Always. Take. The. FRONT ROW. Seats

“Which seats would you like?”, the girl at the ticket counter asked sweetly.

“Those in blue are the seats available, including THESE…”, she continued, FURIOUSLY circling seat 01 and 02, “the front row seats where you’ll be able have panoramic views. They cost the same as the rest.

On retrospect, it seems obvious now that she was probably trying to give us a hint and a tip, which was why I’m pretty sure I caught a glimpse of the girl’s eyeballs doing an Exorcist-ish roll around her head when we replied, “Oh! I think we’ll take seats 23 and 24. Somewhere in the centre… near the television screen.”

I can understand her frustration. It’s like trying to give someone the tickets to a Beatles revival concert only to be told they’d rather go for the Justin Bieber one instead, thank you very much.

I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say that the eight hour bus ride from Mendoza to Santiago de Chile is one of the most amazing ones that I’ve ever been on.

Next Stop… Santiago

The road starts in the vineyards of Mendoza and continues on into the surrounding deserts before climbing into the complicated and jaw-droppingly majestic mountain ranges of the Andes.

Graveyards in the desert

Villages at the foot of the Andes

The road snakes through numerous mountain passes before stopping at…

Probably the world’s most beautiful immigration checkpoint, with…

…the world’s cutest customs officer

I apologize for the poor quality of these pictures. I think we were not really allowed to do it seeing as we were made to queue up in a line with our luggage open while Bingo ran around gleefully trying to sniff out wrong doers.

Jumping for Joy at the Top of the World

Mendoza is situated right beside the Andes, with the spectacular mountain range acting as a natural border between Argentina and Chile.

I don’t know about you, but in my books, a desert right beside the longest continental mountain range in the world should make for some truly amazing backdrops.

That was why we did something we normally wouldn’t do. We booked a tour through the mountain ranges surrounding Mendoza… yes… booked.a.tour… with a tour group… a touristy tour group (taking a serious blow to our backpacking street creds in the process).

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Las Leñas, or How I Learned to Get Back Up on My Own Two Feet

I’m not really sure if we are suffering from mid-life crisis, but looking back, I’m pretty certain strapping tiny pieces of wood to your legs and hurtling down a hill at break neck speeds without prior instruction was probably cause for concern.

At this point in time, we figured we’d been hanging out in cities/towns for way too long. And since Las Leñas, Argentina’s premier snow resort was “only” a six-hour bus ride away, we thought, what the heck, right? Let’s go check it out!

Who cares if we’ve seen snow less than ten times in our lives and have never ever tried any forms of snow sports before.

And it was with this attitude that we lumbered into one of the many extreme sports shops (Yeah… “Extreme”…and “Sports”… the signs are SO obvious now…) along Avenidad Las Heras to check out our gear.  The ski rentals here have a collaboration with the travel agents along the same street – they offer a package with a 12am overnight bus to Las Leñas, a whole day at the snow resort and transport back to Mendoza by 1am the following day. We literally just needed to pick up our skis and go.

“Picking Up” sounds a lot easier than it really is, of course… for anyone here who are like us (meaning ski-ing sua kus), the skis + ski poles + snow boots are damn heavy, can?

Anyway, we went to Las Leñas with minimal expectations. We’d heard that snowfall this season was quite bad… bad enough that the two smaller (i.e. beginner’s) resorts in the area, Los Penitentes and Los Piquios can’t even be bothered to open.

But this was the sight that we awoke to at 6am in the morning, when the bus unceremoniously dumped our freezing asses at the entrance of Las Leñas.

So far, so good…

Looking at the intimidating slopes, we unanimously decided that we would hold off buying the (USD$94) ski lift tickets until we… how do you call it… know a shit about what we are doing. The plan was for us to practice on the beginner’s slope first, and buy a half day pass later if we managed to get comfortable.

I have no idea what we were looking at… but what we were looking at looks scary!

The beginners’ slope!

Trying to look cool as we head towards the BEGINNERS’ slope… you know… where the cool kids are? Literally… kids

I don’t mean to toot my own horn, but that was a spot of damn good decision making.

You see, once we took to the slopes, we found out that we had ABSOLUTELY no problems skiing. In fact, we were pretty much natural born skiers! We were able to balance quite nicely on those flimsy pieces of wood. We were even able to dodge left and right when we wanted to.

No… really… we were quite good at skiing…

There was just that little matter of stopping.

Newton had already established that once an object is moving at (more or less) the speed of light, it is very hard to stop its motion. To counter this problem, Jo and I came up (all by ourselves!) with a braking method that experts have called “sitting on our butts”.

