Wandering in America del Sur

Argentina-Travelogue  |  Travel time: July 2005 - March 2006  |  by Allison Webb

Chevy, like a rock!

Our flight to Mendoza was without incident and we arrived in its heat to find a city over run with tourists who filled up full its small pedestrian malls. After our first few hours there, true to our usual style, we had walked a good chunk of its downtown area and for some reason were not all that impressed. We wondered if we were just tired because the guide book just raved about the place as had other travellers. Maybe we had just seen too much ...

The plan was to rest here for 5 days given the fact that nowhere on our trip had we slept in the same bed for more than 3 days consecutively. However, another day later our impression of the city had not changed. With little to do there and the scorching heat and noise making it impossible to sleep, we decided to go for Plan B and hit the road again. But this time we decided to do it our way, in a rental car and off the beaten track north of the city.

The next day we started out with fear and intrepidation in our little Chevy Corsa to navigate the city streets. We figured that the worst part would be getting out of Mendoza, but boy were we wrong!!! The city was relatively quiet in the morning and we were out in about 20 minutes in the outskirts and then nothingness. This was to be a hallmark of our entire trip.

The rough plan was to head north to a little village called Barreal, quoted as having the most spectacular setting of any town which was quite a reputation to live up to and from there we would circle around to San Juan, city the same size as Mendoza at 120,000 and then head south from San Juan back to Mendoza airport where we would drop the car. In between whatever happened was anyone´s guess!

The drive started off pretty desolate. The countryside of desert being even more obvious than in the city as we drove down dry, desert trails. We had foresaken the main highway for the backroads because we wanted a different experience and the result was this windy, twisted path - you couldn´t really call it a highway - through the mountains where we climbed and climbed and climbed. Guananacos bounded across the road, the signs warned of the poor road conditions and the route was lined with thistles of bright purple. The views at the top were spectacular, but unfortunately the prize in all its glory, Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the area was shrouded in cloud.

We came down to meet up with the main highway for a few kilometers in Upsullata where the tourist trade was swift and fierce, a bundle of backpackers lying in the heat, waiting for the next bus to Chile. But after a quick lunch stop we left civilization and headed north to Barreal. The road was straight with the Andes on our left, parched ground on our right and a feeling of desperation in the desolateness of the landscape.

The temperature climbed outside as our trusty Corsa came to life on the dirt roads. When it reached 34 we had to break down and use the air conditioning, but we still had a ways to go! The road was full of these strange signs indicating dips which didn´t seem to make a lot of sense to us.

All was going according to rough plan when we saw our first dip filled with water. Suddenly we understood why they had the signs! Ugh! Pulled the car to a quick stop and got out to survey the best route forward or back! Found a path and continued on, but that was not the last of it. The next one was deep and our car was looking very pitifully small in front of the challenge. Got out to throw rocks or consider wading through the water in search of a path - if there was one! Fortunately some locals came by and we watched their approach and success and figured we could probably do it. Seeing that they had stopped to wait for us and were even getting out to come back and help us out gave us courage and inspiration and Kurt took the little Corsa through the puddles to the other side!

Fortunately after that there were only a few more gaps before we got to Barreal. Pulling into the town it was hard to understand what the fuss was about. The whole town was shut up tight with the streets completely empty. The temperature was now at a balmy 38C and we were feeling dry, dusty, and parched. There were absolutely no signs of life and we had no idea where to go except I remembered a guest house from the internet that I had seen so after a few false starts down streets that led nowhere found someone to tell us where the guesthouse was and found our way back there.

Turned out to be the best thing that we had ever done! From the second that we crossed the threshold we were in love. The owners came out with smiles a mile wide as we snagged the last available room of their 6 room posada (inn). The place was gorgeous with its whitewashed walls and adobe style, a fireplace in every room, wide french doors with shutters that opened to let in the fresh and cool air, a swimming pool, patio with comfy chairs and views of the Andes everywhere you looked! It was paradise!

Within minutes I was swimming and feeling a whole lot cooler. Sitting relaxing I was surprised to see a very strange sight. Could it actually be black clouds? The guidebook swore that this area almost never received a drop of rain in the year! But soon we were running for cover while the skies opened up complete with a thunder and lightning symphony and a full on rainbow! And as we sat on the patio with the other guests we were just enjoying how much cooler it was. Ah ...

At 9pm, when the restaurant opened, decided to leave for dinner because there wasn´t any food available at our place. Being so far north, it was dark as we headed out to town. The first sign that something wasn´t quite right was the presence of children running along side the road out in the country. The next was the raging river that was all of a sudden visible in our headlights. A river that hadn´t been there a few hours earlier?! Considered our options and figured that it couldn´t really be that bad further along, but we were wrong. Dead wrong!

