Paso Pehuenche was a beautiful surprise for me. I had to go to Santiago to visit friends, to get a Paraguay visa and for a business matter but I did not feel like going twice over the Paso los Libertadores which I knew al ready.
Searching maps and my trusty Lonely Planet Argentina guidebook I discovered that it was possible to cross the Andes on a dirt road through the lesser known Paso Pehuenche.
Getting there was not very convenient but that is what I wanted to do. Now that I have seen Paso Pehuenche, I am delighted with that choice.
The first map shows how the Pehuenche pass is almost on a straight line between the ports of Constitución on the Pacific coast of Chile and of Bahia Blanca on the Atlantic coast of Argentina. That makes it an obvious alternative to the intensely used Libertadores pass north of Santiago that connects Valparaiso on the Pacific with Buenos Aires on the Atlantic through a route some 1000 km longer. Moreover, Pehuenche rises only to 2500 meters compared to the Libertadores' 3200. The lower map shows details of the route.
Fortunately, traffic demand being more important than ocean to ocean distance, the decision to develop the Pehuenche pass and the necessary approaches is not obvious at this time. I say fortunately because building a high throughput superhighway through the Pehuenche pass will most certainly destroy the magic charm that I have discovered there. This being said, there is no doubt the superhighway will be built eventually so, if you like the following pictures, go there to see this corner of paradise for yourself before it disappears.
We left Malargue at 7 AM and reached Talca ten hours later. There were only four of us in the Mercedes minivan, the driver Pablo Salinas Basoalto, the owner of Karen Travel, Juan Stuardo Ordenes, his friend Gaston Gonzales Diaz and myself.
Here we are moving south from Malargue along the famous route 40 to Bardas Blancas where a spur turns west to the pass.
Now we are moving west towards the Andes on the spur.
The road is not paved past this bridge on the Rio Grande river.
We will follow the Rio Grande into the mountains then, the Rio Chico up to the divide where the border lies.
The land in the Rio Grande valley belongs to the government but it is leased to ranchers who keep cattle, sheep and goats in the pass.
I had no idea of how beautiful this pass could be before being here.
That clump of trees in the centre hides the hacienda of the estanciero leasing this part of the pass.
The narrow dirt road does not disfigure the scenery as much as the superhighway will when it is built in a few years.
I felt quite lucky to have discovered this place and wondered why it was not already crowded with nature loving tourists.
Another clump of trees indicates another ranch house, probably the place where this fellow came from.
There is about 80 km of awesome scenery like this from the bridge shown above to the divide and an equal stretch of spectacular views on the other side of the border.
Here's a group of cattle and sheep close enough to the road to be photographed.
I don't know why I find wild mountains beautiful but I do. Colours are part of it but their huge size is probably more important. Also, the enormous forces that have caused the earth's crust to crumple and form them.
Anyway, it is beyond the scale of ordinary human experience and as such challenges my ordinary modes of understanding and emotions. Having experienced the same feeling in the great sand and ice deserts of the planet, I understand how the first humans imagined a world of giants and gods to match nature's size and power.
I think that the powerful effect of being exposrd to scenery like this would be weakened while whizzing by on a busy superhighway.
Conversely I can imagine the exalted state I would have reached had I discovered this on foot or horseback before the first trail was blazed.
Naturally, the four of us chatted as we made our way through the pass.
I soon became aware that Juan Stuardo, who had gone over this road hundreds of times, was also in a state of awe.
I discovered that Karen Travel was more than a job for Juan Stuardo and was impressed.
Some of those who lease pasture here live elsewhere and use hired labour to watch over their cattle like this family living in this primitive "puesto" during the summer months. The lady knew Juan Stuardo and the driver Pablo well and was pleased by our short visit.
Just imagine living here in a stone hut..
Here are some of the cattle that graze here.
Further up the valley, we came up to this "puesto" occupied by 18 year old Alfonso Alburto who invited us to climb down the hill for a bite to eat.
I managed to climb down in spite of my bad knee and was pleased to find a seat in Alfonso's puesto. We had brought bread and coke. The skinned lamb you see over my shoulder was going to be our lunch.
Alfonso made a fire and raked the embers under the grille to roast half a lamb. Here he is rubbing two chunks of salt cake from a local salt pan as sole seasoning of the traditional "asado". Half an hour later we enjoyed delicious lamb burgers and coke.
After lunch, Gaston took this picture of Pablo, Alfonso, me and Juan Stuardo before resuming our drive up to the divide.
There is no denying that the Averdinango is a handsome breed. When raised on natural pasture, its flesh is definitely the best beef in the world.
We have now left Rio Grande and are following Rio Chico up to the pass.
Here we are at the 2500 metre pass. Behind me is Rio Chico flowing down the valley below the 4050 m Campanaria in Argentina.
Here is a bit of colour to mark the pass.
On this side, rainfall flows into the beautiful Laguna Maule on its way to the Pacific Ocean.
This 360 degree panorama shows the Rio Chico valley in Argentina behind Juan Stuardo standing by the minivan and Laguna Maule in Chile ahead of us.
Here is a lower level 180 degree panorama of beautiful Laguna Maule.
Water from Laguna Maule rushes down Rio Maule all the way to the Pacific at the port town of Constitución
Antarctica was remote, impressive and fabulous but Pehuenche Pass reminded me how we humans rush in to destroy anything we find beautiful whenever there is an economic advantage to do so.
This is what is happening on the Chilean side of Pehuenche pass. It will probably occur on the Argentine side as well but much later for it will take some time for the international financial community to forget that Argentina is a bad credit risk! Sooner or later however, there will be a big superhighway through Pehuenche Pass and people will whiz by without seeing how unique this place is.
One last look at the Maule river as it carves it way to the Pacific.