“Holly shit, I think it’s a condor. Stop the car, stop the car!” I yelled, as my husband, used to my frequent demands for photo stops, already applied the brakes. Not only that, as we watched the large bird gracefully swoop down, he steered the car to the other side of the road and came to a stop on the rocky shoulder.
With excitement we watched it touch the ground just mere meters from us. With baited breath we observed the black and white bird as it strolled through the low shrub generously sprinkled with grey rocks and boulders– a great place to blend in.
“Do you think it really is a condor, or just some kind of vulture?” I whispered.
“I think it really is a condor, look at the bald head and the white ring around his neck.”
As some locals confirmed later, we really were so lucky as to see a condor, albeit a young one, close up and it was the first of a number of wild animals that crossed our way on this incredible day.
We decided to take a break from wine tasting in Mendoza and head for the nearby mountains.
Not just any mountains, mind you, but the mighty Aconcagua in Cordillera de los Andes. As we left the valley of wine behind, the spectacular nature demanded frequent photo stops. The water and low hills
soon gave way to dry, crazy rock formations reminding us of
alongside the dried riverbed, planting silly thoughts of: Was lack of rain the reason for the demise of their civilization?
The “city” was over looked by
Soon we felt we were indeed on another planet altogether with strange jumbled rock formations and jutting plates and unusual streaks of colors coming up at every turn.
The road was a delight to drive with smooth curves and well engineered tunnels.
Until we decided to veer of and leave the safety of the paved surface and climb up a narrow winding dirt road leading to the very border with Chile.
At the freezing, wind blown crest we were greeted by a gigantic Cristo Redentor
(Redeemer) sculpture. It was supposedly made out of old canons and guns to seal the peace deal between Chile and Argentina after a bloody border dispute between the two countries. How crazy that man would fight over desolate peaks like these! Seeing that Redeemer is based on the metaphor of redemption , or “buying back” I immediately think how appropriate the redemption and the recycling of the instruments of war. I have a crazy thought: What if every church started buying back weapons in America and melting them into Jesus Christ sculptures? Ah, it must be the thin air up at nearly 3900 m muddling my brain!
On the way down we see first hand the challenge of the curvy road. We find a motorcyclist down right at the curve. He is unhurt, but unable to lift the heavy machine.
There is another, much higher mountain awaiting our admiration, if not ascend.
With a tiny twinge of regret Mirek walks towards the mighty peak, his youthful mountaineering dreams rekindled.
With summit elevation of 6,960.8 metres (22,837 ft) it is the highest mountain of the Americas. Alas, we can only do a little walk to the tiny blue lake and admire the views all around the Aconcagua Provincial Park.
At any rate the season is over, as we hear from the young doctor who just returned with the last helicopter from the base, claimed to be the second largest in the world (after Everest).
He tells us of busy days treating people afflicted with altitude sickness and helping with emergency evacuations. After months on the mountains he can’t wait to be reunited with his young son in Mendoza.
Aconcagua is one of the mountains where Incas have left children as sacrifice to the gods. Because of the cold conditions these Andes Mummies are incredibly well preserved.
Much lower we admire Puente del Inca, a colorful natural bridge formation that was visited and drawn by Charles Darwin.
This is where the incredible feat of engineering Camino del Inca (or Qhapaq Ñan=Royal Road) passed through.
Many travelers only know Camino del Inca as a hiking trail to Machu Picchu. But the road is much grander and longer.
It originated on the main square in Cusco and covered 40,000 km (25,000 miles) of roads, bridges, passes, stairways, and included roadside pubs and shelters for running messengers and lama caravans. It was used in service of Inca Empire’s communication, trade and defense and one of the major factors in success of the vast empire. It reached its zenith in 15th century and its remnants now pass through 6 different countries.
The Roman Empire accomplished something similar with their 120,000 km network of roads throughout Europe and beyond. The first and most famous great Roman road was the Via Appia, incidentally also granted a royal nickname – the Regina viarum or ‘Queen of Roads’.
Turning back towards Mendoza we had a choice of returning on the same fast new road or taking the old unpaved road from Uspallata. Is there any doubt in your mind which one we choose?
But before we turned back home for good on the long windy road towards our friendly Airbnb cottage, we made a slight detour to Cerro 7 Colores. It was not in any guidebooks, but I saw it on the map in a local coffee shop.
The vivid blue, green, and purple splotches started popping up as we drove amongst the desert mounds, but they did not prepare us for the palette of the colors on the hill, dominated by a vivid green.
There are indeed bigger and more famous Colored hills in Argentina and in Peru and in Arizona and most famously in China, but those are also beleaguered by hordes of tourists and tour buses. This tiny rainbow morsel we had all to ourselves and we could climb up it without anyone charging an entry fee, a parking fee, a photo fee, or a farting fee.
Looking close on the ground, the pebbles reflect the hues in the rainbow of colors, too.
No surprise that such special place also contained many more or less elaborate shrines to folk saint Difunta Correa.
Such shrines are numerous along the local roads in San Juan region. Legend has it that Mrs. Correa set out with her newborn child to find her soldier husband who was sick and abandoned by his unit. Tragically, she died of thirst in the harsh desert, but days later when her body was found, her baby was still alive, suckling at her breast.
Unfortunately travelers seeking her protection leave piles of unsightly plastic bottles of water for the thirsty saint.
The sun was getting precariously low as we finally hit the Ruta 52 back home.
As we pressed the pedal to the metal we realized as many times before that distances mean nothing, especially when the road is unpaved and painfully winds its way up and then down again. We have been in this situation numerous times before and sometimes with the added excitement of coasting on fumes of the empty tank. It must be the adrenalin speaking, because these setting sun driving adventures are one of our favorite travel memories.
Despite a certain sense of urgency, we could not help ourselves, but made frequents stops to take photos. Sometimes it was the undulating landscape and sometimes the spectacular clouds.
At other times we were forced to a stop by the animals crossing our path.
We were welcomed by two curious Pampa foxes with whom we had an unexpected communion. Despite many travels to Africa, I am still thrilled when I can look into the eyes of an animal. There is an intimate soul to soul connection. At least on my side. I think when it comes to the fox, from the deliberate checking on both sides for the open window, it was just looking for a leftover sandwich.
Some other encounters were less intentional and more panic stricken like this guanaco who decided to cross the road just when we drove by.
As this was our first encounters with guanacos, the wild relatives of llamas, we relished every appearance of these surefooted cameloids.
but especially their cute babies, called chulengos, who jumped about joyfully.
We saw some flocks of ñandus, too.
These flightless birds are similar to emus and ostriches.
Only as we finally descended to the unfortunately closed hotel and mineral springs of Villavicencio we saw the sign for Natural Reserve that explained the abundance of animal life. We missed out on the cougar, but as we were reminded, they are in the area.
As we breezed along the freeway on the flatlands in the last rays of sun, we marveled at the fantastic day we had, full of new experiences and unexpected animals encounters.
Note to readers: This post was finalized and posted while on Easter Sunday 2020 at the time of COVID-19 shelter in place in Prague. Happy holiday!