Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Final thoughts about a 9-star vacation in Mendoza Province

At the thermal baths in Cacheuta
My time here in Argentina is slowly coming to its end. By the time I finalize this blogpost, heck, I may already be in an airport lounge on the way back to Lubbock. Doesn't matter. At this point I still have two full days here, and I will enjoy them.
La Cordillera once again emerges from the clouds
Long roads, false flats, for once decent pavement
So, you ask, why just 9 out of 10 stars for a trip that seems to be perfect? Actually, it probably should be more like 8 1/2 stars, but that would have looked weird in the title of this post. Let me give you the 1/2-point deduction: plain and simple, the weather. I'm not stupid enough to know that the weather is unpredictable, but when every local I talk to tells me that the often-wet weather I encountered was completely abnormal, well, then I have to take off a bit of credit. (Fact: The rain during Easter weekend was the highest 24-hour inundation ever in La Consulta in 80 years of recording.) Thanks to continued rain after a dry weekend I even had to accept my last B&B's host's offer to take me by car through the slick roads and crazy Mendoza traffic to my final hotel. It's not as if I have to prove anything to myself, but it would have been nice to complete the whole trip on my own, but do I really want to risk an injury on the last day just to top the 466 miles that I rode down here?
In the Uco Valley, in perfect conditions
Also in the Uco, when the skies threaten
So, are we looking at climate change? Well, I don't know, but Argentina is one of those countries that do their part to avert the worst of it; at the same time it does everything to accelerate the cataclysm. Consider for example that many more cars than in the US are running on LP gas or whatever it is called. The clean stuff. The one that requires a big tank in the back of the vehicle, looking like a bomb. At the same time, there are vehicles still running down here that are emitting more nasty stuff than does an entire coal-burning electricity generating plant in the US, or so it seems! The dichotomy of it all is not lost on me. (It's the same as my flying on a jet plane to Argentina and then riding a bike for two-and-a-half weeks.)

This is one of the better ones ....
The vehicles down here, as I mentioned in a Facebook post, are of historical value. From what I understand, Cuba holds the upper hand when it comes to US automobiles from the '50s and '60s. I don't know much about cars, but I enjoy seeing some of those old jalopies that are still populating the streets and roads down here, even if they belch nasty fumes and the tailpipe makes grating noises and creates sparks since it hangs down so low and hits the asphalt. If you like living museums, well babe, you got it down here!
Small, family owned, organic methods: Andalhue
Tasting straight from the fermentation tank--$3, well spent
Compare this to the mega-producers
What you see is what they own
Before we get to some more general observations that I hadn't covered in earlier posts (or maybe did, after all, but don't recall thanks to vinification), why the other one-star reduction? Simple: I think the place is overpriced. All my friends know I'm a cheapskate, but I'm talking about something different here. It has everything to do with the huelga, the general strike when I arrived. Normal people (that's Argentine people like you and I and your "middle-cass" friends) have a very tough time making ends meet down here. I talked to them, and this is real. This is not just me thinking something is costly. I try to put things into perspective, and down here that perspective is off, way off. Much more so than in other parts of the world, affordability is not based on reality but rather on perceived and imposed-by-others values. And I have a hard time with that. I talked to enough Argentines to believe that this is a true assessment.
Do I really want to spend $18 for a tour of Chandon Argentina (yes, the same guys as Moet-y-Chandon)?
Or do I support the co-op that gives these people a job?
The wine co-op of 70 members in La Consulta. I learned a lot here.
The co-op's wine shop. $18 bought two fabulous bottles.
Outside of the co-op. Nope, this is not high tech.
When I see those mega-million dollar wineries like Zuccardi, Chandon, Terrazas, Zapata Catena, and all the others who are being owned by international conglomerates charge $20 or more for a wine tasting, I smell not grapes but pure-and-simple profit reaping. If there are the small guys like Bonfanti or Andalhue who will do it for free or $3, what's this all about? More profit mongering, because during the past decade it has become de riguer for a wine aficionado to partake in all this. Baloney. But the hawkers in Mendoza who are selling you on one of those personalized winery tours (including a four-course-meal) will make you believe that you need to spend $130 on that one-day excursion. So, there goes that star.

