– Tinedawl, Table and Western (2012).
Sometimes, a change of scene is good to have. One can only stare at the same buildings/mountains/Chileans for so long. And so when our summer intern, Martha (“I hate my name, it sounds like ‘Table’!”), asked if I (“Well, I get a surprising number of people calling me Amy ‘Tinedawl’ “) wanted to nip across the border with her for a long weekend so that she could renew the tourist visa in her passport, I told her I would join her. After all, it would be nice to stare at some different buildings/mountains/Argentines, instead. We mentioned it to our friend Roger (“You wouldn’t think you could get ‘Wesson’ that wrong… But I’ve been called ‘Western’ for most of my life”), who I think agreed before we’d even finished the sentence, having been Santiago-bound for far too long following back surgery. Since two of us are on student wages, and the third just likes to rough it, we decided that we would do the 6-8 hour journey to Mendoza – one of Argentina’s main wine regions – on the bus, staying in a hostel when we got there to save precious pesos. We were going with no plan, no expectations, booked the bus tickets and rooms the day before we left… Certainly not my usual way to do things! I’m one of these people who likes to have a plan in place, ready for all eventualities. But sticking three of the most indecisive, passive people on the planet together for 3 days in a strange town? Sure, why not. What could possibly go wrong?
T T & W’s Mendoza travel tip #1: Don’t take warm clothes with you on the bus. It takes all the fun out of getting hypothermia at border control.
For those of you who haven’t just Googled it to see, Mendoza lies just on the other side of the Andes to Santiago. This was another big reason for choosing the bus over flying – the view! The weather wasn’t great on the outward journey – cloudy, a bit drizzly (a bit British), but whenever the clouds cleared it would produce a spectacular mountain vista. After a few hours and some ascension, we hit the Chile-Argentina border. And it was COLD! Snow on the ground, windy… We were told to all pile off the bus and stand in a queue behind about four other bus-loads of travellers to get our passports stamped, before having to take our hand luggage off the bus and stand with it whilst security took out all of our other luggage from under the bus to x-ray it and search some where appropriate (again, having to wait our turn behind other buses… BORING!). All in all, we were stuck at the border for a chilly 2.5 hours or so (it was light when we went in, the sun was setting by the time we reappeared), by which time I’d started going a bit loopy and was amusing myself and the other two far too much with my crocodile backpack (come on, making it ‘eat’ things is funny after your brain has frozen to the inside of your skull!).
The rest of the journey was sadly done in the dark of night – pitch black travelling through the mountains, before we could see the delightful orange glow of light pollution in the distance coming from Mendoza. We arrived at the hostel – the Mendoza Inn – at about 9pm, which was situated on one of the city’s main street for bars and restaurants and headed out for a quick dinner in a little Italian place over the road, before collapsing back in our beds. Oh, which reminds me:
T T & W’s Mendoza travel tip #2: Make sure you pick the loudest, squeakiest bunk bed possible, to ensure that everyone is kept aware that you are still alive during the night. And make sure that you choose a top bunk with no ladder to get up – nothing beats a bit of night-time gymnastics before going to sleep.
Must have taken me a good 20 minutes to get into bed on the first night, due to being in pure stitches laughing with Martha at my complete ineptitude. Well, I usually take a bottom bunk, but seeing as though Martha’s the baby and Roger was recovering from back surgery, I kind of picked the short straw on that one (and subsequently spent the next 3 nights thinking I was imminently about to roll out and onto the floor at any moment. Oh well, at least the loud *SQUEAK* that accompanied my every move gave me ample warning.)
T T & W’s Mendoza travel tip #3: Be sure to look up interesting things to do in the guidebook. And then don’t do it.
The beautiful thing about travelling plan-less is not feeling the need to get up at the crack of dawn to be in a particular place for a particular time. It’s all about getting up for breakfast 30 seconds before they want to start clearing away, and eventually falling out of the hostel door showered and ready to go to do…. something… maybe… at about 11am. Looking at our free cartoon map, we noted that there was a large park at the bottom of the road we were staying on – Parque San Martín, named after the guy who led the Argentine War of Independence between 1810-1818. The park covers a whopping 971 acres of land and includes a massive lake, a museum, a playground (which, naturally, had to be tested), a zoo, a sports stadium, and 25 individual sculptures dotted around. This park was seriously lovely in the winter, so I’d love to go back and see it all lush and green in the summer.
