Thursday, 18 December 2014

0176 Uspallarta Argentina to Santiago Chile

17th Dec

The morning was bright and sunny for our last pack up in Argentina, and after getting everything organized we set off west towards the Chilean border, and our destination, Santiago.

Wow, wow, wow, wow, wow, wow, and a seventh wow.  Yup, that is the first 7 wow day I have had on this trip, and it deserves every one of them.  We had been told by other Overlanders that this mountain pass was good, but no one had told us it was going to be THIS good. 

The gorge out from Uspallarta starts out pretty well, with an amazing cliff along the side of the river where it has carved out this sheer side over time – It look just like an ancient battlement protecting a city !! Several groups of cyclists were out enjoying a morning ride through the canyon – It is not hard to see why, as it is a pretty gentle gradient going up the Argentinian side. 

Overall it is just the immensity of the whole valley that is so awe inspiring.  Its width, the steep sides, and then just the fact that it keeps on going, round every corner.   You find yourself leaning forward trying to peer round the next rock face in order to see what sight can be better than the one you saw just before.  And when you round the corner – Oh WOW, it is even better than the one before !!

And all the way up, there is the old railway line.  We have seen it all the way from Mendoza yesterday, and noted how, sadly, it was in a poor state of repair.  It would be brilliant if it could be brought back to life.  And today, it accompanied us all the way across the Andes, and every time we saw it, we wondered – When was it built ?  When did it cease to run ?  Why was it closed ?  And every time we asked, we were told they didn’t know !!  So we needed to do some research !

New tunnels, old tunnels, old old tunnels – They seem to have had to keep digging new ones as the old ones either got too small or the roads collapsed around them. And all the time there were the old railway bridges – some seemingly newer in in reasonably good condition, while others were
old brick ones down in the valley, and were obviously older and in very poor condition.   At one point we could see a line along the bottom of a mountain to our right which seemed like a fault line.  But when we got the binoculars out, we could see it was stone work – That was the old road, with stone walls built to try to protect it from rock slides – All to no avail – In many places it was completely engulfed.  What an engineering feat it must have been not only to build these roads and railway in the past, but to keep them open in the face of rockslides, avalanches, cyclones, and everything else they have up here in the Andes.

Saw an interesting sign a few times – “Las Malvinas.  Son Argentinas !”.   Oooh – Better keep my British passport out of sight then !!

Passed through a few small villages and hamlets along the way – One in particular was just a small hut in the middle of the valley, with  farmer saddling up about 4 or 5 pack horses, with hay bales all around his house, and the horses just standing around – All very evocative of the whole feeling in this amazing mountain pass.

Soon we came into the ski area – Tows were more obvious, although most seemed to be very short and for beginners. All the hotels were shut up tight for the summer, with wooden shutters across every window.  They get very high winds up here, so I guess they need shutters on them to prevent damage.  Then suddenly we arrived at a place where horses were standing around, and lots of tourist stalls with knick knacks were setting up – It was still not yet 11 am.   Where were we ?  What was so special ?  As we started to wander around, we found all these railway sidings – And the station sign – “Puente Del Inca” – Bridge of the Inca.  As we crossed the old railway lines, we found this small gorge and
this weird building – It turned out to be hot sulphur springs with the “Puente” being the bridge that the residual salts had created over the years.  On further investigation it turned out that Charles Darwin had been here in 1835 to investigate, and much later the British built a hotel here in 1917 and made it into a big spa resort with underground tunnels from the hotel to the hot baths spa they built.  This was when the railway was in major use.  Then in 1934 apparently an ice dam that was holding back a glacier lake that had formed in a distant valley burst, and the result flooded the valleys causing massive damage.  It was some months before the railway and infrastructure could be restored.  Then in 1965 there was a massive landslide that completely engulfed and destroyed the hotel and the nearby chapel, at which point the Brits gave up and left !!

