Vern: A night bus deposited us at a terminal in Santiago and after some confusion as to whether or not the border with Argentina was open, we bought a ticket to Mendoza, the heart of Argentina's wine region. The border crossing was magnificent. Thirty-five numbered hairpin bends took us up into the snow covered Andes, past waterfalls and under ski-lifts taking skiers up to the top of steep white slopes. It took us two hours of waiting to be allowed to pass through the border and then we began the descent into Argentina. As night fell we pulled into Mendoza.
When we arrived our hostel was very quiet, though it filled and emptied in peaks and troughs over the week we spent there. On our first day we settled in: We found the supermarket, bought supplies, familiarized ourselves with our part of town and found the English cable channels on the hostel TV. Later, we hunted down a Wine Tasting Bar where an American we met in Bariloche works and sat down for a 'flight' of five different Malbecs - a delicious red wine with cherry and plum flavours which grows much better in Argentina than in its native France.
On the second day it was Serious Wine Time. We went out to the Maipu region and picked up rental bikes from a company called Mr Hugo's. Mr Hugo himself, a grey-haired man with a big face and hair coming out of his ears, greeted us warmly and found us some bikes while his moonbag-wearing wife handled the business side of things. After a half hour of determined pedaling we went back in time. To 1886 in fact - soon after Italian immigrants had travelled to Argentina and started growing grapes in a desert. There wasn't much rain so they dug furrows down from the mountains to the farmlands to catch the melting snow water and as such had complete control over the amount of water they gave to the vines. They still use this system today and canals run alongside all the streets. We toured the age old Familia di Tommaso vineyard. The factory building is protected and upgrades are not allowed making ita a beautiful relic unsuitable for modern winemaking. It's an atmospheric building with cement tanks, antique machinery and a photo wall showing the multi-generational history. "The baby in this photo is the winemaker today" pointed out our guide. This wasn't a modern digital print of course - a baby making wine is just ridiculous - rather, this was a faded sepia photo from the 40s. After the history lesson we got to drink the results of all these decades of family effort. Three delicious Malbecs (in ascending price/quality order) and then a dessert wine. At one point our guide whipped out a bottle of 2004 Malbec Reserve (the greatest harvest in recent years and therefore the Holy Grail) but before we finished licking our lips it was whipped away again. That one was for purchase only not for mere tasting.
Afterward, we rushed down the first sandwich out of our packed lunch and then got back on the bikes and cycled down wintery boulevards to the next vineyard, Mevi. We parked the bikes and climbed the stairs of a modern concrete edifice with a swish tasting room above a warehouse full of barrels, and a large sun-deck looking out on the dry vineyards and distant mountains. We had the deck to ourselves and collapsed onto a white leather day-bed while the woman poured us four tasting glasses representing the Mevi range. We spent over an hour there undisturbed, left to soak up the sun and the wine under sunny blue skies.
When our glasses were finally drained, we reluctantly rolled out of there in a sun-daze and pedaled just down the road to Tempus Alba, another modern winemaker. We skipped the self guided tour and bought a bottle of Malbec called "Loco" which means 'crazy' and has an ink blot on the label - very cool. We enjoyed two glasses under an umbrella on the sprawling terrace and then corked the bottle and decided to call it a day. Or so we thought.
We returned the bikes and Mr Hugo offered us a free plastic cup full of wine. Okay sure, why not just one more. Little did we know that the sneaky Mr Hugo is a lot like our friend Brocko and will never let a glass go empty - so every time we were almost done he'd swoop by and top it up before we could utter the first syllable of an objection. His little bike shop turned into quite the fiesta and eventually after an indeterminate amount of wine we slipped out and found the bus back to the hostel.
The next day we watched some DVD movies. That is all.
We couldn't visit Argentina again without tucking in to its glorious red meat and conveniently the hostel had a barbecue so we bought some chorizo and steak and a bottle of chimichurri (a garlic, herbs and oil mix invented by angels) and sizzled up a meat feast which we tucked into on a pleasant evening along with the rest of that bottle of Loco.
We spent one day visiting Mendoza's enormous San Martin park and generally wondering the streets of the modern city.
Andrea talked the hostel into giving us another voucher for free bike rental (they were running a deal: stay 3 or more nights and get 1 day bike rental free and we ended up staying there eight nights) and on a crisp Monday morning we bravely headed back out to Maipu. This time however we branched out and started with a variety tasting session at a little family home industry farm called A la Antigua. We sampled olive oil, tapenades, marmelades, dulce de leche, chocolate and some creamy liqueurs which were delicious enough to be very dangerous. We followed that with the big exporter, Trapiche Vineyards, who made us wait outside for an hour for their scheduled tour, so we enjoyed an unglamorous picnic on their pavement. It was worth the wait - the processing plant was a technological marvel back in its day, with a train track that ran right past its store house, but closed down when the bottom fell out of the Argentenian wine industry in the 70s. It sat empty for 40 years until Trapiche bought it and overhauled it to use it for aging its fine wines and for a new visitors centre. The tasting bar features a fantastic glass floor which looks down on to the barrel room and gives the feeling one is hovering above all that wine. We sampled some of Trapiche's range of fine wines but unfortunately weren't that impressed, through no fault of the hilarious guide who talked us through the wines. He was quite off-beat and insisted that we should be able to detect toothpaste flavours in their dessert wine. This insight obviously wasn't printed in the tasting notes.
We cycled back to Famalia di Tomasso to pick up a bottle of the wine we enjoyed most and on the way noticed that the town planner (or whoever names streets) might not like the area much: We crossed Prat Street then Ponce Street and then turned into Moron Avenue. Supposedly these are all figures in Argentina's history but I call shenanigans! We returned the bikes to Mr Hugo's and declined all but a single cup of red wine - We had a bus trip to Santiago, Chile planned for the early the next day.
The following morning, on the 16th of September, we packed up and went downstairs to checkout of the hostel. But the hostelier greeted us with some bad news: The land border crossing to Chile was closed and all international buses were cancelled. We were stranded! Our flight tickets out of the continent have us leaving Santiago on the 19th - just three days away. And with some rather tight connections, and some very expensive Fiji hostel bookings on the back of that, missing that plane would be unthinkable...