Through the Andes!

Having checked the home page of the Mendoza Sun to make sure the Los Libertadores pass was open, I set off from Mendoza to Santiago by bus. You’ll see a lot of forums and websites and guide books recommend this trip – and you know what? It’s not overhyped. It’s a beautiful journey, even if you are at the mercy of the weather during the winter. In fact, I got a bit snap-happy, so I’ll divide the pictures up a bit for easier viewing!

The bus started out by arriving late, but I was not too worried as I saw a long line of people waiting, including at least three other backpackers. (That’s the most backpackers I’ve seen together actually, so far in my South America travels.) I took Andesmar (same as from Buenos Aires) and was again quite impressed, even with only semi-cama seats. Andesmar actually served snack food on this trip, something I’ve since found out not all companies do.

I was in the very front, across from where the driver would be, but on the upper level – the panoramic seats! Sadly, there was a fine mesh screen at the front of the bus meant either to protect us from the sun or host an ad, so the panorama was a bit blocked, but it wasn’t too bad. And I often had to clear the condensation from the window as well.

We headed out west into the foothills of the Andes. I’m not sure whether this set of hills is a separate range or not. While they are not very high, they are pretty, and every so often we’d come around a corner and catch a glimpse of snow-capped mountains framed by these hills.

A glimpse of the Andes

A glimpse of the Andes

Gradually, we climbed, going around curves, ever higher, until we reached our first snow. And from then on, there was a lot of snow. So much so, in fact, that there is actually a ski lift just past the border into Chile.

Not too long before we got to the Christo Redentor tunnel, we saw this incredible vista of mountains surrounding a valley. A sign stated it was Aconcagua National Park, and I think I saw Aconcagua itself, though it’s hard to be sure I got the right peak! Aconcagua is the highest mountain outside of Asia.

Aconcagua National Park - I think it's the mountain in the distance about to be hidden on the left

Aconcagua National Park – I think it’s the mountain in the distance about to be hidden on the left

We seemed to be more or less on time when we came to a tunnel marking the border. A lengthy tunnel, that, going through a mountain! And then we started seeing these long lines of trucks that looked like they went for miles (literally, since this pass is one of the primary land routes in or out of Chile). Our driver would peek out to see whether there was oncoming traffic and then bypass these semis, in a narrow, curving two lane road with nowhere to pull off. It was a bit harrowing!

We finally pulled up to the border and sat for a couple of hours. The sun was beating down and I couldn’t tell I I were feeling uncomfortable because of the altitude (I think we were up about 5000 feet or more above sea-level) or the long bus ride. It’s probably just the latter.

Welcome to Chile!

Welcome to Chile!

After two hours, we were all told to pile off and go into the warehouse-like border and customs building, where we waited in line to get our exit stamp, then another line for our entry stamp, then a third line for our hand luggage to be inspected. Periodically dogs would come through to make sure that nobody was smuggling fruit or anything else that could introduce invasive species into Chile, which is essentially a land-locked island ecologically. That all took another hour. Apparently the dogs are also trained to be drug sniffing dogs because some idiot in the back of the bus tried to smuggle in some pot. It’s not like it isn’t well-advertised that they have dogs at this border crossing – how stupid do you have to be to try something like that?!

Three hours delayed, we set off on the part of the journey that garners the most photos: the around 30 switchbacks needed to get from the pass to the rest of the road through the Andes. This was where my seat choice was fantastic, exhilarating, and, at times, terrifying. But our driver was very cautious and we made it down unscathed.

Traffic on the around 30 switchbacks in the Chilean Andes

Traffic on the around 30 switchbacks in the Chilean Andes

We passed through more snowy splendor until we finally left the Andes. Chile is much greener than the Argentine Andean foothills, as is the case the world over where a mountain range blocks incoming clouds. I saw a lot of cacti, some vineyards, and just what seemed like an astonishing amount of green.
The green of the Chilean side

The green of the Chilean side

Being so late on a Friday (yes, I’m quite aware I’m ten days behind in blogging, thanks), we of course hit traffic in Santiago, further delaying us. Eventually we emerged from the bus into the chaos of the bus station, where I found an ATM and then set off towards the metro. My first impression of Chileans was of how nice they are (an impression that didn’t change in my time there) – when I asked a young woman how to get to the metro, she walked me there, making sure to wait when we got separated by the heavy foot traffic, pointed out where to buy a ticket and what side of the station was the direction I needed!

Buying a ticket was a shock after Argentina, where they never have change for large (or sometimes even small) bills. Since I’d just been to an ATM, I had to essentially use something worth $20 for a $1 ride. I apologized profusely but they honestly didn’t even blink. The subway is fantastic. Physically, the trains remind me of some of the modern metro cars in Paris, and the frequency of the schedule is really impressive. It’s a huge contrast to Buenos Aires. Much though I love BA and its atmosphere, I’m not a fan of the Subte.

My hostel (Hostel Nomades) was great, chilly but with blankets and huge, fluffy down comforters to let me have a good night’s sleep at the end of my journey.

