The small city of SAN RAFAEL is the de facto capital of central Mendoza Province; around 230km south of Mendoza via the RN-40 and the RN-143, it’s a kind of mini-Mendoza, complete with wide avenues, irrigation channels along the gutters and scrupulously clean public areas. The town was founded in 1805 on behalf of Rafael, Marqués de Sobremonte – hence the name – by militia leader Miguel Telles Meneses. Large numbers of Italian and Spanish immigrants flocked here at the end of the nineteenth century, but the so-called Colonia Francesa expanded further when the railway arrived in 1903. Favoured by French immigrants during the nineteenth century, San Rafael built its prosperity on vineyards, olives and fruit, grown in the province’s second biggest oasis.
In all, there are nearly eighty wine bodegas in San Rafael department, most of them tiny, family-run businesses, some of which welcome visitors. Tourism has been a big money-spinner over the past couple of decades, especially since adventure tourism has taken off. The Cañón del Atuel, a short way to the southwest, is a great place for gentle whitewater rafting, or you can try the much more challenging, dramatic Río Diamante. If you’re exploring the southern parts of the province, you’ll find a wider choice of accommodation in San Rafael than in Malargüe, although the latter still makes a far more convenient base.
San Rafael has a flat, compact centre that lends itself to a gentle stroll, but otherwise there aren’t any sights to speak of – the town is essentially a base for visiting the surrounding area. The main drag, with most of the shops and hotels, is a continuation of the RN-143 from Mendoza, called Avenida Hipólito Yrigoyen west of north–south axis Avenida General San Martín and Avenida Bartolomé Mitre to the east. Streets change name either side of both axes.
Cañón del Atuel
Cañón del Atuel
The CAÑÓN DEL ATUEL is one of San Rafael’s main attractions, a beautifully wild canyon linking two man-made lakes along the Río Atuel, to the southwest of the town. Visits begin at the reservoir furthest away, the Embalse del Nihuil, reached along the winding RN-144 towards Malargüe, up the Cuesta de los Terneros to the 1300m summit, which offers great views of the valley below; and then via the RP-180, which forks off to the south. The lake lies 92km southwest of San Rafael.
The partly sealed RP-173 then squeezes in a northeasterly direction through a narrow gorge whose cliffs and rocks are striped red, white and yellow, contrasting with the beige of the dust-dry mountainsides. Wind and water have eroded the rocks into weird and often rather suggestive shapes that stimulate the imagination: tour guides attach names like “the Nun” or “the Toad” to the strange formations. The road then passes a couple of dams, attached to power stations, before swinging round the other reservoir, the Embalse Valle Grande. Sticking out of these blue-green waters are more strange rock formations, one of which does indeed look like the submarine its nickname suggests. From the high corniche roads that skirt the lakeside you are treated to some grand views of the waters, dotted with kayaks and other boats, and the mountains beyond. Near here starts the stretch of the Río Atuel used for whitewater rafting. Raffeish, at RP-173 Km35, Valle Grande (t0260 443 6996, wraffeish.com.ar), is the most reliable and ecologically conscious operator, and has an office here. Trips last an hour, along an easy stretch for beginners, or a couple of hours or more, taking in a tougher Grade II section of the river; take a change of clothes, as you get soaked. The scenery along the way is pleasantly pastoral along the more open parts and staggeringly beautiful in the narrower gorges.