Election Night and Blackouts in Argentina

We’ve been asked from time to time how it is to be so far from home for so long. Truth be told, we haven’t spent a lot of time dwelling on what we miss about the states. New fall TV shows have probably already come and gone, I didn’t catch a single World Series game for the first time since I can remember and I stopped checking football scores a few weeks ago. If we hadn’t met up with our friends in September who brought dispatches of American culture, we might still not know what Gangman Style is. (Yet there is no escaping One Direction or Maroon 5 no matter where you are in the world.) To be fair, we’re only abroad for a short time compared to other world travelers and our attention has been mostly dedicated to full days of exploring new surroundings. But there is one distinctly American event we’ve had circled on our calendar for a long time: election night. That was one we weren’t going to miss.

Cobertura Electoral! The slightly harder to understand CNN coverage in our room

As we planned to watch the election results, we discovered that the cable selection in our hotel room did not include a single news channel in English. No problem: we settled down on the couch in the hotel lobby, asked if they could throw CNN on the giant TV and settled in for the evening. Since the Argentina time zone is currently two hours ahead of the east coast, the real fun didn’t start until after 9:00 PM. Before that, it was a lot of John King playing with that stupid Magic Wall and hearing reporters repeatedly use somewhat meaningless buzz words like “bellweather.” I have a clinical case of aggressively flipping channels, so it took some patience to get used to watching only CNN all evening.

While nervously watching each update, we broke into a bottle of wine. Brooke and I figured that no matter what happened over the course of the evening, at least we had a tasty bottle of wine from Mendoza to share. As we watched state after state go for one candidate or the other, we met a variety of people as they walked through the lobby and checked in on the results. An excited, if not slightly drunk, Argentine woman who had just come from a Tango class wanted to tell us all about the Mar Del Plata region. The lesson there is that our Spanish is exponentially worse when trying to communicate with someone who rambles and is slurring their words. Before long, the network made the call and announced that Obama has secured another term. There was much rejoicing and relief that the seemingly endless campaign was over. It all made for a memorable, late night in Buenos Aires during which I’ve probably watched more CNN then I ever have in my life. By the end of the evening, I felt like Anderson Cooper and Wolf Blitzer had become close, close friends. It would have been nice if Romney would have delivered his concession speech some time before 3:00 AM our time, but what can you do.

In order to make our way to Mar Del Plata and ensure we would’t be on an overnight bus on election night, we landed back in Buenos Aires for a couple of days. Hotels.com found us a great deal at a new, boutique hotel near the city of town called the Lennox Hotel. Out of our three hotel stays in B.A, I would strongly recommend this joint for anyone rolling through town. When I stop to think about how many hotel rooms we’ve seen on this trip, it kinda makes my head spin. But the Lennox Hotel was the epitome of cozy; the room even came with a kitchenette. The only addition that would have made the stay a bit sweeter would have been a washer and dryer. One universal truth of traveling around the world is that we’re always on the lookout for a place to wash and dry our clothes. Half the time it feels like our luggage is only serving to haul dirty clothes around the world. To mix up on our dining options and satisfy a craving that Brooke’s been harboring since Munich, we jumped through some hoops to secure some Argentine style Chinese delivery. I’m certain the Buenos Aires has some quality Chinese, we just didn’t find it that night. The culinary silver lining was the next day when we stumbled across the city’s best pizzeria at Guerrin. Jackpot. It stands to reasons when you’ve been making pizza since 1932 and your restaurant is packed, you’re probably pretty good at what your’re doing.

The Pizza was twice as good as it looked

It ended up being fortuitous we grabbed lunch when we did. Late yesterday afternoon the city experienced a massive blackout that affected a huge chunk of the area. Since the season is just hitting late Spring way down here in South America, the thermometer has been reading hot and getting hotter. Three days of above average temperatures compared with an apparently shaky electrical infrastructure knocked out the power for as far as I could see. Sometimes crossing the streets in Buenos Aires can be challenging enough when the traffic lights ARE working. But with everything dark in the middle of rush hour, it was a small slice of chaos. Things were particularly a mess on the exceptionally wide, famed 9 De Julio Avenue. Turns out that traffic doesn’t move very well across 18 lanes with no stop lights. The more I walked around, the more I got the feeling that this was a somewhat regular occurence. Bodega owners sat in darkened, small storefronts looking bored and annoyed while at nearby cafe patrons downed cold drinks while they still could. The clerk at our hotel pointed out that this was the “first blackout of the spring” and conceded that there might be several more when the heat of December comes about. Luckily, the power was back on for most of the city by late evening so Brooke and I could get back to the important focus of the day: not doing much of anything.

