Mendoza is the capital of Argentina’s Mendoza province, about 1,200km west of Buenos Aires. It sits close to the Chilean border along Route 7, close to the Aconcagua Provincial Park, where you’ll find Aconcagua the second tallest mountain in the world at ~7,000m (Everest is #1 at ~8,800, while McKinley/Denali is #3 at ~6,200m). The world Mendoza, incidentally, means ‘cold mountain.’ Mendoza is well known for both its wine (producing 80% of Argentina’s wine, best known for its Malbec, although followed closely by Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay) and skiing (Las Leñas being one of Argentina’s best-known resorts).
I decided to spent about a week in Mendoza. It’s the first month of real summer here in the southern hemisphere, so while I’m missing all the snow sports I’m also thankfully missing the hottest months of summer, which will come in January, February, and March.
I opted to take a bus from BA to Mendoza. In general, inter-region buses (or ‘micros’) are the cheapest and best travel option in Argentina, as airfare within Latin America is pretty expensive and there are no major train routes (for some reason it’s way cheaper to fly between North and South America than it is to fly from Argentina to Colombia, for example). On the bus, for between US$65 and US$85 you’ll get a one-way ticket between most destinations in Argentina, and this includes food, alcohol, TVs, often wi-fi, and fully reclining seats. My trip was about 14 hours, included a snack, whiskey, dinner, champagne, and breakfast, had wi-fi and played movies on shared TVs the whole time, and my seat reclined fully into a bed. Pretty sweet gig compared to how expensive first-class air travel is. If you really hate driving you can pony up to fly and it’s only 3 hours, but the buses aren’t half bad when you do it overnight. For booking you can go to either Plataforma 10 or OmniLineas, which aggregate most of the local bus carriers. You’ll want to look for what’s called ‘cama ejecutivo’ [executive bed], ‘cama suite’ or ‘royal suite,’ which indicate that the seats fully recline - definitely worth the US$10-20 upgrade from ‘semi cama’ or ‘cama.’
I ended up spending all six nights at a great place called Hostel Mora (San Juan 955, Mendoza), which I found on Hostel World Usually to find a good hostel I sort by Overall Rating and then just read reviews of some of the top hits that are near the center of town where I want to be - usually anything with a >85% rating is pretty good, and the more reviews the better (usually I look for hostels with >100 reviews). I look for reviews that call out cleanliness and generally full hostels (it’s no fun staying by yourself). Hostel Mora was also great because they have relationships with a lot of tour companies so you don’t have to book everything on your own, and they also have a ton of free and cheap weekly activities (empanada classes, wine tastings, hostel BBQs, etc.). It was also quiet at night, which was great.
I was initially planning on bopping around to a few other hostels but ended up just staying put, as Mora is conveniently located halfway between the bus station and Plaza Independencia, which is the center of the action in Mendoza. The common room and huge outdoor patio with hammocks were great, as was the fast free wi-fi. Breakfast was the best I’ve had at a hostel in Argentina - coffee and tea, juice, cereal, medialunas (crescent rolls, which are all the rage down here) and pastries, scrambled and hardboiled eggs, and dulce de leche crepes. There’s also free laundry. Not bad for US$7 a night in a 6-bed dorm (private rooms available as well). The staff were all also very knowledgeable about all the available activities, and were happy to help book anything you needed over the phone with the tour companies. There’s also a Tourism Office at Av. San Martin 1143 if you want to get more information on various expeditions.
I considered doing a few overnight excursions which would have involved staying elsewhere but didn’t get my act together in time - if you’re interested in this, a few companies to check out are Argentina Rafting Expediciones, Rio Aventura Mendoza and Colanguil, all of which I used for day trips, which you can just book the day before through your hostel (it’s worth checking prices with the companies, though, as sometimes your hostel will mark up the price by US$5 or so). Other companies that I heard about but didn’t use are Campo Base, Betancourt, Kahuak, Cubas De Roble, Potrerillos Explorer, Inka Expediciones, Discover the Andes, Acongagua Trek, and Aymara Adventures and Expeditions. For Aconcagua-specific stuff check here and here. Just a hint, if you can get by on the web with Spanish, you’re going to save a ton of money - any site that defaults to English is going to have way higher prices. This is true for finding an apartment in Buenos Aires as well (use Comparto Depot for that). Another hint - always check out Wikipedia and WikiTravel before you get to a new place, just to have a sense of all the things you can do there. TripAdvisor and Foursquare are also great.