The powdery snow would cushion our fall, and it was actually pretty fun rolling around in the snow after.

That’s when I ran into my other little problem.

You see, Jo, having insane core strength from years of pole training, was able to hop up immediately after a fall and go on skiing. While I, having years of training gulping down ungodly amounts of beer, would go into what I term “full-on Bender mode”. (Futurama pop culture reference!)

I just couldn’t get back on my feet!

Jo wondered what’s up with my death stares… then, instead of helping me up, she started snapping away… right after she stopped rolling in the snow laughing

I swear… There was once when there were four other skiers around me trying (rather unsuccessfully) to help me up.

This went on for pretty much the entire morning. Of course, any smart alec will tell you the most obvious solution to my problem… Don’t Fall (duh…). But it does get kinda demoralising… not to mention, I was starting to notice that there was an increasing circle of space around me when I ski. Other skiers were avoiding me so that they wouldn’t have to help me up when I fall!

I needed to get creative. The problem of me not being able to get up after a fall could be rather easily solved by simply going for a beer! If you don’t ski, you don’t fall, right?

An ice cold beer with this view… it’s hard to imagine life getting better than this

Happy Hour!

Of course. The easiest thing to do is to not go back to skiing after our (pretty long) beer break. But what kind of man would that make me?

The kind that gets nagged incessantly by the wife, apparently.

Naggy… looks cool, but naggy…

So, we went back to the beginner’s slope. I’m not sure whether it’s placebo, but I sincerely felt better after downing the two (or was it three?) beers. I was giggling a lot harder when I fell for the 1000th time that day.

Also… I kinda discovered the secret of getting up after a fall… just take off the bloody skis la

Wining it up in Mendoza

“Ok… Swirl it around. Notice its viscosity?
Breathe it in. Can you smell the rich oak-y smell that the barrel infused in it?
Now drink and hold the taste in your mouth.
Can you sense the complex structure of the wine and its rich tannins?”

Mauricio looked expectantly at me as I held the $35 glass of wine in my hand. Apparently the $500 bottle of wine would be thrown away if I decided not to buy it after that one sampling. I mustered all the vocabulary I’ve accumulated over my 31 years and replied thoughtfully, “Mmmm… Nice….”, all the while thinking, “What the hell is a tannin????”

The Dummy’s Guide to being a wine appreciating douche, aka Fake it till you make it!

Mendoza is the principal wine-producing region in Argentina, and with the numerous vineyards scattered across the province, one of the “must-do” things in Mendoza is to go for wine tasting tours.

The traditional way that backpackers do this is to go for a bike and wine tour – renting a bicycle on the outskirts of the city and with a map in hand, cycle down the dirt roads, stopping at whatever vineyard catches their fancy, pay a bit of sampling money and drink away.

We figured that bicycles + dirt roads + big trucks carrying wine on dirt roads + alcohol = not a very safe combination.

Add on to that our near non-existent knowledge about wine appreciation and the very real possibility that we might stumble into one of the absinthe factories in the region never to re-emerge, we decided to pay a bit more and hire ourselves a wine connoisseur + chauffeur. Enter Mauricio, AKA the Mendoza Wine Guy.

I have to say we more than got our money’s worth.

Mauricio corresponded with us via email prior to the trip, and taking into account our budget (non-existent), came up with a shortlist of four vineyards we could visit. The list included boutique vineyards that produce less than 2000 bottles a year to huge franchised ones that produce upwards of 2 million barrels a year.

Dias de Vino!!!

Some of the vineyards charge a nominal fee for a tour of the grounds and to sample their usual ranges, with the option to top up the cost to have a taste of their premium ranges. Others just let us taste for free in the hope that we would buy a few bottles. (Spoiler alert: We didn’t)

@Carinae – A boutique winery whose astronomy loving owner named his various ranges of wine after his favourite constellations. Incidentally,this was also where we had (a taste of) our first $500 bottle of wine (bottom right). Jo was quite aghast when I suggested we share a glass of that wine. Apparently, it’s not the atas thing to do

There are the small Mom and Pop’s operations and then there is Trapiche – the biggest one of them all. Trapiche’s obscenely big grounds include its own railway tracks and their very own… llamas. Jo’s reaction to the first llamas she saw in South America

Trapiche’s private railway. If you produce upwards of 2 million 9-litre barrels of wine a year, you want to move them… fast

Along the way, Mauricio told us about the wine production history of Mendoza. One of the more interesting trivia was that Mendoza produces such good grapes for wine making because it is situated in the middle of a desert. This forces the grape growers in the area to use alternative means of irrigation for their crops. The unique soil makeup and the methods of irrigation produces special grapes that in turn are used to make the Malbecs that the region is famous for. The different vineyards introduce their own tweaks to the formula, creating variations in the types of Malbec.

