We were anticipating getting to Mendoza and seeing the Andes for the first time, and the small city of San Rafael (3 hours or so south of Mendoza city) offered our first elusive glimpse of the tallest mountain range in the Americas, but we were only able to see their jagged outline through the cloud layer before they disappeared. Darn! Nonetheless we were charmed by the beautiful tree-lined streets and vineyards as we entered the town, which I imagine would be extra beautiful in any season other than the dead of winter! The GPS sent us off the main road (as usual) and we were a bit shocked be driving through the slums or “villas,” just like what you would see in Buenos Aires. It seemed like San Luis had no slums at all, but instead a good number of government-built neighborhoods with cookie-cutter small homes that were clean though repetitive. None of these to be seen in Mendoza! Just past the slum we crossed a dry river, which was basically a trash heap for as far as you could see. Hm, not so pretty anymore all of a sudden!
Camping in Valle Grande
We headed to our campground (Camping Ayum Elun), which was actually 30 kilometers south of the city in Valle Grande, a beautiful canyon surrounded by steep rock walls on either side and a meandering river flowing through it. As with the previous campgrounds we visited, we were the only guests, which allowed Eva and Coco the freedom to roam the grounds and explore with little worry on our part (ok, maybe just a little less worry!). By now we are pretty savvy in what we need for accommodations. The keys for us are wi-fi, and hot and drinkable water. This place had wi-fi near the reception area, so we picked the closest spot we could and settled in. The hot water was turned off in the main bathrooms for the winter season, but we were given a key to one of the rooms in the hotel section to use for our baths (and dish washing, heh heh).
Canyon Atuel / Canon del Atuel
Valle Grande leads to Canyon Atuel further south, and we took a day to do the 200 or so kilometer loop through the canyon following the river and reservoir, then heading back around to San Rafael. The drive was truly the highlight of our trip, equally frightening and breathtaking. Everything was perfectly fine in the beginning as we followed the lovely 2-lane asphalt road winding through the canyon, but then suddenly it seemed to turn into one of the nightmare, one-lane dirt road-along-the-mountainside situations with NO barriers to stop your fall and VERY steep cliffs leading into the cold, hard water miles below. One thing about doing these kinds of things with small children is that you have to suppress your fear. So as usual, after Eva responded to my first gasp with a “What mom, what?!?!?” I was forced to swallow my dread and put on my best mommy “Everything is OK” face and try to enjoy the ride as Tomas smirked in the drivers seat. Yeah, this was going to be fun. Even better was when we stopped at the highest peak for photos and Eva wanted to start rock-climbing… I literally had to force her down from a steep rocky wall that she was halfway to scaling. Suddenly I was remembering the child safety class I took before she was born and learning about all the dangers in the home and I realized those were nothing compared to the dangers my children would face on this trip!
Anxious mom-fears aside, it was truly a spectacular drive. As we went in the off-season, we didn’t meet a lot of cars and were able to enjoy the immense silence of some of the canyons, which reminded me of the rocky landscapes of Utah and Colorado. The reservoir section offered an incredible view of the cliffs that were reflected in the still waters – gorgeous. Further along the death-road, we entered some primitive tunnels through the mountains that were little more than blasted holes through the mountainside. Interspersed through the canyon were several hydro-electric stations and smaller reservoirs that offered a slice of civilization before entering yet another black hole tunnel. I don’t know a lot about geography, but the rocks were very cool, and even Eva noticed the different colors and shapes on the cliff sides. We even passed through a volcanic rock section with gray, craggy formations popping up along both sides of the canyon. It was fun trying to explain lava to Eva as Coco enjoyed another long nap and missed all the fun (poor guy!).
After such an intense day, we decided to spend a day visiting bodegas and doing some relaxing wine tasting. Unfortunately, my fantasy of a relaxing day sipping wine would remain in the realm of daydreams along with a spa day and going to get a mani-pedi with the girls. We went to bodega La Abeja, the oldest winery in San Rafael.
The cool thing about this bodega is that they still use to this day ancient equipment from the 1800’s that was imported from France in their wine making process. Eva and Coco were fascinated and wanted to turn the dials and cranks, climb into the grape transporters, and explore the various blades and ominous holes where the grapes are processed.
It was fascinating learning about the history of the bodega and the region, the ancient craft of making the wine, and see the dark, mysterious cellars filled with barrels. Our guide Tatiana was extremely knowledgeable (and patient considering the multiple interruptions from the kids) and was with us from the tour all the way to the end when we got to taste the wines. I was a bit disappointed however that we were only able to taste a tiny splash of three of their dozen or so wines available. Coming from California I’m used to the whole wine-tasting extravaganza where you pay twenty bucks and get the option to taste any five wines you want, and walk away having bought a case and feel guilty later. Not so here – the bodega visit was more an educational experience, with the wine tasting only secondary. Sigh – as it should be I suppose. Honestly though, it was so neat seeing the unique old-world method of wine making still used by La Abeja that we didn’t have the heart to visit the larger, more commercial bodegas such as Bianchi as we wanted to remember the romance of the smaller vineyard.
After four nights in San Rafael, it was time to head to the big city of Mendoza and do some car maintenance, supply runs, and prepare for our big border crossing to Chile. Hopefully we would find someone to babysit there so we could do some more bodega visits as well!