And by the way, I'm just enjoying a $45 dinner.
No, that's not the dinner--but it's representative of the yumminess of Argentine cooking, I mean, grilling
That leaves us with a whole bunch of stars to dole out for a phenomenal vacation. I have been lucky enough to ride in many, many parts of the world, and the scenery that I encountered down here is at the very top of the list. I think that my approach to spend about two-and-a-half weeks just in Mendoza Province allowed me to become much more familiar with this part of the world than traveling from region to region. For anybody planning a trip down here, I would suggest to spend more time in the Uco Valley than the Maipu or Mendoza area--the backdrop of the Andes is just breathtaking. I would like to go to the north, the area around Salta, and of course I am thinking about a trip to the Bariloche area for some serious hiking.
More thermal bath activity in Cacheuta
Final view of the Uco Valley after climbing from Tugungato
Pop art in Manzano Historico--an unforgettable `100K ride 
Colores del otono on the way to Manzano Historico
Here are a few observations that I wanted to jot down, just so I wouldn't forget. Number one: I was surprised by how many people here are trying to be physically active. There are joggers and mountain bikers not only on the ciclovia in Mendoza, but one sees them out in the country as well. Many of the smaller cities and towns will have a municipal exercise area with instructions on how to stay fit. Men and women alike participate--it's a real movement, it seems. Thumbs up!
Ciclovia in Mendoza
Stay fit! Ride the ride! Don't be like those fat Americans!
On my ride to the thermal baths in Cacheuta I could not believe the number of people who had driven into this pretty valley and were cooking out by the side of the road. In Germany we always said that the Dutch would have a picnic anywhere by the roadside, with a folding table and lawnchairs. Well, down here they even bring a table cloth! There were hundreds of people by the side of the road, wherever they could find a place to pull off. And most of them had a fire going to grill huge amounts of meat. Large bottles of Quilmes and Andes were on the tables, together with 2-liter Cokes and bottles of Fernet. That's how Argentina celebrates the weekend!
Maybe not the most idyllic place for a picnic, but the Dutch are not choosy either.
Bottles are flying (girl on the left), arms are raised in greetings, and the whole clan is having a swell time!
OK, let's bunk out in the abandoned tunnel, just in case it rains and we need to save the fire ...

If you look closely, you can see all the parked cars and certainly the fires all the way up the valley
People always ask me "How's the driving down there?" when I return from a trip to the south.  Surprisingly, it's not really chaotic (not like Colombia or the DR, for example). In the cities, there are almost no stop or yield signs to indicate right-of-way. I couldn't figure out how those intersections work, so I always anticipated the worst, and I think the local drivers do essentially the same: Go for it when you can, but be prepared to yield to someone who's bigger. Out on the open road, there are quite a few pare--STOP!--signs at intersections, and they are regularly ignored, as are the 20 KM signs for school zones that seem to pop up in the middle of nowhere. Many of the vehicles putter along at what appear to be safe speeds because they simply can't go any faster without disintegrating, but the drivers of modern vehicles enjoy to floor it. And they don't think twice to pass you on a bicycle at insane speeds without moving over to the other lane, even with no other cars in sight. That was at times a bit unnerving.
Wide open roads and little traffic outside of the cities
Traffic signals are universally obeyed; there is no right turn on red, and the cycles take forever, but nobody seems to be impatient or in a hurry. However, the drivers are quite adept at anticipating when the light will turn green, and you better not be in their way! And one more observation: I think I heard maybe one or two impatient honks during the entire time (yet there were numerous "polite" honklets to let me know that I was about to be passed). Overall, Argentines display a very civilized driving culture.

Trash collection: Anybody who has been to Central and South America has probably seen the baskets in the streets into which residents place their trash. No, not what one would call a waste basket, but rather a dog- and cat-proof basket or other receptacle that is made of wrought iron, or is simply a cut-in-half metal barrel.  Some have lids, most don't, and if all else fails, one can just put a nail in the tree in front of the casa and hang a trash bag from it. Eventually, the collectors will pick it up. The overall amount of trash in the streets is fairly low, on par with what we see in Lubbock. No, it's not Switzerland.

