Surprisingly, our flights from El Calafate to Mendoza were incredibly smooth, without any problems or delays. What also added an element of excitement to the journey was to find ourselves sharing a plane with the River Plate football players. These people to the Argentineans are like Liverpool or Man Utd to the English. We also had the main striker sitting in front of us, causing a constant flow of people walking up to him to ask for his autograph or photo. Even the air steward stopped what he was doing in order to get a much-desired photo with the star.
When we arrived at the airport there was literally a mob of press and fans waiting outside the arrival gates. As we stood waiting for our bags along with the mass of beloved players, there was a constant flash of photography and fanatic fans yelling out cheers to their idolized footballers.
Having sat and stood with all the players throughout the whole journey, we felt a little guilty for not bothering to get at least one autograph for one of the fans, who had been waiting for so long in the arrivals lounge, especially when the players chose to depart the airport through a secret exit leaving their fans and press bitterly disappointed.
As we drove through the city of Mendoza, we were amazed to see how green it was. Every street seemed to be lined with rows of trees along the pavements. The place seemed so green and yet Mendoza is suppose to be in quite a barren, desert area. It was explained to us later that this is because the place was specifically cultivated and has draining systems and canals that run throughout the whole city allowing trees and plants to grow.
After we arrived at our hostel, we decided to take a walk around the city and made our way to the Plaza Independencia. We strolled through all the market stores and E-J was still in the mood for buying, so Sam had to desperately dissuade her from buying some pointless, wooden salad spoons.
The following day was all about organizing tours and after we'd booked a white water rafting trip for Sam and a horse riding tour for E-J, we decided to give it a day before we committed to any wine tours. The afternoon was spent watching a disappointing rugby match against Wales and then we ended the evening in a restaurant, by the name of Don Tristan, much to Sam's delight.
At 8:30 am the next day we were picked up by the rafting crew and driven to Rio Mendoza, about an hour out from the city. Our group doing the all day tour, consisted of ourselves, a Brazilian business man (who spoke no English) and a German couple. Sam took great delight in the name of the German man, Axel - though repeatedly said to E-J throughout the day, he's not as exciting as his name!
Our guide was a friendly Argentinean and after the twenty minute talk about health and safety (we think this could be the longest and most efficient one we have had so far in South America) we began to prepare ourselves. Sam's cry at this point of "don't save the Germans" got a frosty reception to say the least! We got dressed into the appropriate gear of wet suits, helmets and splash jackets and made our way down to the river's edge. Sam and Axel were quick to volunteer to be at the front.
When we first started off, our guide immediately told us we were all rowing wrong and if we continued like that we were going to be exhausted in about 5 minutes! After a few more minutes of coaching, we were pretty much in unison.
As we made our way down the river the first few rapids were quite tame, only Sam and Axel seemed to get the brunt of the water spilling over the front of the boat. Realizing this, the guide manoeuvred the boat to ensure that everyone was pretty much soaked within the next ten minutes of the trip.
As the rafting continued the rapids got stronger, but there was nothing there that frightened any of us, not even E-J. After an hour and a half we stopped by the side and our guide made us an amazing lunch of cold cuts and wine. We couldn't believe that such an array of food could be stored so well in our tiny raft.
An hour later and feeling a stone heavier we returned to our boat to tackle some level three rapids. These were stronger, but again not as terrifying as they may look from the photos!
The only time that E-J almost lost it was when the guide purposely ploughed us into a rock! The rest of the time it was great fun and Sam was quick to stand up at the end and pose for the camera.
During the ride back into town, E-J was out for the count and by the time we were back at the hostel we could feel our limbs starting to cease up. That night we had a well deserved hearty meal and a good sleep.
The next day, we both felt incredibly stiff (particularly E-J, who seemed to walk similar to John Wayne again), we had a relatively quiet day, sorting out our vineyard tour for the following day. As we approached the tour agents, we found them to either be full of two extremes in price; the cheaper industrial vineyards or the high-end boutique vineyards. In the end we resorted to choosing a place, which would take us to three boutiques and one industrial, along with a five-course lunch at one of the vineyards. It was then that we decided that perhaps we weren't really doing the usual backpacker scene, but more a backpacker plus version, whereby we seemed to treat ourselves a bit more than most!
That evening, we were collected at around 7pm to be taken to a horse-riding ranch just out of Mendoza. The ride should have only taken 15 minutes, but the driver managed to get terribly lost and after having a fit about how difficult the place was to find, he finally got us there, much to Sam's relief who was on the verge of cancelling the whole trip!
When we arrived at the ranch, we were both a bit wary of the place as it looked rather derelict and there was a load of dishevelled dogs and a kitten running around us. We met our guide, Gabriel, a rodeo expert and he took us through the safety precautions of riding a horse. This consisted of, pull the reins to the left to make the horse go left, pull the reins to the right to make it go right and pull the reins back to make it stop. At this point E-J asked whether there would be any helmets, but our guide laughed and said we wouldn't need them. Within seconds, we both found ourselves following the guide and heading towards a rather steep hill. At this point, our horses realized we were pretty useless, so took it upon themselves to lead the way, following their usual tracks. The route was incredibly barren and desert like and we found ourselves riding up and down steep gravel hills.
