Mendoza and Uspallata: Wine Country and the Andes–April 20-25

First, I apologize for such a generic title; I have  experienced a bit of writer’s block the past few days, so creativity is a little low here.  The days we spent in this area, on the other hand, were anything but boring.  After heading north from Patagonia and the Lakes District, we had arrived in Andes country and planned to spend a day wine tasting in Mendoza before leaving the cities behind for some of the most breathtaking mountainous country we’ve seen.  Not even a minor plague along the way could keep us from having fun.

Our bus ride from Bariloche to Mendoza was a mere 13 hours, almost a sprint after the 28 hours it had taken to get to Bariloche a few day earlier.  It was one of the more interesting bus rides we’d had in a little while; for starters, we played bingo as entertainment after tea time, which was a strange phenomenom in itself, considering we were on a bus having tea and biscuits (filled with dulce de leche, which seems to run through Argentinans blood).  Oh, to add to the mystique of tea time on a bus, Guns’n’Roses music videos were playing on television while we sipped; nothing can match the glory of watching Slash’s guitar solo outside the church in “November Rain” while sipping a bit of herbal Yerbamate from a plastic dixie cup.

Mendoza was still pretty sleepy when we pulled in at around 8 AM.  During the night, I had developed some nausea and still wasn’t feeling too well, but we were excited to hit wine country anyway.  At least,  I no longer felt like throwing up, and the wineries would be closed the next day since it was Sunday, so we opted to soldier on.  Normally, we might have waited it out, but “Bed for Wine,” our hostel instantly rose to the top 3 dumps of our trip, and we didn’t feel like hanging around any longer than necessary.

Mendoza’s wine country is about an hour outside of the city, so we took the local bus out to the bike rental shop, Mr. Hugo’s.  Here, we got our bikes and a briefing from a kid who looked and sounded suspiciously like Pedro from Napoleon Dynamite, which is weird because Argentinans and Mexicans normally look nothing alike.  Anyway, Mr. Hugo is an affable old man who loves wine himself, and he poured us each a dixie cup of wine while we waited.  This was not the start that I was hoping for, but he kind of stuck around beaming at us, so I started the day with wine on an empty stomach after being sick in the night; luckily, Sarah had some crackers for me to coat my weak gullet a bit.  Anyway, I heard later that Mr. Hugo is pretty famous for seconds and thirds, so it was good that we slipped out on two bikes that would have been the pride of Peewee Herman and set out for the wineries before Mr. Hugo could do any more pre-lubing of our livers.

The ride out to the first winery was not exactly pleasant; Mendoza is very much about the wine itself and much less about beautiful wineries and settings.  It was really dusty, the headwind was brutal, and there was a lot of truck exhaust in the air, but at least the Andes could be seen vaguely in the distance.  Anyway, we were both glad to reach the first winery.

La Familia de Tommaso was one of the oldest wineries in Mendoza, having been around since the 1830’s.  They offered a brief tour of the winery, and although we didn’t really learn anything new, it was really cool to see the antique presses and giant old stone vats that they use to decorate the winery.  After the tour, we did a tasting of torrontes (a tasty white Argentinan wine), as well as a couple of malbecs and a cab.  The accompanying restaurant has good Italian food, so we had a nice, relaxing lunch before moving along.

The second winery we visited had only been open for a week; in fact, they didn’t even have a sign for their tasting room, which makes it difficult to locate for two gringos on Peewee Herman bikes.  Anyways, at least it was off of the main road, so our ride was quieter and also full of smiling Argentinans enjoying Saturday afternoon with their friends…or possibly enjoying watching two gringos on Peewee Herman bikes attempting to locate a brand new tasting room…one couldn’t be sure which was true.

Anyway, Florio specialized in sweet wines, and Sarah and I were interested in the tour because neither of us knew much about the differences that occur when making sweet wines.  Unfortunately, I began to focus more on my rising fever and trying to remain awake while the girl went on in Spanglish, and so I didn’t learn much.  Curiously, she kept talking about “burning the virgin masses,” and I tried to subtly tap Sarah on the shoulder to indicate that we might be in danger of unknowingly joining the occult when all we wanted was a taste of sweet wine, but she understood that the girl had intended to describe “boiling” instead of “burning.”  This made more sense in terms of grapes, so I decided to ride it out; the wine was pretty tasty, too, so it turned out to be a good risk.

The final winery we visited was both the best and the most interesting in terms of both wine and story.  During the “beer crisis,” a term that I can barely bring myself to type, many Argentinan wineries failed as the nation began to favor beer much more heavily than wine.  The winery that had once flourished on the land that Carinae now stood on had folded like many of its neighbors, but a former employee continued to maintain the grapes because of his love for wine.  Years later, a French couple who had no experience in the winemaking industry fell in love with Argentina, sold off their possessions back in France, and returned to open Carinae!  Their malbecs were some of the best we’ve had, mostly because they don’t mess with them but allow the fruit to dominate as it should.  We bought a bottle of a blend that the husband, who we met briefly after he arose from his nap, had secretly made for his wife for their anniversary.  It was a nice way to end the day.

