Puente del Inca

Bridge of the Inca, or The Inca Bridge if you’d rather – either of these will serve as the name of this place. Set deep in the Andes Mountains of Argentina, a mere 10 miles from the Chilean frontier, this spot will be known to 2 types of people: climbers coming from around the world to attempt Cerro Aconcagua, the highest point in the western and southern hemispheres, and those driving between the cities of Mendoza and Santiago on the Pan American Highway. My acquaintance with Puente de Inca was made because I fell into the former category.

Puente has some interesting history. The Vacas River flows past the place, and a natural arch forms a bridge over it, thus the name. Geologists have an interesting theory of how the arch was formed. They say that long ago, ice covered the river. Avalanches of dust, rocks and snow came down and covered the ice. Then, sulphurous water from hot springs acted to petrify the dust over the ice. When the ice finally melted, the natural bridge remained. It certainly is an odd-looking thing. Here’s how I first saw it.

At Puente del Inca

This next photo better shows the natural bridge. Sulphur deposits have gradually covered the old building which served as a large thermal resort and spa – it was believed that treatments in the hot mineral spring water could cure certain illnesses. It was built a century ago, and is no longer used. It was fascinating to walk through the old rooms – kind of creepy, too.

Puente del Inca

Way back in 1835, none other than Charles Darwin visited the place, where he made sketches of the bridge and stalactites. A railway station at Puente used to serve the place – tourists would arrive by train for treatments in the mineral waters, but those days are long-gone. Because of its elevation, about 8,990 feet above sea level, Puente doesn’t have what you would call an overly-warm climate. January is when summer temperatures peak at around 70 degrees F., while mid-winter in July will barely reach 40 degrees F.

My first encounter with Puente del Inca was back in 1990. I arrived by bus, a journey I’d started in Mendoza. My ticket was cheap enough, but all my climbing gear in 2 huge duffel bags weighed so much that the “excess baggage” fee was triple the cost of my ticket! Our trip lasted almost 4 hours, somewhat excessive for the 125 miles, but that was mostly due to the time spent at 2 military checkpoints we had to negotiate. It was 11:15 PM by the time we arrived.

The moment I arrived, I found myself in a world I hadn’t anticipated. There I stood in the dark. Within moments, all the other passengers from the bus had mysteriously vanished into the night. My duffel bags were heavy and awkward, so it was hard to go far with them. Someone told me of a place called El Parador del Inca, a restaurant that also rented out a few bunks in the back. I dragged my gear the couple of hundred yards to its door, then went inside. What a scene! Busting at the seams with climbers from many countries, the atmosphere was party-like. Cigarette smoke filled the air, folks were consuming simple fare at outrageous prices, bottles of beer crowded the tables. Someone directed me to the proprietor, a spare man who knew he had a good thing going – his was the only such place in the village. He told me he had no space for the night, all his bunks were rented. As I sat there sucking on a beer at midnight, I wondered where I’d spend the night – I sure as hell wasn’t going to set up my tent in the middle of the village in the dark.

Before long, I noticed a man sitting in the corner looking at me. He came forward and introduced himself as the lone policeman for Puente del Inca, that he couldn’t help overhearing my plight. He said I’d be welcome to spend the night in the jail, literally. I thought “What the heck, what have I got to lose at this point?”, so I took him up on his offer. We hauled my gear over to the station and stowed it inside. He showed me where the privy was, and unlocked the jail cell for me. I threw my sleeping bag on to the spartan bed and went to sleep, pondering the fact that, at the very least, it must be the safest place in the village.

The next morning came, the 23rd of January. The policeman brewed us a cup of tea, and then we hauled my stuff back to the Parador del Inca. By now there was a bed available for me. Actually, to call it a bed is being pretty generous, as it was merely a cot in a back room off the kitchen, shared with four others, but for three bucks a night I couldn’t complain. The great thing about the place was that it was the place to be, as it was always filled with climbers who were all going to, or coming from, the mountain. In a matter of hours, I spoke with climbers from the USA, Argentina, Brasil, Bulgaria and France. The walls of the restaurant were covered with postcards and mementos from climbers the world over who had passed through his doors. A signed photo of Reinhold Messner sitting at one of his tables caught my eye. Messner had soloed a new route on the South Face of Aconcagua in 1974, and had spent a few hours in his fine establishment.

It was Tuesday morning when I moved in, and didn’t leave until Thursday morning. My days were spent doing simple tasks such as a complete re-build of my MSR stove, sorting and re-sorting my equipment for the mountain, arranging transport of my huge duffel with an arriero to the base camp. A strong memory still lingers of long evenings spent in El Parador, drinking beer and eating fried chicken until after midnight, and getting very little sleep. Even so, I was sad to leave the place and start in to the mountain.

