It took us 8 hours to get from Valparaíso to Mendoza by bus and compared to some of the nightmare journeys that we have taken, this one was a breeze, particularly with the aid of our third travelling companion, Netflix. The road crosses the Andes so it does get pretty wibbly, but that is more than compensated for with superb views.
There was a slightly nervous moment when we thought that we had somehow bypassed passport control, which would have been difficult to explain in the airport when we tried to leave Argentina in 5 days’ time, but it turns out that you clear customs and immigration quite a long way into Argentina.
Having spent the whole day travelling, we went straight to our hostel / homestay, Domus 555. This place was an absolute gem, one of our favourite places in South America. It was more like an Air BnB than a hostel. The owners weren’t on site but were constantly available and extremely helpful over whatsapp. Breakfast was included but they just leave the ingredients in the fridge and cupboards for you, so you can choose and make it yourself. With a fully stocked kitchen, we were also able to cook for ourselves, saving some cash for wine. It was very chilled, very clean and tidy, very comfortable and everything that we needed.
On our first full day in Mendoza we did what any sane person visiting Mendoza would do; socially acceptable day drinking. This was to be our third wine tour and we wanted to change things up a bit; often when you are bundled into a bus you can feel a bit rushed, unable to take things at your own pace and by vineyard number three the motion of the bus can make you feel a touch woozy. So, this time we did a self-guided wine tour on bikes, and it was brilliant. The key factor here is that Mendoza is flat as a pancake (until you hit the Andes) and it only rains for around 25 days of the year, so you are nearly guaranteed perfect cycling conditions.
We made our way to neighbourhood of Chacras Los Corias by local bus. This took about 40 minutes and took a very convoluted route but we were happy to sit back and watch the world go by, exploring the suburbs of Mendoza as we went. We got to Baccus Bikes where we were handed a map with the recommended wineries, the route to get to them and some suggestions for lunch. We mounted our steeds and went on our way. As with central Mendoza, the streets are lined with plane trees and it makes for a beautiful cycle.
There are three wine areas around Mendoza, we were in Luján de Cuyo, which is probably the easiest of the three to get to and it has heaps of wineries although we only managed to visit two of them.
Viamonte is a picture-perfect vineyard with the Andes looming in the distance and wonderfully friendly staff.
We had a few minutes to wait before we could join a tour so we were given a glass of rosé, which was a great freebie on top of what was already an excellent value-for-money experience. The rosé was made with Malbec grape and was actually surprisingly nice, we neither of us are big fans usually. We joined another group for our tasting, with Agustina as our host. We weren’t blown away by the two reds that we were given, although the accompanying briefing was very thorough and interesting. The tour itself was short but to the point and we learned all that we needed to know. This was the first time that we had been on a wine tour during the harvest so Agustina showed us the machine where the grapes were being removed from the stems and then pressed, it was pretty cool to see it in action.
Our favourite part was when we got to taste their premium wine, a blind blend of Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, kept in American oak barrels. The wine is called “En El Pais De Los Ciegos El Tuerto Es Rey”, which translates to “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king”. It was delicious, and seeing how much we enjoyed it Agustina gave us an extra little taste of the same blend but from French oak barrels, and the difference was really incredible. We preferred the American oak because it was much smoother but both were very, very tasty. To cap it all off, the labels were Alice in Wonderland inspired, which made Caro very happy and pretty much made it inevitable that we would be taking a bottle home with us.
This was a different experience altogether. For one thing, the grapes aren’t grown on site, so the setting is more of a warehouse than anything else, for another, Carmelo Patti himself runs the tastings and he is a one-of-a-kind character.
Carmelo speaks very little English but Caro was able to deduce and translate. We’d just missed a large group so we had a private tasting complete with all of Carmelo’s hints and tips for optimum wine enjoyment. It was very special and we could well understand why everyone is advised to make sure this particular bodega is on their visit list. We aren’t massive Cab Sav fans and we had expected to come away with a couple of bottles of Malbec from our day, but Carmelo’s Cab Sav was quite delicious and so, much to our surprise, we ended up with a bottle of that to take home too. Before we left we had a quick peak in the warehouse where a small team were labelling and packaging up all the bottles by hand.