Sarah probably could have managed another stop or two, but my fever was still coming and going, and my legs were starting to ache, so we rode back to Mr. Hugo’s, and I managed to dump my free wine into Sarah’s cup without him seeing.  Come to think of it, she must have been feeling pretty good about Mr. Hugo by the time we caught the bus back into Mendoza.  While I wouldn’t say we enjoyed the wine country out there, they certainly made good wine!

By the time we hit Mendoza, I was beginning to hate life…the flu is bad enough, but winetasting all day when it’s coming on is probably just plain stupid (although we all know, I would probably do it again).  Anyway, one last kick in my ass came about two blocks from the hostel when the box carrying our two bottles just collapsed…the girl at the new place hadn’t taped the bottom…and our lovely bottle of secret anniversary wine thundered to the ground and shattered into 500 pieces!  Luckily for whichever kid thought it was funny to do the Nelson laugh behind me, the pedestrian light had turned green, and he had slipped into the crowd by the time I turned around, dripping in crimson wine.

The next 24 hours need no description; I had a really bad case of the stomach flu, and Sarah was stuck in a tiny, disgusting room with me.  Luckily, she didn’t catch whatever bug I’d acquired, and she at least got to go out for a nice dinner on her own the following day.  We did manage to go to the bus station to get tickets out of Mendoza, but I couldn’t eat anything yet and promptly went back to bed after getting the tickets.  Needless to say, Mendoza was not my favorite place (even if I had been well, there didn’t seem like much to do there but shop and go to cafes, and I’m sure that Buenos Aires outdoes it at both).

Monday morning, we headed out to tiny Uspallata; I was happy to be feeling better, and we were both glad to be leaving the city…we’d spent over a week in Argentina’s urban world and were ready to get back out into the countryside.  Uspallata, a little mountain town in the Andes, proved to be just what we needed.

Our hostel was about 5 km outside of town on a beautiful ranch-like setting down below the rugged mountains and along the Rio Mendoza.  The Andes were not exactly what we had expected–in this region, there are far more red rocky mountains than towering snow-capped peaks–but they are strikingly gorgeous, sort of like Utah’s mountains but on a much grander scale.  We had a cozy, comortable double room there, and it felt like we were on a quick litttle mountain getaway, sort of funny to feel this way since we are 10 months into a world tour!  Anyway, after enduring the dungeonous Bed for Wine in Mendoza, Hostel Uspallata turned out to be one of our favorite spots.

After settling in, we rented bikes and rode into town on a beautiful old dirt road that traced the river, a bunch of horse ranches, and some lovely large poplar trees…all looming below the mountains.  The town itself wasn’t much, but oh, what a setting!  We grabbed some lunch and got equipped with some food for the next day, when we would be going to see Aconcagua.  We did notice, however, one strange thing in Uspallata:  a diner entitled The Tibet Cafe.  It turns out that this area was the actual setting for Seven Years in Tibet; apparently, this cafe has some movie props in it, but it was closed when we there.  Anyway, we rode back to the hostel, and I got in one more nap in hopes of getting back to 100% for the big day.  Luckily, I woke up feeling great, and the hostel’s mashed potato and milanesa (chicken-fried steak without the gravy) for some reason was like chicken soup for my soul…maybe, I just needed to eat after 3 days.

Aconcagua is very near the Chilean border, and we had to flag down a bus from outside the highway and ride about 90 kilometers through the mountains towards the border in order to get there.  We were joined by two others from our hostel, an American named Clay and a Swiss girl named Corrine (which is probably not how she spells her name).  The four of us got along really well, and we ended up spending the next day together too; it’s always nice to make some good new friends. Along the way, we passed some amazing scenery in its own right, particularly a series of brown towers called the Penitentes because of their resemblance to a group of giant hooded monks.  They call this “God’s Country,” but I am sparing y’all one of my infamous puns here.

Once in the park, we hiked about an hour in the shadows of Aconcagua, passing several viewpoints and pretty little lagoons.  Above us, the climbing routes to the 6962 m summit–the highest outside of the Himilaya–were clearly visible.  They looked very steep, and the standard route held much more appeal than the route that traversed directly below a humongous, crazy-steep ice wall.  The mountain, a snow-covered kingdom among the rocks, was much more majestic and pretty thans I had expected, and I began thinking of ways to return here for an attempt someday.

After enjoying a lovely lunch while gazing up at the mountain above us, we headed back out and walked down the highway to the miniscule town of Puente del Inca, which is basically a spot in the road.  Regardless, there is a very quirky attraction here:  a sulferic spring that runs through the rocks behind town has formed a giant, glowing orange stone bridge; there was formerly a spa hotel built on top of it that has since been destroyed by flooding, but the result is an alienesque blend of neon nature and civilization…we got some pretty crazy photos.  With a couple of hours to fill before flagging down a return bus, we shared a bottle of wine with Clay and Corrine.  We’d been blessed by bluebird weather, interesting friends, and one awesome mountain!

