Mendoza – Wines & Wobbly Bikes
Much to Bryan’s relief, lately I’ve been doing a lot more wining and a lot less whining. Mendoza has been at the top of my list of the destinations I’ve been looking forward to most in South America. Delicious wines, gorgeous scenery, tantalizing cuisine – what’s not to love? So after Santiago, we took another double-decker bus eight hours and up the windiest mountain road we’ve ever seen to Latin America’s wine capitol – Mendoza, Argentina.
We learned two important lessons during our first few days in Mendoza. First of all, don’t plan to be in Mendoza on a Sunday. The wineries (called “bodegas”) are closed to the public so it’s pretty much a waste of a day. Secondly, don’t stay out till 3 a.m. drinking green beer and celebrating St. Patrick’s Day with your new Irish friends Bernard and Desmond (“Sleezy Deezy”) the night before you go wine tasting. It was tough when the alarm went off Monday morning. I did not want to get out of bed. Then I realized I’d better stop complaining because I was getting up on Monday morning to drink wine in Argentina, not go to work.
The most popular backpacker budget friendly way to tour Mendoza is on a big, rickety beach cruiser bike. For about $6 USD a day you can rent a bike out of the small town of Maipu – which includes bottles of water, snacks, a bottle of wine, a personal info session, and a map. Our brakes even worked (not all the companies provided bikes with functioning brakes) :-).
I’ll be honest – for the first hour of our wine route I was disappointed. I had been fantasizing about Mendoza for years. My fantasies did not include an uncomfortable and squeaky bike, huge clouds of dust, traffic, and roadkill. But we finally pedaled our way to a winery and before long my outlook improved. I’m not even a big fan of red wines (and Bryan doesn’t like 95% of all wines), but Argentina wine is delicious! Malbec and Malbec blends are our new favorite wines. They are slightly fruity and not at all dry. If you can find a Malbec from Argentina in a local store – give it a try. Even Bryan happily drinks wine now with no complaints :-). Interestingly enough, our two favorite regions for wines are the Finger Lake region of New York and Argentina.
We visited four wineries and one brewery on our bike trip around Maipu. They were all a little different but we enjoyed all of their wines. The second day of wine-tasting we wanted to go for a fancy lunch with wine-pairings (many places offer 5 and 7-course lunches with accompanying wines). Every winery with these restaurants was completely full, or we needed to hire a driver to take us to the winery because they were in a different valley. We didn’t realize that everything in Mendoza was so far apart. There are various different valley regions in the Greater Mendoza area and some are an hour or more away. Things worked out for the best though. Our new Irish friends invited us to join them for a tasting at Bodega Luigi Bosca. Desmond owns a liquor, beer, and wine store back in Ireland that carries Luigi Bosca wines. He set-up a private tour and tasting. Their wine is fantastic – even Bryan loved it. After our tasting at Luigi Bosca, we couldn’t even swallow the free wine from our hostel. I used to drink almost any type of cheap wine, but apparently Argentina is turning me into a bit of a wine snob. 🙂
Road-trip of Ridiculousness
We were thrilled to be able to meet up with our travel buddies from Antarctica (the U.S. couple Justin & Ashley) again in Salta. I’m enjoying all of this “quality time” with Bryan but we both were glad to have other people to talk to. I’m ecstatic to have a girl to travel with. There are some things guys just can’t relate to. 🙂
The four of us rented a car together to do a 4-day road trip around Northern Argentina. What an adventure. “Betsey” our tiny Fiat broke down eight times. She apparently does not like to go up hills, or run too long on the highway. If even Mechanic Bryan couldn’t figure out what was wrong with Betsey, you know she was a piece of junk. Betsey’s first breakdown was on a steep, curvy mountain road in thick fog. Ashley had just finished saying that the road looked like a scene from a horror movie right before Betsey died. We had to sit for about 5 to 10 minutes each time she broke down before she would start up again. Along the way, Bryan claimed he saw a huge tarantula crossing the road. I didn’t believe him so he turned around to prove himself right. Sure enough, there was a big, furry tarantula walking along the road. We eventually made it to Salinas Grandes, the salt flats in Argentina. The reflections of the mountains were beautiful, but we knew that this was just a warm-up for the vast Salt Flats in Bolivia we will be touring next week.
Speaking of the Salt Flats, the four of us spent an afternoon shopping for picture props for the Bolivian Salt Flats. You’ll see why we need props in our next post. We ended up in a strange party store (for children & adults) and came across some creepy animal masks. After countless hours in the car, the masks provided us with much entertainment. Some of the highlights include Justin wearing a monkey mask while peeing on the side of the highway behind a pile of rocks and waving to a double decker tour bus; Ashley unsuccessfully trying to take a picture with a herd of goats while wearing her goat mask (we were chased away by herding dogs and Justin was covered in thorns); and me taking a picture with a group of roaming donkeys while wearing a donkey mask (Bryan kept reminding me not to walk behind the freaked out donkeys).
