Mendoza, Maipu, & Malbec

Last Sunday Argentina held a presidential election of outsize importance, as for the first time in 12 years someone with the last name of Kirchner wasn’t running. Analogous to America’s Clintons, Cristina Kirchner and her late husband Nestor have held power in the country’s executive branch since 2003. However, the couple is also widely suspected of misappropriating millions in government funds, causing the election of Cristina’s hand-picked successor, Nicholas Scioli, to draw some aggressive challengers. A field of contenders entered promising change, but Scioli appeared to have a comfortable 10% lead in many polls. Yet last week’s election told a different story, as high turnout helped Mauricio Macri finish within 2.5% of Scioli, inciting a huge jubilation among his supporters and a run-off vote next month. Throughout the evening I watched the election returns and candidate speeches live with a few Argentinians, soaking up both their outspoken comments and unspoken body language about the contentious event. For more on the elections and their results, here is the BBC’s coverage

Although I watched the election’s in Cordoba, on Monday Stefje and I progressed on our journey a few hundred kilometers further South, heading for the region of Mendoza. We were determined to try hitchhiking again, so we did some research the night before and decided the best course of action would be to catch a quick bus to a smaller town nearby. Without fail, grabbing a ride in a big city is significantly more difficult, so we shipped off to Villa Carlos Paz, about an hour away. Despite its name, Carlos Paz was more of a city than a village, so we ended up taking one of the town’s busses to the outskirts of town before disembarking and trying to grab a ride. 

For the next three hours the going was tough, as we alternated between walking further down the highway in search of a gas station and unsuccessfully hitching rides. Moving by the side of the road on my own two feet gave me a new appreciation for the vastness of this continent I’m traversing. It’s so much bigger than I ever give it credit for while I’m getting shuttled around on the tourist trail. It was almost 2:30pm by the time we finally got picked up and the driver was only going about 20 kilometers in the right direction, but we hopped at the opportunity to get away from the big town. 30 minutes and one exceptionally fishy detour later, he dropped us in Cuesta Blanca. More accurately, it was the turn off for Cuesta Blanca, as the town was still 2 kilometers away on foot, so we decided to keep rolling the dice and try to find another ride. 

Just down the road a few hundred yards was another pair of hitchhikers, which usually spells bad luck for one group, but miraculously we were both picked up by two different cars within 15 minutes. Our driver was controlling an enormous 18-wheeler weighed down with a full payload of dirt, causing him to take the next stretch exceptionally slowly until we reached the turnoff for his construction site. As a hitchhiker it’s natural to evaluate places you’re dropped as prospective camping grounds should the day’s luck run out. Although the view here was spectacular, it would have been a tough and cold place to spend the night on the side of the highway. 

Never to fear, we were picked up just a few minutes later by a couple that sheepishly admitted to having whizzed past us in Carlos Paz a few hours before. Theirs proved the most fruitful ride of the day, as they hauled us almost 100 kilometers to Mina Clavero. The views were breathtaking along the way, as we first drove pretty much straight through a dangerously thick cloud and then passed over a mountain, offering spectacular views of a valley on the other side. In front of us lay an unbroken chain of mountains, their peaks rising up into a layer of fog. To the right of the road was a gorgeously fertile valley, populated by an assortment of small villages with waterfalls and rivers that prove popular for camping during summer. And to our left was a vertical rock face, sticking straight out of the hillside with the road built dangerously on the precipice. 

At the turn off in Mina Clavero we got out and bid them farewell, grateful for the progress yet aware of the slowly vanishing sun that would soon make our trip immeasurably more difficult. Luckily a fourth kind soul saw our sorry sight and showed us some mercy. A fellow travel lover who works seasonally in Argentina’s highly fluctuating tourist industry, he told us all about the area we had been deposited in, including the popular markets and swimming holes in the summertime. However, he had to drop us only halfway to the next town of Villa Dolores, so we had to hop out and wait again. 

This time our savior was a pick-up truck and the friendly driver laid out our options in Villa Dolores, as there are two major roads to the next big town of San Luis. Grateful for his advice, we tried the more direct route but getting to a pickup point proved to be a challenge in its own right. The two kilometers we were originally quoted turned out to be closer to five, so I gave up, hailed a taxi, and we got off on the side of the highway. Five cars had stopped for us already that day, but that was where our luck would run out. We waited for two hours until the sun’s rays slanted across the horizon and it became clear that this was as far as we were going to get. 

They say the only skill required to hitchhike is patience, but after a long day we were simply worn out. We assessed the situation and thought about staying in Villa Dolores to try again the next day, but I took one look at Stefje’s face and realized it would be best to just purchase a bus ticket. Ultimately, we swallowed our pride and got the last two seats on the night bus to Mendoza, hobbling to the back of the bus and then immediately falling sound asleep. 

