Day 5 Mendoza
14 hours of La Pampa has been flat, flat, flat but the snowy peaks of the Andes rise into view as we near Mendoza. There are some odd tipping customs here: the man who takes our rucksacks off the bus won't hand them over until we've given him some money ("he really took the pesos" I say to Ruth, who is 14 hours beyond having a sense of humour) whereas the taxi driver refuses to take anything at all. For the next three nights, we're staying in a B&B, which turns out to be an absolute gem, about 10 miles south of town. Our host, Nacho, is a friendly colossus of information and organisation, and our room is all wood and stone - really marvellous. We have no time to enjoy it though because Nacho has already arranged a taxi to pick us up and take us to some vineyards.
Mendoza, like Las Vegas, was built on a desert (then levelled by an earthquake and built again). It get its water from snow melting from the Andes which runs into a reservoir West of town. To encourage some greenery the whole town has been crisscrossed with dug water irrigation channels alongside the streets. These also serve to water the many vineyards peppering the countryside, which give Mendoza and the Malbec grape it's international fame. We have high hopes to try much of this irrigated grape.
Which, one taxi ride later, leads us to Caronea Bodega with a lovely Andean backdrop. Like many vineyards here, they also grow olives for olive oil - planted by the Iberian colonial settlers who brought them over the Atlantic, with a hope of nurturing some home comforts. Consider this a Chekov's gun moment for what happens later.
We have an agreeable tasting in this small production vineyard, followed by an interesting tour (French owners who bought the land and old equipment to impressively restore it 15 years ago, and now make their wine 'the French way' with this most Argentinian of grapes), and then a light lunch of jamon y queso. Ha! And we told everyone we were backpacking.
We walk around the vineyard to take photos of the mountains, but Ruth is weary and slightly intoxicated after the bus/wine/cheese montage so sits under a tree while I walk on to capture a mountain vista. On my return I see Ruth loping towards me up the path looking sorry for herself. As we get closer she turns around and points at her derriere which has a fresh-looking, dark stain spreading out from the middle.
I'm afraid my first thought here isn't of her welfare, but more "we'll never find a taxi driver to take us home like this" And "I hope they don't think this is from the lunch". It turns out to be, with considerable relief from me, an olive she sat on. ("Why, what did you think it was?"). It is one indelible olive. We have another bodega to visit after this one which she insists on going to ("my Spanish isn't good enough to convey the accident without them misunderstanding what's happened").
So we head on, with the strips of our little backpack loosened to such a ridiculous degree it hangs over her backside like a ball on a chain.
At Alta Vista, the scale of wine production is seriously larger, as is the polish of the tour. There are two British women doing it with us and one of them conspiratorially leans over to say ("you can buy this in Sainsburys"). But it's also very agreeable pottering around here in the sunshine, and no one asks Ruth why she keeps loitering around with her back to the wall.
So we return home, Ruth bathes her shorts in washing powder while I sit in the evening sun outside our room. And then I get attacked by an enormous German Shepherd. One minute it's sniffing around next to us in the garden, the next, my arm is in its mouth. "I knew I should have paid for that sodding rabies jab" I think, as I try to shake him off. Not being much of a survivalist I don't immediately realise this only really serves to excite him more and he starts leaping about trying to snap at my hopelessly flailing arms. Ruth, not being a lover of canines anyway, has cleared off. He's only playing, but my arm is still red with teeth marks. Some further horseplay ensues which sees me variously trying to stand my ground and saying "No!" while he chews my ankles, trying to point 'away' while he snaps at my fingers, lying on him with my hands around his muzzle in much the same manner (I imagine) as Steve Irwin would have with a crocodile, and finally holding him by the scruff of his neck while he writhes and snarls like Cujo, shouting "Nacho! Come and get your damned dog!". Eventually a small, old woman emerges and says, "are you okay?" Which neatly fast forwards the 'hablar Ingles?' ice breaker. "No. Your dog bit me" I say petulantly, but holding up my scratched up arm as proof (and notice with relief there is no punctured skin).
"Oh no, I'm sorry. He doesn't know, he was only playing" she says, taking the dog who's obviously turned as docile as you like now, the shitbag.
"Oh really, did you notice that my arm was in his mouth? ". I say, fractionally more petulantly. Sarcasm does not translate however, the lady keeps apologising and short of demanding the dog be destroyed on the spot as I think is only fair, I can't think of anything else to say to move things along, so I stomp back to our room to whine about it.
Nacho comes in to apologise a bit later, but by then my mood (and scratches) have lightened, so we go and have asado that he's prepared on an enormous parilla. There we eat much meat, drink much wine and talk, I suspect much nonsense, with the French and American couples who are sharing the garden with us. The looming American election is dissected with the sort of wisdom you would expect from a group of people who have each consumed a bottle of wine and laid waste to a cow carcass.
Day 6 Mendoza
Very hungover this morning, my body finally rejecting it's recent diet of rich red meat and red wine. A joint decision is made that further wine tasting should be postponed for today. Head into Mendoza town for a strong coffee and a walk around its picturesque plazas and calles. Walk up Avenida Villaneuva, a street which looks like it caters to the transient hostelling population with its many Happy Hours, and easily-translateable words like 'Pitcher' on their blackboards.