The water continued to flow in raging torrents over the road, covering everything. People were shovelling out their houses in desperation as water was pouring in everywhere. The entire landscape had been transformed in a few hours from dry desert, to lake. We looked on in admiration at those on horses and wished we had our own. Our little Chevy Corsa wasn´t looking so good at this time! And it was still a long way to go to the only restaurant!

The sound of the water was unbelievable as rocks and debris were washing up on the road and scraping the underbody of the car. We imagined our damage deposit being siphoned away. We didn´t know whether we should risk going any further or just abandon the car on a relatively dry section of road and wade through the river aka street for 2 km! Finally decided to try along with everyone else and that´s just what we did. While the beacon of a police car´s lights could be seen in the distance and all along the side of the road were the locals out to see the excitement, we literally floated down the former road for 2km ´til we could find the turnoff to the restaurant!

Still shaking and absolutely incredulous because we had never been in a flash flood before, we went into the restaurant not knowing if we were ever going to make it home that night! A good meal later shared with a Swiss cyclist, Patrick, who entertained us with amazing stories of cycling through the pass between Chile and Argentina it was midnight and we decided to chance our luck and go home knowning that if we couldn´t make it there was a bed in Patrick´s room waiting for us!

And just like the other tourists had told us, just as fast as the water had come, it was also gone! And we drove home only in some mud, wondering if the whole thing had been a dream except for all the rocks and debris on the road! Never had we experienced something so powerful and strange as a flash flood!

The next morning were so very sad to leave our little piece of paradise (el paraiso), but with our little "like a rock" chevy, covered in mud and debris we were off for more windy roads, spectacular scenery of reds and burnt siennas and finally vineyards as we headed south from San Juan back to Mendoza. The scenery was every bit as magical as the book said, and we knew that Barreal and its environs would not be quite for long. Signs of development were everywhere.

Stopped on San Juan and its wine museum and vineyards for the night and sampled the local fare. Much less well known than Mendoza, it is charming city with no tourists and we enjoyed blending in and getting our own personal wine tours without being on a schedule. The $5 bottles of wine weren´t bad either!

On the road back to Mendoza saw the telltale signs of rainclouds and prayed that we would make it to the airport without incident. On the road there were signs at first that appeared as crosses, but upon a closer look were actually rulers to measure the water on the road - up to an incredibly high 1.6m! There was no way that even our tough little chevy would make it through that! We were incredulous! Drove on in wonder and horror of the regularity of this flooding on the main highway north and south - route 40! And just as it began to really pour drove into the airport in Mendoza to say goodbye to our off road adventure, flash floods and our little car that had done us so well. Adios to the desert!

The warnings about the road being bad on the way from Mendoza to Upsallata - a mere 365 curves! Level of difficulty - high!

The warnings about the road being bad on the way from Mendoza to Upsallata - a mere 365 curves! Level of difficulty - high!

The road from halfway to the top!

The road from halfway to the top!

The purple thistles along the side! Gorgeous!

The purple thistles along the side! Gorgeous!

The calm before the storm.

The calm before the storm.

Dinner with Patrick from Switzerland - a well deserved meal after the harrowing drive through the flood

Dinner with Patrick from Switzerland - a well deserved meal after the harrowing drive through the flood

Our favourite hotel so far - La Querencia, Barreal

Our favourite hotel so far - La Querencia, Barreal

The spectacular scenery - enroute to San Juan

The spectacular scenery - enroute to San Juan

Stopping to take a pic - because we can - with our trusty Chevy Corsa

Stopping to take a pic - because we can - with our trusty Chevy Corsa

Sampling the local wines - gotta keep that economy booming - only $8 bottle for their finest!

Sampling the local wines - gotta keep that economy booming - only $8 bottle for their finest!

The famous Route 40

The famous Route 40

The windy road from Barreal to San Juan

The windy road from Barreal to San Juan

Only a puddle compared to what we´d end up going thru!

Only a puddle compared to what we´d end up going thru!

Wine on display at the wine museum and tasting room - San Juan

Wine on display at the wine museum and tasting room - San Juan

© Allison Webb, 2005
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The trip
 
Description:
My trip through Peru before heading to Chile to work for 6 months and then travels afterward in South America
Details:
Start of journey: Jul 05, 2005
Duration: 8 months
End of journey: Mar 02, 2006
Travelled countries: Peru
Chile
Argentina
Uruguay
Ecuador
The Author
 
Allison Webb is an active author on break-fresh-ground. since 14 years.