Mendoza and El Cuyo Travel Guide
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Argentina’s midwestern region, generally known as El Cuyo, is formed by the provinces of Mendoza, San Juan and La Rioja plus the neighbouring province of San Luís. This massive territory stretches all the way from the stark, chocolate-brown pampas of La Payunia, on the northern borders of Patagonia, to the remote highland steppes of the Reserva Las Vicuñas, more than a thousand kilometres to the north. Extending across vast, thinly populated territories of bone-dry desert, they are dotted with vibrant oases of farmland and the region’s famous vineyards. The sophisticated metropolis of Mendoza, one of Argentina’s biggest cities, is the epicentre of the country’s blossoming wine – and wine tourism – industry, with the two smaller provincial capitals, San Juan and La Rioja, still quiet backwaters by comparison.
The region’s dynamics are overwhelmingly about its varied landscapes and wildlife. In the west loom the world’s loftiest peaks outside the Himalayas, culminating in the defiant Aconcagua, whose summit is only a shade under 7000m. Ranging from these snowy Andean heights to totally flat pampas in the east, from green, fertile valleys to barren volcanoes – including the world’s second-highest cone, extinct Monte Pissis – the scenery also includes two of the country’s most photographed national parks: the sheer red-sandstone cliffs of Talampaya and the moonscapes of Ischigualasto. All this provides a backdrop for some of Argentina’s best opportunities for extreme sports – from skiing in exclusive Las Leñas to white-water rafting, rock climbing, and even the ascent of Aconcagua or the Mercedario and Tupungato peaks.
European settlers have wrought changes to the environment, bringing the grape vine, the Lombardy poplar and all kinds of fruit trees with them, but the thousands of kilometres of irrigation channels that water the region existed long before Columbus “discovered” America. Pumas, vicuñas, ñandús and hundreds of colourful bird species inhabit the unspoilt wildernesses of the region, where some of the biggest-known dinosaurs prowled millions of years ago. Flowering cacti and the dazzling yellow brea, a broom-like shrub, add colour to the browns and greys of the desert in spring.
San Juan and La Rioja provinces share some memorable countryside, with range after range of lofty mountains alternating with green valleys of olive groves, onion fields and vineyards, but they’re the poorer cousins, in every sense, of Mendoza Province. The provinces’ bodegas, for example, continue to take a back seat to those of Mendoza and San Rafael, even though their wine can be just as good and they export much of their grape harvest to Mendoza’s wineries. Tourism has not fully got off the ground here, either, partly owing to poor transport services. To engineer tourist circuits you’ll need your own transport, preferably a 4WD.
Outside the capital, La Rioja’s population density barely reaches one inhabitant per square kilometre, while San Juan, where the equivalent ratio is around three, is on average half as densely populated as Mendoza Province. Leaving the cities behind to scout around the outback, you’ll experience a real sense of setting off into uncharted territory. Some unpaved roads peter out into tracks barely passable in the hardiest jeep, and the weather conditions can be inclement. However, this inhospitable nature does offer up fantastic opportunities for alternative tourism, such as 4WD trips or hiking.
Club-sandwiched between the pre-cordillera and the two rows of cordillera – known as main and frontal ranges, a geological phenomenon unique to this section of the Andes – are successive chains of valleys. The higher ones over 1500m above sea level are known as the valles altos, of which the Valle de Calingasta is an outstanding example. Between them the two provinces have four natural parks. The highly inaccessible Parque Nacional San Guillermo in San Juan Province adjoins the Reserva Provincial Las Vicuñas across the boundary in La Rioja; respectively, they give you a sporting chance of spotting wild pumas and vicuñas, along with a host of other Andean wildlife, amid unforgettable landscapes. Further east are the provinces’ star attractions: Parque Nacional Talampaya, with vertiginous red cliffs that make you feel totally insignificant and – only 70km south – its contiguous, unidentical twin, Parque Provincial Ischigualasto, more commonly referred to as the Valle de la Luna, an important dinosaur graveyard in a highly photogenic site.
Mendoza, San Juan and La Rioja provinces – plus the less interesting province of San Luís, to the east – make up the region known as El Nuevo Cuyo, or “New Cuyo”, formed by a 1988 treaty. The much older term Cuyo and the adjective Cuyano, which originally did not include present-day La Rioja, are widely used in the names of travel companies, newspapers and other businesses, for example. The etymological origins of the word cuyo are not entirely clear, but it probably comes from the native Huarpe word xuyu, meaning (sandy) riverbed. The original core area of the Intendencia del Cuyo, basically corresponding to the modern Mendoza Province, has strong historical ties with Chile from where it was first colonized, and among other things the local accent still reflects this – with, for example, the “-ll” and “-y” being pronounced as the “y” in yellow, as in Chile, rather than the “j” sound you hear in Buenos Aires.
