Aconcagua. A tribal name that resonates like an adventure. Towering at 6,960.8 metres (22,837 ft), the “White Sentinel” overlooks the Andes mountain range like a stoic guardian of stone. Imagine that size! It’s quite simply the highest mountain outside of the Himalayas. Once the subject of many a legend amongst mountain climbers, Mount Aconcagua is now open to all travellers. Since 1983, any nature lover can hike to some extent in the natural wonders of the Aconcagua Provincial Park. We just had to set our hiking boots on its slopes….
A (tiny) bit of history
The summit of the mighty Aconcagua has long been deemed unattainable; until some fancily dressed Swiss man named Matthias Zurbriggen put the first his sole onto the peak in 1897.
It is well probable that some not-less-fancily dressed Incas already did the same some 400 years before. In fact, the sacrificed body of an Inca child has been found there, at 5.300 metres in altitude. All natural landmarks reminded the Indigenous of the power of the Pachamama…
Since 1983 and the creation of the Aconcagua Provincial Park (Parque Provincial Aconcagua, officially not a National Park), everyone can enjoy the stunning Andes landscape at its foot. It still requires mountaineering skills, gear, and a lot of time and money on one’s hands to attempt the climb to the highest peak; but even casual hikers can spend a beautiful day hike with a vista on the Aconcagua.
How we prepared our Aconcagua hike
Enter the casual hikers. We decided to set our base camp in a friendly hostel in the nearby town of Uspallata, pop. 5,645. We know it’s possible to go for a day trip directly from the city of Mendoza, pop. 114,822. But we’re not very good with early starts, we get grumpy and stuff. The bus from Mendoza to Aconcagua leaves at 6 am, from Uspallata at 8:15 am: that settled it.
Being right at the border with Chile, it’s also possible to visit it while staying in Santiago. We wouldn’t recommend it as a day trip though, considering the red tape necessary to the border crossing. Better enjoy a few days of tourism in the wine region of Mendoza
From Uspallata, a 2-hour bus ride brought us to the Provincial Park entrance and that was already quite scenic; the mountain road curves between rocky, colourful slopes and snow-capped peaks. There was a lot of gawking action on the bus, disturbed only by the sight of too much roadside rubbish…
It’s important that you inquire thoroughly beforehand about bus times to go, and especially to come back. Check online and ask at your accommodation, as we found the tourist officers very friendly but somewhat unreliable.
We wondered how technical the hike would be. We thought that, maybe, we would need ropes and crampons, lest we slip on the icy slope and fall into a mountain crevice, ending up having to cut off our own arms and eat each other to survive. Kids nowadays watch too much TV.
Fact is, that Aconcagua day hike is a stroll. One thing for sure, you will need layers and layers of clothing to fight off the chilly wind. More about that later.
Aconcagua Provincial Park – Prices and regulations
The entrance to the Aconcagua Provincial Park left in our wallets a hole worth 730 ARS each. It’s the price for foreigners outside of Mercosur, the congregation of South American countries. Just to put it into perspective, this price equals 2 nights in a hostel for one person. If you’re good at mathematical riddles and Excel sheets, have a peek at the list of prices here.
There’s also a whole set of regulations as in any protected area that incurs risks. They include the usual stuff like ‘Stay on the path‘, ‘Don’t litter‘ and ‘Don’t get lost‘.
The rangers at the entrance do a great job at providing all information you need, in either Spanish or English. Make sure you ask them all the questions you have, to be well prepared for your hike; whichever you decide to take on. Oh, you can fill your water bottles there too.
For further necessary info beforehand, check the park’s official website.
Besides the real mountaineers’ deal up to the summit, there are 2 possible day hikes in the Aconcagua Provincial Park. The 1st one is very flat, short and sweet; the 2nd one goes a bit further on and further up.
Furthermore, it’s possible to take any of several 3-to-7 day treks up into the mountain range. That way, all nature lovers will find a suitable option!
Here are all the options to choose your Aconcagua hike from:
a 1-hour walk around the park (Laguna de Horcones walk – 2,800 m/9,186 ft):
It’s a flat route among small lakes until a viewpoint with a beautiful, further view on Cerro Aconcagua and other nearby peaks. Several boards teach about the geology and rock formation in the park. Considering the entrance fee, take your time to stroll, observe, take photos and meditate. See the map of the hike.
- a 4-hour well-marked hike to the Confluencia base camp (3,300 m/10,826 ft) and back:
This 2nd hike follows the same route and continues further into a valley of red rocks and low vegetation; it’s a moon-like scenery of unspoiled beauty. Past the Indiana Jones bridge, it goes a bit up, not steeply, and reaches a plateau where the base camp is.
From there, the famous mountain top seems much closer. It takes less time to come back downhill.
- a 3-day trek to Plaza Francia (4,254 m/13,956 ft) and back
Always further, always higher! This long path will take you along the Horcones glacier and bring you closer to the Aconcagua. It’s probably your safest bet to see the giant from up close if you’re not an experienced climber.
