You can’t spend five weeks in Argentina and not visit the famous region of Mendoza where malbec wines reign supreme. But wait a minute there is more to Mendoza than wine. Did you know that the Andes mountains with their snow-capped peaks are not far from the wineries and can be easily accessed in a day?
After three months of travelling on our own, Hubby to his favourite haunt in Florence and me to Ecuador, we have finally met up in Buenos Aires which will complete our winter escape for this year. I am returning for the second time, having landed here in January, to this bustling, cosmopolitan city and am glad to report it has cooled down a bit as their fall season approaches. One of the first things on Hubby’s bucket list was to pay a visit to Mendoza while we were in Buenos Aires so with that in mind I had booked us into the Mallorca Hotel for four nights some time ago.
After a long, but fairly comfortable overnight bus ride from Buenos Aires to the city of Mendoza which is approximately 1050 kms. to the west towards the Andes mountains, we decided to take it slow and simply try to orient ourselves to the city proper which has a population of about 115,000. Compare that to about 3 million in BA and you have a good reason why some visitors get caught in the ‘trap’ as Lonely Planet likes to call it. Visitors often come to Mendoza for a few days to sample the wine and end up staying for weeks at a time. With over 400 wineries or bodegas as they are called in Argentina at your disposal, a wine lover could spend a year here just going for wine tastings. One of the first things our wonderful host, Mariano, at Mallorca did was to present us with the various options of what tours we could take with their price ranges making it really helpful to narrow down our choices at a reasonable price to suit our budget. We felt absolutely no pressure from him so we immediately signed up for a half-day wine tour on the Saturday and a whole day tour of the Andes on the Sunday.
It was no surprise to me that Hubby wanted to put some wine tasting at the top of his list of ‘to dos’ which I had no trouble with since I do like wine. However, the problem is that it doesn’t like me a whole lot and will often make me feel very tired. But, hey, you don’t go to a place like Mendoza and not drink wine! How can you when Mendoza can easily boast of being one of the world’s largest wine regions, as well as producing more maldec than any other country. Actually the grape that produces this rich, burgundy red wine was first successful in France but was soon taken over by Argentina because the dry but cool climate of Mendoza is ideally suited to it.
By the end of our stay, we had visited four bodegas and one olive oil plant. By far, we found the best bodega just a hop, skip and a jump from the centre of the city. It was Bodega Lopaz which we reached by taking a newly resurrected train to the city’s outskirts. Here we were treated not only to generous and free tastings, but also wines which we thought were far superior to any others we had tasted. On top of this, their prices were definitely lower than any of their competitors, and the staff went out of their way to be helpful in making our selection of wines to buy and packing them up for us.
I also thoroughly enjoyed our visit to the Pasrai olive oil plant probably because I needed some good food to absorb all the wine I had tasted on our tour. Our guide led us through the olive oil making process and then offered plates of bread with various spreads and oils to wet our palates. Putting in a great sales pitch for a line of body lotions made with their olive oil, our guide convinced me that I definitely needed this natural product for my poor body which has taken such a beating with my travelling lifestyle. Hubby opted for a large bottle of olive oil which he swears he will finish before we leave. He’s going to be doing much of the cooking and probably will succeed as he loves to douse everything he cooks with the stuff.
With more than enough wine tastings under our belts, I was glad when our tour to the Andes finally arrived. This was one tour that didn’t disappoint and was definitely worth the money. However, it did present us with some unexpected surprises.
The Andes are the largest continental mountain range in the world. Like all mountain ranges they are teeming with minerals and ores which we know was the lure for the Spaniards and Portuguese who discovered this in the 1500 and 1600’s. Our guide pointed out to us that the different hues of colour that we could see represented some of the minerals in this central part of the Andes: the green denoted bronze, the yellow was sulphur, and the orange was copper. Add to this the snow-capped peaks appearing every so often, we had lots to keep our attention until we made our first stop at a tranquille lake. It was still quite early in the day (about 9:30) so the effect of the rising sun made for a rather dramatic effect.
Thankfully, our next stop was for coffee and some food which was so welcome since we didn’t have time to have anything before our 7:30 departure other than some bananas.
As I have mentioned before in my posts on Ecuador, to not speak Spanish is a real liability in any South American country. This problem has certainly been the cause of many of my challenges which I thought might improve with Hubby by my side, but unfortunately not so. As it turns out his Italian isn’t of much help except for basic words which are similar to the Spanish, and in many cases just confuses any Argentinian who has no English.
