The Inca bridge
Coming from a city like Mendoza and being in Santiago right now, Puente del Inca is about as different as it gets. There is one hotel and one hostel, one small store from which to buy food, one place from which to make phone calls and no internet access. The town exists solely because of the naturally formed bridge that spans the river gorge and the thermal baths that formed it, and also to provide access to the national park containing Aconcagua, the tallest mountain in the world outside of the Himalayas at almost 7,000 meters. The bridge has been closed since 2005 and you aren't allowed to cross it anymore. In 1915 a hotel and bath complex and a church were built on the other side of the bridge to cash in on the therapeutic powers of the water.
Close-up of Aconcagua
The building that contained the baths is still standing and is located near the underside of the bridge. The hotel was connected to the baths via an underground tunnel. After several days of heavy snow there was an avalanche in 1965 that caved in the roof of the hotel and it was subsequently closed and allowed to deteriote to the rubble that is left today. Now, the building that houses the baths is fenced off and there are numerous signs saying that the bridge is closed. One night while we were there, we waited until around 2am when the park rangers, who live right next to the bridge, had gone to sleep, as per the advice of the people that ran the hostel, and then we snuck quietly across the bridge to go in the natural thermal baths. Before getting in the baths, I took a few minutes to wander around the church and the ruins of the baths in the moonlight.
The colored grass on the edge of Laguna Horcones
The church was all locked up and there was really nothing to see. The building that the baths were in had been structurally damaged and was fenced off, but it in the darkness and the bit of moonlight it seemed almost haunted with hundreds of leaks yielding drops of water that echoed off the decaying walls. The baths themselves were really nothing special, the water was warm in the cold night air and but after a while seemed cool. The bottom of the pool was also a bit muddy and the water smelled strongly of sulphur. After leaving the bath my bathing suit was all muddy and I reaked of sulphur. But it was definitely worth it for the atmosphere, to sit there in the moonlight and see the stars and surrounding mountains.
After talking with the park rangers, the intention was to camp inside Parque Nacional Aconcagua for one night and then hike into the valley to see the south face and the glaciers of the mountain, the thickest of which is about 300 meters thick.
The magic bus and Puente del Inca
The rangers told us that even though we didn´t have a tent that was some type of structure that we could stay in overnight, although it would be cold as temperatures would drop to near zero. It was a bit late in the season so there were no companies still renting out camping equipment in the town or the park. So, we stocked up on enough food and water, mostly salami and cheese, as the small food store in town didn´t have much else, and headed off toward the park on foot since no one would drive us there. All along the road there were these metal poles to mark the sides of the road and to measure the height of the snow, but here´s the thing, they all go up to 4 meters. I thought this was pretty excessive but then I saw the photo of a truck driving between two towering walls of snow after a blizzard in 1997, very impressive.
Into the Wild
But anyways, by the time we got to the park, it was around 2pm as we got a bit of a late start and had some difficulties in finding the shortcut to the park, requiring us having to turn back after following a mule path that seemingly disappeared into thin air along a river valley when we were abruptly faced with sheer cliffs and a small raging waterfall. Walking into the park I talked to one of the rangers who abruptly told us that without a tent there was nowhere to stay in the park. I explained to her how the other park ranger in town had told that there was somewhere to stay. She said she would radio to Confluencia, the base camp where the trails to the different faces of the summit split off, to see if we could stay there. She tried a few times but got no answer.
Sometimes they get a lot of snow here
Without a place to stay and with only7 hours of daylight and a potential 6 hour round trip if there were no place to stay, we decided to abort the plan and wander around Laguna Horcones and the mirador to the mountain and then return to town. With the circumstances it was definitely the best option. Sometimes when you´re traveling around and arranging things on such short notice you can only try your best to get where you want to go, but sometimes it just isn´t possible. A bit disappointed, we returned to town with a kilogram of salami and cheese to eat over the next several meals as you´re not allowed to bring fresh food into Chile, and they are very strict and thorough about that.
Walking around town, we walked through remnants of an old train track the runs all the way across the border into Chile, with many abondoned buildings.
Sunset and the sky on fire
There is even an old abandoned school bus in the middle of the valley, reminiscent of the magic bus from Into the Wild. Kind of ironic after our failed and aborted trip into the wilderness at Aconcagua. When we re-emerged from our hostel later in the day, the sun had already dipped below the mountains and the sky was amazing, looking as if it were ablaze in a thousand shades of red, orange, and purple, probably the most beautiful sunset I have ever seen, and you couldn´t even see the sun. After lingering to watch the colors change we went back to the hostel and got to see the amazing rock and fossil collection that this guy in our hostel had. He basically travels all around South America searching for minerals and fossils. He had some really cool stuff, but nothing better than a giant fossilized shark tooth the he found in the deserts of Peru near the Peru-Chile border.
A ancient fossilized giant shark tooth
It was probably 10 inches long and 6-7 inches wide, simply amazing when you consider how big the shark must have been to have teeth that big. A very interesting and improbable end to a great few days which, even though things didn´t work out exactly as planned, they still worked out very well indeed.