Crossing the Andes

Crossing the Andes

Paso de los Libertadores

The jagged Andean peaks flanking Mendoza’s western side remain one of the most sublime and impenetrable regions known to man. As the world’s longest continental mountain range, the Andes extend for more than 7000 km, and bisect seven South American countries. Just west of Mendoza sits Aconcagua, the range’s highest peak, which summits at a treacherous 6,962 meters making it the highest mountain outside of the Himalayas.  As such, mountaineers flock from all over, propelled by that slightly suicidal human desire to conquer and traverse the unknown.

For a lazy man’s alternative to experiencing the Andes, one might consider crossing Paso de los Libertadores, a road that has functioned since colonial times and connects Mendoza to Santiago de Chile. One of the most affordable ways between Argentina and Chile, this winding pass is highly trafficked by trucks carrying merchandise, blunderingly top-heavy buses, as well as passenger cars. Route 7, the road that leads from Mendoza to the Andes pass, climbs gently in altitude through rural towns, tree lined boulevards, and acres upon acres of vineyards. Just before hitting the border, the road grazes Puente del Inca an electric sulphurous yellow, naturally formed rock bridge. Snow-glazed peaks cradle the route on all sides, and after crossing the border into Chile comes Los Caracoles [the Snails], a series of 20 hairpin turns that give even the wildest drivers hesitations.

I recommend this journey for all. Sure, it may be more time consuming than the hour long flight to Santiago. But in an airplane one loses the texture and trauma of the Andes. All landscapes are simplified into a short movie version of the actual experience. As is true in any comparison between a book and its movie sibling; the book may take longer, but it is almost always worth it. Should you decide take the bus or car route here are two pieces of advice: don’t sit in the front row of the bus, and make sure your gas tank is full.

Both of these nuggets of information come, of course, from direct experience. The first, I offer you as help for choosing your seats on a double-decker bus. You may realize when you go to purchase your ticket that the front row seats on the second story are not reserved. If your brain works at all like mine did on my first border-crossing experience, you’re thinking, “Oh wow! Those must be the seats with the best view!” Maybe a nagging voice in the back of your head says, “That’s strange, then why are they the only ones not yet reserved?” The answer to that little voice is that those are the seats you’re most likely to die in, or at least this is the slightly superstitious common knowledge of the local populous. You’d think that if your bus went cascading off a grim Andean cliff-side it wouldn’t really matter which seat you were in. However, in this case I prefer to trust the local consensus.

Now as you embark on your Andean journey, you’ll have the tools necessary to decide whether you want that panoramic shot to be the best of your life. If you do however arrive at the moment to reserve your seat, and the front two rows are filled up; you have the right to scoff/cough under your breath “gringos” as you pick your seat a conservative three or four rows back.

Secondly, if you go the automobile route, be sure you have gas. This may seem self-evident, and to most reasonably functional beings it would be. However, when your lovely, charismatic, friend/driver parks his 1972 clunker truck in a Chilean gas station, next to a Chilean gas pump right before you start a six hour drive to Mendoza; do not assume he is filling up the tank! In my case, despite the fact that we had performed the above action, leading all seven passengers including myself to believe we were ok on the gas front, it turned out friend/driver was just stopping for a quick candy fix– next to a gas pump.

The gravity of our situation became clear to all rather suddenly after making our ninth or tenth hairpin turn on the snail bends. Although the hearty, antique truck had been chugging away at a meagre snail’s pace anyway, all of a sudden we seemed not to be moving at all. And indeed we were not, as the poor dried out engine belly had been running on empty for a few kilometers now. The moments that followed were wrought with tension and curses; it was his fault, it was your fault, it was mine. After about ten minutes of this foolishness it collectively dawned on us, that playing the blame game was a futile exercise since we were all equally screwed. This realization and the sinking winter sun brought a chill to our bones.

This situation could have easily turned sour. I’m suddenly thinking about those poor Uruguayan rugby players in the seventies who had to resort to cannibalizing the bodies of their dead friends in order to survive a plane crash. If you let them, these peaks will turn respectable humans into desperate and gruesome versions of themselves. While the girls huddled together in the back of the truck under blankets and coats, the boys rubbed their hands together over the engine, shivering and cursing under their breath. I begin to wonder whom we will have to eat first.

A passing trucker with a spare jug of gas interrupted my nightmarish daydream. Spout in place, antique truck slurped it up like a hungry baby. We had just enough fuel to reach the border, then after clearing the summit, we turned off the engine and coasted down the curves until we came to a service station. Disaster averted.

By Gwynne Hogan

Published in the December 2011/January 2012 edition of Wine Republic