OYOP: Mendoza, Argentina
If I had to sum up Mendoza, Argentina in three words, they would be “wine, wine, and wine.” The wine flows so freely in Mendoza that there wasn’t a day here that we were not given some wine for free.
We crossed over the Andes mountains in the 7 hour turned 11 hour bus ride from Santiago, Chile to Mendoza, Argentina, and despite the 3 hour delay at the border crossing, the ride in itself was enjoyable just for the nonstop beauty in the scenery of the mountains. During the entire bus trip, we were winding through the Andes mountains, and after hours of staring out the bus window at the tall red, brown, green, and snowcapped peaks, I started to truly appreciate the grandeur and wonder of this range.
Mendoza and its surrounding areas were once all desert. At only 10 days of rainfall per year, it’s difficult to understand how this smoldering hot desert is the home of the small town of Mendoza, with palm trees and lush parks, and a surrounding countryside of hundreds of vast green vineyards harvesting thousands of bottles of the finest Malbec wine in the world. The answer is simple, an irrigation system that controls the amount of water that the grapes in the vineyards, the town, and all that is in between get per year. This system has manipulated and forever changed the landscape of Mendoza into the wine region that it is today.
Upon first glance at the actual town of Mendoza, it doesn’t look like much. One expects the wine culture and luxury travel industry to be radiating from every corner, but it is after all, just a town of about 115,000 Argentinans living a modest lifestyle. That is, Argentinians who consume an average of 90 liters each per year of wine. We learned that 70% of the wine produced in the region stays in the region. The rest is exported out to mostly the US and the U.K., but around other parts of the world also. As soon as you dive into the town, you are unable to escape the endless offerings of fine wine, vineyard tours, gourmet olive oil, and luxury hotels. I wasn’t sure at first how we would fill our six days in Mendoza, but I quickly realized time in this fine town might just pass by too quickly.
We continued our very recent trend of ditching hostels for using hotel points to save some money and live in a bit of luxury. We checked in to the Sheraton in Mendoza, which I didn’t know at the time would be the best hotel experience I had ever had. We were upgraded to the Club Level access upon arrival, given two free glasses of wine, and two AR $100 vouchers (about $7 US dollars each) to use at the hotel’s casino. I am not sure if our SPG property status got us the upgrade or if the guy checking us in was just being nice. Either way, it was the best part of the hotel stay. The Club Level included a breakfast of everything from kiwi and gourmet dried sausages to smoked salmon and cream cheese. It also included snacks all day and a four-hour happy hour in the the evening with wine, empanadas, cheese and sausage. All for free. I think this would satisfy anyone, but I just felt so giddy with all of this luxury in the past week, especially knowing we have so many dorm rooms in our near future in Patagonia.
We spent a day exploring Mendoza and getting oriented in the city. There are a few main streets filled with outdoor restaurants and cafes with local musicians, a trend we saw a lot in the Chilean culture, upscale wine bars and stores, a nice, green plaza where we saw a free music concert, and countless ice cream shops. We also quickly discovered the endless options for activities here, mostly touring wineries but also getting out into the nature of the Andes mountains a little bit. We decided that the next day, Valentine’s Day, we would take a public bus to the Termas Cacheuta, thermal baths, with an Andes Mountain and Rio Mendoza view for a romantic day in nature. We didn’t know when we booked the bus tickets that all of the locals would have the same idea. We bought the hour-long trip bus tickets for the trip there at noon with a return ticket at 7pm to these thermal baths in the middle of nowhere. Once we arrived, we thought we would work up a sweat hiking to the nearby lake and possibly take a swim in the cold lake before the thermal baths. Only we discovered that the road was blocked and no one was allowed to walk to the lake. Still excited, we went straight to the baths. Upon arrival at the gate, we were told that the baths were full, after all it was Valentines Day, and that they would be closed for the entire remainder of the day. Not wanting to be stuck for several hours in the brutal heat with nothing to do, we walked a couple kilometers down to a nearby restaurant and asked about any buses that might pass in our direction. We found a bus stop, popped open the wine we had packed, and waited. After a while, it seemed no bus would come, so we started to walk back to the baths to see if we could find more bus information, when an Argentinan couple in their late-20s approached us and offered us a ride back into town with them. It was such great luck and wonderful to connect with locals upon having recently arrived in Argentina. We all did our best speaking in Spanish and English, and for an hour, talked about culture, politics, economy and even ice cream in Mendoza. I’m not sure if being offered a ride technically counts, but I think of this as my first hitchhiking experience. When we returned, we went straight to the happy hour for wine and snacks and met another traveler Thaddeus, who lives in London, and who we quickly befriended and met his travel companions, who we spent some time with while we were all in Mendoza. We finished the night at the hotel casino, expecting to quickly blow our vouchers on the slot machines, the only place we could use the vouchers. Instead, we won AR $220 (about $15 US) and marveled at how our soiled plans transformed into a fun-filled day.
