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We have two “Bibles” that we couldn’t do without here in South America. One is the iOverlander app which shows us campsites, wild camping spots, tourist attractions, gas stations, border crossings, laundrettes and more. The second is the Pan American Travellers Association Facebook Group. Both are run by like minded communities of people, traveling in similar ways, exploring the world and available at all times to help fellow travellers.
If I need to know the condition of a road or what sights there are to see on a specific route or how to beat the high ATM fees in Argentina or visa questions or anything else that will assist me on the trip, I ask the Pan American Travellers group and within seconds I receive a flood of replies.
One such question was on which was the best route for us to take from Salta to Cafayate in Argentina. Shortly thereafter I received a private FB message from Gustav in Mendoza. He realised we were heading South and was offering for us to stay at his home in Mendoza. So when we got to Mendoza, we headed straight for their house!
Gustav, his wife Gabriela and their 3 kids – Ignatius (16), Lucy (13) and Benjamin (9) – are avid travellers and took a year off to travel around South America in their VW Kombi. Knowing what life is like on the road and loving meeting other travellers, they have generously opened their home to the overlanding community, where they now receive guests all year round.
We spent 4 nights with them, doing communal meals and BBQ’s (called an asado in Spanish) and sitting around their outside table swapping travel stories till late at night. They both speak English, which was a welcome relief for me, and Tai had a ball playing with the kids. Other Overlanders came and went, creating a melting pot of nationalities and languages. Travel joys and travel woes were shared with equal enthusiasm, while route advice and must see places were marked in Google Maps. On our last evening conversations were happening in Spanish, English, French and German, all at the same time!
Gaston and Gabriella’s nonstop smiles were infectious and their open house policy to the endless stream of strangers was remarkable. If you’re ever in Mendoza, pop in to meet these two extraordinary people!
WHAT WE DID IN MENDOZA
Drive to Uspallata through Parque Villavencencia they said. Only 17km of gravel road they said. 43km later….
Admittedly, the route through the Park was not that bad. It was gravel, but a pretty well graded steep serpentine road, so we took it really slowly. The views down over the valley were spectacular and we got to see so many Guanaco’s and three wild foxes!
All the foxes came right up to the side of the van and just stood staring at us until we drove off. The Guanaco’s weren’t quite so sure, often bolting down the steep slopes if we got too close. We got to see a few tiny baby Guanaco’s which were incredibly sweet.
From the top of the plateau, the road become badly corrugated so that even after we arrived in Uspallata, we continued to rattle and shake!
ENTRANCE FEE: 290 pesos each
PUNTA DE INCA
The Punta Del Inca Bridge is the site of natural arch created by thermal hot springs and glaciers. The hot springs are rich in mineral deposits which have petrified small objects in the area. You can see petrified boots, bowls and even a petrified bicycle at the souvenier stands! This was the site of an English owned spa but is now deserted.
The bridge and its array of colours has become a popular stop and with it a few restaurants and souvenir stalls have popped up. Its good for a 10 minute stop to stretch the legs, but the area is fenced off so you can’t get very close. Punte Del Inca can be found 70 km West of Uspallata en-route to the border with Chile.
Rising to 6962m Mount Aconcagua is the highest peak in all of South America and stands in all its snow-capped glory just 9km from the Chile-Argentina border. It is fast becoming the new hotspot for climbers wishing to avoid the crowded peaks of Nepal.
There are numerous hikes one can do, but only two can be done without a guide. The easiest is the Horcanes de Laguna hike, which is a 4km loop around the laguna to the bridge and back. This costs 300 pesos per person.
The second is the hike to the base station of Confluencia. This is an 18km hike taking 5-7hrs, depending on your fitness level. It’s at a high altitude so that will also be a factor in your speed. The cost is 1500 pesos and that’s just for the ticket – no guide! I desperately wanted to do this hike but at that price it was prohibitive, which is a shame.
We did the Horcanes de Laguna hike, surrounded by incredible mountain views and the majestic snow capped Aconcagua dead straight ahead. So incredibly beautiful!
COST: Horcanes de Laguna hike = 300 pesos / Confluencia Hike = 1500 pesos / kids under 12 are free
Arriving back in Uspallata, the police redirected us off the main road onto a 3km gravel road diversion. We had no clue what was going on until we arrived in the town, where we found the main street jam packed with people, music blaring and protest banners swaying. Food stalls had popped from which to enjoy the show.
