Explore Mendoza, San Juan and La Rioja
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).