After two weeks in Patagonia and 10 days in Buenos Aires, we were already feeling pretty infatuated with Argentina... But then we spent 4 days in the breathtaking Mendoza. This took our relationship to a whole new level. (Argentina, will you marry us?)
Part of the fun of getting to Mendoza was our very first overnight bus ride. 14 hours on a bus overnight may sound like a nightmare, but it's not nearly as bad as it sounds. Long-haul bus rides are quite the norm in South America (since rail is non-existent), and most experienced riders we know agree... it's pretty tolerable! It's no Greyhound, the bus is equipped with a personal TV at every cushy, full-recliner seat. It's like your own LazyBoy. You're given a blanket and pillow, and darkening curtains do the trick. Shockingly (and I mean SHOCKINGLY as anyone who knows my sleep track records knows...) I actually slept well on the bus ride there! It was an almost-Christmas miracle. However, always bring your own food on the bus (as we did). The dinner provided was a good 2-3 notches lower than airplane food. You may have thought airplane food was the lowest possible culinary achievement, but turns out, it's not. They did serve some interesting packaged snacks, though, including ham crackers. No, that's not a typo for graham crackers, but oh how we wished it was.
Anyway, enough about the bus. It was a big novelty for us, and one we liked! Fingers crossed the ride home is as smooth as the ride there (I'm writing this post at hour 2 of 14 of the ride home and we've got a snorer in the seat in front of us, uh oh.)
So, we have more than a few friends who recommended and raved about their travels in Mendoza, and we agree....The region lives up to the hype! Vineyards set against a postcard backdrop of snow-capped Andean peaks, a great wine and restaurant scene, friendly people, and loads of outdoor activities like rafting, kayaking, climbing and more. And Mendoza itself is a sparkling little gem of a city. Manageable, easy-to-navigate, with lots of green space. Their main park was sprawling and natural, and one of the nicest I've seen in any city.
For future travelers reading this, I think the perfect itinerary in Mendoza is actually 5 days or more. That way you can hit all three wine regions and do two days of outdoor activity, breaking up the wine days so they don't overwhelm you. For me, two days in a row of wine tasting, and my senses start to peter out. But that's the great thing about Mendoza. They're SO much to do.
Wine Tasting and more
We spent our first two days on the vineyard trail. As soon as we arrived, we headed down to Maipu, one of the three main Mendoza wine regions, to rent bikes and visit a few wineries. The place to rent bikes in Maipu is Mr. Hugo's Bicicletas. For $80 pesos ($8-9) you get a bright red bike with a basket (for your wine bottle purchases), a bottled water, a map of the vineyards, and Mr. Hugo's giant smile and friendly wave as you ride away.
We hit up 2 wineries since we arrived after lunchtime – Tempus Alba and Mevi. It was a lovely way to spend an afternoon: leisurely sipping on wine from large decks overlooking acres and acres of grapes. And it was surprisingly good bird watching, too. We saw all kinds of flying friends in the vineyard, but the highlight was an up-close & personal showdown with a small owl. She lived in a tree near the bike parking, and did NOT like us coming into her zone (we heard baby birds chirping...) As we approached, she was standing guard outside her hole, she looked straight at us with her bright yellow eyes, and let out a piercing owl scream. We inched one step closer, and she gives us another warning shriek. One more and she broke into full on car-alarm mode: “eeee-eee-eeeee-eee-eeeee-eeeeeee!” Owls mean business, even the small ones.
Our last tasting was not wine, but actually at an olive farm for olive oil. This was a surprise gem of a stop. The lovely little tasting room was an old, old house, we sat outside on their little patio and slurped small tastes of olive oil out of spoons. You are supposed to taste the olive oil without anything else so you can really experience the flavor. We were surprised by just how different the various olive varietals changed the flavor, and how different the color and textures were, too. After the more scientific tasting, we slurped up our favorites with delicious homemade bread, and also slathered on some wonderful tapanads made with the farm's olives and sun-dried tomatoes. The bread & oil was a welcome addition to all the vino already residing in our bellies.
The day ended back at Mr. Hugo's yard to return the bicicletas. He greeted us with a bellowing “Chicos!” and a glass of cold lemonade. It was very refreshing after all that vino. His yard, full of tables, chairs and benches, turned into an international wine-o backpacker social hour, as folks enjoyed the shade while swapping stories about vineyard highlights and travel tips.
The next day, we did a “grown up” wine tour in Uco Valley, the high altitude wine region set right in the foothills of the mountains. The tour company provided transportation, an guide, and set up the vineyard appointments (the good ones all require them). All in all, we did three wineries: one small boutique vineyard, one mammoth vineyard, and one mid-sized vineyard with an excellent reputation, as it's the passion project of two sons of an Argentinian wine legacy. Each vineyard had its own highlight: Salentein, the large one, was an engineering marvel, with Willy Wonka-esque wine technology and a “reservas” line of wines that was seriously impressive. The small one called Azul was big on charm, with a funky open-air tasting room with a hippie vibe, and seriously great wines starting at an unbelievable 40-50 pesos ($4-5 USD!!!) But just like Goldilocks, the middle one was juuuust right for us. Pulenta Estates had the strongest selection of wine overall, the grounds were stunning, the winery itself was impressive, and they gave us a wonderful educational experience: A blind smelling test.
