Sunday, May 9, 2010

A Visit to the Stone Guardian

I don't know how familiar you are with the geography of Argentina.  I wasn't, at all, till I came here; it still blows me away occasionally how BIG this country is.  It's the 8th largest in the world, after ... let's see ... Russia, Canada, United States, China, Brazil, Australia, and India, in something like that order.  It's nearly 4,000 km from north to south, and 1,500 km from east to west, and I'll have traversed it in both directions by the time I'm done.

And a chain of huge mountains run nearly all the way up the length of the country, forming a sort of spine for South America.  The Andes carry on northward into Bolivia and beyond, but they hit their peak right near Mendoza.  Away to the west, there's a mountain called Aconcagua ("Stone Guardian" in the local indigenous language) that reaches the lofty height of 6,962 metres.  That's taller than any other mountain outside of the Himalayas.

I took a day trip yesterday to go visit the Stone Guardian, with a few other stops along the way.  As you leave Mendoza, heading west toward Chile, it isn't long before the landscape changes from flat desert to foothills to mountains to ... towering peaks the likes of which I've never seen.  The Rockies have nothing on these.   Aconcagua is the highest, and there were a few foolhardy souls heading out on the long hiking trail that would take them to the base of the giant itself, from there to start a long and arduous climb to the top.  Because of the altitude, you can't hike continuously day after day, as you have to stop to acclimatize;  it takes at least 2 weeks to reach the summit.

THAT idea didn't even cross my mind for a second, as I was very happy just to look at it from a distance.  It's still impressive and the landscape was quite literally breath-taking; the viewpoint for Aconcagua is at about 3,000 metres and it's noticeably harder to breathe and hike.  Quite what it would be like at nearly 7,000 metres, I don't even want to imagine!

It was mostly Chileans on the bus with me, aside from a couple of American college students, and they appeared to be equally fascinated by the fact the the little lakes near the viewpoint were frozen over, and that there was snow on the ground, as they were by Aconcagua itself.  They would happily have spent hours, I think, just skipping rocks across the ice of a pond, chuckling to each other at this novelty.  (For a Canadian who grew up with real winters, this was much less fascinating.  But I had fun showing them how to make a snowman.)

Aconcagua was obviously the highlight of the day, but there are a few other oddities around the area that amused me.  We stopped for breakfast (which, for an Argentino, means sweet pastries with dulce de leche) at a little town called Upsallata, proud possessor of the Tibet Bar -- it's furnished with castoffs and souvenirs from the set of "Seven Years in Tibet", which was filmed near here.  Brad Pitt lived in the local schoolhouse during the shoot.

A bit further out from Mendoza, past Upsallata, there`s a late 18th century stone bridge over an icy glacier stream called the Puente de Picheuta.  It was built originally by the governor of the day for the use of travellers on the trade route over the Andes, but it gained its claim to fame from its use by the massed forces of General San Martin in 1806 as he marched against the Spanish.  This year, Argentina celebrates the successful conclusion of that revolution, as it`s the 200th anniversary of their official independence in 1810.

Puente del Inca
Further on still, nearly at Aconcagua, there`s an intriguing stone formation called the Puente del Inca.  Legend has it that the natural bridge was created when the Incan sun god was ailing and needed to access the healing hot springs on the other side of the water.  Loyal Incas formed a human bridge and when the Sun rose again, fully restored, they were frozen in place, there to remain for all eternity to assist others in need of the springs.

The more prosaic explanation is that the mineral-rich water has gradually eroded the stone over time.  But I think I like the legend better.  Either way, it`s an interesting place -- at one point, it was the site of a posh hotel and spa, where guests could go down to the bath house over the hot springs to soak away their ailments.  An avalanche destroyed the hotel, but the bath house remains, slowly being covered up by mineral deposits as the water continues to flow. 

Well, tomorrow I head back out that direction, but carry on right over the pass into Chile.  I`m off to Santiago for at least a couple of days, and -- I think -- arranging for a side trip to Easter Island while I`m in the neighbourhood (or at least as "in the neighbourhood" as I`m ever going to get!).  This is not a cheap undertaking, but this is kind of a once-in-a-lifetime year for once-in-a-lifetime trips just like this.  So I might just take the plunge and go.  I`ll keep you posted.

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