South America 2011-2012: Mendoza, Argentina


Mendoza. Yeah, I remember this place from eleven years before, if vaguely. A wine festival, touring some wineries one day, bumping into some beauty queens on another at the bus station, learning about what makes for a perfectly-pulled Guinness beer while drinking plonk in the main square with a couple of Irishmen, eating asados about every other day over a week at my otherwise packed hostel, and charming the little girl who hung out at the hostel with my trumpet - until she was following me around everywhere I went. There also was a concert at the main park by two of the most famous Argentine names in music, Charly Garcia and Mercedes Sosa. I guess that's more than a hazy recollection after all.

Now I'm only thinking wine, however, since that's about all I've been hearing over the last few months from anyone heading south from Mendoza's climes. Upon further (or initial) review, apparently I should ALSO be thinking about carnival: Mendoza has joined the ever-increasing ranks of cities that now celebrate what used to be seen as practically the strict purview of Rio, New Orleans, and a handful of other places like Trinidad & Tobago. Over here it's mostly in its embryonic stages, of course. This I can immediately see from the remnants of the foam fight in the main park. While glad not to get slaughtered with the stuff myself, I figure it's a start.

That short sojourn allows me to return to my intended program of wine and more wine. I don't ONLY plan on drinking the stuff, I tell myself. Right. Anyway, outside of the constant flow of the stuff at the hostel, I decide on one of the tours in the areas by bicycle. Might as well edumatate m'self at least a LITTLE bit. Then I can ignore it since I really don't care that much. It's not like I will ever be making the stuff, the usual reason for me to pay proper attention to any process.

As to the tasking of it, the competition is between going to the Chacras or Maipo areas. That translates into going with the lesser known area with less traffic OR mosying in a drunken daza under the auspices of the famous and gregarious Mr. Hugo. I opt with the former, perhaps unsurprisingly, mostly on the hopes a laidback day. I team up with a few others at the hostel by default - two Dutch women (NOT from Amsterdam) and a Canadian fitness trainer benefitting with the boom times of Alberta Province. Sounds good.

Off we go, then, busing out of town for nearly an hour to Chacras. Once there, a stroll around the pleasant Chacras plaza gets us to the bike shop - where we receive our circa 1940 bikes. Or so they seem: Mine looks to be a beach cruiser on its last legs, a singlespeed brute with a basket (lacking flowers or a load of bread, it should be noted) and brake pads of every different size. My companions, by contrast, all have gears on their bikes, albeit not many, and then we're off... and then we're not. First I'm mucking with the one girl's bike, eventually sufficiently arranging it while nevertheless urging her to just stick with one gear that behaves, then my chain improbably manages to drop off more than once. Seriously - what would it take to properly maintain these simplest of iron bikes on the flattest of terrains? We resign ourselves to our fate regardless - there's wine to be had and fortunately not any great distances to cover.

It turns out that we manage to see three wineries of very different degree, but all good. First it's the old Italian, Carmelo, who mostly wants people to take pictures of himself and his t-shirt that has every theme under the Argentine sun on it. It was presented to him by a Russian wine enthusiast. Fair enough, his wines have won some impressive awards and taste pretty good. We also actually learn something about wine storage. Here it is: Store the bottle with the nose a bit down. If wine intrudes the cork area at any time - and you have to strip off the metallic covering to monitor this - you better get to drinking it, like now. Noted.

Wineries Filosofos and Altavista follow, each with their own tours, samplings, and attempts to get us thinking about bouquets, noses, notes, and other such snooty nonsense. Not that we aren't all ears, or minding this in the least. For the effort, the first tour gives a wealth of information about Filosofos' specific process and business - before we sit down to an elegant-ish lunch against the fields of vines. Now that's what a wine tour should be like. We're all comforted, too, to find out that the horrid plants of carbonate and god-knows-what highly visible in the area have all been decommissioned (although I still wonder if the soils have been sampled and the results publicized.)

Altavista provides a bit more of the same tour, but now on a grander and commercial scale that is nonetheless appealing on account of a bit of restored architecture. Then that's essentially it for the day as, upon leaving, Alberta Mike soon finds that a flat tire that can only be ridden on for so long - and we have no fix-it kit, and the phone number we have for help rings forever. This effectively ends our day before our fourth and final tour back near the plaza. No one can be further inspired to tour the chocolate factory, either. Oh well: It's time to get back to the hostel and drink some wine minus the yap yap.

