Aspire to the high life in the Argentinian Andes
The Argentinian Andes have something to offer the most exacting traveller, from the majesty of Mount Aconcagua to the sybaritic delights of Mendoza.
Saturday 09 May 2009
Ezequial looks to the sky, strokes his dark beard in a pose of contemplation and speaks. "No snow". His prophecy was valuable, though you might doubt it, given that the sun was belting down upon us on a midsummer's day.
We had risen at a startling 4.30am and had been hiking with Ezequial, our guide, for several hours along a beautiful stretch of the Andes. Walls of granite rose on three sides, forced up by the earth's Pacific plate crunching against the South American plate and creating a range that is young and growing quickly, at least in the world of geology. The mountain we were upon, Aconcagua, is the world's highest outside Asia (at just under 7,000m tall), and base camp was now in sight.
A probable absence of snowfall was reassuring because flurries had come only yesterday, quite suddenly when 10 minutes earlier the sun had been T-shirt hot. The previous month (January) had seen a local guide and an Italian climber die on this mountain, caught by an unexpected, lethal turn in the weather. Life can be precarious where peaks are so high.
And yet, life can also be brimful of compensations, when the country is Argentina. Base camp offered up fine lomito steak. And, since my trajectory was not all the way to Aconcagua's summit, the following noon I was sipping a rewarding Malbec within sight of the lush vineyards that bore it.
The outdoor terrace restaurants in the fine city of Mendoza – 110km from Aconcagua and busy beneath the shade of stately plane trees – do not offer the spiritual content of the Himalayas. As if to admit this, the city's great Jesuit church of San Francisco is an earthquake-shattered ruin, unrepaired for over a century. And the local graffiti conveys only political complaint and teenage love, rather than ancient philosophy. But for sustenance, climate and comfort, a visiting hiker's body is well looked after here.
True to its mountain context, the town's Hotel Aconcagua serves a tasty goat lasagne. This hotel has existed for barely three decades, but it already has world renown. It was purpose-built for the 1978 World Cup, and the national football teams of Scotland and Holland stayed here. Ramona, in the laundry department and the last employee left from those days, remembers the Scots well. "So many fans came that we had to make a great tent for some to sleep up on the roof," she says, reaching widely to indicate the dimensions of the canvas. "They seemed surprised that Argentina was not a country of primitive jungle. Every evening they drank." But their behaviour? "Always recorrecto".
That same roof is infamous among many South Americans as the launch pad of troubled rock star Charly Garcia, who leapt seven storeys into the pool in 1998.
More serene accommodation, outside town and amid the vineyards, is available at the Cavas Wine Lodge. Here grape worship is solemn and profound. The Lodge's spa offers grapeseed scrubs and a bath in red wine – their apparent therapeutic value is due to polyphenol antioxidants. The voluptuous adobe buildings, each with its unbroken Andean view, could hardly be bettered as a location for a (generously budgeted traveller) to unwind.
But I intended to be as active as possible. So, another early start had me rafting downstream along the Mendoza River. The warm chocolate colour of the water proved to be less of a guide to its temperature than the fact that the river had been glacial snow just a few hours earlier. But the flow was forgiving enough to allow me the chance to wonder at the geological monsters towering over us, rearing up like huge stalagmites. Once again, the sky was mercifully clear, the sun beating down on my safety helmet as I paddled. To the hypnotic motion, I pondered nature's force.
Here in lower altitude there is no snow, but hail can blow over from the mountains and fall just as suddenly, in stones up to a man's fist in size. At the Achaval Ferrer vineyard, owner Santiago Achaval lamented they had twice lost their entire annual crop of vines due to unexpected hailstorms. A taxi driver who'd taken me there shook his head sadly as he complained of the cost of windscreen damage.
The elements have also harshly marked what remains of the past. The Spanish conquistadors passed through these valleys as they came down from Chile. Yet earthquakes thrown out by the same tectonic collision that is producing the Andes have destroyed the colonial buildings from their time. (High-rises in Mendoza now have wheels in their foundations to cope with the swaying).
This was also a southern outpost of the great Inca realm, in whose language Aconcagua means "sentinel of stone". A few hundred metres up from base camp on that mountain, Ezequial showed me the remains of a settlement they constructed there, with rooms for people and for llamas. Though its purpose is mysterious, it's known that, in contrast to the gold-focused Spanish, the Incas built roads throughout the Andes that end suddenly and seem to function purely as a viewpoint over the majesty of the cordillera.
Now the ancient empire is celebrated in the name of the wondrous sulphur-formed natural bridge at Puente del Inca, to which I was also taken by Ezequial. In the early 20th century this was a luxurious thermal spa hotel, until an avalanche destroyed it.
These days the railway line that once carried the rich and ailing of Buenos Aires is overgrown and the petrified sulphur creeps gradually over the remaining buildings, burying them in a natural ochre tomb.
Palaeontologists have unearthed a local dinosaur species in the sedimentary rock nearby – Mendozasaurus stood over 17m high, but consumed only plants. Comparison with its contemporary, Argentinasaurus, twice as big and fiercely predatory, could be construed as telling you something about the character of the people here, more reserved than the exuberant Argentines from the capital.
Closer to our own era, this area's topography continues to exert an influence. A few years ago, a melting glacier disgorged a plane that had disappeared on its way to Chile in 1947, and which is now believed to have been a victim of treacherous, high-altitude winds.
As if from fiction, the passengers included a female Nazi sympathiser, a wealthy Palestinian with diamonds sewn into his pinstripe suit and a royal messenger despatched by King George VI. This stretch of the Andes and the city of Mendoza offer a healthy balance for a traveller with dual active and sybaritic tendencies. But these great folds in the earth also command respect.
Aerolineas Argentinas (0800 096 9747; aerolineas.com.ar ) flies to Mendoza from Gatwick, with changes at both Madrid and Buenos Aires. BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and Iberia (0870 609 0500; iberia.com ) fly to Buenos Aires via Sao Paulo and Madrid respectively.
Staying & visiting there
hotelaconcagua.com; 00 54 261 520 0500; doubles from $105 (£75) with breakfast.
cavaswinelodge.com; 00 54 261 410 6927; doubles from $351 (£251) room only. Aymara (00 54 261 420 2064; aymara.com.ar). Treks start at $3,095 (£2,211).
Betancourt (00 54 261 429 9665; betancourt.com.ar ). Rafting from $70 (£50).
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