We leave the city of Santiago behind to embark on the next part of our South American adventure. The plan is to do like the locals do and hop aboard a bustling coach that will trundle its way through the Andes and across the Argentinian border, delivering us safely to our next destination of Chacras de Coria, part of the famous Mendoza wine region.
Except the plan is slightly foiled thanks to a small oversight. Despite having British residence and a British husband, my Australian passport means needing to prepay a $100 entry fee into Argentina. The bus driver, blocking the entrance to the vehicle, spouts a string of unintelligible Spanish which clearly means, ‘you are not getting on this bus’, and with that, our dreams of reclining in those inviting black leather seats munching on empanadas as the views sweep by, are quashed.
It’s back to CasaSur then, where a bemused Eduardo listens to our plight and does some serious phone hitting, contact hussling and favour pulling to get us to Chacras de Coria, stat. That wine is not going to drink itself, after all. After some hurried conversations, Eduardo emerges triumphant, announcing that his contact at a local travel agency, Fernando, has managed to shift some things around and can pick us up within the hour. With any luck we’ll be able to visit one winery before sundown.
We set off, Fernando chatting cheerfully as we pull of our shoes and sprawl across the backseat, and as we hit the motorway, we swap skyscrapers for mountains that are to be our constant yet ever changing companions over the next six hours.
A flight from Santiago to Mendoza would have taken two hours and earned us some extra wine time, but Phil was insistent seeing the Andes would be an adventure in itself and would be worth the drive. And he was right. This natural wonder did not disappoint and did not offer a dull moment across the entire drive.
Being so up close and personal with this epic mountain range gives you a sense of how immense it is. Seeing it from afar shows you the scale, but being immersed in the mountains, your vehicle like a beetle crawling slowly across a giant’s back, you feel truly dwarfed by their imposing nature but awed by their changing colour, vistas and personality.
Some of the mountain range feels alpine, with snow streaked peaks resembling dappled dairy cows or zebras and hiding secret ice cold blue lakes behind them.
Some is lush and verdant, like a pine forest. Other parts are downright hostile, with impenetrable jagged rocks covering entire cliff faces, creating impossibly sheer drops that slide down into desert style rolling dunes that look like evil sprouting potatoes.
The mountains roll on to reveal rock carvings that are so artistically presented you could easily be fooled into thinking they were created by man, but it is 100% nature and our minds start to wander at what we could be seeing. We marvel at what looks like a pink stone fortress in the sky resembling the ancient Jordanian city of Petra and comment on just how much a certain part resembles the towering columns of Stonehenge. In some parts we pick out sloping faces with long rock noses that with a bit more definition could be turned into South American’s own Mount Rushmore. In other parts, the mountains give way to flat plateaus that look as though they could have been constructed as bridges.
Then an hour out of Chacras de Coria, so close we can nearly taste that delicious Malbec, we are foiled again. Bad weather has led to the collapse of a bridge which just so happens to be on the only road to Mendoza and we are destined to stay the night in Uspallata, a one street town whose redeeming feature is how far flung it feels, with 360 degree mountain views. It was also where part of the Brad Pitt movie ‘7 Years in Tibet’ was filmed, and you can visit Cafe Tibet that was set up in homage to the town’s 15 minutes of fame. So there are certainly worse places to spend a night.
But a night’s all we’ve got the time and patience for, so when the next day, our hotel receptionist can’t be sure whether the road will re-open one day or six, it’s time to take matters into our own hands. With a mix of rudimentary Spanish on our side and equally rudimentary English on the locals’ side, we manage to strike a deal with an adventure tourism agency who sets us up with a driver, Gustavo, who’s willing to take us in his 4×4, the long way round – all six hours of it.
And we’re on the road again, back in the centre of the Andes. Gustavo stops to collect his ponytailed friend who will serve as his driving and tea drinking companion, crucial for that all important road trip banter considering we are flat out telling the guys where we are from and where we’re going.
We motor on from Uspallata onto a desolate highway, with views of the mountains as far as the eye can see. The Andes are everything and everywhere and it’s hard to imagine anything else exists. They take up the whole sky and we are like a small spider crawling through trying to painstakingly craft our web. At times the mountains are far away and feel like comforting old friends, and other times they bear down claustrophobically as the road hugs the edge with perilous turns that make you feel like the mountain could collapse on you at any time.
Then just like that they are gone as we fly past San Juan into Mendoza, the range fading into a palette of jagged outlines in the distance as the vineyards edge closer. We’re ready to drink to the end of this adventure and the start of a new one – who knows what’s in store!