Explore Mendoza, San Juan and La Rioja
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. On the way to the reserve you pass through Villa San José De Vinchina, 65km north of Villa Unión, a nondescript village near which are six large, low circular mounds. Made of a mosaic of pink, white and purple stones, these mysterious Estrellas de Vinchina form star-shapes and are thought to have had a ceremonial purpose for the pre-Columbian indigenous people of the area, perhaps serving as altars. Otherwise head on through the Quebrada de la Troya, a magnificent striped canyon, into the Valle Caguay, dominated by the majestic cone of Volcán Los Bonetes. From here the road is best negotiated in a 4WD – in any case it is wise to visit the reserve on an organized tour from Villa Unión. You’ll need to pull off the main road into Alto Jagüe to show your passport at the checkpoint and pay the park entrance fee ($15 per person plus $10 for the vehicle; 03825/15440879; don’t forget to check back in when leaving the park so they know you’re safe).
The track heads through to the southern banks of the Laguna Brava, 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 (now believed to be 6793m instead of the commonly cited measurement of 6882m). 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 flamingos, Andean geese and other wildfowl. There’s no public transport, no guardería and nowhere to stay: just you and the wilds.