Saturday, January 17, 2009

Mendoza and the Alta Montaña

Typical Mendozan Street

After Patagonia, it was time to visit the magic town of Mendoza, near the Andes and 1000km west of Buenos Aires. It's both an Argentina's adventure capital (Queenstown style) and wine capital, meaning there's no shortage of things for a visitor to do; but above all it's the town's laid-back personality that is the real charmer. Even though there are more than a million inhabitants, there's not the big city edge of Buenos Aires, and despite being in the middle of a desert, every street in the town is tree lined and the innovative gutters, built on the original Inca irrigation plan, act as a giant air conditioning system, cooling both the town air and (it seems) the tempers of its inhabitants.

Outdoor Air-con

I travelled here on an overnight bus from Buenos Aires with a fellow Australian from the Patagonia trip (more on Patagonia later) and despite having no accommodation organised, we quickly settled into the town's vibe and eventually found quirky over-flow accommodation in a musician's grandmother's house, barely renovated since she was a teenager, or so it seemed. The barely functional bathroom was more than adequately compensated by the peaceful garden, a real oasis given the property was on Mendoza's main bar strip.

Granny's Garden

Within another hour or so, showered and refreshed, we had the following day's activities organised and settled down for a fantastic outdoor home-made pasta, accompanied by an excellent local Malbec (Trapiche Reserve). With it's tree lined streets, mild climate and wide footpaths, Mendoza is made for outdoor dining, both dinner and lunch.

The first activity was the Alta Montaña tour, following the main highway between Chile and Argentina (RN7, which connects Buenos Aires to Santiago de Chile) and climbing the stunning Andean foothills. The road was significantly upgraded in the 80s, but previously operated on a one way system (mornings West, evenings East) as it was basically a one lane (more half lane) goat track. We got to travel the most spectacular part of that route, rising up to the 4200 M mountain pass, site of a statue at the border to mark Argentinian-Chilean friendship - not always a given.

Christ @ 4200M keeps the fractious Chileans and Argentinians apart

The road has such a reputation amongst the drivers of the many tourist mini-vans here that they have developed a new hand gesture, best referred to as the shitting-oneself, formed by holding the hand that should be on the steering wheel out the window palm down, and generating droppings by opening and closing your fingers. This is gleefully produced to every passing van (there were at least 20 in the 8km half hour ascent) and some drivers have gone as far as obtaining a roll of toilet paper to wave at passing driver, in case the 'shitting-oneself' gesture was too subtle !

Give way to ascending traffic - and anyone waving toilet paper

The tour was comprehensive, with stunning views, interesting Andean villages, scenery (such a natural bridge used by the Incas, and a stone one used by the Spanish), and a view of Aconcagua, the Western hemisphere's highest mountain and a climbing mecca.

Somewhat over-rated (and touristed) Spanish Bridge

Puente del Inca

Mountain Man, previously only found at Rugby matches and beer commercials

Aconcagua - highest mountain in the world outside the Himalayas

Andean Scenery

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