-Phil

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Categories: Argentina, Exploring, Homesick, Hotels, Hungary, Relaxing, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences, Voting | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Back through Mendoza

As we trek onward through Argentina, we’re putting our phenomenal time in wine country behind us and heading back east. Ah, I already miss enjoying a daily bottle of wine. A cheap ride on the city bus took us back into the city of Mendoza. Brooke and I were looking forward to one more day in Mendoza since we liked so much of what we saw the first time around. One of Argentina’s larger cities, the central area of Mendoza is compact, walkable, tree lined and punctuated with several lively public squares teeming with ample green space and functioning fountains. The sidewalks are packed with people on their way to school and work or, in the evening, leisurely ambling across town. Toss on the marble tiling found everywhere and the aqueducts running beneath the sidewalk that feed the city and Mendoza is an easy place to like. Returning to endless dinner options doesn’t hurt either. A tasty Italian dinner at a popular favorite restaurant called Marchigiana was a big success. We’ve found quality Italian cuisine is common in Argentina which is no surprise given the amount of Italian heritage found throughout the country.

One last great photo from our time amongst the vineyards

Zip Lining or Hail Protection Gear?For a change of pace, we headed down to the Avis storefront and decided to rent a car for the day. It’s been several weeks since we’ve had a chance to do any leisurely driving and this seemed to be the right place for it. One insight we’ve gained from traveling is that if you don’t know how to drive a manual transmission car, you’re not going to get very far in just about any country. Lucky for us, Brooke and I are both well versed in the five speed, although the reverse on our tiny Chevy sedan was a bit tricky. One of the primary reasons we rented a car was to scoot out to the Argentina Rafting company outdoor complex about 45 minutes away. Our plan was to tackle a long-standing adventure on our list that we hadn’t had the chance to do yet: Zip Lining! Or, depending on your geographical preference, you may call it Canopy or even Flying Fox. After waiting for a guide, we strapped on our harnesses, hiked up to the start of the course and we’re ready to, er, Zip. Not so far- just about five minutes before we were going to descend down the first line, it started to rain. Then the rain turned into heavier rain. And the heavier rain turned into hail. Nothing says, “you’re not going to be Zip Lining today” like a hail storm. Good thing we had these handy helmets on to protect our noggins from the nasty sky ice. Actually, good thing it started hailing before we started the two hour course. Once you start, there is no where to seek shelter between each zip line.

Undaunted and not discouraged, we hopped back in our rental car and began the scenic drive past the foothills of the Andes and back into Mendoza. We wandered a bit and even found ourselves in a local Wal-Mart stocking up on snacks. Sad to report that an Argentine Wal-Mart is identical to an American Wal-Mart. Our car made it’s way to an extraordinary nature reserve/city park north of the city that offers everything from soccer fields to golf courses. I even managed to sneak in a quick park nap on a bench near the lake. Later, we found ourselves enjoying a late lunch at an outdoor cafe in the center of town. Over afternoon coffee, sandwiches and even more empanadas, we allowed ourselves to wonder what we’ll be doing two weeks from now. After this trip is over, we have a lot of unknowns and another big adventure waiting for us. Even though it likely won’t include afternoons at outdoor cafes, it should make for an exciting and remarkable time.

After re-fueling and returning the car, a small slew of logistical challenges in their own right, we made our way back to the Mendoza bus station and prepared for another comfortable 14-hour bus ride back to Buenos Aires. And I think that this bus was a little bit newer and nicer than the last one. Really, anyway you slice it, these are high quality buses. The overnight ride was comparable to the easy-going trip out that we wrote about last week. Although the morning traffic getting into the center of Buenos Aires was brutal and seemed to last forever.