Day 1 - City walk, vineyards, and empanadas (Saturday)
My 14-hour bus ride put me in to Mendoza around 10am, well rested and ready to go. It was only a five minute walk to the hostel, where I promptly booked a half-day wine tour for 2pm (US$25 for two bodegas). I grabbed a map and spent the first few hours just walking around the city. Central Mendoza is pretty small - the bus station is on the eastern edge of the area you’ll most likely stick to, and it’s about a 30 minute walk to Parque San Martin on the west side, which is a large park definitely worth checking out, including an artificial lake and the zoo, and is across the street from Universidad Nacional de Cuyo. Downtown Mendoza is well known for its plazas, namely Plaza Independencia, which is fairly central and a good landmark when you’re trying to find a well-located place to stay.
After a few hours of meandering I headed back to the hostel and hopped on a bus to hit a few bodegas. The first we visited was Familia Di Tommaso, a really small vineyard producing about 50k bottles a year. Great tour and you have to love the prices - a bottle of their prized 2007 Malbec, only 500 bottles produced, ran about US$18. The cheaper 2012 Torrontes (a local green grape) and Malbec were also great.
Next stop was Vistandes (a play on Vista del Andes, or view of the Andes). While it bills itself as a small boutique vineyard only producing a few hundred thousands bottles a year, it felt pretty new-age industrial after Tommaso - still great wines, but had much more of the touristy vineyard feel you find in Napa, vs. the more St. Helena-type feel of Tommaso. Nonetheless, they make a great Malbec.
Our tour guide gave a good overview of winemaking in Mendoza (formally known as Cuyo). The region is best known for its Malbec grapes, which came over from France but grow especially well here due to the semi-arid climate (less than 10 inches/20cm of rain a year, with frequent hail, and average temperatures of ~60 degrees (15 degrees C), which make the grapes work particularly hard. All the vineyards around here (as well as the city of Mendoza) get all their water from old-school irrigation channels, some left over from the 1500s, that feed off two dams on the Rio Mendoza (Rio Diamonte is also nearby, and both rivers are great for whitewater rafting).
At the end of our tour we made a bonus stop at Pasrai, an olive oil plant. We got a quick tour of the process, which involves grinding olives into mush using giant stone wheels, forming the paste into giant thin discs which they stack about 2m high between wire mesh layers that look like barbed wire (around 80 discs per stack), and then squeezing the bejesus out of them for a few minutes with hydraulic presses, which causes all the olive oil to leak out into channels in the floor which stream into a lovely olive oil bathtub, which I assume you can bathe in if you pay extra. We ended with a great tasting of various olive oils, including plain, rosemary (my favorite), basil, garlic, and pepper.
Oh, and they also happened to have a truck-sized Slinky in their parking lot. Because, why not?
Getting back to the hostel around 9pm, I decided to jump into an empanada-making class that was just getting started. Taught, obviously, by an awesome Argentine grandma, I quickly whipped up the first three empanadas of my life, which turned out surprisingly well I think.
I can’t reveal the ingredients or process since I’m planning on opening a super-successful empanada chain in the States, but all I’ll say is our recipe was way simpler than most of the stuff I’ve seen on the internet (the masa, or dough, is just flour, salt, and oil) and just as good as any of the world class empanadas I’ve had in Buenos Aires (although not as good as Pirandello, which is hands down the best empanada place on the planet - if you’re in BA, check it out immediately - their caprese is what I imagine crack must be like). I closed out the night by getting drunk under the table by some fine Irish and Finnish folk - overall, a solid first day.
Day 2 - Rainy day in the city (Sunday)
Given it only rains in Mendoza about 20 days a year I didn’t have a non-excursion plan B, so I ended up just wandering around the city some more today. I first checked out the Modern Art Museum, which is basically just a single room under Plaza Independencia, and is fortunately open on Sundays. Unfortunately, it seemed that the museum had been taken over by a frat party last night, as there were beer cans everywhere and only a little bit of art to be found. Actually, there was really only one piece worth mentioning.
So that's all I have to say about that.
