In the west of San Juan Province is the marvellous, fertile VALLE DE CALINGASTA – a bright-green strip of land around 90km west of the city of San Juan as the crow flies, on the other side of the Sierra del Tontal range, but reached by a long road detour. Its major settlement of interest is Barreal, a pleasant, laidback little town set amid fields of alfalfa, onions and maize, with a stupendous backdrop of the sierra, snowcapped for most of the year. Barreal’s environs are home to the Complejo Astronómico El Leoncito, one of the continent’s most important space observatories, and the clay flats of the Barreal del Leoncito, used for wind-cart championships. To the east of town is a series of mountains, red, orange and deep pink in colour, known aptly as the Serranías de las Piedras Pintadas. To the southwest of Barreal, the RP-400 leads to the tiny hamlet of Las Hornillas, the point of departure for adventurous treks and climbs to the summit of Cerro Mercedario (6770m), said by many mountaineers to be the most satisfying climb in the cordillera in this region. In the sedate town of Calingasta itself, north of Barreal, the main sight is a fine seventeenth-century chapel.
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The small oasis town of BARREAL, set alongside the Río Los Patos, 1650m above sea level, at the southern extreme of the Valle de Calingasta, is a fast up-and-coming, friendly place which makes a great base for adventure tourism in the surrounding area. The central square, Plaza San Martín, is the focal point, at the crossroads of Avenida Presidente Roca and General Las Heras. The town enjoys a pleasant climate, and the views to the west, of the cordillera peaks, including the majestic Cerro Mercedario, El Polaco, La Ramada and Los Siete Picos de Ansilta, seen across a beautiful plain, shimmering with onion and maize fields, are superb. Barreal makes a good base if you want to conquer Mercedario – one of the Andes’ most challenging yet climbable mountains. To the east you can climb up into the coloured mountains, or up to the Cima del Tontal, which affords one of the most famous of all views of the cordillera, as well as panoramas across to San Juan city.
Las Hornillas and Mercedario
Las Hornillas and Mercedario
Frustratingly, there are no public buses south from Barreal or the national park along the RN-149 – still mostly unpaved on this stretch – to Uspallata in Mendoza Province. The scenic RP-400 strikes out in a southwesterly direction from Barreal to <strong>Las Hornillas</strong>, over 50km away. This tiny hamlet is inhabited mostly by herdsmen and their families amid pastureland and gorse scrub and is effectively the base camp for the mighty <strong>Mercedario</strong>, which looms nearby. If you want to climb this difficult but not impossible mountain, regarded by many as the most noble of all Argentina’s Andean peaks, contact Fortuna Viajes in Barreal. The nearby rivers are excellent for fishing for trout; ask at the tourist office in Barreal.
The mountainsides to the immediate east of Barreal, accessible by clear tracks, are a mosaic of pink, red, brown, ochre and purple rocks, and the so-called <strong>Cerros Pintados</strong>, or “Painted Mountains”, live up to their name. Among the rocky crags, tiny cacti poke out from the cracks, and in the spring they sprout huge wax-like flowers, in translucent shades of white, pink and yellow, among golden splashes of broom-like <em>brea</em> shrubs. About 8km north of Barreal, another track heads eastwards from the main road, climbing for 40km past some idyllic countryside inhabited only by the odd goatherd or farming family, to the outlook atop the <strong>Cima del Tontal</strong>, at just over 4000m. To the east there are amazing views down into the San Juan Valley, with the Dique de Ullum glinting in the distance, or west and south to the cordillera, where the peak of Aconcagua and the majestic summit of the Mercedario are clearly visible.