Mendoza: Wandering, Wine, and Politics

Traditional Argentine couple dance performance

With the sun recently risen, two sleepy backpackers walk down the clean sidewalks where the air smells of sugar, butter, and flour. The city of Mendoza has charms in spades, but “little” it is not.  It has historical sites and elegant plazas, but also the frenzy of commercial activity.  It is neatly laid out in navigable blocks with tree-lined avenues, sidewalks, and bike lanes.  It has a decidedly European feeling, except the streets are wider and the fences are higher.

First order of business: we need wifi and we want coffee.  I should not under-emphasize the importance of coffee in this moment.  Chileans are enamored by instant Nescafe.  Drip coffee is impossible to come by.  Espresso can be found, but has to be sought out.

In Mendoza we enjoy spectacular espresso at the first café with a wifi sign posted at the door.  The pastries are warm and flaky and sinful.  The Llama and I hover over my mobile phone, reading reviews on HostelWorld.  We pick a hostel in the center of things that has mostly excellent reviews, a private room available, and a reasonable price.  We don’t ignore the fact that a recent review claims that there were bed bugs in one of the rooms, but it sounds like the staff handled the situation. So we head over to find out if we can get into a bed immediately.

coffee and pesos

The street gate swings open to a backpacker paradise of mismatched sagging couches and chalkboards of promotions and events.  The Hostel Square Independencia attendant is casual and gives us a key to the room at 10:00am.  We take a cold shower and lay our sleeping bags out on the bed.  We open the window to the noises of the street below.  We don’t want to sleep for long, just enough.

old fashion car


The heat knocks us back a few paces when we emerge a couple of hours later.  Ideas of biking around the city or people-watching and ordering lunch al fresco lose all appeal.  We duck into a dark wine cellar restaurant on Avenida Sarmiento.  We are spoiled by the kind of service that makes you want to sit and stay a while.  But we don’t linger long; we are excited to explore.

paddle (1 of 1)

We meander down Avenida Arístedes and around the lake of Parque San Martín.  From a spot tucked beneath the willowy trees by the lake, the park is clean and peaceful and cool.  On Avenida Arístedes we pass cafes, bars, and live music venues that would be equally on trend in other cosmopolitan cities. We see open air patios painted in white and earth tones, details de moda like hanging plants, exposed brick or distressed wood and hand-made pottery. Mendoza City isn’t terribly unique, but it’s pleasant; a converging place to display the region’s wines and their makers.

court by the water (1 of 1)

On this evening, the gods of travel smile upon us.  We approach a large city structure, intending to catch a view from the Terraza Jardín Mirador, located at the top of this municipal office building.  I doubt if we are in the right place.  Some of the information I’ve read says it closes at 2:00pm, others said 9:00pm.  I had hoped for the latter, but the doors are shut and the building is dark.

I can hear music, though the source is indeterminate.   Circling the building, we decide it must be coming from the roof.  It has the distinctive start and stop of a live band sound check.  If there is a swanky party with live music up there, we will not be left out.  We scour the building looking for a way in.

A young woman walks up and asks where the line is.  I don’t know how to answer. She proceeds to fill us in with what we’ve missed: the space is reserved for a special event.  There will be a live band and free wine, and it will start in 30 minutes.  She introduces herself as Maria and tells us to start the entrance line with her.  She has a friend who will be joining her shortly.

Maria is friendly and we chat about travel, Argentina, Obama’s impending visit, and the media coverage of the lengthy U.S.A. election process. Before long we are standing at the head of a line snaking down the sidewalk, everyone dressed for the occasion in conservative boho-chic and euro-classic looks.  We feel slightly shabby and conspicuous in our dusty daytime duds.

The sun sinks fast and the Llama loses the sunset-over-the-Andes shot he had been hoping to capture from the rooftop.  We tap our proverbial watches as the thirty minute mark passes. Latino Time, you know.  It is no longer 8:00pm, and still we wait.

The second the doors open everyone in line starts centimetering (not inching) toward the door.  We are asked for our tickets and there goes my blank face again. The ticket-taker explains that although the event is free, attendance is limited so everyone must to have a ticket.  We step aside.

We can chalk this up to a travel disappointment.  These things happen.  Sometimes something better results in the long run, so we don’t make a fuss.  We stood in line for a little over thirty minutes and we don’t get to go up to the top of the building, but at least it’s been a delight chatting with Maria.