Our final day in Uspallata was spent on the back of a horse, although I think we both were surprised to be alive to tell the tale.  We had decided to stop in town the previous night instead of riding the bus all the way to the hostel; anyway, after enjoying a great sunset, we soon came upon an adorable black dog who had buried himself in a giant pile of leaves.  It was so cute that I had to grab a picture but upon getting within 2 feet of it, he suddenly turned into a maniacal, bloodthirsty titanic killer, and we ran for our lives.  That night at dinner, we told the story to Clay, who had actually fell nearly a victim to the same psycho ploy by the dog the night before.  South America definitely has the craziest canines in the world!

As I said, we rode horses into the mountains for our final day in Uspallata.  I did it mostly because I knew that it was something that Sarah was really hoping to do, but I was surprised to find that it was something that I really enjoyed as well!  Our ride took us a few miles back into the Pre-Andes mountains before we dismounted and trekked up 300 m or so to a 3200 m peak for some exraordinary views.  We were in magnificent country, and the horses ended up being a great way to experience it.

The four of us met our guide, Elvio, outside our hostel in the late morning because it was too cold in the mountains to leave earlier (I don’t know if we’ve mentioned it, but it isn’t really light out before 8 in Argentina.).  Of course, I got matched up with the largest horse (who might have been, well, half-ass), a fellar nicknamed, “the butt buster,” who promptly refused to move once we started out.  Elvio came back and helped me out, but it was clear that I was not exactly a natural with horses.

Soon, we were climbing horse trails through the polychrome red of the mountains, and we could look back behind us for great views of the Andes, the river, and the town.  The Butt Buster had a singular habit of snacking on the go, often ripping out entire clumps of brush and carrying them along as he chewed and sauntered.  Eventually, he refused once again to move at all, and Elvio had to give him some firm encouragement, including a good smack on the rear.  Before I knew it, the Butt Buster tore his way down the trail, past the entire group, and way out in front, where he remained the leader for the rest of the morning.  After my horse riding parts began to feel more human again, I began to work with the horse some and, following Elvio’s advice about  leaning with the reins, managed to work out an understanding with the Butt Buster…from then on, we got along splendidly.  I think it helped to mutter, “Bueno, Bueno,” softly in the Butt Buster’s ear, but that may have just been me.

 

After a couple of hours of riding, we happened upon a lone hiker and his dog; these turned out to be our hiking guide, Flavio, and his canine assistant, Shaki.  The horses and Elvio got a nice siesta while we began our hour’s journey up the gently winding trails of the mountain.  We were glad that it was a gentle trail because we were pretty high in elevation, and our hearts were beating pretty fast.  It was beautiful, though, and the weather was warm and calm.  Soon, we were on top and enjoying a peaceful summit lunch while gazing out at the Andes; it could have been a little slice of heaven, with Aconcagua in the distance and rocky summits all around.

Back down the mountain, we said goodbye to Flavio and Shaki and rejoined Elvio, the Butt Buster, and the others.  On our way back down, we stopped off to explore a small copper mine and check out a good viewpoint of Uspallata.  My horse, while behaving quite well for me, seemed to harbor some resentment towards strong females because he grew quite frustrated that Sarah’s mare wouldn’t let him pass.  Like I said, I’m no horse expert, but I could tell in this case because the Butt Buster kept biting Sarah’s horse in the ass…boy, did I end up liking that horse’s spirit!  🙂

Eventually, we made our way back down to the hostel, passing through the lovely crimson glow of a setting sun on the rocks, and bid Elvio and the Butt Buster adieu.  We had one more animal experience before the end of the day, however; the hostel has a golden retriever known only as “rock dog,” and we had to see his talents for ourselves.  It seems that Rock Dog loves to play fetch…with rocks…down by the river.  We weren’t disappointed, that crazy dog (who has the stubbiest teeth you’ve ever seen on a dog), would dive through the water, submerging his entire face, continuing to search until he had found the exact same rock that we had just sunk in three feet of water!  It was amazing…I think you can find footage on You-Tube if you search for “Rock Dog.”  Anyway, we finished the night with a great asado (barbecue) that the hostel owner, Christian, and his buddies cooked for us.  It was tasty, and I appreciated that the hostel gave us an opportunity to sit down at a table and eat homecooked dinners with them every night.  It was a nice change from a restaurant with strangers…for once in the past 10 months, one of us could ask another human, “so how was your day?” without receiving a crazy look from the person sitting across the table.

Uspallata had been three days of adventure and recharging from the city, and I had loved every bit of it.  We had been in South America for over a month now and seen some amazing country, and things were good for the Raffs.

 

 

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