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the Andes

Quebrada de Matienzo, 3,100 m, Argentina.
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The snow-capped peaks of Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Andes.
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Guardia Vieja gorge, 1,460 m, Chile.
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Peñasco cerca de la Guardia Vieja, Johann Moritz Rugendas, 1838.
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Horseman in the Valle de Vargas, 2,810 m, Argentina.
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Laguna del Inca, a large 4-km-long high-altitude lake, 2,810 m, Chile.
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On the trail to Cristo Redentor de los Andes, marking the border between Argentina and Chile.
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Cerro Banderita Sur , 4,184 m, Argentina.
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The natural arch of Puente del Inca, Argentina.
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Puente sobre un torrente – El puente del Inca, Johann Moritz Rugendas, 1838.
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At 2,400 m, the former railway linking Los Andes (Chile) to Mendoza (Argentina).
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the Cerro Penitentes towers over the Valle de Vargas.
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Andean peaks near the town of Portillo, at 2,880 m, Chile.
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Cavas Wine Lodge
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W Santiago
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Chacabuco, 560 m, Chile.

In 1837, German painter Johann Moritz Rugendas crossed the Andes, sketching as he went. Journalist and botanical artist Paula de la Cruz retraces his journey over the mountains.

Kitchen smoke from a hut outside Mendoza, Argentina, where I’ve spent the first night of a week-long horseback journey across the Andes, fills the air with the scent of warm yeast. It’s the crack of dawn, and there’s no contrast in the landscape yet. Everything is bathed in a nebulous blue light. Two local women bake loaves of lard bread in a sooty adobe oven. Outside, coffee boils on the embers of a low grill next to charred bits of barbecued meat from the night before. This image is contemporary, but only if you look at the shoes my traveling companions and the locals are wearing. Everything else, down to our wool ponchos, could be a faithful reproduction of the paintings the German picturesque traveling painter Johann Moritz Rugendas (1802-1858) completed during his Andes crossing in 1837. At the time, an Andes crossing still bore the significance that Argentinean General José de San Martín had given it when he crossed from Argentina to Chile on horseback with 4,000 troops to fight for independence from Spain in 1817. Rugendas considered the journey an essential part of his “endeavor to truly become the illustrator of life in the New World,” as he explained in his letters.

It’s a mineral landscape, where even most glaciers are reduced to rock debris under the intense sun.

I was born and raised in Mendoza, where crossing the Andes by car, train or horseback is an essential part of our traditions and trade. But as a botanical painter, I want to see the same mountains I have gazed at carelessly countless times through Rugendas’s eyes. Mules packed, bread secured and with a dozen friends, we begin our ascent of the Andean foothills in a single line of horses. The sun starts to rise from behind the hills, adding detail to the landscape with stark highlights and shadows.

Vertical beginnings

Stretching north to south over 7,000 kilometers, the Andes is the longest continental mountain range in the world, and 200 kilometers wide along Mendoza’s semi-arid border. It’s a mineral landscape for the most part, an ocean of stone where even most glaciers are reduced to rock debris under the intense sun. At a time when temperatures were much lower, San Martín lost a third of his men and more than half of his 10,000 mules and 1,600 horses to extreme weather, and lack of grass and firewood. Besides the generals, 19th-century miners and naturalists dared making the crossing most. Rugendas and his less-talented painter companion, Robert Krause, left Santiago, Chile, on December 27 at dawn, guided by five muleteers. Before starting their adventure, Rugendas had mailed two letters. One was a poem for Carmen Arriagada, a Chilean writer married to a retired German colonel. The other letter was mailed to a close friend, but also intended for Arriagada, to whom he professed his love.