Some 165km north of Mendoza, the city of San Juan basks in the sun-drenched valley of the Río San Juan, which twists and turns between several steep mountain ranges. The city revels in its pet name, Residencia del Sol. In some of its barrios it has rained only a couple of times over the past decade, and the provincial average is less than 100mm a year. When it does rain, it’s usually in the form of violent storms, as savage as the zonda wind that occasionally stings the city. All this sunshine – more than nine hours a day on average – quickly ripens the sweetest imaginable grapes, melons and plums, irrigated by pre-Columbian canals, that have helped the city to prosper over the years. But nature is also a foe: periodic tremors remind Sanjuaninos that they live along one of the world’s most slippery seismic faults; the Big One is dreaded as much here as in California.
One of South America’s strongest-ever recorded earthquakes flattened the city in 1944 and as a result the city has hardly any buildings more than 70 years old. It’s modern and attractive, but San Juan is also quite conservative compared with its much bigger rival Mendoza. Around a third of a million people live in Greater San Juan, but in the compact microcentro everyone seems to know everyone else. Broad pavements, grand avenues and long boulevards shaded by rows of flaky-trunked plane trees lend the city a feeling of spaciousness and openness, making San Juan a comfortable starting-point for touring some of the country’s finest scenery.
The city was founded by the Spanish aristocrat Juan Jufré as San Juan de la Frontera on June 13, 1562, during an expedition from Santiago de Chile, and since then it has had a persistently troubled history. In 1594, the settlement was washed away by floods, and in 1632 it was again destroyed, this time in attacks by natives. The following year an uprising by the indigenous inhabitants was brutally put down; seventeen were hanged on the Plaza Mayor as an example. In the middle of the nineteenth century, San Juan found itself at the heart of the country’s civil war when its progressive leader, Dr Antonino Aberastain, was assassinated by federalist troops. In 1885 the arrival of the railways heralded a change to San Juan’s backwater status, as Basque, Galician and Andalucian immigrants began arriving.
Like Mendoza, the city has had terrible luck with seismic shocks: several violent earthquakes struck the city in the 1940s, but the strongest of all, reaching around 8.5 on the Richter scale, hit San Juan on January 15, 1944. It flattened the city and killed more than ten thousand people; during a gala held in Buenos Aires to raise funds for the victims shortly afterwards, an as yet relatively unknown army officer, Juan Domingo Perón, met an equally obscure actress, Eva Duarte.
San Juan, like the rest of the Cuyo, though even more so, is prone to the zonda, a legendary dry wind that blows down from the Andes and blasts everything in its path like a blowtorch. It’s caused by a thermal inversion that arises when wet, cold air from the Pacific is thrust abruptly up over the cordillera and suddenly forced to dump its moisture, mostly in the form of snow, onto the skyscraper peaks before helter-skeltering down the other side into the deep chasm between the Cordillera Principal and the pre-cordillera, which acts like a very high brick wall. Forced to brake, the zonda rubs against the land like tyre-rubber against tarmac, and the resulting friction results in blistering temperatures and an atmosphere you can almost see. Mini-tornadoes can sometimes also occur, whipping sand and dust up in clearly visible spirals all along the region’s desert-like plains. The Cuyo’s answer to the Föhn, mistral or sirocco, ripping people’s nerves to shreds, the zonda is one of the world’s nastiest meteorological phenomena. Although it can blow at any time of year, the zonda is most frequent in the winter months, particularly August, when it can suddenly hike the temperature by ten to fifteen degrees in a matter of hours.
In the west of San Juan Province is the marvellous, fertile Valle de Calingasta – a bright-green strip of land around 90km west of the city of San Juan as the crow flies, on the other side of the Sierra del Tontal range, but reached by a long road detour. Its major settlement of interest is Barreal, a pleasant, laidback little town set amid fields of alfalfa, onions and maize, with a stupendous backdrop of the sierra, snowcapped for most of the year. Barreal’s environs are home to the Complejo Astronómico El Leoncito, one of the continent’s most important space observatories, and the clay flats of the Barreal del Leoncito, used for wind-cart championships. To the east of town is a series of mountains, red, orange and deep pink in colour, known aptly as the Serranías de las Piedras Pintadas. To the southwest of Barreal, the RP-400 leads to the tiny hamlet of Las Hornillas, the point of departure for adventurous treks and climbs to the summit of Cerro Mercedario (6770m), said by many mountaineers to be the most satisfying climb in the cordillera in this region. In the sedate town of Calingasta itself, north of Barreal, the main sight is a fine seventeenth-century chapel.
