Over the Andes to Argentina

We almost missed our bus from Santiago to Mendoza because we had booked our ticket online but – critically, as we found out – hadn’t printed it out.   I can never understand why a printed ticked is necessary:  I have the booking on my phone, the company employee standing at the door of the bus has our names on a clipboard and we have our passports proving who we are.   It all matches up.  It all makes sense.   There is no crazy conspiracy or sordid smuggling going on here.  Why do they insist on you having to give them a tiny slip of paper, which they look at momentarily, tick the list on their clipboard, and then give straight back to you?   Pointless.

We were faced with this problem when we turned up at 7am with what we thought was plenty of time to spare before the bust was due to depart at 7:45.  I looked after the bags while Helena went looking for somewhere to print the ticket – there must be a computer with internet access and a printer attached to it in or near to this major bus station in this, one of the most developed capital cities in one of the most forward thinking countries in the entire continent, surely…  But no.  After a race around to various internet cafes and hotel lobbies trying to find a printer, Helena returned to the coach company desk with just five minutes to go, empty handed and desperate.  (I too was getting a bit nervous by this point as I thought it was a ten-minute job and I hadn’t set eyes on her for the last 40!)  Having no idea what Helena was up to, I’d had a go at remonstrating with the man with the clip board, but to no avail.

Unbelievably, it was only at this last moment that the woman behind the desk said that they could print the ticket off, but, and here’s the kicker, it was going to cost us a thousand pesos.  Seeing as that equates to about one pound (!!!) Hels decided to go for it, got the tickets, raced back to the bus, placated the power crazed clip board warrior, and we climbed aboard with the bus driver already selecting reverse.

So we enjoyed the scenic ride over the mountain range and across the border into Argentina.  At this point in the blog, I’d usually insert a suitable photo – we did take quite a few on this spectacular journey, of stunning snow capped peaks, and mountain lakes.  Unfortunately, I ended up leaving the camera on the bus, and despite a concerted effort to retrieve it over the next two days, we eventually conceded defeat and mourned the loss of two weeks worth of photos.

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Helena enjoyed playing with the very friendly Rottweiler at Banana.  His name was Thor…

Banana Hostel

On the bright side, we had landed in a fabulous little hostel called ‘Banana’ in Mendoza, where we were greeted warmly by each person we met, and were soon settled in the garden, enjoying the afternoon sun, a craft beer and a chat by the pool.  We’d also spotted a few little hand-written messages on blackboards around the common areas saying encouraging things like, ‘BBQ tonight’ and ‘Free wine party at 8pm’.  Now, I’ve never known any hostel to truly give you anything for free – with the possibly exception of Jungle Jack’s in Borneo – but sure enough, 8pm came around and Steffi, the girl from reception, approached us with two large and inviting looking glasses of Cabernet Sauvignon.  ‘Would you like some wine?’ she asked.  Silly question!  There were nibbles too;  some excellent fried potatoes, a tasty guacamole, and a super-fiery salsa.   Add to that burgers from the barbecue, and we were having a fabulous evening.

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Free Wine Party!   Just make sure you don’t accidentally pour it onto your Granola!

Then, a very friendly Jamie asked if anybody fancied a night out.   Yes, it was only a Wednesday, but there was reportedly one place where everyone goes on a Wednesday, a guaranteed good time party.  Since we hadn’t actually been out dancing for a while (we’d been doing lots of trekking, camping and sightseeing), we were both pretty keen to go.  So we drank a bit more wine, chatted with the hostel crowd for a while, and waited in anticipation for a call to arms.

When we got to midnight and we still hadn’t left the hostel, however, we were beginning to wonder if we’d missed something.  ‘Oh no,’ said Jamie, ‘we don’t want to get there too early…’   So, we had a bit more wine.

One am came around and there was still no movement.   Hels and I were unsurprisingly beginning to think that bed was more appealing than a jaunt out into an unknown city in the middle of the night.

At 1:30am, people were beginning to shuffle a bit.  At 1:45, the decision was made that we should probably leave now, and at 2am, we finally stepped out of the hostel into the cool Argentinian night air and off, following someone we’d only just met, with a group of people we barely knew, to a place that we didn’t know how to find.  It turned out to be just what we needed, and we had a lot of fun dancing the night away until the early hours.

This seemingly strange approach to time-keeping was just our first experience of the Argentinians’ way of structuring their day;  it wasn’t a super-late going out experience limited to drunken and wayward travellers, far from it!   If you go out for dinner at the reasonable hour of, say, 7:30pm, you’re likely to find yourself feeling rather conspicuous, sitting in a pretty sparsely populated restaurant, with a waiter shuffling around somewhere with a quizzical look on his face.  That same restaurant, however, will likely be heaving with customers at 11:30pm – yes, just before midnight – with people ordering drinks, selecting wines and perusing menus, wondering what might suffice for dinner.