Sunset view from our bus

Fireproof - forced to watch on a busThe one constant on both of our bus rides? Terrible, terrible movies. Films so bar that we never heard of any of them. I kept hoping and hoping that the next flick the bus attendant was going to pop on would be a box-office smash. Or at least enjoyable. Instead, each film was worse than the one before. And with a screen a few feet from my head, there was no escaping. The first film was “A Little Bit of Heaven” – an obnoxiously adorable Kate Hudson movie that started out like all Kate Hudson movies. That is until Kate Hudson gets a terminal case of cancer and spends the rest of the film dying with dignity and grace. The second movie was “Get The Gringo” a 2012 Mel Gibson movie that might have been the most brutal and violent movie I’ve seen in years. Not so much suitable for a public bus ride, but I’m more stunned that they are still letting Mel Gibson make movies. The last film was “Fireproof” an independent starring former heart-throb turned evangelical actor Kirk Cameron. It was in Spanish, but I got the gist: small town Fire Chief spends a lot of time crying and being angry about his failing marriage until he accepts Christ’s understanding. Awesome. The Avengers it was not.

After a brief stop in Buenos Aires our next stop is the beaches of Mar Del Plata! Can’t wait to check out another Argentine town.

-Phil

Categories: Argentina, City Visits, Destinations, Differences, Driving, Mendoza, Relaxing, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

I Rode a Horse!

Finally. I am 34 years old, grew up in a fairly rural area and I even went to summer camp, yet somehow I have managed to live my whole life without ever having ridden a horse. No more, my friends. What better place to try my hand at equestrian sports than Argentina, home to gauchos and ranches galore? Okay, so I didn’t rope any bulls or gallop through a field of cattle, but I had a fantastic time nonetheless.

Our lovely hotel in Maipu, Tikay Killa, arranged for Phil and I, plus three other guests (our new friends Dan, Lyn and Sophie) to experience the countryside in a whole new way. We threw down our bikes and mounted horses instead. I was a bit nervous, but very excited to ride a horse for the first time. Cesar, our guide, offered me a helmet since I was a fledgling rider, but I declined feeling quite confident in my abilities. With a bit of an assist from Cesar, I mounted Esperamiento, my horse. I got a 30 second lesson in riding–“Pull back to stop, pull right to go right, and left to go left.” Sounds simple enough. We were off!

In fact, it was that simple. Cesar’s horses were well-trained and listened to everything. After getting used to the feeling of being bumped around and realizing I wasn’t going to fall off, I began to relax and enjoy the countryside. Our ride began on a back road, complete with cars, dogs and kids playing. This was great practice in navigating the horses into single file lines and even stopping when necessary. Thankfully, we soon turned off the road and onto a dirt track which wound through a nearby vineyard. I was taking my time, allowing my horse to walk and still getting the hang of how hard to yank on the reins when I needed him to stop eating snacking on the surrounding grapevines. On the contrary, Phil was in his element. It isn’t as though he has tons of equestrian experience, but he had his horse, Noche, trotting and almost to a full gallop before I could say “yee-haw.” Smiles filled our faces as we traversed the vineyard.

We didn’t stay on this dirt trail forever, however. I expected fairly easy terrain, and all in all it was. But Cesar wanted to make sure we got our money’s worth. We walked up a rocky slope to get a beautiful view of the vines below, but it was going down the slope that seemed a bit more treacherous. Luckily our horses were sure-footed and didn’t slip a bit. Once at the bottom of the hill, we headed toward the Mendoza river. I assumed we would ride along it, but instead we crossed it! Only 1-2 feet deep at the point of crossing, our horses easily managed through the water and up the bank on the other side. Sophie, who got stuck with the hungry horse, had to urge hers on a bit more because he constantly wanted to stop for snacks and a drink. I understand how that feels–it was hot out there and those horses were working hard. We crossed back over the river several times, trekked through the mud and wound our way through tall brush. It was a blast! I am so glad we didn’t simply stick to the dirt road–in retrospect that would have been much less fun. Feeling very confident in both my abilities and those of my horse, I began to bring him to a trot as we headed back to the stable. I didn’t mind going fast, but man it hurts a lot more to be bounced at those speeds, so the trotting didn’t last long. After riding for about two hours, dismounting Esperamiento was a welcome relief to my aching legs. Despite the minor joint and muscle pain, I had a wonderful time and will definitely try my hand at horseback riding again in the future.

Lyn has to sit on the floor of the backseat to make room for all five of us. Luckily, she’s flexible like Gumby.