One thing all the guidebooks we had seemed to recommend was to ascend to the top of a hill – Cerro de La Gloria (“The hill of glory”) – located at the far end of the park, which is meant to present spectacular views over the city and the locale as well as being home to an impressive bronze statue paying tribute to the Army of the Andes. So after playing on the swings for a while (much to the chagrin of the 6-year-olds waiting for us to vacate them), we decided to go seek it out – after all, everyone loves a good photo opportunity, and it sounded pretty cool and well-reviewed! And we walked…. and walked… then seemed to run out of park and ended up on a road… and walked… and walked… Eventually we found something that vaguely resembled a hill, albeit seemingly surrounded by a very unwelcoming-looking and impenetrable metal fence. Said hill appeared to be ‘closed’, if that was even possible. After ‘umm’-ing and ‘aaah’-ing for several minutes (“Well Roger, we could look to see if that’s the entrance there, just round the corner?” “Ummm… I don’t know… What you do you think, Amy?” “Hmmm, maybe, possibly, what do you want to do, Martha?”, etc) , we decided just to head back towards the general direction of our hostel And anyway, we had another activity booked for 2pm that same day… This leads me to the next important point:-
T T & W’s Mendoza travel tip #4: Be sure to book a wine tour in this famous region. And then don’t go on it.
– Which is related to the next tip:
T T & W’s Mendoza travel tip #5: If in a rush to be somewhere, make sure you pick the slowest restaurant to grab some lunch. Indigestion doesn’t get enough credit these days.
By booking into our hostel for 3 nights, we were offered a complimentary place on one of the wine tours – a chance to get out into a bit of countryside, walk around in the sunshine, perhaps get a little merry on samples, all rather delightful. Our walk back from the hill-that-might-have-been ended up taking us longer than we thought, so we thought we’d grab a quick lunch otherwise we wouldn’t be able to eat until about 8pm that night and we were running close to having to be back at the hostel for the tour. Next dilemma – another decision to be made! Where should we eat? This place here, that place there? We made the massive mistake of sitting on some squishy sofas outside of one place, which felt too good after our long walk. We sat there a little dazed for about ten minutes before ‘deciding’ that we didn’t want to eat there after all. So we walked along to the next place and just went for that. We sat down, ordered our food, then realised that the front of the menu said in big, bold letters along the lines of: “Not the place to be rushed”. D’oh. Eventually, we decided to leave it to fate – if the bus was waiting for us when we got back, then great. So, we set upon amusing ourselves with a flock of hungry sparrows and bread rolls whilst we waited. And well, they lived up to their motto. Needless to say, the bus wasn’t waiting for us when we got back 45 minutes later than the departure time… Never mind. Something else we got to strike off our list of things we did without actually doing it, along with the hill-that-may-have-been-closed-but-now-we’ll-never-know.
T T & W’s Mendoza travel tip #6: If given the choice between two paths, ignore them completely and go off-road down the middle instead. Far more direct.
Naturally, we had to find another way to amuse ourselves after being unique and kooky by not going on the wine tour. And naturally no-one wanted to suggest anything, so we just set off in a direction to see what we could see. There are several lovely plazas dotted all around Mendoza of varying sizes, so we aimed for a couple of them. Even the smaller ones had a little fountain or some other such thing in it, making it a very pleasant place to sit around in the winter sunshine.