The next day, we went on our first wine tour experience. There are many options for wine tours in Mendoza, most of which are half day or full day excursions with tour companies, but there are also options to bike around to different vineyards. We went with a popular biking route in the Maipu region. We bought our RedBus card to take the public bus to the Maipu region, then rented a tandem bike from Mr. Hugo’s, a bike rental shop that greets you with joy and maps out your options for biking, lunch, and wine and olive oil tastings in the region. We tested our skills on coordinating and cooperating to successfully ride the tandem, and we had a smooth ride to our first two vineyards about 5 kilometers away from the bike rental shop. At the second vineyard, El Cerno, we were about to ride off when we realized our front tire was completely flat. We let the vineyard owner know, and with the best of luck, she had two Mr. Hugo bikes that someone had left there the day before, so we were able to just exchange the tandem for two bikes, a Mendoza miracle!
We continued on to a third winery, Tempus Albus, where we took a self-guided tour around the property and stopped at the upstairs outdoor restuarant overlooking the vineyards to have empanadas for lunch. Our next stop was an olive oil tasting that I was first tempted to skip, and I’m glad we didn’t, because it turned out to be my favorite stop. We met 4 other Americans that we did the tasting with, two who spoke beautifully fluent Spanish, and we shared South American travel stories as we tasted several different olive oil and olive pastes, marmalades, chocolates, and licquors. We finished at La Botella, a wine shop, where we tasted 5 different wines from neighboring vineyards and left with a gift bottle from the shop. We returned the bikes about 6 hours after we rented them, satisfied from a full day of bike riding and touring and tasting.
When we arrived back in Mendoza, we checked out of the Sheraton and into the Park Hyatt, a move made as a result of using different hotel points. The Park Hyatt, called the nicest hotel in Mendoza, at first disappointed with no offerings of breakfast or happy hour. However, we had checked in just in time for the daily free wine tasting at the downstairs Uva Bar (meaning “grape” in Spanish). At only 30 minutes and 2 wines, it was still very formal and very informative. The crowd of other hotel guests at the tasting revealed that this hotel was where many wealthy Americans and Europeans tourists, and wine connoisseurs reside during their stay in Mendoza. We found out later that the hotel was hosting the Argentinian Wine Awards during our stay, where wine judges from around the world taste 700 Argentian wines in 4 days to decide on awards.
The next couple of days, we took it easy and stayed inside the city of Mendoza. We had a long lunch with our newfound friend, Thaddeus, and his friends who lived in Seattle and Singapore before they left the city. We walked down new streets of Mendoza, lounged at the pool of the Hyatt, and mingled with the older crowd for the daily wine tastings. One night, we went to one of the nicest restaurants in town for an Argentinian steak dinner. For US $12, we shared one of the finest, well-cooked pieces of ribeye steak I’ve had. While this was a high price for a meal on our budget, it is a fabulous deal for a gourmet steak, and from what I hear from other travelers, I suspect we will have more steak once we get to Buenas Aires in a couple of weeks. We also spent time in the hotel’s spa, an upscale full-service separate spa for men and women, each with a jacuzzi, sauna, steam room, cold plunge, shower, and relaxation room. It was included in the hotel stay, and while much smaller, it was at the same quality of the Nordic spas we sought out on our honeymoon in Montreal and Quebec, Canada. After a couple of hours in the spa, which I had entirely to myself, I was no longer missing the happy hour at the Sheraton. After the spa, we joined our hotel friends at the daily wine tasting, and a couple hours later, the hotel surprised us by bringing up a complimentary bottle of wine and two glasses to the room for no apparent reason. Like I said “wine, wine, wine.”
On our last day in Mendoza, I was determined to visit the well-known Lujan de Cuyo wine region, with dozens of vinyards offering tours, tastings, and gourmet lunches. Tour companies will tell you a visit to the Lujan de Cuyo region is not possible by public bus. Bodegas (vineyards) and bike rental companies will tell you pre-planning and appointments are necessary. Still, we pressed our luck and hopped on a public bus to a town in the Lujan de Cuyo region, called Chacras. Chacras is a pleasant and picturesque small town with vineyards off of side streets, speciality cheese and meat stores, and shady tree-lined streets all around town. Our original intention was to rent a bike from Bacchus Bikes, who will make these required tour reservations for you. But we noticed as soon as we got off the bus that we were near one of the bodegas, Pulmary, so we walked up and asked for a tour. The owner told us to come back in a couple of hours, so we grabbed some cheese and sausage from a nearby shop, had a picnic in the square, then walked to another nearby bodega. Clos de Chacras took us in right away and gave us a tour for just the two of us. It was the longest and most personal tour we’d been on, and it ended with one glass of their premium wine and a plate of cheese, bread, nuts, and dried fruits. We left just in time to go back to Pulmary where we joined a small group for a tour. We were able to taste wine from the tank, barrel, and the bottle, and it gave a new perspective (and taste) of the entire process. We met a young Brazilian traveler, also on a year-long trip, and sat with him in the outdoor restaurant area for quite a while talking travel while the bodega owner continued to allow us to taste his wines. These impromptu visits in the town of Chacras that we had previously not heard much about turned out to be a highlight of the trip. Although we have done some great tours with the Inka Trail and the Uyuni, Bolivia to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, some of the best memories have been finding an alternative way to have high quality and unique experiences without having to do it through an organized tour.
We are off next to Patagonia, the farthest south regions of both Chile and Argentina. With dorm beds and hiking for two weeks, we will just have to dream of all the comforts and pleasures we have had the entire time in Mendoza.