Grabbed lunch at Via Civit (Emilio Civit 277, on the way west to the park), an old bistro with great sandwiches, coffees, fruit drinks, and a huge pastry display. Being full helped me forget about my previous museum trauma, so I decided to head out to the University and check out the anthropology museum.
Apparently this was just not the day to get my culture on. The university campus turned out to be completely deserted, either because it was the weekend or because it’s summer, not sure which. The only person I saw the entire time was a guy in a security pickup truck who drove slowly around the perimeter, reminding me of Wrong Turn for some reason. There was also a ton of haphazard new building construction going on, while it looked like pretty much every existing building was falling apart. It pretty much felt like Chernobyl. The only living things were a ton of aggressive pigeons and a ton of mangy stray dogs, pretty typical of Argentina. To top things off, the entire place seemed to be surrounded but barbed wire (facing in of course…), so after trying to find an alternate exit I hightailed it back to the front gate and power-walked back to town.
Fortunately I came across another great coffee spot called Kato Cafe (Emilio Civit 556) just as it started raining again, which made for a great deep blue sunset. I spent a few hours plowing through Neil Stephenson’s Quicksilver, and then ended up at a joint called Ocho Cepas (Peru 1192) for dinner. Their ojo de bife (rib eye) with rosemary and olive oil was fantastic, one of the best I’ve had in my life. I heard later from friends that the trout was great as well, but the bife de chorizo (sirloin) and bife de lomo (tenderloin) were not as good as the rib eye. I ended the night with super dulce de leche ice cream at Ferruccio Soppelsa and crashed. FYI, two useful tidbits about Mendoza I picked up that might be useful are that there are a ton of adventure gear stores along Av. Las Heras, and that pretty much all the nightlife takes place along Av. Villanueva Aristides.
Day 3 - Canopying and Cabalgata (Monday)
The skies clear, it was time for the first day of real activities. I signed up for ziplining and horseback riding in hopes of sating both some adrenaline and outdoorsy needs (US$35). I hopped on an Argentina Rafting Expeditions (ARE) bus at the hostel and took in the scenery during the hour-long ride up to Potrerillos, a district with multiple settlements along the Rio Mendoza. Ziplining turned out to be a bit more relaxing than I anticipated, but still a lot of fun and a great way to take in the river. There were six lines in total, the last of which took you 450m across the river, a solid 20-30 second ride at around 20mph. I grabbed lunch at the ARE base camp, which was unfortunately overpriced and not very good, so I would bring your own food if you have the option. Next we took a bus out to the stables and ended the day on a nice two hour ride around the Potrerillos back country. The terrain here is pretty awesome, sort of a mix between scrubland and a Marscape, emphasized by the fact that the moon rose early today. Overall Argentina looks a lot like the upper midwest/Red Dead Redemption. Taking it all in by horse is super relaxing, and I had a good chat with our guide about what it’s like to raise horses for a living. Seems like a hard life, but having a constant view of the Andes and the river must help a bit - still seems like it beats an office to me.
After heading back to the hostel for a siesta and shower, I headed to Anna Bistro (Juan B. Justo 161) with some German friends for dinner, which had a great atmosphere but not quite as great carne as Ocho Cepas. Nonetheless the wine was flowing and we had a great time, finishing up the night at some bar that I don’t remember the name of, so that’s a good sign.
Day 4 - Alta Montaña tour (Tuesday)
After a pretty late night I was looking forward to a day mostly on a bus, heading up to Alta Montaña (the high Andes) for a view of Aconcagua. The trip takes most of the day, with a few stops along the way for coffee, snacks, and photo ops, finally ending near the Chilean border at Aconcagua park and Puente del Inca. We made a cool stop at Los Penitentes, which is normally a world-class ski resort but in this case was deserted, but they let us take the lift up to get a good view of the mountains. Seeing Aconcagua was great, but unfortunately at this time of year the park is almost completely closed so there is limited trekking available. Overall if you’re interested in the hiking aspects of Mendoza I would highly recommend avoiding the normal tours and either staying in Uspallata and doing day hikes, or hiring a real guide to do a week or two in the park, maybe even conquering the peak itself!
Back in town I ended up at Ceibo (25 de Mayo 871) for dinner, which I was excited about as they’re apparently known for their great empanadas made in their clay oven. Unfortunately I was pretty unimpressed - despite some interesting options (rabbit, deer), the empanadas were expensive and so-so. Pirandello has definitely spoiled me.