The railway was first mooted as early as 1887 to connect Mendoza with Santiago and the Pacific Ocean because it was much nearer for exports than Buenos Aires and the Atlantic Ocean to the east.  But it was 1908 before it was finally completed, so by the time the Brits opened the hotel the railway was in its prime.  But looking at information on the internet, it seems to have continued to be in use until 1984, which surprised me.  Looking at the remains, there are definitely 2 periods of work on the railway – There are old bridges and newer bridges.  And they built a lot of landslide / avalanche protection covers over the lines, and the original ones have a wooden frame and all the corrugated iron sheets used are flat, whereas the newer structures have a metal frame and the corrugated iron sheets are curved.  I am still trying to find out more detail because it all fascinates me – The best info I have found out so far is here -

The 2 km road tunnel at the top of the pass was opened in 1980, and this made the pass usable all year round, and this, tied in with the common “rail transport is dead” attitude of politicians (globally) in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, seemed to spell the end for the railway.  Plus of course the expense of keeping the tracks serviceable with all the landslides and avalanches.  It is a shame because it would be a brilliant tourist train ride through this unbelievable scenery in this part of the world.

After exploring the Puente del Incas, we only went a short distance up the road and saw this snow covered peak to our right – On turning up to the Visitor’s Centre we found it was Mount Aconcagua – at 6960 metres it is the highest mountain in the world outside of Asia.  It is a major trekking mecca for people, but unfortunately we did not have time to go and explore it – But the short walk up to the look out was a major hike due to the incredible wind that always rushes down these valleys – It was all we could do to stand, and when Janet tried to take some photos with her iPad it was almost impossible to hold the iPad still in the wind !!   
Then it was off up the rest of the pass, with a lot of old railway shelters and remnants everywhere.  We knew of a statue called Cristo Redentor but it turned out that this is actually located on the old dirt road right at the top of the mountain, some 900 metres higher than the current road that now passes through a tunnel.  So heading up this very twisty dirt road was not something we wanted to do at this time.   We then came to the tunnel through the summit, and it is at least 2 kms long, cutting a lot of time off the crossing.  And once you come out of the tunnel, almost immediately you enter the longest landslide shelter which is open at the side so you can see right down the valley to the right.  Once we came out of this shelter, looking back up the mountain you could see just how massive this structure is – This whole road really is an incredible engineering feat. 

Almost immediately we started to see trucks lined up on the right – We must be getting close to the Argentine / Chile border and Customs.  They are all housed in the one building again, and it was all relatively painless – Within an hour we were through, and the only “issue” was them taking our few bits of fruit we had left – But then we knew this would happen and had eaten most of our fruit before we got there.  Janet tried to eat a banana while they were inspecting the car, and the customs agent got quite
upset !!  We then left Customs, and went down the hill a little way before we came face to face with the Hotel Portillo and the most incredible Lake of the Incas.  This is another place which it was interesting to learn about – Turns out that it is the main ski base in Chile, and due to the seasonal variations between north and south hemispheres, it is a place where foreign ski teams (USA, Canada, Italy and more) come out for training.  But for me it was the Lake of the Incas that took my breath away – I have long felt that Lake Louise near Banff was way over rated, and when I saw this lake I knew this, to me, so much better.  I am happy now !!

After lunch near the lake and a wander round, we headed off down the mountain – and OMG, what a drive !  The first part is a 28 corner switch back straight down the side of the mountain – And not one guard rail in sight – Just a few plastic barriers that are perched right on the edge of the road.  If you hit them you would be over the edge anyway !!  Just a stunning, stunning drive amongst some of the most spectacular scenery in the world.

One (to me) humorous aside was the couple of containers we saw beside the road that had fallen off trucks on this road. I have often said that container transport was hazardous, whether at sea (when hundreds are lost overboard in storms every year), and now I see it is also hazardous on roads !  So if you are shipping cars or household goods in a container, make sure you insure the contents fully !!

After that it was a fairly normal drive down towards Santiago.  We planned to camp tonight about 25 kms SE of Santiago, and then move into a hotel at the airport for our last night before we fly out, so that we can sort the car parking out etc.  Lots of vineyards beside the road all the way down, and quite a lot of traffic too – So it was almost 7 pm before we got to the camp site and set up for our last night in the van for a while !

Rest of the pics are here :-

1 comment:

  1. Hi, I just found your blog and think I am going to enjoy it. Trace