This I do with my fellow hostelers, and somewhat more than I'd bargained for even given the town's vint-fame. Yes, it seems that the wine festival has begun - and there are beauty queens to be crowned, among other things. There will also be free music, samplings, etc... and we'll all stick to the samplings, of course. Thus it is that we go out on the first night of the celebration, making direct tracks to where the tents have been set up off of the main plaza. We mosey by the massive beauty competition on the main stage and stifle our yawns, vastly more interested in trying to figure out which of the tents have the staff with the freer pouring hands. We're also keen to know which of these folks will forget to take our tickets to allow for even more sampling than is really necessary. No need for spit buckets with our crowd, it shouldn't even need to be mentioned.

Meanwhile I find that I've stumbled onto one of the best hostels around, even if almost all the travelers that pass through its doors during my stay seem to be particularly anglophile. This makes for better humor, anyway, and perhaps that helps keep the wine and fernet flowing. The latter leads to my one loooooong night, naturally, one where I begin playing the horn to a happy chorus of free glasses of wine - but in the end am much more happy to finally having some accompaniment. That comes from a fellow American from New York, on his mandolin and the hostel's (tonally-challenged) guitar. Yea for collaboration... - and were that there could be more of it! Like every night. But no, unfortunately - this is the one hurrah at this hostel.

Meanwhile I also take to my other, more pedestrian - literally - missions. I once again tour the four plazas the frame the main central one, just like nearly a dozen years ago, taking some pictures and reading a bit on their benches near sunset. In doing so, on the way to each one I also admire the extensive irrigation system that Mendoza employs - where canals run by all of the many trees that line all of the streets in town. Access is provided for each one to tap into the water supply that should almost always be flowing. And THAT's a good thing, especially since water is rationed in the area. My first proper thunderstorm in months - an impressive one, I might add, and LONG overdue for me - has no bearing on this reality.

Unsurprisingly, I waste no time in checking out the best coffee shops aruond - which are all to be found on the pedestrian zone leading from the main plaza. With caffeine in vein, then, I can get onto my overdue shopping for superglue (see next sentence), sunglasses (lost again - drats!), and headphones (lost on the bus into Mendoza). At least, however, I'll have no problems finding the cork necessary to replace the one on the leaky water valve on my trumpet: There are plenty of piles of them at the hostel, in large bowls in all of the common rooms that testify to the area's principal charms. ANYWHO!: Nothing like knocking out tasks, however meagre, to achieve a modest sense of accomplishment.

Somehow in this mix I also finish the doorstopper-of-a-book The Lord of the Rings, which disappears immediately after I put it on the shelf. THAT sucks, though, if only mainly because I forget to take my tattered vocabulary list out of it first (I believe it's up-to-date on a computer somewhere, fortunately). It nevertheless proved itself a very welcome re-read all around - and I only hope I can soon say the same about Hesse's magnum opus, Magister Ludi. That dense tome is already tough going at the beginning, but it looks to get rolling with the introduction of the main character. It's worth noting that this earned Hesse the Nobel Prize, but I don't know if that should excite or scare me precisely. I've been very impressed by his other well-known works over the years (Steppenwolf, Siddharta, Narcissus & Goldmund, Damien)

Now approaching my end of Mendoza time, a group of us opt for another night out of wine tasting. This time all the local Argentine beauties seem to come out in force, the flower of Mendoza in full bloom, making all of our heads spin as each is dressed to the nines (or to kill, choose your idiom) and saunter about in every direction. Once again our focus is on the ones in the tents, of course, and once again we're soon learning who has the loose elbow and the forgetful ticket-taking mind. Turns out this time that it practically seems like all of them are doing so (and I actually will give away my spare tickets at the end of the night), but we also discover that, in general, it's better for the men to head to the women and the women to the men. Duh.

