Argentina’s Midwest: Mendoza and Beyond

There’s more to El Cuyo than Mendoza – and there’s more to Mendoza than wine. From South America’s tallest mountain to otherworldly landscapes and soothing hot springs, discover the secrets of the Argentine midwest.

Photo © iStock/edurivero

Mendoza Province

If you’re going to Mendoza, there will, of course, be wine. But if you only hit one wine trail, make sure it’s the Uco Valley. Situated along the Tunuyan River, this prominent wine-growing region is famous for Malbec, but it’s the unpretentious vibe mixed with the breathtaking backdrop of the Cordón de Plata mountains that makes this valley special.

When you’re done grape-sampling, do as the locals do and head out to Lake Potrerillos on a summer weekend for sunbathing, swimming, and relaxing surrounded by snow-capped peaks and cypress forests.

Lake Potrerillos. Photo credit: iStock/JackF


Just north is the quaint little town of Uspallata, your jumping-off point to explore the Inca petroglyphs at Cerro Tunduqueral (where some of the movie Seven Years in Tibet was filmed). Check out Los Paramillos, a petrified forest often called the Bosque de Darwin as a nod to its discoverer.

Stop at the Puente del Inca, a natural arch over the Rio Vacas, on your way to Aconcagua, South America’s tallest mountain. A day hike to the first base camp, Confluencia, is worth it for the incredible views. Alternately, head south to see Volcano Tupungato, one of the tallest volcanoes in the world.

If you’re in Mendoza in early March, you’re in luck. The Fiesta de la Vendimia, or Annual Grape Harvest Festival, is a 10-day affair celebrated across the region. You’ll witness folk dancing, massive parades, endless wine tastings, and a pageant where beauty queens from Mendoza's 18 districts compete to be crowned the Harvest Queen.

Mendoza vineyards with Aconcagua in the background. iStock/xini4ka

Malargue 

South of Mendoza proper is Malargue, where you'll find La Laguna de la Niña Encantada, a lovely lake with crystal-clear, turquoise waters. Drive on to Valle de Las Leñas, a popular ski resort in winter turned natural paradise in the summer. Hike, mountain bike, or horse ride through the aptly named Valle Hermoso before heading off to relax at El Azufres hot springs.

South of Malargue is the Caverna de las Brujas, or Witches Cave, a nature reserve that’s home to one of the largest cave complexes in Argentina. Nearby is Cascadas de Manqui Malal, 98ft (30m) waterfalls covered in fossilized remains. The area is perfect for hiking, climbing, or mountain biking – and there’s a campsite if you want to stay the night.

Next, head to the high-altitude Laguna Llancanelo, known for its flamingos. While water birds are the main attraction, it’s worth checking out la Cueva del Tigre (the Cave of the Tiger) and the Laguna de Cari-lauquen while on site.

Continue south to the Reserva la Provincial la Payunia, a relatively inaccessible but staggeringly beautiful reserve boasting more than 800 volcanoes – one of the highest concentrations of volcanoes on the planet. Sometimes referred to as the Patagonia of Mendoza, La Payunia is also an amazing place to spot wildlife – such as condors, pumas, eagles, foxes, and even guanacos (a llama relative) – or even the odd cave painting or two.

Reserva la Provincial la Payunia. Photo credit: iStock/T-Immagini

La Rioja and San Juan

La Rioja and San Juan are best known for their two star attractions: Ischigualasto, aka the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon), famed for its bizarre rock formations and some of the earliest known dinosaur remains; and Talampaya National Park, with its 656ft (200m) high red sandstone cliffs, Triassic-period fossils, and 1,500-year-old rock carvings.

To visit the parks, stay in Villa Unión in La Rioja or the quaint town of San Agustín de Valle Fértil in San Juan. Talampaya especially merits a longer stay – be sure to start early, when the morning sun hits the colored rocks and illuminates the canyon.

Afterward, explore the Laguna Brava Provincial Reserve, which boasts stunning colors and ample wildlife, before heading to Valle de Calingasta. Star-gazers must stop in Barreal to visit the Complejo Astronómico El Leoncito, one of the continent’s most important space observatories, inside of El Leoncito National Park.

Finally, head west to Las Hornillas, the point of departure for adventurous treks and climbs at Cerro Mercedario, a favorite summit among mountaineers and the eighth-highest mountain of the Andes, before trekking back to Mendoza for a farewell glass of Malbec.

Talampaya National Park. Photo credit: iStock/Adrian Wojcik

Want to know more about Argentina? Listen to the World Nomads podcast. How drinking mate defines Argentinians, how to kiss properly when you greet someone, and meet Popi, the scientist who's saving penguins.

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