We came for the wine, we stayed for the city. At least that’s how it happened in Mendoza, Argentina.
We decided to visit Mendoza during the annual grape harvest festival, known as the Vendimia. We didn’t really know what the festival involved but it sounded like something worth investigating. I mean, Mendoza is known around the world for its wines, especially its Malbec, so we knew we couldn’t go wrong.
A couple quick facts about Mendoza: the city of Mendoza is the capital of the province of Mendoza (just to be confusing). The whole province is a desert located on the western edge of Argentina at the foot of the Andes. You might be wondering how a desert can support a big city and so many vineyards. Well, hundreds of years ago the natives (whom the Spanish pretty much wiped out when they arrived) built huge irrigation systems throughout the region which carry water from the Andes mountains.
Just getting to Mendoza was an adventure in itself. We had to take a 19-hour bus ride from Bariloche in northern Patagonia. You might be thinking, “that’s crazy! A 19-hour bus ride?!” That was my initial reaction as well, but in a country this large, long-distance bus rides are the norm. Flights can be expensive but the buses are pretty cheap and well-equipped for long voyages. It’s sort of like being in first class on an airplane: we had seats that could recline all the way so we could lay flat and go to sleep. There was also an attendant who came around and brought everyone dinner, wine, and champagne. We sat in the front row of the top floor of the bus so we had a good view during the day and even got to watch a lightning storm in the distance at night.
We had originally booked five nights in Mendoza, but shortly after arriving we decided to extend it to eleven nights. We really liked the European vibe of the city, with streets lined with giant sycamores, as well as the friendly people and the variety of things to do in and around the city. We managed to get a private apartment for the second half of our stay and it was great to have a place all to ourselves.
We had planned our arrival to coincide with a week of festivals and parties, so we were surprised by how quiet the city was for the first couple days. It was a ghost town. It turns out that we arrived during Carnival (which we call Mardi Gras in the US) and that’s the one festival for which everyone leaves town! Oh well, we made the most of those few days anyway. We wandered the streets, found a language school that was open and took a Spanish class, and even attended an Uruguyan festival with Afro-Brazilian drumming.
A few days into our stay, everyone came back to Mendoza and the city filled up. Big time. And now the festivals began in earnest. First we attended a huge Italian heritage festival, sort of like the ones you’ll find in the North End but much bigger and with big bands playing salsa and Italian opera music.
Next up was the District Festival, which celebrates each district in Mendoza. There was a big parrilla (cookout), handicrafts, and bands. One memorable experience that we had was at the parrilla. We bought our food but couldn’t find a place to sit and eat it because there were so many people. Two middle-aged Argentinos (Carlos & Miguel) saw us wandering around and waved us over to their table. They bought a bottle of wine to share with us and we ended up talking with them for two hours (all in Spanish! Mostly thanks to Jenny). Did I mention people here are very friendly?
Between the festivals we took some day trips outside the city. We went whitewater rafting and ziplining.
We met up with some friends we made at the Earthship. Like the Argentines we’ve become, we sat in the park drinking yerba mate (a South American tea) and playing a card game called trucho.
And another day we spent the afternoon at the thermal hotsprings outside the city.
So that barely covers half of what we did in Mendoza. Stay tuned for part 2 of this blog post where we’ll talk about the wine harvest festival itself.