Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Mendoza, Argentina: Wine, Beef and Wine.

 Have hade a bit of trouble with this post, so please excuse me.  Wi Fi in Bolivia is not the greatest.
Tuesday morning Christina and I woke up in Valparaiso, Chile and started our journey to Mendoza, Argentina.  We hopped on a semi-cama bus (these are buses with seats that recline, to some degree).  Our bus ride was supposed to be eight hours, but after spending over a month traveling in S. America, we knew better than to expect to arrive in time.  I have no idea what held us up at the border, but as busloads of foreigners passed us en route to Argentina, we sat outside of the border for an additional hour as immigration officials boarded our bus and called individuals by name to exit the bus for additional questioning.  Not long after finally hitting the pavement again, our bus was stopped by the Argentine military and they proceeded to board our bus and pepper a few individuals with questions. Eleven hours after we departed Valparaiso, we arrived safely in Mendoza, Argentina.
Mendoza, Argentina is considered by many the wine capital of S. America.  If you ask a Chilean, they will probably tell you differently.  But, make no mistake, most viticulturist, wine snobs and sommeliers know that Mendoza is a force to be reckoned with and home to the world’s best Malbecs.   However, the Mendoza Christina and I arrived in was a far cry from the Mendoza we had pictured in our head.  If we would have done our homework, we would have known that Mendoza was 4th largest city in Argentina.   I had pictured arriving to a small town set against the backdrop of the Andes with red dirt roads, children playing futbol in the street and street dogs standing guard at local bodegas.  Instead, we had arrived at a bustling city with sirens, exhaust and Coca-Cola signs abound.  Our first five minutes in Mendoza were not great, but every second there after left a lasting impression on us. Once we uncovered the Mendoza we had conjured up in our minds, we did not want to leave.
I left Valparaiso with the makings of a nasty head cold and it hit in full force upon our arrival in Mendoza.  I was pretty bummed, because I had just survived a nasty virus while in Patagonia and Santiago.  Maybe it was the fact that soap is found sparingly in most bathrooms, or that I had been cooped up in countless tiny busses with sneezing, sniffling, coughing people.  Or, that I had been forced to stuff the very toilet paper I had wiped my butt with in countless bins overflowing with other people’s ass rags (yes, you do not flush toilet paper in S. America.  It’s a matter of necessity, not culture).  Regardless, I was not feeling great and as we hit the pavement outside of the bus station and Christina flipped through our worn Lonely Planet book in search of our hostel, one thing became glaringly apparent: we were in a fucking desert.  It took a few blocks with a heavy rucksack to understand that head colds and hot, dry, arid desserts do not necessarily mix well.  Sweaty and begging for water after only twenty minutes of walking, Christina and I decided to hail a Taxi and pay the five pesos for him to find our hostel for us (five pesos is about $1.25 U.S.).  Less than five minutes after hopping in our taxi, we arrived at Hostel Lao.

We had heard great things about Hostel Lao prior to our arrival and for good reason.  Owned by two former backpackers, Hostel Lao seems like a utopian paradise compared to most of the places we’d stayed.  The backyard is full of sweet smelling flowers, multicolored hammocks, trinkets hanging from the trees and two playful dogs.  There are fridges full of beer and wine and each time you walk through the door, the staff greets you as if you have arrived at your actual home.  Christina and I grabbed a liter of Schneider upon arrival and sat in the backyard as we played fetch with Astor, a freakishly large German Shepherd with a head the size of a basketball.  It was a constant source of amusement in the hostel that Astor, who obsessed over fetch and could easily hold a human leg in his mouth, chose instead to play only with the tiniest, dandiest of leaves.   After finishing two liters of beer, Christina and I hailed a taxi to meet up with our friends Eric and Carla, who were finishing up their honeymoon in wine country.  At the suggestion of Carla, we found a posh dinner spot, ordered a round of steaks, some grilled provolone and a bottle of wine.  Grilled provolone is something I’ve seen only in Argentina and I love it.  The grill masters lop off a three inch thick piece of provolone from a giant log, smother it with garlic and spices and throw it over a wood burning grill. The result is a charred, oozing, delicious piece of cheesy heaven.   We finished yet another meal without a single vegetable, before bidding Carla and Eric farewell and wishing them good luck on the rest of their journey.

