A tour through Argentina wouldn’t be complete for a wine lover, without a stop in Mendoza. We must have had “Gringo looking for a bed” pasted to our foreheads when we got off our overnight bus, as we were targeted by a nice, older gentleman, who escorted us to a nearby hostel. Once we were settled in, we planned our visit to Maipu – the easiest to get to high concentration of Bodegas (Wineries) just outside the city. The area boasts production of some of the country’s finest Malbecs from the region’s oldest vines. However, wine isn’t Maipu’s only claim to fame. In recent years it’s also become a popular destination for those seeking a gourmet experience inclusive of jams, chocolate, olive oils and of course, olives.
The bus driver stopped in Maipu and pointed down the street, indicating his recommended spot to rent bikes for the day for our self-guided tour. Maipu Bikes gave us a map, a bottle of water and explained the area for us and what the different vineyards were like. After selecting the places for our tastings, we headed off on two sturdy bikes. To start our 20km return trip, we opted to visit the Cavagnaro family estate vineyard – Vina Maria. For 10 pesos (about $2.50) we tasted their Malbecs from 2008 and 2009. Wine in hand, we were allowed to roam the ground freely to view the vines as well as the family’s olive grove. This family harvests a little later than most in the region, so we were able to still see the grapes on the vines, which were to be picked two weeks later. Attracted to the romantic story of the family’s aging the wine under their house, we almost walked away with a bottle of 2004 Malbec at 200 pesos. Though we knew it would be a good thing to take home, we decided to wait as we had many other places to visit in the day and a limited amount of pesos with no bank machine in the area.
Just up the road, we stopped in at the busy, heavily touristed La Rural. This site hosts a museum as well as their vineyard. After a walk through the museum, which included some very interesting items like a cow skin strainer from the 1800’s, we were told we’d have to wait for a tour and tasting. Not wanting to be tied to a schedule, we saddled up and continued on our path, without tasting. A long, 8km up the main road, through construction, we found our way to Familia di Tomasso, another small family run boutique Bodega that, similar to Vina Maria, only produced 10,000 bottles per year. In contrast, the conglomerate, Trapiche, a mere 5km away, produces the equivalent of 20,000 bottles per day, most of which are exported. We paid our 8 pesos each for a tour and tasting. The tour was very interesting, as we learned about different aging processes (i.e. amount of time in French or American oak) used by the family. With less than 200 bottles of their award winning 96 point 2004 Malbec, with hand written label including a signature of the wine-maker, we made our first purchase. We know this will be a great bottle to enjoy with wine-loving friends at home.
Vina El Cerno, another small operation producing amounts similar to Tomasso, was our next stop. We opted for tasting a flight of four different wines. Selected from eight, we chose to sample the Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and two Malbecs (all 2009). This is where we were able to palate the difference old and young vines expressed in the texture and fruits of the wine. The Merlot and one of the Malbecs were comprised of a mix of old and young vines (at about 25% newer vines). The other Merlot and the Cabernet were produced 100% from old vines. Dale and I decided to play a little game. We both took a turn at a blind tasting, guessing which wine was which. What did we find out? Let’s just say we won’t be claiming to know much at all about what we’re drinking, except whether we like it or not. Dale mixed up the Cabernet and old vine Malbec. I mixed up the Merlot and Cabernet. We both took a liking to the Cabernet, and thus made our second purchase of the day.
We’d been tasting red all day, and were ready for a change; we wanted to try some of the region’s white. On the recommendation of the Proprietor at Vina El Cerno, we pedalled to Mevi just down the road, where we were sure to find white. We lucked out as Mevi was offering the claimed Torrentes as well as the country’s second most planted grape, Bonarda, native to Italy. For our three tastes, we selected these two along with an un-oaked Chardonnay. I’m a fan of oaked Chardonnay, so this one was certainly wasn’t anything to write home about and my least favourite wine of the day. The Torrentes, however, was a winner! We were intrigued by the Bonarda, not something we’ve ever tasted as a single varietal at home, and we liked it so we finished our collection of the day with a bottle of it and a Torrentes.