Republica de Chachingo
We carried on along our route and pulled in to Republic de Chachingo for a much needed lunch. The place was deserted but we had enormous Ribeye steaks for less than a pint of beer back home along with some of the restaurant’s own Cabernet Franc, a new grape for us and very enjoyable. James also washed down a pint of their IPA while we waited for our food. It felt wrong not to try a local beer when on offer.
The next day we had given ourselves a leisurely start, expecting to be nursing slightly muggy heads, but had planned to join another tip based tour after our positive experience in Valpo. Vivi Mendoza did not disappoint; our guide Marcelo filled 3 hours with huge amounts of information about Mendoza, the city’s history, local and national politics and many other things as well. All delivered with a dry sense of humour. Every second street, building, square or statue seemed to be dedicated to José de San Martín, an Argentine hero credited with the liberation of Argetina, Chile and Peru. Marcelo gave us a slightly different take on San Martín, as, from a Mendozan point of view, he was a bit of a pain in the arse. They can’t admit that now though which is probably why they named so much stuff after him.
Mendoza is essentially a man-made oasis in the middle of the desert, and was specifically designed to be that. We didn’t notice until it was pointed out, but every single street in Mendoza is shaded by trees, every single one. This is not by accident, no trees grow naturally in the area, they were all imported to provide shade in what is a very hot and dry area. In order to maintain the enormous number of trees, irrigation channels are cut in to the side of every road. They aren’t full all of the time, the water is diverted to different areas at intervals to ensure that the trees get the water that they need. They are also cleaned constantly, so there is no rubbish or smell like you might expect. It’s truly ingenious. FYI these channels could prove slightly perilous if you have a couple too many on your bike wine tour.
We also learned about the truly inspirational Madres De Plaza Mayo or Mothers of the Plaza Mayo, an association of mothers of children who disappeared during the brutal dictatorship of 1976-1983. This group formed in 1977, just one year in to the dictatorship, demanding to know what had happened to their children through peaceful protest, marching to the Plaza Mayo in Buenos Aires, putting themselves in great danger in the process. The leaders of the group were themselves kidnapped and murdered. The Madres have marched every Thursday since their inception and will continue to do so until all of their questions are answered.
The tour was excellent and we have decided to give a London tours for tips a go, to see how tourists experience our home city.
The next day, Caro had finally decided the weather was warm enough to go white water rafting so we set off to Portellios, about an hour from Mendoza. We hadn’t really given days of the week much thought but we quickly realised that white water rafting is a really popular activity for locals on the weekend, there were 5 boats full of Argentinians and us and a couple of Germans in the English Speaking boat. As the water level was getting lower, the rafting wasn’t the wildest we have done, just grade 2 and 3 rapids, but they were more or less constant and we had a great hour and a half on the water. We would definitely recommend going during high season when the rapids get up to grade 5 because that must be briliant fun.
On our last day we had a day of leisure so decided to go and explore Parque San Martin and the viewpoint recommended by our tour guide. The walk started nicely enough with lawns, fountains and a lake, but in soon deteriorated in to walking through scrub alongside busy roads.
The viewpoint was not particularly great but we did get to see some more statues dedicated to San Martín.
For our last evening we booked a sunset horse ride with Los Pingos. It was excellent. We were instant fans because our transfer arrived 10 minutes early and that is such a rare treat in South America. Having been surrounded almost entirely by Spanish speakers for the past 4 weeks it was a bit of a surprise that only two of our group were from Argentina, the rest were all European, so the tour was led in English. Our guide, Anando, who Caro nicknamed the Marlboro Man, was good fun and kept us all entertained throughout the evening.
We were taken to the stables and each provided with a wonderfully docile horse to sit on. Anando told us in no uncertain terms that our limited European riding knowledge was useless, they do it very differently in Argentina. This was slightly nerve-wracking, but once we were up on the horses it was clear that they were quite happy to plod along and took almost no notice of any instruction that was given by anyone other than our two guides. James had managed to secure the laziest horse of the bunch, Guanaco, and Caro was once again on the clumsiest, Fernando, who she spent more time cuddling than anything else.
The ride was a very gentle one up in to the hills to watch the sunset over the Andes, we had a slightly overcast day so it wasn’t a particularly dramatic sunset but it was a beautiful ride.
Many staged photos followed but they were actually quite fun.
There was plenty of BBQ and wine on offer for dinner and we all got stuck in before piling back in to the minibus and dozing our way back to town, a great finale to our Mendoza visit.