After flying back from Easter Island, we visited the Mendoza region of Argentina, just across the Andes from Santiago. Our initial reason for going there was because of its reputation as the premier wine region of Argentina, and then we discovered there were some national parks which sounded worth visiting. In the end our time in the region was a mixture of good, bad and fairly indifferent, but with some really stunning scenery thrown in.
Crossing the Andes between Santiago and Mendoza is itself an amazing experience, with towering multicoloured mountains and a road which winds up to a high pass. The downside is the border control to go from Chile to Argentina and vice versa; it can take over an hour to process a busload of people. All of the luggage has to be offloaded and put through scanners. They also have trained sniffer dogs to ensure you are not crossing the border with fruit, vegetables or other banned goods.
Mendoza the city is really pleasant, with a series of squares arranged round the central Plaza Independencia. All have fountains and statues; there are open-air cafes which are good to sit at and people-watch, and the climate is much sunnier than on the other side of the Andes.
The wines from the surrounding region are really excellent (especially the Malbec), but sadly not exported to the UK. We decided to do a tour of local wineries to sample the produce. As it happened, the tour was an hour late picking us up; we visited an olive oil farm as well as two wineries, where we had lengthy and almost identical explanations of how to make wine. Fortunately, we did get a chance to taste some of the wine as well. Just as we were heading back to our hotels (we thought), we suddenly stopped at an organic farm, where an enthusiastic woman explained at great length (in Spanish) how she ran the place. As it was getting dark and rather cold we retreated to the bus and sat there until she finally released the others. This was not our top experience of the region!
Our worst moment came, however, when we were exploring the large Parque San Martin to the west of Mendoza. This has an attractive lake, with joggers and statues, and a hill which reportedly offers great views of the city. We did not get a chance to find out for ourselves! The road up to the hill passed through a rather desolate area, and as we were walking along, a guy leapt out at us, with his hand wrapped in a shirt pretending to be a gun. He shouted at us, and when Ian signed for him to go away he hit him in the face. Then he grabbed Sandie’s camera bag and ran off. We began shouting for help, and then police cars suddenly appeared and police officers chased after this guy. To cut a long story short, they caught him and retrieved the camera bag; Ian was not badly hurt, so no harm was done. We had to spend about three hours in the police station making statements, but were extremely grateful for the prompt action of the Argentinian police.
After three days in Mendoza, we travelled further north to San Juan, and did a two-day tour from there to visit two national parks. The first park was Ischigualasto (try saying that after a few glasses of Malbec!), which is renowned for the dinosaur fossils found there and the complete sequence of Triassic strata it contains. For us, however, the main attraction was the magnificent scenery and amazing rock formations, seen in the late afternoon sun.
The second day we visited Talampaya National Park, which was even more impressive. We drove through a canyon with towering red cliffs in a 4WD open-top bus and got some amazing views. At one of the stops, the driver set out a table of snacks and poured us glasses of wine to enjoy while admiring the scenery, which added to the enjoyment of the trip. In addition to the red cliffs, Talampaya has petroglyphs and some weird rock formations, many of which have been given names.
When we returned from Mendoza to Santiago, we said farewell to Argentina, after crossing back into it five times since our arrival in Buenos Aires in February. There are lots of things about the country we’ll miss, perhaps slightly to our surprise. The people are friendly, the wine is wonderful, and we like medialunas for breakfast. And after our recent unfortunate experience, we have become fans of the Argentinian police!