Day 5 - Parapente, zoo, mate, and choripan (Wednesday)
After a day on the bus and an early night I was ready to get my blood flowing again, so I headed up to Cerro Arco early so I could be the first person of the day to jump off a cliff (US$60). About 45 minutes northwest of Mendoza, this humble peak is the closest jump point for paragliding. It turned out to be a perfect day for it, and after running as fast as I could off the side of a mountain (strapped to a guide, thankfully), I had a relaxing 20 minute ride down, interrupted only by a baller 5x corkscrew I got to pull that shed about 500m of altitude in 5 seconds, quite a rush. My landing could have been better (butt first instead of a gentle jog), although my guide assured me that this was due to a downdraft at the last minute. Sort of highlights how haphazard the whole endeavor is. I also learned at the end that he has stayed up for seven hours, and the record is somewhere around 26.
I headed to the Mendoza Zoo for the afternoon (US$2.50), which turned out to be totally great and completely deserted. All the zoos down here are quite good, although the habitats are way smaller than what you’re used to seeing in the States, which is pretty sad. There were the usual bears, big cats (seeing eight mountain lions at once is pretty intimidating, and I never realized how freaking loud lion roars are), a very tired elephant, bored zebras and antelope, and a giant Rhesus monkey habitat, which one monkey managed to escape out the back of as I was watching, much to the couldn’t-care-less of the various staff members wandering around.
The highlight, however, was being followed around by about ten wild Capuchin monkeys for around half an hour. At first they just followed me sketchily through the trees, and I was afraid to even take my phone out to take pictures because I was convinced they were going to mob me and snatch it. After a while though they just came down onto the sidewalk and walked behind me (on their hind feet of course, which was awesome). The best moment, however, came when one monkey dove into a trash can, fished out a half-full water bottle, and proceeded to open the cap and shotgun the whole thing, before jumping back into the trashcan looking for more. So key takeaway from the zoo was, it sucks not living somewhere with wild monkeys. Check out videos here and here.
I headed back to the hostel for a mate break (South America’s stand-in for coffee), and then ended up staying for a choripan party (chorizo sandwiches) with some Kiwis and locals. This turned out to be a great plan as I was able to practice my Spanish all night, and for the first time down here I felt like I was actually more comfortable hanging out with Argentines and Brazilians than with English speakers (although my Portugese still sucks). Overall a very solid day in Mendoza.
Day 6 - Cabalgata and asado (Thursday)
Thursday brought more gorgeous weather in Mendoza, and given how much I enjoyed the half-day horseback ride the first time I opted to spend one on my last full days on a ranch (US$35, including lunch). Getting picked up again from the hostel, I met a whole new crew of people, some local but also from as far away as England and Norway. We arrived and chatted with the gaucho for a bit, who told us that he owns around 75 horses as well as a ton of livestock, and runs them over as much as 20,000 hectares (50,000 acres)! I got saddled up pretty quickly vs. all the other blond people, which while not that impressive I was happy about given it’s been 15 years since I’ve done any serious riding. We took off north and had a leisurely few hours exploring the hill country behind the ranch. We had a filly following us around learning the cabalgata ropes, which was pretty awesome.
My horse, bizcocho (sponge cake), whom I was warned about, turned out to be something of a know it all, often galloping off on his own, thinking he knew the path better than anyone else, which about half the time turned out to be true. We took a break after a few hours and I put him in his place.
After the break I got to go off and play on my own for a while, eventually making it up a pretty decent hill for a great view of the ranch. We eventually headed back for a huge asado (bbq) with ribs, fried potatoes, chicken, vacio (fatty flank steak), fried eggplants, and of course vino tinto (red wine), this time with ice because it was so hot. We spent a few more hours hanging around the ranch, sharing some bad guitar and harmonica songs with our hosts (and the odd magic trick) and playing around with the horses a bit more before finally heading back to town for the night. It was so hot that I ended up just chilling in the hostel, reading Generation Kill by Evan Wright which is pretty great, and then headed to bed early.