Mr. Hugo's- Time for wine.
On our first full day in Mendoza, Christina and I had decided to bike the local Mendoza wine route.  Though many of Mendoza’s best wineries remain far removed from the city in the countryside, there are a dozen or so in Maipu (an area of Mendoza about 40 minutes away) that can be accessed by bicycle.  There are a handful of companies that rent bikes, but by far the most famous is Mr. Hugo’s, whose company was recommended by countless travelers we’ve crossed paths with.  To get to Maipu, we had to first find some cold medicine, then buy a bus card, and then navigate our way forty minutes out of town, all with my broken Spanish.  I will not lie; I get a bit nervous when trying to accurately navigate the bus system in Chicago.  Hopping on a bus deep into the Argentine countryside with loads of uncertainty as to where our actual stop was had me wound a little tight. But, our lucky streak continued and we managed to find our way right to Mr. Hugo’s front door.
The wine museum.

Our fellow travelers did not embellish, after walking through the gates of Mr. Hugo’s before being greeted with a single “Hello” we were met with dixie cups brimming with wine.  Mr. Hugo did not speak a word of English, but he understood that anyone crazy enough to ride 20+ kilometers in the desert heat in search of wine clearly appreciated a good buzz.  Christina and I paid the 30 pesos a piece for our bikes, grabbed our tiny maps (about $7.50 U.S.) and hit the pavement in search of the El Museo del Vino (the museum of wine).

Trapiche Winery
  As we peddled to our first destination, it became apparent rather quickly that our bikes, which looked completely legit, clearly were not.  Never have I had to work so hard to peddle a bike on a flat piece of pavement.  Less than two miles into our journey, my thighs were burning and I had broken a solid sweat.  Christina’s bike was no different, we laughed as we strained to peddle our bikes in a straight line.  After touring the wine museum and heading to an olive oil manufacturer, we hit the road and began to work our way to some of the wineries. 

Maipu did not disappoint, it was all that we had hoped for when Christina and I decided to visit Mendoza.  Tall hedgerows of trees separated endless rows of grapevines and olive trees.  Forty year old cars kicked up dust as they crawled down red dirt roads. Children stood outside small adobe houses and waved as we passed and chickens, dogs and goats filled every other front yard.  Our bike lane quickly dissipated and Christina and I found ourselves hugging a small three inch piece of gravel as semi trucks and busses flew by, kicking up dust and spewing exhaust into our face. Our whole adventure quickly became a bit less romantic and fairytale once we were forced to share the road with eighteen wheelers.  But, we eventually found the Trapiche winery and all was forgotten for the moment.  Trapiche is a huge wine producer and unlike many of the mom and pop wineries that pepper the countryside in Maipu, has a very noticeable corporate edge to it. Still, we were delighted to hear the history of the 150 year old winery and taste some of their finest wines.  Two hours after our arrival, we were back on our bikes in search of some more wineries.  The cartoonish maps given to us at Mr. Hugo’s did not turn out to be accurate and I can’t say that I was necessarily surprised.  They had on them about a dozen wineries indicated with wine barrels and only a handful of streets.

Hefty tastings at Tempus Alba Winery.
After biking for thirty minutes and not passing a single street indicated on the map, Christina and I wondered whether we had taken a wrong turn.  As we stopped on the side of the road to consult our shitty maps, a truck driver pulled over and pointed down the road, ensuring us that we were headed in the right direction.  We arrived a short time later at the Tempus Alba winery and were both greeted with a friendly hug and a kiss from the owner.  Not soon after, we made our way outside to a beautiful terrace that over looked intermittent fields with carefully spaced rows of grapevines and olive trees.  We ordered two tastings and the owner brought ought six glasses nearly half full.
Ahh, it was delicious.

Vina al Cerno Winery
After savoring the wine and our vegetarian lunch (a rarity in Argentina), we hopped back on our bikes in search of Vino al Cerno, a small mom and pop winery down the road.   We stepped into a rustic, worn building that probably looked no different a hundred years ago.  We had our choice from a rather wide variety of wines and Christina and I both chose differently.  As they poured the wine for our tasting, it was clear we would walk out of Vino al Cerno with not only a better knowledge of their varietals, but a really solid buzz.  Surprisingly, our favorite wine was a sparkling chardonnay.  I am not usually a fan of white wines, especially Chardonnay, and Christina agrees.  But, this wine was truly unique and spectacular, like no other wine we had ever tasted.  We bought a single bottle and threw it in our basket as we began our long journey back towards Mr. Hugo’s. 
We arrived back to Mr. Hugo’s and were greeted by a swath of other bikers, enjoying the end of their day with unlimited amounts of Mr. Hugo’s special blend.  Christina and I settled into a table and struck up a conversation with some Canadians, a Swedish woman and two British girls. The wine flowed freely and Mr. Hugo ensured that everyone’s cup remained full.   Two hours later and rather drunk at this point, Mr. Hugo herded his group of tipsy bike riders onto the number #10 bus, making sure everyone made it on the correct bus back to the city.  I knew the bus ride home would be interesting.  Our bus was full of three dozen wine drunk gringos, all dawning ridiculous purple teeth and purple lips.  A few locals boarded the bus and although they were clearly not amused, I could tell this was a sight they had become quite accustomed to