This being our last day in Mendoza, we couldn’t leave without going to one more winery. The five of us got into a taxi (Lyn sitting on the floor in the backseat) and headed to Carinae, a small winery run by French couple Brigitte and Phillipe. Besides running a winery, this couple loves astronomy and sometimes hosts star gazing alongside the wine tasting. They have several different options for tastings, all named after an astronomical object. Not offering any views through the telescope today, we focused on the wine instead. We were each able to try five different varieties. I’m not sure if it was because I was warm from riding in the sun, or just because this is becoming a new favorite, but their Torrontes was the most delicious I tasted. This wine is such a wonderful surprise for those who often find white wines to be too sweet. When you smell a Torrontes, it is very sweet and sometimes flowery. But, there is a reason why it is called the “lying grape.” When you taste it, the sweetness is understated and instead it is a bit tart with a dry finish. I have loved trying this variety at many of the vineyards we have visited, but Carinae’s version is my favorite. We bought a bottle for the group, one for back at the lodge and yet another for Phil and I to take on the road. Yum!

Once back at the lodge, we popped the bottle of wine, sipped and enjoyed our last hour together. All heading our separate ways, we were thankful for having met one another and sharing in two great days together. After an exchange of contact information and big hugs, we said goodbye to Maipu. The trip to this small part of the Mendoza wine route is exactly what we had hoped it would be. We couldn’t be happier with this part of our trip.

–Brooke

Doesn’t she look like a natural? Watch out Clint Eastwood, this girl’s your next Western star!

The ride was beautiful with flowers in bloom everywhere.

The wines available at the Carinae tasting. Delicious!

Categories: Argentina, Diversions, Friends, Mendoza, Surprises, Tours, Unusual Experiences, Wine | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Delicious Wine with New Friends

After a day of laying around, reading, sleeping and being doubled over in pain, I awoke on Saturday feeling like an almost normal human being.  We were finally ready to have the day we had been envisioning upon planning our visit to Mendoza–a day entirely dedicated to visiting wineries and drinking different, delicious wines.

We laid out a plan to visit at least 4 different wineries and engage in both tours and tastings.  To our delight, our new friends from Tikay Killa, Lyn and Dan joined us for the entire day.  To begin, we had to find a way to the winery (or bodega as they are called here).  Obviously drinking and driving is a big concern here and police are on the lookout everywhere.  We don’t have a car anyway, so that wasn’t really an option.  For this reason, tourists are encouraged to either take taxis or ride bicycles from winery to winery.  Going for the more cost effective and fun method of transport, we chose bikes.  Luckily, our lodge has a few on hand making rental a breeze.  We set out for our first stop of the day–Mevi, a small winery with an amazing view.  None too keen on drinking red wine in the heat, instead we imbibed in the whites and roses as we lounged on their sunny terrace which overlooks the vineyards and has stunning views of the Andes Mountains in the distance.  We sipped Chardonnay, Torrontes, Malbec Rosado and various other wines.  After an eight kilometer bike ride in the Argentinian heat, these cool, refreshing varieties helped recharge our batteries so we could continue on our way.

Only three kilometers further, Familia Di Tommaso was the next vineyard on our list.  Rather than just drinking, we first took a tour of this small, family run bodega which is the oldest in Maipu.  They showed us the old cement tanks which were formally used to ferment and age the wine.  More modern systems have been put in place, so these are now used as wine cellars for the bottles they produce.  Like many of the wineries in this region, their gem can be found in their Malbec Reserva.  Aged in oak for 12 months, this wine has a robust flavor which impressed us all.  We immediately ordered a bottle to accompany lunch aside the vineyard.  Something which makes the wines here even more special is that they do not export or sell to grocery stores.  This family’s produce can only be bought here at the bodega.  Unfortunately, they don’t make ordering a case of wine very easy since they don’t take credit cards and don’t ship directly from the winery.  Dan was especially disappointed, but with the help of Elena at our lodge he was able to work it out.  At lunch, we were joined by a couple from Holland who we met on the tour.  I don’t know if it is the wine or just travelers to this region in general, but we have met such wonderful, like-minded people on this visit.  Everyone is traveling anywhere from 3 weeks to 3 months and no one looks at us like we’re crazy when we tell them about our trip around the world.  Building friendships with people from around the world has been a major added benefit of this trip that I didn’t anticipate beforehand.

