Sleep deprived from another overnight bus trip it was easy to think that our brains were tricking us when the looming Andes mountain range slowly came in to view in the dusty dawn air. The plentiful Buenos Aires humidity had been replaced with a cold dry wind that found its way through multiple layers of clothing. The temperature had also taken a significant drop. However, all this went relatively unnoticed compared to the horizon filled with seemingly endless snow-capped behemoths. To a flat-lander like myself I can’t help but stop and marvel at the beauty of true Alpine areas.
Either luck or research (most likely a combination of the two) paid off again with our hostel choice. Heating, hot showers, and relative privacy are the holy trinity when it comes to this type of accommodation and we had all 3. The kitchen would have easily fit into the setting of an all-male 20-something year old share house, but you can’t have everything.
Our hostel made short work of tour organising with combination deals for everything popular in town. We booked a horse-back riding tour and winery bike riding tour in short succession. The wine bike tour was first cab off the rank with a 9am bus pick up the following day. Our first stop was Cecchin Winery, a short 30 minute ride out of town. A short tour of the winery should have included a bingo card with the first person to line up “biodynamic”, “organic”, and “sustainable agriculture” to receive a bottle at the end. In all honesty, it was an impressive set up which produced some seriously good wine. And who doesn’t love starting the day with a wine tasting? Needless to say, a bottle was purchased.
The bike riding component was interesting to say the least. Back pedal brakes, potholes that could swallow a smart-car, and drivers that left the bare minimum passing distance were not a good combination when paired with wine. The group survived the 15 minute ride to the next stop at Andantes. To be honest this place was a definite buzz kill with sterile styling and extremely limited tasting. But fortunately, there were more stops to come. It wasn’t exactly riding up Alpe d’huez in Le Tour but only about half of the group made it by bike to the next stop at a craft pub. Fortunately, the beers and empanadas were both quality and plentiful, which perked our collective spirits up. I am still not 100% sure if the cumulative effect of wine and beer tasting was helping or hindering my ability to converse with a group of Irish tourists on our trip.
Our tour guide made the wise decision that were where all well past riding to the next stop and loaded us onto the bus for the last stop of the day at Bodega Domiciano. This winery definitely made the whole trip worthwhile with both an excellent tour and amazing wines to back up the talk. We ended up purchasing both their chardonnay and reserve malbec. There was no buyer’s regret when we eventually got around to consuming these wares in Santiago.
The next morning brought the pleasant and unexpected surprise of a couple of inches of snow covering the whole of town. We realised that this is not a common occurrence with the locals turning back to their adolescence and joyfully building snowmen and starting snow ball fights. When we later ventured out for our horseback riding tour most of the white stuff had disappeared.
However, it was still bloody cold outside. We felt this in earnest when we arrived in the highlands after a short bus ride. There definitely was a small part of me wanting to get straight back on the bus and wait this one out. Luckily neither of us did back out as the loss of feelings to our hands and feet was more than worth it. We were paired up with horses and given the safety briefing Mendoza style: “steer like this” “pull to stop” “don’t pull to hard” “Claro? Vamos!”. The pair of gaucho’s (traditional Argentinian ranchers) seemed to greatly enjoy our inability to control our respective horses as they steered around us with the ease gained by a lifetime of horse riding. Our houses did seem to have the general idea of “follow the leader”. Granted, Cass’s horse seemed to enjoy stopping to enjoy the scenery or a nearby bush and my horse was not happy unless he was on the verge of a gallop or biting another horse. As one of the English-speaking guides put it “The horses are still wild out here”.
Once a slight semblance of control had been established we were able to focus less on staying alive and more on our surrounds. I honestly felt like putting the camera away as there was no point trying to capture the scope of the landscape. Thinking back, I remember the relative silence in the air broken by the slight crunch of ice under hoof. The air was bitingly cold but so still in the late afternoon. Looking around a sea of tundra gave way to the foothills of the Andes, unbroken by houses or roads. The tips of the mountains were still a brilliant white with the last sun rays still catching them. Lucky our horses knew the way home as we totally forgot where to go!
There is only so long you can take in a view, no matter how amazing it is, when it is below freezing outside. We were extremely glad about the fire and jug of red wine that greeted us back at the ranch. We were treated to a traditional Asado (BBQ) with the gaucho’s cooking in their home-made clay oven with a million-dollar view in the background. This was a truly family run and owned franchise and the authenticity was something that money cannot buy. When the food finally was ready it stood up to some of the best restaurant steaks I have had the pleasure of eating. The hunger and surrounds probably helped but dining is all about context. All up this was definitely the highlight of Mendoza.
Our last day in Mendoza was well spent with a 5-hour return hike up Cerro de la Gloria. Lucky the views were excellent as this was another example of an easy walk on paper turning into a serious trek.
We decided to treat ourselves in the evening with a dinner at the highly recommended Cordillera Vinos y Fuegos. We fell trap to Argentinean dining times again turning up at 8:30pm, respectable in our minds, only to be greeted by an empty restaurant. The staff were more than happy to seat us and the owner even took us to his personal wine cellar where we chose another malbec. I will miss spending $35 and purchasing one of the better wines offered rather than just the entry level red. The wine and food were excellent, good enough to make us wish that our budget extended to a week of such experiences.
Adios Mendoza, it will not be our last visit.