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 chocolate-brown pampas of La Payunia, on the northern borders of Patagonia, to the remote highland steppes of the Reserva Las Vicuñas, on the edge of the altiplano, 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, while the two smaller provincial capitals, San Juan and La Rioja, continue to be quiet backwaters by comparison.
The region’s dynamics are overwhelmingly about its highly varied landscapes and wildlife. In the west of the provinces 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 sport – from skiing in exclusive Las Leñas, to whitewater 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 and vicuñas, condors and ñandús, plus hundreds of colourful bird species inhabit the thoroughly unspoilt wildernesses of the region, where some of the biggest-known dinosaurs prowled millions of years ago. Countless flowering cacti and the dazzling yellow brea, a broom-like shrub, add colour to the browns and greys of the desert in the spring.