Three and a half weeks later, I’d escaped the clutches of Aconcagua, sans summit, and found myself back at Puente del Inca. I spent one night at the Parador, but what a shock that was. After the pure air of 20,000 feet, the smoke-filled restaurant about did me in – I was so stuffed up the next morning, my nose barely worked. After eating a can of peaches I’d left there during my first stay, I hitched a ride back to Mendoza, and so ended my first experiences with Puente del Inca.

Eleven months later, I was back in Argentina. After a successful ascent of Aconcagua, I found myself in base camp at 14,000 feet and ready to head back to town. No mules were available for a few days to take my gear back out to Puente, so I was in a bit of a fix. I didn’t want to stick around and wait. I had walked the 40 KM in to the base camp with a young fellow who wanted to get to know the mountain better, who wasn’t really looking to climb it just yet. He saw that I was anxious to head back to town, decided he was ready for a bit of R and R in Puente del Inca, and struck up an interesting deal with me. For the same price I’d pay an arriero to haul my gear back out (200,000 Australes), Adrián would load it all up in my huge expedition pack and carry it out on his back while I leisurely strolled along with him, carrying next to nothing.

Adrián with the mountainous load in the Horcones Valley

Ten hours later, we stumbled in to Puente del Inca, and of course made our way to the Parador. Nothing had changed in the year I’d been away – same cigarette smoke, same noisy crowd partying until all hours. We ate a hot meal at a rip-off price, and slept on the floor, poorly. The next morning, Adrián told me he’d stay in Puente for a few days and wait for some friends to arrive from the city. I felt badly that he’d already spent half of the money I’d paid him, for a meal and a floor, but I had to move on. The bus ride to Mendoza was a comfortable change from the rigors of Aconcagua. Filled with tourists like myself, it was made even more enjoyable by a European man who sat among us, dazzling all by his complete fluency in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese and German. Any of us could converse freely with him, and he served as interpreter for us all. Thus ended my second time in Puente del Inca, but I had a feeling I’d be back.

June 28, 1991 saw me back in Argentina, this time traveling with Susan. It was the dead of winter, and very chilly in Mendoza. We boarded a bus at the main terminal and headed west, arriving hours later at Puente. It was chilly, and 18 inches of snow lay on the ground. A clear blue sky, it was a real winter wonderland. We walked over to the hot springs, where clouds of steam rose into the air, making the place even more impressive than in the summer.

As tiny a place as Puente is, it had a post office. The two times I’d been here to attempt Aconcagua, I’d spent time talking with the fellow who ran it. He seemed genuinely interested in where I was from, what I did for a living and my climbing exploits. I bought stamps from him to send my postcards to several countries. On a hunch, we walked over to the post office to see if it was open, and it was. The postmaster actually remembered me! He invited Susan and me in to his living quarters, a small apartment behind the front room that served as the post office, where he introduced us to his wife and young children. He made a real fuss over us, and insisted we stay for tea.

Tea is a big deal in Argentina. It serves as a small, late-afternoon meal and it’s important. At the time, good old-fashioned black tea was common and cheap, while coffee was more pricey. He asked us what we’d like to drink – I was fine with tea, while Susan opted for coffee (she wasn’t aware that coffee was more dear). The rest of us had tea, while they brewed some typically-strong Argentine coffee for her. She liked coffee, but wasn’t used to the strength of what the Argentines preferred. I could tell when she took her first sip that she didn’t like it. I whispered to her in English that she’d be incredibly rude to this good family if she didn’t drink it and tell them how much she liked it. I knew that these folks were poor, and to offer coffee was something they rarely did. They also served us cookies, and even gave us a nice souvenir book of photos of Argentina.

Remember how Adrián and I had arrived in Puente 5 months earlier after returning from Aconcagua, and I had left him there almost penniless? Well, I was happy to hear from the postmaster that, somehow, Adrián had spent 3 nights with him and his family – a surprise happy ending. Later in the day, we boarded a bus for the return trip to Mendoza – clouds of cigarette smoke during the 4-hour ride nearly did us in. That was the last time I ever saw Puente del Inca. I understand that during the 26 years since that winter visit, a major change occurred nearby.

The Pan American Highway, where it crossed the Chilean-Argentinian border, used to be a gravel road that switch-backed its way up to almost 14,000 feet above sea level. Nowadays, a 2-mile-long paved tunnel cuts through the Andes at an elevation of around 10,500 feet. I’m guessing this easier crossing has increased tourist traffic through Puente del Inca, but I hope the village can retain its charm as I once knew it.