|Another night spent trying to catch a few fitful minutes of sleep on a fast-moving bus were followed by a sunrise arrival in Mendoza. We continued our theme of sleepy early morning strolls around new cities, and covered the centre of Mendoza before we had to return to the hostel and check in properly. At first look glance it appeared to be a pleasant, sleepy city, with lots of pedestrianised streets, coffee shops, residential areas and not much else. Further exploration over the following days proved these early observations to be pretty much correct and although it was a lovely place to while away a few hours, wandering about without purpose, it wasn't the most exciting city we'd been to. We were quite happy to spend a couple of days doing just that and stopping for lots of coffee breaks along the way. Mind you, as everything closed between the hours of 1 and about 4, we had to pick our times carefully. (Another bizarre South American phenomena, for which we could find no reasonable explanation!).
After spending a night in the hostel, we decided it was time to move on to cleaner surroundings (well at least somewhere where a daily bathroom-cleaning policy was in place), and we found a great family-run hotel just opposite the park, where the room was huge and came with a kitchenette and satellite TV. The old guy that ran the place with his wife was larger than life, had a penchant for baggy tracksuit bottoms and treated us like some long-lost relations. We stayed there for a couple of nights, enjoying home-microwaved food and straight-to-cable films (this probably sounds like torture to most of you, but it was great!), then we hired a car and took to the roads of Argentina.
Mendoza is the Argentinian wine-producing area and the idea was to drive off to some of the vineyards, taking in the countryside as we went. So armed with maps, leaflets and lots of enthusiasm we headed out of town. Well, in theory that is. In reality we actually spent two hours trying to leave town - seeing signs, following them, losing them again and heading back in the wrong direction. We were close to using up a day's mileage allowance by the time we were done. Eventually we found a way out, but unfortunately it wasn't the way we wanted to go, leading as it did out to the mountains and not to the vineyards. By this stage however we didn't care where the road went, we just wanted to get out, so we drove on. Plans slightly altered, nerves a bit shredded but enthusiasm still virtually intact, we drove off, determined not to let this put a dampener on the day.
The scenery once again was stunning and the road was almost empty, following a course through the mountain range and climbing quite steeply. There were a couple of places to stop along the way, but nothing to write home about - a for example here would be the ski resort with no snow. We continued to a 'town' (a mini market, more than one restaurant and a tourist information kiosk) called Uspallata, to find out if there were any hotels further along the road. It turned out that there weren't so we kept driving as far as we could up to the Chilean border then came back to a hotel just outside of Uspalata that looked far nicer than somewhere we should have been staying on our budget.
We checked in and were given the best room in the place, presumably because we'd walked in and paid the advertised rate, as opposed to getting a package deal of some sort and paying next to nothing per night. The room was great and the best bit was it had a bath, plenty of hot water AND a plug, three things which are rarely spotted together in one room in South America - in fact, this was the first time I'd seen them together in one place. Obviously I made the most of this by having a long, hot bath and then we went down for dinner. It brought back memories of Faulty Towers, with everyone going down to dinner at the same time. Further memories were revived when the food arrived - a three course delight of stodgy spinach pancakes, prison-issue rice with canned peas, and an apple flan of some kind. The lovely local wine made up for the food though so all was not lost!
One of the things I quite fancied doing while in Argentina was a horse ride, so we booked one from the hotel for the following morning. Paul was a little hesitant, but after persuading me to go skiing he had no comebacks and had to agree to go really.
READ THE NEXT ENTRY, 'SNIFFY'S TALE', TO FIND OUT MORE ABOUT THE HORSE RIDING TRIP!
There was another road out of town that led over a steep mountain pass and eventually back to Mendoza, so we thought we'd spend the day doing this. If the last road had been quiet, this one was deserted - we didn't see any other cars, or anything for that matter, for most of the day and after about 20km the road dissolved into a dusty track which we had no choice but to follow (well we could have turned back but where's the fun in that?!). Ancient Petroglyphs (rock carvings), disused mines and a huge natural precipice broke up the journey nicely and we were feeling quite adventurous until we came to the junction with three possibilities and no signs. We picked one, concluding that the metal railings along one side must surely mean that this was the main road. We had concluded wrongly and ended up following a very steep course up to a telecommunications post. The gate halfway up probably should have been a giveaway, but it was open and we didn't really think about it at the time. As we neared the top, Paul swerved the car to avoid two rocks in the middle of the road, but mis-judged slightly and ended up driving right over one of them. The loud hissing sound that immediately followed could only mean one thing - puncture.
At least there wasn't the usual panic about trying to manouvere the car across three lanes of traffic, then causing a two-mile tail-back while you changed the wheel. However, the eerie silence and total lack of any signs of human life for hours and miles around made it even more scary and as Paul swore at himself and changed the tyre (I was right behind him, offering words of encouragement!), I was quite pleased that the woman at the car hire agency had checked the spare before we left. It didn't look like many visits were paid to the communications post. We retraced our steps back down to the junction, a lot slower this time, and once again tried to work out which was the right road. At least there were only a couple of choices this time so the odds were on our side. We picked and drove along at about ten miles an hour, terrified about getting another flat and having to sleep out here for a week until someone drove past. We had a Danish pastry, a chocolate bar and half a bottle of water, which is probably more than the average lost climber has to survive on, but it wouldn't have been much fun.
It turned out to be the right road, but the downside of this was that it led higher up into the mountains, and eventually above the clouds! The weather changed suddenly and the road was covered in ice and snow, with visibility down to a few metres. It descended again after a while and there were amazing views of the mountains and valley at the bottom - quite a drive.
As we hadn't managed to reach the vineyards ourselves, we booked a half-day tour to visit a few of them. This consists of being bused out to a vineyard, having a tour round, conducted in Spanish, a quick wine-tasting of the cheaper stuff, then the opportunity to buy the expensive stuff. One of the vineyards was great and included a huge oak barrel that held 44 thousand litres of wine!
Our flight to Sydney left from Santiago, so we caught a bus over the border to Chile and to our last night in South America...