“A white unlike any other” was how our chauffeur, in Spanish, described the brilliance of Aconcagua’s peak. Of course, “chauffeur” is a bit of a generous term for the couple we had hitched a ride with, the beginning of a series of misadventures that ultimately should have placed my traveling companion in a hospital. But for the moment we could only stare at the icy blue-white cap, and eagerly wait for the moment that we could disembark and begin a hike through the provincial park towards that ultimate destination
After six months of living in the congestion of Buenos Aires, my boyfriend, Preston, and I were craving the freshness and spontaneity of the wilderness and decided to embark on a mini camping trip. We set off for Mendoza and rented the appropriate gear (we found a great little cluster of outdoor equipment rental shops centered around 25 de Mayo on Avenue Las Heras in the center of Mendoza). With little research, we decided to take off on a two-night trek that would ultimately take us to Aconcagua Provincial Park, home of the sky-scraping Mount Aconcagua, which, at 9,962 meters, is the tallest mountain outside of the Himalayas.
We jumped on a bus to Upsallata, a small town two hours outside of the city of Mendoza, nestled in the foothills of the Andes. (The Upsallata Express is the only company that services the area; buses leave every few hours and cost less than US$10). The valley has a handful of hiking trails that offer decent views and a chance to acclimate to the rising altitude. However, we were on a quest to reach the famous Aconcagua, and neither acclimation time nor bus schedules (the next bus to travel into the Andes did not pass through for a few more hours) would keep us from our ascent. So we decided to viajar a dedo (hitch-hike; literally, to “travel by thumb”) and travel to the next point of interest, the Puente del Inca.
Hitch-hiking in Argentina is not as stigmatized as it is in the US or Europe, although the act obviously always carries a risk. A variety of friends (both American and Argentine, female and male) have praised the comfort and success of securing rides by traveling with truckers. Traveling as two people, we had no luck with truck drivers but were kindly picked up by a couple from Buenos Aires province. Because the traveler’s unofficial role is to provide interesting conversation, a good understanding of Spanish is a must. Our companions were extremely amiable and knowledgeable of the area, and delivered us to the Puente del Inca in record time.
The Puente del Inca has been routinely chronicled on this site, but any visitor to the area should definitely check it out. Beyond its unique aesthetic and historical interest it is an important location because hikers are strongly encouraged to spend the night here in order to acclimate, if they plan to head on to Aconcagua. Due to our poor planning, we were unaware of this fact, and we decided to immediately hike the five kilometer ascent to Aconcagua Provincial Park.
While the hike is not difficult and does not take very long, I would not suggest the route we took; we followed the highway and were forced to deal with passing trucks and buses speeding down the road. We saw some locals following an abandoned train track- if you are looking to hike the short distance, this may be a better option.
Entrance to the provincial park is free, and you are provided with a map upon arrival. There is a short two kilometer loop that affords visitors a spectacular view of Mount Aconcagua, or a longer trail that leads to a river. It is important to note that, unlike other parks in Argentina, camping is not allowed in Aconcagua Provincial Park, and violations can result in a fine of US$300. We were not aware of this fact upon our arrival, and after literally begging the ranger for an authorized place to rest, he directed us to a place where he temporarily turned a blind eye. There are longer, paid excursions up the mountain that allow camping, and, if you are feeling daring, we also came across a few clandestine camp sites.
As we were walking along the path to the river, it was apparent that we were at a much higher altitude: our breathing was heavier, our heart rates faster, and every so often we would feel like ache of pressure in our heads (I found sitting down and water to be a good cure-all). As we sat down for a rest after lunch, I decided to fill up our empty water bottles. Upon returning twenty minutes later, I found Preston shivering, with a fever; his lips and fingertips were grey and his head was pounding. Although I am a good seven inches shorter and fifty pounds lighter, I experienced none of these symptoms. Unfortunately, the sun had just set and there was no viable alternative other than to hunker down in our sleeping bags, guzzle water, and try to go to sleep. Preston was breathing was shallow and sparse. Immediately the next morning, we jumped in a car with a couple we had met and returned to Mendoza.
Saddled with a headache for days, we learned the hard way the necessity of planning for a trip into the Andes. When heading to Aconcagua, a slow, steady pace is imperative, as is the need to listen to your body. I hope this will not discourage anyone from visiting this site, but to keep in mind that in this circumstance outdoor trekking and freewheeling spontaneity do not necessarily go hand-in-hand.