Mendoza and Santiago are only about 120 miles apart as the crow flies, but even a crow would be hard pressed to get over the Andes without zigzagging a bit. Earthbound as I am, I have to settle for a winding 6 hour bus ride through the mountains. Highlights include passing Aconcagua, the highest mountain in South America and some generally excellent views of the Andes. Lowlights include a painfully slow line at the border crossing (my sixth and final time for the Argentina/Chile border) and a overactive heating system on the bus that eventually causes me to zonk out and miss much of the nice scenery.
Mendoza is somewhat underwhelming. For all the vineyards in the outlying areas, the center of town is not really appealing. There’s also a dark cloud hanging over the city — a few weeks prior to my arrival, an Australian backpacker was mugged in the town’s largest park in broad daylight. He was with two other people, but refused to give up his backpack, and was shot to death. It’s a sobering reminder of Argentina’s struggle with poverty and the fact that the world can be a dangerous place.
There are also literal clouds hanging over the city, and a lot of the weekend is spent dodging rain.
I think everybody knows Mendoza as the capital of Argentine wine country, so I feel obligated to visit some wineries while I’m in town. Thus I sign up for one of the great cultural activities of our times: the bicycle tour of wine tastings with random people from your hostel who know nothing about wine.
Our first stop is Carmelo Patti’s winery, where almost every aspect of production is done personally by the namesake proprietor. He also serves as tour guide. We taste some of his wine and are asked what we think. We agree that it is very nice and maybe has notes of fruit flavors. Mostly grape, you’d say. Fortunately Carmelo has some official reviews written by professional wine snobs, in English, so we can learn how uncultured we are. I am not shitting you, one of the reviews said the wine we just tried had notes of “brick dust” and then acted like this was a totally normal and indeed positive attribute for a beverage to have.
Predictably we keep trying to come up with more ridiculous flavors than brick dust as we try more wines. Equally predictably, the quality of our jokes declines, but our amusement spikes dramatically.
The second stop is the Lagarde Winery, which is a more polished mid-size operation. The tasting here was targeted more towards idiots like ourselves, with a patient marketing lady explaining basics, and giving us some unlabeled bottles used to test scents – turns out it’s surprisingly tough to identify a smell as common as butter or peaches if you don’t have any visual cue.
There was one more winery that we stopped at, but by this time the wine was really kicking in, so I am not sure of the name. It was pretty funky though, and they took us into a cellar that was just great for a photographer.
There is a fairly active and hip strip of bars and restaurants on the southwest side of the city. The first night, we pack it in early as there is enough interest at the hostel to try to watch the Blackhawks playoff game I hit one up with Patrick, one of the wine-tasting crew. Patrick was actually a Chicago native, now teaching English in Santiago.
The food at the restaurant was not particularly memorable one way or the other, but I’ll never forget that meal, as the ratio of women to men in the restaurant was 50:3.
Sunday is Mother’s Day and rainy. I am once again in a cafe, killing time before a long overnight bus ride. This time I am approached by a lady of about 60. She is very interested in my life, as it gives her an opening to share a lot of her opinions with me. For example, when I tell her that I learned my Spanish in Guatemala, she informs me that the Spanish is no good there. Also that the people are much uglier there. There are crumbs on her lips while she goes on like this. She is an architect. She leaves for a while and then comes back with some more information along the same lines. Eventually I just pack up my stuff and head to the bus station.
I don’t miss Mendoza.