Ohh..  One dozen empanadas down the hatch.
We stumbled into our hostel around 9 p.m. drunk, sun kissed and covered in dust from our day of biking. We were exhausted and starving, but we lacked the motivation to make ourselves presentable enough for a dinner in town.  Our options for takeout were limited to empanadas and pizza.  Our run-ins with Argentine pizza usually left us unsatisfied and slightly grossed out, so we headed to the empanada joint.  There must have been a run on empanadas, because they were out of nearly everything on their menu.  It was cheaper to order a dozen than to order a-la-carte, so we opted for a dozen carne empanadas, our usual go-to. Twenty minutes later, we were handed a folded brown paper package peppered with grease stains.  We were so excited; we nearly skipped back to the hostel.  After scoring some hot sauce from the hostel fridge, we ran up stairs and, to both my amazement and disgust, finished all 12 empanadas as we sat Indian-style in the bed and watched Spanish dubbed TV.

The hot spings!
The next day was Thanksgiving, although it did not feel like November, nor one of my favorite holidays.   When traveling for extended periods, it’s remarkably easy to lose track of time, especially when in a different hemisphere where the seasons and cultures are completely different.  In S. America, summer is just beginning.  The tell-tale signs of autumn and the holidays are nowhere to be seen.  I usually spend my Thanksgivings hunting with my father, followed by reunions with friends and one of the greatest meals my mom makes.  This year would be a bit different, but we were intent on making sure the day was special for both of us.
About an hour outside of Mendoza, in the foothills of the Andes, lays a group of hot springs.  Some one hundred years ago, someone decided to capitalize on the natural wonders and create a hotel and spa.  Christina and I had heard about the hot springs from more than a handful of people, so we decided to treat ourselves to a day at the spa.  We were picked up at 9:00 a.m and herded into a small van where not even the driver spoke a lick of English.  The ride out to the spa was beautiful.  We passed through dessert, canyon lands and countless pueblos before arriving in the brown foothills of the Andes.   Christina and I were the only ones to exit the van and, after a very confusing exchange with the driver, I finally settled on what time and place we would be picked up and our day began.

The spa sits in a small canyon, nestled tightly against two Andean foothills.  Everyone visiting the spa usually does the circuit: consisting of different hot springs, waterfalls, and natural saunas formed inside of caves.   Upon entering the hotel/spa, we were handed white robes and we spared no time signing up for half hour massages.  We made our way down to the canyons edge and, in series of hand gestures delivered by an old woman, were explained the progression of the hot springs.  Essentially, you start cold and work your way up to the hottest springs, before cooling back down.  Mid way through, it’s customary to rub mud from the springs all over your entire body, and then sit under the sun for a half an hour as the mud dries.  The mud was somewhat of a comedic experience for me.  Rubbing handfuls of squishy mud all over my beer belly on purpose just made me laugh, I couldn’t help it.  Once you hit the sun, and the mud begins to dry, you feel as if someone has shot your entire body up with Botox; it’s tough to crack a smile or even move.  When you reach the point where you body has nearly turned to stone, you hit a series of very hot, and very powerful jets that clean you off and massage you at the same time.  It was an interesting experience, but I came out of it with my skin feeling like a baby’s ass.  Around 1 p.m., Christina and I headed to our massage.

And the beast!

Getting baked; suprisingly fun!

The site of the hotel and spa

I’ve had only a handful of massages in my life and most of them have been memorable for all of the wrong reasons.  There was the old lady in Thailand who kept repeatedly grazing my family jewels even as I laughed, cringed, and repeatedly asked her not to.  There was the $1 massage in Cambodia, where I was led into a dark damp room, forced to lay down on a very, very dirty mattress, where a tiny Cambodian woman proceeded to beat the living crap out of me and I squealed in pain.  The massage I had at the Mendoza was less of a massage and more of tickle fight.  And, the coup de grace was when the masseuse took an entire palm full of massage oil and proceeded to rub it into my scalp, much to my disgust.  I knew the massage was finished when she proceeded to take tiny Chinese medicine balls emblazoned with yin-yangs and play me a little song, making sure she hit everybody part.  ...Another massage failure for me.

