Santiago to Tupungato and our side trip into Mendoza: Crossing into Argentina through Pasos Puiquenes and Portillo

Written by Neon


Fidgit on the phone in San Gabriel

After our time in Santiago, we packed up and made our way back to Puente Alto and out of the city. As we left the swirling mass of humanity and went southeast up a valley toward San Gabriel, my mood immediately improved. I’m not a city person, and can only handle that amount of people and noises for so long. The bus driver drove up the valley like a professional race car driver, so my enjoyment of being on the move again was suspended until we got off the bus in San Gabriel. My joy at being out of the city and moving again didn’t last long before being dashed at the Caribiñeros Station.


Some of the super helpful Caribineros in San Gabriel

We thought we had gone through due process and covered our bases before leaving Santiago, so there would be someone in San Gabriel to stamp us out of the country. Apparently wires had gotten crossed and misinformation had been given to us, so Fidgit had to spend the better part of two days on the phone figuring things out. Thankfully the Caribiñeros in San Gabriel were kind gentlemen who allowed us a spot in their yard to camp, and who helped us when the phone connection was bad or, in one case, we got hung up on. As Fidgit, the Spanish speaker of the two of us, was working on getting us stamped out of the country, I was sleeping/coughing/trying to move as little as possible. It turns out I had caught some sort of illness; the sinus pressure began nearly the same time the city pressure dissipated. So I was trying to rest up and recover in time to be ready to hike in a couple of days.



Neon in front of a reservoir that holds much of Santiago’s fresh water reserves


Hot Springs before going up to Paso Puiquenes

We arrived in San Gabriel on Saturday. On Monday afternoon, we received our exit stamps to leave Chile and cross into Argentina. We were able to hitch-hike out to where the trail began – some hot springs at the base of Paso Puiquenes. We camped at the hot springs and began up the pass the next morning, with me wheezing along. The higher elevation (we were at 9,000 ft and climbing) was better for the pressure that had been pushing on my cranium, though not as helpful to the congestion that had recently found its way to my bronchial tubes. Fidgit would wait dutifully every half hour or so for me to catch up and make sure I was still okay, and we moved slowly up to the 4,020 meter (12,060 feet) pass. We made it in five-ish hours, just in time to break for some lunch before hiking down into the valley. We had been walking for about an hour when we came upon a couple of Arrieros riding their animals up to the pass. They were very nice, and one invited us to camp down at his camp with some clients and other cowboys. Since I was still ailing, we decided to take them up on their offer. We made our way down to their camp and, after meeting all of the guys, set up our tent. We spent some time around the fire that night, with Fidgit sharing some of our stories. The next day, I thought I was going to be able to get some rest, but one of the arrieros kept coming up with things for us to do and to share with us his knowledge of the area. It got to the point where he was well within my personal bubble and trying to get closer. Fidgit and I decided to move on the next morning, even with the wind and my illness worsening.



We made it to Paso Puiquenes! And the Chilean border!



The view coming down from the pass

As we made our way down the valley towards a river crossing we had been told was very dangerous, I felt like I was in a fog. Only able to concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other, trying to make the most of our rests. We made it to the river crossing and saw that although it was fast-flowing, it was barely above our knees. We found a spot along the river we considered to be safe and were able to carefully make our way across without incident. There was a large building near the river; the sign said ‘Ejercitos de Argentina.’ It was a military refugio. We went up to ask if we were able to camp nearby, and set up in their ‘yard.’ A couple of the men came out to talk with us and eventually invited us in for the night. The next morning, we attempted to set off and cross Paso Portillo, but I was wheezing so badly that Fidgit (after talking with me about it) made the decision for us to return to the military refuge and rest until I felt better. There were four men stationed at the refugio, and they took turns checking on me and making sure I was warm and taking the medicine they gave me (an OTC cold medicine, I believe) after taking my temperature. After I took a shower and some of the medicine, I fell into a deep sleep. I slept a good part of the next two days, rising only during meals offered and to let the concerned men know I was feeling better. I truly was feeling better, and Fidgit and I were able to set off up the pass after our two days of rest.


