Miles of vineyards. The backdrop of the snowcapped Andes. Bottles and bottles of red wine. Mendoza is famous for being the heart of Argentinian wine country. It will be infamous for us as the place Patrick learned to ride a bike.
There are several options for exploring the wineries of the area. Most tourist offices offer an inexpensive afternoon group trip that visits two wineries and one olive oil factory in about five hours. They can also arrange for a private guide to take you out for the whole day, normally priced around 170-200 Pesos per person ($40-$50). We were weighing our options when we learned about the bicycle alternative: there is a large cluster of wineries within a 10 kilometer area called the Route of Wine, and it is easy to rent a bike and give yourself a self-guided tour. We were immediately sold on this much more romantic image of our day in wine country.
Some of these bike rental companies will arrange for your transportation from downtown Mendoza to their offices, but they charge about double cost for this convenience. Taking the local bus is much more economical. However, gathering the bus fare is a major challenge. Like in Russia, getting change when making a purchase becomes an ordeal. The Argentinian issue is very coin-focused. Storekeepers tend to round their prices up or down at the cash register to avoid parting with quarters and dimes, but they have no problem breaking hundreds with a variety of 2 and 5 Peso bills. Unfortunately the local buses only take change and so to collect the 3.60 Peso combined fare for us took very calculated shopping. Victorious in our change hoarding, we hopped the #10 bus to the Route of Wine in Maipu.
There are several bike rental companies at the north end of the Route of Wine and our bus driver selected his favorite to let us off the bus: Mr. Hugo. And boy did Mr. Hugo take care of us! 25 Pesos each (about $7 USD) got us two bicycles for the entire day and a map of the wineries in the area with Mrs. Hugo's personal recommendations. Fully equipped, we hit the road.
But we didn't get very far. Patrick had warned Katrina that he hadn't ridden a bike since he was 12 and didn't really know how, but she figured he just didn't have a lot of confidence since it had been so long. They say "it's just like riding a bike" for a reason, right? Katrina did not realize the magnitude of the issue until she watched Patrick teeter back and forth trying to get enough balance to move at all. It was a slow start to the day but with some practice, some coaching, and much persistence Patrick was zooming down the roads of Argentina.
His riding ability took a giant leap forward after his first glass of wine. We started at the Museo del Vino which is an industrial wine manufacturer in addition to a museum displaying old and new winemaking equipment. We made a pass through the exhibit before getting our complimentary glass. Patrick knocked his back and was ready to get back on the Route of Wine, riding much more confidently this time.
We decided to bike to the end of the Route and work our way back, which meant we started with Carinae. This small winery was started by a retired French couple in 2003 and uses old-fashioned wine production methods and solely French oak barrels for aging. The name comes from a constellation that can only be seen during harvest season. We tasted three of their delicious wines--their malbec/cabernet blend was Katrina's favorite wine of the day.
To be fair, after another winery and a few more glasses it was hard to tell the difference. Familia di Tommaso was our next stop. We did another tour, tasted some more of their standard selections, and then joined with some other bicyclists in buying a bottle of their finest wine to share together. This particular 2007 malbec was produced in a limited quantity of only 4,000 and we got bottle 1,021. We made great new friends over that bottle of wine and decided to continue the Route together.
By the time Laura, Shannon, Marco, Christian, Rafael and we got to the Tempus Alba winery we decided we'd had enough of the tours, were basically experts, and could just concentrate on tasting wine. We sat on the beautiful roof deck and enjoyed a sensational syrah and tasty temperilla. After polishing off those bottles we crossed the road to El Cerno and purchased another two, plus a few glasses of their bubbly, and enjoyed the last rays of sunlight sitting in one of the vineyard's irrigation ditches.
It turns out that while one glass of wine vastly improved Patrick's bicycle skills, multiple did not. Our stumbling along the road back caught the attention of the local police who decided to provide us an escort. We finally made it back to Mr. Hugo who greeted us with a warm smile and two glasses of wine. Back in town, our crew enjoyed a delicious steak dinner off the Plaza Independencia, toasting to a wonderful day and new friends--with, of course, another bottle of wine.
The next morning we dragged our hungover bodies out of bed to catch the bus to Valparaiso, Chile. This was made easier by the fact that our tiny $20 room at Hotel Laser was pretty depressing with sagging bed, peeling wallpaper, and no hot water. Not exactly where we wanted to spend a day lounging in bed. The bus had driven about two hours west when we came to a roadblock: there was a storm brewing in the Andes and we would try to wait it out there. But after an hour it was still looking ugly, so we turned around and headed back to Mendoza.
With an unexpected afternoon on our hands and not much to do in Mendoza besides drink wine, we decided to nurse our hangovers with a splurge on a hotel room. Hotel Horcones was twice the price but also twice as nice. $40 bought us an even mattress, TV with English channels showing both old and new 90210, and a clean bathroom with hot shower (and our first bathtub shower in a long time). The room was still generally dingy and faded, but it did the trick. Braving the curving mountain roads to Chile was a million times more pleasant the next day.
View more pictures from Mendoza here.