Still following the old Caminos Reales, the hike up up up from 2,500 feet in Mendoza to the pass at 12,500 feet, was used throughout history by anyone wishing to cross the Andes. Informative historical markers point out Inca ruins in many places. Treeless and all but barren, the snowcapped peaks on either side of the Mendoza River stand out majestically - many are more than 20,000 feet high. Tall. A huge engineering feat, a railroad was built more than a century ago with support towns established every 30 kms or so, linking the east and west coasts of the continent. For reasons no one seems to know, it was abandoned in the mid 1990s and the towns now complete ghost towns or inhabited by a few old timers who have no where else to go. The land can't seem to support even a few cows. Without the railroad, it's a hard life. A few ski lifts dot the upper parts of the valley, but they're hardly resorts.
With many adventures - one in which I became separated from my second pair of socks - I reached the continental divide four days out of Mendoza, the last day with the greatest elevation gain and the greatest temperature drop. I love the cold temperatures - wearing everything except my summer hiking skort and pajama top, and carrying very little. I could do without the fierce and frigid headwind. (Always optimistic, when it's so windy, at least I can pee standing up.)
When I arrived at Las Cuevas, the last hamlet before the continental divide, late in the afternoon, I asked for advice on how to proceed over the top... 8 kms of switchbacks gaining 5,000 feet in elevation, and at that moment, clouds forming over the razoredge ridge and snow blowing in the persistant frigid wind... 'come back in December' was the consensus if I intended to go by foot. The alternative is the 3-km-long tunnel into Chile... no one, it seems, ever just walks into Chile. Hoping the snow wouldn't accumulate overnight, I slept snuggly in a stone lodge under half a dozen wool blankets in front of a tiny space heater. The morning was clear as could be yet looking up from below, the 'white wind' was blowing relentlessly over the ridge. A degree or two above freezing is fine, but accompanied by a 60 mph wind... less appealing. Nonetheless, I headed up the trail toward the statue of Cristo Redentor marking the peaceful border. With great effort, I got to within a kilometer of distance and a few hundred feet of elevation before the whiteout conditions forced me to abandon the effort of walking into Chile. Rats. Had I a companion who knew the route, or at least some crampons... Quite a similar experience to crossing the Alps on the Via Francigena six years ago on my first pilgrimage. I had to abandon the effort, retrace my steps, and get a ride through the tunnel. On the Chilean side, it was clear that I never would have been able to make it down the windward trail for all the snow. Ah well. I tried and had a great time.
Down down down, I've reached the first village in Chile. Much greener on this side of the mountains, the surrounding peaks rugged and inviting rather than barren and stark. The river coming down from the glaciers along the divide runs clear rather than red from the burden of the eroded rocks on the Argentina side. A few more days and I'll reach Santiago, then Valparaiso, and then figure out the strategy for crossing the great Atacama desert.