Argentina: Mendoza, Sun and Good Wine

Destination Guide: Mendoza, Argentina: "Land of Sun and Good Wine"

 Mountain view from San Carlos in the Uco Valle, near Mendoza Argentina. Gwynne Hogan photos.
Mountain view from San Carlos in the Uco Valle, near Mendoza Argentina. Gwynne Hogan photos.

By Gwynne Hogan

Why Go?

Alta Vista's original cellar in Lujan de Cuyo
Alta Vista's original cellar in Lujan de Cuyo

Mendoza offers entertainment for every kind of traveler, from the urbanite wine snob to the rough and tough mountaineer. In its quaint downtown, you’ll find tree-lined pedestrian walkways lined with shops and cafes,gourmet fare, a range of unique shopping options, and a handful of quirky local art museums and galleries.

Outside of the city center, the towering Andes Mountains frame all the vistas, and you can explore wine country on bicycle, on horse, or by car. Finally, for the adventure-craving traveler, the Andes Mountains and lower foothills provide endless possibilities for climbing, trekking, rafting, skydiving, paragliding and horseback riding. Mendoza is truly a destination to satiate all palates.

When to Go?

Gwynne Hogan at a beer tasting at jerome Brew Pub in Mendoza. She lives in the city. Boasting a delightful 320 days of sun a year, you can enjoy a visit to Mendoza at anytime of year. Its high-altitude, desert climate explains warm winter and hot summer days with much cooler nighttime temperatures.

The best time to visit Mendoza is in spring (September-December) and fall (March-April). In these two seasons you will avoid the devastating summer heat, as well as the winter's cold. Many choose to visit Mendoza for the Festival de Vendimia (Harvest Festival), that used to celebrate the end of the grape harvest, but now actually marks the beginning.

Starting in mid February and culminating in the first week in March, Mendoza is electrified with parades, festivals, outdoor wine tastings and concerts all prefacing the big hurrah at the end—a gigantic performance in a mountain amphitheater where the queen of the harvest is selected. The theatrics feature hundreds of dancers, musicians and singers and a tremendous firework display.

Getting there and around

By air: Mendoza Aeropuerto El Plumerillo—Mendoza has one airport that receives traffic from Argentine cities and Chile. Helping drive home the idea that this town really loves its wine, the airport itself has some vineyards on the property. A taxi from here to the downtown should cost you about $15 US.

By Bus: Those with a little more time on their hands may choose to bus in from Buenos Aires, Santiago de Chile or other nearby cities. Within Argentina, buses are around half the price of air travel, and obviously take much longer. However, expect clean and friendly service with occasional meals and snacks during your ride. While the ride from BA is uneventful, from Chile, you'll enjoy a thrilling Andean mountain crossing. Try CATA Internacional or AndesMar.

Getting Around: Within the city of Mendoza itself, almost everything is in walking distance. At night of course it’s best to take cabs. (Taxi Brisas 261-430-2225). For destinations in surrounding towns a complex yet thorough bus system is available, fares running from $.40-.70 US. As there is no one bus company, its better just to speak with the attendants at your hostel or hotel to figure out which number bus to take to arrive at your destination.

Renting a car.  Alamo Rent-a-car offers rental cars in Mendoza.

Best Attractions

Tasting wine with friends at Mendoza Wine Connection.
Tasting wine with friends at Mendoza Wine Connection.

Wine Country: Mendoza is the home to world-class wineries and spectacular scenery around them. There are three different wine regions within an hour’s drive of the city; Maipu, Lujan de Cuyo, and the Uco Valley. In Maipu count on traditional wineries, some of the oldest in the region. Lujan offers a blend of small and large, old and new wineries. Lastly the furthest region from the city, the Uco Valley is Mendoza’s newest wine region. Here, you’ll find architecturally stunning and modern wineries that mimic fantastical spaceships or Egyptian temples, all right at the foot of the towering Andes Mountains.

Cacheuta: One of the many tiny rural towns popular for day-trips, Cachetua is relatively close to the city and is located in the crevice created by a mountain stream. Its main attraction is the hot springs where for about $ 7 US you can spend the day in a series of hot and cold pools, hurl yourself down slides, and bask in the warm sun beside the mountain river.

Besides the public springs, there is also a more exclusive private spa which costs around $35 US for the day. On the weekends, the whole road leading up to Cacheuta fills with parked cars where locals search for their own swimming holes along the mountain river, as well as setting up camp in any shade available, in order to begin the daylong barbecue (asado).

Best Unusual Attraction

Tasting wine at the Mendoza Wine Center.
Tasting wine at the Mendoza Wine Center.

Love Hotels: Telo or love hotels are pay by the hour hotels you rent essentially to get it on with your lover, who most likely still lives with his or her parents. Some telos are utterly deluxe offering themed suites and indoor Jacuzzis, will others are decidedly seedy.