Given that we are in a desert, the irrigation channels are a regular splashing sight which play havoc with the bladder. We walk through the main Parque and sit around its serene lake, surveying the mountains beyond, watching platoons of runners jog over scalding tarmac, and wondering what chain of events led them to this perspiring lunacy. We could stay here all day.
As it turns out, we should have. Shortly we get lost. The park is vast and in our search for the mirador which offers a view of the mountainous valley, we manage to make terrible navigational errors which lead us to the north circular of Mendoza, a shimmering carriageway looping protractedly around the park with an increasingly industrial set of edificios sprouting from barren fields of dust and stone in blistering early-afternoon sunshine.
With grave circumstance comes grave hypocrisy, so it should come as no surprise that we ended up gratefully throwing back an aforementioned pitcher of cerveza with a cauldron of life-giving papas fritas when we emerge, gasping, from the Parque.
After this much needed sustenance, we head round the four plazas of Mendoza, laid out gratifyingly geometrically by the new town planners after the earthquake levelled the old town. The plazas are charming in the tree-dappled evening sunshine, and to atone for our earlier Brits Abroad behaviour, sit in a delightful restaurant called Ana's bistro and manage to order some delicious pollo bruschetta in acceptable Spanish. It occurs to us that this will be our first red-meat-free day in a week, so we celebrate with a red wine (which as always here, is both cheap AND excellent - not the depressingly pricey or mouth-puckeringly vinegary gauntlet you have to run at home). Sufficiently unwound, we trot back to Plaza España to take photos of us sitting on its distinctive ornately tiled benches (still thigh-brandingly hot after a day in the sun), so we can later claim the sunburn was actually the flattering glow from the evening sun.
Head to a tapas restaurant which has been recommended to us, and falteringly order some much needed steamed vegetables, and another fugazetta to ensure the carb-rush from the earlier frita-fest cannot be allowed to subside. Taxi home after a fruitless half-hour spent looking for our correct bus stop, before passing out in front of a poorly dubbed version of Robocop on the television.
Day 7 The Andes
We have an organised bus trip into the Andes, close to the Chilean border today, for which we have to set off at an hour we have been lazily ignoring for the last week (8:30am). Aside from a pair of po-faced Americans (it is election day today) Ruth and I are the youngest people on the trip by, I would guess, 35 years. Karma pays us back for not trying harder in Spanish, because the rest of the coach are all natives (or fluent) so we have to sift through the rapid-fire patter of the guide for recognisable words (Mendoza, Malbec, Montagna) or wait for the cursory English notes at the end, by which time we have driven past the landmark being described. Try as we might, it's difficult to feel like we don't deserve this.
However, the scenery is largely spectacular, driving across the smooshed together tectonic plates which pushed the Andes up. A man-made reservoir from snow melt ("less and less each year", thanks again global warming) which would have been of zero interest to me 10 years ago, but now in the brow-furrowing, shopping-around-for-the-best-mortgage 30s, has me enthralled. We learn a little about the enormous condor (wingspan up to 3 metres, brow-furrowers) seen in these parts and then coincidentally nearly spread-eagle just such a bird over the windscreen as it swoops a bit low. It's hard to work out if the ensuing squawking is avian or pensioner.
We are heading West towards the Chilean border climbing through the valley which leads to the second tallest mountain after Everest on the Seven Summits Challenge: Acongagua. We drive parallel to a train line built early in the last century, part of a national railway infrastructure which lasted until the 1990s before decades of a maintenance 'program' even Beeching would have described as "going a bit far", rendered most of it unusable. Now there are just patches of track, disjointedly tracing the valley floor stretching all the way east to Buenos Aires.
At about 2800 metres above sea level, we stop and get out to look at Acongagua peaking out in front of us. We are in a ski-resort which has a ghost-town feel to it, being as it is, summer and about 30°C. It is here with a can of Moor Beer we have been chauffeuring since London for photo-oppurtunities in exotic-climes, that we have a spot of bad luck. It seems that the high altitude has something of an exaggerated effect on a pressurised can when accidentally dropped, so we spend the subsequent hour in the back of our coach loudly trying to suck beer out of the small hole punched through by an Andean road. On the plus side, the ring pull hasn't busted so it still looks like a full can, so long as it doesn't get too beaten up now it's empty...
We are on the only road westward which is shared by Peru, Paraguay and Brazil for crossing the border which means there is a steady stream of HGVS thundering through with teeth rattlingly heavy loads.
Ruth and I have our packed lunch next to a derelict train station, while the rest of our coach enjoys a formidably marked-up buffet in an incongruous seafood restaurant. We walk around this desolate frontier town, in the shadow of the mountains which stand between us and Chile, variously taking photos and running like mad from newly-woken guard dogs.
Having gone as far as the borders allow, we return home via an Inca bridge (alongside what was once a sulphurous thermal bath which doesn't sound appealing in the slightest, but was quite the attraction in its day).
Back in Mendoza, we head to a supermarket for meal supplies this evening having decided to have our first actual meat-free day in 7 days and celebrate this restraint with a bottle of Benjamin Malbec. Salute, as no one says here.