Andes, Good Wine and Real Gauchos

Sunset over the Andes

More often traveled by a 6-hour bus ride through the Andes, I flew the 40 minutes from Santiago to Mendoza, Argentina on my RTW ticket. Despite being such a short flight and not necessarily a “high-value” ticket (although still a $500 cash purchase), I was compelled to include this segment due to routing options and availability on my RTW ticket.

On that note…are you interested in hearing/learning about the travel logistics on this trip? If so let me know in the comments and I’ll consider a blog post focusing on that. 

The taxi ride was about 40 Argentine pesos, less than $10, and while the local bus would cost a fraction of that I was weary and just not having it.

Checked into the not-as-cool-as-the-reviews-made-it-sound Mendoza Backpackers hostel. It was nice enough, but the shower drains backing up to your ankles after a six-minute shower was unpleasant and the 6 X 8 foot room for four people was intimate.

I did meet some cool people there and had a nice stay. This was also where I witnessed Game 7 of the stunning comeback victory in the NLCS, as well as most of the 2012 Major League Baseball World Series Fall Classic, featuring the Detroit Tigers and your hometown San Francisco Baseball Giants, mostly with an abysmal internet connection prompting much anxiety.

I pretty much laid low on my first evening and subsequent first day, making plans for the week in Mendoza and venturing out a bit for a trip to the local grocer, a cajero automatico and a little exercicio in the lovely Plaza España just a block away.

In the Parque Provincial Aconcagua

I did get my plans worked out and the next day I did a tour into the high andes, a trip through the three cordilleras, or mountain ranges, of the Argentine Andes, featuring  spectacular views of lakes, canyons, the Puente Inca and finally the Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the world outside of the Himalayas. Standing in the windy shadows of these towering snow-capped peaks I reflected on having tread this year within the Southern Alps of New Zealand, the Japanese Alps, the Himalayas, the Alps of Europe and now the Andes, bookended on either side by my beloved Sierra Nevadas of the United States, where I was born. High marks for our tour guide Lorena, who despite having done the tour 1,000 times, with each discourse performed in Spanish AND English, maintained the energy to keep it fun and interesting.

High Andes Photo Gallery

Another glass of wine? Wineott??

Mendoza is famed for it’s wine production and the next day was our wine bicycle tour, during which I was nearly certain to crash at least once and most likely take out two or more others with me. Despite several close calls and more than a few panicky glances directed my way (as I weaved with reckless abandon through our lines), all tourists escaped without injury. The tour was fun thanks to the group we were in, even though two of the three wineries offered us only one glass of wine. En serio? The wine was good though, and I became popular with our group after coaxing an extra glass for all at each of those last two bodegas. BO-DE-GAS. Anyone?

Wine Bike Tour Photo Gallery

After checking out of my hostel I couchsurfed with an Argentine girl named Ana; I’d not specifically sent her a couch request, but she’d seen my general request and contacted me offering to host. What an awesome gal. I had my own room and keys to come and go, and first thing on arrival she insisted on cooking home-made milanesa con puré, a very traditional Argentine dish of essentially chicken-fried steak with smashed potatoes.

After meeting up with Ana and dominating milanesa I promptly departed for my last tour in Mendoza, a horse riding experience in the desert beneath the andes.

Our tour group arrived in the desert at a very small ranch with a three-room brick-house and covered outdoor table setting, a shed and tack-house behind, holding all the horse equipment and tools and such, and the stables even further behind in the creek bed below.

We were briefed by Javier with a 10-minute crash-course on horseriding in Spanish, which along with the body language and gestures I understood about 75% of.

She’s a beaut

With that we were off, each presumably under control of our respective beasts. I took it on pretty quickly and within a few minutes was comfortable on the ‘ole girl. After about a two-hour ride through the desert, highlighted by a few steeps and a few trots, each inducing noticeable trickles of adrenaline, we arrived back at the ranch where the table was set with wine and bread and the asado, traditional Argentine BBQ, was already being prepared. The group sat down and dined on generous helpings of salad, bread and asado, cooked in a domed, stone oven. As the cheap wine flowed, dinner ran right into social hour with the guests chatting amongst themselves and hosts alike.

Of all the tours I’ve done this year, these guys didn’t treat us like impersonal tourists, just to get our money and send us on. They really treated us like friends and even family. Sitting around in a circle, drinking wine, listening to Argentine music on the guitar while they sang along and danced, just like it was any old night on the ranch amongst friends. I could tell they were really good people.

Another evening on the ranch

I talked with Javier for some time, asking about their story and what brought them to where they were. Small in stature but with a strong build, kind demeanor, soft-spoken in excellent English and exquisite Spanish, such that I could understand more than most any other Spanish speakers, Javier told me about their story.

Javier and his brother had a dream to start a tourist operation, getting some land right near where they were born, and living on in it, first just in tents and with a few horses. They began bringing tourists out, and through years or hard work built a house and stables, an irrigation system, bringing water and electricity, making small and gradual improvements and upgrades. They brought a couple of friends out to live and work with them, stepped up their tourist operation, and slowly built the life they had envisioned.

