The city of Mendoza is situated just on the Chilean border, seperated only by a thin strip of Andean mountains, visible from the town square. It is the heart of wine country here in Argentina, and every other shop is a bodega advertising fine wines and tours. The wines here are world famous, made special because of the "terroir" of the area. Of course, I have no idea what this means, but did have it explained to me.
There is a combanation of factors that makes Mendoza the perfect wine growing area. The first is it´s high altitude. Most of the grapes here are grown at an altitude of between 3000 to 5000 feet. This allows for a wide variation in tempuratures from day to night. The cool evenings stop the grapes´growth, which allows the flavour to mature and sugars to concentrate. The next special feature is the desert soils, whose low organic content actually increase vine yield. They also allow for proper drainage of the fields, promoting deep and vigorous root growth. Finally, the area is actually quite arid, averaging only 8 inches of rain a year. Initially this appeared to be an obstacle for many of the European wine growers that immigrated here hundreds of years ago. It was overcome by the building of a complex system of irrigation channels that can be seen running along side the roads in the area. This allows the vineyards to control the amount of hydration the vines get, preventing the grapes from becoming "watery and fragile". Because of the low humidity and rainfall, in combination with the higher elevation, it means that most fungi and parasites that are the bane of other wine areas are not viable here, meaning all the grapes are grown organically. The end result - a wide variety of wonderful wines. Apparently they are also amazingly healthy for you! Comparison to a selection of red wines from France, Spain, Italy, Chile and Australia show that the wines grown here contain 6 times more polyphenol, meaning they are even better for your heart.
On top of the large number of high class drunkards running around the streets, there is also an inordinate number of mountaineers. The reason being that Mendoza is the jumping off spot for those interested in climbing Aconcagua - the highest mountain outside of the Himalayans, topping out at almost 23,000 feet (Mount Everest is 27, 000 feet for comparison). Being that it takes 14 to 21 days to summit (including acclimitization) we decided against attempting it (oh, and we are NOT climbers and people actually die doing this trek!).
We did decide to go for broke and rent a car to get out to the town of Uspallata, right in the middle of the mountain range. Uspallata and the surrounding area were the site of the filming of the 1997 move "Seven Years in Tibet", starring Brad Pitt. This means that everywhere you go in this small village you see pictures of Brad (pre-Angelina), and there´s even a pub called the Tibetan Bar.
While out in Uspallata we went out to see the Rock of Seven Colours (I only counted 5, but it depends on whether or not white and off-white are two different ones) and met some university students that were heading out there as well. The difference being we were in our crappy car, and they were on foot. It should be noted that the Rock of Seven Colours is about 7 km outside of town on a dusty "road" in the middle of nowhere, with no signs giving you an inkling of where you are going. Feeling a bit bad for the trio we stopped and picked them up in our fancy rental Chevy Corsa. Turns out the three - Fredirico, Paula, and Christina - were final year law students on their summer break. Given our new found auto freedom, we promised to pick them up the next day to take them out to the moutains with us.
So bright and early the next day the 5 of us set out to see the sites. The first stop was the Puente del Inca (spanish for "Inca Bridge"). This is a naturally formed, bright yellow, rock bridge spanning the Rio Mendoza. It is believed that it was formed because of the unique meeting of frigid mountain run offs and hot thermal springs, which allowed for sulfurous water to collect and settle on top of ice dams. You used to be able to walk across the bridge to reach a now defunct Thermal Resort and Spa, but recent evidence that the bridge was starting to shift meant that this was no longer possible.
After stopping here for a bit, we made our way to the El Christo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer). This 8m tall statue was erected at the border of Chile and Argentina on the old border road. It sits at an elevation of 3800m and is accessible either by hiking along 9km of a sinuous dirt road that climbs up the mountainside, or can be driven in a 4WD in the summer. Happily it was summer, sadly we had no 4WD. But that didn´t deter us from taking our poor little car, loaded down to the axles with 5 adults, on the road anyways............the things the car rental companies don´t know won´t hurt them.
The last stop of the day was Aconcagua National Park. Here there is a small hike that leads you through an alpine valley and, on a clear day, offers an amazing view of the peak of Mount Aconcagua. It is where the serious mountaineers begin their long trek to the summit, and was quite busy this time of year as the mountain is best climbed from mid-December to end of February. The 5 of us just stuck to the smallish hike, content to watch the "real deal" start out with their massive packs.
After parting ways with the "kids", as we called them (I feel so old) we stayed another night in Uspallata then headed back towards Mendoza, a 1.5 hour drive away. We were looking for an inexpensive place to stay amongst the wineries on the edge of town, but were unable to find anything. What we did find (quite exciting) was a Wal-Mart!! How embarrassing, we actually stopped and bought some new cheap t-shirts as we were getting tired of seeing the same ones day after day.