Over the course of the day, we vastly expanded our appreciation of wine, though truth be told, at an average of four glasses of wine per vineyard, a lot of the things that happened after the third winery was a bit of a blur… Jo was reduced to a giggling mess just before lunch (at an intimate restaurant, Casa de Campo that serves a brilliant cold cut rabbit appetizer).

Proof of silliness before lunchtime…. check!

Silliness during lunch… check and check! Seriously though. Casa de Campo serves a damn good meal… at a reasonable price. It fulfills my one criteria for picking restaurants… if a local (Mauricio) recommends it, it must be good!

Three things we do remember…

    1. The last vineyard we visited was owned by one of the superstars of wine production in Mendoza. Carmelo Patti – A surly old man who allegedly handles EVERY aspect of the wine production himself, from planting to the bottling to the packaging for delivery. He is notorious for being stubborn about the aging process of his grapes… and rightly so. His little winery had produced vintages that repeatedly kicked the bigger players’ asses in wine competitions.

      Close encounter of the rock star kind. Us, Mauricio and Camelo (with wine). He is EXTREMELY friendly in person and showed us some of his secrets to making wine taste better…

    2. ALWAYS judge a wine by its cover. Most of the vineyards in Mendoza hire help to manually paste on the labels of their wine.  Any winery that has its label plastered over the “fault” line of the bottle does not pay enough attention to details and is not worth sh*t. Yup, that’s the kind of wine snobs we have become.
    3. We did NOT buy the $500 bottle of wine… (partly) because of the one sagely advice that Mauricio gave us…. “The best wine in the world is the wine that tastes good to you. So for you, a $4 bottle of wine might taste better than a $2000 bottle”. Based on that logic, we went back to the supermarket to grab a few $4 bottles of Malbecs. Although, I have to admit, drinking the $500 wine did make my heart race just that little bit faster.

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Insider tip (aka advertising time): If you are ever in Mendoza, do give Mauricio a ring/email. He’s not exactly “cheap”, but you would find that he is absolutely brilliant company and a great expert on wine. He would probably be able to tailor an itinerary that suits your budget as well…

His website: http://mendozaprivatedriver.com/

Our Case for Mendoza

Since we have some time in South America, we decided that one of the things we really wanted to do is to stay in one place for a bit of time… just to see what it’s like.

Initially, we figured this would come later in the trip when we got “tired” from travelling (yes, it is a thing!), but once we saw the broad streets and spacious plazas of Mendoza, we knew that this was it!

It’s hard not to be charmed by streets like these. Mendoza has the largest squares and the widest sidewalks of any other cities in Argentina. This was a deliberate design after more than 5,000 people were killed in an earthquake here in 1861.

Space… it’s something that you don’t think about until you are able to contrast the difference. It’s funny how “nothingness” can affect us so much. We literally felt happier and freer when we looked around and saw…. nothing

Mendoza’s case was definitely helped by us finding another really cheap apartment on AirBnB.

Guillermo’s apartment was everything we could possibly asked for.

Home for a week

It’s a fully furnished studio apartment right in the centre of the city. We had air con, we had wifi, we had hot water. We even had our own kitchen with a fully equipped Carrefour four floors down. We could cook if we wanted to!

And we did… kinda… if you count scrambling a few eggs and throwing prepacked raviolis into hot water as cooking.

Not that we needed to cook… Mendoza, like most of Argentina, is INFESTED with parrillas that serve the most awesome steaks/sausages/random meat parts in the world.

Ooooooh Yeaaaah….

Also, the apartment was near to a Kingo’s.

What’s a Kingo’s? Good thing you asked.

Only the place with the biggest f*cking burgers we’ve ever seen. Four patties, yo! Yeah… I know… it’s obscene

That alone was enough to convince us to park ourselves in Mendoza for a week.

But of course, there is more… Mendoza is one of the principal wine producing regions in South America.

Their trademarked Malbecs are freely available… nay… I mean CHEAPLY available. A freshly bottled Malbec cost as little as $4 at the Supermarkets. If that’s not reason enough to stay longer in Mendoza, I don’t know what is!