After visiting these very small wineries, we were in for a huge difference with Trapiche, easily the largest vineyard in Maipu and also a part of the largest winery in Argentina.  Here we met up with Sophie, our other new friend who was also staying at Tikay Killa.  We toured this monstrous winery, learning about its long history.  The building we were in has been dedicated as historically significant, therefore retains its original characteristics.  Though it has been refurbished and modernized, the original structure still stands including the huge tanks which are still used to ferment the wine.  This winery originally belonged to a different family who built in this location due to its proximity to the railroad.  In fact, they even have a “pool” where they could ferment 5 million liters of wine at one time! Considering some small wineries we visited only produce about 19,000 liters a year, this number had our jaws on the ground.  The idea was that all the wine from this one pool could be the entire stock loaded onto one train.  This pool is no longer used because, as you might imagine, it is difficult to control the quality and consistency of the wine when creating it on that scale.   The tour ended with a taste of 3 different wines and although they were delicious, we all agreed the smaller Di Tommassi family winery we visited earlier was superior.

Working our way back toward our lodge, we made our final visit to Finca Vina Maria, a tiny winery situated conveniently at the end of our street.  We barely arrived before their 5:30 pm closing time, but the woman was more than happy to share with us the history of the winery and a description of the wines they produce.  Rather than have a tasting, we decided to share a bottle of the Malbec while sitting outside under the shade of the huge sycamore tree.  Chatting about all things wine turned into chatting about all things life.  We learned more about each others jobs, families and travels.  Phil and I were surprised to find out a “jumper” means a “sweater” when spoken by a Brit, but be careful–a sweater is  not the same thing as a cardigan!  Dan conceded that Americans are probably more correct with some of our pronunciations of words, while Sophie staunchly believes since the Brits invented the language, they must be the ones who are right.  She does have a point!

After all this cycling, drinking and friendship, we knew we would be hungry later.  And, since we have all discovered how incredibly difficult it can be to find dinner after 5pm in Maipu (or at least nearby to our lodge), we decided to head to the grocery store and fend for ourselves.  It turned into a feast of tapas, perfect to go with the wine we had bought throughout the day.  Delicious cheese, ham, salami and bread filled our plates and the wine flowed freely.  Knowing we were all getting up to go horseback riding the next morning helped quell any desire to drink too much, and instead we spent the evening continuing to get to know one another, sharing stories and becoming friends.  Reflecting back on it all, I can’t think of a better way to spend a day!

–Brooke

Three of the many wines produced by Trapiche.

Dan, Lyn and Brooke riding bikes between winery visits.

Just place your glass on the wine you want and it appears as if by magic!

Vineyards as far as the eye can see. It’s pretty much like this everywhere in Maipu.

Categories: Argentina, Bars, Destinations, Diversions, Friends, Mendoza, Uncategorized, Wine | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Olives, Wine, Steak and an ill travel partner

So, it happened to me in New Zealand. And now it’s happened to Brooke in Argentina. We knew the odds were slim that we both would make it through a four month trip without getting ill. Yet, after a combination of some lousy empanadas served at a local back patio beer garden and probably a bit too much wine the night before, Brooke was struck down by some sort of stomach bug. Fret not: she made an inspiring recovery by the time dinner rolled around. Besides, there are certainly worse places to feel under the weather than Argentine wine country among the comfy confines of the Tikay Killa hotel. The scenic view from the foothills of the Andes certainly may have some healing powers as well.

With Brooke sitting out this round, I decided to take a solo trip and visit two of the locations that were close by: Entre Olivos and La Rual. Each one was just a short trot down the same street our hotel was on. Entre Olivos quickly won me over. Five dollars paid for a small tour that gave a background on olive production and tasting of everything including olives, olive oils, spreads, marmalades, chocolates, custom liquers and more. Did you know that the only differences between black and green olives is that green olives are picked from the trees sooner? Or that olive trees can produce olives for up to 400 years? Or that olives are only tasty once they undergo a process and are always terrible if eaten right from the tree? I learned so much! After tasting just about everything I could, I had to restrain myself from buying out the store.