Unable to find a suitably priced place outside of town we went back to Mendoza and got a cheap room. We had arranged to move into an apartment the following day where we had planned to spend a couple weeks relaxing, doing nothing and just generally trying to lead a more normal existence. We did not return the car, as it was due back the next morning at 10AM, and we thought we´d be smart and use it to move our packs the next day, saving the trouble of us dragging them the 10 blocks to our new home. Sadly, this was a mistake. That night the window on the passenger door was smashed and Gilles´ hiking shoes stolen. On the bright side, it only cost us $40 to have the window fixed, on the down side Gilles still has to figure out what to do for shoes.
Our new landlady, Viviana, felt so bad for us, and shocked that this would happen in Mendoza, she upgraded our accomadations. We had originally rented a 1 bedroom apartment with a kitchen and living room for 90 pesos a day (about $30). Instead we ended up in a 4 bedroom condo with 2 washrooms, huge kitchen, living room, dining room, internet, cable tv, air conditioning and yard, all for the same price. Viviana said no one was using it anyways.
Turns out it was a good thing we had the yard, if nothing else. The next day we went to walk to the local zoo. Along the way we found a puppy lying in a ditch that had likely been quite recently hit by a car. We called her Stella, for the number of beers we could have drank had we not had to pay vet bills (I know, all you non-vets are laughing your ass off at me, suddenly on the other end of the stick). She looked pretty dejected, a 4-month old german shepard pup, sitting up to her haunches in dirty water. So we pulled her out, flagged down a cab and went to the vet just down the road from our apartment.
For all the vet-ish people out there (and others that care), the following is Stella´s problem list from front to back - tick infestation (I removed about 50 of the buggers - gross); goopy eyes; mandibular canines were growing in base narrow requiring the extraction of 704 and 804 (that´s for you MVH!); moderately sore left foreleg; wet coughs with dyspnea (problems breathing) with an abdominal effort (gums were nice and pink though); tachycardia (high heart rate); abdominal guarding on palpation but no fluid wave (sore belly, but no sign of internal bleeding); mild stress diarrhea (yum); initially unable to support any weight on her hind limbs but with good proprioception, withdrawal and conscious urination, no obvious fractures or dislocations (sore back legs, but no obvious nerve damage or breaks); puppy vaginitis; and a bit of a skin infection, likely from sitting in dirty water.
Well, the rest of this story I leave to Gilles, and is in an upcoming posting. Kinda like a blog cliffhanger......................
Enough said about that. We had put all our plans on hold this week as we didn´t want to leave Stella alone at the apartment. With 3 full days left until we went to Santiago, we decided that it would be a shame to not get out to see some of the winery bodegas. Originally we had planned on paying to do a full day tour, but had scrapped that idea when we thought we would have no time. But in the meantime we had discovered a company that would rent us bikes and provide us with a map of wineries. So we headed back out to wine country and wandered around for the day. The first winery we visited was partially set up as a museum and walked you through the differences in how wine was first produced in the area centuries ago (grapes crushed in large leather vats by stepping on them and the juice then buried in clay containers to ferment) in comparison to now (picture a highly scientific and strictly controlled environment in which measuring pH, tempurature, and sugar content is performed twice daily; in combination with traditional time tested methods of oak aging wine). After this we went to see a few other wineries and a chocolateria then staggered our bikes back to where we started.
After a few more days of relaxing, required to recover from our winery tour, we got back on a bus and headed to Santiago. Apparently I lied when I said the Bolivian-Argentinian border took a long time. It was a 2 hour ordeal to process our bus when we crossed into Chile, the biggest problem being an extensive search through bags for fruits and vegetables being spirited into the country. When we finally made it to Santiago we rented a room in the historical district of town. We spent the night wandering around town and wondering at the enormous number of hotdog stands - apparently Chile´s national dish - served literally dripping with mayonaise, guacomole and ketchup. Yuck!
Then next day we went to the "world famous Santiago zoo", or so our guidebook labelled it. Now, it´s been a number of years since I´ve gone to any zoo, and this trip reinforced why. The zoo is quite small and built on the side of a hill, further restricting the size of the pens. Some of the enclosures, such as the one for the monkeys and the aviary, were quite well done, and in their defence the zoo was in the process of remodelling the chimpanzee area as well. But the poor elephants were standing in a small fenced area with nothing but a dead tree and a shallow pool of water. The jaguar was locked out of his resting area so he could be more easily seen. Worst of all were the polar bears. Now imagine walking around and sweating your ass off because it is just plain HOT out. You come around a corner and there are 2 polar bears. One is lying beside a small pool of water on cement in the shade panting, and the other is locked in a different area with no pool and is just pacing - back and forth, back and forth. Poor bears. I think it will be another few years before I make it to another zoo.
The following day it was finally off to the airport. We are leaving mainland South America and I am very excited as our next stop is Easter Island, a place I have always wanted to visit.