After some time sat in sunny contemplation, the desire for caffeine came upon us. So we hauled ourselves up in search of somewhere that would provide us with coffee and cake. The three of us were walking side-by-side talking, when we came to the corner of the plaza – one path to the left, one path to the right. Oh no, a choice to be made! Who was going to cave first? Who would we follow? Martha on the right? Roger on the left? Nope. Me in the middle. No-one appeared to be leaning towards another direction, so the three of us ended up looking incredibly weird by continuing to walk in a perfectly straight line over the grass and mud in between the paths instead, as it seemed an easier option than someone actually vocalising a decision. We couldn’t breathe for laughing for a good 10 minutes after that, impressed that we actually manage to function on a daily basis.
We found a coffee shop to fall into, where we could sit quietly so’s not to hurt ourselves with anymore thinking for a while. After drinking nothing but terrible coffee since I got to Chile (except for the stuff I brought from the UK, and the coffee they serve in Café Melba in Santiago), the Argentine coffee tasted like it was heaven-sent. Combine that with tasty cake, and this was a coffee shop we returned to a couple of times, just sitting, chatting and people-watching. The only decision to be made was “should we have another coffee?” and that wasn’t really a decision anyway, because the answer was always “yes”.
T T & W’s Mendoza travel tip #7: No organised tour is complete without a minor near-death experience.
We were determined to actually complete an activity that wasn’t getting to the bottom of our respective coffee cups, so we managed to book on a little tour that took us just outside of Mendoza and into the mountains for a few hours (although we had to get up at… *gulp*… 7am! Obnoxious!), whilst reassuring the guy behind the desk that we would actually show up for this one. The tour was going to be narrated entirely in Spanish, but that was ok, mountains don’t need much explanation (and it gave us extra napping time on the bus ride there). A long, straight drive through some open plains preceded the very windy road that headed up into the mountains – not one for those with a sensitive stomach! The first stop-off was a hotel that had once been on the main route leading from Mendoza to Santiago across the Andes, but was subsequently closed down in the 70’s after the tunnel was built. It’s about to be restored to its former glory, which is a good thing as the location is beautiful with a stunning view across the mountains – a proper getaway sort of place, that now sadly resembled The Overlook Hotel from Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’.
After more windy roads leading up, we approached our next photo stop. Or, well.. by “approached”, what I actually mean is “the driver threw the bus round a corner, stuck it in reverse, put his foot down, and hurtled backwards towards the barrier-less cliff edge.” Being the ones sat at the back of the bus, I can honestly say my heart has never jumped into my throat more as when I suddenly saw the ground drop away to the valley floor out of the rear window of a bus that didn’t seem to be slowing down (I even caught myself calling out: “Ok, stop! Stop! STOP!”). We really can’t have been that far from the edge, but you trust they know what they’re doing… Even the tour guide had yelped in mild panic, as the driver cackled maniacally! But it wasn’t over, oh no! He then puts the bus into gear again, and repeats the experience to the people sat on the left-hand side of the bus as he goes to “park” it. One girl sat next to the window shrieked and literally leaped out of her seat onto her boyfriend’s lap! We all ran off the bus to safety as soon as the engine turned off, and were greeted with a great view and a ham sandwich. Even Roger-the-vegetarian thought life was too short after that escapade, and chowed down on a butty with with rest of us.
T T & W’s Mendoza travel tip #8: Go back to the olden days and carry out trade with useful items rather than money.
I can honestly say this has never happened to me before. After we got back from our exhilarating mountain drive, we wandered around the microcentre for a little while. We nipped into a pharmacy, and I bought some lip balm (Mendoza is very dry, so be sure to pack moisturiser and such <— Look, an actual tip!). The cash machine had only given me notes in denominations of $100 Argentine pesos, and that’s all I had to pay for it. She was short on change, so instead of being able to give me last 20 cents or so, babbled something in Spanish, and handed me a plaster! Never before have I been given change in household items for the equivalent coin cost before, and this amused me greatly. It made us nostalgic for times like that, when you could swap three tomatoes for a spoon and such things. It would make shopping so much more fun!
T T & W’s Mendoza travel tip #9: Spectacularly cock up a parallel parking manoeuvre in front of as many people as possible. If you are the friend who has gotten out to direct the car, there is a chance that your companion will speedily drive off in embarrassment, leaving you abandoned on the roadside. If this should happen, try to act nonchalant about the whole debacle. Chances are, nobody saw.
