The region we visited is not as popular with foreign tourists as areas further south or north, and is therefore not as well served by English-language guidebooks. We used the Footprint guides which give the best coverage and contain a little info of specific relevance to cyclists. But we mostly relied on the Turistel guides (in Spanish): Chile Centro (2004) and Argentina Centro Oeste (2001). The guides to Chile are updated annually, but the Argentina series (which totalled 6 volumes) seems to have been issued only once and is now probably unobtainable.
The Turistel guides contain very useful maps and plans but have their faults. Some extraordinarily drab photographs have made their way in, and it must be recognised that South American tourists have different tastes than gringos (we got the impression, in the Cacheuta area, that some visitors considered an oil refinery to be a tourist attraction). The Footprint guides are more useful for hotel recommendations than the Turistel ones.
We bought a couple more Chilean-produced guides while planning, but they turned out to be less useful than wed hoped because they concentrated more on mountaineering than on other activities. They were Guía de Excursiones a la Cordillera (another Turistel effort, this time bilingual) and Adventure Handbook Central Chile by two German authors but translated into English. We refrained from buying Turistels Chile Experience because it didnt sound very useful, but when we saw a copy out there we realised that it was in fact more useful than the ones wed bought.
A defect in guidebooks to the region is that they nearly all limit themselves to either Chile or Argentina (and most often to Chile) and therefore give an incomplete view of the Andean border area which is of most interest.
We used maps from a variety of sources. Those in the Turistel guides are sufficiently detailed for road cycling, though there are errors and omissions and the maps fall out of date. The maps often misdescribe the road surface.
The JL Matassi map Andes Centrales: Cajon del Maipo is more detailed for the region it covers. We found it very useful.
We also purchased a sheet of the 1:250000 Chilean military topographic series (San José de Maipo, 3300-6900) from Omnimap but it didnt add anything to the others. Before setting out we had no decent topographic information on the Argentinian side of the Piuquenes crossing.
Fortunately this was remedied in Tupungato, when Don Rómulo gave us a partial photocopy of an Argentinian 1:250000 map. This forms the basis for the map on this site.
When we were in the Tunuyán valley we had difficulty in matching the mountains we could see with the peaks named on Don Rómulos map. Now that we have returned to the UK we see that there is a great deal of inconsistency in the naming of peaks. The USGS map (see links) disagrees frequently with the Argentinian map, as shown in the following table.
The Turistel route map confirms the name Co. San Juan for the peak at 0422 6296, while the Guía de Excursiones asserts that Méson San Juan is the Argentinian name for the Nev. de los Piuquenes. In fact the peaks at 0422 6296 and 0421 6292 are not separate mountains at all to judge from contour lines but summits of the same mountain with very little reascent between them.
Published altitudes for accessible places are often correct (we dont speak for mountain summits). GPS is not needed.
The tarmac roads in both countries are good. The rough roads are known locally as ripio, whose literal meaning of rubbish or rubble is a fair indication of their quality, although they vary a lot and new ones are okay. We found the ripio less frustrating to ride than in the Lake District not because it was better, but because the greater hilliness at least gave us the feeling of vertical progress.
Food in both countries was better than we found in the Lakes in 1997, presumably because we were in a more metropolitan area. The Chilean food varied from acceptable to very good (at Lo Valdés), the Argentinian from acceptable to excellent (Buenos Muchachos at Mendoza).
The Chileans dine late, and the Argentinians insanely late. Breakfast was often a disappointment.
Chilean and Argentinian wines are widely available outside the continent. Those from Argentina are less established; they have a mouth-coating quality due to their strength. We prefer them to the Chilean wines, and found the whites sometimes delicious. Some restaurants in Mendoza have superb wine lists.
The beer is fairly pleasant.
The coffee gap seems to have narrowed between the two countries since our last visit, when Chile offered nothing but Nescafé and Argentina nothing but good quality Italian-style coffee. Fresh coffee is occasionally available in Chile (as café café), though the beans are usually low quality robusta. On the other hand although the Argentinians havent yet stooped to Nescafé the beans were not as good as we remembered.
We stayed in hotels except for 5 successive nights camping on the return leg. We never worked out cabañas and never succeeded in staying at any.
Local currency can be withdrawn from 24-hour ATMs in most towns. Credit cards are not widely accepted, necessitating the carrying of large amounts of cash. At the time of our visit there were 5 Argentinian and 1000 Chilean pesos to the UK pound.
Argentina is inexpensive except for swanky hotels, Chile middling.
Chile has always been relatively safe.
Argentina used to be so until the economic crisis of 2001/2, when unemployment led to a wave of crime which has not subsided. There is a murder per day in Mendoza province, and this is the main concern in local politics. A Mendocino lady told us that she was unwilling to set foot out of doors after 5pm.
