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Saved: February 26th 2014
Cheaper Than Napa
The wine here is plentiful and much less expensive than our Napa Valley wines
We diverted the well laid plans, and are now in Mendoza, in the heart of wine country, in Argentina!! On the flight from Calama to Santiago, I said to Mike, it is closer to Buenos Aires than it was to Calama. He agreed, so we decided if we could get a cheap flight, we would go. Well, obviously we did. We got the Santiago to Mendoza on to Buenos Aires, and back to Santiago for less than $400 USD.
We left San Pedro this morning at 630am. Our little hostel was quiet and clean. The lady there even brought coffee and cheese to us, even though breakfast is not served until 8am. Nice lady. We paid about $60 a night there, and were pleasantly surprised. A huge Mercedes pulled up last night with a rich couple from Chile. So, it could not be that bad.
Finding a gas station in Calama was an adventure. The first one was open only to their ¨buddies´. The second, the lines formed on only one side of the pump. This was due to antiquated equipment, though they had about 20 attendants running around. We got to the airport with about 15 minutes to spare. I had to pay for a missing hubcap, since we basically drove over potholes for 4 days. But it was only $25 USD, so it was not too bad. I guess some local now has a nice mantel piece in their cabaña.
So, here we find ourselves in Mendoza, a sleepy little town of about 40,000 people. We negotiated a nice 4 star hotel here, called the Huentala, close to the downtown area and town square. We are on the 5th floor, and even have a bidet in the toilette. Oh, and we have cable TV! Now I can watch the US Open at night.
We rented a little Chevy, about the size or smaller than our Yaris. But it is a five speed, and is silver with black interior. When we parked to visit the tourist information center, we paid the ´attendant´ two pesos to park and guard our car. It was the best 50 cents I ever spent. The car was there when we returned and our bags were still inside.
The Huentala is actually a good 4 star hotel here, right next to a casino. We are about a block from the City center. We negotiated the price down about 40% from their starting price, breakfast and parking included. Not bad for a gringo who speaks absolutely no Espanol.
We are relaxing, soon to have a drink in the lobby bar, then maybe head out for a good Argentinean steak. Tomorrow, we will probably hit some wineries out in the countryside. As we crossed the Andes today, there is a ton of snow here. No water shortage here! The valley reminds us so much of the San Joaquin Valley back home.
And one other thing, the girls here are prettier and tend to smile much more than in Chile.
So, after taking the wrong plane from Santiago, we ended up in the gateway to the Malbec wine country, Mendoza, Argentina. It was a short flight of 35 minutes from Santiago, over the 16,000 foot Andes. It seemed much wiser to fly than drive. The flight over the Andes was breathtaking, as they say.
I will someday try to figure this country out. The streets are filled with nicely dressed people, but the cars parked on the street seem to be fair game. In other words, street car parker, beware! Someone is always eyeing the car and/or its contents ALL the time, ALL day and ALL night long. Good thing we rented a chintzy little Chevy something or other.
After a nice hot shower and shave, we met down in the hotel bar, which is adjacent to and connected with the Sheraton Hotel and its huge casino. The beautiful people were arriving, it turns out for some social networking event. We decided to pass on attending, since our jeans, hiking boots and golf shirts did not quite measure up. We also thought we would give the Argentinean men a break, so they could have all the attention.
A few drinks in the bar, and off we strolled to the main part of town,a plaza with several connecting pedestrian malls filled with cafes and people. Many tents of street artists, along with the obligatory teenagers, and cafe barkers. Not wanting a huge meal, we settled in at a cafe at a nearby mall.
Now get this! The shops are closed, but the cafe is beginning to bustle. The music starts up and before our food arrives, an Argentinean Perry Como starts belting out Mendoza love songs. Women are arriving in furs, families with grandpa and small children. Now this is getting late for us, about 11pm. No school or work the next day?
