article from October 12, 2011
By Jamie Douglas
We decided it was time to join the masses and take an introductory journey to the fabled Valle Grande, after our long winter’s hibernation.
We got up very early, at 9 am (early for writers who stay up until 2-3 am), and by 10, with cameras loaded, along with dog food and water in the trunk of our feisty Renault 12, we and our formerly chica dog, Chica, set out on our adventure. Fortunately, I had filled the gas tank on Friday, as there was no fuel to be had on Monday. I’m afraid that is becoming par for the course, here.
We turned off the main route through San Rafael, Route 143, onto Route 173 and followed the road past several scenic villages at a leisurely pace. Before we knew it, we were arriving at Valle Grande, at the mouth of a very scenic, narrow canyon, with adventure-sports businesses, campgrounds and cabins left and right. Whatever the heart desires, it is available here. From our observations, river rafting seems to be one of the more popular sports enjoyed here by visitors, followed closely by mountain biking. For the not-too-faint-of-heart, there is an exciting system of zip lines crisscrossing the canyon. Besides the commercial campgrounds, there are many spots where the hardy were camping under the willow trees; but with the proximity of restaurants and stores no more than half hour away, roughing it was made easy. And of course, a few liters of the fine regional wine with a campfire at night kept the spirit and soul warm on the almost-full-moon final nights of the holiday weekend.
The Cañon del Atuel stretches for some 60 km between El Nihuil Dam, which is at an altitude of 1,250 meters, down to 700 meters in San Rafael. Immediately after the dam, at the end of Nihuil Reservoir, there is a very steep drop off into the narrow and winding canyon leading to Valle Grande at the opposite end. Along the way, there are 4 power plants taking advantage of the water’s descent. The Valle Grande Reservoir is so low that about 100 meters of formerly flooded landscape is exposed. I believe the government’s pronouncement that the region is in a severe drought emergency.
After a lovely lunch at a very reasonable price, we set out on the long stretch from the bottom of the canyon to the top, a leisurely journey of about two and a half hours, which took us past some amazing rock formations that would be right at home in the American West. We were forced to halt our progress several times to admire the constantly changing colors of the rocks and eroded volcanic remnants. While doing the loop, we encountered quite a few hearty sportspeople on mountain bikes.
After climbing out of the canyon just below the Nihuil Dam, we made a short visit to the little town of Villa el Nihuil, also a tourist destination, with many free campsites all along the lakeshore. After taking in all the sights, we were back at our house by 5 pm, having thoroughly enjoyed playing tourist for a day in our own backyard.
San Rafael, Mendoza
I encourage you to write me at cruzansailor [at] gmail [dot] com with any questions or suggestions you may have. Disclaimer: I am not in any travel-related business. My advice is based on my own experiences and is free of charge (Donations welcome). It is always my pleasure to act as a beneficial counselor to those who are seekers of the next adventure.