After the massage, Christina and I headed to the buffet, which we had heard many good things about.  The buffet included more vegetables than I had seen in Argentina in the sixteen some-odd days that I had spent there.   There were mounds of grilled meat, most of which neither of us could discern nor did we know the Spanish name for it, so we just pointed and smiled as we piled our plates high with one spoonful of everything.  After another round at the mud bath and a circuit in the hot springs, our day came to an end and we headed back to Mendoza in a 90 degree van.

There’s not a turkey to be found in S. America.  In fact, I have not eaten a single piece of poultry in over a month, so I immediately retired any notion of trying to find any semblance of a Thanksgiving dinner and instead, opted for more steak. On the wall of our hostel, there was a whiteboard where the staff wrote down suggestions for various tours, things to do around town, and places to eat.  During the entire time of our stay, there was single bolded line item that did not change: “Don Mario’s- The Best Steak on Earth.”   Thanksgiving would not be complete without completely gorging ourselves, so without turkey or any other accoutrement, we would have to settle for steak.  Christina and I both showered up, dawned the nicest clothes we brought with us and sat in the backyard of Hostel Lao where we enjoyed the sparkling chardonnay from Vina al Cerno we had bought the day prior.

We had traveled much of Argentina by this point and although we had dined on more than our fair share of steaks, we had yet to eat a steak that really blew us away.  For the most part, we had abstained from meat and red wine while in Chile in anticipation of the massive amounts of red wine and grilled meat we would consume when we arrived in Mendoza.  We arrived at Don Mario’s at 10:00 p.m. and much to our dissapointment, we were among only a small group of people at the restaurant.  We opted to sit outside because it was a nice night.  As the waiter took our order, he ensured us that these indeed would be the best steaks we’d ever eaten.  Christina ordered the lomo (filet) and I ordered the Bife de Chorizo (the most expensive steak on the menu).  By the time our salad arrived, the entire restaurant was packed and a small line was starting to accumulate outside.  Just as we polished off our salad, I saw our waiter bearing down on our table with two huge hunks of perfectly charred meat.  As he set my steak on the table, I could not believe the actual size; it must have been at least 28 o.z.  Both steaks sat in a small pool of their own juice, they were piping hot and their color a perfect mix of burgundy and burnt wood.  I sliced off the first very thin piece of the char to reveal a perfectly cooked medium rare piece of meat beneath it: like opening up a present on Christmas day and receiving exactly what you had asked for.  I popped it in my mouth and smiled ear to ear.  I took one more bite to confirm my own internal dialogue before Christina and I both simlutanously exulted that it was, in fact, the best steak we had ever eaten.  I did my best work, but after thirty minutes of widdling down the mammoth piece of meat, I gave up and Christina swooped in to finish what was left.  If you are ever in Mendoza, go to Don Mario’s for the best steak on earth.

The best steak of my life!!!!!!!

Astor; waiting for a leaf.
We slept in the next day in preparation for our upcoming travel.  We were going to hop on an 18 hour bus to Salta, where we would spend the next three days relatively off the grid at Sayta Ranch riding horses and shaking off the city.  But, before we could do so, we had to prepare for Bolivia.  I had been researching and trying to plan our travel to Bolivia since August, but had been unable to nail down all of the details.  Not only is Bolivia the poorest and least developed country in S. America, it is also particularly difficult for Americans to travel there since the election of Evo Morales, a coca famer which the U.S. has come down rather harshly on.  As such, we are practically the only citizens in the world who need a visa to enter Bolivia. So, we spent our last day in Mendoza sitting at an internet café, printing all of the financial and travel documents necessary to enter Bolivia, as well as trying to find a place that was crazy enough to exchange some Argentine Pesos for Bolivianos.   We accomplished as much as we could and hoped for the best, knowing that Mendoza would be the most developed place we would set foot in for the next three weeks.   Here goes nothing! Thanks for following us along on this adventure.


Preparation for Bolivia.




1 comment:

  1. Holy wine goblets, that's the largest wine tastings I've ever seen. I think I'd have to take a nap before dawning the bike again.
    Man up Clay... and finish your steak!