Mendoza, Villavicencio, Uspallata, Los Penitentes
Night bus to Mendoza
Friday September 30 we took the night bus from Buenos Aires to Mendoza. A journey of more than 1,000 km that you cover in a super luxury bus in approximately 13 hours.
As some of us have already heard from us, we were unpleasantly surprised at the Buenos Aires bus station. In a moment of diminished attention, one of our bags was taken. Unfortunately with quite a few valuables, fortunately not with the really important papers, such as tickets, passport or driver’s license. The most annoying thing was that a backup with important data was in the bag, so we had to take some measures to prevent misuse.
Anyway, s*** happens. In any case, we now have less valuables that we should pay attention to :-). Let’s also hope that the travel insurance covers everything reasonably well.
The first days in Mendoza we explored this pleasant city with many beautiful old buildings.
Mendoza (founded in 1561) lies at the foot of the Andes mountain range. From the spacious city with many wide, green roads and relaxed parks full of palm trees you have a beautiful view of the snow-covered peaks. The province of Mendoza is the heart of the wine industry. About 80% of Argentinian wines are produced here.
Everywhere you come across bodegas and the menus are full of special & delicious wines produced by well-known families from this area.
In addition to income from wine and olives, tourism is an important source of income. Mendoza is perfect for all kinds of outdoor activities such as skiing, mountain climbing, rafting, kayaking, horse riding, trekking, etc.
We have plenty of time for Mendoza, so we combine working for BeOnTop with shopping to replace some stolen items and relaxing in squares and parks. One of the two nicest squares / parks is the large Plaza Independencia in the center of the city, where it gets pleasantly busy at the end of the day. And the second park is the huge Parque General San Martin designed by Carlos Thays to the west of the city. A beautiful park where many residents of the city flock to on Sundays and which is home to dozens of sports clubs, but which also houses the largest football stadium in the city: El Estado Provincial Malvinas Argentina. The football connoisseurs among us must have fond memories of this. The Dutch national team successfully completed the preliminary rounds here in 1978 during the World Cup against Iran, Peru and Scotland, after which it went on to the final.
General Jose de San Martin (El Libertador) is also the great freedom fighter who liberated the southern part of South America from the Spanish yoke in the early nineteenth century. In almost every place important streets and / or squares are named after him.
Into the province of Mendoza
On Wednesday, October 5, we leave for a week with a rental car with the aim of seeing more of the province of Mendoza. The program includes Los Penitentes (a ski resort), Las Cuevas (the border with Chile) and the area around San Rafael. First we leave for Villavicencio, not really a town, but only a few buildings: a campsite, a hostaria, a former hotel and the well-known spring water factory that supplies a large part of Argentina with water.
We drive through the vast steppe-like landscape with again beautiful views of the snowy Andes peaks. From Villavicencio a beautiful road with 365 bends (the Caracoles) crosses, as it turned out, a pass of more than 3200 meters to Uspallata. Driving in Argentina is wonderful.
The roads are generally quite good (occasionally a hole in the road, but that keeps you on your toes) and empty, so you can enjoy the scenery without being bothered by other traffic. However, the Argentines do not make it easy for you to find your way. Maps show roads that do not exist and vice versa and heights are often not indicated either. Signs along the road are often missing and if they do exist, they are often too blurred to read and / or placed after the turn, so that at a junction you first have to choose a direction and then hope it is the right one. A nice challenge.
Well, from Villavicencio on the way to Uspallata. The road went up pretty fast with many bends. When we started to drive somewhat through the snow, it turned out that we were already at 2500 meters on the road and we were not yet at the top of the pass for the time being. A few bends further (about 35 kilometers from Uspallata) we were forced to turn around because the snow prevented us from continuing. On the one hand, a setback, as we now had to make a detour about 150 kilometers to get to Uspallata. On the other hand, we were able to see the beautiful road again from a different angle. As it is beautiful to look at the white mountains from the plain, it is also beautiful to see from the mountains, how tight the dividing line is between the mountains and the vast plain in the east.
We now drove back via Mendoza and Potrerillos to Uspallata. Potrerillos is a kind of centerparcs-like holiday village on a beautiful elongated blue / turquoise lake at the foot of the Andes that is a popular place for the people of Mendoza to have a second home.
At the beginning of the evening we finally arrive in Uspallata. Part of the film Seven Years in Tibet with Brad Pitt was filmed in this neighborhood. Indeed, this environment is a bit like Tibet. Uspallata is the place with the first fork after the border with Chile. For truckers it is a place to refuel, eat or spend the night. For such a small place where everyone seems to know each other, the traffic is relatively very busy. The atmosphere is a bit like Nyalam in Tibet.
