Experience crossing the mountain range from San Juan to Chile by horse or mule, as it was done two hundred years ago.
In 1817 José de San Martín and his army not only crossed the Andes but also confronted the Spanish army immediately upon arriving and liberated Chile – without any of the technology or gear that today’s trekkers use. Of all the Andean crossings, this one beginning in San Juan is the most challenging because of the distance, high altitude (it reaches 4800 meters above sea level) and the often volatile weather conditions.
The mountain is constantly changing. Each deep blue sky follows the next like a curtain accompanying travelers on the back of a mule or horse, for eight days and seven nights. When it gets dark, it’s tempting to stay up late staring at the breathtaking night sky – the key is to find a balance between taking everything in and getting enough rest after the day’s travels.
The starting point
The adventure begins in the province of San Juan in the beautiful and tiny town of Barreal, Calingasta, a popular tourist center on the edge of the Andes. After driving 150 kilometers in a 4×4 to reach an altitude of 3,100 meters, travelers arrive at Los Manantiales ranch where each person is assigned a horse or mule. Although all the animals are prepared to make the crossing, the mule’s stride is stronger, making it ideal for the mountain range, particularly for less experienced or less confident riders.
After five hours of travel, with a stop to rest by the Los Patos River, the main tributary of the San Juan River, you’ll arrive at Las Frías, a place that lives up to its name (“The Cold Ones”) because the temperature drops considerably at night. Abrupt weather changes are very characteristic of this route – the windchill is only sharpened by the altitude.
By day the sun is bright and strong, but during the night icy winds can reach freezing temperatures. Along the way, you’ll see guanacos climbing mountain paths and magnificent condors flying over peaks and valleys. The average altitude during the trip is 3000 meters.
Next comes the most intense challenge of the crossing – a ride that lasts over 10 hours. The Portezuelo del Espinacito is 4800 meters high and the ascent is slow and risky, but the view from the top is worth the effort. From the summit the whole world is at your fingertips – even the Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Americas, feels within reach.
Descending from the highest point of the trip is even more difficult than the climb, but going down by foot may feel a bit safer. On the other side of the Espinacito, you’ll stop at an oasis of crystalline glacial water before continuing to the Ingeniero Sardina shelter (2800 meters high). The beautiful Valle de los Patos is a great place to rest and appreciate the mountains’ undulating palette of colors.
After a day in the shelter you’ll reach the border between Argentina and Chile in Paso Valle Hermoso (3500 meters), where the busts of both San Martín and O’Higgins symbolize South American unity. From there you’ll return by the Portezuelo de la Honda. At 4500 meters, it’s a nearly vertical slope that many prefer to descend on foot, particularly as the cold intensifies. The journey is completed when you return to Las Frías (also known as Trincheras del Soler) and finally arrive at Los Manantiales ranch.
The Andes crossing is a once-in-a-lifetime experience in the immensity and power of nature, as well as an intense physical and mental challenge. There are two agencies in San Juan that offer the Andes crossing for tourists: Fortuna Viajes (www.fortunaviajes.com.ar ) and Explora Parques (www.exploraparques.com ). On both websites you’ll find all the details, dates for 2019 and prices (USD 1500 approx.).