We’ve arrived in Mendoza. The biggest city east of Buenos Aires. Quaint wouldn’t be the word to describe it. Rather a young metropolis with wide streets and plenty of plazas to sit and people watch. This part of the country is dry and arid making it the perfect location to produce… wine! In fact, 80% of all the wine produced in the country is produced in this region. Something we would become rather acquainted by to over the next couple of days…
Another long haul up route 40 brought us this ancient town where we hopped off and beelined for the nearest taxi. “Cuanto?”, we asked. “100 dollars get in”, said the taxi driver jokingly. A short distance from the bus terminal we had arrived at our hostel, Punto Urbano. The place was okay. Not the same homely feeling as Penthouse 1004, but it was cheap. 5 Euros for a private room with en-suite bathroom. Luxurious! As it was still early we could treat ourselves to the complimentary breakfast which included scrambled eggs and pancakes. All going great until we heard one of our fellow travellers mention they had bed bugs. YIKES! A curse of the hospitality industry, once your cozy little B&B becomes infested with these nasties, it’s pretty much lights out. They’re relentless, surviving anything but a nuclear holocaust. Other travelers bring them in and they quite lovely check in for good. Luckily our fellow traveller would be leaving, so we thought it would be safe.
Well no. Not quite. Our Swiss friend, who got nice and warm on some free hostel wine the night before thought it would be okay to lie in bed all day. And, as such, became an all you can eat Swiss fondue for these pests. Covered in head to toe, he mentioned to the receptionist “it appears I have some sort of bite, perhaps it’s may be some sort of bug?”, in the most friendliest and Swiss fashion. We should have hightailed it out of there when we had heard this, but opted to stay thinking we had an iron curtain of a private room to protect us. Unfortunately it didn’t….
One morning, I was downstairs happily coding away when all of a sudden I was met with frantic Fem. “Ben, I need to speak with you, now. Okay? What happened?” “LOOK!”, Fem pointing at some blood stain on the mattress, “it’s a bed bug”. “We’re leaving today, I’ve already booked us a place a few blocks down”. Frazzled, I went to the front desk. Unfortunately we had bed bugs, I said to the guy. A rather long sigh ensued; “Noooo, nooo, noooooooooo! Not your room! We’ve already lost 20.000 pesos this summer on these bugs! You’re room was the chosen one! The Switzerland of our hostel!” We felt sorry for them, as they were trying really hard to make it a half decent place. The owner telling me the previous night he had only recently bought it. Tough being in the tourism industry.
We made hast to another aptly named place called the Winehouse. It didn’t have the same friendly atmosphere as the previous, but it had a clean bed at least. As we had one of over Maslow hierarchy of needs covered, it was time to explore what the town had to offer. There was a museum that remembered the day the earth shook this small little town. We made our way there to see what this entailed, and soon discovered that this earthquake devastated the provincial capital, killing 4,300 people. The majority of the buildings were destroyed, including the cabildo (colonial government house). Ensuring that such catastrophes didn’t happen again, the town architects ensured wider streets, and popped evacuation points all across the city. The rather pessimistic design resulted in beautiful squares, plenty of foliage and streets with wide berths for town folk to enjoy. The town hasn’t suffered from another earthquake since and the majority of the population work on the surrounding wine farms.
Speaking of which, wine tasting had to be on the cards. I’m rather biased about the wine we get in South Africa. The farms are a class onto themselves producing some of the best wines in the world (which is a touchy subject amongst my French friends). We were eager to try out what Mendoza had to offer. Argentina boasts at producing some of the best Malbecs in the world (contested only by New Zealand). These wines, dark in color with robust tannins, tend to be rich and smooth in taste. The Mendoza region plays host to well over 1000 wine farms or bodegas. We jumped on a short train ride to the closest wineries in Maipu. Arriving we rented out some bikes from Wine and Ride and headed to our first winery. Domiciano. Before I forget to mention, we hadn’t really eaten anything yet, as the day was young and we thought we could find a bite to eat on the way….
