The southern half of El Nuevo Cuyo is taken up by Mendoza Province, the self-styled Tierra del Sol y del Buen Vino, the “land of sunshine and good wine”. Within its borders are some of the country’s most dramatic mountain landscapes, where you can try a host of adventure pursuits, from kayaking to hang-gliding. Its lively capital city, Mendoza, can satisfy yearnings for creature comforts after treks, climbs into the Andes or a day of whitewater rafting. While Mendoza Province shares many things with San Juan and La Rioja – bleak wildernesses backed by snow-peaked mountains, remarkably varied flora and fauna, an incredibly sunny climate prone to sudden temperature changes and pockets of rich farmland mainly used to produce beefy red wines – it differs in the way it exploits them. Mendoza leads the way in tourism just as it does in the wine industry, combining professionalism with a taste for the avant-garde. The two industries come together for Mendoza’s nationally famous Fiesta de la Vendimia, or Wine Harvest Festival, held in early March, a slightly kitsch but exuberant bacchanalia at which a carnival queen is elected from candidates representing every town in the province.
Mendoza Province can be divided into three sections, each with its own base. The north, around the capital, has the country’s biggest concentration of vineyards and top-class wineries, clustered around Maipú and Luján de Cuyo, while the scenic Alta Montaña route races up in a westerly direction towards the high Chilean border, passing the mighty Cerro Aconcagua, an increasingly popular climbing destination. Not far to the southwest are the much more challenging Cerro Tupungato (6570m) and the remote Laguna Diamante, a choppy altiplanic lagoon in the shadow of the perfectly shaped Volcán Maipo, which can only be visited from December to March. Central Mendoza is focused on the laidback town of San Rafael, where you can taste more wine, and from where several tour operators offer whitewater-rafting trips along the nearby Cañón del Atuel, or rivers like the Sosneado and Diamante. If you’ve always wanted to ski or snowboard in July, try the winter sports resort at Las Leñas, where you’ll be sharing pistes with South America’s jet-set. The third, least-visited section of the province wraps around the southern outpost of Malargüe, a final-frontier kind of place promoting itself as a centre for nature, scientific discovery and adventure. Within easy reach are the Laguna de Llancanelo, home to an enormous community of flamingoes, the charcoal-grey and rust-red lava deserts of La Payunia and the karstic caves of Caverna de las Brujas.Read More
- Mendoza and around
- Alta Montaña
- South of Mendoza
- San Rafael and around
- Las Leñas and around
The highlight of any trip to southernmost Mendoza Province, yet overlooked by most visitors because of its relative inaccessibility, LA PAYUNIA, protected by the Reserva Provincial La Payunia, is a fabulously wild area of staggering beauty, sometimes referred to as the Patagonia Mendocina. Dominated by Volcán Payún Matru (3690m), and its slightly lower inactive neighbour Volcán Payún Liso, it is utterly unspoilt apart from some remnants of old fluorite and manganese mines plus some petrol-drilling derricks, whose nodding-head pump-structures are locally nicknamed “guanacos”, after the member of the llama family they vaguely resemble in shape. Occasionally, you will spot real guanacos, sometimes in large flocks, standing out against the black volcanic backdrop of the so-called Pampa Negra. This huge expanse of lava in the middle of the reserve was caused by relatively recent volcanic eruptions, dating back hundreds or thousands of years rather than millions, as is the case of most such phenomena in the region. “Fresh” trails of lava debris can be seen at various points throughout the park, and enormous boulders of igneous rock are scattered over these dark plains, also ejected during the violent volcanic activity. The only vegetation is flaxen grass, whose golden colour stands out against the blackened hillsides. Another section of the reserve is the aptly named Pampa Roja, where reddish oxides in the lava give the ground a henna-like tint. The threatening hulk of Volcán Pihuel looms at the western extremity of the reserve – its top was blown off by a particularly violent explosion that occurred when the mountain was beneath the sea.