The first surprise on this tour happened when our bus came to pick us up at our hotel and our guide asked us if English was our only language. He was as surprised as us when we told him that, yes, we were English and did not speak Spanish. He quickly caught himself and graciously promised that with his limited English he would do his best to give us some information. My heart sank at this disappointing turn of events. However, like so many other episodes on this trip, just when you think the world is collapsing all around you, something or someone appears to save the day. This happened to us as soon as we found our seats at the back of the bus. No sooner were we seated when the pretty young girl in front of us turned around to say that she spoke good English and would translate for us. We could have hugged her! Her name was Michaela so from that moment on she and her boyfriend, Ivan, who didn’t speak English but had a good understanding of it became our bosom buddies. They did an excellent job and were delightful to talk to. We probably learned more from them than we ever could have from our guide. I just hope we were as helpful to them. We certainly shared much with them even addressing the possibility that they might like to move to a country like Canada. Ivan was all for it, but Michaela confessed she was a city girl and wasn’t keen on the cold.
I digress so let’s get back to our trip to the Andes because as I was to discover our surprises did not end here. We knew that the objective of this tour was to see the Andes and its highest peak which is Aconcagua, as well as to go to the border where Argentina meets Chile so we could visit the shrine of Jesus the Redemptor. What we did not know was just how high up this shrine was and what the road would be like. During our travels in Morocco last year when we had to cross the Atlas mountains by bus, I swore I would never want to do anything quite like this again where the bus is climbing up and up ever so much further with nary a guard rail in sight. Unfortunately, I have not learned to master the technique of controlling my thoughts of the bus not making one of those sharp curves and literally falling over the edge. Try as I might by looking up, not down, or imagining I’m having fun on a roller coaster (something else I never have liked), I am still petrified.
After a brief stop to have a look at Aconcagua, or the ‘roof of America’, and also the highest mountain in the world excluding the Himalayas in all its snow-capped glory, we began our ascent up to the shrine.
I tried to get some information from Michaela on just how far up it was, but she couldn’t remember. She was so excited about the prospect of the forthcoming climb as everyone else seemed to be so I settled back believing that nothing could be as bad as what I had experienced last year and that perhaps I had conquered my fear. However, this positive thought didn’t take long to turn to the negative when I realized that quite possibly this time could be even worse. The road wasn’t paved and there was just enough room for one vehicle all the way up. There was no sign of a guard rail anywhere. Whenever our large mini-van made a particularly hair-raising turn or had to move over for another on-coming bus, everyone raised their hands and voices in applause while I in the meantime was trying to find some place where I could place my eyes so I couldn’t see what was ahead or below. Burying my head in Hubby’s shoulder helped. Unfortunately, I seemed to be the only one not enjoying this torture. Again Hubby came to my rescue by pulling out a prayer card for Saint Brother Andre. I did something I never believed I would do and that was to chant the prayer on the card over and over. All I can say is that dear old Brother Andre must have been listening because we reached the top without toppling over, and I found that coming down was much easier than going up. In fact, I was so composed that I even managed to get some good pictures of our descent.
In spite of the horrendous journey up, I realized that it was worth it for the incredible scenery, the story of why the shrine was there in the first place, and the hot chocolate that awaited us. The shrine was erected to celebrate the peace treaty that took place in 1984 between Chile and Argentina. Even though they both fought together with San Martin and others to gain their independence from Spain in the 1800’s, they were never able to agree on their borders and territory so numerous war – like scuffles occurred right up until they signed their treaty and the shrine was built. Since then relations between them have improved to the point that Chile has become one of Argentina’s main trading partners. In fact, Argentina came to Chile’s rescue in a big way after their devastating earthquake in 2010.
Our final stop of the day was at the site of the Puente del Inca or Inca Bridge which is one of Argentina’s natural wonders. The combination of ice from the mountains and the thermal waters from the hot springs has produced this unusual formation which acted as a bridge for many years. It was so unusual that it attracted not only his attention but an actual visit from Charles Darwin in 1835. The Incan people used this bridge centuries ago and in the early 1900’s the British erected a spa to utilize the healing properties of the hot springs until 1965 when it was hit with an earthquake. Today its only purpose is to provide some photo ops for tourists. The bridge has been deemed as unsafe.
I wrote at the beginning of this post that many people who visit Mendozo often allow themselves to be ‘trapped’ there. The numerous wineries alone could be one reason especially for all the wine lovers who seek the thrill of indulging their pleasure in the tastings and the ambience offered by the bodegas. However, as I discovered the awe inspiring and, yes, often fearful Andes are definitely another draw for those who seek to know their place in nature. These mountains not only do that but also provide for us a source of adventure for those who want to take the risk. How fortunate that the city is situated right at the base of these awesome mountains in a desert like valley that produces such delicious wine. This is certainly enough for anyone to justify staying there just a bit longer. What more could it possibly offer? I found that it offers much more which I will write about in my next post.