As eyes adjusted, the sky was ablaze with stars. The Milky Way was a sash of white gauze. The Southern Cross stood out clearly despite competition from a few million other constellations. Satellites passed overhead. Stars sparkled white, blue and red. The dome of the planet was a Christmas display. At over 10,000 feet elevation in the middle of the Andes Mountains, there were no ambient lights to dim a sense of awe.
No wonder for thousands of years the indigenous people of the Andes worshiped the land as a living force and looked upon the Pachamama – the Earth Mother – as their benevolent protector. The mountain environment provided for the people – pack animals, meat, cloth, water from the glaciers for drinking and irrigating the parched land.
Everyone knows the geography – at 5,500 miles the Andes is the longest mountain chain on earth and the most tectonically active with Mt. Aconcagua, 22,840 feet, the second tallest mountain in the world. The Andes has some of the finest skiing and most breathtaking scenery to be found anywhere. Glaciers are still growing and water in mountain streams is so pure that some national parks encourage hikers to drink from them rather than bring plastic containers into the environment.
The human side includes cultures that have called it home for 6,000 years. Irrigation canals constructed 3,000 years ago still water agricultural fields and cities. In the northwest, villages are alive with people in traditional clothing except it’s not a fashion statement. Outdoor clay ovens are still the center of the kitchen and adobe houses are constructed as a community effort without power tools.
In the 16th century, Spanish conquistadors absorbed what is today Argentina’s northern Andes into their silver rich Peruvian viceroyalty, creating a distinct colonial society and planting grapes. By the 19th century, Welsh, Swiss, German English and French immigrants were settling the southern Andes of Patagonia bringing chocolate, farming and skiing to pristine lakes, mountains and lush valleys.
For 2,000 miles the Andes forms the backbone of Argentina. Distances are long but the journey is not only worth the trek, it’s part of the enjoyment. Argentina has an excellent road and air system. Its luxury bus companies provide safe, comfortable and reasonably priced service that prides itself on sticking to schedule. Long distance travel on overnight buses with seats that recline 180º are available to many destinations. Blankets, pillows and meals are included.
Starting in the deep south, these five destinations take you from El Calafate’s remarkable glaciers to Trevelen’s Welsh singing festival, San Martin’s sailing, Los Penitentes’ solitude and Tilcara’s six millenniums of life.