Mendoza in northern Argentina is famous for two things. One is the very good Malbec wine that the region produces. Aconcagua, the highest mountain outside of the Himalaya region, is in the Parque Provincial Aconcagua. I choose the hike to Plaza de Mulas which is the base camp for anyone wishing to climb the mountain.
The streets and avenues of the city centre are laid out in a grid and the roads are lined with mature trees. The wide sidewalks and pedestrian only avenues have many side walk cafés and restaurants to meet every taste and pocket.
The centre of the commercial district has the Park Independencia which is two city blocks square. Four other plazas, Espana, Italia, San Martin and Chile, make the city very “people friendly”. There are several other parks as well as the large Parque General San Martin. The latter has a lake and many trails and shaded paths. These give the residents a space to relax and enjoy their leisure time. These are kept clean and free of litter by the users and are not abused by some.
The trek started with a four hour bus drive to Los Penitentes where we spent the night and enjoyed a good meal and wine. Before dinner I went for a short walk about 200 Meters higher than the hotel following the ski-lift that is used in winter to ferry skiers. It is always better to hike higher than your sleeping level in order to acclimatize. Penitentes is only at 2,580 meters so I am not sure it was necessary but the walk did give me a chance to stretch my legs after a long bus ride. Next morning I also went for a walk along the Rio de las Cuevas before the short bus ride to the park entrance at Lago Horcones.
The hikers and mountaineers provide work for the mountain guides and owners of the mules. All gear and general supplies are transported as far as Place de Mulas by mules. Unfortunately some of the companies that arrange the hikes are foreign owned so most of the revenue remains outside the country and does not help the local government. When you think you are paying an Argentina company your money is actually deposited in Seattle!
Aconcagua is in the Parque Provincial Aconcagua which is in a semi-desert region as it is located in the rain shadow of the Andes mountains to the west.
After having our passes and passports checked at the park entrance we started the 3 hour hike to Confluencia (3,350 Metes) which was to be our camp site for 2 nights. The easy trail follows the Horcones River which is in a wide valley that was formed by a glacier many millions of years ago. It was a hot day and sun hats and light clothes were needed.
The river was only a trickle as most of the water is from melting of the show higher up. In summer most had melted only leaving the permanent ice at higher levels.
I reached the camp site in good time to erect the tent and relax before going to the dinner tent. Outside was warm and sunny.
After dinner the weather was changing. Some light snow was falling and the surrounding hills were obscured by dark clouds.
The next morning things had changed. The camp was now covered in about 15cm of snow and the temperature was below freezing. Higher up it was even more snow. The plan was to walk to along Rio Horcones Inferior to Plaza Francia but this was postponed until the guides could access the unexpected change in weather. We left after lunch and walked for about two hours before returning as more snow was forecast. More snow fell that night.
The toilets are in metal huts which is OK when it is warm, which it usually is in December. But when the temperature drops below freezing every thing solidifies. Even the door is frozen shut.
The camp looked more like one in Antarctica. This weather, at this low altitude in summer, took everyone by surprise and caused a lot of changes to be made to the schedule. Those planning to summit had extra days built in but these were supposed to be used above 5,000 meters and not just over 3,000 meters. The mules could not make deliveries and those climbers who were higher up had to abandon their attempt and return to base camp.
The following morning was a clear although it was still snowing higher up. It was decided that those who were planning to summit and had full winter gear would continue on while I would wait an extra day here and see if the weather improved. I had warm gear but not the down jackets, ice axes and plastic boots etc required. I spent the day walking around the camp and surrounding hills.
Two men, who were on the mountain, arrived in the afternoon and said how bad it was higher up. We heard of one couple, who were on their own and were advised not to proceed past Cofluencia until the weather cleared, got caught before they could reach base camp. The man managed to reach base camp. He then had to ask some guides to go back and look for his friend. They found her sheltering under a rock with no tent or supplies.
Next morning the weather was good with no overnight snow or rain but there was still a lot of snow on the ground. I decided not to continue on to base camp which was 8 hour hike. I would have just got there in time to have dinner and prepare for the return journey next day. So after a leisurely morning 4 of us returned to the entrance. From there we got a lift to Penitentes where I stayed the night. Next day I took to local bus back to the city.
I spent a few days in Mendoza and returned home via Santiago de Chile. The Airport in Santiago is very modern and in-transit passengers are able to get from the plane to the departure gate in 15 minutes without going through the immigration and customs.
Changing foreign currency to Argentina Pesos involves going to a money exchange. You will need your passport. The lines in these, banks and ATM are very long and you can easily spend one hour in line. The best place it to change money is at the airport and then any additional can be done when the lines are short. Credit Cards are widely used except to pay the hiking company for the park entrance fees and any rental gear.
Be careful of the park entrance fees charged by the company. There are different fees applicable depending on the time of the year and how high you plan to go. Check here for the official fees.
When the guides do a gear trek every one will be found to have some piece of gear that they consider not appropriate. However they know a very good shop that rents gear and will gladly take you there. They wanted me to rent a pair of shoes that had less grip than the old hiking shoes I use at home for gardening!
The trek to Plaza de Mulas is not a very beautiful one, especially when compared to El. Chalten, Chile or Annapurna. The trail follows a very dry valley and there are no great views. The river is full of brown silt. If it was not for the weather I encountered it would not be a very memorable hike. If your goal is to summit that would be different. However I can not fault the guides and cooks that looked after us.
There is a doctor at Confluencia and Plaza de Mulas who checks your Blood Pressure, heart rate and oxygen level in the blood. If these do not meet the requirements that person can not go higher. This removes the decision making from the hiker or guide and no doubt saves a lot of rescue calls. This is something that should be adopted in other high level climbs.