But there was a silver lining: by 8AM the next morning we were in Mendoza! After encountering surprisingly few foreigners in both Salta and Cordoba, Mendoza was a definitive return to the tourist trail. With access to the continent’s best wine and best skiing, the province is home to plenty of tourist agencies, english speakers, and packaged tours. The city of Mendoza is nothing to scoff at as well, with wide walking streets and five plazas laid out within the eight by eight block city center.

Stefje and I chose from the wealth of highly-rated hostels and were pleasantly surprised when our 9:50AM check-in included access to an awesome breakfast buffet. Served in an outdoor patio framed by three trees and the sun just starting to shine over the outer walls, we basked in that wonderful feeling of drinking coffee in the morning sun. 

After long showers to clear away the first layer of grime from spending the previous day on the road, we set off to explore the city. Everywhere we turned there was another tree-lined plaza, as the area was surprisingly green for a region that is supposedly mostly desert. 

Late October in Argentina means the onset of Spring, and the pathways were filled with blooming flowers, their smell mixing with the warm air to provide a buoyant energetic feeling. 

As the afternoon wore on, our legs led us to Parque General San Martin, Mendoza’s claim to fame. One of the largest city parks in South America, the greenery extends off the Western side of the city center and is the ultimate destination for going for a run, rollerblading, or just sitting in the sun and sipping cup after cup of mate. 

In keeping with the viniculture traditions of Mendoza, Punto Urbano Hostel boasts free wine from 7-9pm, which turned out to be the perfect way to meet some fellow travelers on the outdoor patio. Afterwards a Mendocina (woman from Mendoza) arrived for a special class in the art of brewing and enjoying yerba mate. As prevalent among Argentinians as tea is among the British or beer is among Australians, yerba mate is a bitter drink brewed by pouring piping hot water into a hollowed out retrofitted pumpkin filled with yerba leaves and plenty of sugar. For Argentinians, it is a staple of everyday life and is best enjoyed at literally any time of day or night. 

Wednesday we were off again, leaving the comforts of Mendoza behind to head down for the vineyards and wineries of the Maipu region. But in the morning I couldn’t get away without first exploring the city’s central market, the allure of cheap everything too much to pass by. Consisting of the better part of an entire city block, I perused the clothing options at the numerous stalls, then made my way over to the food building where attendants yelled out, vying for my attention. Observing the scene, it was clear that the most popular option among the locals was the panaderia, where they serve up fresh breads, pastries, and delectable sweets. The traditional cookie of Argentina is the alfajor, a sandwich usually filled with dulce de leche and so popular that classic brands like Oreo and Chips Ahoy offer their own version in most shops.

In the back was a spread of meat options, ranging from the ever-popular foot long “pancho” hot dog to rich cuts of veal.

In the afternoon Stefje and I again loaded up with camping gear and caught a local bus to South America’s most prodigious wine growing region. Over the next hour the urban metropolis of Mendoza and the ring of towns around it slowly gave way to sunshine, olive trees, and grape vines. Twice we were told the 182 bus would take us straight to the campsite we wanted to stay at, but after riding through tiny hamlets for over an hour and even reaching the point where the bus hit the end of the line and turned around, we decided to ask the driver for some help. He told us we had been misinformed and could only drop us at a traffic circle that was “a quick walk away.” Well it turned out for him a quick walk is about three kilometers, so we put one foot in front of the other.

Sweaty and with aching legs, we finally arrived and for the second time in two weeks it was clear that we had a massive campground all to ourselves. Equipped with a community-sized swimming pool, two full size soccer fields, plenty of outdoor grills, and room for about 200 people, this was a camper’s paradise. Unfortunately we arrived with zero food, so I immediately turned around and walked over a mile to the nearest store, which was of course devoid of any fruits or vegetables, but well-stocked with bread, chips, and chocolate. We made some homemade sandwiches, so tired from all the walking that it didn’t really matter as long as we could eat. 

Staying at the campsite which was truly in the middle of the nowhere was refreshing, but it also meant we would have to deal with mother nature first hand, both the good and the bad. First, the sun set over the vineyards right next to us and painted the overhead clouds in shades of blue, red, and purple, putting on a show right above our heads.

