Mendoza – Argentina’s desert wine country nestled at the foot of the Andes – is a popular domestic vacation spot, one I’d been told not to miss. So, on the Thursday before our weeklong Easter break – La Semana Santa – my friends Katy, Clarisa, and I packed up our bags and headed to Retiro, Buenos Aires’ transportation hub, to catch our fourteen-hour overnight bus to Mendoza with Hitravel.
I’ve never had much luck with buses (the Montreal-NY Greyhound route is not my friend, and I’ve already described the nightmare that is the Buenos Aires colectivo) so I was expecting to arrive in Mendoza twenty hours later, hunchbacked and sleep deprived. Because this bus sounds like a nightmare, right? WRONG. The buses in Argentina are like flying first class, but better (and way cheaper).
The “cama ejucativo” on our ticket meant that we were treated to fully-reclinable seats (beds, essentially), comfy blankets and pillows, as well as a multi-course dinner and breakfast. Yeah. Plus we got to watch Thor in Spanish, which is always a bonus. Suffice it to say, I had a blast on the bus. Separated from my travel mates, I was seated next to an Austrian woman named Ina, and we became fast friends. As seats reclined and people started preparing for bed, I plugged in my iPod and let Adele rock me to sleep. I slept like a baby. And in the morning, Mumford & Sons and Of Monsters and Men – and a warm cup of tea courtesy of this magical bus – gently teased me awake as I gazed excitedly out the window at our new terrain: gone was the city and bustle of Buenos Aires and its suburbs; in their place were rolling hills occupied by vineyards and olive groves against the magnificent backdrop of the snow-peaked Andes. We had arrived in Mendoza.
We stashed our bags in our hostel and began to explore the city. After a shameful number of wrong turns, we found our way to the Mendoza Zoo, a beautiful and – surprise – hilly park that’s a hike and safari all in one. They had an impressive array of animals, but I’m sorry to say that some of them didn’t look very well treated – a goat with its hoof caught in the chain-link fence went completely ignored by the management, and one of the bears was skinny and manically pacing (oh, and his poo was purple). We reported it to the management at the exit but unfortunately it probably won’t do much good.
The next morning we rose bright ‘n early for a wine bike tour through some of Mendoza’s smaller bodegas. We got tours of the vineyards and wine-making process, and then got to taste some of the wine we saw being made – doesn’t get much more local than that! Plus we got to learn how to taste wine in all of its swirling-sniffing-sipping-swishing peculiarities. I have to admit, I don’t think my palate is quite advanced enough tell much difference (though at the very least I could recognize that this was no Dep wine).
Our afternoon excursion – and my favorite part of the week – was cabalgata, horseback riding through Mendoza’s endless desert, mountains looming in the distance. As soon as we got to the ranch I excitedly asked our guide (in Spanish, claro) to give me the fastest horse they had. He looked me up and down, and, half laughing, replied, “Are you sure?” I assured him I knew how to ride (thanks to weekly childhood lessons – thanks Mom and Dad!) and he nodded. “We’ll see.”
I got what I asked for. My horse – named Picaro, meaning rogue – refused to let anyone besides our guide ride ahead of him, which meant that the vast Mendozan desert unfurled before me like a painting come to life, seemingly untouched. At times, our guide would turn back to check on the others, and it was like I was all alone out there. Just me and my crazy horse in the sun, with nothing but cacti and mountains as far as the eye could see.
I could tell we were nearing the end of our ride when I saw the ranch in the distance. But I – and Picaro, I was sure – was unsatisfied. I turned to our guide. “Are we going back now?” He nodded. “But we didn’t run yet!” I’d forgotten how much I loved riding, and now all I wanted to do was nudge my horse into a canter and take off (not that he would need much nudging).
He told me no, that it was too dangerous, and that just last week an inexperienced girl had gotten hurt when Picaro got too excited. I pouted. He asked me how long I had been riding and I told him I used to take lessons as a kid. He thought about it, and then kicked his horse into a run. Picaro naturally followed, overtaking the other horse within seconds. I had gotten my way, and it felt amazing. Eventually we slowed, and, grateful for the concession, I called back to our guide. “Gracias!”
Back at the ranch, our evening continued with my first asado, the traditional Argentinian barbecue. We made our own empanadas, and the rest of the group feasted on rich slabs of beef while I enjoyed my own graciously prepared mystery veggie dish. And, of course, more wine. The evening ended with folk songs, new friends, and good conversation around the fire, after which we trucked back, exhausted and full, to our hostel. (But not before I had gotten the contact info of the ranch, obsessed with the thought of returning in July to work at that little oasis).
The next day was our “Alta Montaña” excursion, and since this is getting a little wordy, all I’ll say is that we spent nine hours in a bus, we (well, me in particular) were horribly underdressed – so underdressed, in fact, that we were encouraged not to go on the hike we had been looking forward to all day – and yet, somehow, my abs were literally sore by the end of the day from laughing so hard. The travelling lesson couldn’t have been clearer: keep good company and never lose the ability to laugh at yourself, and every voyage will be a success.
The rest, I’ll show you in pictures:
On our last day, Katy and I were determined to go paragliding in spite of the rainy weather. What started out as a 9 a.m. appointment was pushed to 10:30 a.m., and then to noon. Finally (and after a particularly impressive April Fool’s Day joke on my part) our guide arrived and brought us to the mountain. Finally, we were going paragliding!
Well, not exactly.
Instead, we pulled over to a clearing by the side of the road to watch the mountain we would later hopefully be jumping off of. Because of the weather, it was still too cloudy for paragliding – so we were watching the clouds rise.
Which is kind of like watching grass grow.
Every few minutes we would turn to our guide: “Is it better?” “It looks better, right?” “I definitely think that cloud moved.” He would just shrug: “We’ll see.”
In truth, we never could tell if it had gotten better or worse. And it could have been my exhaustion, or maybe I was starting to go a little crazy staring at those damn clouds for so long, but I started to think that watching those clouds was a bit like the shitty parts of life. Standing there, waiting for the clouds to clear, I was reminded that, sometimes, you can’t tell that things are getting better until they’re way better. Sometimes you just have to have a bit of faith. Just like we couldn’t tell if the clouds were clearing until they were suddenly clear.
And clear they did. Finally, finally, we made our way up the peak we had been obsessively analyzing from our clearing, strapped on our parachutes, and jumped off a mountain.
Once again, a picture is worth a thousand words:
Until next time…