The wonderful thing about restaurants in Chile/Argentina, is that they nearly always provide some form of outdoor seating whether it be out at the front of the place, within a courtyard, or on a terrace at the top of the building. Even in the winter they tend to be very pleasant to sit at, as they do actually provide massive patio heaters (and blankets in some cases) to make it a comfortable temperature while you stuff your face. We went to one such place that had outdoor seating upstairs for dinner one evening. Martha and I were determined to have a bottle of Malbec after our spectacular wine-tour fail, as we couldn’t face the sheer embarrassment of having been to this famous region and not even so much as sniffed some vino tinto. So we managed to get a delicious bottle – and not just one glass, as we assumed based on UK restaurant-wine prices! – for under $50 Argentine pesos (about £6). We were sitting there, happily chatting away, eating, drinking our wine on our last evening in Mendoza, and allowing ourselves to be entertained by the traffic scenes below. As mentioned earlier, we were located on the main “pub and club” strip and so there tended to be plenty of cars desperately trying to find parking space on the road below us. Some people would park fine and be on their way. Some people would stop in the lane directly next to a car parked on the side, blocking the way for everyone else (but they put their hazard lights on, so that makes it ok). Other people would see a space, try to park, realise it was a little on the tight side, and go off to look somewhere else. One car, however, truly blew us away with their driving skills. Four lads in an old VW Beetle come along, and there is a huge empty space right outside the particular bar they want – “you could get a bus in there”, as we say in the UK. So he starts reversing into it in a parallel park manner. He turns too tight and hits the pavement. Tries it again. Turns into it too early and narrowly avoids hitting the corner of the car in front. Tries it again… By this time, people like us sat at the edge of the terrace are having a great old giggle, and there’s a small group of people stood outside the bar also watching events. After about six attempts, all resulting in the car pointing into the road in various comedic angles, one of the boys gets out to try to direct the driver as he tries to back up again. This time he just about manages it, but instead of you know, stopping, the car does one final, spectacular jolt, slams into the parked car behind with enough force to actually move it back about a metre, the driver panics, throws it into first gear, and drives off around the corner at tremendous speed and with a huge racket , leaving his poor mate stood on the pavement like a very confused muppet at the realisation he’s just been abandoned next to a wailing car alarm. By which point, those of use watching this from upstairs are in absolute fits laughing – talk about dinnertime entertainment! In what I can only assume was a moment of him thinking “play it cool, Jimmy, play it cool, nobody saw”, the guy pretends to be busy with his phone before turning around to said group of people behind him, and tries to blend in with them as though he had been there all along. You could almost imagine him saying to the spectators “Huh, what a moron, eh?! *Tut*, what is the world coming to, etc.” Both we and the poor guy assumed that the car would be back round in a couple of minutes (it was a one way street), but after about 15 minutes it became apparent that the car wasn’t returning to the scene of the crime, and he kind of wandered off down the street and disappeared. My only regret, as a spectator to the thing, was not standing up and starting off a round of applause from the terrace.
T T & W’s Mendoza travel tip #10: Let’s end on a serious tip – be sure to get a window seat for the bus ride home. The scenery will knock your socks off.
Our last morning in Mendoza before we had to start back to Santiago was spent in – you guessed it – a local coffee shop. A delightful, slow couple of hours were spent there before we headed to the bus station. This time, we all managed to nab a window seat, and because it was day time, we got to look at all the scenery we missed out on on the way into Mendoza because it had been night-time. And what scenery! Incredible to think how much was just outside the window that we just couldn’t see! Mountains, rivers, canyons, all lit up in the sunshine.
Considering we pretty much did nothing for an entire weekend except seek out our next caffeine fix, I seem to have written a long post! Anyway, as mentioned before, the great thing about South America is the cheap travel – it opens up a whole new world of experiences, and now I’m hooked on random weekends away! I have plenty more lined up in the next couple of months (and now the weather is starting to improve again, yay!), so I look forward to sharing them with you 🙂
Hasta la proxima,