Water: In Mendoza Province, you're never very far from it. This is a dry area, just like West Texas. (Uncannily, elevation, rainfall, soil structure, and temperatures/ sun intensity are almost identical. We just don't have the neighborhood hillocks.) But thanks to the Huarpe Indians, who populated this part of the world before the early Spaniards arrived, there exists this complicated and intricate irrigation system that makes the Maipu and Uco veritable oases. The acequias are lining many roads and highways, and it seems there's always the sound of running water somewhere. Mendoza has parks and fountains that cool down the city during those hot summer months. In La Consulta, almost very street that I rode on had an irrigation ditch beside it. And then there are those rivers coming down from the mountains, Rio Tunuyan  and Rio Mendoza.  In some ways I'm reminded of the gardens that we saw in Granada and Cordoba. The sound of running water is such a gift.

Dogs: OMG, where do all those dogs come from? Sure, stray dogs are a common sight in Latin countries (and most other non-western countries that I have been to), but the numbers down here are staggering. They are everywhere, in the cities, out on the roads, away from all civilization. Most of them are shy and scared for their lives, tucking their tails between their legs and slinking away if one just glimpses at them. I said most, because, all of a sudden, one of them will decide that it is time to chase this bike, this car, this truck. No rhyme or reason to this--the ones that attack the cars will not even look at the bike, and vice versa. Whenever I walked by them, especially when they were in packs, I tried to mentally project how I would kick in their teeth if they were to just peep. That helped; I think they sense it. Still, I was uncomfortable but didn't have any real close calls. If all fails, bend down and pick up a rock (or pretend to do so), and that will take care of the situation.

Money: In today's world, ATMs around the world give us a way to draw local currency from our accounts back home. But there are costs. In Argentina, you will pay about $6.50 every time you withdraw money from an ATM (plus whatever charges your bank may impose). This fee is not adjusted for the transaction amount--just a flat fee. And you will have to use ATMs quite often because the withdrawal limit per transaction is about $135. I used a card linked to my Charles Schwab Investor Checking account, which I use exclusively for foreign withdrawals as Schwab will unconditionally reimburse all ATM fees that any bank may impose. If you didn't know about this, check it out online--it's a heck of a deal! Credit cards are accepted in all of the larger stores and restaurants, even in smaller ones such as bakeries and the small tienda on the corner. Just don't rely on it. And even though most places will accept cash dollars, better have your calculator at the ready because their math will always be in their favor.
The line for an ATM that works 
Reservations: On this trip I made reservations generally one or two days in advance, via booking.com. Since I had always access to wifi (right now I am writing in a street cafe in Mendoza's pedestrian zone) I was able to book my hotels. Had I been in a car I would have been less concerned about knowing where I was going to find a place to stay for the night, but on a bike things take on a slightly different dimension. For example, there are a gazillion places that rent cabanas, but in this shoulder season a lot of them have already been shuttered for winter, and that could have become a problem. Of course, when you come here during the summer's high tourist season you may find places open but solidly booked. I was able to find clean but rather modest hotels and B&Bs in the $30 to $45 range, but the vast majority of listings on booking.com (much larger selection than Expedia or Orbitz) cost $100 a night and up, up, up. Final note on this topic: I am glad that I decided at the last minute to leave my emergency camping gear to weather a night where I couldn't find a room. Pretty much all the campgrounds that I saw were closed, and I didn't see one spot where I could have made camp for the night.
The Apart Hotel Nueva Era in La Consulta, to the left of the ice cream shop
Roadside shrines: How could I not mention those colorful and totally wild sacred places by the side of the road? Why each has been established in a particular place is anyone's guess--a sudden epiphany, the ability to resurrect an old 2CV's engine, little Pedro's having to take a pee? Who knows. The fact is, these shrines are all over the place, usually marked by some red flags or just some red marker tape fluttering in the wind. Some are very humble and are just one small shrine, others seem like a city of shrines dedicated to a particular saint. One of my favorites is Gauchito Gil, the little cowboy; then there is of course the Virgen de Guadalupe, always a safe bet; and let's not forget San Expedito, a strapping fellow that reminded me of St. Martin. (If you want more info, simply Google these names.) The shrines all differ. Gauchito Gil, for example, likes an occasional nip from the bottle, and he must also be a pretty damn handy car mechanic, judging from the bottles of alcohol and wrenches, old engine blocks, and cans of oil left at his shrines. The Virgin, on the other hand, is given bottles and bottles (generally the two-liter plastic type) of water that are piled up as if this were a recycling station. One San Expedito figurine was housed in an old kitchen stove, while another inhabited what looked like a roof exhaust pipe. Truly ingenious! And on the bike one sees such things, while in a car you might just zip by, oblivious.

