Sunday, February 3, 2013

Mendoza – The Small Mountain Town that Wasn’t

We left Buenos Aires with the goal of finding a small mountain town in Argentinian wine country. We had heard that the best place to find this was the city of Mendoza, so we ended up on an overnight bus.

The bus station was much more like what we would consider a train station. It was two stories and about forty different bus companies offered services that would take people all over Argentina. When we got our tickets they had a range of gates, meaning our bus was expected to show up somewhere between gate 55 and 67.
We had heard that the Argentinian buses were nice, but when we got on we were quite amazed. The seats were a baby blue and looked like something out of a cartoon. The seats looked as if Dr. Seuss had been hired by Lay-Z-Boy. We had gotten a “Cama Ejecutivo,” meaning this was the second-best class of bus that included full food service. There’s strict laws that define how far back a seat must recline to be considered “semi-cama”, “cama”, or “cama-ejecutivo”. Our seats reclined 85 degrees, meaning they were almost flat. There’s also a bus that contains suites, where you actually have a private cabin. Leslie, who dreads the night buses, actually decided this was comfortable, and was willing to do it again.
There was actually some disappointment when we got off the bus as it was quite comfortable and we could have slept a few more hours.
Then came the second round of disappointment. Mendoza is the name of the state, with Mendoza being the capital city. The book we had made me think that it was a smaller city in the Mountains, but in actuality it wasn’t small, the wineries were another bus ride away and we could barely see any mountains.
That’s not to say that we didn’t like Mendoza, it was a great place, but it was not what we were expecting.
Long ago, Mendoza experienced an earthquake that destroyed much of the town with falling rubble killing people stuck in narrow alleys, so when they rebuilt they decided that they would make the space between buildings really wide. In the center of town, one of these walks has been blocked off for cars, making it a great place for cafes, bars, shops and the community to come together. Trees like the walk, making it shady and giving it a nice air.
We ended up eating a couple meals in these cafes, with a few incidents sticking out.
There didn’t seem to be much difference in the cafes when we started, so we just picked one and sat down. The meal was going well, but soon, I felt something wet on my arm. I looked down and realized it was bird poop. I wiped it off, but two seconds later I got another present on my other arm. Leslie thought it was quite funny… for about two minutes. Then, she got something wet on her face. She freaked out a little bit trying to figure out what it was, but we soon figured out that it was just wine. The bird had hit directly into the wine glass and Leslie got the splash on her face.
There were another time where a pack of dogs came running down the alley, chasing a bike. These dogs weren’t like the dogs in Asia. They were strong, healthy and looked like they could be a threat if they so chose to be. They kept chasing every bike that came running through, once they got a little close and forced the guy to stop. He just had to put his feet down, resettle himself and start again, but he looked okay. The dogs circled and barked, but that was it.
We did make it to wine country one day. We took a bus a half hour outside to Maipu, which is known to be quite bike-able.
We rented bikes from a man with a huge belly. He was quick with a smile and even quicker with his Spanish. His wife spoke a bit better English, so she ended up taking us through the maps before we headed out onto the roads in the small town.
Riding bikes around wine country always sounds like fun, but always turns into a disaster.
The bikes were horrible. Not just bad, but horrible. We’ve rented some pretty bad bikes on this trip, but these had to take the cake. One bike was really hard to pedal and the second had a seat that was tilted way too forward and wanted to dump you off. We should have refused them and gotten better bikes. Hindsight is always 20/20.
The best restaurant was a bit of a ways away, but it was the only place that we had heard anything about, so we made the effort to get there, despite the terrible bikes. The food was great, and we spent the time planning the route that would consist of the least biking.
On the way to the next winery, some people stopped me and asked for directions. Thankfully, I knew where the place was and gave the directions in Spanish, I was proud. We then double-checked our map and realized the place we were going was the most expensive winery in Maipu, so ended up heading towards the same winery as the people we gave directions to.
It was another decent ride, but we just kept it slow and it was fine. We ended up learning that Spanish was a second-languange for the group we talked to as well. The three of them were from Switzerland, Holland and Germany. We all ended up on the same tour, although the vast majority of the tourists were Argentinian.
We decided there would be time for one more winery and we would go with the three Europeans we’d met. This is when we realized they had actually rented decent bikes. Their relaxed pedaling with proper gears left the two of us huffing and puffing to keep up, but we ended up doing a pretty good job.
The next winery had some decent wines, but one of the better views we’d seen, with a nice porch looking over the vineyards and the Andes in the distance. This was much more like what we were looking for, but it was the end of the day, and we had a good trip ahead of us to get back to Mendoza. The Europeans wanted to rush to one more winery, and we took the opportunity to seperate, not wanting to have to move at their pace.
We began our slow ride back, when a police officer started following us. I was wondering if we’d done something wrong, but he said he was going to escort us back. I thought it was a bit odd, but guessed that they must have had some trouble with robberies of foreigners recently. It was odd being followed by a policeman, but eventually we struck up a conversation and he seemed like an okay guy.
He dropped us back at the bike place, where the family was quite welcoming. They gave us some juice and we chit-chatted with their son, who was studying English. His parents seemed more interested in his English studies than he did. Soon, we were on the bus back to Mendoza.
We got close to doing a mountain tour, but the price was quite expensive and it looked like 9 hours of bus riding for a 3 hour hike, so instead, we spent a day relaxing, backing up pictures, and eventually shipping off a package to Bellingham.
So Mendoza didn’t end up being what we expected it to be, but it was quite a nice town. We booked another bus north to Salta, which is a northern hub. When we got on the bus, we weren’t quite sure where we were going. We were debating between Cafayate, which we thought was a small mountain town in wine country, or just giving up on the Argentinian Andes and heading to Tupiza, Bolivia. Either way, Salta was the first stop.
Next stop… uh, north.

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