Pictures will be added to this post when the author regains her patience with slow internet connections…..

Throughout our travels, fellow backpackers talked about Argentina in grandiose fashion. “Wait until you get to Argentina”, they said – “Oh, the chocolate, you’re going to love the chocolate and the buses are out of this world – it’s like traveling first class with whiskey and champagne offered!” Everything sounded better in Argentina. After two months of “more difficult” travel in Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, we set our sights on Argentina—Mendoza (wine country) to be exact. Chris tried to temper my enthusiasm in reaching Mendoza, but it did not hasten our journey. From Uyuni, Bolivia, we took a 10 hour train ride to Villazon, Bolivia, and walked across the border into La Quiaca, Argentina, where we immediately caught a 7 hour bus to Salta and proceeded to catch a 18 hour bus to Mendoza. In total, nearly a 48 hour journey to reach the promised land of wine and chocolate (and good buses).

In reaching any city, we usually spend the first two days recovering from the bus rides, doing laundry, getting a general sense of the city, and running errands. Mendoza was no different; our first two days were spent doing the ordinary—no wine and chocolate for us. However, while I was fulfilling the mundane yet timely task of getting a haircut, we ran into Tom and Michelle of Cheese & Crackers in the hair salon of all places. After we met Tom and Michelle in Baños, Ecuador, they eventually settled themselves in Mendoza for six weeks. Being relative Mendozian experts compared to us, we spent a day with them as they filled us in on Mendozian history:

Mendoza is technically a dry desert, but the city streets are lined with trees. When the city was rebuilt after an 1861 earthquake destroyed it, the engineers routed the rivers through channels lining the streets. Most of the channels are quite visible (we originally assumed it was waste water), but when you look more closely you can see that the river feeds the tree roots. This water system branches out to all the vineyards as well, stretching throughout the region.

Most Argentinean grapes are actually sold to Chile for production and export. Thus, your Chilean wine may actually be harvested from Argentina. Three other useful nuggets: (1) stellar years for Argentinean wine are 1999 and 2003, (2) The age on the bottle may be deceptive. A 2008 Malbec means the grape was harvested in 2007 (not 2008 as you might assume); (3) Wines from Salta and Luhan de Cuyo regions (not Mendoza) are said to be the best wines in Argentina.

Besides providing us a glimpse into Mendozian history and culture, Tom and Michelle convinced us to join them at their group Tango lesson. Not carrying any of the proper footwear (somehow, I didn’t think Keens or Chacos would cut it), I was hesitant to accept their invitation, but Chris surprisingly said, “Yeah, sure” before I could come up with a better excuse than my own vanity. And thus, at 9pm we showed up for Tango lessons—me in my Keens and Chris in his Merrell’s and the rest of the class in their stilettos and Darcos.

The instructor spoke only Spanish, but luckily we didn’t need to know much except “right”, “left”, “front”, “back”. We spent the class practicing our walking—more like elephants stomping than seductive gliding like the others but we kept trying. Most of all, we enjoyed watching the other classmates dance the beautiful, yet complicated Tango.

So, the question still remains—Is Argentina all that was promised? Well, like most things, it’s a mixed bag. The cities are far more “western” than anything we’ve experienced in South America. But, in being more western we try more things—and that becomes more difficult. We assume things will be more easier and simple, but they’re not. Buying crackers and water in a grocery store can be a 45-minute test in patience and endurance due to cashier inefficiencies and long lines. Purchasing bananas for 4.76 pesos from a fruit vendor can be a test in emotional stability (you can either get angry or cry) as he screams at you “uno veinte seis!” (1.26 for the non-Spanish speakers) in an exasperated, “you’re an idiot” tone that you don’t quite understand because you’ve handed him a 10 peso note, which surely covers the bananas. He wants to make change a certain way though—in this case, three 2 peso notes and one .50 peso coin. The same is true for city buses, we’re learning to stiffen up and predict we’ll not understand what fare is being stated until the third or fourth time, and the final tone will very much be, “you’re an idiot”!

But like in other countries, each day our understanding improves. And by the end of our visit, we may indeed be exulting about Argentina’s attributes to fellow travelers (and leave out the parts we found difficult).

7 Responses to “Reaching the promised land”

  1. gary and susan says:

    Your experiences with store clerks, street vendors and bus drivers were very familiar to us. We had similar experiences in Europe. Trying to understand what some waiters wanted of us was very challenging. Slowly, we began to understand the norms of the area. Often times I just held money in my hand and let them take because they wanted certain coins/bills. I would like to compare Argentina with Spain.

  2. Tina says:

    Yes, if I have errands to run, I’m lucky if I get one thing done. That’s Argentina for ya.

    I really hope you can manage to squeeze in a good week in Buenos Aires. Some beautiful neighborhoods and architecture to explore!


  3. Tina says:

    Oh yeah, and a warning – there is a massive coin shortage so nobody ever wants to give change. The idea is to lie and say you don’t have any coins. By law they have to either give you your change, OR, if they genuinely don’t have enough coins, they are supposed to round your change up to the nearest peso (so you get a bit of a bargain there). Sometimes they’ll do that because they don’t feel like counting coins. But be insistent and say “CAMBIO! MONEDAS!” and get those coins! ;-)

  4. Katie says:

    Glad to hear you are still enjoying South America! We were also told buses in Argentina are like a slice of heaven, and once we crossed the Argentina border… our first class bus left without us and we took crappy local buses overflowing with babies for 40 hours to Buenos Aires…BUT we made up for it with a nice Thanksgiving with my parents. Now we are onto Brazil-happy travels!

  5. kate says:

    I am excited to hear about the wine and chocolate – please get to that part soon!
    Miss you!

  6. Becca says:

    I too can hardly wait for the tales of amazing wine and chocolate! Hope to see you when you’re back in Seattle. Take care!

  7. Elizabeth says:

    Ah, the promised land. We’ll be in Mendoza for Christmas, staying with a friend of Maikael’s from high school, and will most definitely skip the winery bike tours! :) Also, a question while I’m thinking about it: what documents did you need to enter Bolivia? We are going ahead with our plans to go there.