Just a bit down the street, I made a visit to La Rural winery (makers of Rutini wine) and El Museo – an excellent wine museum. The tour provided an interesting history and the museum was jam packed with historical wine making elements. Some of which, like the giant ceramic vases that were buried under ground to store wine, dated back several hundred years. Saw the vineyards, saw the vats, saw the giant historic oak barrels. And, of course, I enjoyed the requisite tasting although they only offered some lesser brands. But the best part? My 50 peso admission went to the cost of any bottle of wine I might choose to purchase at the end of the tour. THAT was a nice surprise. I managed to grab a nice bottle that only cost a buck or two beyond my admission. After an afternoon of lounging around the hotel and sampling some more wine, the five of us staying at Tikay Killa all went to dinner at the lone restaurant in town. Even though we were one of the only tables being served, we ended up with delectable dishes of steak, chicken and even grilled veggies. If there is one thing that Argentines know how to do, its grill meat.

Most people we’ve met are making Mendoza a three to four day stop as part of a larger visit. Given how much there is to see in Argentina and combined with how long it takes to get from region to region, it’s not surprising that visits to Argentina are often three weeks or longer. Geographically, this may be the largest country we’ve visited outside of China. Since the amazing glacier you may want to see is incredibly far from that sensational Andes peak you may also want to see, bus rides on luxury coaches that are 14, 18, 22 or even 27 hours in length are common and truly the only practical way to get around.

Costs here in Maipu, and largely across Argentina, have been remarkably reasonable. We’ve found that a vineyard tour in Mendoza would regularly run less than $8 a person and that includes some generous pours during the tasting. Buenos Aires is also unique to any place we’ve visited in the way they handle exchanging currency. First, it’s important to note that Argentina is dealing with crazy inflation to the point that prices on menus are often written in pencil (to allow for easy changing) and some travel brochures don’t even bother to include costs at all. The official government line is that inflation is hovering around 10%, but apparently inflation is topping out more at about 25%. Among other factors, this had led to the rise of the unofficial, illegal “blue market” of exchanging dollars for pesos. This market is comprised primarily of somewhat shady people strolling down busy tourist areas muttering “Cambio, Cambio, Cambio” as you walk by. I may be bold and adventurous, but I still prefer making change at a bank rather than in a dark, back alley. Besides, I couldn’t recognize a counterfeit bill from Monopoly money if needed. Pretty sure the word “sucker” would be tattooed across my forehead in a lovely helvetica font.

Apparently, visitors who are in the country for a while arrange a trade with one of these blue market agents through their hotel. They show up in your room, pulling money from a sock or pouch strapped to a leg in exchange for your dollars. What’s the advantage to such a complicated doings? Apparently, there are TWO exchange rates in Argentina. Banks will offer you about 4.7 persos to the dollar while blue market traders will give you closer to 6.0 persos to the dollar. I’m still wrapping my head around that but I’m relatively sure that it means if we could have negotiated with one of these dealers and gotten all the money up front, Argentina would have been on sale at a rate of about 30% off the official rate. Baffling!

Our fun continues tomorrow in Maipu as we plan to hit no less than four wineries on our bikes.  Hopefully we make it back safe and sound after all that wine!

-Phil

Categories: Argentina, Diversions, Mendoza, Reflections, Transportation, Uncategorized, Wine | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Discovering Maipu

Brooke Vs Malbec (spoiler alert: Brooke wines...er...Wins!)Buenos tardes from the heart and soul of the Mendoza, Argentina – Wine country! We’re continuing to slowly make our way across the country enjoying cafes, wine and seemingly endless amounts of empanadas. In fact, I believe we’ve eaten at least one empanada every day since we arrived. It is with a great reluctance that I have to admit that each individual empanada has been tastier and more satisfying than those found in Empanada Mama– my beloved NYC lunch spot. (Sorry to break the news, former WebMD colleagues.)

Brooke, who most certainly has earned her merit badge in securing wonderful accommodations for us throughout this trip, booked a stay for us at the Tikay Killay Lodge in the Maipu area of Mendoza. When you think about a wine country visit, Maipu may not fit the traditional vision. This area is loaded with beautiful and sensational wineries including a few that date back to the late 19th century, however the region is served by just a single main road. Large trucks stacked with pallets of wine bottles rumble down the road beside modern sedans and beat up 1960s American junkers as they all cruise past a background of expansive vineyards and olive tree groves. Aside from the accommodations, activities and food offered by the wineries and related stores, there is not much else in this quiet part of Argentina. All of that suits me just fine. It’s a nice, easy going, relaxing place with sensational late spring weather. The combination of a dry, arid climate, a dose of steady wind and water supplied by mountain ice melt and delivered in a complex aqueduct system makes for ideal conditions for growing grapes, olives and more. Apparently, everyone here was surprised to discover just how well some grapes perform in this unique climate.