Los Penitentes and surroundings
The next day we first drive back from Uspallata to Villavicencio to follow a part of the beautiful Caracoles. The area is really beautiful and indeed resembles the Himalayas. We continue until we reach a dead end in the snow and then turn around and head towards Los Penitentes, a small winter sports area near the border with Chile, another beautiful ride through the mountains and high rocks of different colors. The slopes in Penitentes still look good, so we inquire for a hotel and then first drive to the former border town of Las Cuevas. The sights in Las Cuevas are a hostel located in the gate that used to be the entrance to Mendoza and thus Argentina and Cristo Redentor, a 10 meter high statue of Christ on the border of Argentina and Chile that symbolizes the peace between the peoples of both countries. The statue has stood at an altitude of 4,200 for over 100 years. Not so much the image is spectacular, but the view there. We hope that given the importance of this monument the road to it may be cleared of snow.
When we arrive in Las Cuevas we see a sign with an arrow towards Cristo Redentor, but no road. We first assume that the arrow is wrong and drive a little further. Immediately we ended up in a tunnel and already suspect that that is not the right way either. Halfway through the tunnel we are warmly welcomed in Chile. So we drive back and take a good look at the surroundings of the arrow. It turns out that the road to the statue of Christ is buried under a thick layer of snow from in the valley no less than 4 to 5 meters high (see Las Cuevas photo with buses above).
So back to Penitentes. On the way we visit Puente del Inca, which is known as one of the most special natural phenomena in Argentina. This is a natural bridge over the Rio de las Cuevas that has been colored in all kinds of reds and browns by vapors that have been rising from mineral sources for centuries. Geologically perhaps very special, but we don’t like it.
Skiing in Argentina
The next morning it is clear blue and fresh. Wonderful winter sports weather. We arrange complete ski equipment and a day ski pass for about the amount that costs an hour of skiing in Snowplanet and we are the first to go to the top of the area. The slopes are frozen hard at first, but as the day goes on, it gets better and better. It is wonderfully quiet in the area. The number of winter sports enthusiasts certainly does not exceed a hundred. This gives us plenty of space on the slopes.
At the end of the day we drive back to Uspallata, where we also drive through a beautiful gorge to the Cerro de 7 colores and eat in a real Tibet cafe (unfortunately no momos, but pizza again). The next day we first drive back to Potrerillos from where we want to drive towards Valle de Uco via a route indicated on the map as an unpaved road. Having learned from previous experiences, we ask in Potrerillos whether this road exists and is also passable. We are looked at strangely and the questions are clearly answered in the affirmative. The road slightly lower and more to the east, turns out to be completely free of snow.
It is again a beautiful road, this time more or less parallel to the Andes mountains and passing, among other things, the 6,811 meter high Tupungato volcano. The route leads through the “Productive corridor”, an agricultural area full of vineyards, almond and hazelnut trees. An Argentinian travel guide advises to visit the Bodega Salentein (this bodega turns out to be partly owned by the Dutchman Meidert Pon. A stately house in Mendoza city is the bodega’s headquarters and also the official residence of the Dutch consul.)
Unfortunately, it appears that you can only visit the bodega by appointment. We drive around a bit through the beautiful valley and eventually end up in San Carlos, a quiet town where we rent a 5-person holiday home for 65 pesos (approximately 18 euros). It is a cozy wooden building in the middle of a residential area, where the neighborhood keeps a close eye on us. In the evening we look for a restaurant in the city, but apart from some hazy tents, they are hardly to be found. We decide that the roadhouse with the original name “Autogrill” is the best option and later this review will be supported. Not because of the culinary delights. “Autogrill” turns out to be a meeting place of the local youth and everyone who visits seems to know all the others. During dinner we could enjoy the way the youngsters challenged each other, courted, teased, gossiped about each other, etc, etc.
The next day we drive through the vast plain towards the Laguna Diamante. A beautiful blue lagoon that reflects the white peaks of the Andes. Unfortunately, due to an unclear map, the lack of signs and people to request the road, we miss an exit and at the next exit we find out about 30 kilometers further. If we were to go back, we would have to drive an additional 220 kilometers of unpaved roads (where 50 kilometers per hour is really the maximum) compared to continuing. The choice for the latter is easily made. Too bad about the Laguna, but we make a little extra detour via the beautiful lake at El Nihuil with a view of white mountains and then drive through the entire Atuel Canyon towards San Rafael. The Atuel Canyon is sometimes compared by the Argentines to a small version of the Grand Canyon in Colorado. Perhaps a bit exaggerated, but it is a beautiful canyon with the advantage that there is a road through it over the entire length of 42 kilometers. Of course this is also a beautiful route, which ends in the equally beautiful Valle Grande, the green continuation of the Atuel Canyon. It’s a beautiful Sunday and the residents of San Rafael have flocked to this natural amusement park for canoeing, horseback riding, rafting, steep wall climbing, BBQ and etc.
