The Andes | Argentina | Living in Mexico

The Andes

When I return to Argentina, it'll be to the outdoors, because essentially all of Argentina is out of doors. Only 36 million people live here, the same as in California. But Argentina is the eighth largest country in the world, eighteen times the size of California. The place is empty. And it's gorgeous.

Fabián picked us up in his van and drove us into the mountains west of Mendoza, along the route taken by José de San Martín as he led his Army of the North across the Andes into Chile and Peru to free all of South America from Spanish rule.

The passes San Martín used were carved by the Mendoza River, without water from which, there would be no city of Mendoza.

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All of its waters are collected and used to supplement the meager 8-10" of annual rainfall in the area. The river is fed by snowmelt from the glaciers and snowpacks of the Andes. Much of the gravelly riverbed was exposed as we drove by, great cliffs of alluvial soil marking the current path of the waters.

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This river—this scene—is so important to Mendoza that artists frequently paint images of the mountains fronted by the river that gives life to all those trees and grape vines.

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So this pass was important for the freedom of South America and the founding of Argentina. It is important today for the water it provides. And for many years, it was the site of a railway link between Argentina and Chile.

Built over a period of 35 years, the complete route from Buenos Aires to Valparaiso was completed in 1910—the first rail link to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It cut transit between the two ports from eleven days to a day and a half.

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Rusting track and ruined railway buildings are all that's left today. Fabián says that a border dispute between the two countries (in the 1980s?) in 1978 might have broken into hostilities but for the intervention of the Pope. During the ruckus, though, the Chileans blew up their side of the Transandine Railway.

The railway is scheduled to be refurbished and reopened in 2010. The center of the world has shifted from the Atlantic to the Pacific ocean, and 1,500 semis a day winding over the mountain passes just aren't enough to handle increasing trade with China. Now that the generals no longer run either country, it's time to rebuild this important connection.

The road isn't particularly easy to drive. Tight curves, steep grades, tunnels and avalanches impede traffic.

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Our destination was not the Chilean border: Our van lacked permits to cross the border, and we didn't have visas anyway.

(Time was, Americans were welcomed almost anywhere in the world with a minimum of bureaucratic fuss. Today an application for a tourist visa to the USA costs $100, due to more than double next year. And odds are, if you have brown skin, you'll be turned down and lose your $100. So of course, other countries are retaliating. You're hassled at the Chilean border. I'm told it's tough to get into Brazil anymore.)

We stopped 35 KM from the border, to view the highest mountain in the New World, Aconcagua.

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I apologize for the photo above. I hate this kind of stuff. Looky everyone. We were really there! If there had been a restroom at the summit, I would have insisted we pose in front of it, like the Chinese gamblers day-tripping from Vegas do at the Grand Canyon.

For the record, we have left to right, Judy, Bill, Jean and a scruffy blogger.

This is what we drove the seven-hour round trip to see:

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I'll have to travel to Tibet to see one that's higher.

But many of you know that I'm more interested in small details than in monuments. Here I'm adjusting aperture to shoot some alpine wildflowers.

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It's like all those times I was in the Sierra Nevada in spring, just after the passes opened. The alpine meadows burst into flower. Few things thrill me more.

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These flowers were photographed on December 23rd, the first day of summer south of the equator.

Having successfully captured images of the elusive purple lupine, we drove home—another three and a half hours on the road. I set my shutter to 1/1000 second and took scores of images through the van window, too tired to ask Hugo, our driver, to stop to set up proper shots.

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Every turn produced another spectacular view. Whenever I tried to nod off, something like this would open up in front of me, and I'd have to line it up in my viewfinder.

Argentina has its sophisticated European city: Buenos Aires. It has its wine aficionado and foodie magnet: Mendoza. But for my money, the real Argentina is elsewhere, in some of the most beautiful and spectacular scenery imaginable.

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