The Andean cordillera, including some of the world’s tallest mountains, loom a short distance west of Mendoza, and its snow-tipped peaks are visible from the city centre almost all year round, beyond the picturesque vineyards and fruit orchards. Even if you’ve come to the region for the wine, you’ll want to head up into the hills before long: the scenery is fabulous, and skiing, trekking and highland walks are all possible, or you can simply enjoy the views on an organized excursion.
The so-called Alta Montaña Route – the RN-7 – is also the international highway to Santiago de Chile, via the upmarket Chilean ski resort of Portillo, and one of the major border crossings between the two countries, blocked by snow only on rare occasions in July and August. If you’re in a hurry to get to or from Santiago, try to travel by day, to see the stunning scenery in the area. However, if you’ve more time to explore, possible stop-offs along the RN-7 include the pretty village of and Vallecitos, a tiny ski resort that caters for a younger crowd than exclusive Las Leñas. As the road climbs further up into the mountains it passes another village, Uspallata, and then a variety of colourful rock formations – look for the pinnacle-like Los Penitentes. Closer to the border, Puente del Inca is a popular place to pause, both for its sulphurous thermal spring and its location – near the trailhead, base camp and muleteer-post for those brave enough to contemplate the ascent of mighty Aconcagua, the continent’s tallest peak, just to the north. The last settlement before you travel through a tunnel under the Andes and into Chile is Las Cuevas, from where an old mountain pass can be ascended, weather permitting, to see the Cristo Redentor, a huge statue of Christ, erected as a sign of peace between the old rivals, and for the fantastic mountain views.Read More
At 6962m – or 6959m according to some maps – CERRO ACONCAGUA is the highest peak in both the western and southern hemispheres, or outside the Himalayas. Its glacier-garlanded summit dominates the Parque Provincial Aconcagua, even though it is encircled by several other mountains that exceed 5000m: cerros Almacenes, Catedral, Cuerno, Cúpula, Ameghino, Güssfeldt, Dedos, México, Mirador, Fitzgerald, La Mano, Santa María and Tolosa, some of which are easier to climb than others, and many of which obscure views of the great summit from most points around. The five glaciers that hang around its faces like icy veils are Horcones Superior, Horcones Inferior, Güssfeldt, Las Vacas and Los Polacos.
Aconcagua may be the highest Andean mountain, but for many mountain purists, it lacks the morphological beauty of Cerro Mercedario to the north or Volcán Tupungato to the south; it’s also not as difficult a climb to the summit as some of the other Andean peaks. Nevertheless, ever since it was conquered by the Italian–Swiss mountaineer Mathias Zurbriggen in 1897 – after it had been identified by German climber Paul Güssfeldt in 1883 – Aconcagua has been one of the top destinations in the world for expeditions or solo climbs. In 1934, a Polish team of climbers made it to the top via the Los Polacos glacier now named after them; in 1953, the southwest ridge was the route successfully taken by a local group of mountaineers; and in 1954, a French team that had successfully conquered Cerro Fitz Roy made the first ascent of Aconcagua up the south face, the most challenging of all – Plaza Francia, one of the main base camps, is named after them. In recent years, Aconcagua has become a major attraction for less experienced mountaineers, and of the seven thousand-odd people who try to reach the summit every year, about half make it.
The origins of the name Aconcagua are not entirely clear, although it probably comes either from the Huarpe words Akon-Kahuak (“stone sentinel”) or from the Mapuche Akonhue (“from the beyond”). That it was a holy site for these and/or other native peoples is evidenced by the discovery in 1985 of an Inca mummy – now in the Museo del Área Fundacional, Mendoza – on the southwest face. Found at an altitude of 5300m, the presence of the mummy shows that ceremonies, including burials and perhaps sacrifices, took place at these incredible heights.