Until now, our path had been fairly easy to choose as the south of Argentina is sparsely populated with a lot of arid Pampas (plains), so most travellers simply follow the Andes north. However after Bariloche, the country widens considerably and so do the options. We considered catching one of Argentinas last remaining trains east to the coast, mostly out of a desire for a change from bus travel. The main attraction of that area are the whales and penguins, but it wasn’t whale season and we had already seen penguins in Punta Arenas, so we decided against it. As we are partial to a drop or two of wine, our best option was to follow the mountains and head to Mendoza, the main wine producing area of Argentina. Even when our original plan was to catch the bus from Santiago to Buenos Aires, we had intended to stop in Mendoza on the way. Plans changed and we headed south instead, so now was our chance to visit some excellent wineries.
The bus trip was to take 18 hours, our longest trip so far. The buses in Argentina are much more expensive than Chile, but we decided that for such a long trip we shouldn’t skimp so we bought the top level “Cama Suite” tickets. We had been pretty impressed with the quality of buses in Argentina so far, but this one took it to a whole new level. It had fully reclining leather seats, a hot dinner including wine, breakfast and even a game of bingo! The afternoon passed quickly for me as I fell into my automatic bus sleeping pattern while Michelle marvelled at the changing landscape – from the lush lakes district to the parched pampa in a matter of hours.
We arrived in Mendoza in the morning, and took a taxi to our hostel. The hostel common areas were very nice, and it was a social place, but the room was pretty small with my pet hate of having a double bed pushed up against the wall on one side. The tiny bathroom was barely wider than the toilet, requiring a very special side-saddle style. We have noticed a trend in the design of many Argentinian bathrooms to not have a divider between the shower and the rest of the bathroom, and either no drain or a small ineffective one at the shower end. This makes the whole floor a permanent wet area, with the shower water draining away to the other side of the room. They do supply a squeegee for you to sweep up the water after a shower, but we never figured out the reason for the design as it’s common enough that it must be deliberate.
Despite not liking the room, we did enjoy the free classes they had each night, taking advantage of a free wine tasting and empanada cooking classes. It’s great that I can now make empanadas but after eating them most days for a year I’ll probably never want to see another one again! During our time here, Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was announced as the new Pope, the first South American pope ever. There was 24×7 coverage on TV for days, and soon after we started to notice posters and souvenir sellers at churches. The country was certainly excited, but not as much as their football team winning the final! Later in Brazil we were told that “The pope is Argentinian, but god is Brazilian” 🙂
Over the next day we struggled to get used to being in a city again. We’d spent so long in pristine wilderness and small towns that the hustle and griminess of the city just rubbed us the wrong way. Adding to that, Michelle had lost her favourite Beanie she’d bought in Chiloe somewhere between Bariloche and Mendoza. She has such sentimental attachments to things. I humoured her by saying it didn’t want to leave Patagonia, a bit like us. We valiantly attempted to engage in some tourist activities such as a fairly uninspiring museum / gallery, and the slightly decrepit town plaza. We did enjoy looking at some cars that were on show for a rally the next weekend, but this could only keep us engaged for so long. The last photo below shows the Museo Fundacional, a series of diaramas depicting Mendoza’s history and according to the Lonely Planet one of the top attractions to visit in Mendoza. Obviously it had seen better days, and we burst into laughter at possibly the crappiest tourist attraction we’ve seen so far.
It didn’t help that the weather was unseasonably cold and rainy after we had looked forward to the warm weather that travelling north for 18 hours should have brought. However it was good red wine drinking weather and Mendoza is all about the wine. Although it was well outside our budget, our spirits needed lifting so we splashed out on the Luján de Cuyo Tasting Experience with Ampora Wine Tours.
The loamy vineyards of the Luján de Cuyo region produce some of Argentina’s best Malbecs, so we were looking forward to tasting them. The climate of the whole Mendoza region is very dry, and water is supplied mostly by irrigation channels that originate in the Andes mountains (the rain we experienced was unusual). This gives amazing control over the wine production and leads to consistent quality of wine. It’s said that there is no bad wine in Argentina, just good and better wine. We had certainly been impressed for the price with the $5 supermarket wines we had been drinking!
Our guide Jose picked us up in the morning along with 2 other guests, an American man and a girl from the UK. Jose spoke excellent English and obviously knew a lot about wine and the region. All together we visited four wineries and tasted 17 wines!
|Bodega Ruca Malen|
This wasn’t just standing around at the cellar door like a wine tasting in Australia – we were taken to elegant tasting rooms where we sat and relished the delicious wines. We were usually accompanied by either the winemaker or another staff member, and they along with Jose did a great job of guiding us through the tasting experience and educating us on the unfamiliar grape varieties such as Torrontés. The tasting pours were very generous, and by the end of the day we were certainly a bit wobbly! At the last winery we had a fantastic 5 course gourmet lunch with matching wines.
At some of the wineries, there was a tour of the facilities and explanation of the winemaking process. We were lucky at Pulenta to see them processing some of the grapes despite the rain which had delayed the harvest at the other wineries. We visited the various tanks and the barrel rooms where the wines are aged in French and American oak. It really was quite fascinating and we learnt more than we have in years of visiting the wine regions in Australia.
After a full day of wining and dining starting at 10am, we were dropped back to our hostel and crashed on the bed for a late siesta. Mendoza does have a lot of other activities to offer such as rafting, horse riding, paragliding and kayaking, however we had done these things before so we decided not to spend any more money and keep moving. We had learnt that perhaps middle-sized cities were not for us at the moment, so chose to skip Cordoba and Rosario and head off the beaten track to the rather mysteriously named Valle de la Luna. Now all we had to do was work out how to get there …