A little hungry, we decided to make Almacen del Sur our last stop for the day. But first, Dale needed to show off his bicycle talents by attempting a front wheelie/ brake stall . It didn´t turn out exactly as he expected. Instead, the rear tire got up a little too high and in slow motion it raised above his head as his body pushed forward over the handle bars, feeding him a little bit of gravel and skinning his knee. Though it hurt, I couldn´t hold in my laughter, it was the highlight of my day.
Almacen del Sur´s specialty is chocolate. Chocolate everything. We tasted a couple of jams, chocolates and the chocolate liquor and were quickly on our way back to return our bikes. That night, we slept very well.
The bus ride from Mendoza to the small oasis of Uspallata was a spectacular showcase of Argentine landscape. Different than the desert of Ruta 40 and Patagonia, this part of the desert displays rolling hills, multi-coloured rock formations of various shapes, lakes, distant snow dusted peaks and a plethora of vineyards. The border town has less than 2500 inhabitants, most of whom find employment in the neighbouring mountains and rivers catering to the tourist crowd. The pickings for accommodation within our price range were very slim. We finally found a small hostel on the edge of town. Despite being completely taken over by a group of middle aged cyclists, all of whom were men and continuously occupied the single shared bathroom, the place seemed ok. However, the next morning, Dale woke up to a nasty surprise. Something had been feasting on him. After examining the welts and seeing Dale scratch profusely on the incredibly itchy spots, we knew it wasn´t mosquitoes. Through deduction and a little research, our verdict pointed to bed bugs. It´s possible that we had them in Mendoza (where we also slept in bunks) and they just didn´t show up right away, but the more likely story was that the hostel in Uspallata had a problem. When we pointed it out to the owner, he seemed a bit put off but offered us a different room for the night. Of course, we took it. We also watched as he merely closed the door to our old room, not too concerned about the issue, ready to open it for the next travelers that came by. It´s no wonder Argentina has a bed bug problem. We were lucky, we almost made it through the entire country without an encounter, but our luck had run out. We would have to wait until our arrival in Santiago where there was hot water and laundry facilities to get rid of the critters.
With Dale covered in Calamine lotion, instead of embarking on an overpriced tour, we decided to see the highlights of the area in a ¨do it yourself ¨style. The draw for us there was yet another mountain. Aconcagua holds a few important labels. Standing at 6959m, it is the highest peak of the Andes range, the Americas, the western and the Southern hemispheres and is one of the Seven Summits. Arriving unprepared, we didn´t visit in order to trek the 8-14 day journey to the summit, instead we just wanted to see it. We were slightly disappointed. The spikes of Torres del Paine and the Fitz Roy Range, although not nearly the height, were so impressive that Aconcagua didn´t seem special. From a distance, it looked just like many of the other wide peaks in the Andes. Arguably, the highest nontechnical climb in the world, a return visit for a summit attempt may be in order to truly respect it´s greatness.
We began our way back to Uspallata on foot, with a planned stop in Punta del Inca. This tiny village is built around a circa 1500 bridge and Inca town carved into the river shore. The ¨Punta¨, or bridge is formed by natural stone, creating a beautiful geological structure. Rather than sitting around the tiny town with nothing to do except be hounded by souvenir sellers, we thumbed it back to Uspallata. In less than 10 minutes we were picked up and dropped off 2 hours later by a lovely couple from nearby Rosario.
The following morning, we lucked out by purchasing a cama suite bus ticket direct to Santiago five minutes before the departure. We said goodbye to Argentina as the bus crawled up through the Andes to the Chilean border. Once through the border, we descended the steep Andean slopes into the narrow band of Chile via a mountain road containing 29 hairpin curves. The road was amazing and a bit scary all at the same time. Transport trucks passed our bus on the turns, and likewise, our bus overtook cars around corners and in tunnels. Six hours later, we arrived alive in Santiago de Chile where we began our exploration of Northern Chile.