Some much more civilised tourism

Trip Start Feb 06, 2011
Trip End Jul 24, 2011

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Flag of Argentina  , Mendoza,
Monday, March 7, 2011

Aah, wine country! After all that hiking and roughing it, our arrival in Mendoza signalled the start of some much more civilised and refined tourism. It was also a bit of a trip down memory lane for me (Anna) as it was almost exactly 10 years since I had arrived there as a wide-eyed student on my year abroad. The trip started well on the bus on the way there when we had our first experience of bus bingo – and successfully won a bottle of Mendozan white wine!

Mendoza is a very pretty city. Having once been devastated by an earthquake, the town was rebuilt with wide tree lined avenues, low-rise buildings and big plazas to avoid any similar destruction in the future. The upshot is that it's a great place just to wander round and offers plenty of shady spaces to give some respite from the heat. We stayed in a large hostel in the centre of town – a bit of a contrast to our small, friendly hostel in Bariloche - and I’m pleased to report that we did not participate in either the bar crawl or the "crazy sausage" night.

But of course the most important thing to do in Mendoza is wine tasting – in particular the fantastic Mendozan Malbec. On our second day we caught a local bus to a town just outside Mendoza called Maipú where we rented a couple of bicycles. Anyone who knows me well will recognise this is quite an achievement – and I am pleased to report that the cycling passed without incident. In fact I may go so far as to say I really enjoyed it – so watch out London, I may soon be on a Boris bike near you! Incidentally there was a rather surreal moment when we found out our bike tout was actually from Barnsley, complete with bulldog and “I heart Barnsley, Yorkshire” tattoos. Quite surreal.

The bikes were a great way to visit a few of the many vineyards that are in Maipú, which ranged from small, family-run places to huge wine factories that export all over the world. We tried all types of wine but proved our taste for the finer things by taking a particular liking to a wine made from handpicked grapes called Las Manos – which was delicious but one bottle represented about 4 days of our travelling budget! We visited about seven vineyards in total and ended up a little Malbec-ed out. Luckily Maipú also offers some alternatives – little cottage industry places with locally made olive oil, jams and wines. Bizarrely Maipú also seems to have a burgeoning industry in absinthe, which James was brave enough to try. Clearly he didn’t have enough though, as there were no hallucinations and he didn’t even try to cut his ear off once!

From Mendoza we decided it was time to spread our wings beyond Argentina and head into Bolivia. This was no mean feat – we caught a 26 hour bus to the Bolivian border, a place called La Quiaca. Unfortunately it seems we may have stepped off the usual Gringo trail for there were no flatbed seats, waiter service, food or bus bingo this time round – rather a freezing cold bus that stopped every two hours with a driver who had bizarre movie taste, including my particular favourite – a gory slasher movie just before bed time. Needless to say we arrived a little bit dazed and confused but, after two hours of immigration and customs admin, we arrived in Bolivia!

What a contrast after Argentina, which in many ways feels more European than Latin American, Bolivia was loud, dirty, colourful and completely wonderful! We also had our first experience of Bolivian cuisine. I have to say I was slightly worried about what culinary delights we were going to experience in Bolivia, but we were pleasantly surprised. We had a “Pique Macho” – best translated as the Macho Platter – which consisted of a mountain of chips covered with beef, chicken and sausage, onions, peppers, egg in a tasty tomato sauce. Unfortunately it seems neither James nor I are macho enough - despite ordering the smallest portion to share, we barely got through half of it!

From the border town of Villazón, we caught a local bus up to the town of Tupiza. The bus again was an experience in itself – it seemed to double as a long distance and local bus, stopping regularly to pick up and drop off passengers who found a space anywhere they could – with many sitting on the floor and arm rests. Not the most comfortable ride but luckily it only took a couple of hours.

Tupiza is a great city. It is rumoured to be the place where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid finally met their makers and driving in you can almost see the two of them galloping through the dust and cacti. It has a very Wild West feel and – with this in mind – we decided to try out our horse-riding skills for the second time round. We rode our horses out to the surrounding countryside and it proved an incredible way to see the amazing lunar landscape that surrounds the town. The earth and rocks surrounding Tupiza are deep red with some incredible otherworldly rock formations from the Devil’s Door – two slabs of rock that appear to have been forced apart to form a doorway - to the Valley of the Machos – a range of tall pillar-like rocks which apparently resemble something a macho man would be quite proud of (I never worked it out myself ;) ) Luckily our Bolivian horses were a little more sleepy than our Bariloche ones so no scary gallops home this time round – although even after three hours we both seemed to have picked up a slight John Wayne gait!

We had mainly chosen Tupiza as a base from which to do the Salt Flats tour, as the tour companies are supposed to be better and you get to see some amazing views on the way over to Uyuni. But Tupiza actually surprised in its own right – an interesting little town which felt much less touristy than some of the places we had visited to date. But the Salt Flats were calling – which James will pick up in his next post…
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