Exploring the Río Mendoza Valley

A lone tree on a grassy plain with light filtering through clouds to highlight the distant foothills.

Uspallata in late afternoon. Photo © sajatan, licensed Creative Commons Attribution No-Derivatives.

For locals, the upper Río Mendoza valley makes a nearby getaway, but almost everyone finds it a diverse recreational destination.

Cacheuta

Since the realignment of RN 7 (the Panamericana to Chile) for expansion of a hydroelectric and irrigation reservoir on the Río Mendoza, Cacheuta has become an end-of-the-road destination for its hot springs hotel—other places that depended on through traffic have closed—and the rafting company on the river’s lower reaches. At 1,237 meters above sea level, Cacheuta is 36 kilometers southwest of Mendoza.

Betancourt Rafting (Lavalle 35, Local 8, Mendoza, tel. 0261/429-9665 or 0261/15-559-1329) descends the river below the dam for about US$18–58 pp, depending on difficulty and time on the water; it also does trekking, mountain biking, and horseback riding in Potrerillos. Its base address is Ruta Panamericana Km 26, Blanco Encalada, Luján de Cuyo.

Cacheuta’s only permanent accommodations, Hotel Termas Cacheuta (RP 82 Km 39, tel. 02624/49-0153, US$150 s, US$255 d, with full board, some drinks extra) is an all-inclusive resort offering thermal baths, massage, and various recreational programs including hiking and mountain biking. Nonguests may use the facilities for US$45–50 pp, but lunch and transportation from Mendoza are extra.

Next to the police station, Mi Montaña serves fine pasta at reasonable prices. Nearby El Coirón has also drawn praise.

Potrerillos

Since RN 7’s southerly realignment, it’s longer (in distance) but shorter (in time) to Potrerillos, the upper Río Mendoza’s whitewater rafting, kayaking, and river-boarding center. Now 53 kilometers from the provincial capital—about eight kilometers farther than it used to be—Potrerillos (pop. about 300, elev. 1,351 meters) is growing because the Embalse de Potrerillos, a hydroelectric project, has relocated displaced people in sharp new houses with fine views and finer conveniences than they’ve ever had before. Whether once-isolated rural people will prosper in their new village environment on an international highway is another issue entirely.

Windsurfing is gaining popularity on the reservoir, but water sports are not the only recreational option. Winding RP 89, which leads south to the wine country of Tupungato, is a scenically spectacular and little-traveled mountain bike route—though this stiff climb would be easier from the other side. It’s also close to the modest ski area of Vallecitos.

Raging with runoff from the snowmelt of the high Andes, the Class III-plus Río Mendoza reaches its peak of about 2,000 cubic meters per second in the late spring and summer months of December and January. At this volume, the water is high enough that there aren’t many rapids, but it’s fast enough and the waves large enough to provide an enthralling rafting or kayaking experience.

There are now three main Potrerillos-based operators: Argentina Rafting Expediciones (Perilago s/n, tel./fax 02624/48-2037; Primitivo de la Reta 992, Local 4, Mendoza, tel. 0261/429-6325), directly on the old highway; Mendoza Rafting (RN 7 Km 555); and nearby Ríos Andinos (RN 7 Km 55, tel. 0261/429-5030 in Mendoza). Ríos Andinos has a bar-restaurant and may add accommodations in the future.

Rafting excursions come in various lengths, ranging from one-hour trips (US$18–23) starting nearby to three-hour descents (US$55–65) from Cerro Negro and even overnighters from Uspallata. Companies also arrange hiking, horseback riding, and other activities.

Uspallata

From the west, the long lines of Lombardy poplars flanking RN 7 offer a dramatic approach to Uspallata, a crossroads village in an area that, thanks to its resemblance to the central-Asian highlands, enjoyed 131 minutes of cinematic fame as the base for French director Jean-Jacques Annaud’s movie (and Brad Pitt vehicle) of Heinrich Harrer’s memoir Seven Years in Tibet. Annaud airlifted in yak extras from Montana for the filming, which journalist Orville Schell chronicled in his Virtual Tibet (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2000).

Since losing out to Luján de Cuyo as a zona franca (duty-free zone) for exports to Valparaíso, Chile, Uspallata (pop. 3,284) has returned to its pre-Hollywood tranquility. In a broad valley surrounded by colorful Andean peaks, 1,751 meters above sea level, it is 52 kilometers northwest of Potrerillos.