Leaving the capital behind, they skirted the foothills toward the first mountain pass. Morning squalls gave way to unbearably humid heat once the clouds cleared in the afternoon. Rugendas and Krause wore many layers of ponchos, which they peeled down to their cotton shirts. Their first stop was Chacabuco, where San Martín had won an important battle 20 years earlier. That night, they arrived in Santa Rosa de los Andes, on the banks of the Aconcagua River. Rugendas and Krause stayed there for two days, sketching its sprawling valley, peppered with neat orchards of figs and peaches. Both wore green glasses to shield their eyes from the brightness of their paper, and when the heat became unbearable they jumped into the freezing river. As their caravan followed the river deeper into the Andes, they carved a tapering path into the almost-vertical granite hillsides. Even the steepest hillsides were covered in sea-urchin cactus as tall as nearby soapbark trees, tufts of celadon-green grasses and white salvia. The sunset reflected purple highlights on the porphyry and granite mountaintops, still covered in snow. At every turn, Rugendas and Krause got off their horses to sketch, much to the irritation of the muleteers. Late that night they reached Primera Quebrada, and slept under a shimmering moon.

Overlapping memories

Our group arrives at our first campground, a wide green valley below an iron-rich sedimentary peak. It’s New Year’s Eve and a gaucho from a nearby village has brought two succulent lambs that are already cooking on a spit. I untack my horse. The saddle and sheepskin underneath will be my bed and pillow for the next few days. The scent of horse sweat will put me to sleep quickly, but I don’t mind. It’s part of our bonding. Our horses have taken these mountain paths so many times that they know them by heart. I let mine guide me without hesitation, even though he is blind in one eye—or so I’m told by one muleteer. But his sense of smell is undiminished, and that is just as valuable. At the stroke of midnight, we drink a toast and count shooting stars along the Milky Way, which interrupts the new-moon sky above us like a phosphorescent gash. I retire to my sleeping bag, the wind whistles along the valley and I fall into a deep sleep.

Rugendas and Krause celebrated New Year’s Eve 1837 in Guardia Vieja, a narrow gorge flanked by 4,000-meter peaks that seem to topple over into the valley. Krause opened a bottle of wine he had brought for the occasion and they toasted to their promising future. After painting the landscape the following morning, they continued on their way to Casucha de las Calaveras, a hollow with a hut built to save mailmen transporting the royal mail back to Spain from freezing to death. At more than 2,000 meters, the wind was so fierce it ripped the pages as Rugendas and Krause tried to draw. They both resigned themselves to incomplete sketches that they would finish and paint upon their arrival in Mendoza. Despite the harsh environment, Rugendas thought that the mountains were more magnificent than the tropical vegetation he had seen in Brazil a decade earlier. He emphasized the scale of the landscape using broad strokes of the purest hues. Rugendas’s genius was in capturing the physiognomy of the landscape. Even though he thought the magical colors of the mountains were impossible to reproduce, he vividly conveyed the extreme winds, diaphanous skies and blinding sun at high altitudes, as well as his loneliness and the feeling of being humbled by a geography of that scale.

True colors

On our last ascent along a dusty range, we finally reach a valley where a wide river has formed a turquoise jewel pool. Our faces and necks are caked in dust. We drink and pour the freezing water on our skin under the last coppery rays of sunlight. It feels like the wettest water I have ever tasted. There are magenta patches of poor man’s orchids and neneo shrubs, but most noticeably the temperature goes up by several degrees. The mountains behind us cut a sharp silhouette against the sky. We use binoculars to look at the first group of stone houses we have seen in days. A condor is flying in wide circles above us, and we stare at it in silence until it disappears.

One of Rugendas and Krause’s last stops before Mendoza was Puente del Inca, a natural bridge covered in sulfurous springs and carved by the Mendoza River. The natural vault that connects the two banks of the river is covered with stalactites of bright Naples yellow and vermilion minerals that look like icing on a cake. The colors and textures form a surreal kind of oasis that stands in sharp contrast to the desertic mountains around it. This is the palette Rugendas used best, with warm yellows, dark oranges and reds. In those colors I see my leggy auburn horse negotiating gravel paths, the thirst of my skin, and my friends gathering around a small fire in the midst of monumental granite. Rugendas’s rough sketches and swaths of color bring out memories of my crossing in greater detail than any of the photos I took.

