Imagine a rural city with world-famous wineries, a fresh ambience, snow-capped mountain ranges surrounding its perimeter and charming shops speckled throughout Sycamore tree lined streets. Mendoza, Argentina is the embodiment of that vision and I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to visit this striking, yet quaint metropolis.
My friend Jess and I spent 5 days in Mendoza, which is a good amount of time to be able to enjoy everything without feeling rushed. We were off to a rough start, with the combination of an unsettling bus ride and unexpected sign we found on our hostel door.
Photo cred: Jessica Corey
“Closed for some days”!? You must be joking. Wait, what does that even mean? I rang the doorbell a number of times with no answer. I finally laid my finger on the bell and didn’t move it for a solid minute. I wasn’t leaving until I found answers.
Seek, and you shall find, my friend.
A groggy guy answered my incessant ringing and explained that the hostel had been shut down temporarily by the government but the specific reasons remained unclear to us. He told us that the owner was in California at the moment and he was staying there temporarily, but official, on-the-book guests were out of luck.
But we had a reservation!!
Well…I guess it was time to find another place. The guy who answered the door, Christian, offered to help us find another hostel. He called one which was only a few blocks away and got us hooked up. Luckily, this place was the same price as our original plan. We walked over to our new hostel, Itaka, which is on Aristides Villanueva, a very “hip and happening” street with a number of shops and stylish restaurants.
It’s also a quick 5 minute walk away from the giant park in the city’s outskirts. The hostel was decent, and the staff were very helpful which makes a substantial difference in my book.
So we checked in and showered and decided what we wanted to do that day. We opted for a bodega tour, which took us to 2 wineries, an olive plantation and a charming shop owned by these old women who sell homemade dips, jams, liquors, absinthe, cookies, chocolates, alfajores and crafts. It’s called A la Antigua, and I would DEFINITELY recommend it to anyone visiting Mendoza! The ladies were very witty and kind, and got a few laughs out of our multilingual group. Their homemade foods could not be beat. I ended up walking out with some chocolate dulce de leche with chocolatey bits at the bottom, a spicy chili pepper dip, a chocolate assortment and a creamy chocolate mint liquor which I tried on site. Holy chocolate! It would be great over ice as a dessert for a little sweet treat. These women had an impressive variety of flavors and types of dips and their set-up was very tidy and organized. Well worth the stop!
Let’s back-track a bit. I got too excited over that shop…again. So the first bodega we visited was called Domiciano de Barrancas and the second was Vistandes. Each of these had a distinctive feel and something new to offer. I will be elaborating more on these two wineries as well as two others I visited in another post because there is so much to discuss!
Wine tastings aside, we also had the chance to sample some delectable dips, sun-dried tomatoes, fresh olives and olive oils from Laur, an old, family-owned olive plantation. We toured the grounds and I learned quite a bit about the processes, old and modern, they use to extract oil from their olive harvests.
We toured this plantation during the time of harvest, as it falls between May and July. What I didn’t know was that green and black olives are the same type of olive, just harvested at different times in the season. I’ve always wondered that, and now the mystery is solved. I also learned that there are approximately 200 varieties of olive trees, with 20-30 of them in Argentina. An olive tree can live for about 2,000 years (sometimes more!), with little water to boot. The time at which the olive is harvested also affects the level of acidity. Lower acidity equals more antioxidants too which means that black olives have more cancer-fighting properties than their green counterparts.
Originally, the olives were mashed to a pulp, pit and all, using a stone mill powered by horses. The mash would be put onto a press, called a carucho with mesh filters and would be squeezed of all its oils into a receptacle below. The oil would then be put through a centrifuge where all remaining bubbles of water would be essentially spun out, giving the manufacturers their pure final product.
Nowadays, this company uses more modern means to extract this precious oil. The olives are mashed up and then the paste is heated to better extract the oil with machinery. The paste sits for about 20 days and the oil rises to the top, leaving the pulpy precipitate at the bottom of the repository. The oil will stay good for about two years in the bottle once it’s in the consumer’s hands (Which reminds me…I still have my olive oil from Spain which will be almost 2 years old by the time I’m back in the states!).
So how do you get olive oil extract beauty products like creams and shampoos? Our guide informed us that it’s actually the leaves of the olive tree that are used versus the olives themselves. They are sent to an onsite lab and the nutrients are isolated from there. Who knew?