In passing I somehow manage to note that the freebie concert isn't bad, either, especially when I hear strains of my beloved (Colombian) cumbia where I thought a rock concert is to be on tap. Hey, the party's just getting started - do I really have to leave Argentina? Sigh. Indeed, the mission of guzzling fine wines (and they are indeed) successfully accomplished, we later wander around for a drink, but after that it's about it for me. I leave the rest of this group behind at 1 or 2 a.m., hoping to get a short sleep for my upcoming morning bus.

Yes. Finally has come the moment to head out of these friendly Argentine (and Chilean) latitudes, and sooner than I think - I discover that my flight is a day sooner than I've been supposing. Oops. I thus suddenly cancel plans for another cycle tour about the orchards with our now-burgeoned hostel crew, instead opting to schedule my bus ticket to and a hostel in Santiago (where my flight departs from) PLUS a hostel in San Jose, Costa Rica (my destination). Whew.

I can now breathe a sigh of relief... and thus naturally decide on one last Argentine steak. At something like 600g and perhaps 5cm in HEIGHT, however, it's actually ridiculously big and, while well cooked, doesn't compare with the amazing steaks I had in San Martin. Oh well, I guess it's still a fitting end to this epoch of steakliness. It's time to draw it to a close with my parting from the land of beef. I'm actually more than satisfied to return to the land of vege- or pesca- tarianism.

Morning goodbyes to those few who are actually stirring leads to an unusually-delayed bus, but then the lumbering beast is off with my carcass inside. For its tardiness it's a plush bus, anyway - even if we are all made to understand that, with the expected seven to eight hours ahead of us, the bathroom should only be used for "liquidos, no solidos". Gotcha. Hmm... perhaps all onboard should now be making that so typically Latin American superstitious sign of the cross with the tips of the fingers for a "safe" journey especially on this account. At least those blessed with seats near the bathroom door should - and I've long learned not to be one of THEM.

Quickly leaving Mendoza behind, we first head south for a brief spell, slicing through wineries. That only comes before turning to head west to do more of the same. We also pass by some very heavy industries abutting some of the vineyards, just like in Chacras but with active smokestacks this time, each spewing away. That naturally gives at least ME pause to think, but then we come to the Andes - and here the grapevines come to a sudden end. So, too, ends any of my questions about contamination in those oodles of bottles of Argentine red I've been drinking both recently here and back at home over the last number of years. Hmm.

Now we begin wending our way up through dusted foothills toward the Chilean border. Eventually we come to a damned lake with a handful of windsurfers before picking up a river to follow for a good while. Some of its erosions are so regular to seem manmade, but assuredly they are not. The river is soon replete with various rafters and kayakers, each plying the muddy waters as we now also begin to pass the random car (only marginally) pulled over to the side of the road with its hood raised. Apparently we are gaining altitude, and ever more quickly, and not long after passing the tourism-focused "town" of Uspallata. That place lies near the tourist attractions of Las Cuevas and Puente del Inca, both of which I've never gotten around to getting interested in. More to the task at hand, a sign says that the border wait ahead will be 92 minutes, with 120 vehicles currently in line. Does that mean buses, I wonder?

Who knows, but we're going to gain a lot more. Now the trees do a pretty good job of disappearing, plus the hills becomes starker and evolve into mountains. This explain the handful of ski resorts I'll see on both sides, each with their buildings below, but all of them seemingly defunct now both for it being the off-season and the few numbers of old chairlifts I can make out. They're also a good ways from town, but I don't know how much that matters.

Vivid colors of sandy tan, brown, red, black and even patches of startling yellow (sulphur?) announce the canyonland to come. Almost no houses are to be seen anymore outside of the rare tourist complex, and those hardly seem to count since they are so out of place. More typical and fitting are the remains of buildings that have walls of stacked stone, each making me think of the balcony people of Mesa Verde in SW Colorado. They're not up to Inca snuff, true, but it looks like they will eventually be around nearly as long. The roadside shrines to the Virgin Mary, or the more numerous ones for relatives lost to car accidents, will likely long be gone before they disappear.

The majority of the signs of man are far more forlorn than all of the above. These come in the form of train tracks of a narrow gauge, all overgrown with weeds, their sporadically-spaced tunnels now merely gaping small black holes in the mountains that can't have echoed with iron horse traffic for some time. I wonder all along if anyone will ever think to recycle all of that metal. Seriously - if they steal manhole covers nowadays...

