A good bottle of wine costs £3, a litre of beer just £1. What's not to like about Argentina?
We arrived in Mendoza tired. Tired because of an overnight bus that had been delayed five hours at the Chilean-Argentinian border, and tired because the last few days and nights had been fairly hectic. Therefore, we hoped Mendoza would be relaxing. It delivered.
Mendoza is wine country. I couldn't put a figure on it, but it produces a lot of wine. This is a good thing, because Danielle and I are able to consume a lot of wine. I'm fine with beer too and every country in the world - bar, I guess, Saudi Arabia and its kin - produces beer, but good wine is in lesser supply. In Peru, for example, we struggled: the wine was sweet and terrible and the only bottle we found that wasn't sweet was undrinkable. It was desperate times: Danielle survived almost solely on Pisco Sours. Chile was terrific for wine fortunately, but with Mendoza we realised things were on a whole new level.
That's not to say we spent our entire time inebriated; in fact, I'd say we were very civilised. But we'd have missed a vital cultural experience had we not drank lots of wine in Mendoza. Naturally, we are all about cultural experiences.
The city itself has about a million people, with a broad city centre laid out on a grid plan with wide, leafy streets. It's pretty and pleasant and relaxing. I'm sure Mendoza picks up the pace when it wants to, but during our time there it seemed a remarkably sleepy city. This is despite two of Argentina's biggest football teams playing there on the night we arrived, Boca Juniors versus River Plate. The game kicked off at 10pm, but taking a wander to the stadium - the provocatively named "Estadio Malvinas Argentinas" - through a large park, even at 4pm things were picking up. Fans were gathering, and stalls selling the biggest sausages you've ever seen were being set up. I tried one. It was great.
Despite this influx of fans, and despite later in the evening, while eating dinner on the street (well, at the outdoor section of a restaurant, but you know what I mean) a series of blaring, squealing police cars zooming by, which turned out to be the police escort for two busloads of rabid, manic, roaring, and possibly demonically-possessed fans; despite all this, Mendoza still felt very laid back, as though on a 24-hour siesta. Perhaps it was the heat, perhaps it was the wide streets, perhaps everybody was sleepy on wine.
Our hostel - Chimbas Hostel, very near the bus station - was one of the best we've yet stayed in, and contributed greatly to our experience. Essentially a sprawling mansion, it only had ten guest rooms, and had a huge living room and kitchen into which everybody gathered. As foreigners, we were in the minority; mostly it was Argentinian families taking a short break. Nobody spoke English, so Danielle got stuck into her Spanish. This suited me great, as it meant I didn't have to enter into discussion with anyone and could just smile and share beer or wine, and it suited Danielle great as she was able to speak to anybody that wasn't me. She befriended a 9-year-old girl and by the time we left Mendoza I think would have happily adopted her. I suspect the girl would have readily complied: she ran to the gates of the hostel and waved her goodbye - a click of Danielle's fingers and she'd have joined us on the bus.
When not being substituted by 9-year-old girls, we both went on a couple of excursions. Notably was the wine tour. Going to Mendoza and not going on a wine tour is an actual crime in Argentina, so we took the easy option of getting a bus picking us up and taking us everywhere. There is an alternative option of cycling round the vineyards, tasting the wine, bus the hostel guy advised us against that, suggesting at this time of year it's perhaps a little on the hot side. Afternoon wine tasting and cycling in the sun - we'd be asleep in a ditch by early evening. Besides, our Easter Island experience has turned us off bikes for a while. The bus it was then.
And it was fun. Let's be honest here, I'm not terribly interested in how wine is made or who makes it. It all seems the same to me: people grow grapes and then put them through some industrial-style processes, wait for ages, and then bingo - a bottle of wine. We saw two different vineyards, an old fashioned and a hi-tech one, but it was all about tasting the wine at the end. Skip the tour and just give me the wine. Shockingly, the aging Austrian couple accompanying us at the first place didn't even finish most of their wine. They just poured it away! I just don't understand people sometimes. I considered making a go of the slosh bucket when the guide's back was turned, but I think this kind of thing is frowned upon.
I don't, therefore, have any interesting insight into wine production, but I do have a little titbit about olive oil production, as we visited an olive oil place at the end. And that is, when making olive oil from olives, they use the hard stone inside also. The whole olive including the stone gets ground down into oil. Much in the way, I suppose, that an entire cow, bones and all, get ground down to make a McDonald's.
Our only semi-organised excursion was an open-top bus ride. It took us to the top of a hill, where an over-the-top statue about the glories of war lives.
Otherwise, we relaxed in Mendoza, drank good wine, and wandered about the streets. Mendoza might not be thrilling, but it was a much welcome break after a busy spell.
As a short postscript, the bus we took to Buenos Aires that night, a 15-hour beast, was perhaps the most luxurious I've ever taken. We paid a small amount extra for comfortable seats, and were treated with champagne upon getting seated (which was later topped up), some reasonable food, and just before the lights went out, the bus-attendant came round offering a whisky. Well, why not?