After our 7am speed demon taxi driver actually got us in one piece to the Ushuaia airport (275 ARP), we boarded the LATAM flight to Mendoza. We boarded from the front and the back of the plane so there was a lot of chaotic cross traffic in the aisle. The overhead bins filled up fast. An attendant had to finally take a small sack out of a small overhead bin where a woman was vehemently complaining that she had a right to have the bin all to herself; the flight attendant politely disagreed, shoved Cynthia’s pack in, extended her had to put the other woman’s bag back in but was angrily rebuffed as the woman placed it under the seat in front of her. Cynthia’s pack was quite happy to have the space all to itself.
Our connection through Buenos Aires was super confusing (and, gee, we’re not novices!); signs pointed to dead ends, elevator wasn’t in use, and escalators that were no where near stairs, were blocked. It took three stops at different service desks to actually get enough information to get us to the second floor. In the domestic connections terminal, there was a candy shop, a café and a Hard Rock Café where, although we’re not fans, we had a decent lunch. The waitress was pleasant and we joked about a rabbit when she kept pulling condiments out of her apron pocket and placing them magically on the table. When her shift was over, she typed something into google translate on her phone and presented the screen to us where her Spanish had been translated into … French. We laughed and we told her in Spanish that we didn’t speak French. She swiveled the phone back and gasped at her faux pas, and we told her in Spanish that we’d be happy to pay up now.
From the airport in Mendoza, we opted for the fixed price (190 ARP) Remis taxi to Umbral Apart Hotel. The hotel was more like a motel in the sense that, although you would never guess from the outside, there was a parking lot inside, like an open courtyard but for parked cars, and all the rooms surrounded it. The hotel looked brand new and the room was a very nice studio efficiency with a tray on the kitchen table full of delicious Alfajores cookies, tea and juice. By the time we got settled, it was 8pm so we took a quick jaunt around the surrounding neighborhood, trying not to fall waist deep in the large holes around the trees on the sidewalk running with water (Acequias as we learned later). We settled on a pizza dinner at Trento pizza; an inexpensive place with a decent enough deep dish style pizza for us to “para llevar” the leftovers back to our fridge. At the hotel, we realized there were two layers of shades over the window to the parking area, so seeing that one was pretty see-through, we closed the other and enjoyed a comfortable night’s rest in the king sized bed.
In the morning, we were covered with little white lint balls, many of which were in Cynthia’s hair. Realizing that they were all over the sheets, we spoke with the receptionist who explained that the hotel was so new, their sheet were still linting after being washed, but she said they would change the sheets; Cynthia did not want to look like she had a bad case of dandruff every morning.
The next day was dedicated to booking tours. After visiting two tour agencies (MarTur and Trout-and-Wine), the hop-on-hop-off wine tour bus office (Bus Vitivinícola), we learned it was a big holiday weekend so many tours were already booked. We waited out siesta discussing our options over a meat and cheese “tabla” at Zurich Coffee and Beer (not a great lunch but the maraschino cherry stuck with a toothpick to a bite of cheese was surprisingly delicious). We went back to MarTur to try for the sunset horseback tour and a Monday winery/olive oil/distillery tour. At the office we discovered that the Monday tour for 630 ARP had availability, but we would have to do Saturday morning (2500 ARP) if we wanted to ride the horses. After booking the tours, we headed back to Bus Vitivinícola to book the Sunday bus to Valle de Uco but it was “completo”. The bus did not run on Monday, so we were out of luck.
It was a beautiful day so we wandered around downtown under the shade of the lovely trees to the pedestrian street (noting that even McDonalds sold wine) and stumbled upon Berlina pub, an outlet for the brewery we enjoyed after our Laguna Negra hike near Bariloche. We enjoyed a beer and a cider, popped into the Tourist office to see about events related to the Vendimia harvest festival (unfortunately, the only English speaking person was occupied so we didn’t understand all of what the other cheerful, fast-talking, staffer told us), and then headed back to the apartment for the rest of the day to nurse colds we had picked up in Ushuaia.
Our tour bus picked us up about 8:30am from the hotel. There were only two other Brazilian women on the tour and we marveled at the fluency of the Los Pingos tour guide, Arandu, to switch from Portuguese to English to Spanish with ease. It was only a 25 minute drive to Krontiras winery where we immediately walked to the waiting horses. Given our level of riding experience, Cynthia was given Tiburón (“Shark” because he liked to eat a lot and she was instructed not to let him) and Warren was given a large horse that liked to try to bite our guide – these horses made the ride so much more fun for us!
The first part of the ride was through the gravelly, hilly desert scrubland that is indicative of the Mendoza region and is the reason it is such good wine country; dry equals no molds or fungi and, with the water coming down from the Andes, they can control the water to the vines. The way up to the vista to see Mendoza and the Andes in the distance, Arandu put something in our hands, telling us not to look, smell it and guess what it was. Cynthia correctly guessed peppercorn which was surprising because her horse pooped and farted so much, she should have lost all sense of smell. Warren was probably worse off because his horse was behind Tiburón – it was no wonder he was always lagging at least 10 yards behind. Although forewarned, Tiburón continued to eat (especially when Cynthia was distracted) until she was forced to resort to a quick whack on the neck. When Cynthia told Arandu she was a computer programmer, he said he’d roomed with 3 once and could not understand how they could drink so much beer and eat so much pizza and stay so thin – blushing at the veracity of that statement, Cynthia just shrugged. As we descended to the vineyard and began our ride to the winery, we realized the lovely weeping pink peppercorn trees were everywhere.