The small oasis town of Barreal, set alongside the Río Los Patos, 1650m above sea level, at the southern extreme of the Valle de Calingasta, is a fast up-and-coming, friendly place which makes a great base for adventure tourism in the surrounding area. The central square, Plaza San Martín, is the focal point, at the crossroads of Avenida Presidente Roca and General Las Heras. The town enjoys a pleasant climate, and the views to the west, of the cordillera peaks, including the majestic Cerro Mercedario, El Polaco, La Ramada and Los Siete Picos de Ansilta, seen across a beautiful plain, shimmering with onion and maize fields, are superb. Barreal makes a good base if you want to conquer Mercedario – one of the Andes’ most challenging yet climbable mountains. To the east you can climb up into the coloured mountains, or up to the Cima del Tontal, which affords one of the most famous of all views of the cordillera, as well as panoramas across to San Juan city.
The mountainsides to the immediate east of Barreal, accessible by clear tracks, are a mosaic of pink, red, brown, ochre and purple rocks, and the so-called Cerros Pintados, or “Painted Mountains”, live up to their name. Among the rocky crags, tiny cacti poke out from the cracks, and in the spring they sprout huge wax-like flowers, in translucent shades of white, pink and yellow, among golden splashes of broom-like brea shrubs. About 8km north of Barreal, another track heads eastwards from the main road, climbing for 40km past some idyllic countryside inhabited only by the odd goatherd or farming family, to the outlook atop the Cima del Tontal, at just over 4000m. To the east there are amazing views down into the San Juan Valley, with the Dique de Ullum glinting in the distance, or west and south to the cordillera, where the peak of Aconcagua and the majestic summit of the Mercedario are clearly visible.
Frustratingly, there are no public buses south from Barreal or the national park along the RN-149 – still mostly unpaved on this stretch – to Uspallata in Mendoza Province. The scenic RP-400 strikes out in a southwesterly direction from Barreal to Las Hornillas, over 50km away. This tiny hamlet is inhabited mostly by herdsmen and their families amid pastureland and gorse scrub and is effectively the base camp for the mighty Mercedario, which looms nearby. If you want to climb this difficult but not impossible mountain, regarded by many as the most noble of all Argentina’s Andean peaks, contact Fortuna Viajes in Barreal. The nearby rivers are excellent for fishing for trout; ask at the tourist office in Barreal.
La Rioja – or Todos los Santos de la Nueva Rioxa, as it was baptized at the end of the sixteenth century – is an indolent place, built in a flat-bottomed valley, watered by the Río Tajamar, 517km northeast of San Juan. It is not a sightseers’ city, but you can find enough to occupy a full day if passing through. Among the highlights are two of the country’s best museums of indigenous art, one archaeological and the other with a folkloric slant. It is best visited in the spring (Oct–Nov), when the jacaranda trees are abloom, and the city is perfumed by the blossom of orange trees that have earned it the much-bandied sobriquet “Ciudad de los Naranjos”. In spite of the plentiful shade of this luxuriant vegetation, the blistering summer heat is refracted off the brutally arid mountains looming to the west and turns the city, notoriously one of the country’s hottest, virtually into a no-go zone. Whatever you do, avoid the midsummer, when temperatures can get up to 45°C.
La Rioja came into being on May 20, 1591, when the governor of Tucumán, Juan Ramírez de Velasco, a native of La Rioja in Castile, founded the city in its strategic valley location. Today’s main Plaza 25 de Mayo coincides exactly with the spot he chose. Ramírez de Velasco had set out on a major military expedition to populate the empty spaces of the Viceroyalty and subdue the native Diaguitas, who had farmed the fertile oasis for centuries. La Nueva Rioxa, the only colonial settlement for leagues around, soon flourished and Ramírez de Velasco felt justified in boasting in a letter that it was “one of the finest cities in the Indies”.