The blind smelling test was such a fun exercise. The sommelier at the vineyard set up 15 or so wine glasses filled with mystery ingredients we couldn't see. Each contained an aromatic item reflecting a common “note” of wine tasting. She told us to close our eyes and smell it just as you'd sniff a new glass of wine before tasting. We had to identify everything from chocolate to lemon to tobacco to butter to grass. Our group had a lot of fun smelling and shouting out our guesses. It's amazing how silly things like that can really loosen a group of strangers up. Chris failed miserably at identifying spices like clove and cinnamon, which earned him some chiding from the female sommelier, who told him he needed to get into the kitchen more. I was not much better. I sniffed the sliced apple and said “is it cheese?” to which the sommelier said “wine should never smell like cheese.” I don't know, maybe I had leftover butter smell up in my nose hairs or something.
The wine tour ended mid-afternoon with a winery asado—a 4-course meat-filled lunch with wine pairings. It was awesome, but needless to say, we were not hungry for dinner that night.
The Great Outdoors
Mendoza happens to be located 190 km away from Parque Provincial Aconcagua... the entrance to the south face of Aconcagua Mountain. Aconcagua is the highest peak in all of the Americas (North and South), and is the highest mountain in the world outside of the Himalaya range, at over 22,000 feet above sea level. Of course, we had to go check it out. So on Thursday, we set off on the windy, mountainous 3 hour drive to the park (more on that in a follow-up post).
Upon arrival, there she was: Aconcagua! The giant, white behemoth, reflecting sun on a cloudless spring day. It was stunning. We did a short hike to a river bed, which had breathtaking views the whole way. Along the trail, we got a small taste of the conditions that the thousands of trekkers who attempt Aconcagua each year face... arid trails of sand and scree, thick dust in the air, thin oxygen levels, and whipping winds that can turn aggressive and pellet you with small pebbles and dust storms. At the very base of the mountain we were already at almost 10,000 feet in altitude, and I was winded quickly from just our short and gentle uphill hike. I can only imagine what two weeks in a dust-bowl at 14,000 feet feels like. We saw some weary trekkers coming down from their ascents, and I both envied and pitied them. Later on we'd meet two Americans who had just spent 20 days attempting to ascend the peak. They made three attempts before storms chased them down the mountain for good, and they were never able to summit. I couldn't help but think how utterly disappointed I'd be if that were me.
The next day, we set off for white water rafting on the Mendoza River. Since it's spring/almost summer here, the rafting is at a great moment, and the rapids were surprisingly exciting... Chris was selected to be one of the two captains of the boat (naturally), and so he got the wettest as he set the pace for our 6-man paddling team. At one point of easy current, the guide said we could all jump off the raft and “swim” next to the boat. Turns out melting glaciers make for darn frigid rivers, even with a wet-suit on. We were, ahem, refreshed.
Just like Napa, the foodies followed the wine to Mendoza. And the chefs followed the foodies. Or vice-versa, who knows... Chicken or the egg? Either way, Mendoza is packed with great restaurants and standout chefs; it's a very easy city to eat yourself to death.
Our favorite dinner was at a spot called Siete Cocinas (Seven Kitchens). The chef's menu features regional dishes from across Argentina, and each one is noted with it's home state or region. Chris chose a Patagonian lamb ravioli in a wild mushroom cream sauce that was bonkers good. I ordered a fish I've never had before, called Pacu. It is fished from the Parana river, in the northeastern part of Argentina. The fish itself has lots of fat to it, so it's a naturally rich, buttery flavor unlike anything I've tasted before. And also a flavor that will be tough to ever get back home!
On our last night, we swung over to Mendoza's well-known wine tasting room called The Vines of Mendoza. There, we capped off our time in Mendoza with specialized wine flights. Chris chose a red Uco Valley sampler that he loved. Having had so much fun already with blind tastings, I opted for the Mendoza blind taste-test. The sommelier poured me five wines, covered the labels, and I had to guess the varietal of grape. I ended up getting 3 out of 5, which wasn't too bad. Chris got the other two, showing me up. Again, lots of fun. Try it at home with a friend!
Though usually Chris and I both find typical wine culture a la Sideways to be a little too snooty for our liking, that aspect didn't feel as fun-sucking in Mendoza as it does in other places like Napa. We surely did run into some major oenophile snobs along the way (excuse me while I giggle at your silly gurgly, slurpy sipping technique and hoity-toity-talk) but overall the region feels very geared towards wine lovers as a opposed to wine connoisseurs. It's pretty simple from what we experienced.... if you love to drink wine, Mendoza will love you back.
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