Day 7 - More vino! (Friday)
For my last day I opted for a self-guided bicycle bodega tour with my pals Charlie and Will from Auckland, NZed (US$8 for the bike, around US$3 per vineyard tour). I considered hitting the Termas Cacheuta, a natural hot springs spa/waterpark which came highly recommended, but I just wasn’t feeling the lounge-around-doing-nothing plan today, so I guess that will have to wait for the next trip.
We headed down to Lujan, a district slightly west of Mendoza that you can get to on the colectivo (city bus). We grabbed ourselves some mountain bikes and a map and started bombing around, eventually landing at La’Garde with a few new friends from Canada and Australia. There we had what I’d say was the best vineyard tour I’ve ever been on. Our guide was a young Mendocino (guy from Mendoza) who had studied at UCDavis, and was fantastic at explaining all their processes, even better than the tours I’ve had in Napa and Sonoma.
After La’Garde we headed back up north to Bodega Pulmary for a great steak lunch. We ended up skipping the tour, however (although we did have a bottle with lunch), as we were getting tight on time and had heard great things about the next small vineyard, Potti. This little hole-in-the-wall place is on Av. San Martin 1646, and you’ll never find it if you don’t search for the number. It’s run by an Italian guy who has been making wine for about 40 years. He speaks about three words of English, but his passion for wine and eagerness to share (and awesome hand gestures) make up for it all. The whole day was actually a great time for me to practice my Spanish by translating for Charlie and Will, and I ended up making friends at Potti with a few old dentists from Mendoza, who were quite shwasted and tried to convince Will to let them replace his tooth.
We ended our tour by biking (very slowly and wobbly-y at this point) to A La Antigua, a local bodega-turned-chocolate factory. This place was awesome. Not only did we get to try about 12 different kinds of olive spreads (including sweet olives, which I thought were pretty good but Charlie almost spit up in the lobby) and eight different kinds of dulce de leche (dulce de leche con coco (coconut) is one of my new favorites), but it turns out they also make a ton of their own liquors, all the way from Irish cream to Absinthe. Now this is not your momma’s made-in-America imitation wormwood absinthe. Wormwood actually grows all over Mendoza (I’ve been seeing it all week out in the country), and it’s even stronger than the stuff you find in Europe so it’s actually outlawed, but these guys have some sort of ‘pass’ to make about 30 bottles a year. Holy cow. We each ended up having a shot, and immediately clambered back on our bikes to make sure we didn’t pass out before making it to the bus station. Our Canadian and Aussie friends weren’t so lucky.
No trip to Mendoza is complete without the frantic rush back to the bus - there are no taxis in Lujan so I made it to the bus station on the colectivo with about -20 seconds to spare, having to chase my bus out of the parking lot. Perfect end to a great week!
If I had to redo my trip there’s not much I would change, but it depends on what your favorite activities are. I missed out on rafting and the hot springs, but I’m not too bummed as the rivers are super-low right now so the rapids would have been non-existent, and I didn’t want to spend a whole day just sitting around in a spa. The two vineyards I missed that I’ve heard great things about are Zuccardi in Maipu (south of Mendoza) and Clos de Chacras in Lujan (which is also supposed to have a great restaurant), so I’ll have to check those out next time. It helps to have a good idea of everything that’s available before you arrive, so you can plan your days at least 24-48 hours in advance. I would definitely consider doing a 3- or 4-day trek if I go back, integrating a lot of the excursions with trekking and camping overnight (and of course bbq’ing).
If I only had one day I would just stick to a bike tour of local vineyards. You’ll get great views of the area, world-class Malbec, and good food along the way, and it’s a great way to make friends.
For a three day trip, I would opt for vineyards, cabalgata, and trekking in Alta Montaña, but it all depends on what you’re in to.
Anything more than that and you can start tacking on extra activities each day (rafting, canopying, trekking, rappelling, kayaking, mountain biking, rock climbing, paragliding, ATVing, and skydiving are all available). A lot of these are available as half-day activities, which is perfect because it’s worth spending at least two half-days just checking out the city of Mendoza. There are plenty more restaurants to check out (a few I missed are Azafran, 1884, and Siete Cocinas), and while my hostel was great I’m sure there are good hotel and B&B options around as well (there’s even a Sheraton for you Starwood hounds).
Overall, Mendoza is a great place to visit year-round, even when they aren’t harvesting the grapes and the slopes aren’t open. If you’re coming down to Argentina, don’t miss it!