Saturday, April 8, 2017

South of the Equator: Argentina, Take 1

Mendoza's wine-specific crest, modeled after that of Argentina itself
It was last fall that I was supposed to be here, during the Argentine spring instead of the early fall. But a broken clavicle kept me from this trip, which I had been thinking about for quite a while. On Wednesday afternoon, though, it finally was time to board a plane to start an almost three-week excursion to the land of Lionel Messi and the tango.
Cancellado ...
What was supposed to be an easy 18-hour trip to Mendoza turned into a two-day slog, thanks to a general strike in Argentina on Thursday that kept all airports shut. And so I spent a long day in Santiago de Chile, after a pleasant flight from DFW. Thank goodness for lounge access and status as it meant that the AA agent was able to snag a flight for me yesterday morning at 6:20 a.m., the only flight with a few seats left. With SCL airport hotel rooms rapidly filling up (and other hotels requiring long taxi rides), the value of belonging to several hotel loyalty programs (and having points in the bank) paid off when I landed a $250 room in the Airport Holiday Inn for a mere 20,000 IHG points. In other words, I lucked out.
French-inspired shopping gallery
US-inspired shopping gallery
The one-hour hop to Mendoza, just on the other side of the Andes as seen from Santiago, was bumpy yet uneventful. Unfortunately, it was still dark so that I couldn't see how close we came to scraping some peaks. Once in Mendoza, miracle-of-miracles, I was reunited with my luggage, something that always seems to be an issue in cases like this. Immigration and customs were smooth and pleasant, and then I was on Argentine soil. Just to remind me of the fact that this is South America, I found the only money changing place, a bank, shuttered in the busy terminal, and one of the two ATMs was out of service, while the other one was out of money. So much for getting set up with local currency.
Queuing for a working ATM on a Friday afternoon in post-strike Mendoza
Fortunately, the remise (a semi-official, unmarked taxi; Uber doesn't have a presence here yet) driver accepted the correct change in dollars, and for $13 I was hustled through busy streets to the Hotel America, where I had made a two-night reservation ahead of time. (I should note here that from the Admirals Club in Santiago I had been able to make several phone calls to Argentina to change my first three days' hotel reservations. I'm so glad that I speak enough Spanish for such transactions, and now I even know a new word, huelga, or strike.)
Mendoza's city center offers pedestrian zones and trees galore
The Hotel America is nothing fancy, but it is affordable at something like $75 for two nights, including a breakfast consisting of coffee, artificial orange juice, a croissant, a blob of butter, way too much jam, and several stale cookies. I rearranged the two tiny single beds in my room, giving me the space to assemble my Ritchey and still be comfortable. No, there is no shower head, but it's not an electrical shower like in Ecuador, either, yet the water is warmish. Best of all, it's fairly quiet and I will be able to leave my Ritchey's travel case here when I leave tomorrow, until the last night before my departure from Mendoza for the US.
Typical irrigation ditch in Mendoza
Unfortunately, the weather right now is not as glorious as it could be. After initial sun the clouds came out and it never warmed up beyond maybe 64 F. That meant that the beautiful tree-tunnel avenues of Mendoza didn't look as glorious as they would with just a few light accents. I walked around this provincial capital, which bustles with business (OK, it doesn't bustle at all during the siesta hour, which stretches from about 1 p.m. until around 5 p.m.). My hotel is about seven or eight blocks from the commercial heart of the city, an easy and pleasant walk.
Man-bun wearer and his mate and thermos with hot water
One of my first objectives was to get some local currency, and for a while I thought I might have some problems. The first few ATMs that I found were, you guessed it, either out of order or out of money. Was this a function of the huelga? Or maybe the upcoming weekend? Or just because? Who knows, but when I came across a 15-person queue in front of a bank with an ATM sign I immediately joined the patient crowd. Twenty minutes later I had the equivalent of about $260 in my pocket, or 4,000 pesos. Thanks to Lonely Planet and TripAdvisor I had learned back in the US that Argentine banks charge a whopping $7 transaction fee to withdraw any amount of money, and the limit is 2,000 pesos (or about $130). Thankfully, I own a Charles Schwab VISA card that refunds any ATM fees incurred. Now, that's a deal. Check it out if you travel abroad and worry about enriching banks.
Fairly ugly ...

... yet kinda pretty
In my preparations for this trip I had also learned about the "blue" market for currency. Nope, not black, blue. After certain political and fiscal reforms a few years ago the blue market pretty much ended and now one receives an only marginally better rate when exchanging a C-note with a street vendor. Actually, in my case it was a hustler who then took me to a gold & coin shop in some basement where I exchanged American for Argentine paper.
Happy chicks! The strike is over! Or something!
Now I have almost $400 of local currency in my pocket, and that's a good thing: Argentina does not appear to be cheap. It's not exorbitantly expensive, like Switzerland, but then, what is? Lunch menu prices are in line with those in the US, a chop of beer in a street cafe will set you back at least $3.50, and food prices in the local Carrefour were higher than those in Lubbock. Maybe that's why they went on strike? Rampant inflation and no equalizer? But then, when I went out for dinner late last night, the cafes, bars, and restaurants were crowded with mainly young people. Go figure.
It's 25 pesos for the shoe shine, not dollars--it comes to US$1.65
Talking about last night: There's definitely Spanish blood coursing through the Argentinos' veins! I thought I might be late starting dinner around 9:30 p.m., but that's when the locals are just getting ready to think about going out! When I left my restaurant, El Palenque, at shortly after 11:00 p.m. the tables were finally starting to fill up. Wow! My dinner, by the way, was a nice steak with a mushroom topping and something that seemed to be a cheese-smothered potato, only that it didn't really taste like a potato. For my beverage I had chosen the house wine for the simple reason that it was served in a half-liter ceramic penguin! Looking at that penguin while watching Mendoza's young and pretty saunter by more than made up for the quality of the wine. Total cost for the meal was $17, which would have been the same at lunch time. So maybe it's lunches that are comparatively expensive and dinner is normal.
Steak and Peguin

On the way back to the hotel I passed by a small place called El Botellon. What I had first assumed was a pub would turn out to be a growler refill station for craft beers. It was still open at midnight, and so I entered and immediately was told of my mistaken initial impression. Never mind, the young and skinny keeper of the establishment and his one-and-only customer were drinking from plastic cups, and they assured me that it was late and that I could try some beer, too. What ensued was a massive sampling of all eight styles of beer that were on tap, starting with a Blonde all the way to a Steam Stout. Of course, I didn't sample in that logical progression but rather according to the whim of the kid. I can honesty say that the two IPAs had nothing to do with IPAs that I have drunk, except that they were also called IPAs. The Bitter was drinkable, and the Trigo, or wheat, was close to being enjoyable. Another two customers, with their growlers in a chicque wooden crate, joined us and the conversation turned from Spanish to English. Dang, I really can't say much about beer in the local idiom. I was told that in Mendoza province alone there are something like 40 craft breweries, and they are all stellar (👎), but the best Argentine craft beers come from Patagonia, mainly because the water is great and there are lots of Germans (👌).

On that happy note I finally took my leave and thought how cool these first two-and-a-half days of my trip have been. And now it is time to get on the Ritchey and do a little Saturday morning reconnaissance ride.


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