From it, mainly Franciscan missionaries set about fulfilling Ramírez de Velasco’s other aim of converting the indigenous peoples. Their convent and that of the Dominicans, one of the oldest in Argentina, both miraculously survived the earthquake that flattened most of the old colonial city in 1894. The whole city was rebuilt, largely in a Neocolonial style that was intended to restore its former glory, but long decades of neglect by the central government were to follow. La Rioja did not even benefit as much as it hoped it would when Carlos Menem, scion of a major La Rioja wine-producing family was elected president in 1990. There are signs that La Rioja is beginning to diversify away from its agricultural base, although the city, with a current population of about 150,000, is still regarded by most Argentines as a rather arid backwater.
San Juan and La Rioja provinces boast two of the most-photographed protected areas in the country, which together have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as the only place on the Earth’s surface where you can see all stages of the Triassic geological era, which witnessed the emergence of the first dinosaurs. In San Juan is Parque Provincial Ischigualasto, better known as Valle de la Luna – Moon Valley – because of its out-of-this-world landscapes and apocryphal legends. The province has jealously resisted repeated attempts to turn it into a national park, and the authorities are doing a good job of providing easy access and looking after the fragile environment. While he was in office, President Menem, on the other hand, made sure that his native province of La Rioja got its first national park: Parque Nacional Talampaya, best known for its giant red-sandstone cliffs, which are guaranteed to impress even the most jaded traveller. It’s also the country’s best example of desert monte scrub – a vulnerable ecosystem with rare fauna and flora, and the only habitat endemic to Argentina.
While you can visit both parks in the same day from either Villa Unión in La Rioja or the more appealing town of San Agustín de Valle Fértil in northeastern San Juan Province, you can get more from the parks by splitting your visits; Talampaya especially merits a longer visit. In many ways it is wise to go to Talampaya in the morning, when the sun lights up the coloured rocks and illuminates the canyon, whereas Ischigualasto is far more impressive in the late afternoon and at sunset in particular. If possible avoid the gruelling day-trips offered from San Juan, or even La Rioja.
The entrance to Parque Nacional Talampaya is 55km down the RN-76 from Villa Unión, and then along a signposted road to the east. Coming from the south, it’s 93km north of Ischigualasto and 190km from Valle Fértil. The park’s main feature is a wide-bottomed canyon flanked by 180m-high, rust-coloured sandstone cliffs, so smooth and sheer that they look as if they were sliced through by a giant cheese-wire. Another section of the canyon is made up of rock formations that seem to have been created as part of a surreal Gothic cathedral. Added attractions are the presence of several bird species, including condors and eagles, as well as rich flora and some pre-Columbian petroglyphs. The park’s name comes from the indigenous peoples’ words ktala – the locally abundant tala bush – and ampaya, meaning dry riverbed. Avoid Easter if possible, when the park is at its busiest; the middle of the day in the height of summer, when it can be unbearably hot; and the day after a storm, when the park closes because of floods. The zonda wind can also cause the park to close. In midwinter, it can be bitterly cold. The best time of day by far to visit is soon after opening, when the dawn light deepens the red of the sandstone.
Some 80km north of Valle Fértil, the Parque Provincial Ischigualasto, also known as the Valle de la Luna, or Moon Valley, is San Juan’s most famous feature by far, covering nearly 150 square kilometres of desolate but astonishingly varied terrain.
For paleontologists, Ischigualasto’s importance is primarily as a rich dinosaur burial ground: two of the world’s very oldest species of dinosaur, the diminutive Euraptor lunesis and Herrerasaurus ischigualastensis, both dating back some 230 million years, were found here, among many others. The park is also a joy for geologists, as most strata of the 45-million-year Triassic era are on plain view.
The park is in a desert valley between two ranges of high mountains, the Sierra Los Rastros to the west and Cerros Colorados to the east. As witnessed by the mollusc and coral fossils found in the cliffsides, for a long time the whole area was underwater. Over the course of millions of years the terrain has been eroded by wind and water, and sections built of volcanic ash have taken on a ghostly greyish-white hue. A set of red-sandstone mountains to the north acts as a perfect backdrop to the paler stone formations and clay blocks, all of which are impressively illuminated in the late evening.
At the entrance, an excellent museum exhibits some wonderful stories of forensic paleontology, unravelling some curious examples of dinosaur death (Spanish only) – useful while you wait for a tour.
