From the west, the long lines of Lombardy poplars flanking RN 7 offer a dramatic approach to Uspallata, a crossroads village in an area that, thanks to its resemblance to the central-Asian highlands, enjoyed 131 minutes of cinematic fame as the base for French director Jean-Jacques Annaud’s movie (and Brad Pitt vehicle) of Heinrich Harrer’s memoir Seven Years in Tibet. Annaud airlifted in yak extras from Montana for the filming, which journalist Orville Schell chronicled in his Virtual Tibet (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2000).
Since losing out to Luján de Cuyo as a zona franca (duty-free zone) for exports to Valparaíso, Chile, Uspallata (pop. 3,284) has returned to its pre-Hollywood tranquility. In a broad valley surrounded by colorful Andean peaks, 1,751 meters above sea level, it is 52 kilometers northwest of Potrerillos.
While westbound RN 7 continues to Parque Provincial Aconcagua and the Chilean border, RP 39 leads north into remote parts of San Juan Province; RP 52 makes a 102-kilometer loop back to Mendoza via the Villavicencio hot springs on a route followed by San Martín’s army in crossing the Andes to liberate Chile, and later by Charles Darwin in crossing the Andes from Santiago. The RP 52 loop is probably a safer route for cyclists than RN 7, which has several tunnels and heavy truck traffic.
There’s little to see in Uspallata proper, which is primarily a service center along RN 7, but several nearby sights form a collective, loosely defined museum with erratic hours and a small admission fee. About two kilometers north of the highway junction, the Bóvedas Históricas Uspallata contains a series of conical kilns used for metallurgy during the 17th century, but even before the Spanish invasion the local Huarpe population processed local ores here.
The kilns themselves are museum that contains a series of dioramas on General Gregorio de Las Heras’s trans-Andean campaign in support of San Martín (several key battles took place nearby), but also includes exhibits on mineralogy and the indigenous Huarpe. Descriptions are in Spanish and fractured English.
On the Calingasta road, the Comunidad Huarpe Guaytamari (RP 149 Km 12, San Alberto) is a llama farm and crafts center run by a handful of Huarpe Indians. About seven kilometers northeast of town, on RP 52 to Villavicencio, volcanic Cerro Tunduqueral offers a fading series of pre-Columbian petroglyphs. Nearby is a monument to Ceferino Namuncurá, a Mapuche Indian who succumbed to pulmonary disease while studying and tending to patients in Italy; promoted as a saint in Argentina, he has not yet cracked the Catholic hierarchy due to a lack of any miracles attributed to him.
Beyond Cerro Tunduqueral, the Caracoles de Villavicencio is a zigzag gravel road that leads to the now-closed hot springs hotel of the same name, where it becomes a straight-as-an-arrow paved highway into Mendoza. En route the road passes a plaque to Darwin, who found fossil araucaria trees here, and reaches the scenic heights of the 3,800-meter Cruz del Paramillo. A warning sign at Uspallata’s northern outskirts indicates regulated hours for ascending and descending the Caracoles, but its presence owes more to bureaucratic inertia than current reality.
In summer, two adventure travel operators maintain offices at the highway junction for outdoor activities such as rafting, mountain biking, and trekking: Pizarro Expediciones (tel. 02624/42-0003, www.pizarroexpediciones.com.ar) and Desnivel Aventura (tel. 02624/42-0275, www.desnivelaventura.com.ar).
Half a kilometer north of the highway junction, the wooded Camping Municipal (US$3 pp) has picnic tables and barbecue pits; the bathrooms have wood-fired showers, so the availability of hot water can vary.
At the eastern approach to town, the HI-affiliated Hostel Uspallata Uspallata (RN 7 Km 1141.5, tel. 0261/15-466-7240, www.hosteluspallata.com.ar, US$12 pp dorm, US$42 d)is, incongruously enough, a remodeled slaughterhouse with both dorms and private rooms. The common areas include a bar that offers simple meals and a cavernous hall where the cattle once hit the floor (it has been long enough that there are no bloodstains).
East of the junction, Hotel Viena (Avenida Las Heras 240, tel. 02624/42-0046, US$36 d) has utilitarian rooms with private baths and cable TV. Directly at the junction, the more spacious Los Cóndores Hotel (tel./fax 02624/42-0002, www.loscondoreshotel.com.ar, US$40 s, US$59 d) has a restaurant.
Built for a labor union during the 1940s Peronist heyday, on RN 7 about one kilometer west of the highway junction, Hotel Uspallata (tel./fax 02624/42-0066, www.granhoteluspallata.com.ar, US$70 s, US$82 d, with breakfast) has improved considerably since coming under management of the Cadena del Sol chain. It’s notable for its spacious and manicured grounds, which include a large swimming pool, but the rooms are comfortable enough, and it’s clearly the best value in town.
On the same grounds, Cadena del Sol has also opened the Gran Hostel Uspallata (tel. 02624/42-0367, US$12 pp), an 85-bed facility with its own amenities and access to the hotel pool. Most rooms are triples with shared baths.
On the highway at the south end of town, appealing Hotel Valle Andino (tel. 02624/42-0095, www.hotelvalleandino.com, US$49 s, US$78 d, with breakfast) has amenities that include an indoor pool.
In a strip mall at the highway junction, Café Tibet (tel. 0261/15-512-0971) opened during the cinema boom, but it has managed to outlast the Brad Pitt blip with a menu of inexpensive but good-quality pizza and sandwiches.
Other offerings are almost exclusively parrillas, including San Cayetano (tel. 02624/42-0049), behind the YPF station; La Estancia de Elías (tel. 02624/42-0165) at the southern approach to town; and El Rancho de Don Olmedo (RN 7 and Cerro Chacay, tel. 02624/42-0109).
At the highway junction, the new Informador Turístico (RN 7 and RP 52, tel. 02624/42-0410, turismolasheras [at] hotmail [dot] com) is open 8 a.m.–10 p.m. daily. Uspallata also has a post office (postal code 5545) and an ATM at Banco de la Nación.Within 50 meters of the junction are several locutorios and Internet outlets.
In the same strip mall as Café Tibet, just north of the highway junction, Expreso Uspallata operates three or four buses daily to and from Mendoza (2.5 hours, US$5); westbound services continue to Puente del Inka. If continuing to Chile, buy a ticket in Mendoza and pick up your bus here or at Penitentes; through buses are often full.
© Wayne Bernhardson from Moon Argentina, 3rd edition