2003-08-29 - 12:04 a.m.
Down Argentine Way, Part V
Mendoza to Puenta del Inca = 5 hours
Puenta del Inca to Las Cuevas = 45 minutes
From Mendoza, we went west to a little town in the Andes called Puenta del Inca (the Inca Bridge). I wanted to get out of Mendoza because cities are easy for me, and I wanted a challenge. Melch didn't care where we went - after months of traveling on his own, making all the decisions, I think he was a little relieved to let someone else take charge. And take charge I did. Well, as much as you can take charge with a limited knowledge of the Spanish language. But I got us to Puenta del Inca, and when the first hotel we looked at was too expensive, someone directed us to the army barracks just up the road, where men in uniforms with large guns escorted us to our room. There wasn't a lock on the door, but we weren't too concerned - after all, who was going to break into an army barracks, in the middle of nowhere? We dropped off our stuff and wandered around town, which took all of ten minutes, and crossed the natural limestone bridge after which the town was named.
In the picture below, the limestone bridge is on the bottom lefthand side, and the crumbling ruins of the thermal baths are on the right. If you look at the top righthand side of the picture, you can just barely make out the ruins of a fancy hotel, demolished in an avalanche years ago. The church in the picture survived the avalanche - apparently, a small avalanche had happened the day before, falling against the side of the church, and acting as a ramp for the larger avalanche the next day, saving the church but demolishing the hotel. "God saved that church," I told Melch.
We stopped for a beer at one of the two cafes, and sat outside in the sunshine, watching the daytrippers from Mendoza wander in to catch the bus back. There we met Nadja (Swiss, German speaking), who sat with us for a beer, and before we knew it, we had plans to go hiking around the base of Aconcagua (the highest peak in South America) the next morning.
The next morning was clear and cold - really cold. Below freezing cold. And the snowcapped peaks of Aconagua towered above us as we hiked, the sun shining bright until it warmed us up.
Nadja was great - she'd been traveling for eight months already, starting in Asia, and hitting New Zealand and Australia before making her way to South America - and was still able to maintain her drive and enthusiasm (something that Melch and I took advantage of, as we dutifully followed Nadja for the rest of our trip).
On the way back to Puenta del Inca, we passed a group of hipster boys perched on a hill with video cameras and microphones, taking pictures of Aconcagua looming behind them. They trained the cameras on us and asked us questions as we walked past, and we smiled and waved. Ten minutes later, they passed us in a rented SUV, and asked us if we needed a ride. We didn't really need a ride, and Puenta del Inca wasn't that far away, but we'd been walking all day and they were insistent, opening up the car doors and piling up equipment until there was just enough room for all of us. There were five boys - from Mexico, and Venezuela, and Colombia, and Argentina - who all spoke perfect English, wore hip clothes, and were exceedingly friendly and inquisitive. Turns out they work for MTV Latin America, and were traveling around South America filming a road trip television show, stopping at viewer's houses throughout the trip. The camera was rolling throughout the short trip back to Puenta del Inca (made longer by the ill placed Chilean/Argentinian border crossing, located several miles before the actual border, necessitating some confusion, as neither Melch nor I had brought our passports, and we hadn't actually crossed the border into Chile), so there's a very small chance Melch, Nadja, and I might appear on MTV Latin America, playing the part of befuddled non-Spanish speaking tourists.
That night, Melch and I had dinner in Nadja's hostel, where we met Pol (Belgian and on a four month trip of South America). We all got along exceedingly well, and made plans to catch the bus the next morning to Las Cuevas, a town just up the road, to climb up to Cristo Redentor, a statue of Christ built directly on the border between Chile and Argentina, high up in the Andes. The guidebook called Las Cuevas an "incomplete tourist complex," but it was more like a ghost town - half finished buildings surrounded the one restaurant that catered to the tourists on day trips from Mendoza. And there was no hotel, according to the bus driver, the woman at the chocolate shop, and the two men who worked at the restaurant. There was, however, a hotel just up the road, about a mile away, just next to the border. I had been feeling ill all morning, and a mile long walk in high altitude with my backpack just to get to the hotel (and then walking up to Cristo Redentor - a thousand meters up - later in the afternoon) wasn't that appealing. Luckily, Nadja is persuasive, and she managed to talk the bus driver into cutting short his coffee break and driving us up to the hotel (after he was asked by the restaurant employee, "how can you say no to those beautiful blue eyes?"). The hotel was spacious and friendly and empty - run by one man and his extended family. We dropped off our bags and made our way up to Cristo Redentor, following the road up and up and up, passed every once in a while by tour buses from Mendoza (a 12-hour trip, we were told, with about 20 minutes spent at the statue for the view). I took my time, pleading altitude sickness and general ill health, while Nadja and Pol were soon just specks in the distance. When we finally reached the top, we were greeted by an amazing view and a little cafe/tourist shop owned by the same man who ran the hotel. He made us hot chocolate, and cheerfully tended me, as I was feeling pretty horrible by that point. Here's the only picture I took while up there, sometime after the diarrhea and before the vomiting:
Luckily, our hotel proprietor had his car with him on top of the mountain, and he obligingly drove me and Nadja down to the bottom. Melch and Pol opted for a different way down - they forewent the roads and slid down on their heels, clouds of dust following them the whole way down.