Charles Darwin, the British naturalist and explorer who sailed around the World and wrote “The voyage of the Beagle” and the influential “On the origin of species”, crossed the Andes twice in 1835. Driven by his passion for the mountains, he rode a mule from Santiago de Chile to Mendoza and back, while his ship (the famous “Beagle”) was stuck in Valparaíso for repairs.
The scientist completed an interesting traverse. He hired some “arrieros” (muleteers) in Santiago and crossed the Piuquenes Pass, a rough trail across the two mountain ranges that form the Central Andes. He visited Mendoza briefly and went back to Chile by a different trail, the Uspallata or La Cumbre Pass, nowadays an international road.
Darwin loved the trip and his field research later played a key role in his revolutionary work. He praised the experience in his journals: “My excursion only cost me twenty-four days, and never did I more deeply enjoy an equal space of time”, he wrote.
(Side note: We would love to use Darwin’s quote as a trip review in our website! our Andes Trek runs the exact trail used by the explorer and the landscapes remain almost unchanged. After all, the author being what we could call a “well-travelled person”, he was in a position to compare destinations…)
Geological sketch of the Andes, made by Darwin during his trip
Jokes apart, the fact is that while the Uspallata – La Cumbre Pass is a completely different place today, with heavy trucks roaring and a tunnel piercing the mountain, the Piuquenes Pass remains pristine, probably quite similar to how it looked back in the 1830’s.
Going from Mendoza to Santiago by this non-commercial trail through the mountains makes a perfect one week adventure. An old dirt road climbs to a narrow col at 4.380m, named Portillo Argentino. It is a natural barrier for vehicles (other than bicycles). The view from this high pass perched in the heart of the Andes is breathtaking. Snow-capped peaks and unknown valleys extend as far as the eye can see. The winding trail that descends to the Valle del río Tunuyán is the only mark of centuries of human transit.
Here, the ways of this transit have remained as unchanged as the landscape: The gauchos that lead the horse treks these days dress and ride like their ancestors, who made a living from driving cattle across the Andes. In fact, it is frequent to find old “cow shoes” half buried in the trail.
The trained eye can also spot beautiful marine fossils in the ridges, as Darwin himself did (cow shoes can be make a nice souvenir, but please, do not take fossils from the mountains where they belong).
Portrait of Darwin in the late 1830s, shortly after his return from the voyage of the Beagle (by G. Richmond)
Not everything in this Andes traverse relates to the past. Guanacos (a relative of the Lama) and Hares in the slopes, and big Andean Condors in the skies, are common traveling companions during the trip. The elusive Puma also lives in these mountains, but they are quite good at avoiding people.
After crossing the broad Tunuyán valley, the trail climbs again to the Piuquenes Pass (4.030 m), an opening in the ridge that marks the international border. It is the dry, clear environment of the Central Andes at its best. The sheer scale of everything, and the intensity of the colors are difficult to convey to words. Perhaps we’d better leave it to Charles Darwin to describe it:
“When we reached the crest and looked backwards, a glorious view was presented. The atmosphere resplendently clear; the sky an intense blue; the profound valleys; the wild broken forms: the heaps of ruins, piled up during the lapse of ages; the bright-colored rocks, contrasted with the quiet mountains of snow, all these together produced a scene no one could have imagined. Neither plant nor bird, excepting a few condors wheeling around the higher pinnacles, distracted my attention from the inanimate mass. I felt glad that I was alone: it was like watching a thunderstorm, or hearing in full orchestra a chorus of the Messiah”.
[ Text: Nicolás García / Photo by J.Mandryk / Andes’ sketch by Ch.Darwin / Darwin’s portrait by G. Richmond]