Synonymous with spectacular beauty and danger, one of the most scenic drives in the world takes you across the soaring Andes from Chile’s Santiago to Mendoza, Argentina.
After spending several months criss-crossing back and forth by bus between Argentina and Chile, returning to Argentina is to continue the journey north to Salta. As the roads in Argentina are deemed better than in Chile, hopefully, a cross back into Chile for an Atacama Desert experience is possible.
Busy Terminal Sur in Santiago is like a mini airport and not too dissimilar to the Retiro Bus Station in Buenos Aires. And just like in Argentina, buses are still the best mode of transport in Chile, as flying across this limitless continent is expensive, especially when travelling long term.
With over 60 bus bays, Terminal Sur is also Chile’s hub for buses to other countries throughout the continent.
Using the preferred Andesmar bus company in Argentina, today’s venture is expected to take around 8 hours including the border controls. An exact time is not provided because of Immigration and Customs. Driving takes around 6 hours but the border controls can have you waiting up to 4 hours on weekends.
Sometimes the high mountain Paso Internacional de Los Libertadores between the two countries, closes in the winter due to bad weather – it is winter.
Crossing the soaring Andes by bus
Renown as the world’s longest mountain range, the Andes is both vast and diverse with Chile and Argentina sharing over 5,000 kilometres of border, most of which entwine on the Andes’ peaks. It is not difficult to experience desert, lakes, forest, volcanoes, glaciers, and grasslands, along this varied range.
Be prepared for spectacular vistas on this eight-hour journey through some of South America’s most remote areas, especially if you are sitting at the front of the bus and on the top deck.
Tip: If you’re not fazed by South American drivers, then I suggest that you buy a front row seat at the top-level of the bus, for a bird’s-eye view of the surrounding panoramas. Although, it can be a tad queasy sitting at the top, as the bus swerves around bends and feels as if you are tilting from side-to-side.
Leaving chaotic Santiago, you also leave autumnal-coloured vineyards behind as you follow the Aconcagua valley and its winding river. The scenery quickly takes on a dramatic presence and pre-empts what awaits us all.
A fresh blanket of winter snow envelopes the mountains, as the road snakes higher around every crevice and curve…
…until finally reaching the infamous and treacherous pass: Paso Internacional de Los Libertadores.
Paso Internacional de Los Libertadores
Also known as Los Caracoles Pass and Paso del Cristo Redentor, the increasing altitude and numerous hard switchbacks, has earned the winding route the name: one of the most dangerous roads in the world.
Understandably, the bus does not stop and cannot stop on this pass, so photo opportunities are only possible from the bus window.
With around 28 haphazard hairpin bends, the ride is exhilarating and hair-raising – I doubt you will doze off whilst reaching 3,207 metres (10,521 feet).
Shared with many long-haul trucks grinding their low gears, sometimes impatience sees drivers passing each other on the narrow road and mountain pass tunnels, which makes for tense moments and gritting-teeth.
A short official video from RUTA33 provides an exact picture of what this precarious pass is all about and although the video is in Spanish, I’m sure you will get the gist. At about 0:40 seconds into the video, you experience the glorious pass!
Incredibly, a lot of tail-gaiting still occurs between traffic on this hair-raising road, with danger signs also ignored – madness.
The border sees everything and everyone unloaded for immigration and customs. A one-stop border servicing both countries and as this is a busy crossing, composure is required during the long line-up.
The Tunnel of Christ the Redeemer (Túnel Cristo Redentor) takes you under the mountains for just over 3 kilometres and into Argentina, where a different wonderland awaits.
Today, the traffic is not too intense, although drivers are still crazy – perhaps they have travelled this road numerous times.
The Argentinian side is along a gradual descent and provides a time in which to relax.
And, it is at this point that the very loud movie blares back on again in Spanish, complete with Spanish sub-titles, and really bad dubbing.
Still passing through arid lands on the decent and encircled by the snow-capped Andes, traces of vineyards begin to spot the landscape, until miles of vineyards unfold nearer to Mendoza.
The road also takes on a less climactic feel as we breath a sense of relief towards the journey’s end, surviving this most dangerous road.
You may have heard that Mendoza is a great producer of Argentine wine and olive oil.
Although apart from these valuable exports, Mendoza is famed as an easy stop-over and access to a plethora of adventure activities.
Including hiking, mountaineering, skiing in the winter, real Goucho horse rides, day trips to thermal springs, and rafting, many arrive here also to climb one of the highest mountains in the Southern and Western Hemispheres: Aconcagua.
But it’s not all adrenalin and adventure sports.
Mendoza offers wide tree-lined leafy roads in which to stroll, gorgeous colonial architecture, museums, and of course, occurring in early March each year, The Fiesta Nacional de la Vendimia (The National Grape Harvest Festival).
As with many South American cities, Plaza Independencia (Independence Plaza) is the centre of attraction and a meeting point, as many locals enjoy its pleasing ambience.
Apart from the burning desire to cross the Andes, this brief interlude with Mendoza is more for relaxation and another spot of wine tasting. As one of the nine Great Wine Capitals in Latin America and also home to hundreds of wineries, this is a good enough reason to indulge a little.
Anyone for a tipple?
Following a deliciously pleasant wine tasting experience in Chile’s Santa Cruz, it is time once again to partake and savour the first Argentine wine to enter the international market in the late 1800s: Trapiche wine. And as the largest producer of wine in Argentina with over 1,000 hectares spanning several Mendoza vineyards, the Malbec is a favourite.
At the foot of the Andes in Maipú and surrounded by olive trees, immerse yourself in the elegance that the El Trapiche vineyard exudes, which dates back to 1883.
Enjoy a smooth wine-tasting experience, delivered with a polished but sincere style and charm.
The Florentine-style building from the 1912 era complete with its own railway tracks, graces the picturesque grounds, creating an inviting backdrop on your arrival to explore and relax, whilst wine tasting.
But first, a brief lesson and explanation in wine-making divulges that the vineyard imports French Oak Barrels, as these are optimal for wine and also uses stainless steel tanks, in the wine’s process.
As it is winter the wine is not currently being processed – just aged slowly and gently…
And now, on to a selection of delightful wines for our delectation with some nibbles as accompaniments.
All amazingly wonderful and you quickly understand how Trapiche continues to win international awards, and continually perfecting the art of wine-making, already with over 130 years of experience under its belt.
Trapiche’s philosophy believes in ecological agriculture, thus retaining the crop’s natural properties to eliminate using ‘chemicals, herbicides, and fungicides and calculating the moon cycles for the harvest’.
Heading north to Salta
Eager to see the expansive Atacama Desert, heading north to Salta is the next adventure.
Mentally preparing for the long-haul overnight Andesmar bus journey, which is scheduled to take over 19 hours, and hope that this journey doesn’t take us into the Andes once more.