Selling things: Maybe it's a function of the years and years of astronomical inflation, but outside of established grocery stores like Atomo or Carrefour none of the fruit stores, bakeries, roadside stands, and many, many other places that sell stuff will display any kind of pricing. Occasionally there may be a signed propped up against the eggs advertising their price, or a sign betrays today's special of 50-cent choclos--corn-on-the-cob--but overall you mostly have to ask what something costs. Bread products, by the way, are always priced by their weight.
No obvious pricing for anything
Selling cars: Just park your car in the street, put some sort of bottle--small, large, huge, it doesn't matter--on the roof, and everybody will know your car's for sale. Beats classified ads!

Beer: In general, it's crap, pure and simple. The local mass-market brews (Andes, Quilmes, and Brahma) are the same kind of German-influenced swill that Coors and Miller are. They are being sold in cans and bottles ranging from 375 ml all the way to the big ones, just shy of a liter (970 ml? Why?). But surprisingly, there is a burgeoning cerveza artesanal movement that seems to sweep across Argentina. I had a chance to try a few craft beers, and I was reminded that "craft" does not necessarily mean "quality." There were a few real losers where advertised style of beer and actual taste had nothing in common with each other. But a few were quite nice. On my first night in Mendoza I happened to run across a tiny place that was refilling growlers, and I had a chance to sample eight different beers of which two were OK, the rest totally forgettable. But they are trying. On my ride to the Cacheuta thermal baths I saw two cervecerias artesanales, but unfortunately both were closed. At the hot springs I had an abominal red ale from a Mendoza-based brewery. A lot of work remains to be done.

Siesta: No doubt about it, the Spanish influence is dominant! Not much moves before eight in the morning, and things don't really get rolling until two hours later. The first half of the day will be closed out with a leisurely lunch, and at 14:30 hrs nothing and nobody stirs. Commercial life comes back around 17:00 hrs, and restaurants don't open for dinner any earlier than 20:00 hrs--but nobody shows up before 22:00 hrs. Eating a big meal an hour before midnight or at midnight is not unusual, rather the norm. And what happens after that is something that eludes me since I don't tick like that.
Restaurants don't start hopping until 10 p.m.
Women: Maybe one has to go to Buenos Aires or frequent one of Mendoza's or Chacras de Coria's nightclubs, but I saw very few stunning females who looked as if they had nothing but the tango on their minds. When I had my evening dinners here in Mendoza (see above for timing), there was an attractive young crowd in the restaurant district, but I did not see the hot-blooded, dark-haired, dressed-in-a-body-hugging-red-dress man-eaters I had hoped to encounter. As I said, I was not in the right place. But even at the thermal baths the, ahem, scenery was rather disappointing, apart from all those bikini-clad nubiles who may have been 16 or 18 or 20, so we better not go there.
The "adult only" pool in Cacheuta
Faces: Lots of European-looking people here, which of course is no surprise. This is definitely the most "European" South American country that I have been to. The blondish hair and blue eyes that Germans brought have mingled well with Spanish and Italian blood. There's certainly not one "Argentine" lineage. Where I traveled, I saw very few indigenous people, although it was the Huarpe Indians that brought irrigation to this area. From my conversations with hosts and bodega personnel I have the impression that the people down here are friendly, open, and well-informed about the rest of the world. I really have liked it down here.

And with this I better conclude this overly long blog entry. I wanted to jot down some of these observations because they are not just meant to inform you, if you should have read this far, but also to remind me somehwere down the line of what I saw and experienced. After all, this blog is as much a personal journal as it is your passport to the world.

Thanks for reading!


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