You Shall Not Pass

Friday, June 18, 2010

The plan was to leave Cordoba at 9 PM and arrive at around 7:30 AM in Mendoza. I had allotted a week to Mendoza for a bit of trekking, skiing, and wine tasting but on the way back from Chile (when there’d be more snow in the mountains). The plan on arriving was to get the 9:30 AM bus directly out of Mendoza heading for Valparaiso, Chile, spend about 10 days over there and then come back for Mendoza and surrounds. I arrived, bought my ticket into Chile, and then waited around with Rob (the English guy I’d travelled there with from Cordoba) until it was time to board the bus over breakfast. I even boarded my bus, and then sat there and waited. And waited. I was working on my blog and photos so time went quickly enough but soon we were two hours past departure with no hint that we’d ever be leaving. The pass, I found out eventually, was covered in snow and the busses weren’t sure if it would open. No need to inform the passengers about such things, however. Another hour and the bus was completely cancelled but although they’d (Andesmar, my least favourite bus company in Argentina) allow me to book a ticket for another day they would only refund me 70% of my 100 pesos. I angrily changed for a few days later and decided to find a hostel and do at least the wine tasting in Mendoza but because they’d made me wait so long I had no time that day to do it. Instead I caught up on my blog and then with my Canadian friends, Leanne and Janet later than night at my hostel, Winca, on the corner of San Lorenzo and San Martin (and a reasonably priced 30 pesos).

Janet was feeling pretty sick unfortunately and neither of them ate much more than fries for dinner when we went out and I had my first Argentina steak. Definitely the best steak I’ve had since Cancun but nothing compared to a good cut of Canadian beef on my dad’s BBQ. The next day Janet was still sick so Leanne and I set out to Maipu outside of Mendoza to rent some bikes from the enigmatic Mr. Hugo and do a wine tasting trip. That is, after our first bus driver told us to get out in the town proper instead of out of town slightly where the bikes are. We had a coffee and a hot chocolate in the square which was nice anyway and then a tourist police made some phone calls to Mr. Hugo and got directions for us to the connecting bus which was really nice. The wine trip itself was a great if pricey day. Unlike other places, everybody charged for tastings We actually started the day at La Antigua which didn’t do wines but did have some chocolate, olive oil, crushed olive spreads, and liquors to try. I wound up buying an olive-garlic spread which served as quite a delicious treat in days to come. We tried a few wines but nowhere near so much as I’d hoped for in the day and nothing that really stood out aside from the rather expensive Trapiche tastings, which were excellent. We had lunch at a beer maker’s place and the beer was decent but what were excellent there were the empanadas – they were made with filo pastry instead of dough and filled with carne, pollo, or tomato-garlic and I’d be hard-pressed to pick the best.

We didn’t make it to what is supposedly the best vineyard in the region which is an organic farm on the other side as they closed early but everyone told me that not only did they have the best wines but also the most informative tastings. We were turned back by the tourist police who are out in large number protecting tourists mostly from themselves and arrived back at Mr. Hugo’s where quickly a party was forming with Mr. Hugo’s free grape juice wine. We met with an Aussie couple and an American guy and agreed to meet that night for a spot of basketball at the Liverpool pub which has an excellent lamb sandwich. It was ridiculously pricey but when I see lamb on the menu I can scarcely resist. The next morning my changed-but-not-refunded ticket was supposed to take me to Chile at 9:30 but once again the pass was closed and I was forced to wait until 11:00 before they would decide for sure. I find the whole situation ridiculous on so many levels. First of all, this is THE principle trade route between Argentina and Chile, and it apparently closes for weeks at a time due to weather. The economic cost of not building a better road or even tunnel must surely outweigh the benefits of doing nothing. Secondly, there seems to be no good place to get information on this border ANYwhere aside from the bus companies, all of whom force you to wait on the chance that it may get better. This must be a failure on both the parts of the bus companies and the governments as I would expect both to know the forecast, how much snow is falling and has fallen, and how long it takes to clean the pass after the snow has abated. Nope. The only recourse is to wait for a binary yes/no answer with no further information.

