The Inca Bridge

The magic bus and Puente del Inca

Into the Wild

Ruins of the church

A beautiful sunset with the sky on fire

A beautiful sunset with the sky on fire

A ancient fossilized giant shark tooth

Cerro Aconcagua the tallest mountain outside of the Himalayas

Close-up of Aconcagua

The mountains opposite Aconcagua

The colored grass on the edge of Laguna Horcones

Aconcagua and Laguna Horcones

The modern customs and immigration post

Sometimes they get a lot of snow here

Another view of the Inca Bridge

Artisan working on things

Artisan working on things

From underneath the Inca bridge

Mountains on the way to Chile

At the border with Chile

At the border with Chile

Puente del Inca, Argentina

Aconcagua and the Inca Bridge

March 18, 2008

And the wind keeps roaring

And the sky keeps turning gray

And the sun is set

The sun will rise another day

- Eddie Vedder

Coming from a city like Mendoza and being in Santiago right now, Puente del Inca is about as different as it gets. In Puente del Inca 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 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, bath complex, and church were built on the other side of the bridge to cash in on the therapeutic powers of the water. 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 deteriorate 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 I was there, as per the advice of the people that ran the hostel, we waited until around 2am for the park rangers living right next to the bridge to go to sleep 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 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 it felt cool. The bottom of the pool was also a bit muddy and the water smelled strongly of sulfur. After leaving the bath my bathing suit was muddy and I reeked of sulfur. Despite all this it was worth it for the atmosphere, to sit there in the moonlight and see the stars and surrounding mountains.

I had also wanted to see Aconcagua up close. Following a consultation 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 rangers told us that even though we didn´t have a tent that there was some type of structure that we could stay in overnight, although it would be cold as temperatures would be close to freezing. It was a bit late in the season so there were no companies still renting out camping equipment in the town or the park. 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 4 meter tall metal poles used to mark the sides of the road and to measure the height of the snow. I thought this was excessive but then I saw the photo of a truck driving between two towering walls of snow after a blizzard in 1997; it was impressive and I understood.

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. We had to turn back after mistakenly following a mule path that petered out along a river valley leaving us to face sheer cliffs and a small raging waterfall. Anyways, 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 park ranger in town had said there were huts we could stay at. 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.

Without a place to stay and only 6 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 viewpoint to the mountain and 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 try your best to reach your destination 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 because you are not allowed to bring fresh food into Chile and the inspections are very strict and thorough.

Around town, we walked through remnants of an old train track the runs all the way across the border into Chile, with many abandoned buildings. There is even an abandoned school bus in the middle of the valley, reminiscent of the magic bus from the movie Into the Wild that had recently been released. It felt somewhat 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 colors in the sky were amazing. It looked as if the sky were ablaze in a thousand shades of red, orange, and purple. It was 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 saw an amazing rock and fossil collection that this guy in our hostel had. He is a collector who travels all around South America searching for minerals and fossils. The most interesting item he had was a giant fossilized shark tooth the he had found in the deserts of Peru near the border with Chile. It was probably 10 inches long and 6-7 inches wide, simply amazing when you consider how big the shark must have been to fit that size of tooth. All in all a very interesting and improbable end to a great few days which, even though things didn´t work out exactly as planned, they were still very enjoyable.