Explore Mendoza, San Juan and La Rioja
MALARGÜE is a laidback town 186km south of San Rafael by the RN-144 and the RN-40. The biggest settlement in the far southern portion of Mendoza Province, it’s less of a destination in itself, and more – like San Rafael – a base for exploring the prime tourist sites in this region. It’s more conveniently located for most of these than San Rafael, although it has less choice of middle and upper-end accommodation.
The town is within day-trip distance of the black and red pampas of La Payunia, a nature reserve where flocks of guanacos and ñandús roam over lava flows. Far nearer – and doable as half-day outings – are some remarkable underground caves, the Cueva de la Brujas, and Laguna Llancanelo, a shining lagoon flecked pink with flamingos and crammed with other aquatic birdlife. You could also consider staying here in order to go skiing at Las Leñas, 77km away.Read More
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.
To visit the park, take one of the excellent day-trips run by Karen Travel in Malargüe. If you plan to drive there independently, you’ll need a 4WD and a good map. You must also take a guide with you – ask in the travel agencies or tourist office in Malargüe. You can also stay at the lovely eco-conscious accommodation, Kiñe (t02627/155-88635 or t02627/471344, wwww.kinie.com.ar; from $250 per person per night full board; trips extra), in a basic but comfortable little farmstead at the remote hamlet of La Agüita, on RP-186 in the northeast corner of the reserve. In addition to simple but tasty meals the friendly family also lays on treks in the mountains and horse rides across plains full of guanacos. There is no public transport to Kiñe but the owners will pick you up in Malargüe (consult in advance for transfer costs if not arriving in your own vehicle).
In 1972, a group of young rugby players from Uruguay caught the attention of the world after they survived an air crash and over two months of brutal subzero temperatures in the Andes, at a place on the Argentine–Chilean border in the mountains west of the Cerro Sosneado and Río Atuel, now called the Glaciar de la Lágrimas (glacier of tears). The students survived by consuming snow and their colleagues’ corpses and fashioning sleeping bags from the insulation in the plane’s tail, before two of them finally made it west over the mountains and alerted the Chilean authorities, who had long since given them up for dead. Their incredible story was told in the 1993 movie Alive and the documentary Alive: 20 Years Later. It is now possible to visit the site of the crash, where parts of the plane are still scattered. Some may find the idea macabre, and getting there is obviously no walk in the park – count on at least three days of trekking and horseriding through the snow, although you’ll also get to take a unique hot bath in the warm blue waters bubbling up out of the ground at the ruins of the old Hotel Sosneado. Tours are run by Risco Viajes in San Rafael or with guides from Malargüe – such as Karen Travel.