We dismounted at the hitching post at the winery. The owner constructed the Krontiras winery and organic vineyard using some sort of feng shui with curvy lines and weird star alignment ceremonies. We were only offered a taste of 2 of the wines which were pretty good but intrigued by a grape we’d never heard of, we bought a 200 ARP Torrontes, so we could try it later. Rather than navigate to the mounting area, Warren gave Cynthia a butt-boost up and the group trotted back to the front gate (thank goodness for knowing how to post!). We finished with a delicious feast of grilled meats and sausages (parrilla), garden tomatoes, roasted potatoes and wine (although not from the winery). We didn’t realize there would be a second round of parrilla and were told the cook was new so it’d be great if we clapped when he brought the second round. We did, but hoped the staff could finish because we were all so full!
The bus got us back to the hotel by 2:30. Later in the day we went back to the tourist office and were able to speak with an English speaking staffer who marked on our map the location of the “Mega” wine tasting at a cute park, Plazoleta Vergara. Prepping for an hour walk, we stopped at Berlina to have a drink outside. We saw a woman sanitation engineer sweeping the pedestrian area with a palm frond – we now understood that the palm fronds sticking out of their service carts weren’t trash but brooms!
We made it to the wine festival just before 9 p.m. and bought a regular and a premium wine tasting and proceeded to enjoy some of Mendoza’s finest. We were so enamored with the tiny, lovely park and the jazzy/soulful DJ music wafting through the air, that it was after 10 before we realized we had had no dinner. Fortunately in South America, having dinner at 10 is normal, so we ducked into a place adjacent to the event, ordered some takeout, and enjoyed some hot empanadas on an outdoor sofa set up by the festival. We finished up our tastes, grabbed a taxi and called it a great day!
Sunday turned out to be a rest day nursing colds until the afternoon. We had a little trouble finding a taxi, but eventually were dropped off at the immense city park on the west side of the city. Parque General San Martin consists of almost 1000 acres. We strolled around the big lake in the center: we laughed as a small girl on a bicycle piped up “cuidado” as she cycled near us, heard the distant shout of “helado!” intermittently as ice cream men on bicycles made themselves known, and smiled at people spread out under the trees enjoying the afternoon. Completing the circuit, we realized our colds would not let us do more so we stopped at a Punta Del Lago cafe right on the lake and had a deconstructed burger (cheese burger patty on fries with a bread basket on the side). We exited the park and strolled down Av. Arístides Villanueva, a picturesque tree lined street near the University with lots of restaurants and bars. We stopped at Beerlin, a brewpub, and enjoyed a beer before catching a cab back to the apartment.
Since the winery tour would not be picking us up until 2 or later we slept in. We were the last to be picked up so it was “later”. Of the approximately 20 people, only 3 of us spoke English – which turned out to be a good thing. The tour started at Cecchin, an organic winery. The three of us were lead away on a tour of the vineyard and winery by an enthusiastic French girl who spoke English. During the tour of the winery, a Japanese couple were directed to join our tour. Ending the tour at the tasting room, the guide had to explain the tasting choices and cost to the Japanese couple since they were not part of our pre-paid tour group. They decided on the 6 wines tasting. At this point, Warren asked how many wines our tour group would be tasting, to which the guide replied, “Three.” Warren quickly asked how much extra we’d have to pay to taste six. Not having been asked that before, the guide had to go ask a manager and a few minutes later we agreed to pay 150 ARP (about $4) more each. Watching the large group on the Spanish tour, the three of us were glad we had had a chance in our small group to upgrade the tasting to 6 wines. The wines were quite good so we purchased their organic Malbec Roble – and a bubble wrap bag (it’d need all the help it could get to make it back to the United States!).
The next stop was the Olive oil factory, Pasrai, where we learned how they manufactured olive oil and that extra virgin oil was determined by a low acid content. We met back up with the Spanish tour in their tasting room and were treated to a tasting of a wide variety of oils and spreads on cubes of bread. We didn’t pick up any olive oil but we really liked the carrot spread (made with olive oil) so we picked up a jar.
Back on the tour bus, we headed to Vistandes Winery, where we got another private English tour and tasting of four of their wines. We were curious about their reserve labels so we walked over to the cashier and asked to purchase a glass of wine (100 ARP). Renie, the other American, was dumbfounded – she’d been on a number of tours around the area already and had never thought to ask to pay for additional tastings or glasses. We really loved the reserve Carménère so we purchased a bottle to bring home as a gift.
The last stop on the tour was a winery/distillery called Florio which mostly made sweet, fortified-type wines. On our way back to Mendoza, we asked the tour bus driver to let us off near Av. Arístides Villanueva. After a quick stop at the ATM (we were not sure if our next stop, Iguazu, would have an ATM), we decided to eat at Uelts Bar because Cynthia noticed crinkle cut fries (her favorite) in the pictures on their menu. We ordered wings and the ribs with fries. Fortunately we looked up papas “cuña” before the waiter had gotten too far back to the kitchen and made sure to switch out the potato “wedges” with crinkle cut fries – disaster averted! Sitting outside, we thought we could fend off an incense peddler by claiming we didn’t speak Spanish. He switched to English. Sigh. In the end, the food was great, the beer was good, and the fries were perfect. We caught a taxi back to the room and packed for our early (5 ugh 30 a.m.) flight to Iguazu Falls.