Published: August 12th 2012August 12th 2012
Uh oh, I was in Mendoza again. I'd been here a year earlier when I was leaving the southern "cone" of the continent and supposedly heading north and homeward. However, I just couldn't leave my snowy Andes and Patagonian lakes. I bailed and headed south for another year in Patagonia. Will I really head home this time?
As before, I'd come from Santiago, Chile, over the highest pass in the Andes. This time, I stayed in the Paso de Los Libertadores in the high snowy mountains at Los Penitentes to have one last hit of snow before the semi-deserts of northern Argentina.
Leafy Streets, Fountains and Yankee Traps
The city of Mendoza is charming with tree-lined boulevards and fountains everywhere that make you forget it's located in a desert and receives very little rain. The broad streets, some pedestrian and others with wide, leafy alamedas down the center for pedestrians, are lined with tall sycamores, jacarandas, pepper trees and flowering almonds that provide beauty and summer shade. The many gorgeous plazas and parks invite relaxation with fountains, public art and benches. On Sundays, I joined half of Mendoza in the huge, sprawling
Parque San Martin, walking its trails and enjoying its big lake, pictured above in the panorama photo.
The first day I arrived, I had a rude introduction to one of the more unique features of the city--the acecias, aqueducts that border most streets, irrigate the street trees and provide the cooling sound of running water in the summer. As both of my visits were in winter--dry season, these 2-3-foot deep ditches were empty.
Looking for the hostel and not watching where I was going (I rarely do), I fell into an acecia, bruising my legs and ego and chipping my glasses. These ditches aren't called "yankee traps" for nothing. I was going to replace my glasses, but they were three times the cost I'd paid in a discount store in the US. I'm going to try to make these do for another couple of years. Amazing that people here can afford them.
The city has lots of beautiful Belle Epoch buildings from the late 19c; many of my favorites were former banks that have become art and cultural centers. The city was founded in 1561, but there's almost nothing from that
period because in 1861, the city was destroyed by an earthquake. City planners took the opportunity to create a modern city with wide boulevards and plazas outside of the now-destroyed, old part of town.
A couple of great museums highlighted the city's history. In the former town center, the museum of the area's founding showed excavations from that time and explained colonial, archaeological and indigenous history. The colonial-style, former governors' mansion showcased the town's 19c history and had friendly docents on hand to answer questions. It was so great to have local museums after visiting so many towns in Chile whose museums were closed due to earthquake damage.
Other fab features for this long-time traveler were yummy pay-by-the kilo, vegetarian restaurants and lots of films--both in an art house in town and in cineplexes in nearby shopping malls. Add to that the opportunity to have my dorm bed for free in exchange for English lessons for the young owner, Ana, and the staff at the friendly Hostel Estacion Mendoza, and I ended up staying longer than planned (but then I always do!). Finally, a chance to catch up on blogs after nine months of
Hot Springs and a Wild Ride
My favorite days trips were to the Termas (Hot springs) of Cachueta, located in a narrow, red rock canyon under impossibly blue skies. I spent a couple of fabulous days, soaking for hours in the bubbling warm pools, watching the sun move across the gorge. I was so lucky to go mid-week in the off-season, for the place was huge, equipped with lots of child-friendly features and would clearly be a mad-house in the summer.
Since the bus came an hour after the spa closed, I had time to walk across a fabulous swinging bridge across a canyon, explore the very funky little town and walk along the edge of the cliffs to the upscale spa next door.
Another day trip took me into the mountains on the wild switchbacks of the Route of the 365 Curves, the original route over the Andes to Chile. Once we'd left irrigated Mendoza, it was clear that this was a dry, dry desert. The mountains were greener at higher elevations, and there we visited the former spa and swank hotel, the Villaviciencio, which had catered to those
crossing the pass. With the new highway, the hotel lost its clientele, but, its gardens and quaint chapel were still beautiful. The area is also the source of the most popular mineral water, Villavicencios, that's sold all over the country.
Wine Tour--Malbec, Anyone?
Mendoza is famous for its wine, especially Malbec, and a tour to the vineyards and bodegas of nearby Maipu is pretty obligatory. I caught a city bus to Maipu and walked to a Wine Museum where we saw old pressing machinery, new huge barrels and had a tiny tasting.
We also learned that the vineyards in this desert receive little rain, but are irrigated by water from Andean snow-melt that flows into the Mendoza River. These irrigation channels, the acecias, running from the river to all over the valley, were first constructed by the indigenous Huarpes who'd learned the technique from the Incas. Some of the original, centuries-old acecias were still in use until recently.
My next stop was a charming house in the midst of olive groves, where after a tasty sampling of sweet and savory treats, I bought some great dark chocolate and yummy, dark green,
freshly-pressed oil with olive sediment on the bottom of the bottle.
I then walked the country roads with views of the snow-capped Andes for a couple of hours to another bodega--turns out the sites were further apart than I'd thought. This was an old, family-run bodega where, after the tour, they gave us generous tastings, which left me feeling pretty tipsy. Others on the tour had visited several other bodegas with lots of tastings and were headed back on bikes on what must have been a pretty wobbly ride. I was happy to wait outside for a bus to take me to Maipu's center.
Malargue and Las Lenas Ski Resort
The first time I left Mendoza, I bailed on homeward plans and headed south to Malargue on a little minibus that paralleled the Andes. Malargue itself had little to offer, except for a fine pyramid-shaped planetarium, but had promises of great field trips in the surrounding mountains. Unfortunately, in the August off-season, there weren't enough tourists in town for the Parque Payunia with its highest concentration of volcanoes in the world or for the caves at the Caverna de Las Brujas (Cave of
the Witches). However, I was able to hop in a minibus for skiers heading to Las Lenas.
Las Lenas is Argentina's premier ski resort, with lots of challenging runs, dry powder and very upscale lodgings that attract the wealthy from the capital and the northern hemisphere. Skiing was way out of my price range, but I spent a very enjoyable day crunching in the snow and watching hot doggers plunge down the slopes.
From there, I took the twice weekly night bus further south through the rugged high desert along Andes on the mythical Ruta 40. I had to wait in the dark a couple of times in tiny towns as I changed buses for the onward journey, but finally I made it to little-visited Caviahue, where I found snow heaven.
This time, I plan to visit some national parks several hours away and then head east to Cordoba and its mountains, but really, who knows where the wind will carry me.
There are more photos below