The protest was about water rights. They were urging the government not to grant water rights to the bottling companies, as the rivers were drying up while their precious local water was being exported overseas.
The detour we took was over a very poor dirt road, which big trucks could most definitely not manage, so every 20minutes, the crowd would part and a stream of trucks would drive on through, all of them hooting in support of the protest. People around the world should come bear witness to how protesting should be done. No violence or anger, rather a fun, festive, peaceful protest that makes one sit up and really hear the message.
Heading South from Uspallata, along Route 7, we drove alongside the Uspallata River and into a red rocked gorge. Still marvelling at the beauty before us, we were horrified to see an enormous pile of water bottles alongside the road. We’d seen this before but not on this grand scale – it was another trash shrine! The shrine was dedicated to Deolinda Correa, who died of thirst in the desert, but miraculously continued to breastfeed her infant child for days after her passing. Believers now bring bottles of water as offerings so she never has to go thirsty again.
This is a lovely sentiment, but the eyesore it creates in these pristine natural areas is very sad. Being plastic, these bottles will be here for many many more years to come, unless the believers find another form of receptacle in which to place their offerings.
CACHUETA HOT SPRINGS
The Cachueta Hot Springs make for a fabulous day out. There are numerous pools of varying temperatures, waterslides, spraying fountains and a circular moat with strong current so you can literally just lie on your back and float around and around. Tables, chairs and BBQ facilities are abundant and there is a huge green lawn, where I made myself at home to relax in the sun.
Restaurants, food and souvenir stalls line the parking lot outside and for those wanting a bit of pampering, the Cachueta Hotel next door has a fabulous spa.
We spent the better part of the day at the hot springs, Tai finding lots of kids to play with, while I got some time off with my book. It felt like a little slice of heaven after our previous busy days.
COST: 280 per adult, 230 per child and 100 for parking
TIMES: 9am – 6pm
The Uspallata River was muddy and brown as the snow melt gathered the brown earth and tumbled it downstream. We followed its course through the canyon until suddenly before us we saw a huge expanse of shimmering turquoise – the Potrerillos Dam. Here the same muddy water had stilled and was now crystal clear.
When the Cachueta Hot Springs closed at 6pm, we headed back up to the dam. We saw a huge sandspit with cars parked so decided to join them. Tents and umbrellas dotted the shoreline each group with their cooler boxes and fires roasting huge hunks of Argentinian steak. Beers flowed, dogs barked and kids played on kayaks. Tai met some Canadian kids who were just as grateful as him to find a fellow English speaker. This was as gorgeous place for us to spend the night.
RAFTING ON RIO MENDOZA
Driving alongside the river, we had seen the rapids and they looked too good to pass up, so we popped into the offices of Potrerillos Explorers to book our river rafting trip. American Jake was our guide, along with another family of three. We got suited up, then jumped in the van and were driven 12km upstream. After the paddling training and a safety talk, we hopped into the raft and off we went.
This section of the river has level 2 & 3 rapids, so nothing too crazy, but still loads of fun. The water was pretty cold coming from the snow melt, but that didn’t stop Tai and the other family’s son, from jumping overboard and floating for a section of the river.
The trip took us 12km downriver, taking about 2hrs. There was a fair bit of paddling, and lots of rapids to navigate or should I say, scream our way through. All in all, it was loads of fun and a really cool way to enjoy the river.
COST: 1400 per person & 1320 for videos and photos
VAN LIFE & LESSONS LEARNT
During our jaunt in the mountains, we met some wonderful people. Emilio, his wife Florence, Emilio’s brother Nicholas and their friend. Emilio and Nicholas are Argentinian, while Florence is Swiss. Emilio and Florence met in Australia and now both live in Switzerland, so both spoke perfect English. We spent an hour together in the mountains, then said our goodbyes.
As I was getting into our van, Emilio came running up to ask what our plans were for Xmas Eve and to invite us to join them and his family. I couldn’t believe that after only knowing them for an hour, they were inviting us to join their family for such a special occasion. I was completely humbled and gratefully accepted.
Emilio’s family had hired a house with a huge garden a swimming pool for the holidays. His parents, aunt and uncle were also there when we arrived with more family arriving later in the evening. Xmas Eve dinner was the hugest side of beef I’ve ever seen! One enormous hunk of meat was placed on the BBQ and left to slowly roast over the course of a few hours.
Dinner was a real feast with plate after plate of the most delicious Argentinian beef being passed around. This was definitely not a table for vegetarians! At midnight, we all piled inside to watch the countdown on TV and at the stroke of midnight we hugged and kissed each other amid well wishes. Platters of nougat and panacotta were passed around and at 2am we finally called it a night.