Then as night fell, the darkness was intermittently broken up by the lightning of a storm in the distance. As it got closer the lightning strikes quickened in pace to one every two or three second, each accompanied by intense bursts of thunder. After I crawled into the tent and let the storm’s sounds sing me to sleep, a ferocious wind came roaring through. Howling so loudly through the trees that I could hear gusts approaching from 50 yards away, it threatened to pick the tent up straight out of the ground. Finally it subsided and I got a few hours of sleep, but immediately upon the first rays of sunlight seeping into the morning sky, we learned just how many birds were living on the campgrounds. Their morning songs were voluminous and ceaseless, making any more sleep impossible. When I peeked out of the tent, it was a glorious sight. Despite the overnight storm, the sun was shining through the surrounding trees into a clear blue sky, promising better weather ahead.

While waiting for the bus into Maipu town that morning, we figured trying to hitchhike couldn’t hurt, but oh how wrong we were! Within ten minutes a woman stopped and wasn’t going to Maipu exactly, but told us she could drop us off nearby in another town with more frequent busses. She was our first female hitchhike driver and proved to be gregarious, eager to learn about out trip and even inviting us to a traditional asado (Argentinian BBQ) that Sunday. Her intentions were surely well-meaning, as she took us all the way to the bus station next to her office, showed us where to buy tickets, and which line to take into the city. Unfortunately half an hour and two busses passed by, but none of them were headed to Maipu. Frustrated and confused, we asked a nearby police officer as they are almost always willing and eager to help tourists. He pointed out a bus heading in the opposite direction and told us to get on, saying it would head to Maipu. 

This commenced the ultimate interminable bus ride. For the next two hours we rode this single bus through the tiny villages and all the way to the end of its route twice, increasingly agitated as the three bus employees on board assured us we would get to Maipu eventually. It turns out the line only goes all the way to Maipu every third time, so our patience was severely tested as we drove back through our original starting point for a third time, two hours after our original arrival. 

Three hours after departing we arrived in Maipu, recognizing that it actually would have been slightly faster (and probably less frustrating) to have just walked! Surrounded once again by tourism infrastructure, we walked around the main part of town, highlighted by the verdant main square. We opted for the most popular activity in town, renting fixed-gear bikes to pedal around the area’s wineries. For the first time since college, it was time for a wine tour! 

We totally lucked out with the weather, as the sun was shining for the first time in the last few days yet there was just enough cloud cover to prevent it from getting oppressively hot. Our bikes couldn’t go very fast, but that turned out to be part of the allure, with endless lines of grape vines slowly passing by on either side. Maipu’s climate is actually semi-desertic, making wine-growing possible only through extensive irrigation systems from the province’s rivers. Most of the incoming precipitation is swallowed up by the imposing snow-capped peaks of the Andes mountains in the distance, demarking the nearby border with Chile. 

The first stop of the day was at La Añorada, a picturesque winery on the outskirts of town. Our affable tour guide was named German, and he fired off joke after joke while getting us acquainted with the winery’s production cycle. One of the coolest parts of the tour was how German led us through the various stages of making Malbec, the blend which Maipu is most famous for. He poured us tastings from monstrous twenty foot high vats at two different points in the fermentation process, then led us down into the cellar and siphoned a more mature oak blend straight out of the barrel before finally pouring a version of the finished product from the bottle. 

Endless olive trees at La Añorada:

The afternoon dragged on and we progressed down the road to the Sarinae winery, a smaller vineyard offering a wide variety of Malbecs, Cabernets, and Syrahs, each one named after a constellation. The wines were good, albeit a bit overpriced, with my favorite being a special Finca Malbec that was aged, removing some of the overwhelming fruity tones and leaving a smoother finish. 

From there the bike ride back to town was gorgeous, as we pedaled down some of the smaller tree-lined streets and enjoyed the afternoon breeze breathing life into our faces.

After having such trouble in the morning, we were both immensely relieved once we successfully navigated the bus system back to camp. Thursday night mother nature was a little kinder in letting us get some rest, so that by the time we woke up on Friday we were ready for the trip back to Mendoza. As we were walking towards the bus stop, we saw that a bus was pulling away just out of our reach, meaning our early departure was in vain and we’d have to wait 45 minutes for the next round. 

Haggard after a few nights in the wilderness, we spent the afternoon in Mendoza consuming copious amounts of fresh fruits and vegetables, then acting like true Argentinians by taking a long afternoon nap. When I woke it was time for one last prowl around the wide city streets, as the onset of the weekend made for a festive atmosphere in Plaza Independencia. Jewelry makers and street food vendors hawked their goods to a growing crowd of locals and tourists, everyone eager to get the party started. In the evening back at the hostel I made some friends and exchanged information about onward travel destinations in Chile and Argentina, which was helpful because the next day we were bound for Santiago! 