Tired, and with enough to eat, we headed back to the Huentala, our home for the next few days. We are in the heart of downtown. Maybe our car will still be in the parking lot next door, maybe not.
About midnight, I get a phone call. I picked it up thinking it was Mike. It seemed to be the hotel front desk asking if I liked the room and if I was comfortable. I told him not to bother me, that I was almost asleep. He then had the audacity to ask if I wanted some ¨company¨. Now that seemed rather strange, so I will have to ask Mike what was going on. I thought this was a respectable hotel, as the young lady who we negotiated with seemed like such a little sweetheart.
But these are the things that make travel so much fun. Speaking of which, people here smile, laugh, and just seem so much happier than in Chile. They certainly dress nicer, and have a flair and a passion about them. Maybe life here goes much easier than in Chile.
After breakfast, we head out to the wine country. Mendoza is the most important city in the Cuyo region. It is also home of the heroic fight of their liberator, General San Martin. It is near the foothills, and give way to an oasis created by the Mendoza and Tunuyan Rivers. This creates the huge irrigation system that fuels the vines and farms in this region.
The four or five wine zones provide a variety of wines based on weather, elevation, and soil. Most everyone here has heard of the Napa Valley too.
I am sure I will let Mike lead the way. He seems very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about all of this vino stuff. I will just find something I like, and maybe buy a bottle or three. He has promised NOT to bring any wine home to California. We shall see!
After a late breakfast, we headed out in our fancy little Chevy to the Maipo Valley for some wine tasting. We must have over estimated the distance, since I think we almost fell into the Atlantic Ocean. We had a piss poor map, and and even poorer navigator, ME. After driving and seeing most every winery in this region, we found the first winery, down a gravel road.
One of the most famous wineries, Archeval Ferrer, is probably the worst place to find in all of South America. The road has no signs, and the winery has no signs. The locals do not even know where it is. But we found it about 3 hours after our scheduled tasting appointment. After a glass of $125 wine, we had to proceed to our lunch.
We had luncheon arranged at Legarde Winery just outside of San Lujan. We arrived at 3pm, and found our reservation was for 1pm. Oh well. Nice people, and we had the most fantastic lunch ever. We both had sweet corn empanadas for appetizer, along with their Sauvignon Blanc. The Mike had their pork loin and I had their veal ribs. Both were outstanding, and served with their Malbec.
Dessert was an apple, banana, coconut crisp with vanilla ice cream, along with their Brut champagne. We took a nice private tour with the hostess and bought two bottles of their great champagne, for only $22 USD each. Great day, great meal, though we had to work for it by driving across South America.
By the time we got back to the hotel, I was late for my massage. But the spa waited for me, and it was well worth it for me. I must have fallen asleep 20 times and got really relaxed. A tiny little ice cream cone down the street, and here we are, ready for beddy bye. I promise not to pick up the phone at midnight!!!!
One of the best things about this trip is the relative spontaneity that we have enjoyed. Mike and I seem to be on the same wavelength most of the time. This diversion to Argentina, for instance, was a last minute decision, and worked out well.
The three hour drive through the Maipo Valley wine country was certainly a test of one´s friendship and overall patience. Though the map was totally whacko, we had to use a huge dose of intuition and prayer to get to our wineries. I know we saw parts of Maipo that a tour guide will NEVER see.
But the ability to laugh at ourselves and the situation helped to sustain us. It certainly was not life or death, as we were never in danger. But who would think that a world class winery, that advertises itself as sitting at the foot of the beautiful snow capped Andes, would be next door to a huge natural gas plant?
It does not take a trip like this to realize how fortunate we are to live a solid American lifestyle. Life seems tough here, but people still go out of their way to help. The vineyard workers, without a word of English, tried to help us find our way. Most have probably never been more than a few miles from where the were raised and employed.
