Last Stop In Mendoza Province – Malargue

I depart Las Lenas and drive the 48 km down the mountain on Route 222 to Route 40 and turn south about 32 km to the town of Malargue, my last stop in Mendoza Province.

Las Lenas access road ends at Route 40, now south to Malargue.
Las Lenas access road ends at Route 40, now south 32 km to Malargue.

Malargue is about 370 km south of the capital Mendoza and not yet officially Patagonia.  Malargue is very pleasant and a somewhat surprising little town.  It appears to be another farm town set in the semi-arid and rough looking pampa, but has a very lively and pleasant feel.  Main street at midnight is full of people, cafes are overflowing and the beer is flowing.  I enjoy a great vegan pizza covered in Arugula and other great toppings.

Malargue is home to a planetarium, Centro Planetorio Malargue and is home to the southern site of the Pierre Auger Observatory, an international physics experiment searching for ultra-high energy cosmic rays.

The European Space Agency began construction of a deep space ground station 30 km south of Malargue in 2010, and it became operational in early 2013. Malargue Station and is the third 35m dish in its ESTRACK network.

When I first saw this I thought it was some sort of NASA installation, but turns out to be from the European Space Agency.

Malargue’s agriculture is focused primarily on the production of seed potato, along with minor crops such as alfalfa, onion and garlic. Oil exploration, once a major economic engine is declining as is uranium mining.  Tourism is of growing importance to Malargue’s economy.  It is a bedroom community for many of the skiers that come to Las Lenas and who want to avoid resort hotel prices.

There are also many year around natural attractions near Malargue and a growing number of  tourists attracted to Route 40, the Route 66 of Argentina.  More of route 40 is becoming paved and its popularity is growing.

The Reserva Provincial La Payunia is nearby, a nature preserve created in 1988 with an area of 4,500 square km.  La Payunia is home to many volcanic cones, most noteworthy the Payún Matrú volcano. Volcanic ash forms a black terrain known as “pampas negras”, spanish for black pampas.

NASA phot showing volcanoe from space.
NASA photo showing the 12,070 ft. Payun Matru volcano from space.

The Reserva Provincial Castillos de Pincheira, another protected nature area, is located 27 km to the west of Malargue.  The castillo, or castle is a natural rock sculpted by glaciers and erosion and looks like a castle.  Legends have it that it was a refuge for Chilean bandits, the Pincheira brothers, during the early 1900s.

This natural rock formation formed by glaciers and erosion resembles a castle.
This natural rock formation, “Castillos de Pincheira”, was formed by glaciers and erosion and resembles a castle.

The “Caverna de las Brujas”, or Witches’ Cave is a cave, a nature reserve, and a national monument located about 65 km southwest of Malargue. Only about 6 km of the large cave has been explored. Visitors are only allowed into to visit the first 600 feet of the cave with a guide and proper equipment.

Llancanelo Lake is a rare wetland in this arid region about 75 km from Malargue at an elevation of 4200 ft. Llancanelo is famous for its variety of bird species including flamingos, black necked swans, herons, and ducks.

The Laguna de Llancanelo
The Laguna de Llancanelo.

Tomorrow I am off to Patagonia proper.

Las Leñas

Las Leñas ski resort is located at the southern end of the province of Mendoza.  I decided not to include it in my Mendoza post because it has a magical attraction for me and deserves its own post.  Since my first trip to Buenos Aires more than 30 years ago locals have extolled its virtues and urged me to visit.

Las Leñas in the winter, ski season July - September from up on the hill.
Las Leñas village in the winter during ski season, July – September, from up on the hill.

Las Leñas is 200 km mostly west and a little south of San Rafael my last stop.  My trip to San Rafael yesterday and three quarters of the drive back to Las Leñas was a deviation off of Route 40, my principal route.  The stretch of Route 40 that I am bypassing is unpaved and in poor condition.  I headed west toward the Andes and re-joined Route 40 just 16 km before the turnoff to the resort.  The last 48 km from Route 40 to Las Leñas is on a narrow, mostly paved but deteriorating provincial route 222, and the going is slow.

Las Lenas lies mosstly west and a little south of San Rafael
It was much easier and faster to bypass this section of Route 40 on the very nice alternate route 123 and save wear and tear on the truck for some later sections.

The drive up the access road now in summer is very scenic.  Entire fields of purple wild flowers, rivers and fishing holes, horses, sheep and goats running loose on the road.

It was slow going, the access road was shared with many different kinds of animals.

I am Surrounded by mountain peaks with glaciers and rivers making their way down.

It is a very scenic drive up the access road to Las Lenas.
It is a very scenic drive up the access road to Las Lenas.

Along the access road are two large sink holes filled with water known as the “Pozo de las Animas”, or in english, “Well of Souls”.

The name derives from an ancient Aboriginal legend that a group of Indians were being chased by a rival group. When the night came, the pursuers could not see their enemies anymore upon which they returned to their homes. The next morning they went back to search for their enemies and on reaching the scene, began to hear moans and calls of distress. Advancing cautiously, they found to their great surprise that two huge wells had sunk beneath the feet of their enemies, and people were dying in the rising waters of lakes at the bottom of wells.

The wells have since been called,  “the place where souls cry” and they are a place of worship.

Two large water filled sink holes exist near Las Lenas.
These two sinkholes were created by the collapse of underground voids created by the dissolution of gypsum deposits by groundwater. The holes are divided from each other by a thin crumbling wall.

Just 12 km further up the road I come into the famed Las Leñas ski resort.  The base starts at an elevation of 7,350 feet and goes up to 11,253 ft,  for a total vertical 3,937 ft.  It is now mainly shutdown or converted to summer activities.  Horseback riding, motorcycles, quads, bike rentals,  kayaking, etc.  Only one hotel, the Piscis is currently open.  It houses the Casino Las Leñas, the highest casino by elevation in the world.

Deserted Las Lenas Ski buildings.
Deserted Las Lenas Ski buildings.

I am allowed to truck camp free of charge in the resort parking lot.  It is just across the street from security, nice 24 hour restrooms and the Parador Restaurant and Bar.  I later discover that the “Company Drug Store”, which is the less expensive employee restaurant and bar, is tucked back behind the Parador.

I was allowed to truck camp free of charge at the conveniently located resort parking lot.
I was allowed to truck camp free of charge at the conveniently located resort parking lot.

I spent the day walking the near ghost town of the ski resort trying to imagine what it’s like in winter.  It looks like it could be some good skiing, especially if the quality of the snow is as good as I’ve heard.

Looking up one of the valleys at Las Lenas ski resort. Looks like most trails here have outer space names.
Looking up one of the valleys at Las Lenas ski resort. Looks like most trails here have outer space names, kind of like at home.

Click here for a trail map of Las Lenas.