The Llama and I look at each other in resignation.  Two heartbeats later, a young gentleman in a blue suit and bowtie passes us an entrance ticket.  He had printed extra, just in case.  We are his “just in case!” We rush the rooftop to rub elbows with the cultured and classic citizens of Mendoza.  There’s an intoxicating buzz of anticipation, and the ghostly specter of sunlight lingers low in the horizon.

portrait on rooftop (1 of 1)

We are treated to a special release of Bonarda wines, hosted by fifteen different Argentinian winemakers.  We meet some of the winemakers and their PR people, who seem pleased that a couple extranjeros like us had managed to make it.

wine glasses


wine from mendoza rooftop (1 of 1)

We’re on top of the building, but we might as well be on top of the world.  This is when travel, risk, and chance pay off. Midnight buses, reciprocity fees, overwhelming heat and cold showers don’t matter now.  This will be marked down as one of the good days.


HostelWorld:  I prefer to recommend using AirBnB for booking travel lodging, but is a great resource for researching and booking last minute and inexpensive accommodations. I enter the hostel environment with the expectation that we can show up and crowdsource ideas on what to do. At hostels we look forward to meeting new people. Hostels really run the gamut though, which is why it’s great to have a site to refer to with lots of reviews. Reviews need to be taken with a grain of salt, of course, but usually I can draw a collective consensus about the general quality of a place based on HostelWorld reviews.  I will note, however, that this experience made me wonder if I have outgrown the hostel phase of my life.

Parque San Martín: This beautiful park was dedicated to a General from the 19th century Argentinian war for independence from Spain. It is located at the western-center of the city and is considered an important community space, like the Central Park of Mendoza.  It contains a country club, tennis club, regatta, zoo, rose garden, and various museums.  The heat of the day would have been unbearable if not for the green spaces and old growth trees casting their shade.

De moda: “On trend” or fashionable.

Terraza Jardín Mirador: means “Garden Terrace Lookout Point.” I liked the sound of that right away.

Bonarda:  This varietal already has a cult following with those in the know.  The red wine grape came to Argentina and California from the Piedmont region along with Italian immigrants in the 19th century.  In Italy it is called Douce Noir and in California often called Charbono.  It had historically been used as a blending grape in contemporary winemaking, but the winemakers we spoke with shared the opinion that the vines in Argentina are old enough that the resulting wines justify standing alone and even aging for five to ten years.  Bonarda, they hope, will be the new Malbec, continuing demand for Argentinian wines across the world. Keep an eye out for them in your local wine shop, my friends, and let me know what you think!

Extranjeros: “foreigners” or “aliens.” I love that the same word is used for both, since sometimes we may as well have come from Mars.  We experienced a sense of gratitude that we had come to Argentina that we aren’t accustomed to in Chile.  Mendoza, Argentina like Valparaiso, Chile is a tourist destination and cultural center.  But the influence of tourist dollars has certainly had a different impact on the resident community, at least in our observation.   

There is a bubbling tension below the surface, however.  For example, when Maria’s friend showed up right at 8:00pm, she had another American couple with her.  The three of them joined us at the head of the line to chat, and before we knew it there were visible grumblings in the ranks.  A few older people walked up to them and told them to not be “mal educado,” or rude, and wait in line like everyone else.  Maria defended the couple, saying “son extranjeros, son norteamericanos” as though that were reason enough to allow them to remain at the front of the line.  It was uncomfortable, and though the disgust was not directed at the Llama and myself, we were on high alert. When you’ve been waiting a long time, of course it is frustrating to see others waltz up at the last minute. I don’t like the presumption that certain people from anywhere should get special treatment. But everyone wound up getting in, and it seemed an unnecessary fuss.

Most Argentinians we spoke with seemed excited for the arrival of President Obama, and the new direction their country was taking in the past three months under president Mauricio Macri. The youth are hungry for change and opportunity.  But I saw political newspaper headlines calling for the rejection of Obama’s visit and the continued imperialism of the United States, as well as angry calls for the release of documents held by the U.S. government that contain information about human rights violations under the Argentinian military dictatorship of the ’70s and ’80s.

Reciprocity Fee: The very day I posted about the $320.00 the Llama and I spent on reciprocity fees, the government of Argentina waived the fee.  President Obama’s presence in Argentina obviously marks a turning point in the country’s view of the United States and both presidents would like to encourage tourism, trade, and investment between the two countries.  This is a very exciting and good thing. We’d like to get our $320.00 back, though.


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