The horses, far more in control than we were seemed to know exactly how to handle the steepness so that we were both able to literally sit back and enjoy the ride and the banter from Gabriel. After half an hour of strolling along, we were both feeling rather confident, so Gabriel decided to push us to the next level, by making us trot. We then reached a straight track and he told us it was time to gallop. Having not been on a horse for a good 23 years, E-J was a little reluctant to do this, but within seconds the horse recognized the route and started to trot, canter and finally gallop off across the gravel track. As E-J pelted off down the lane, holding on for dear life, she began to scream out to Gabriel, "make it stop, make it stop!", forgetting that all she had to do was pull on the reins. The expertly trained, Gabriel was able to galloped up along side her, killing himself with laughter over the ridiculous, terrified grin on E-J's face and pulled on the reins so that the horse immediately stopped. The next section of galloping was fine, except that Sam managed to drop his sunglasses, forcing Gabriel to gallop back to retrieve them.
As we continued to pass along the incredible hillside, we took in the amazing views of the mountains behind us with the sunset.
By the time we made it back to the ranch it was dark and we had both had a fantastic time riding and talking with Gabriel. We were then treated to a lovely BBQ with Gabriel, along with the two other workers on the ranch. Sam on seeing a small jug of wine decided to ensure he got "value for money" from the tour and drank it very quickly, what he hadn't accounted for was Jug number 2 and then jug number 3! This was a great way to enjoy the evening and from the adrenalin rush of horse riding session, we both found the alcohol to take fast effect! After many laughs, we finally left the ranch around 1am, on Sam's insistence. The early hours of the new morning where a blur to Sam, who spent them in the bathroom managing to recognize some of his earlier barbecued food!
At 8:00 am the next day we awoke to get ready for our wine tour. Sam on falling out of bed landed on a bit more of his evening meal and we then quickly changed and showered in time for the tour. We were greeted by our tour guide and driven to the first vineyard on the list, Alta Vista. There, we were told that instead of joining another four people for the tour as expected, we would be experiencing it all on our own, which made it incredibly special.
Alta Vista was one of the boutique vineyards, owned by a French couple and it had the most beautiful grounds with a backdrop of mountains. It is still quite traditional and the fermentation of their premium standard of wines is still done in the traditional cement vats, rather than in the more modern metal vats. We were told that the grapes are hand picked punches and then once they go through that process, there are a group of women that literally hand pick each grape, making sure that it is to the perfect standard required. After several more facts, we were taken to the tasting room where we tried our first drop of wine at 10am. Sam was seriously suffering at this point, having miscalculated last night’s indulgence, he struggled to keep the early tasters down! E-J was loving every minute of the exquisite wine and we also got to keep a bottle of the most delicious Malbec.
The next place we went to was called Largarde and this was one of the oldest wineries. The buildings were made of adobe (which are fatal should there be an earthquake) and are very cool inside. The ceilings are made out of a type of bamboo. The wines are kept at the right temperatures during the fermentation. After a similar talk and run through the features of the winery as before, we were taken to the tasting room for more delicious wine. We were also taught how to distinguish a Malbec from another red; as when looking at it, it has a fluorescent purple ring within it.
The third vineyard, Ruca Malen was a more modern place and had a very modern architecture. Here, we had our incredible five-course meal. We sat in a room, which had a 360 degrees panoramic view of all the vineyards, and the table was full of glasses so that we could sample each course with a different, specifically selected wine to bring out the flavours.
We were both in our absolute element and could not believe how beautiful the place was. Before we started our tour there, we were able to sit on a balcony looking out to the vineyards and the mountains, sipping the most unbelievably, premium Malbec wine. We felt incredibly spoiled.
The last vineyard we visited was more of an industrial place and we immediately felt that as soon as we entered the place. We noticed, it was all about quantity (with an element of quality) and yet all the other places had regarded the quality of the wine to be of the highest of priorities.
By the end of the tour it was 5pm and we both felt incredibly full from all the rich food and delicious wine. E-J also noticed that she looked like something similar to a freak show, as her teeth had turned seriously blue!
That evening we had a light meal at Don Tristan's again and then had an early night in preparation for our final destination in South America the next day to Santiago.
Sam's Comments: Mendoza is a one of my highlights, great food, amazing wine and plenty of things to do, although I will go easy on any free alcohol next time!
E-J's comments: I absolutely loved Mendoza: possibly from all the thrilling activities we did rather than the actual place itself. The rafting was brilliant fun, the horse riding was an incredible adrenalin rush and the wine tour was simply out of this world. I feel so spoiled!!