Emilio’s family were too wonderful for words, welcoming us into their family space at a time when we were missing our own family so very much. I can’t express how grateful I was to them all for their incredible generosity and this beautiful gift of inclusivity that they gave us.
In my family, Christmas is celebrated with the whole extended family at lunch on Christmas day. We’d had an amazing Christmas Eve with Emilio’s family but it was time to move on and let them enjoy their family space. I was feeling pretty low, not knowing what to do on Christmas Day, when I got a message from Gustav and Gabriela telling us to come and join them and their family.
Arriving at their house, we were greeted by Gustav’s father, mother, sister, brother-in-law and their two boys, aged 13 and 11. Soon we were enveloped by yet another incredible family willing to share this special day with virtual strangers.
There are so many lessons we have learnt in our travels, but the events over Christmas were the hugest of all. All these people knew how important Christmas was and were aware that Tai and I could be on our own, so invited us to be part of their families to share in the love and joy of the celebration. I wonder if I’d been alone back home, how many people would have invited us in? How many of you would have invited virtual strangers to the Christmas table with your family? No one wants to be alone at Christmas, so bear this story in mind next Christmas and open your hearts and your homes. You cannot begin to imagine the gratitude with which those invitations will be received.
WHERE WE STAYED
MENDOZA: KOMBERTIENDO SUENOS CAMP (Gustav and Gabriella): Without a doubt the most incredibly warm, welcoming family and fun, interesting place to stay in Mendoza. You can use their kitchen, bathroom and lounge. They have a BBQ and big outside table around which everyone does communal dinners and fascinating conversation. Electricity hookup is also available. There is a shop in walking distance. The cost is on a donation basis, so whatever you feel suffices.
GPS: S 32°59’39.18”, W 68°56’5.52”
MENDOZA: WALMART PARKING: A large guarded parking lot at the Walmart. There are fast foods restaurants inside, as well as bathrooms, although the bathrooms in the mall on the left are cleaner and much quieter. There is a height restriction at all entrances except the one on the Route 40 side, so if your rig is high, then use this access.
GPS: S 32°54’56.64”, W 68°49’32.46”
USPALLATA: We had planned on parking next the tourist info office, but that section of the street was blocked off for the protest, so we parked around the corner in the lot outside the shopping mall. No facilities.
GPS: S 32°35’27.2”, W 69°20’50.6”
POTRERILLOS DAM: We parked on the cement road used to launch boats. No facilities, but lots of fire pits with rings of rocks. Beautiful spot next to the dam.
GPS: S 32°98’05.5”, W 69°09’57.8”
We travelled in a loop from Mendoza into the mountains and back to Mendoza.
Mendoza > Parque Villavicencio > Uspallata > AconcaguaTourist Office > Uspallata >Potrerillos Dam > Mendoza
Total Distance: 440km
I will be providing our basic travel costs per week, so that you get an indication of what a trip like this entails. Bear in mind that we are budget travelers, so your budget could vary depending on your lifestyle choices. For example, we always opt for the cheapest and often, hole-in-the-wall restaurants and only require very basic accommodation. For us, the experiences are where it is all at, so we’d rather spend money on activities.
The costs below are for the full 7 days. They do not include campervan repair costs, visas and insurance costs.
The costs below are shown in Argentinian Pesos (R1 = 4.20 ARS) ($1 USD = 60 ARS).
- Fuel = 8226 ARS
- Parking = 100 ARS
- Gustav & Gabriella = 900 ARS
- Entrance to Villvencencio Park = 580 ARS
- Aconcagua Horcanes de Laguna hike = 300 ARS
- Cachueta Hot Springs = 510 ARS
- River Rafting = 2800 ARS
- River Rafting Photos & Videos = 1320 ARS
- Restaurant = 990 ARS
- Supermarket = 8568 ARS
Van Supplies and Living
- Laundry = 600 ARS
- Phone Data = 2GB for 7 days = 140 ARS
TOTAL = 25 034 ARS = USD $418 or R5961
WHERE TO NEXT
We are still heading South, mainly along Ruta 40 with a few diversions here and there. Our plans seem to change daily and we’re taking things as they come. If we hear about a great place then we may stop, otherwise we’ll continue the adventure South and see what we find. Just to change things up a bit, we may even pop over to Chile again and head south there for a bit. Keep following us to find out which way we go!