These guys are real gauchos – Argentine cowboys, nomadic, tied only to the land and their horses; instead of rifles they carried slingshots, they ate chicken and rabbits and wandered the countryside.

There are some people you just know about, and Javier is one of those. Even later, talking with two his friends on separate occasions, one told me the Javier is the “one really good person I know,” and another telling me, “I only have a few real, good friends, and Javier is one of them.”

I was so impressed with their operation, their genuineness, their dream in the making and the way they treated us that I offered to come back out a couple days later and work on the ranch.

Real Gauchos Photo Gallery

I did make it back into town that night though, and in time for Ana to take me out to a party where I met a bunch of her friends. Wow, if it’s easier in some situations to understand the language, it’s near impossible in others. In a party atmosphere with familiar friends, speaking casually amongst each other, using slang and talking fast, all with music in the background, I couldn’t catch a damn word being spoken. Reality check: you can’t speak Spanish, bro.

The next day Ana and I rented bicycles and she showed me all around Mendoza, including the many beautiful plazas and Parque San Martín, where we finally hiked to the top of Cerro de la Gloria for excellent vistas of the valleys, mountains and city below.

The view from Cerro de la Gloria

In one instance we were riding up a road in the park when we came to a metal barrier preventing thoroughfare to vehicle traffic. It looked fairly easy to go around, although there was a fair bit of water running in a little stream down the gutter. It broadened into a small pool where there was a pile up of leaves before rounding a corner and continuing down the street. Going around the barrier into the gutter I began riding through the inch-or-two deep stream, when suddenly the surface below my front tire fell away completely and my entire bike sunk up to the handlebars. This pool that looked to be three inches deep at most was actually about five feet, and it was like riding off a cliff. While my left leg found nothing below it, fortunately my right foot found a purchase on the edge of this  invisible ravine, allowing me to lurch myself out of the water while sinking only about knee-deep. I had to reach into the pool and drag the bike out, covered now with leaves and mud and water leaking out of every opening. My shoes and socks were saturated, but considering I had my camera hanging around my neck I was lucky to catch myself when I did. Add that one to the bicycle wreck career statistics, now well over 100.

Mendoza Photo Gallery

The next day I went back out to the countryside to help at the Gaucho ranch, this time taking the local bus. After getting off at the wrong stop and walking aimlessly through a small village, I was finally able to find some folks who helped me call Javier and explain where I was. They quickly picked me up and we made it out there, now joined by Javier’s friend Guy, a guy from Israel who’s been traveling around the world for years. With Guy, Javier, his brother and the others I helped a bit with the horses, collecting firewood and helping with the meal for that evening’s tourist group. There wasn’t all that much for me to do, but being around the horses and great people and lending a helping hand was awesome. Great people, great experience, and people I hope to meet again someday.

Capping off Mendoza, that evening at Ana’s apartment I watched the San Francisco Giants complete a thrilling World Series Championship, sweeping the Tigers for their second Fall Classic victory in three years, jumping up and down, fist pumping, screaming and going ballistic as Ana looked on somewhat baffled and mildly terrified. Needless to say, she is now a Giants fan.

All said and done, the next morning I took the local bus back to the airport which was no problemo, thinking along the way that yet another destination, another experience is in the rear-view mirror.

And that was it for Mendoza.

***

I want to hear about your most awesome bicycle accident in the COMMENTS section. 

Seriously. Tell us how it all went down..

4 Replies to “Andes, Good Wine and Real Gauchos”

  1. Great post, Christopher!

    My most amazing bicycle accident was at Saratoga Gap with Tanya and Rachel. I was in front, going at a pretty good clip, enjoying the beautiful forest. I don’t remember how it happened, but I suddenly found myself slipping from the narrow trail and sliding down the very steep mountain with my bike on top of me. Before I knew it, Tanya and Rachel were off their bikes sliding downslope for the rescue, which was unnecessary as I wasn’t hurt.

    Then there was the time in front of a Starbucks, with a dozen people watching, when I didn’t unclip in time and BAM! Hit the street full-on. Only my pride suffered.

    Like

  2. Not much for bycycle adventure. Falling off and scrapping knees on the streets of Modesto was the best I could come up with. Other than the slipping off onto the bar on the boys bike!

    Like

  3. “Reality check: you can’t speak Spanish, bro.” Classic.

    A post about travel logistics would be great.

    I can’t think of any personal bike related mishaps at the moments, but do have one you’ll appreciate. My friend Chris from Davis, who you met, had just left his dorm and was about to walk to class. A high-speed Asian bike rider wasn’t watching where he was going on a sidewalk and rammed right into Chris. Chris blacked out and woke up a moment later feeling fine. However, he noticed something pushing the skin up on his left collar area – it was his collar bone. Without thinking he stood up and pushed the protrusion back in. At that moment, a rush of pain and reality set in and he blacked out once again. By this time, people saw what happened and came to help. The biker was unharmed…

    Like

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