The next stop on our overland adventure from Argentina to Montana was the larger and better-known city to the north – Mendoza. With the rise in popularity of Argentine wines over the past decade, I was excited to see the origins of the Malbec and visit a few vineyards. Unfortunately, the wine god (that would be Dionysus) was not smiling upon us. We ended up being really busy taking care of errands and preparing to cross into Chile that we didn’t make it to any vineyards. Well, that’s not exactly right – what actually happened is that the day we set aside to drive out to where most of the vineyards are (a half hour or so south from our campsite in an area called Lujan de Cuyo) happened to be a Sunday, and if we hadn’t had vacation syndrome (“what day is it?”) we would have been perfectly aware that you can accomplish nothing on a Sunday anywhere in Latin America. So we took a nice drive out to the vineyards only to be greeted by closed gates and one employee telling us we had to make a reservation to get in for such-and-such time the next day. Um, not going to happen! So if you clicked on this blog post hoping to get some good info about Mendoza wine tours or wine tasting, you can at least take this away from my post – don’t go on a Sunday! And make a reservation! (Although we are sure you can still get in without one!) Nevertheless, we enjoyed the drive through the beautiful tree-lined streets between the sleepy fields of winter vines, which may be why Eva and Coco also slept peaceful naps as well in their car seats.
Villavicencio Nature Preserve
Although we didn’t get to any bodegas in Mendoza, we ventured out to the Villavicencio nature preserve, which is 50 km to the north of the city. Folks from Argentina are familiar with Villavicencio as a brand of bottled water commonly available throughout the country. Though there is a large bottling plant you see in the distance as you enter the reserve, the main attraction is the abandoned luxury hotel further down the desolate road, which is tucked into the mountainside as you begin to ascend the foothills of the Andes. Everyone is encouraged to bring empty water bottles and fill up on the crisp, delicious water that comes from the spring, though we didn’t bring ours because we had excellent water in our campground that the owner said was better than Villavicencio and we believed him because it WAS (Camping Suizo – go there!).
Sorry to say though, we didn’t make it to the hotel – never even caught a glimpse of it – because Coco fell asleep just as we pulled into the parking lot. So, we thought it might be a good idea to drive a little bit up the road to a place called “Los Caracoles” on our little simplified tourist map which was given to us at the entrance and was dotted with illustrations of wildlife – cute and totally misleading! The plan was to drive 20 minutes or so then turn around and come back to the old hotel so Coco could have time to sleep. Maybe we would see one of those cozy looking foxes or guanacos. Little did we know that turning around would be impossible, and that “caracole” means snail, which apparently has something to do with the way the single-lane road snakes frightenly up the steep mountain peaks on the way to Uspallata, a little mountain town near the border crossing to Chile. If I wasn’t in charge of filming the drive, I may have imploded from panic on that little dirt track with no guardrails! Though at the same time it was an orgasmically amazing site that made you feel like a teeny insignificant spec as we ascended the great grand beast of the Andes. We only had one near-miss luckily as we slightly brushed another car coming around one of the 180 degree bends since neither my husband nor the other car would stop to let the other car go (both must have been from Buenos Aires). We did find one little spot that was wide enough to stop and let Eva get out to touch snow for the first time, though it was only a little dusting and we couldn’t really make snowballs or snow angels like she wanted! When we finally reached the top we were at 9,600 feet, and I was starting to feel a bit nauseous (altitude sickness! Happens after 8,000 feet!), though Tomas and the kids seemed just fine. Definitely a hairy but amazing drive, but not for the faint of heart. Luckily, we could continue on through Uspallata and loop back to Mendoza instead of having to turn around and do the caracoles again!
The city of Mendoza
The rest of our stay in Mendoza was very relaxed – we enjoyed exploring the beautiful Parque San Martin, a huge green area in the heart of the city with a great kids playground and carousel, and lots of leafy trees and trails to walk. We drove up to the monument at Cerro de la Gloria, a mountain within the park, and enjoyed yelling at the kids not to climb on the statue as we took in the view of the city and thought pensively on the striking subject matter of the statue (the Army of the Andes defeats the Spaniards with a huge menacing angel spreading her wings above them). We spent time in the heart of downtown, which was charming with its shady tree-lined streets and even more excellent playgrounds. It struck us as a city we could definitely live in, having a good balance of culture, activities, and being in close proximity to the Andes provided a ton of outdoor fun.
Maybe that’s why we stayed a couple of days longer than we needed to – or maybe our little experience ascending only the FOOTHILLS of the Andes was making us drag our feet! But the climb over the pass to Chile was imminent and hopefully our little Ranger would make it!