a plateau, where we saw a lot of oil wells, and a few donkeys, and not much else. Descending from the plateau, we went down a rather spectacular switchback road on the way into Malargüe. Just before we arrived in Malargüe, we stopped for a complete hill of little ‘god kennels’. This is our pet name for the shrines you see along the roadside because many of them are made from prefabricated plastic or sheet metal dog kennels. Juergen is making a collection of photos of these for a future post.
The rough roads we had been driving had caused a few problems for Berta and we urgently needed to get them repaired. Malargüe was one of the first larger towns we had come to for a while but when we arrived, it was still siesta. So we filled in time walking about the deserted streets and, when it was over, went searching for someone to reattach the wheel housings and repair a weld on our spare wheel holder. We found a great place eventually and the two guys set to work immediately. Of course it was almost 8 pm when they finished and we had to find somewhere to sleep! Strange hours these Argentinians keep. We eventually found a spot and settled in for the night amid rocket growing like a weed. A woman from a nearby house came out and when Juergen went to speak to her she was concerned that it would be too windy where we had parked and maybe we would like to move closer to her house and the windbreak.
Although we didn’t sleep that well – too many dogs – we decided to spend another day there. The energy of the town was nice, we were hoping to find some useful internet and we needed a rest day. The tourist office provided us with the password to their internet and we set up our table and chairs on the grass under a tree just outside the office. It was a lovely place to sit in the heat of the day. We found a different sleeping place and after we were set up a local came to chat with Juergen. He was so impressed by the camper that he asked to look inside and took a lot of photos. Then he went home and came back with a bottle of homemade tomato salad and a jar of peach jam. We are really meeting some friendly Argentinians this time – and not at midnight!
After some of the majestic, stunning scenery we have had, the road to San Rafael was not so breathtaking. We turned off the Ruta 40 at El Sosneado to take the 144 into San Rafael, which was also not a city to really remember. We drove straight into the centre. It was siesta so the roads were basically empty. After siesta we went looking for tobacco – the endless quest… The city centre is well organised, it has all the shops you could want, but it’s not that interesting.
On the way in we had seen a YPF station as a potential overnight place, probably with WiFi, most of them seem to have it. So we headed back to it, although the going was a bit more hectic since after siesta the city returns to business as usual. Juergen went to chat with the owner and found that he spoke perfect English and was very welcoming, although he advised us not to park out the back, but rather where we could be seen. We slept quite well but the station was open early and so we were also awake. The owner and his friend came over for a chat. Interesting guys who have known each other from school – their families both originate in England and they both speak unaccented English with very few errors. They were very friendly.
From San Rafael to Mendoza the area was much more populated than we had experienced since we left San Martin de Los Andes . There was a lot of agriculture: vineyards, fruit orchards, and fields of vegetables. We also passed through a number of medium sized towns, rather than the villages we had been seeing. Before long we realised that we were on the outskirts of the metropolis that is Mendoza.