Also there are various snow sheds for the tracks, all significant efforts in civil engineering intended to protect them in days gone by. They are broken in more than a few spots, obliterated by rock slides or snow avalanches or both. I wonder about that metal, too. And the ubiquitous roadside trash while I'm at it - do we really still have that many litterbugs on the planet. Evidently yes, or that many unsecured loads in trucks and such. But mostly there are uncountable rocks to be seen at all heights in these badlands, the majority seemingly merely held in by mud and awaiting the next rain.

Looming increasingly over all of this are majesties of rock untold, some even cathedral-like in their stature. Whitecapped peaks soon pick up, too, including the granddaddy of them all, Aconcagua. It's the tallest peak in the Americas, topping out at around 7000 meters. Then, and most oddly of all, the sun begins to poke out: I see nothing but blue skies to the west. Isn't that, like, over Chile? Isn't this backward?

Well, yes it is, but we nevertheless eventually find ourselves passing through the long tunnel which has us officially in Chile. A complex, Liberatores - just like the pass's name - is here for both sides to do their paper shuffling, and we lose more than a good hour to that boring task. The bus line doesn't seem to help much this time, that's true, but the bigger problem is that no one will claim a few pieces of luggage that the authorities have set aside to question. Eventually - and I don't see how it changes - this counts gets down to only one box. Only after repeated queries for someone to claim it is it ceremoniously opened and a large plastic bag inside removed. Then it is resealed and allowed to go onto our bus, still with no one claiming it. Huh?!?

Next begins our rapid decline into the central valley of Chile, a seemingly endless succession of hairpin turns going down, Down, DOWN. They even number the curves, there are so many of them, but I only notice this well into it - and the numbers are decreasing. So don't look to this faithful accounting for a number - sorry! What are far more noticeable, in any event, are the "drop zones" near the half of them that lie to one side. With no guardrail, a two story bus, and a tight turn on each, we all get to ponder what no one wants to say aloud. Yikes! Good thing that awful Paltrow/Damon epidemic movie already ended BEFORE we came to this! (Trying to blast Calexico music on my iPod only marginally could combat yet another over-amplified bus movie.)

Soon enough we are through the hairpin turns, and the ensuing follow-up movie for the Chilean side is even worse. It's a spoof of a western called Cowboys & Aliens, but the sad part is that the spoofing doesn't seem to really get rolling until the second half. And we've all seen enough spoofing since Saturday the 14th and Scary Movie to not laugh that much anymore. Soooo... can SOMEone at least turn the sound down? I'm sure the next great improvement for these cushiest of buses in Latin America will surely be earphone jacks for every seat. THAT should finally end this nightmare that airplanes got past decades before. The idea is to NOT make the natives restless! RIGHT?!?

Back on the flats now in Chile, we head a bit further south before finally approaching Santiago. When the smog picks up and the traffic begins, I know we're there. The factories, canals, and ex-urbs of shantytowns, all coming before we motor in on a channelled expressway, make it that more obvious. Ditto for the grafiti, the block buildings, and the dry canal that all juxtapose slightly strangely with our modern roadway. As for the three horses grazing on parking strip well into the city, I don't know what to make of them. Whatever their story, we're disgorged into the surprisingly rambling wreck that is the main bus station of the capital city of the richest country in Latin America. I can't even begin to "go figure" THAT oddity.

I fortunately make a quick job of finding both the metro and a taxi to get to my hostel. Well, it will be for all of only a very few hours. I bump into Canadian Mike of Mendoza wine daze almost immediately inside; soon we're stepping out to get some dinner and next surviving the briefest of nights out in Santiago's hip Providencia 'hood. There I find that the climate is Mediterranean for the moment... if I could actually hear myself think, that is. That's because an Argentine street band decides to plop not far from our table to sing the same songs we heard them playing at another restaurant nearby. And they'll do so again shortly at the next one. I'm only thankful that at least they're not bad, just loud - and I'll be out of Santiago in so few hours that they won't get another crack at me (when they undoubtedly go at it the next night). Ciao Santiago, ciao Chile, ciao South America in 2012!

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