Heading west on Ruta 7, we drove out of the pampas and vineyards of Mendoza and into the mountains. We passed the last vineyard and then entered a stunning red, orange and yellow limestone canyon. The Rio Mendoza, nearly completely dry at this time of year, snakes it’s way through the narrow valley. We first stopped to see the “Arenas Amarillos”, or Yellow Sands, a strange deposit of Bentonite, the mineral that is used to filter white wines. The sands have formed a dozen rounded peaks along the far side of the river.
Two hours later, after climbing over 5,000 feet, we reached the small, dusty village of Las Cuevas. The small town is kept alive by the tourists and pilgrims that come to visit the “Puente del Inca,” or Bridge of the Incas. The natural bridge was formed during the last ice age, when avalanches bringing sediments and rocks flowed over the ice that covered the river, along with minerals from the adjacent hot spring. As the temperatures warmed and the ice melted, the natural stone bridge was left in place, hovering above the river. The sulfuric springs still pump out hot water, and the cascades have covered the bridge and the east bank in brilliant yellow, orange and green mineral deposits. In the sunlight, the bridge sparkles gold.
We continued further up the pass, reaching the entrance to Parque Aconcagua, at almost 10,000 feet. We were so wide-eyed, staring up at the surrounding mountains, that the colossal blue and white Cerro Aconcagua appeared entirely by surprise.
The behemoth Glaciar Superior, balanced on the north face, was thick enough that we could see it with the naked eye, nearly 14 miles away. At 22,837 feet, Aconcagua is the highest point in North or South America, and the second tallest peak in the world.
It was understood without explanation that this is a very spiritual place, and upon reaching the lookout point on the trail we all fell silent, staring in awe at the Cerro Aconcagua. As the thin clouds flowed over the summit, my Mom leaned over and said, “I’m really in the Andes!”