Foiled again by this joke of a border crossing and more than a little frustrated by the apathy and lack of intelligence on the part of anybody involved in this operation I managed to at least get a full refund. It didn’t matter because I had paid with my Visa and there was no way that I was paying the bus company, Andesmar, a cent even if they offered a partial refund. The man the next day, from an affiliate called El Rapido, was much more friendly and did what the first woman should have done... cancelled the transaction. Newly unchained from my ticket and waiting aimlessly in Mendoza which, though a nice city, hasn’t got much to offer outside of its surroundings, I decided to go to Uspallata a couple hours away and do some looking around at the place they filmed “Seven Years in Tibet”. The girls, for lack of plan and equal desire to go to Chile as well, came with and we had lunch while watching a great Swiss-Spain World Cup game and left at 1:00. The town is a dusty little existence but surrounded by beautiful desert mountains and the sunset that night was incredible though I had left my camera card behind in my computer so I couldn’t get a photo of it. There wasn’t much if anything for tourists there but we did find a pretty cool if pricey hostel called Portico del Valle with a friendly owner named Francisco who knocked the price down to 40/night for us which was a little more fair. The girls and I cooked up a pasta, salami, peppers, and beans meal and Leanne and I shared a bottle of wine with it. At the hostel were two friendly Aussie girls named Siobhan and Julia and a soft-spoken American girl named Claire as well, making the ration 5-1 not including our host. Uspallata was looking up.

We took a bus towards Aconcagua national park the next morning and I realized on the way there that what I had been wanting to do and what the plan was were two very different things indeed. The plan was to go up to the park entrance and walk back the “two and a half hours” we were told it would take to Puente del Inca, and natural rock bridge. I looked at the map and realized I wanted to trek into the park at least a bit and have a look at some nature. The girls were less enthusiastic, even as we passed Puente del Inca and stopped only 2 km away (and uphill) at the park entrance. Meaning the downhill walk back would be 30 mins or less and we’d have nothing to do. I guess I made a convincing enough argument because even though the park entrance and ranger station was closed we all walked to a viewpoint of Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the western hemisphere and, in fact the southern hemisphere. Only the Himalayas have higher peaks. The sky was overcast however and near Aconcagua looked to be snowing, obscuring the view somewhat. From the viewpoint a partially snowed-over trail led into the park and there we lost Janet and Julia who decided to walk back and try to catch the 11:40 bus. The time was now 9 AM and they didn’t believe that it would take them 30 mins tops. The rest of us did a walk to the end of the road (which actually wound a fair way into the park) and then around a loop looking at a couple iced-over lakes. There, we also lost Leanne and Claire, and Siobhan and I continued deeper still into the park. The weather inside was pretty nice, only -5 or something like that and we had a great walk to a nice view a few kilometres further in the snow.

Siobhan, being Australian, didn’t have much snow experience so after a quick lunch on a rock looking over the river valley we wandered back and I taught her how to make a snow angel and also to roll down a snowy hill. She was a good and adventurous sport not to mention loving every minute of this winter wonderland which made it almost new again even for a Saskatchewan-hardened winter veteran. I was glad to not have to walk out there alone as well, because it’s always more fun with others and of course they thought I was crazy wanting to walk into a closed park covered in snow with the prospect of more on the way. Maybe I was but I wasn’t coming that far to not at least wander a bit into the park. We walked back out and onto the windy highway then down to Puente del Inca which was incredibly stunning and alone would have been worth the expedition up. The town itself was less so, but we got inside, reunited with the others, had a very expensive hot chocolate, and played President again. I lost the first round but worked my way to the top in three rounds and stayed President for the rest of the game to Leanne’s delight. When Leanne plays cards she gets fake mad which is hilarious and reminded me of Phase 10 with grandma.

We had to leave there and found a little bar where the guy was showing the Mexico-France game and sat drinking beer and watching and visiting and waiting for our 4:30 bus back to Uspallata. I dried out my socks on the heater – I had also stepped into a lake with one foot while I was demonstrating to Siobhan that the ice was to thin to walk on – and warmed my cold feet as a bunch of older tourists poured off a bus and looked in at us like a caged exhibit. Some even took photos of us, and it was all pretty hilarious as they waved and smiled and bounced back and forth in the cold. Back in Uspallata I returned to the hostel to find Alabama Dan waiting, having made it across the pass from Chile. So it had opened that day while we were exploring the countryside. I don’t think I would take back that day, but it seemed the cards were stacked against us. The clouds appeared to be coming in strong behind us. We had the cheapest meal I’d had so far in Argentina, 16 pesos for burritos including quite a bit of wine, prepared (with help) by the hostel owner. They were excellent. Of course I was catching up with Alabama Dan and talking about old times and new trips and swapping photo-viewing sessions. He’d just been to Easter Island and it looked awesome. We played some cards, finished the wine, and went to sleep around 1. The pass, sure enough was closed again the next day and looking to be closed right through the weekend and we’d all had enough. Dan, Leanne, Janet, and I left, leaving Chile behind for another trip, sad though I was to give up and do so. Likewise, it was still too early in the season for skiing and these changes of plan gave me two weeks of time to do... I have no idea what. All I know is that it’s not in Chile or on the ski slopes. So I head now to Mendoza, unsure which connecting bus to take. We’ve talked about putting place names in a hat or spinning a bottle and I don’t know how we’ll arrive at our final selection but rest assured I will be going SOMEwhere today.

Mendoza Photos

No comments: