The number one highlight from our trip to South America was driving the Trans-Andean highway from Mendoza, Argentina across the Andes to Valparaiso, Chile. It’s not for the weak of heart, but the gorgeous scenery more than makes up for the few scary moments. Luckily for you, you can just read about it here, rather than do it yourself. 🙂 Enjoy our trip over the Los Caracoles Pass, also known as Cristo Redentor.
We started our journey in Mendoza at about 1pm, because that is the earliest that the rental car company could get the car certified for the international crossing. I would have liked to start earlier, to take advantage of the daylight, but it wasn’t possible with a last-minute arrangement like this. We had heard that the crossing should take between 5 and 6 hours, but that was just to get to the other side of the mountains – we still had another hour or two beyond that to get to Valparaiso. So we knew it would be tight if we didn’t want to do a ton of night-driving in an unfamiliar place. This meant that we couldn’t stop too often or for too long – momentum was the key strategy for the day.
As you know, from my panicked blogs before we left, I was pretty nervous. Looking at those pictures on the “10 most dangerous roads in the world” site didn’t really help in my preparation, although at least I had a bit of warning! What I wasn’t prepared for was the how long it took to GET to the scary bit. That’s the thing that no one mentions. It took us a good 4 hours to get to the top of the pass, and the scary bit was only about an hour, and then it took another 3 hours to get to Valparaiso. That, plus an hour stopped at the border crossing, and we didn’t make it into our beds until 10pm that night.
The whole time we were driving, we kept saying “Wow, this looks exactly like _____” At various times it was like the Colorado High Country, the Grand Canyon, Southern California, or a landscape on Mars. I felt that traversing a few hundred miles really took us from one extreme to another!
So here are (a lot!) of pictures documenting the drive. This way you can see all the pretty bits, without the terrifying bits.
Approaching the mountains. It’s quite a long drive from Mendoza to actually get TO the mountains, and it’s only a little intimidating looking at the them and thinking “oh my, we have to go OVER that!”
A lot of the Argentinian side reminded me of Colorado. If I didn’t know better, I would say this is a shot of I-70 heading into Glendwood Springs. But it’s not. That’s the Mendoza River down below – I think we crossed it about 27hundred times.
This was a pretty amazing section with an almost-dry river bed in a deep cut canyon. You can see the cliff on the other side, with just a trickle of water down below. I can only assume that in the spring time this floods with snowmelt.
We had a lot of debate about whether or not these counted as tunnels. (A very important subject if you happen to be counting tunnels on your next road trip…) They were half-tunnels, really, shelters from the cliffs above, but usually open on one side.
As we got higher and higher you could see the vegetation change, and snow started appearing on the mountains.
Aconcagua! Yes, from the highway you can sort-of see the tallest mountain in the Americas. Aconcagua is 6,960.8 m (22,837.3 ft), and even though it was well into autumn you can still see snow on the upper slopes. The mountains is over my right-shoulder – almost directly above the signpost in the distance. It was very windy, which explains my god-awful hair.
It was also very very cold! Alex was clever because he had his jacket, but I’d packed mine away expecting a long hot day in the car. If we ever do this drive again, we’ll plan to have more time at this ranger-station, where you can take a short hike around the corner and up the hill to get a better view of Aconcagua. But at this point it was already nearing 2pm, and we hadn’t yet reached the top, so we had to pack and up and keep going.
The road was quite desolate the whole time on the Argentinian side. There was one lorry that we kept passing and then being passed by, but otherwise it was quite a peaceful drive. Not very strenuous or scary (yet!) You can see here that the mountains are getting pointier and more jagged…
You can barely see a remnant of the old Trans-Andean railway here. There are tracks, and a snowshed, at the base of this mountain. Alex would love to see rail service brought back, but I don’t think the condition of the track is anywhere near good enough. You’d probably have to start from scratch for most of it.
This is approaching the higtest point, and you can just imagine how this little valley must get buried by snow in the winter! The snow fences are probably 20-feet high at this point, and badly battered.
The tunnel! The tunnel! This is it! This is the highest point! It’s at this tunnel that we leave Argentina and enter Chile… from here on it’s all down-hill. (The scary bit!)
On the other side of the tunnel there is a “Welcome to Chile” sign, which these guys stopped to take a picture at. We didn’t have the time, so we kept on moving.
Immediately after you enter Chile there is a section with a steep downhill in one of these half-tunnel things. You can see the crazy angle in this picture – I can’t even begin to estimate the grade, but it was very very steep. It was here where we started to encounter the big, heavy trucks… at the bottom of this hill is the border control. I didn’t get any pictures of it (because you’re not allowed), but it took about an hour to clear customs. Slightly intimidating, but they were all friendly and we had no problems.
Now the scary part starts. It’s very steep, and very curvy, and if that’s not enough, it’s under construction! I was pretty terrified when we first translated that sign, but then I realized it was maybe a good thing.
This is a great picture. If you look at the lake, and then look below the lake, you see several stripes – that’s the road going back and forth! I think there were 17 or 18 hairpin bends – the sharpest I’ve ever seen. With no barriers, no lane markings, and lots of big trucks!
This was taken from the middle of the curvy bits – looking back up at the mountains above. I think it was about 4pm, and the sun was clearly starting to set. We had maybe an hour of decent daylight left….
This is a good example of the construction. They were paving half the road, so there was a one-way system in place (remember when I said that the construction was a good thing?) So it was one-way from 7am to 7pm, and then the other way from 7pm to 7am. I wouldn’t want to be driving the other way and doing these curves in the middle of the night, though! Sometimes we were driving on the newly paved bits, but we were also directed over to the wrong side of the road to drive on the gravel.
Another good shot of the road snaking down the mountains. The dirty snow and gravel combined to make the landscape rather desolate, but I believe that in the summer it can be green and lovely.
Hands down the scariest moment. That is a half-tunnel on the left, which we are supposed to be driving INSIDE of, but because of the construction they routed us around the outside. On the right is a sheer drop off, with no barriers or rails or anything.
Finally getting to the bottom….the sun is pretty much gone.
The big trucks had to go down in a very low gear, and were very slow. So all the other cars would back up behind them, and then as soon as the truck was around the curve they would race to try and pass before the next hairpin bend.
Ha ha. A picture of the beautiful scenery, while we’re stuck in traffic. No matter where you go!
Finally down! It was about 6pm at this point, and we started to see traffic stacking up to start the reverse trip….
I don’t know what this thing is. We saw it running on the rail tracks next to the road. It’s some sort of bus/train hybrid…. there were lots of people out taking pictures of it, so we think it was some sort of special event and not a regular service…
And there you have it! We still had another 4 hours in the car to get to Valparaiso, but that was all on lovely Chilean highways. (Ruta 5 is my favorite!) It was a nail-biting experience, but I’m really proud that we did it. In hindsight, I would 1) start earlier, 2) take a map. Other than that though, it was a ton of fun!