Charlie O’Malley braves 4200 meter heights to bring you the majestic and desolate Laguna Brava in La Rioja.
“It will probably be snowing by the time we get up there.” said my guide Emiliano. I looked at him somewhat incredulously. It was 9.30am and already 44 degrees Celsius outside. I had the car AC on so hard it was straining like a jet engine. I had just arrived in Vinchina, a small mountain town in La Rioja and gateway to the magnificent Laguna Brava, a little visited, high altitude lake close to the Chilean border.
“I wouldn’t have breakfast just yet.” he said, eyeing my paw in the bakery bag. “The altitude will make you vomit.” Great, I think. Snow and starvation. It is going to be a fun day.
The car trundled across a Bailey bridge, a temporary metal contraption constructed over the remains of the town bridge destroyed by a mudslide six months previously. “This river valley drops 3000 meters in 500 meters. So with heavy rains we get mudslides that carry lots of rocks and debris.”
The terrain is chocolate brown rock and clay punctuated by jagged slabs of granite that point vertically into the air. The road is a dirt path that twists and turns up through the river valley. We pass a hill called the Pyramid, because that is exactly what it looks like, and a cave of hanging rocks that look like multiple male genitalia.
The landscape eventually opens up into high, desolate hills with beautiful hues of green and ochre. We encounter herds of guanaco and vincuna standing still in the hillsides.
“Hunting is now prohibited.” explains Emiliano. “Since the area was declared a protected area the population of guanacos has increased from 800 to 6000.” Soon they become as common and unremarkable to us as sheep in New Zealand.
My guide recounts to me the history of the region. How the road was originally a herding trail for huge cattle drives into Chile. Now and again we pass dome-shaped stone huts that were shepherd shelters. The colorful, undulating hills finally stretch back behind us and at last we reach the high plain with a shimmering white lake in the distance. It looks like turquoise hued snow but is in fact a salty tide of water lapping against a pebbly beach. Pink flamingoes stare back at us as high, dark volcanic peaks sit bluntly in the background.
“Well I’m glad I did not have that medialuna.” I can hardly talk. My stomach churns. My head aches and my eyelids are heavy with tiredness. Emiliano seems completely unaffected.
We pull up at the shimmering shore. I attempt to get out of the car but the door will not open as it is jammed tight by the howling wind outside. I eventually slump out onto the Martian floor and stagger forward, fumbling with my camera. My fingers are sore with the biting, cold wind.
“Over here!” shouts Emiliano.
I walk like a drunken toddler, my limbs hampered by the wind and heavy with tiredness. I make it over to the stone hut and stoop inside. The air is pungent with the smell of burnt ash and the desert herb jarilla.
“Look” Emilian points down. Buried in the wall is an exposed skeleton. Its bleached skull looks at me with suffering.
“A dead man found by the shepherds.” explains my guide. The whistling wind in my ear disappears with the click of the car door closing behind me. I take a deep breath and cling to the steering wheel.
“Maybe we should head back down”. says Emiliano sagedly.
I’m afraid to tell him I can hardly drive. I somehow manage to cross the high plain without incident. We descend through the river valley and my head begins to clear, the nausea pass and the tiredness lift. We are suddenly back amongst the multi-colored hills and herds of guanaco.
“Now you can have breakfast.” My guide says.
It was 4 in the afternoon.
How to get there
The only way is by car, preferably 4X4. The town Vinchina is a 3-hour drive from La Rioja City, or 4 hours, 30 minutes from San Juan City and 6 hours, 30 minutes from Mendoza. The nearby town of Villa Union is the best to use as a base as it has some very good hotel options and is also close to the National Parks of Talampaya and Ischigualisto (Moon Valley).
Laguna Brava cannot be explored without guide. A guide is easy to reserve at Laguna Brava Turismo Cooperative, (www.turismolagunabrava.com; Tel. 03825 494 374) an excellent group of local experts that are inexpensive to hire – approximately 250 AR per person). The guide accompanies you in your car or at the head of a convoy of cars. The tours depart between 8am and 10am and take all day. The reserve is open all year long but best to visit in the summer.