Eagerly arriving at Domiciano we waited in anticipation for the tour to begin. From my experience, South African wine tasting has never started in the vineyards. Here we got to experience the wine making process from start to finish. From grapevine to belly. We learnt that the grapes are harvested at night to stop the yeast from forming under the hot Mendoza sun. This tidbit can be seen in the Domiciano logo, a man standing under the night sky. Grapes are harvested around March, giving them enough time to ripen ever so slightly, forming a delicate red tinge. Domiciano winery is small in comparison to other wineries in the region. A modest 84 hectares, they only produce 10000 litres per year (as opposed to 10 million at the next farm we went to). Eventually we got to taste their delicious vino. Let the tastings claptrap begin. Can you smell the rich chocolatey essence off the bounce ever so slightly off of the nostril? How the oranges and mints flavors dance on the tongue? Yup I guess… 3 glasses later and all the flavours started popping out. It’s amazing the more you drink, the more you seem to taste? Do you taste coals? Oh yes, definitely. What about dirt. Yup, definitely a subtle hint or two there… How on earth were we going to cycle about now? Nearly toppling over a few times we decided we needed to get some grub in the bellies in preparation for the next one. Unfortunately, as there were no decent places around we had to settle on a packet of crisps, a milo and an alfajore (a kind of cookie dipped in chocolate).
Next up we arrived at Trapiche, one of the oldest wine farms in the region, producing well over a million bottles of wine per year. We weren’t as interested in this farm, although they were experimenting with holding their wine in concrete eggs. Apparently, the egg shape gives a continuous flow to the wine as it ferments and ages, which allows a more “homogenous liquid”. I was more interested in the fact that it keeps the wine cool, without having any artificial cooling. Which results in energy efficiency throughout the year. For us the wine wasn’t as good and we had to make our return as it was fairly late in the day.
Mendoza would be a place where I would celebrate the big 3 0. The night before I was surprised by a lovely video of all my family and friends across the world all wishing me a happy birthday. It’s nice to see all those friendly faces and realising how much you take for granted in the world. I truly do miss all of them, despite the odd spoiler… The next day Fem had booked a surprise skydiving experience! What a way to welcome in the dirty thirties! Having not much sleep from the day before, and waking up to a flurry of phone calls, I was left exhausted before the day had even begun. Nothing like jumping out of an aircraft to cure those sleepies! We arrived at the drop zone, some 50 kms away from the city centre of Mendoza. Filling out some paperwork and strapping on our harnesses, the butterflies started to kick in. The plane was a rickety old cessna held together by some duct tape and the odd pop rivet. Was I actually going to jump out of that thing? As we started down the runway my instructor started hammering some joining piece together. Great! We’re not even going to leave planet Earth! This thing will fall apart as soon as it leaves the tarmac! We ascended quickly with the stall signal beeping like crazy. The passenger area was about the size of a small toilet, we were all cramped in waiting our impending deaths.
My legs started to go numb. All the weight of the other passenger added to the odd shape my legs had been contorted into. Awesome, thought, I was going to die as a rag doll. All my limbs flung in every which way direction. The door opened with a loud WHOOSH! I saw the blood drain out of the other passenger in the aircraft. This was for real. 8000 meters signaled jump time. Without even a second to second guess, my fellow sky diver was out of the plane. The plane flipped in the opposite direction as they jumped out. Next up the rag doll. Slowly maneuvering to the edge of the plane, I was told to dangle out of the plane. Not the first thing you instincts tell you to do. So there I was flapping about like an air dancer. However, I had no choice in the matter because I was hoisted onto my instructor like a giant man baby.
3….2….1….it all happened in a blink of an eye. I was out of the aircraft tumbling toward my hearth of mother earth. The plane dashed on by out of site. Flipping once twice and another just for good luck we eventually stabilized. 30 seconds later my chute opened. 30 seconds feels rather like 30 milliseconds when you’re crashing like a meteorite at 200 kms per hour. Anyway we maneuvered down and my instructor handed me my “skywine” the finest wine the sky has to offer. I slowly sipped, my stomach was in my throat at this point. Ever so slowly guiding the parachute left and right we glided down. Legs up we skidded along the grass like two paper planes coming in for a peaceful landing. Not so bad I thought to myself. Third time I’ve hurtled toward earth and came out unscathed. Here’s the evidence of this whole ordeal happening.
Later that evening we got to taste chef Francis Mallmann’s delicious menu at restaurant 1884. Mallman specialises in Patagonian open fire style cooking, resulting in delicious smokey food. We tucked into the finest wagyu beef, the most delicate filet mignon and drunk ourselves silly on the local bodega wine. A delightful way to end off the celebrations. We were ready to leave Mendoza for all it had to offer, bed bugs and all it was time to get out of wine country and head on through the Andes to the soot of Santiago de Chile.