Tikay Killa Lodge!

Unique wine country makes for unique hotels. Tikay Killa Lodge is made up of only four rooms plus a central building. Situated about a mile long walk or bike ride from the main road, it’s a fairly isolated location. A nice outdoor area surrounds the buildings and behind the rooms we found a large back yard that doubles as a refuge for busy gophers. During our stay, each room has been booked by like-minded travelers from Australia and Great Brittain who are just as eager as we area to explore the area. The vibe here it makes it easy to make new friends over afternoon conversations in the courtyard or while splitting the deliciousness of the “day’s catch” of bottle purchases from the local vineyards. Elena, the do-it-all innkeeper, has been a wealth of information and does a fantastic job of taking care of everything. From making breakfast to helping book tours and bikes, someone like her is a mandatory asset since it is really easy to get lost and confused in your plans. Plus, the lodge comes complete with the world’s most friendly dog. I’m pretty sure that Suki is the luckiest dog on earth– he has new strangers petting and playing with him daily.

While there is certainly a visible number of visitors in the area – they are easy to spot riding from winery to winery on rented bikes and helmets – it would be a stretch to call Maipu a top tourist destination. This region is among those where we’ve encountered the least amount of English spoken. Lucky for us, we speak just enough Spanish to order cheese at the grocery stores and ask for directions to the next winery. And for every seven wineries you pass, only one has opened their doors to visitors for tastings and tours. That still leaves plenty of wineries to go around with more and more buildings sprouting up to match the Mendoza wine region’s recent boom of international popularity from Malbec and other varietals of wines. Given our propensity to visit capital and metropolitan areas, Maipu is one of the more rural and remote areas we’ve visited on this trip.

As we get closer to reaching the end of our trip, people often ask how we’re feeling about that. For me, that answer is mostly sad. There are a lot of elements about this trip I’m going to miss. But I’m also looking forward to basic tasks becoming a bit easier. Our biggest challenge in Maipu has been trying to find a place- any place! – to eat dinner. It wasn’t until about 8:30 PM last night that it dawned on us that finding food might be a real challenge. Our innkeeper was out and there isn’t exactly delivery around here. After a long walk to the main road and discovering exactly one restaruant in walking distance, we decided to hop on a city bus bound for central Maipu and crossed our fingers for success. Before long, we found ourselves at a nice outdoor cafe on a city square enjoying food. On a trip around the world, simply securing a decent dinner can be the hardest part of the day. However, one thing we can be proud of is that even in our darkest moments, we’ve never had to resort to a KFC, Mickey D’s or Pizza Hut.

After dinner, we took a cab back to the hotel where we found the five other hotel guests sitting outside enjoying a drink and recounting the day. We joined them for what ended up being a long evening of conversation, guitar playing and fun spread out over several, several bottles of wine. We talked about everything from United States politics to everyone’s first and favorite concert. Brooke and I explained how citizenship works for residents of Washington, DC and we had our minds blown a bit when learned that everyone in the world calls the mark that ends a sentence a “full stop” and mocks Americans for referring to it as a period. But mostly we talked a lot about what travelers talk to one other about – traveling and our experiences in various places. After two days of stumbling through broken Spanish, exchanging in dept conversations with a group of Aussies and Brits was a pleasure. It was a great way to spend an evening that went long into the night. Good times, indeed. Some days on this trip can be exhausting, but they almost all usually end quite well. As always, we can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings!

-Phil

 

How garbage is collected in Mendoza! Nifty!

The view of the front of our relaxing, quality hotel in the middle of wine country.

Hauling Wine down the street of Maipu

Dan playing some tunes for the crowd

Categories: Argentina, Mendoza, Reflections, Relaxing, Uncategorized, Wine | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Mendoza and the 14-Hour Bus Ride

Phil's long, gangly arms go a long wayAfter spending a few days in Buenos Aires, we were really ready to get out of the bustling city and into another region of Argentina. So, we boarded the 14-hour bus to the Mendoza province – wine country!

