Mecca in Mendoza
If you knew me personally, you’d know of my love of wine – even when wine isn’t particularly nice to me back, I am a loyal and faithful servant. So in 2010, whilst touring around South America for 6 months, I was eager to stop in one of the wine capitals of the world – Mendoza in Argentina.
Mendoza is nestled into a series of high plains in the crook of the eastern Andes, and something about the climate here (I was listening on the wine tour, honestly!) means they produce some of the best red Malbec wines. The region is the largest producer of wine in the whole of Latin America – basically, it was my Mecca!
Home away from home
As a backpacker, I was making my home in hostels – in Mendoza, home was the Hostel Lao. This hostel was recommended to me by fellow travellers and I was so glad to have taken their advice. The place is owned by an English man and his Argentinian wife, and they created one of the most homely hostels that I had stayed in throughout my trip – the hostel was peppered with comfy sofas, armchairs, and a real log fire (which was lovely in the dreary rain Mendoza was suffering from at the time). As a traveller, finding places where you feel truly comfortable is like gold, as it means you can bed down for a few days and relax.
The staff at the hostel were incredibly helpful, especially a guy called Herman who answered about a million of my questions during my stay. He advised on the best things to do while I was in town and of course the first suggestion was a wine tour. I booked onto a day excursion to several boutique ‘bodegas’ (wineries).
World of wine
The excursion was a unique experience – there were about 15 people on the trip; a family of four from the USA, two Mexicans, and the rest Argentinian. We toured around three bodegas and sampled several wines in each.
My resistance to wine can be low (despite the quantities I have consumed!) and so I was in need of some food to soak up the alcohol. I couldn’t have predicted a bigger lunch. We arrived at a local restaurant and were put on a large, long table that was laid out to every possible square inch with food; meats, cheeses, pickles, rice, lentils, vegetables, salads, breads, dips…you name it, it was there in four different varieties!
As we tucked into the food, a waiter informed us that this was only the starter! They kept bringing more dishes out as the meal went on – various types of empanadas (a traditional Argentinian pasty), a rice dish, and a pasta dish. The copious foods were watered down with much more red wine!
At lunch I was seated with the Argentinians, who didn’t speak much English. Add that to my rubbish Spanish and I wasn’t holding out hope for much lunchtime talk. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. The Argentinians continually practised their English on me and encouraged me to use my limited Spanish by pointing at the various foods and asking for translations, then providing them back in Spanish. It made for much hilarity – they loved the word ‘chickpea’!
Taking on the trek
The second suggestion from Herman was a day trek up into the ‘Chico Andes’, which is what the locals call the smaller mountain ranges in the Andes that border Argentina and Chile. When I say smaller, I mean 3500 metres above sea level, as opposed to 6500 metres – so they’re not so ‘chico’ in reality!
Two guys from my hostel joined me on the trek – Jonathus (from Brazil) and Quentin (from France). We were taken to a rental shop to get equipment, which included these huge moon boots and some walking poles. We met our guide, Fefi, at the base camp in the morning and began hiking up the range to one of the peaks in the Cerro San Bernardo elevations.
It was a bright, clear day with the sun shining – but the snow that had fallen recently did make walking really difficult. You would step forward and not know if you would sink a few inches or a few feet into snow. Every step forward would also see you slide back half a step each time, which felt so defeating after a few hours.
I wasn’t sure how I would be affected by the altitude but I was soon to find out. As unfit as I am (a semi-regular exerciser), I could happily walk uphill in normal circumstances – but every step at altitude is like a marathon. It’s hard to describe – it’s not like you can’t suck in air, it’s just that every breath doesn’t feel like it’s enough.
About half way up I had started to feel queasy and got a little light-headed. Jonathus, Quentin and Fefi were OK and powered on ahead – in fact, due to my level of fitness and the altitude sickness, I fell behind my companions and remained that way for most of the hike. But I was keen to keep my own pace and not overdo it, having suffered with many a knee injury in the past. I spent 90% of that trek reciting ‘left…..right…..left……right’ just to keep myself going.
All of the hard work is worth it for the scenery on the hike – it was absolutely breathtaking. There were frozen waterfalls, snow drifts, and we hiked to a level above the clouds – absolutely unbelievable. When I had finally neared the top, the boys were waiting and they cheered me on – we all hugged and took group pictures at the top. We stayed up on the peak for about an hour, taking pics, sitting and having a packed lunch – Fefi had carried up a gas stove and made us hot soup.
The trek back down took only half the time it took to get up because we just stood into the snow and let ourselves slip down the mountain. The boys loved this part and I soon got into the rhythm, with our various falls into the snow keeping us amused all the way down to base camp. That night we celebrated our achievement with a huge steak dinner – I won’t get started on the steaks in Argentina…they need their whole own blog post!
Are you a wine fanatic? Does Mendoza tickle your taste buds?
If you’re in the area, consider staying at Hostel Lao – http://www.laohostel.com