It took General José de San Martín 21 days in January 1817 with 5,400 men, 1,500 horses, and 9,300 mules. They were the Army of the Andes and they were on their way to liberate Chile, having already driven the Spanish from Argentina. Once across the mountains, San Martín joined with Chilean General Bernardo O’Higgins to begin the second war for independence in the Southern Cone. On 12 February 1817, at the Battle of Chacabuco — 60 km north of Santiago — the Royalists lost 500 and another 600 were taken prisoner while the Army of the Andes suffered 12 killed and 100 wounded. San Martín wrote: “The Army of the Andes has attained glory and can report: In twenty-four days we have completed the campaign, passed through the highest mountain range on the globe, defeated the tyrants and given freedom to Chile”. (San Martín didn’t know about the Himalayas!). The war would drag on for another year but at Chacabuco independence was assured.The monument below and the park in which it sits are located at Chacabuco.

Less than an hour north of Santiago, on Route 57, is the town and battle site of Chacabuco, one of the defining battles in the war for Chilean independence. In 2010 the Chilean government opened a park and memorial to the battle and this stylized warrior is its centrepiece.

We had a much easier time of it. We had to be up at 6 for a 07:30 bus to Mendoza, Argentina. The bus was first-class with wide, comfortable seats, and our agent had gotten us the best seats: front, left on a double-decker.

The trip normally takes five hours but serious road construction on the stretch near the border—above 3,000 m. (10,000 ft.) cost us an hour. Chile clearly was trying to finish before winter set in and skiers want to drive up to Portillo, a large ski resort that abuts the frontier. The stop at customs on the Argentine side consumed another hour.

Close to the border Chile has a toll booth whose revenues pay for maintenance of the highway and, in 2011, major highway construction and widening.

From the toll booth on the Chilean side, the entrance to Christ the Redeemer tunnel is visible. Half way through the tunnel, one enters Argentina.

The border crossing is efficient. Everyone drives into a huge building with several lanes for cars and two for buses. Bus passengers must get off and present their passports or — in the case of Chilean/Argentine citizens – their national ID cards. Sitting side by each in a glass-enclosed stall, a Chilean agent stamps the passport out of Chile and the Argentine agent stamps it in. A random check of suitcases (ours escaped), then back on the bus and non-stop to Mendoza.

On the Argentine side customs and immigration are housed in a building about the size of a football pitch—which is a definite plus in the winter! There are multiple lines for cars and two dedicated lines for buses.

The Andes are never less than spectacular but the best part of the trip is the 29 hair-pin curves (they are numbered) up the last mountain before the border. At this point we were at about 4,000 meters. On almost every straight stretch between curves, one can look down as see not only the valley but all the curves below. We had a VERY good driver!

The Argentine side of the Andes is quite different from the Chilean; one descends to 1,000m. at Mendoza and the road, for the most part, snakes through wide valleys. We got a partial view of Mt. Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Western Hemisphere, but its peak was, as usual, shrouded in clouds. The Mendoza River accompanied us most of the way and it was great fun to see rafters at different points. One hundred kilometres outside Mendoza we passed a huge gas refinery, then the vineyards began.

Just south of Los Andes the highway to Argentina takes a 90 degree turn to the right and becomes Route 60. Here the road begins a climb that will reach over 4,000m.

Along Route 60 are many dramatic sights, one of which is a waterfall spilling into a crevice, with a small river rushing out at the base.

Because much of central and northern Chile is desert, the country has been aggressive about building reservoirs and using other means to capture the run-off from the annual snow melts. Along Route 60 there are several pipes that carry water from the high Andes to supply farms and cities in the region.

The BIG climb up the Andes to the Chile-Argentina border is an often breath-taking series of hair-pin curves that wind up the mountain. Here is the view from about 2/3rds of the way up. There are 29 curves and each one is numbered.

The highway connecting Chile and Argentina is open year round but serious snow in the high Andes means that, on both sides of the border, snow tunnels have been built to keep the white stuff off the highway. Here is a series of snow tunnels not far from the border.

The Andes

A road side shrine to the popular saint, Gaucho Gil. This has nothing to do with Catholicism. Gaucho Gil was a Robin Hood-type character who was born in the province of Corrientes, north of Buenos Aires, and spent his life robbing rich landowners and giving the booty — livestock, crops — to the poor. Gil paid for his exploits with his life but he is one of three popular saints in Argentina who have inspired shrines all over the country. The Gil shrines are easily identifiable because they are always red.

For a long stretch, the Mendoza River widens into a long, skinny reservoir because it has been dammed at a point about 25 km south of Uspallata. Another few kilometres along Route 7 is the Potrerillos Reservoir, seen here, which is about 10 km. long.

Southwest of the city of Mendoza is a YPF (Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales) oil refinery. YPF was established in 1922 as the national oil company. It was privatized in 1993 and was sold to the Spanish oil company, Repsol S.A. In 2012, however, Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner initiated proceedings to re-nationalize the company.

There are vineyards all around Santiago, which lies about half way between the Pacific Ocean and the Argentine border. These, relatively new, vineyards are on north-bound Route 57, heading for the small city of Los Andes, about an hour north of the capital.

Mendoza province has been producing wines for over a century but only in recent years have the Argentines begun catching up with the Chileans in marketing.

Like Santiago, Mendoza is surrounded by vineyards. Here is the first vineyard one sees approaching the city.

Leaving the bus terminal we were greeted by a giant condor alighting on its aerie, an appropriate welcome to one of Argentina’s most charming cities.

The majestic symbol of the Andes and of the city of Mendoza is the condor, here a monument just across from the municipal bus station.