From San Rafael we want to make another attempt to visit one or two Bodegas, but again we have bad luck. Monday turns out to be a national holiday. The Day of the Descent of Populations (Columbus Day). That is normally on October 12, which we had also heard and read before. However, as people seem to like a long weekend, the day was moved to Monday. “Out of necessity” we drive back to the Valle Grande to enjoy the area there as well. Arno also made a rafting trip on the Rio Atuel to get some cooling off. The temperature in the valley was now approaching 40 degrees.
On the last day of this week of touring around, we drove back to Mendoza via Cacheuta. In Cacheuta, in addition to a suspension bridge with a spectacular view over the gorge of the Rio Mendoza, you will also find thermal baths that were already used for beneficial purposes by the Incas in the 16th century.
Despite temperatures of around 35 degrees, we also take a warm bath here. Back in Mendoza it turns out to be difficult to find a hotel due to the holidays. During our search, we stumbled upon a small hotel in a beautiful colonial building in a back street, where they apparently have not adjusted the prices since the building of the building. A pleasant find, great room, private terrace. The next morning at breakfast (the famous coffee with sweet croissant-like rolls, bleeh) it turns out that the gentlemen from Jiskefet must have been here too. Miss Jannie from Accounts Payable must be a derivative of this hotel’s waitress.
On Thursday we closed the two weeks in Mendoza with a last trip to Bodegas in Godoy Cruz and Maipu, actually 2 suburbs of the city. We visited the beautiful old Bodega Escorihuela, where we got a nice tour and could taste delicious wines. In the bus on the way to Escorihuela we got to know the friendliness of the Argentinians again. We asked one person where we had to get off the bus and then half the bus started to consider which stop it was and how we should continue from the stop. Once we got to the stop, a dozen people shouted in unison that we had to get out and there were plenty of gestures as to which way we should go.
Friday evening we will take the night bus back to Buenos Aires, where we want to pick up the Spanish lessons, tango and salsa lessons.
On Sunday we will indeed go to the football cracker River Plate – Boca Juniors, the tickets are now in.
Some other notable things:
– along the roads you will find many shrine or memorial places for the “Difunta Correa”. This comes from a legend about the civil wars in the 1940s of the nineteenth century.
Deolinda Correa followed her warrior husband closely, but died of hunger, thirst and exhaustion in the desert near San Juan. When her body was found, her baby was still alive at her breast. Vallecito is a great place of pilgrimage for her, where hundreds of thousands of pilgrims come every year. Truckers especially adore her and you will find small memorials everywhere, often decorated with red ribbons and buried under plastic water bottles to quench her thirst (see photo)
– the manufacturers of pillows and pillowcases are apparently not so close to each other and do not make mutual agreements. Everywhere you will find pillowcases that are just 10 centimeters shorter than the pillows, so that there is still such a nice fluffy piece protruding.
– Argentina has of course gone through a deep crisis in recent years (luckily the weather is improving and economic growth was over 10 percent last year), but they have a smart way to eat out very cheaply. In restaurants you will usually find complete menus for around 2 euros per person, but it is also very normal to share 1 plate with several people. Many “platos” are also special for several people. A normal pizza is actually already for 2, a large one quickly for 4 people. When the 4 of them share a large bottle of beer and a pizza, they are already ready for 1 euro p.p., which is also very cheap by Argentinian standards.
– Mother’s Day in Argentina is only on October 16 this year.
– In most of the countries we have been to, people usually show recognition after you have told us which country you are from. Amsterdam, the coffee shops, the red light district, the national football team or individual football players always do well. Alternatives are the flowers (China), the cricket team (India), and occasionally Anne Frank, Queen Beatrix or even Willem Alexander (Nepal).
None of this at all in Argentina. The response is usually an enthusiastic “Aaah Hollanda” and then nothing at all. Only once was there a more extensive response and that was “Aaah Hollanda, ………. the Maxima”. This was, however, by a woman who had just returned from the dentist with a thick cheek and perhaps had read about the marriage of Alex and Maxima in an old gossip magazine.
– The knowledge of English in Argentina is really bad. We had already been warned about this, but we thought it couldn’t be worse than in China. Well so. We still fully understand that it is bad for the common man in the street. However, with most accommodations simple questions such as for a “Double room” or “the key” are only answered with a questioning face. As a test, we now also start in English as standard.
Anyway, relatively very few western tourists come. Most tourists are simply Argentinian, followed by other (South) Americans. We have only met Dutch people, who you normally always and everywhere meet.
Fortunately, the Argentines (unlike many Chinese) are willing to repeat their words calmly, regularly followed by a sentence such as: “no problem that you know little Spanish, I hardly speak English myself”.