The best part of the olive grove tour was the taste testing, of course!!
I bought some of their scrumptious olives and some olive tapenade, as well as some eggplant for a future picada. Of course, I got a jar of olive oil as well to take home with me to the U.S!
That night, we enjoyed an asado at the hostel. Man, I was so stuffed afterward!!
The next day was rather calm, since it was Sunday and everything was closed. My friend and I walked around and visited the Plaza Independencia, the main square in the center of the city. It has a big beautiful fountain in the middle and the whole plaza has plenty of shady spots, benches, trees and grass to sit out with friends for a round of mate. If you look closely past the fountain, you can even see the towering Andes mountains in the background!
We went to a milonga that night as well, where a 5 dollars paid for entry and a glass of local Malbec. Milongas are dance clubs or even just makeshift setups like this one in a café where people get together and dance tango. It was very cute and authentic, with dozens of couples of a wide age span on the floor dancing tango to classic songs.
I admired the sophisticated and sensual beauty of tango, with the male partner gently guiding his partner through the steps, each of them flicking up their toes or spinning at their whim. The entire dance is rather improvised, since there isn’t a specific pattern to follow. The man decides which direction to go and using the basic step pattern, the pair moves in that direction. I really want to learn because it looks so graceful and beautiful.
The following day was the day of our bike and wine tour. If you ever go to Mendoza, this is one of the things you MUST do.
We opted for the “guide yourself” version as it is more…erm…economical. Here’s what you do:
- Get a Mendoza RedBus card at a kiosko. Some kioskos don’t sell them, so just keep searching. We charged ours with 20 pesos each and the card itself costs 10 pesos. This will take you to Maipú, a tiny little zone of Mendoza about 45 minutes away by bus. I recommend you get the card the day before so it’s one less thing to worry about.
- On the street La Rioja, there will be a bus stop for bus 171, 172 and 173. All of these busses go to Maipú. Take your pick! Calle La Rioja (La Rioja Street) is a little hard to find because you won’t see a street sign for it. It’s near the pedestrian zone close to the Plaza. Look it up on a map or GPS before you go so you have a better idea, and you can even ask locals for directions once you are close.
- The bus will drop you off near two major bike rental spots. Mr. Hugo’s is well known and very reputable. A day’s worth of rental is 80 pesos. There’s also Orange Bikes right down the road a couple more steps and they seemed pretty legit as well. Take your pick! As you are walking down the street toward them, sometimes one of their workers will come up to you on bike and advertise the business, handing you flyers and telling you what they offer. These two are in competition, so we got a 10 peso discount at Mr. Hugo’s because they wanted to match the rival business’s offer. Use their competition to your advantage to snag the best price! 😉
- Before heading out to the wine tour, get something in your tummy to avoid the drunken bike sway. We went to The Wine Bar down the road and got an incredible offer of 3 homemade beef empanadas and a glass of wine for only 30 pesos (That’s THREE DOLLARS, PEOPLE!). The owner is very sweet and hospitable and makes you feel right at home. His empanadas are so mouthwateringly ricas as well. Be careful on the wine though, you don’t want to get tipsy before you even hit the road! It would also be wise to pack sandwiches or bread for the road as well. Just saying.
- Here’s a fair warning: The map from the bike rental places tend to be a bit condensed and many times we thought we had gone too far because the roads we were seeing didn’t appear on the map. They do this because of space limitations on the map pages, so I suggest you bring a more detailed map or have GPS access somehow.
- The big bodegas are Trapiche and DiTomasso, so try to get to those ones on your ride. Trapiche closes at 4 and the latter at 6, so bear that in mind. Vistandes and Domiciano Barrancas are also close by and I enjoyed those ones as well. If possible, try to hit up the smaller bodegas as well. The earlier you leave, the more you can get to, so follow the “early bird gets the worm wine” mentality and head out right after lunch!
- For each bodega, you pay an entrance fee which is the tour and tasting, and sometimes you can pick and choose. This runs from 50 to 100 pesos, so factor that into the daily budget. If you plan on purchasing wine, bring more money obviously, but remember that you have to lug it back with you via bicycle!
- We made it to 2 bodegas that day because 1) we got lost a couple times and 2) we took our time at each location. I really enjoyed both of them, namely Trapiche and DiTomasso for different reasons. Keep your eyes peeled for a future post where I’ll talk more in depth about each one!