- a 5-to-7-day trek to Plaza Francia, then to Plaza de Mulas (4,370 m/14337 ft) and back
This long trek lets you explore all the sights in the Aconcagua Provincial Park. It counts with 1 day going to Confluencia + 1 day going to Plaza Francia and back + 1 day going to Plaza de Mulas. Count 1 day to rest in between each. Plaza de Mulas is on the other side of Mount Aconcagua and boasts with a view on other glaciers.
You can find here a map listing all these trekking options:
Our hike to the base camp
The hike inside the well-preserved park starts with a long, flat route which is followed by 2 steep ascents between mud-coloured, rocky peaks and along a mountain river. The ascending parts were not technical, but required endurance.
While the first part has a misty air of autumn countryside, with its cold wind, its flat lakes and unsuspected rock formations; the next sector after the bridge is a rocky valley with low vegetation and the occasional mule carriage.
We reached the base camp at 3,300 meters after a good 3,5-hour hike and the view was stunning. Aconcagua and other peaks were just next to us, didn’t even seem so far to reach! Of course they were…
When you get there, you need to register at the rangers’. These guys just want to make sure you don’t get missing and end up freezing to death in a ravine. Problem is, if your body is found again in 3,000 years, archaeologists will think that our civilisation did human sacrifices. So for history’s sake, just register and stay on the paths!
The temperature dropped due to the persistent wind and I was very happy with all the clothes I had on me! Unfortunately there’s no closed shelter at the base camp to escape from the wind; only a single table with benches to sit at. So after eating our prepared lunch and climbing an additional little viewpoint nearby, we made our way back.
If you want to hike the Aconcagua peak
Those who want to conquer the summit of the Aconcagua must join a climbing tour. There are tour agencies in Mendoza who organise such tours; they need to be booked in advance. Remember to check the weather conditions before coming in the area: the rain looks sexier in Buenos Aires. As of 2019, an Aconcagua climb costs between USD 3,500 & 5,000.
You also need a hiking Aconcagua permit that costs between USD 800 & 1,000 depending on the season. I read that the multi-day hike to the peak is not particularly technical, but one has to have a very good protection against the cold. It’s also important to take the necessary time to acclimatise well to the altitude.
Read more info about the prices and gear to reach the top on Mountain iQ.
How to dress to hike the Aconcagua Provincial Park
My gear to hike the Aconcagua mountain consisted of the following:
- mid-high hiking boots
- long leggings
- trekking trousers
- technical long sleeve
- rain jacket
- head scarf against the sun
- and sunglasses.
It’s also important to use sunscreen because at high altitude it’s even easier to burn.
What else to see and do in Uspallata
I found it very relaxing to be so close to nature after all our city visits. Although Uspallata is still 2 hours away from the Aconcagua Park, keep in mind that it’s a small place surrounded by mountains. It offers therefore a beautiful landscape and several worthwhile small hikes nearby.
Here is a list of the activities you can do around Uspallata.
Cerro de Siete Colores
We went to the 7-colour mountain and to another viewpoint that is close-by and has supposedly no name. It’s 4 km from town, about 1,5 hour walk. If you have a car, even better, as the road is nothing special, really. There’s not enough traffic to rely on hitchhiking.
They both give a great view over the town and the surrounding mountains. The scenery is very dry and the sun can be scorching, so make sure you bring enough water with you. The hill (actually several of them) reminds of those in the Northwest of Argentina, with its different colours; from pink to pale green to vivid red and even some blues, because of its different mineral deposits and erosion.
Right outside of town, only a 30-min walk along the main street to the east, you will quickly arrive to a hill. After an easy climb, this is your safest bet for a gorgeous sunset on the village and the background mountains. On your favourite online map, look up “Mirador de Uspallata”.
Bóvedas de Uspallata
These strange beehive constructions were built by the Jesuits in the XVIIIth century as a plant to process minerals. It is now a museum that tells the history of the building and of the other important event in the region: the crossing of the Andes by the liberator General San Martín’s army, during the War of Independence.
This museum is only 3 km outside of town, reachable by foot or by bike.
History lover? Read more: The liberators of South America
In winter time (end of June to end of September in the Southern hemisphere), it’s possible to ski and do other snow sports. The most famous resort in the region is Penitentes, only a 1-hour drive from Uspallata. It’s actually a few kilometres before the Aconcagua Provincial Park so you can take the same bus.
Penitentes boasts with 25 pistes for every level, so it’s a good opportunity for both beginners and experienced skiers.
Puente del Inca
This attraction is in the same area again, between Penitentes and the entrance to the Provincial Park. The “Inca bridge” is a fantastic rock formation vaguely in the shape of a bridge and where no Inca probably ever set foot on. Still, it looks quite impressive in the sunshine with its yellow-ish taint. There are also thermal baths nearby.
Rent a bike or a horse
Think about the pleasure of horse riding in such a gentle mountain scenery! There are several shops renting bikes and, as far as we know, one place to book a horse riding tour. In such a small hamlet, you’ll find your way; just ask around if necessary, people here are super helpful. The effort on the bike or the horse is probably the best way to keep warm!
Try to pronounce its name like an Argentine
Are you more of a mountaineer than we are? Would you attempt the hike to the Aconcagua summit?
Tell us in the comments section below!
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