A gallery of my land crossing:

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Not Just Malbec: Tasting My Way Through Mendoza

I was heading out west via that trusty (and cheaper) method of transportation, the bus. Now, I have never had good experiences with overnight buses so far, but I’d gotten a special rate for the cama suite seats on Andesmar and they were supposed to almost fully recline and be similar to business class airplane seats. They would also feed us and offer wine. Well, the food and wine quality was not that of most first class airlines, but the seat comfort was as good as when I got upgraded to business class on my flight home from Istanbul! Good thing, too, since it was about a thirteen or fourteen hour bus ride!

Andesmar bingo - a tradition

Andesmar bingo – a tradition

I arrived at the hostel, dropped off my bags, and decided to take a half day tour the hostel suggested that afternoon to visit one place that made olive oil and two wineries. While I’d originally had plans to just take a bus and visit places on my own, I was a bit tired from the overnight ride (even though I did actually sleep!) and opted for the easy choice. I chatted with a nice Australian couple who were taking a year to travel the world, and started to learn about the wine making process. All these tours get very similar after a while, the distinguishing feature being the passion and details about the winery.

We started by visiting a medium-sized winery in Maipu where we first saw the large metal fermentation tanks. Over my three days of tours, I learned that the first fermentation takes place in either these tanks or concrete tanks, depending on the quality of the wine. They can then be matured either in the bottle (like for whites where you don’t want oaky notes), or in the barrel and then for an equal amount of time in the bottle.

And I learned A LOT about oak barrels! But that’ll come a bit later…

Our second winery was smaller. I enjoyed the tour more, though the wine seemed to have more of an alcoholic bite. (I prefer my wines a bit smoother.)

Then came the olive oil factory, which was good since we were all starving by then! Lots of yummy olive oil, sundried tomatoes, and dried fruits.
Olive oil tasting (with yummy sundried tomatoes)

Olive oil tasting (with yummy sundried tomatoes)

As if two wineries weren’t enough, I went to a wine bar called Vines of Mendoza to try a flight of local wines (most from smaller wineries) and their “sensory kit”, a box of scents used to help identify individual notes in the wine. It would have worked better if the scents hadn’t been mixed up (and I was a bit annoyed I still got charged for it when I pointed out it was mixed up), but I still enjoyed the experience and the helpful staff at the wine bar – and quite frankly had tried enough wines for one day! I grabbed some dinner after and when they suggested wine, I replied strongly in the negative! Anyway, I had to get up fairly early in order to visit some more vineyards, of course.
Wine tasting with a scent box at Vines of Mendoza

Wine tasting with a scent box at Vines of Mendoza

I had, quite by chance, come across a tour bus run by Cata that did three loops by about seven different wineries in a town called Lujan, with the timing worked out so that you could visit two or three wineries depending on how long you took for lunch. (I think it was called the Viniviticulture bus and I bought the ticket at the tourist office – more people should take advantage of it!) I had read a lot on Tripadvisor about the fabulous tasting menu at Chandon, so I absolutely wanted to eat lunch there, and I chose the other two with that goal in mind.

I ended up being the only person on the bus, which meant I chatted with the Cata guide and had my first tour essentially be a private tour by the sommelier at Dominio del Plata (one of the first wineries run by a woman). This tour was one of my absolute favorites, and the wine was very good (though the third day wines were better). I felt bad having a private tour and not buying any bottles of wine, but given that I still have plans to travel around, it would take a very special wine indeed to have me buy a bottle.

Hills and vines at Dominio del Plata

Hills and vines at Dominio del Plata

We started with an amazing clear view of the Andes in the distance rising over the vineyards. It was quite cold and we speedily moved inside to discuss wine some more. The sommelier had such passion for the wine industry – and given how poorly they are paid in Argentina, it’s definitely a labor of love. She showed me how French and American oak barrels differ in the pore size of the wood, which leads to different amounts of aeration and their different tastes. French oak pores are smaller, so touching a barrel feels much smoother than an American oak barrel. We chatted about wines of the world in this chilly and dim cellar filled with shelves holding barrels upon barrels of wine. I paid for the middle range wine tasting (a better quality of wine) and enjoyed my tasting, learning a bit of the swish and spit (I admit that I googled it the night before) as I realized that I hadn’t eaten enough breakfast to absorb my actually drinking all the wine. Yes, wine tasting is about tasting, not just drinking, and though it broke my heart to do it to good wines, I definitely poured some out so I’d be in a state for to appreciate the upcoming wines. After all, I was going to taste a total of 9 or 10 that day!