Now, you may be thinking that a 14-hour bus ride sounds like pure torture, and generally speaking, I would agree. But the coach buses here run the gamut from your basic Greyhound style (complete with 50 people crammed together and a smelly bathroom) to luxury coaches fit for a rock star. We found ourselves somewhere in the middle of the spectrum having chosen the Andesmar Ejecutivo class of service. We boarded a double decker bus and headed to our assigned seats on the top floor. Immediately impressed by their size, we found them to be more comfortable and spacious than Business Class Seats on an airplane. Because we were traveling overnight, it was important to us that we get some decent sleep. This was part of the reason for choosing this bus–the Ejecutivo seats recline to a 160 degree angle, so they lie almost completely flat. They come with a footrest, a small blanket and a pillow. Overall, they were quite comfortable. However, it wasn’t only the seats that made this bus ride bearable. We also had the luxury of having an on-board attendant, much like an airplane. He served us both dinner and breakfast, made sure the bathroom was clean and generally ensured everyone was comfortable. But the best part? Bingo! That’s right. Our trip had only just begun when he offered us all bingo cards and began calling out numbers. Phil was only one number away from winning, but the man seated in front of us beat him to it. The prize? What else on a bus to Mendoza but a bottle of wine. Overall, the whole trip was really easy and definitely the way to go when taking such a long ride. We think the U.S. could really benefit from these types of buses. If we can’t convince people to expand the rail network in our country, maybe we can encourage public transportation in this way. I doubt it will happen anytime soon, but you never know.

Once we arrived in Mendoza, we had a bit of a misadventure finding our latest Air BnB stay. The bus we were told to take kicked us off at the last stop and we seemed to be nowhere on the map which was given to us. After being reassured that we were on the correct bus, we waited and boarded it going the other direction. This did not look promising either, as we appeared to simply be headed back to the place we started. We finally decided to jump off and ask someone for directions. We found some very nice people in a party supply store and managed through our broken Spanish to determine that we were far off the map and about six kilometers from where we needed to be. This was way too far to walk with luggage. Not to mention, this journey had already taken us about an hour, it was hot and we were tired from our 14-hour bus ride. After warning us to be careful of a taxi scamming us, our helpers sent us on our way. Luckily, we got an honest, albeit reckless, driver. He barely missed sideswiping another car in an intersection, though in retrospect we realize it wasn’t entirely his fault. Many of the intersections here have no stop lights or street signs. Nothing to indicate who should give way to whom. I imagine that could be quite confusing (and dangerous) for drivers. It is hard enough as pedestrians.

Once we got settled in, we decided to take a stroll through Mendoza. We were happy to see that this town is vastly different from Buenos Aires. A surprisingly big city in its own right, Mendoza has none of the broken sidewalks, graffiti and overall downtrodden feel of Buenos Aires. The streets were bustling with activity, sidewalk cafes were teeming with people sipping espresso and the air was actually fresh. They should rechristen Buenos Aires to “Malo Aires”and rename Mendoza to the more fitting “Buenos Aires”. The downtown area has a number of vibrant public squares with five right in the center of town. They are set up with the giant, most central square, Plaza Independencia, in the middle complete with fountain, green space, vendors and four satellite neighboring squares equidistant from one another. The happy-go-lucky vibe of Plaza Independencia reinforced that we were not in Buenos Aires anymore. Shanty towns and homeless people had been replaced by families playing soccer, lovers cuddling in the grass, and skateboarders attempting new tricks.

For dinner, we looked over the wide variety of dining options available around town and decided the Ocho Cepas (translated as eight strains) was the place for us. Set slightly apart from the main touristy streets, it boasts a large menu with several wine options. Phil was experiencing almost immediate order envy with he tasted my delicious filet mignon. While it might not take top honors for the best meal of the trip, the romantic atmosphere, tasty dishes and friendly staff made it a wonderful evening out. Now off to more rural wine country so we can see the vineyards up close!

-Brooke

Notice anything odd about this busy Mendoza intersection? There isn’t a single stoplight, stop sign, yield sign or cross walk on any corner! This is (amazingly) somewhat common.

Phil smiling because we’re lost once again on a city bus. Not the first time it’s happened this trip and likely won’t be the last.

In the rooms in Argentina where we have cable television, this is how we’ve been polishing up on our Spanish! Ah, gustamos Los Dos y Medio Hombres

Quilmes – The major local brew in Argentina. While be trading these in for bottles of Malbecs for a while…

Categories: Argentina, Destinations, Driving Abroad, Hotels, Mendoza | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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