We gradually got more used to it (we even considered setting our clocks back four or five hours to help) but on our second night in Banana, we found ourselves in a similar position to the night before.  A friendly Chilean couple had offered to cook ‘asado’, a traditional Argentinian barbecue.  As food lovers, we were very excited about this, as I’m sure you can imagine, and happily accepted the invitation to join in.  They had said to us in the morning to make sure we were there at 7pm – they seemed pretty insistent about that! – they would sort out all of the food, and everyone would just chip in with a bit of cash.  Helena and I spent most of that day in the bus station in a futile attempt to locate our camera and before we knew it, it was getting close to barbecue time.  We hadn’t eaten that day, having got up pretty late after our night out and then focusing on the camera problem, but as they had said 7pm, we thought we’d just wait and indulge in some hearty Argentinian barbecue as a reward for a stressful day…

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A classic Argentinian asado – meat, meat, meat, meat, meat, sausages, more sausages, mushrooms and bell peppers.

Well, of course, we turned up at 7pm and everyone was there but there was no sign of the barbecue being lit.   There was only one option – stave off the hunger with wine!  A few hours later, the asado turned out to be a fantastic meal with waves of different meats being delivered to the table on small chopping boards.   Our favourite thing was a beautiful spicy red chorizo; it had a superb flavour and texture after being slow-cooked over the coals.  The wait made it all the better when the food arrived and we were in foodie heaven.  It was also in this moment that I was introduced to Choripan, an Argentinian bbq classic that I was to go on to order repeatedly despite it effectively being nothing more than a hot dog!

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Choripan – simple, yet delicious!

Choripan is exactly what it says it is:  Chor-i-pan, or Chorizo-y(and)-pan(bread).  Don’t you just love the simplicity of it!  The Chorizo are always incredibly tasty, the bread crispy, and topped with a herby oil-based condiment that rounds out the flavours beautifully.  Who knew a hot dog could be so tasty?!

 

The other thing was that the whole experience was brilliantly sociable, with everybody sitting in the garden around one long table, chatting away over good food and a plentiful supply of wine from the gallon bottle.  (No joke!)  As I’m sure you can probably imagine, this wasn’t a particularly early night for us either!

It’s wine time, again!

Although our few days in Mendoza had been great fun so far, we hadn’t yet got around to our primary purpose for selecting it as a destination – wine!

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There’s just something magical about the beautiful symmetry of vineyards.

Having visited various vineyards in Australia, California and Chile, we were keen to see how the Argentinian’s stacked up.  On our final day before heading across the country for Buenos Aires, and having taken advice on the best vineyards and how to find them from various people at the hostel, we tried to squeeze in a run around a few selected wineries.

Trying to avoid an expensive tour (as always) and preferring to do things under our own steam, we made our way across the city to where we had learned you can get a local bus for a few pesos that would take you right into the heart of the wine-producing region of Maipu.  We had been told to get the 171, 172 or 173 from a bus stop on Rioja, which we found without a problem and stood waiting. We were a bit pressed for time though, and so when the first bus came and it was 174, I suggested that we just got onto it.  ‘It’s got to be going in pretty much the same direction.  It’ll be fine,’ I said with a hugely misplaced sense of confidence.

As it turned out, the 174 did follow something like a route towards Maipu, but then proceeded to turn down every side street going, do circular loops around housing estates and stop at every. single. bus. stop. possible.  My time-saving suggestion had resulted in us being a long way away from where we were supposed to be, much later than we were supposed to be there.  mendoza_23227707962_oFeeling rather frustrated, yet determined to make it to at least one winery, we made a decisive call to get off the bus and make the rest of the journey on foot, heading for one of the biggest and most famous vineyards in the region, Trapiche.

Despite all of our mishaps, and baking under the heat as the sun rose to its full height, we soon noticed the classic and always beautiful rows of vines forming their perfect pattern on the level landscape.  In contrast to the bare vines of the Hunter Valley, these were in full growth and beginning to show some developed fruit.

Time for the next mishap:  we hadn’t booked ourselves on to a tour!  This almost posed a bit of a problem until we managed to convince the gentleman that we weren’t really bothered about seeing the vineyard and the wine-making process itself, we were more interested in just tasting the wine (the good bit!)  So we were ushered past some huge concrete distilling vats and on towards a tour group who were just about finished.   A quick visit to the impressive barrel room, and we were off to the bar, which had a superb balcony overlooking an olive garden, with vines in the distance and a clear view all the way out to the snow capped peaks of the Andean Mountain range beyond.  The wines lived up to their impressive setting and soon we were sipping away at a beautiful sparkling Rose which seemed just right in the scorching heat of the day.

What next?  I hear you ask…   Book a bus – hop on board, time to head to the colourful, chaotic, charismatic gem that is, Buenos Aires!

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The imposing, prison-like fortress that sits at the heart of Trapiche.
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The heavy set fermenting vats inside the solid central building.
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My iPod camera didn’t really do justice to this amazing developing view, but we could see all the way out to the mountains – honest!
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The Trapiche vineyards were an aesthetic delight.
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Our classic shot to round off our time in Mendoza.