The majority of visitors come to admire the spectacular lunar landscapes that give the park its popular nickname, and the much-publicized and alarmingly fragile rock formations – some have already disappeared, the victims of erosion and the occasional flash floods that seem to strike with increasing frequency. Cerro El Morado (1700m), a barrow-like mountain that according to local lore is shaped like an Indian lying on his back, dominates the park to the east. A segmented row of rocks is known as El Gusano (the Worm); a huge set of vessel-like boulders is known as El Submarino; a sandy field dotted with cannon-ball-shaped stones is dubbed the Cancha de Bolas (the Ball-court). One famous formation, painfully fragile on its slender stalk, is El Hongo (the Mushroom), beautifully set off against the red sandstone cliffs behind.
Another of the park’s attractions is its wealth of flora and fauna. The main plant varieties are the native broom-like brea, three varieties of the scrawny jarilla, both black and white species of algarrobo, the chañar, retamo and molle shrubs and four varieties of cactus. Animals that you are likely to spot here include European hares, Patagonian hares, the vizcacha, the grey fox, armadillos and small rodents, plus several species of bat, frog, toad, lizard and snake. Condors and ñandús are often seen, too, while guanacos may be spotted standing like sentinels atop the rocks, before scampering off.
Just south of the entrance to the canyon, huge sand dunes have been swept up by the strong winds that frequently howl across the Campo de Talampaya to the south. The higgledy-piggledy rocks at the foot of the cliffs host a gallery of white, red and black rock paintings, made by the Ciénaga and Aguada peoples who inhabited the area around a thousand years ago. The pictures include animals such as llamas, suris and pumas, a stepped pyramid, huntsmen and phallic symbols, and the nearby ink-well depressions in the rock are formed by decades of grinding and mixing pigments. There is a huge tacu, or carob tree, here, thought to be more than one thousand years old. Inside the canyon proper, the so-called jardín botánico, or more accurately the bosquecillo – thicket – is a natural grove of twenty or so different native cacti, shrubs and trees. They include algarrobos, retamos, pencas, jarillas and chañares, all labelled; occasionally grey foxes and small armadillos lurk in the undergrowth and brightly coloured songbirds flit from branch to branch. Nearby, and clearly signposted, is the Chimenea (chimney), also known as the Cueva (cave) or the Canaleta (drainpipe), a rounded vertical groove stretching all the way up the cliffside; guides revel in demonstrating its extraordinary echo, which sends condors flapping.
Wonderfully shaped formations in the park have been given imaginative names, mostly with a religious slant, but many of them do fit. El Pesebre (Crib) is a set of rocks supposed to resemble a Nativity scene, and appropriately nearby are Los Reyes Magos, the Three Kings, one of them on camel-back. A cluster of enormous needles and pinnacles is known as La Catedral – the intricate patterns chiselled and carved by thousands of years of erosion have been compared variously with Albi cathedral or the facade of Strasbourg cathedral, both built of a similar red sandstone. A set of massive rock formations is known as El Tablero de Ajedrez, or the Chessboard, complete with rooks, bishops and pawns, while a 53m-high monolith, resembling a cowled human figure is El Cura, the Priest, or El Fraile, the Monk, depending on whom you ask. El Pizarrón, or the Blackboard, is 15m of flat rock-face of darker stone etched with more suris, pumas, guanacos and even a seahorse – suggesting that the peoples who lived here a thousand years ago had some kind of contact with the ocean.
The Reserva Provincial Las Vicuñas is nearly 150km northwest of Villa Unión, via the RN-76 and then a numberless track that twists and turns to the park’s central feature, the wild and shallow Laguna Brava. The main attractions are fabulous altiplanic scenery – most of the terrain is at over 4000m – the magnificent, strikingly coloured mountainous backdrops and the abundant wildlife, mainly vicuñas, as the name suggests. Large flocks of this smaller cousin of the llama graze on the reserve’s bofedales, the typical spongy marshes watered by trickles of run-off that freeze nightly. The best time to visit is in spring and autumn, since summer storms and winter blizzards cut off roads and generally impede travel.
The Laguna Brava is a deep blue lake 17km by 10km, whose high potassium-chloride levels make it undrinkable. When it’s blowing a gale, huge waves can be whipped up; when there is no wind, the mirror-like waters reflect the mountains behind. Behind stretches a panorama of 6000m peaks, including the enormous Pissis – the second-highest volcano in the world (6793m). Other lakes in the reserve are the smaller Laguna Verde – a green lake as its name suggests – and the Laguna Mulas Muertas, often covered with pink flamingoes, Andean geese and other wildfowl. There’s no public transport, no guardería and nowhere to stay: just you and the wilds.