Of wine and poison

Posted by on July 8, 2013

It occurred to me that I haven’t recounted any travel adventures since my great epiphany following Bariloche, so it seems appropriate that I invite all of you to experience Mendoza: a province of lovely plazas, trees galore, rivers, mountains, and hot springs, and, of course, las bodegas (vineyards).  As Sasha and I packed our bags for a three-day excursion to Mendoza capital, I think we were both imagining a somewhat finer, classier, more luxurious journey than any others previous.

We were absolutely right.

We arrived the morning of Thursday, June 20th, in the frigid cold and made our first touristy decision since the Casa Rosada: we hailed a taxi rather than taking the colectivo.  In our defense, it was so early in the day that the kioscos that sold Red Bus cards weren’t open yet, and we preferred to find our hostel early and have more time in the day to explore. (Honestly, I was just ready for central heating!)  As luck would have it, taxis cost much less in Mendoza than in Córdoba — plus side number one.

Our hostel turned out to be a very clean, warm, and colorful place one block away from the Plaza San Martín.  (Aka, the location was awesome!)  We balked a little at the cost at first — AR$95 (US$19) per night rather than our usual AR$60 (US$12) — but the accommodations and connection with a local travel agency convinced us to stay.  It was a good thing we did, because I hadn’t realized how tired I was from the overnight trip and promptly fell into a deep nap in the bed closest to the heater.  (Contented sigh.)

When I woke up, I found that Sasha had been much  more productive and already bought ingredients for lunch and dinner.  I also discovered our Canadian roommate Antoine, who had been traveling the Americas until he met a certain young woman in Mendoza and decided to stay.  He didn’t have plans for the day, since it was a holiday and his girlfriend had to work extra hours at a hotel, so he offered to accompany us to Parque General San Martín and take some photos.

It was a beautiful afternoon!  We walked to the park from our hostel, noting the Museo Popular Callejero (Popular Street Museum) in our route, and enjoyed the brisk air and slow pace of the city.  Upon arriving, we were confronted by an impressive gated entrance — apparently a gift from France — and an expansive green-space with bike trails, fountains, a lake, and an artisans fair, all designed by the same architect of Córdoba’s own Parque Sarmiento, a favorite park close to the university.  The park was perfect just for wandering and enjoying the nature all around us.  Eventually, after hiking through a forest trail, we found ourselves close to the park’s zoo and a hill called Cerro de la Gloria (Hill of Glory), which we climbed to catch an overhead glimpse of the surrounding valley on one side and the city on the other.  The top of the hill was full of tourists who had taken a bus or car instead of hiking on foot, but the statue that they were all flocking to was definitely a sight to see.  It portrayed the revolution that José de San Martín had fought in the 1800’s, complete with soldiers, horses, and an impressive angel guarding them from above.  I was equally impressed by a war monument farther down with a carving of a condor as its centerpiece.

Statue portraying the revolution

War monument featuring a condor engraving

View of the valley from above

It was an exhausting adventure, so we returned straight to the hostel afterwards and dined as only Sasha and I can do.  (We recycled the potato, sausage, and vegetables recipe from Tilcara.)  In my free time, I asked the receptionist about any guided excursions being offered to some vineyards the next day.  Come to find out, there was a trip to Maipú (still in Mendoza province) to two vineyards and an olive oil factory for only AR$110 (US$22)!  We booked the excursion immediately, and it was with excitement that we got ready for bed so we’d be energetic the next day.

The next morning featured an amazing breakfast of medialunas, biscuits with jam, and coffee, and a leisurely walk to the Plaza Independencia, which had one of the most beautiful fountains I’d ever seen in a city park.  That afternoon was our excursion to Maipú.  In one word: breathtaking.  First, the van stopped by our hostel to pick us up and then followed a zigzag route to collect the rest of the passengers.  Next, at the olive oil factory, we learned about the process of separating the olive juice from the pulp and water used to purify it, which was essentially an organic chemistry experiment that made my experience on the trip that much more fun!  Samples of their various oil products followed; we even tried pasas de uva en chocolate (raisins dipped in chocolate), which were quite delicious.

After that were our two vineyards: a small artisan plot that specialized in vinos tintos (red wines) and an industrial plot that produced tintos and blancos (white wines), especially vinos de postre (dessert wines).  An animated tour guide shared the history of each vineyard and led us through the tasting at the end of each tour.  In the first vineyard, there was a special sub-business dedicated to preparing wines al roble (in a wooden barrel) to create a distinct taste; the flavor was excellent!  The second featured an expanse of large pools and an assembly line for the quicker and larger-scale production of wine in comparison with the other.  Both were interesting to see and provided a great selection of wines to sample.  (I bought a traditional Argentine wine, Malbec, for my host family.)

The most interesting part, though, would have to be the fact that Sasha and I were the only guests under thirty on the tour (besides one couple’s toddler).  We were also the only extranjeras (foreigners), so we received a lot of curious but overall positive attention.  Some guests tried to speak English with us, but after nearly five months in Argentina, our Spanish was more developed than their English.  We felt very refined as we sniffed the contents of our glasses, swirled the liquid, and drank.

That’s essentially where the luxurious part of our adventure ended.

Saturday morning, after a nice breakfast and equally nice shower, I returned to the room to find Sasha lying on her bed after throwing up in the bathroom.  She was gracious and told me to see the city a little while she rested, but I felt guilty staying out for much longer than an hour.  I bought some crackers and Gatorade and came back to the hostel just in time to find her in the lobby, asking the hostel manager to call a doctor.  Her symptoms matched those of food poisoning, and she was having trouble keeping down even water.  Once the doctor came and prescribed a medication, Sasha and I chatted while she tried to eat, and then she took a nap until we left for the bus terminal.  It wasn’t necessarily the most ideal way to spend our last day in Mendoza, but we did have some quality time talking with each other, and I actually enjoyed the opportunity to care for my best friend while she was feeling sick.  The trip reminded me that it’s not only about the journey but the people you share it with.

So I guess it’s at this point that I change the tone of this post.  On July 5th, just days ago, Sasha returned home to the United States.  We shared a traditional Argentine meal of empanadas and locro before she left, but now that she’s gone, I feel as though an era has ended.  Sasha was my best friend and an amazing travel partner throughout the semester.  Nearly every trip that I’ve taken outside of Córdoba — the only exception that comes to mind is Los Gigantes with Tim and his German friends — has been with her.  We’ve cooked together, shared our dreams and our secrets, enjoyed the beautiful views, essentially fallen into this pattern that worked so well for us.  Now, she’s home in Pennsylvania, and I’m headed in the morning to Peru and Chile for the next 16 days, without her.  It feels strange, but I know that Sasha is one of the true friends that I will never forget and hopefully will see again soon.

Buen viaje, mi linda amiga!

Sasha and me at the top of Cerro de la Gloria.

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