We have not decided what to do today, though I am sure we will not spend the entire day in our car. Perhaps a short drive to the Andes, or renting a mountain bike in this flat town of Mendoza. And photos. You will be shocked at the number of OLD cars on the streets! We have seen Ford Falcons, Torinos, Plymouth Barracudas, Dodge Darts, old Renaults, Citroens, and Chevy hardtops. It reminds me of the stories of old cars in Cuba, where the replacement parts are handmade, and the cars are immaculately maintained.
I could not go on without mention of yesterday´s anniversary of 9-11. It was on all of the Argentine TV stations, and quite well done. I tried to watch most of it, but it is akin to living through it again. We should never forget what happened. And we should be thankful for the spirit of the New Yorkers who got through this tragedy.
Not as many dogs on the street here. People actually use a leash here, and there is no dog poop on the streets. Cars rule here, as pedestrians, even with a favorable light, are honked at rudely or almost run down. In that sense, it is much like New York.
But overall, these people smile and know how to relax and have fun. All ages can be found sipping a coffee and eating a small pastry, at any hour of the day. The men like to watch the girls walk by. The teenagers gather under a tree to giggle and tease. The families are out for the day together, to shop or just walk. Life seems good here.
We took a leisurely drive to a little village in the foot of the Andes, called Villavicencio, about two hours outside of Mendoza, IF you know where you are going. The maps are okay, but there are no highway numbers. Some streets just decide to end in the middle of nowhere.
We took off on the main Highway 40, and probably ended up near Bolivia. We avoided arrest by showing our US driver´s license, worthy of a snicker from the near Amazonian policia guy standing in the middle of the road. Wit and charm got us safely turned around, and back toward our destination.
Once on the correct road, we were headed on a straight line for 29 km, or as far as the eye could see. When I say straight line, I mean straight line. We entered the Naturale Reserva, but why on earth they want to protect this land is beyond us. It was nothing but scrub brush, and rocks.
But believe it or not, the Argentineans find every spot of shade, however few to park their car and have a picnic. There is nothing to see or do, but sit in the car, and eat a sandwich. But it probably gets them out of the city, where it is quiet, with lots of open space.
As we finally wound our way to Villavicencio, we stopped at a ranger station type of rest stop and asked about going further. It was another 2 hours to the top of the hill on a dirt road, then 2 hours back down, or another 360 turns. Forget it!!
We decided to look round at the village and have a cold beer. Did we have the surprise of our life here? We walked up to the lodge and asked if we could have a cold beer. The entire lodge was lined with choice jamon and prosciutto hind quarters, a dream come true.
Soon after we sipped one of the best cold beers EVER, the cold plate arrived with lots of homemade bread. Just fantastico! We had prosciutto, cheese, pickled eggplant, tomato roulade or spread, and some type of pate with blue cheese. It was heaven on a plate. And everything was made on the premises.
The nearby locals at the table next to us, started talking to everyone in the lodge. They finally came over, offered us some wine, and we took some photos together. One guy was showing off his Japanese vocabulary, while I nodded and said arigato (thank you) and bonzai when we drank the wine. A good time was had by all.
But to Mike´s surprise, the waitress brought him the largest glass of this sweet red wine, on the house. Never one to turn down a free glass of wine, Mike tried his best, but it was too sweet. Then the lady let us try the Black Forest chocolate cake. Even for someone who is not a chocoholic, I had to admit it was great.
Amply fortified, we turned back to the flatlands, the barrios, and the chaotic traffic of greater Mendoza. What started to be the world´s worst drive, ended up on a pretty interesting and gastronomically satisfying note.
We did not see many animals, just a few herds of sheep, and one quick, gray fox scampering across the road. The mineral water at the Lodge is believed to have special powers. The curious rock formations appeared in the film, Seven Years in Tibet, with Brad Pitt. Never saw it.
So another day, another unexpected but interesting day. Hopefully our Argentinean steak tonight will be predictably good, and close enough to find on foot! Buenos noches!
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