Malargüe, land of volcanos

Situated about 400 kilometres south of Mendoza, in the south of the province of Mendoza, Malargue is a small but charming town that attracts many tourists. The attractions are several, first the largest ski resort in Argentina, Las Leñas, is just kilometres away. In the summer the road deeper in the mountains beyond Las Leñas leads to Valle Hermoso, a good place for fishing. Second Malargue is a region with one of the highest concentration of volcanos in the world, more than 800 volcanic cones. The Provincial Reserve La Payunia protects a large volcanic area. The photos below show our day trip to Las Leñas and Valle Hermos. Because it is late autumn here we encountered snow on the higher points along the trail past Las Leñas, and no other human being! Every night we would come back to the city and the municipal campground which has hot showers and electricity to run our small electric heater. The nights are already cold this time of year, down to freezing.

The next two days took us southeast of Malargue to the laguna Llancanelo and the provincial reserve La Payunia. This a large remote desert area. We arrived too late to go to the laguna with a guided tour. Instead the ranger directed us to a volcano 12 km away. The trail was narrow but we reached the small parking lot halfway up the slope of the volcano Trapal. The rest of the way, about 600 m of elevation gain, has to be done on foot to the summit. There the 360-degree view is unbelievable. We watched the sunset, the laguna, and the flocks of pink flamingos. We were back at the truck when it got dark and drove back to the ranger station where we parked and spent the night. Because it is a remote area there is no power. The rangers runs a small generator for their own basic needs, but we had no electricity so no heat, and it got cold. We woke up at 4:00am with 0 degrees inside the truck, managed to stay in bed freezing till 6:00 when we decided to just get up, have breakfast and get going. At this time of year the sun comes up at about 8:50 and for a short time the display of colours makes you want to press the Pause button. We drove through some amazing landscapes that photos cannot render properly. The size of the region cannot fit on a small camera chip, even our eyes can barely absorb it. We crossed lava fields, saw volcanic cone after volcanic cone, and drove past the highest volcano of the region: the Payun Maru at 3814 m (12,513′). Where the sign says Road Ends Here … we continued on the barely visible track through the desert. Thank God for GPS, because these tracks branch off every so often and the landscape is so big that it’s very easy to take the wrong path and get lost. Even with GPS we had to backtrack a few times questioning our choices. All in all we covered about 100 km of off-pavement roads before we finally connected with a somewhat important gravel road. Exactly one kilometre before that intersection, I didn’t see quickly enough a ditch that runs perpendicular to the track and I hit the brakes too late. We dipped in the ditch and came up flying on the other side. My foot slipped off the accelerator in the air, so when the truck landed it stalled there, halfway on the trail, halfway outside in the bushes. After a brief inspection it turned out we got scared but we had no damage. The rest of the trip back to town was uneventful.

Southwest of Malargue is a beautiful region with amazing landscapes and rock formations. The most famous is named Castillos de Pincheira. We drove the road further west, amazed by the beauty of what our eyes were seeing. We almost didn’t come thinking we had seen enough desert for the time being but we were glad we had, and now we think we would like to return at some point and explore more. This a tranquil region of colourful hills, cool water streams, and small remote farming outposts.

On our way back to Mendoza we stopped at the Salinas del Diamante. It is a laguna with salt flats. A company extracts the salt for industrial uses and they welcome visitors at no charge. We walked through the mining equipment, and to the lakeshore. It is a worthwhile stop along the highway.