On arriving in Mendoza, Argentina, we had only one thing in mind: wine. Although horse-riding across the rocky, barren land is popular, along with rafting, skydiving, having asados with gauchos and generally consuming as much beef in as many forms as possible, the region is famed for wine. As it transpired, getting to the wine wasn’t quite so straight forward as we’d been led to believe by the guide books…
Step one: withdraw some Argentinean pesos. Step two: pay for the bus and wine tour. Simple? No.
Whispers about BBVA bank or maybe the Santander having cash whirled around the streets. Moving from empty ATM to ATM, the money-deprived crowd we’d attached ourselves to had assumed a crocodile formation. Rumours rippled along the ranks of locals and tourists alike, all facing up to the severe liquidity issue. Concerned about the damage being done to precious wine tasting time, we eventually returned to our hostel. The owner was perplexed by our overlooking of the most obvious source of cash – the casino, not the banks – was where one found money in Mendoza. Paper money, that is.
Then we tried to board the No 10 bus. Confusingly, the bus driver didn’t deal with fares: coins, and only coins, were inserted into a small blue box which gave no change; no quarter is given for the bewildered visitor. Back on the pavement a promising kiosk squatted across the road.
“No change here.”
“If I buy a newspaper?”
In the midst of the Maipú valley, financial snobbery had been inverted. Tangible metal was the drug of choice, paper money was just paper. For a second time we returned to the hostel. The owner reluctantly took pity on us, doling out the change like candy to small children or weed to wasters. We took the fix and paid for our trip to the vineyards of the Mendoza valley.
The bus shuffled lazily through Mendoza, gradually leaving behind the gentle hum of the town. Low rise buildings made of crumbling concrete gave way to weathered roads. At the road side the faded grey tarmac stopped abruptly, dust continuing from there to the horizon where the foothills of the Andes rose up, marking the end of the plateau and the beginning of the Chilean frontier crossing we’d crossed the day before, just hours before snow closed the pass.
Up towards the frontier, where Condors soar and oxygen levels plummet, there’s a faded blue sign. But, unlike the sleepy sidewalks and crusted windows, it’s clean. It’s well tended, tired perhaps, but wiped clean it makes a point, the only blue in an ocean of rusty clay ravines.
“Las Malvinas son nuestras”
Buy all the wine, manjar and alfajores you want, but don’t forget, Las Malvinas are ours.
As we plied our way deeper into Argentine territory – away from the slightly hostile welcoming sign – vineyards began to spring out of the orangey haze, trees started to pepper the ditch lined road. Young Australian, American and British voices hung in the air – gringos – the driver knew exactly where to drop us off: Mr Hugo’s wine and bike tour.
Mr Hugo’s is a well established go-to for backpackers, offering cycle hire and a sketchy map of the industrial vineyards, wineries and olive oil factories dotted around Los Caminos del Vino, Maipú. The map is most definitely not to scale, so don’t be fooled into thinking you can do every vineyard. It’s also worth noting that Mr Hugo’s price for bike hire does not include either the entry into vineyards or a tour guide. Your hostel should, however, be able to get you a cut price deal for Mr Hugo’s and book a place in advance.
Top of your list should be the Chocolatería “A la Antigua” which offers, in its price of 15 pesos, several shots of vodka, or absinthe, (whose flavours, such as rose, hide a multitude of sins) along with chocolate testers, balsamic vinegar you’ll fall in love with and dulce de leche (a caramel style, toffee-like spread).
After being plied with plastic beakers of wine which closely resembles petrol, you’ll be sent on your way. Your mission? Try and stay upright as long as possible, and get back before 4pm, at which point Mr Hugo will be all too happy to crack open the unlimited jugs of homemade wine again.
Mr Hugo, having cottoned onto the slight issue surrounding tourists and the chronic change shortage, will accompany you to the bus and swipe you on with an Oyster Card type thing. Why the hostels around town don’t rent these cards out to tourists, for a small profit, is beyond me. You’ll arrive back in time for an evening of steak and more wine (if you’re brave enough!).