Take it from me: you will not regret the bike and wine tour! Make a whole day out of it and just enjoy the beautiful sunshine and the spectacular views Mendoza has to offer. You’ll see majestic mountain ranges, seemingly endless fields of grape vines, breathtaking sunsets (or sunrises if you’re ambitious!) cute local shops, llamas (yes, we saw llamas in the groves at Trapiche), picturesque dirt roads, and so much more! Make sure your camera is charged up for the journey!
Our next mini adventure was to the hot springs, or termas of Cacheuta. This is another site I highly recommend, especially after your bum is all sore from biking the day before (We couldn’t have planned that more perfectly.). To get there, here’s another set of directions:
- Go to either the bus terminal or a bus ticket vendor (We went to one on 9 de julio.) to get your bus ticket for the day and time of your choosing. The entire round trip cost us about 30 pesos (3 dollars) and the journey is an hour on bus. We went through the company Butinni. These busses are orange and have that name plastered on the side so they’re hard to miss.
- The park doesn’t open until 10, so don’t leave too early, otherwise you’ll just be sitting at the entrance, bored. The bus trip is about an hour long so 9am is a reasonable time to depart.
- From our experience, a weekday is a good time to go because it isn’t flooded with people. There was a decent amount, but not so many where the pools were all full or anything. We pretty much had our pick and there was plenty of space.
- The bus to the hot springs leaves from the bus terminal, so arrive in time for your specific trip. The ride up is gorgeous as you escalate into the mountains. Get a window seat on the right side of the bus! (Opposite of the bus driver)
- The entrance on weekdays is 90 pesos (~9 USD) for the entire day, which is a really good price! There is a locker rental for 50 pesos, 20 of which are returned to you once you give back the key. There’s a place for grilling and an ample number of picnic tables so bring a lunch! If you drink mate, there is even a hot water station. Just 4 pesos and you can fill your thermos. If you don’t want to bring picnic stuff, they have food there at a pretty reasonable price. My friend and I got ham, salami, two types of cheese, bread, apples and olive tapenade all for 10 dollars (100 pesos).
- The busses leaving the hot springs leave at around 3:30pm or 6:50pm, at least on the day we went. You technically could do the springs and finish by 3:30, but why rush? We opted for the later bus and we were glad we did because it gave us time for some periodic shopping and mate breaks, a relaxed lunch and we didn’t have to keep checking our watches. But you do you.
- Okay, so the hot springs themselves—there’s a bunch to choose from, varying in size, location and temperature. There are indoor and outdoor ones, ones with jets, pool-like ones, and some so hot you’ll be sweating after 5 minutes. We just kinda hopped around from pool to pool, depending on what we were feeling next. There’s a water slide as well and if it’s warm out, there’s space to lay your towel out to soak up the sun’s rays. Take it easy, relax, and enjoy the ridged mountains all around you as you immerse yourself in the soothing hot waters. TREAT YOURSELF!
A cool bridge nearby.
Our last day in Mendoza was also quite relaxing. We rented a bike for free at the Plaza Independencia to ride around the park. These cute green bikes are located at this boxy booth and are free to tourists for an hour once you give them a form of identification as “payment”. Don’t worry, they give it back to you once you return! You’ll even have access to a helmet if you want one, and the workers will adjust the seat and fill up the tires before you head out. We enjoyed one more bike ride through Mendoza’s scenic streets on our last day (*sniffle sniffle*).
One thing I wish we had more time to do was visit the Aconcagua mountains for a day. We were going to, but wouldn’t have had enough time because the bus ride there is 4 hours long. Oh darn…I guess I’ll just have to come back.
In fact, there’s a TON of activities for the daring of heart, the adventurous and for those of you who fear nothing: trekking, horseback riding (next time!), rappelling, paragliding, sky diving, hiking, and even this thing where you drink wine while you skydive. Yeah, I couldn’t believe it either!
Oh Mendoza…you were indeed so lovely, so clean, so beautiful. This is my favorite city in Argentina so far and the only city here where I could actually see myself living someday. I loved it that much. I would highly recommend visiting Mendoza to anyone thinking of crossing through Argentina. It’s not far from Santiago, Chile so it makes a great pit stop along the way or a short, week trip for those of you in nearby cities. The worries of the world will melt away as you sit in the hot springs, meander through the charming countryside on a bicycle, or gaze at the golden-red sunsets with a glass of fresh Malbec in hand.