San Rafael: Oasis of Argentina

2012-10-16 12:41

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Whether coming in from Buenos Aires or the provincial capital of Mendoza, San Rafael jumps out at you in an unexpected explosion of colour. It’s a place that should not exist; a man-made oasis of green hidden in the arid Cuyo Desert where it is robbed of its Pacific moisture by the great Andean mountain range, not far to the west.

As I sit in an upmarket coffee shop talking to one of the town’s most prolific guides, Marisel Mesa, the obvious question is; why should somebody come here instead of going to the more famous Mendoza city only three hours away?

“San Rafael has it all” says Marisel. “I don’t want to put down Mendoza, it is beautiful, but to get to any of the great attractions you have to travel far out of the city. Here within a radius of 35km we have three large lakes, two prominent rivers flowing with crystal clear Andean snow melt, fruit plantations, 72 wineries, and an endless selection of shops to buy authentic handicrafts typical of the region. It is also a place of immense tranquillity.”



Photo by Pierre Heistein


Walking the streets during the strictly adhered to hours of the siesta her words echo in my ears as not another sound is heard. Despite its 200 000 residents San Rafael resembles a ghost town from 1pm to 4.30pm with only the petrol attendants holding watch. Even during the busy evening shopping hours or the peak tourist season of January to March the city has an energetic hum of people awaking from a slumber rather than the chaotic noise of a big city.

Drive a little further out of town and you will find yourself even more alone with the accommodating but raw elements of nature. Malargue, a small town in a neighbouring region, lays claim to the clearest skies in the world and lucky wanderers along the sand dunes of El Nihuil will come across ancient arrow head of the Puelches tribe buried in the sand. The most famous icon however is the Cañon del Atuel; a 40km scar gouged out of the desert by the Atuel River. Its 150m high walls strike an impressive pose and reveal a cast of interesting characters formed from volcanic rock including the marching monks, a watchful owl, the great grandfather of the canyon and even a Ninja Turtle.



Photo by Pierre Heistein

The canyon is dammed in four places which first serves to drop water into the small hydroelectric plants along the way and then to split it across the city’s complex network of aqueducts that feed the farming industry and provide the city’s drinking water. Hydro electricity is a new addition to the system but the planned use of smelt water from the Andes goes back much further.

“If the first inhabitants of the region had not begun to manipulate the flow of the rivers over 200 years ago there would be no water here; no agriculture, no society, no city. It is our lifeline” explains Marisel.

“That is the magic of San Rafael; it is a city created out of nothing, nature working alongside of man without losing the essence of either.”



Photo by Pierre Heistein


“All of my passengers who have passed through Mendoza capital on their trip tell me that they would have preferred to schedule more time in San Rafael and less time in the city. They tell me that the leaves of our trees have a special shine. I’d like to claim this is the vibrancy of the people but it’s probably due to the clean air” she laughs.

In terms of people San Rafael offers an authentic window to traditional Argentinean culture; an atmosphere that has been lost in the modernization of Buenos Aires. If you time your trip right you can catch one of the many festivals of Folklore, the local folk music, or the gathering of the Gauchos, the traditional horsemen of the plains and alpine mountains who will sportingly show off a variety of rodeo stunts while the less daring cook prime Argentinean meat on an open flame.

San Rafael is a magical find. While there is cold weather through May to September, there is little bad weather and one hotel even advertised that if you arrive while it is overcast they will let you stay for free. If you’re looking for a real Argentinean experience, break away from the cities with large marketing budgets and immerse yourself in the wonders that lie hidden in the interior. Wonders such as the little city of San Rafael.

Read more on:    travel international

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