Best Activity or Tour

Bike and Wine Tour in Lujan de Cuyo: Sip on juicy Malbec as you peddle  your way through picturesque vineyards for a day, in one of Mendoza's most important wine producing regions. Try Baccus Bikes (http://www.baccusbiking.com.ar/) where you can either rent the bikes and navigate from winery to winery alone (with the help of a handy map), or hire a guide who will help you out. The same company also offers bike tours in the Uco Valley.

Best Alternative

Caminos de Altamira: A rural tourist circuit located about two hours from the city by bus, you’ll find tremendously bucolic rural town of San Carlos. Caminos de Altamira will take you through a series of rural homes where you learn a different trade or activity that is important to the economy and culture of the location.

In one day you might learn to make traditional Huarpe ceramics, how to preserve fruit and meat, how to harvest the fruit or vegetable in season, and of course, winemaking. Some visits will include shows of local folk dance and song in a family bar. Or visit their webpage www.latinarealargentina.com and look for their activities in San Carlos, Mendoza.

Best Lodgings

Budget: Hostel Lao Their friendly bi-cultural owners will welcome you into their spacious and clean home turned hostel. Lao provides hammocks for afternoon snoozing as well as a pool in the backyard. www.laohostel.com/index.php

Higher End: Plaza Italia B+B Cute family owned b+b that overlooks one of Mendoza'a verdant plazas, Plaza Italia B+B offers central location and great ambiance. www.plazaitalia.net

Outside City Center: Lares de Chacras Located in the village of Chacras, this elegant lodge-style hotel offers a little more space to relax than in the city center. In addition, you will have much easier access the surrounding wineries. laresdechacras.com/en

Best Eats

Asado: This essentially Argentine phenomena is mandatory to any visit to the country. Asado is an extreme barbecue where different cuts of meat, sausages and veggies are cooked over the coals of a wood fire. The best way to eat asado is like an Argentine--outside in a backyard, a park, or beside a river with the company of friends or family. If you don't have any Argentine friends or family to treat you, try the next best thing,  Patio de Jesus y Maria, a restaurant that grills up some of the best asado in Mendoza. (Aristides Villanueva and Boulogne Sur Mer)

Meat is King. Preparing a huge slab of beef for the coals.
Meat is King. Preparing a huge slab of beef for the coals.

Empanadas: These scrumptious baked and stuffed pastries are known all throughout the South American continent, but each region offers their own local twist. In Mendoza the three most common varieties are empanadas stuffed with ground beef and onion, with ham and cheese, or with tomato, mozzarella and basil.

These tasty little pouches make for a perfect mid-afternoon snack or light dinner. Many a storefront sell empanadas generally along with grilled chicken and pizzas. For an atypical empanada experience, try the bohemian bar La Nave de los Locos (San Juan St. 1217), where their double sided empanada menu will leave you yearning for a second stomach.

Tortitias: Literally translated as 'little cakes', tortitas are a breakfast delicacy unique to this part of Argentina. Tortitas are served at breakfast time and also in the afternoon tea time and can be purchased on the street, in bakeries, or in one of the many cafes that line Mendoza's streets. Vegetarians beware. Cow fat is the secret ingredient that makes these little rolls so delectable.

Best Shopping

Mountain view from San Carlos in the Uco Valley.
Mountain view from San Carlos in the Uco Valley.

Mutantes: The fun little shop is one of the handful of quirky boutiques in downtown Mendoza run by recently graduated design and architectural students.

Their fun and colorful selection is partly designed by the co-owners and also features clothing and accessories from other Argentine independent designers (Paso de los Andes st. 720).

Mercado Central: In Mercado Central’s bustling indoor hall, you’ll find just about any food item you could be looking for. The homesick foreigner will be delighted by rare imported delicacies like mango paste or peanut butter, otherwise impossible to locate in Mendoza.

Besides imported food products, you’ll encounter mountains of spices, tailor-made herbal remedies, fruits and veggies galore, all different kinds and cuts of meat, cheese and wine shops. It makes for a colorful shopping experience. (Corner of Las Heras and Patricios Mendocinos)

Remember Silly Old Siesta

Keep in mind as you are planning your days in Mendoza that most shops, museums, and business close for about four hours for the midday siesta. Siesta in general starts at 1:30 in the afternoon and finishes at 4:30.

Safety and Security

The city center in Mendoza relatively safe, but pickpockets and petty thefts are not uncommon. Try not to flash around fancy phones or nice cameras, keeping in minds that these items are very hard to come by and very expensive due to the recent restriction on imports.

 Gwynne Hogan is a freelance writer, photographer, and translator based out of Mendoza, Argentina.

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