Tattered red streamers and flags fluttering in the breeze above little red-roofed shelters contrasting brightly amid the intense green fields of the Uspallata Valley were the first thing to catch the eye. Closer inspection revealed a motley collection of broken toy cars, messages tucked into bottles, red candles and plastic flowers, an odd assortment of seeming rubbish mixed up with small crosses, all gathered together in what was obviously some sort of shrine. They fascinated me but the girls at the hotel shrugged their shoulders when I asked what it was and said they didn't know.
A sign saying "El Gaucho Gil" at the next one we saw gave the first clue and a quick google soon told the story.
Antonio Gil, 19th century gaucho-turned-bandit has become something of a cross between a local saint and Robin Hood figure to the poor and dispossessed of rural Argentina. A folk healer whose refusal to fight in a provincial civil war made him an outlaw, Gil was known to rob the rich to help the poor. After his execution (unjust maybe, a pardon seemed likely) a legend grew that attributed the miraculous recovery of a young boy to his intervention. More "miracles" followed and the shrines proliferated, all distinguished by their red flags and streamers and the small offerings people leave behind - candles and long red ribbons from those praying for a safe journey; cars and models of houses and such from those seeking more tangible improvements to their lives.
A huge shrine has grown around the place of his purported execution in Corrientes and thousands flock to it each year, but its these wayside shrines that are quite touching with their mixture of poverty and hope.
You'll see the old custom of growing a rose bush at the end of a row of vines in places in Mendoza. White roses at the end of Sauvignon Blanc, Torrontes, Chardonnays and the other whites, red roses for Malbecs and Merlots, Cabernet Sauvignons and Pinot Noirs. Not every row of course - there's far too many for that - but around the cellar door areas and the public parts of the vineyards they make a pretty show. They served a purpose other than simply being pretty though - roses are even more susceptible to mildew than vines and the rose bushes were rather like the canaries in coal mines - they gave a warning to the grower. These days, sulphur sprays keep mildew at bay very effectively, and it's never been a big problem in Mendoza's dry mountain air anyway, but it's a nice tradition and it certainly makes for a few nice photos.
With only 7 to 8 inches of rain a year, Mendoza's wine industry survives in a desert due to a system of irrigation first developed by the Huarpe Indians long before the place was colonised by the Spanish in the 16th century. Just as the Indians channelled the runoff from the snow capped peaks into a complex network of irrigation channels to grow their crops of corn and vegetables, the wine growers even today use a complex system of irrigation canals that run though the vineyards to provide their vines with a precisely controlled supply of water that ensures optimum growth and yet protects the grape berries from becoming water-logged and fragile.
The combination of low rainfall, low humidity and high elevation combined with this method of flood irrigation keeps fungi and other agricultural pests at bay, allowing the vineyards to be free of pesticides with many being completely organic. A large, cheap labour market (many itinerate workers come to Mendoza from Bolivia at peak times throughout the year) allows the continuation of labour intensive vineyard practices such as the opening and closing of the individual channels and even hand picking at some vineyards that are long-gone from other wine-growing areas around the world.
Mendoza's wine industry is huge and commercially very successful. By far the greater part of the production is sold to the local market who are both appreciative and discriminating of the local product and some of these wines are very classy indeed, with price tags to match. Wine is a way of life here however, and not everyone can afford to buy the better stuff where overheads of elegant bottling and marketing increase the price way beyond a worker's pocket. There are plenty of people who make their own table wines on their own land and sell what they don't use to anyone who turns up at their gate. 5 litres of rough red may not be your idea of a souvenir of a Mendozan wine tour, but you have to admit, at 7 pesos, it's a bargain. I 'm not sure that you'd want to lay it down for the future though.
Do what many locals do: run to the hills!
Mountain towns like Potrerillos, Cacheuta are good choices to avoide the heat in the city. They are located at 70 and 30 km away from the city respectivelly.
Potrerillos is a quiet town now growing thanks to the Potrerillos Damn and Cacheuta, smaller than Potrerillos has the Hotel Termas de Cacheuta with its swimming pools filled with thermal water.
Good and cheap choice to fight the heat wave on the city.
The "Tonada" is a very representative music style of Mendoza, San Juan and San Luis. It is usually played by groups of 3 guitars.
The lyrics of the tonada are very poetic and usually talk about love to a woman, love to the own land or about enjoying life with friends.
The "cogollo" the part of the tonada in which the singer/s dedicate the song to someone, when the song finishes, that "someone" must pay the tonaderos with a glass of wine and the rest of the public can do the same. Not to pay a tonada or not to accept the glass of wine is considered really really impolite. I've seen many tonaderos finishing their shows just for not being "paid"
What I found really amazing in Mendoza (and this is for the entire Argentina as I understood)) is that if you want to dine out you have to do it after 9 p.m. Go out with your friends, with your family and you can share wonderful moments in a nice environment. 12 a.m. can sound as a very late hour in other countries, but here the streets are so full of life, with people of all ages just hanging around and having a good time.