Camping with the Arrieros – we deemed this the ‘meat tent’


Fidgit pondering during our wood collecting with the cowboys

We made sure to leave early because we had been told that Paso Portillo would take anywhere from four to nine hours to get up and over. With me coming off an illness, we didn’t want to risk being at the pass late in the day. We began at an elevation of about 9,000 ft and climbed up and up, reaching the pass six-ish hours and 4,000 ft in elevation gain later. Along the way, we made sure to take breaks and Fidgit would check on me, though I felt so much better after our two days of rest. Our plan was to go another eight or so kilometers to water and a refuge, so we didn’t waste much time in going over the pass and down the horse path along the 4×4 road that began on the eastern side of Paso Portillo. We descended much faster than we had ascended, and made it down the valley to the refuge just as the sun was disappearing behind the surrounding mountain peaks. As we tucked in for the night, I was relieved to have made it over the pass and completed our goal for the day (get to the refugio).


There were beds at the refugio and they were squeaky, so I didn’t sleep very well. I woke up around sunrise and waited for Fidgit to stir before packing up. We made our way down to the Argentine border control and were officially stamped into the country of Argentina – eight days after we had officially been stamped OUT of Chile. We continued down the road and were invited to share some food with a couple of guys on dirt-bikes. We accepted and ended up camping outside the guys’ motor home. Dario and Martin were on vacation from Mendoza, and they offered to show us around the area on their ‘motos,’ as they call them. We stayed for another day, riding around and eating meat cooked over an open fire.





The ‘dangerous’ river crossing at the base of the valley

As we left to begin our road walk to Tupungato, we began to see what our next few months of walking to Salta would look like, more or less. We walked along the side of the paved road so our feet weren’t as tired, and took lunch in the shade of some trees near a primary school. At the end of our break, Fidgit taught some of the kids in the schoolyard about where we are from and where we are going to on our walk. We moved along down the road, passing grape orchards and vineyards for the rest of the day. We camped shortly before the town of Tupungato and made our way in the next morning, finding a small coffee shop to connect to our people, since we had been out of connectivity since Santiago 12 days prior. We also heard from our new friends Dario and Martin. They invited us to come to Mendoza and stay at Dario’s moms home. We accepted after talking over our options, and they stopped through Tupungato to pick us up and take us into Mendoza.


We arrived in Mendoza weary and stinky. Upon meeting Dario’s mother, Susanna, we felt right at home. She gave us towels and washed our dirty clothes after setting us up with mattresses and bedding. We were immediately brought into the family, sharing meals, Fidgit sharing stories. Dario, Susanna, and Sole (Susanna’s daughter) were so kind and giving, showing us around the city, as well as sharing recipes and time. We felt so cared for that it was tough to leave, but the trail was calling to us and we made our way back to Tupungato to pick up where we had left off.


Fidgit and I with a couple of the kind Ejercitos in front of the refugio militar


While I slept, Fidgit attempted to learn a new and very confusing card game.


First Guanacos since I can’t remember when!


Heading up to Paso Portillo


We made it! At Paso Portillo


Dario and Martin talking with Fidgit in Manzano Historico



Dario and Martin’s ‘camping’ setup – a 1969 Mercedes bus and their toys


Road walking the day away


A view of Aconcogua – one of the world’s seven summits – from near Mendoza


Centro de Mendoza



Wandering around town with Sole



Ladies’ night in Mendoza – Neon, Sole, Tia, Susana, and Fidgit


Homemade Alfajores – Yum!

Click here to visit Neon’s blog website

3 thoughts on “Santiago to Tupungato and our side trip into Mendoza: Crossing into Argentina through Pasos Puiquenes and Portillo

  1. gkendallhughes says:

    I’m glad that you had some timely delays and friendly soldiers which helped you to recover from your illness. It looks like you’re going to be enjoying high altitude hiking for a while. At least you don’t have to tackle Aconcagua.

  2. cheriebrown says:

    Ahhh, chin chon! It took me forever to figure out what was going on with this card game, but once I did I loved it!
    I believe you can find the rules on Google. Definitely.worth reading and giving it a shot sometime. It is an old and very popular game, especially among younger people.

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