Saturday the weather was brooding: after a long slow rainfall through the night, humid clouds hung over the entire area as far as I could see. Stefje and I woke up early and were eager to get started on another hitchhiking experience; by 9AM we were singing and dancing on the side of the highway in a vain attempt to attract someone enough to stop. Equipped with a sign that read “A Santiago CHILE” and a bag of yerba mate to act as a bribe, we were cautiously optimistic about our chances of crossing the border for free. Regardless, we were both excited for the adventure!

The distance between Mendoza and Chile’s capital city looks minuscule on a map, but due to the Andes mountains in between, we knew it would take at least eight hours. About an hour of waiting on the outskirts of town yielded just one short ride South, but it was better than nothing. Next up, an old pickup truck offered to take us to the intersection with the small town of Lujan de Cuyo, so we eagerly hopped in the bed of the truck. 

Although we vastly enjoyed the cold wind whipping at our cheeks, the fun of the ride was like a sugar rush, a quick high followed by the dreadful onset of reality. Argentinians are well known for offering the wrong directions even if they don’t know where your destination is, and for the third time this week we suffered at the hands of this stereotype. The two guys in the truck’s cab told us the intersection with Route 7, the main highway to Chile, was just one kilometer down the road. But half an hour of walking combined with a careful inspection of the map proved that it was actually still ten kilometers away. At this point we were marooned on the side of a major highway, not quite giving up hope but realizing it would take some major luck to catch a ride with cars whizzing by at over 100 kilometers an hour. 

Instead it just took 90 minutes of patience. A severely hungover driver stopped and offered to take us 250 kilometers South to a wedding in San Rafael, but we were immensely pleased to just cover the final portion to Route 7. At a gas station we made a pit stop and did a quick assessment of what our situation would be if we didn’t catch a ride to Chile (short answer: you’re screwed), we walked up the on ramp and stuck out our thumbs one more time. Here the flow of traffic was much thinner, which gave us hope, and straight ahead we could see our desired road heading deep into the snowy mountains.

Just before 1pm salvation struck. A Nissan Xterra pulled over, enticed by the bag of mate and recognizing two tourists in need of some luck. The driver’s name was Alfredo and yup, he was headed to Chile! It had been an exhausting morning on the side of the highway; my feeling upon getting settled in his car was simply pure relief. 

Soon enough, the road began to awe us with natural wonders in all directions. On the right we were dwarfed by mountains, their imposing peaks and jagged rocks formations delighting my eyes. To the left lay a riverbed, the flow of water carving out a perfectly vertical rock wall as high as 100 feet in some places.

But of course ahead of us was the most beautiful sight, a never-ending string of white mountains, their peaks stretching 5000, 6000, almost 7000 meters above sea level. An hour into the ride we crossed into Aconcagua National Park, home to “the roof of the Americas.” Aconcagua’s summit is the highest in both North and South America, a ridiculous 6960 meters (22,841 feet) in altitude. Although we could barely make out its contours due to the blankets of clouds hugging its slopes, Alfredo regaled us with tales of his two week expedition to the top. 

The road that eventually brought us to the Chilean border is a marvel of human engineering. Deeper and deeper into the mountains we progressed, the mountain range completely uninhabited except for a couple of ski resort towns. The chairlifts hung in poetic stillness, their positions fixed until the season resumes next year. In other sections, the only signs of life were the melting snowdrifts.

Chile and Argentina use the highest point of the mountain pass as their border, so by the time we got our passports stamped we were surrounded on all sides by snow. 

Once in Chile the road took a steep descent, winding back and forth through a series of 15 consecutive hairpin turns down a dangerous hill. Whereas it took us four hours to approach the eastern slopes, it was only an hour into Chile before we were out of the mountains. Soon enough, the ceaseless cloud cover gave way to a searing sunshine, sending the temperature up and exposing a fertile green valley populated with trees and bright flowers. 

The steep mountainside was also the perfect situation to produce some spewing waterfalls, which coalesced into a forceful river as we approached the town of Los Andes, Alfredo’s destination. In town he was nice enough to drop our weary butts off at the bus station, cementing his position as my favorite hitchhike driver so far. Within minutes we had onward travel to Santiago, ultimately paying $4 for a trip that would have otherwise pushed $40. In the 20 minute layover I sprinted out and back to get some food so we wouldn’t get "hangry" on the bus, heaving for air as I jumped on the bus 30 seconds before it pulled away. 

Less than twelve hours after bidding Mendoza farewell, we pulled in to Santiago, one of the most modern cities in the entire continent. To say it was disorienting would be a severe understatement. With a population of five million, a lively nightlife scene, and artistic culture galore, we both agreed it felt more like Los Angeles or Amsterdam than South America. Entering on Saturday night only amplified the experience, as everywhere we turned there was another unexpected sight. Skyscrapers! Nightclubs! Fancy hotels! Taco Bell! Truly, we had arrived.