While westbound RN 7 continues to Parque Provincial Aconcagua and the Chilean border, RP 39 leads north into remote parts of San Juan Province; RP 52 makes a 102-kilometer loop back to Mendoza via the Villavicencio hot springs on a route followed by San Martín’s army in crossing the Andes to liberate Chile, and later by Charles Darwin in crossing the Andes from Santiago. The RP 52 loop is probably a safer route for cyclists than RN 7, which has several tunnels and heavy truck traffic.

There’s little to see in Uspallata proper, which is primarily a service center along RN 7, but several nearby sights form a collective, loosely defined museum with erratic hours and a small admission fee. About two kilometers north of the highway junction, the Bóvedas Históricas Uspallata contains a series of conical kilns used for metallurgy during the 17th century, but even before the Spanish invasion the local Huarpe population processed local ores here. The kilns themselves are a museum that contains a series of dioramas on General Gregorio de Las Heras’s trans-Andean campaign in support of San Martín (several key battles took place nearby), but also includes exhibits on mineralogy and the indigenous Huarpe. Descriptions are in Spanish and fractured English.

Los Penitentes

Westbound RN 7 splits the settlement of Penitentes, the main base for Aconcagua-bound trekkers and climbers in summer, and for skiers in winter.

Affiliated with Mendoza’s Campo Base Hostel, the Hostel Refugio Penitentes (tel. 0261/429-0707), just west of the YPF gas station, is open all year; summer rates range US$9–11 pp dorm, but ski season rates with half board are the best value in town.

Penitentes’s best accommodations, the 50-room Hotel Ayelén (RN 7 Km 165, tel. 02624/42-0229, summer US$80 s, US$97 d) also has a restaurant, but the spacious rooms have limited views. Accommodations include shuttle service to and from the park entrance, and they also offer other excursions in the vicinity.

Nearby, under the same management, Hostería Ayelén (tel. 0261/427-1123 or 0261/427-1283, US$28–38 pp) is a cheaper but still very good alternative with accommodations in doubles, quadruples, and sextuples with private baths; it also has an inexpensive pizzeria.

Puente del Inka

Seven kilometers west of Penitentes, also split by RN 7, Puente del Inka takes its name from the natural bridge over the Río Mendoza that once held a rustic hot springs. Since detection of a fissure in the bridge, though, it’s closed to the public except for photographs—from a distance, for safety reasons.

It’s also notable for the Cementerio de los Andinistas, the climbers’ cemetery that reminds visitors that Cerro Aconcagua demands the respect—and sometimes the lives—of intending summiteers (not all those buried here died on the mountain, though—some chose this as their final resting place). At 2,720 meters above sea level and 177 kilometers west of Mendoza, it’s the closest settlement to the Horcones entrance to Parque Provincial Aconcagua, but Penitentes has more abundant and better accommodations and food.

Puente del Inka enjoys spectacular panoramas of the mountains surrounding Aconcagua and south to the 6,650-meter massif of Cerro Tupungato, also part of a provincial park; most easily accessible from Tunuyán, its summit route is a technical climb suitable for accomplished snow-and-ice mountaineers only.

Cristo Redentor

From Las Cuevas, the last Argentine outpost before the tunnel into Chile, a zigzag dirt road barely wide enough for a single vehicle in some spots, climbs eight kilometers to a blustery border ridge where Uruguayan sculptor Mateo Alonso’s eight-meter, six-ton statue Cristo Redentor marks the border between Chile and Argentina. Taken by train to Uspallata in 1904, it went the rest of the way by mule; it commemorates the peaceful conclusion, in 1902, of a territorial dispute between the two countries.

Reaching 4,200 meters above sea level, this forbidding road was the main route between the two countries until the three-kilometer Cristo Redentor tunnel opened in 1980; today it’s the province of tourists and tour buses. Upward-bound vehicles have the right-of-way, but not every Argentine driver appears to appreciate this, so be on guard. It’s still possible to continue to the Chilean border post at Los Libertadores by foot or bicycle, but the road is not open to motor vehicles beyond the ridge.

At the pass, there are two refugios, one Argentine and one Chilean: The former sells cheap sandwiches and coffee, while the latter gives away hot chocolate (tips appreciated). Befitting a monument devoted to peace between peoples, Cristo Redentor has its own binational website.


Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Argentina.

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