|Mendoza, Argentina: In and Around
6-9 December 2013
Mendoza is effectively a desert city given that it has no more than 200mm of rainfall a year. Given how incredibly lush it is you would never know it, thanks to the snow which falls on the nearby Andes range which, when melted, supplies the essential water to supply the town and its extensive irrigation system. Mendoza has a thriving agricultural economy, second only to the petrochemical industry in importance. It supplies 70% of Argentina's wine (from 1000 wineries) and 52% of its olive oil.
I travelled from Santiago to Mendoza by bus on a seven hour journey along what must be one of the most spectacular roads anywhere in the world. It took an hour to escape the grinding traffic of Chile's capital and a little longer before the scenery made its mark but the approach to the Cordillera Principale and the last slow wheezing zigzag climb to the summit will live in my memory for a very long time.
It is a very comfortable bus, run by Tur Bus, with their distinctive green livery and drivers dressed smartly in white shirt and company tie. At the outset a road sign indicates it is 340km to Mendoza.
About three and a half hours in we appear to pass through both Chilean and Argentine borders without any interest in checking documents. As we are skirting Aconcagua National Park the bus arrives at a vast hangar-like building which is a shared Chile-Argentine immigration and customs facility. You can understand why they have the set up inside a large building because at this altitude it must get perishing cold in the winter, even assuming the road is open. It takes around an hour for all on the bus to complete formalities and then we are off, through the mountain, emerging to yet more rugged, spectacular scenery in Argentina, now heading steadily but quite rapidly down to a town with poplar-lined roads and a complete change of scene, before the surroundings once again become rugged.
It is not long before we are driving alongside the muddy fast-flowing Mendoza river, with an old and disused narrow gauge railway line running roughly parallel. Vast fractured peaks tower above us, sparsely populated with tufts of green; scree slopes cloak the lower reaches. Eventually the rugged landscape gives way to the flat agricultural land surrounding the city. We pull into Mendoza's bus terminal at 19.35. Only a few disembark as most are continuing to Cordoba.
After navigating my way past hostel touts, taxi touts and - a first for me as far as I can recall - cambio touts, I head for my hostel, home for the next three nights.
Mendoza is a fine city, with a population approaching a million if you include surrounding suburbs. The city suffered a disasterous earthquake in 1871 which all but destroyed it, the centre shifting location south and west as it was rebuilt in a grid pattern with a central square - Plaza Idependiencia or Independence Plaza - and four other squares, Chile, Italia, St Martin (liberating general) and the wonderfully tiled Espana - forming the shape of a five on a die.
The whole time I am there it is baking hot but the city's forefathers had the foresight to plant wide avenues with plane trees imported from Europe which now provide a wonderful canopy, arching across the width of the thoroughfare, and affording much welcome respite from the sun's rays.
I am intrigued to see a vast number of very old and beaten up cars, largely French, Fords and a few Fiats. They would never come close to passing a UK MoT test but sputter along quite happily here, leaving clouds of smoke in their wake. Most date from the 60s and early 70s I would guess, which is probably the last. Time many had new tyres fitted judging by what passed for tread.
The city really comes alive at night with live music, dance and a lively outdoor restaurant culture. It is also the time when the temperature is most pleasant.
As well as exploring the city, I took a couple of trips, one a sunset horseriding half day and the other taking in some of the high Andes scenery. It was only the third time I have ridden a horse - I am booked to do so again later in the Chilean Lake District - and was most enjoyable, ending with a BBQ looking out a cross the city far below.
The Andes tour was a 400km round trip visiting a few small towns, one, Las Cuevas being the closest to the Chilean border, currently boasting a population of just ten. We also get to see a natural bridge - Puenta del Inca - with an impressive mineral colouration and get a partial glimpse of South America's highest peak, the 6950m Aconcagu. Most regrettably the weather is somewhat overcast today so the summit is shrouded in mist. Forunately I managed to snatch a shot from the bus window on my way to Mendoza when the weather was kinder.
On the return journey a kindly Argentine lady of a certain age sitting opposite, offered me and Mai, another passenger from my hostel, cups of Coca Mate (that's prenounced mha-tay by the way) which is a traditional drink in S America. I have been drinking it in teabag form but this was in leaf form, made in what looked like a silver vessel, drunk through a silver 'straw'. Delicious.
The Return Trip to Santiago
As luck would have it the weather for the return journey to Santiago is perfect for taking photos but I am stuck on the bus, having to content myself with a few snaps out of the window. I am on the opposite side from my outward journey which is good. The information received on the trip yesterday made the today's journey a lot more rewarding.
Less rewarding was the wait at customs and immigration. As the coach joined the queue, three clipboard-toting people boarded to carry out some sort of survey: how long are you in Chile for, where are you staying, how much are you spending etc. Luckily for me one of the questioners spoke enough English to get the thing completed. It took two and a half hours' waiting around before we were all cleared to proceed. We then waited another 40 minutes just down the road owing to the fact one lane of the route is undergoing major repairs, and did not get back to the bus station until 6.30pm and then I had to get the metro to the hostel. Still, you could never get bored with that scenery.
I am now staying in Santiago for two nights before another flight, this time to Easter Island.