Rugendas finally returned to Europe in 1847, but without Arriagada. It is through her letters that we know most about his travels. On his way to Augsburg, he stopped at Évry, a suburb south of Paris where an older San Martín was living in exile. The Argentine general had aged into a slightly hunched man with a thick white mustache and a penchant for Cuban cigars. Rugendas had brought one of his paintings of Puente del Inca for him. “Beautiful memories,” San Martín said, and reminisced about his troops’ sacrifices, their fears and their unexpected courage. “The good soldier is brave only when the situation demands it,” he remarked. Then San Martín sat for a portrait of his own. Rugendas began sketching, moving his pencil with the same ease with which he made conversation. San Martín sat still, and in their silence, both men shared the Andes as the pinnacle of their careers.

Cavas Wine Lodge

Facing west, and toward the everlasting snow of the Andes and the stars, this lodge re-energizes globetrotters: room with a pool, outdoor fireplaces and à la carte beauty care treatments—not to mention all those available at the spa. In addition to hectares of vineyards, this wine lodge has a vegetable garden for produce, mostly organic, used in the cuisine by Mariano Gallego. If you’re looking for activities, there are cooking classes, bikes available, horseback rides and, depending on the season, grape-harvesting— all 35 km from Mendoza.

Text Violaine Gérard


Costa Flores s/n, Alto Agrelo, Mendoza. Tél. +54 261 456 1748.

W Santiago

Indigenous textiles, sheepskin, and Chilean copper and Brazilian wood details: the first South American hotel in the W chain, in the heart of Santiago, draws on local traditions combined with a modern style. It features 196 rooms and suites (including the aptly named 177 m2 Extreme Wow suite, perched up high like a nest above the city), a heated pool on the 21st floor and 6 restaurants. And through the huge windows designed by architects Tony Chi and Sergio Echeverría the majestic Andean peaks seem to be calling out to you.

Text Léa Outier


Isidora Goyenechea 3000, Las Condes. Tél. +56 2 2770 0000.

© Staatliche Graphische Sammlung München

© W Santiago

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Carnet d’adresses


Costa Flores s/n, Alto Agrelo, Mendoza. Tél. +54 261 456 1748.


Isidora Goyenechea 3000, Las Condes. Tél. +56 2 2770 0000.

Organiser son séjour


Depuis 1994, Tamera propose des expéditions et des treks à la rencontre des peuples dans le monde entier. Au Chili, voyages dans le désert d’Atacama ou le grand nord. En Argentine, périple du nord-ouest à la Terre de Feu en empruntant la Ruta 40. Exploration du grand sud et de la Patagonie, avec notamment le tour du Fitz Roy ou la découverte de la péninsule Antarctique au départ d’Ushuaia. Tél. +33 (0)4 78 37 88 88.
Address Book

Going There

Flight frequency

AIR FRANCE has 7 flights a week to Santiago from Paris-CDG.

KLM has 6 flights a week to Santiago from Amsterdam.

Arrival airport

Aéroport international Arturo-Merino-Benítez.
À 17 km de la ville.


À l’aéroport.


— Depuis la France : Tél. 3654.
— Depuis l’étranger :
Tél. +33 (0)892 70 26 54.

Car rental

Hertz, à l’aéroport.
Tél. +56 2 2601 0477.

Further reading

Chili et l’île de Pâques
Gallimard, coll. Bibliothèque du voyageur.
Chili et île de Pâques
Lonely Planet.
Argentine et Uruguay
Lonely Planet.
Johann Moritz Rugendas
Silke Friedrich-Sander, Édition Fichter.
Chile y Juan Mauricio/ Johann Moritz Rugendas
Museo nacional de Bellas Artes Santiago de Chile- Kunstsammlungen und Museen Augsburg.
Robert Krause
Harmut Ring, Books on Demand.

© Antoine Corbineau / Talkie Walkie. Map for illustration, purpose only.