Mendoza is known as one of the most beautiful cities in Argentina, and I now see why! Having been established by the Spanish almost 450 years ago, there has been lots of time for the shade trees lining it's streets to reach huge proportions. Our tour guide said that the type of tree shown here is called 'platano', which are actually Plane trees, specifically Platanus Acerifolia (a type of Sycamore tree). A very nice-looking choice for shade trees in Mendoza, if I say so myself!
The bark on the trees reminded me a bit of eucalyptus in that it is patchy, but it does not have the 'ragged' look of a eucalyptus. They have an amazing canopy of leaves, fulfilling their main mission of shading the streets. After all, the average summer temperature in Mendoza is near 35 degC (95 degF)! I was pleased to hear that the city keeps a data base on each tree to ensure that it is kept healthy and trimmed as necessary for public safety!
Even when the Spanish first arrived in Mendoza from Chile in 1561, they found an extensive irrigation system developed by the local Huarpe people. This large group of native Americans had realized that, since it rarely rains in Mendoza, they could take advantage of the large snow-melt run-off from the Andes mountains if they organized an irrigation system.
Recognizing a good thing when they saw it, the Spanish further adapted the system, allowing this desert region to sprout with vegetation. Their introduction of various grape varieties led to the development of Argentina's burgeoning wine industry.
The city of Mendoza is characterised by large ditches along both sides of most of it's streets, to funnel any water to where it is most needed. There are also major concrete storm channels passing through the city, sometimes marking the boundary of one area from another. Even though it was mid-summer when we were there, we saw one of these big channels flowing madly with water from somewhere!
Empanadas are tasty pastry turnovers that can be stuffed with any number of ingrediants. The most common of these are pollo (chicken), carne (beef), ham, cheese, boiled eggs, olives or just plain old vegetables. The pastry is cooked either by baking it (horno) or you can go with the heavier fried version (fritas). We first tried these while we were in Buenos Aires and later on, stuck with horno when we ordered these delightful little treats at various stages of our Argentine journey.
For our in-room meal on our luggage-less first night in Mendoza, I walked to a nearby restaurant and ordered meat (piquant) empanadas 'to-go'. Back in our room, we washed them down with some of great Argentine wines that we had bought earlier in the evening at a small store. We seemed to prefer the juicy meat empanadas, and usually ordered them for a quick snack at airport restaurants while waiting for our flight departure, and even at lunch one day in Mendoza. They only cost a couple of US$ for 6 or 7 of them.
The friendly people of Mendoza seem to enjoy their numerous sidewalk cafes and restaurants, and who can blame them on endless sunny summer days!
At noon and into the early afternoon we saw many groups sitting at tables just having a cold beer or wine as they talked. Beer generally comes in large bottles in Argentina, although small and mid-sized bottles are also available. I found that, sitting in the heat, it made much more sense to just go with a large (almost 1 litre) bottle. The cost was usually about A$5 (US$1.80). The employee coming out the door, with his blazing window BBQ pit to the left, gave me a big smile when he realized that I had just taken his picture!
Maybe this helps them along with their afternoon siesta between 1-5 PM when many of the shops close!
Mendozinos take a very long break in the afternoon, usually from 1pm to 5pm, during which time the shops close and the best thing to do is to head to the parks and squares to hang out, especially after a nice meal with some Malbec wine.
The province of Mendoza is the most important wine-producing area of Argentina. It produces 90% of wines likely to be exported. The plantation of the Argentinean vineyard goes back to the 1560s, when Spanish conquistadors brought with them Spanish grape varieties. Now European grape varieties make up a large volume of vines; Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Sauvignon, Sémillon. Look out for wine growing companies like Goyenechea, Luigi Bosca, and Trapiche. These producers and many other make world quality wines. Every year the grape harvest festival, the Fiesta Nacional de la Venimia, is held in the city of Mendoza (end of February and the beginning of March), where the queen of wine is crowned.
In San Rafael, there´s a big Museum, in there you will find information about the flora, fauna and the type of precious stones of that region, but besides all this, you will see some rests of the plane chartered by the Uruguayan rugby team that crashed into the snow-covered Andes. As you may know many passengers were killed, but several people survived. They only had rations for a short time. When they learned through their transistor radio that the search effort for their plane had been aborted, two team members tried to cross the Andes in search of civilization. A young medical student warned them that if they wanted to survive until help arrived they must eat the flesh of their dead compatriots. When the trekkers who succeeded in reaching Chile returned with help some time later, 16 had been kept alive through cannibalism, and 29 had died from the accident, the avalanche, and the cruelty of the weather. That´s the synopsis of the film 'Alive' wich I saw a long time ago, and for me to see the battery and other parts of the plane really made me feel strange. From San Rafael, there´s an excursion, a 3-day horse ride to the 'Tears Glaciar' and it cost is U$D 300 each. Actually, one of the survivors is doing that expedition with American contingents...
The National Harvest Festival take place betwen february and march every year, it concludes with a big party in the Greek Theater in the San Martin Park, with music, tipical dances, lights, fireworks and lots and lots of wine.