I dont know how much tourists are at risk from this. Mendoza certainly doesnt feel like a city under siege: plenty of people lead their normal outdoor lives in the carefree latin way the climate is made for. The authorities are clearly trying to bring the situation under control, with policing much in evidence.
So although there must at present be an element of risk for travellers to the area, there are at least grounds for optimism in the widespread determination to return to the safer conditions regarded as normal.
The six passes used by San Martín in 1818 were:
The Piuquenes had another famous visitor in Charles Darwin, who crossed in 1835, observing penitentes.
The Cristo Redentor crossing is much better from west to east because of wind, the Piuquenes crossing in the opposite direction because of mule logistics. The only choice is whether to begin at Santiago or Mendoza. Santiago is the more accessible, and a circuit beginning there much preferable from the point of view of acclimatisation to altitude. Mendoza is a better place to relax (I dont think Chileans understand relaxation except at the beach), but relaxation is as desirable in the middle of the trip as at the end.
Alternative road crossings
The following table, drawn largely from Turistel, lists road passes between Chile and Argentina starting from the north and stopping at 36°S.
Further south the passes are more numerous but never exceed 3000m. The Paso Vergara is also known as the Planchón. Turistel give its height variously as 2370, 2502, and 2850m.
The Abra de Acay, an internal Argentinian ripio pass, is nearly 200km SE of the Paso Sico and around 4800m high.
Alternative off-road crossings
We have very little information about which crossings are possible. It is likely that by heading downstream from Real de la Cruz and then climbing to the west it is possible to cross the Paso de las Nieves Negras into the Colina valley above Lo Valdés. We have not seen any description of this route.
Chile Experience describes two crossings possible on horseback. The first, north of Aconcagua, is described as a spectacular route taking 9 days:
Beginning at the border post of Los Patos, the trail climbs the Río Rocín to the north east, crossing into Argentina at Paso Valle Hermosa (3500m). From here the route drops down into the Río Volcán to a refugio, then continues up the Río los Patillos to the Paso la Honda (4163m). End by following the Río las Leñas to the ski lodge at Manantiales.
This is possibly the pass known more commonly as Los Patos, and used by San Martín. I do not know its precise location, but the Footprint guide warns that it is illegal to cross the border in the region of Co. Mercedario. This Las Leñas should not be confused with the ski resort further south, which is also near a Valle Hermosa.
The second crossing is longer but described more briefly:
There is another cruce beginning at Los Queltehues in the Cajón del Maipo and ending at Laguna del Diamante in Argentina. Allow 12 days for this route.
Los Queltehues is the junction of the Río Maipo with the Río Volcán flowing down from Lo Valdés. According to Adventure Handbook Central Chile there is an advanced 28km mountain bike ride from Los Queltehues up the upper Maipo valley and back. This would get as far as El Manzanito which according to the Mattassi map is the end of a ripio road from Los Queltehues.
On the other side Laguna Diamante is an attractive destination, set under V. Maipo, from which 100km of ripio and 123 of tarmac lead to Mendoza.
As a further possibility we mention the climb to the Paso Vergara from Las Leñas which is briefly described in the Turistel volume Argentina Centro Oeste:
Excursions [from Las Leñas] are made from November to May, heading in search of adventure into the imposing cordillera with guides and instructors ... From Las Leñas follow the gravel RP222 until an earth road heads off to the left after 10km, reaching Laguna Escondida after 2km with a parador [refreshment shack] and wild camping. Beyond this point the track continues for 6km en corniche with picturesque hairpins.
At 26km it reaches Valle Hermoso, which has minimal tourist infrastructure, so that its incredible beauty and tranquillity are reserved for nature lovers who arrive with a tent and make use of its basic wooden paradores. It is one of the valleys used for summer pasturing, where cattle graze on new growth when the snow recedes, while in winter they are kept in fields lower down. The scenery along the way is delightful, even for those who just pass through it. The best time to visit is in summer, especially in January when the road has been repaired and is free from snow.
The end of the suggested route is the Laguna del Valle where you can sail or fish in the most absolute calm and silence. But even here there is a parador.
The earth road continues to the Portillo del Planchón, one of the most frequented Andean passes in the 18th and 19th centuries, leading to the important Chilean town of Curico. Nowadays only muleteers use it. With guides adventure travel is possible. Information is available in the tourist office at Malargüe and in the Las Leñas mountain centre.
[I use the expressions earth road and track to translate camino which can be any sort of road, track or path, but which is here qualified at one point as a camino de tierra. An earth road is what is shown on the map.]