Next stop: Chandon. I was so excited to try some bubbly from the Argentine branch of the famous house (yes, it’s Chandon as in Moët et Chandon), but I admit to a bit of disappointment (though luckily not in the lunch, which was superb). Chandon is a big, commercial winery and that’s reflected in the tour, which starts with a glitzy video. I had missed the English tour, which I knew but was ok with as it was needed for the timing for lunch, but I had thought I’d be more or less ok with the Spanish tour. It was, after all, my fourth winery, so the major difference lay in how to produce the bubbles. Well, they didn’t run the Spanish tour because the only other people there were from Brazil, so they did the tour in, you guessed it, Portuguese. Since the tour guide was not a native Portuguese speaker, she spoke clearly enough that I actually understood a lot of it. My Cata guide helped translate the rest. (She joined me on the tour so I wouldn’t be all alone again.) The most interesting part of the Chandon tasting was being able to taste their base wine (aka the wine that goes for a second fermentation) and then what it produced as a bubbly. We tried two different wines. I enjoyed the drier wine more – Chandon Delice was much sweeter so while I enjoyed the first few sips, it quickly grew too sweet. However, I have to admit i prefer champagne! And then came the three course menu (not the six course tasting menu as that would have taken all day.) The food was delicious and I enjoyed the wine pairing (up until more of the Delice was served with dessert, which was just too much sweet). Lunch took quite a while, and I felt bad running over schedule, but with only me on board the bus wasn’t doing its normal three loops anyway.

The last stop was at Septima, so called because it was the seventh winery of a Spanish wine group. The highlight of this tour was getting to drink some Malbec straight from the barrel. You taste a lot of oak (which is why before sale these wines sit in bottles to age for the same amount of time as in oak) but some people also really taste the malolactic acid fermentation, which I definitely tasted. It makes the wine taste buttery as the lactic acid build up.

Wow, two days in and I’d already visited five vineyards and a wine bar. I was definitely learning a lot, and enjoying it greatly!

Each day the quality of wines had improved, and my last day in Mendoza was no exception. I had really really wanted to go to an up and coming wine region called Valle de Uco with one of two pricey but highly rated tours, but it’s low season and nobody else had booked one during my dates. I’d really counted on it, so decided I would still splurge and go back to Lujan (to different, smaller wineries) on an Anpora wine tour. One of the best tour decisions I have made on this trip.

Why so good? Because there were only three of us plus the guide, and while not every vineyard may have been better than the vineyards I had visited (though some definitely were), the level of the tastings was much higher. In fact, I did break down and buy a bottle of Cabernet Franc that has an astonishing note of green pepper at one winery and a couple of half bottle dessert wines from Caelum, where one if the owners showed us around. (One of the dessert wines was a Malbec – did you know Malbec could make a sweet dessert wine? I didn’t.) Like I said earlier, it was going to require some extraordinary wine to get me to lug them all around for ten days, but these samples showed me a complexity and variety of Argentine wine that I had never realized existed. Even the Malbecs were more complex than the ones I had (and enjoyed) in the States. Of course, I don’t doubt most of them were a more expensive level of wine than what I normally buy, too! Our last tasting was lunch at Casarena, which had recently hired Chef Mun, a great closed-door chef from Buenos Aires whom my landlord in BA had recommended. It was Asian-Argentine fusion paired with wine – a fantastic (ad beautifully plated) ending to the tour.
And as a fitting end to the day, I had a lovely ramble and long talk with one of the Frenchwomen once we got back to town and decided to burn off some of the copious amounts of food and wine.

Hasta la Vista, BA! Part Two…Belatedly

Wow, I’m a bit behind in the writing department. Sorry! Must be all that wine tasting in Mendoza…just kidding, really it’s that I’ve taken too many pictures to upload in a reasonable amount of time. But who said anything about reasonable anyway?

So, back to my final post, final part about my stay in BA (final at least till I return in a few weeks). I was trying hard to see the things I thought I’d really regret having left without seeing. This included the Bicentennial Museum, Puerto Madero, and a quick photo op with Mafalda. (Who’s Mafalda, you ask? All will be revealed in due time, never fear!)

First, the Bicentennial Museum. Built underground in a complex that incorporates the remains of the old customs house, it chronicles Argentine history from settlement and independence to the current government. And opened by the current Peronist government, it’s fair to say it has a decided bias. I had been warned about the bias, but even my limited Spanish gets language that associates the economic policies of the pre- Kirchner governments with the preceding military dictatorship! But overall I still learned a lot about the sequence of events that molded the country. I do have to admit, however, that one of the highlights (other than seeing a beautiful old desk that I love, its having belonged to Sarmiento being somewhat incidental to its sheer beauty), were a set of political dolls in the gift shop. I had heard that there was one of Kirchner as well as one of her husband, and the latter had angel wings to show that he is no longer living…

I walked to the canal from the museum, entering the barrio of Puerto Madero. It was a short-lived port a long time ago, having been outgrown pretty much as soon as it was developed, so for a time it was full of abandoned old warehouses. Then someone had the bright idea to covert the old warehouses into apartments and restaurants, build some new high rises, and make sure that the yacht club was located there – instant gentrification! Now it’s quite a ritzy (and touristy) area, though the ecological reserve there is apparently enjoyed by many porteños. I didn’t go there since I wasn’t in the mood for a park so soon after the Jardín Japonés. Instead, I enjoyed walking around the water, checking out an old Argentine naval sailing ship turned into a museum.

I wrapped up the day with a quick stop in San Telmo.
A lovely church in San Telmo

A lovely church in San Telmo

I wanted a picture of me with Mafalda, a little cartoon girl by a celebrated Argentine cartoonist. The picture someone kindly took of me turned out terribly and is consigned to digital deletion, but I snuck in another shot of Mafalda herself so not all was lost!