The following day was our most ridiculous. We had to pull over on the side of the road to go to the bathroom and found ourselves in some sort of landfill/animal carcass dumping grounds. Ashley had to pee on a pile of glass beside a long row of horse, cow, and other animals’ skeletons. I chose to pee on a cactus instead. Throughout our shenanigans, we managed to cross the Tropic of Capricorn six times. Near the Tropic of Capricorn, there was a gigantic stone llama outside of a restaurant and store. There were several baby and Mama Llamas chilling outside in front of a grill where a woman was cooking llama steaks. We didn’t eat there. I hope this restaurant isn’t like Red Lobster where you chose the lobster you eat before they cook it. 🙁
We took a rocky, steep mountain road about 45-minutes out of the tiny town of Humahuaca to see the rainbow colored Hornocal Mountains. The mountains aren’t a common tourist site but Ashley heard about them from another travel blogger. Betsey broke down several times that day. Twice everyone except for the driver (Bryan) had to get out of the car so he could make it up a hill. Thanks to some big rocks, we lost a big chunk of Betsey’s under carriage. Bryan used some plastic zip ties to rig up the now exposed fuel lines. Hitting another big rock would spell major disaster.
There are discrepancies on whether the Hornocal Mountains outside of Humahuaca are 14 or 20 different colors. Either way, they are incredible. I would have never imagined that mountains came in so many colors, designs, and shapes. The amazing thing about Argentina is that you can have gray rocky, snow-capped mountains, lush green mountains and hills, and rainbow-colored mountains all in the same view. There are also herds of various colored llamas, alpacas, and vicunas leaping and grazing on the hills and plains. On our way back to town, Betsey was running low on gas so Bryan turned the car off and we coasted for over 12 minutes down the hill.
After two days and several Betsey breakdowns, we decided to spend a night in the city of Salta and switch out our rental car for something more reliable. After all, the steepest mountains and roughest terrains were yet to come as we made our way South to Cafayate. The boys went and took care of trading Betsey in while Ashley and I waited at our hostel. They triumphantly returned and had managed to switch our tiny Fiat in for an SUV! Ashley and I were really looking forward to the extra space, comfort, and reliability of the new car. We lugged all our bags out of the hostel and much to our chagrin, Justin and Bryan were grinning and standing in front of BETSEY! 🙁 Ashley and I stopped dead in our tracks. They said the looks on our faces were priceless. We admit, the boys really got us with that stunt.
Cafayate – The Next Mendoza?
Cafayate was the final destination on our 4-day road trip. The valley of Cafayate is the second leading producer of wine in Argentina. Along with the lure of more delicious wine, we also decided to drive to Cafayate because there’s a spectacularly scenic route that runs through Cachi. This scenic route is 9-hours of steep, curvy mountains and rocky, bumpy dirt roads. There were a few more breakdowns and we had to spend the night along the way, but we finally made it to Cafayate. We were all glad we opted for the longer route (even though the highway was only 3-hours). Argentina’s landscape transformed from lush green forests, mountains, deserts and cacti, vineyards, farms, and incredible rock formations. Those sights were worth every minute of the rough ride. There were also herds of free-roaming llamas, vicunas, alpacas, donkeys, pigs, bulls, and other farm animals. The land was dotted with hand-made mud brick homes. Even though the houses were constructed with mud, nearly every one had a Direct TV dish.
When you think of wine in Argentina, you probably automatically think of Mendoza. But Cafayate puts Argentina on the world’s wine map, too. Torrontés grapes grow well in Cafayate because of the valley’s unique micro-climates and elevation. Torrontés are a white grape, but the area wineries also produce reds. I liked the feel of Cafayate much better than Mendoza. Cafayate is actually more what I fantasized about for all these years when I thought about visiting Argentina’s wine regions. It’s a quaint town set in a picturesque mountain valley. All the wineries are easily accessible. The first two wineries we visited were only a few kilometers outside of town and the last several we visited were right in town (we walked). Many of the tastings were free and the rest were the equivalent of $2.50 USD! Some of the wineries reimbursed your tasting costs if you bought a bottle of their wine. You can buy a good bottle for less than $10 USD. The wines were delicious – aromatic, easily drinkable, sweet but not to sweet, and just the right amount of fruitiness. Our trip to Cafayate would not have been complete without a visit to Helados Miranda. Along with all of the normal flavors, this family-run ice cream shop offers wine ice cream! I had a scoop of Torrontés and Cabernet and it tasted like a wine sorbet. The sweet old man that owns the shop even opened the doors for us when he had already closed.
“Don’t Cry For Me Argentina”
It’s going to be sad to leave Argentina. We love it here. The scenery and cities are spectacular, the wine and food are delicious, and the people are so kind and welcoming. From Buenos Aires to Patagonia and everywhere in between, Argentina has so much to offer! I’m pretty sure I’m going to be experiencing major empanada, wine, and ice cream withdrawals. 🙂 If I had to guess, the number of empanadas I’ve eaten in the last month is in the hundreds.
Tomorrow Bryan, Justin, Ashley, and I cross into Bolivia to begin our Salt Flat tour – more crazy adventures to come! We all just hope our 4-wheel drive vehicle in the Salt Flats will be more reliable than Ole Betsey! 🙂