The small city of SAN RAFAEL is the de facto capital of central Mendoza Province; around 230km south of Mendoza via the RN-40 and the RN-143, it’s a kind of mini-Mendoza, complete with wide avenues, irrigation channels along the gutters and scrupulously clean public areas. The town was founded in 1805 on behalf of Rafael, Marqués de Sobremonte – hence the name – by militia leader Miguel Telles Meneses. Large numbers of Italian and Spanish immigrants flocked here at the end of the nineteenth century, but the so-called Colonia Francesa expanded further when the railway arrived in 1903. Favoured by French immigrants during the nineteenth century, San Rafael built its prosperity on vineyards, olives and fruit, grown in the province’s second biggest oasis.
In all, there are nearly eighty wine bodegas in San Rafael department, most of them tiny, family-run businesses, some of which welcome visitors. Tourism has been a big money-spinner over the past couple of decades, especially since adventure tourism has taken off. The Cañón del Atuel, a short way to the southwest, is a great place for gentle whitewater rafting, or you can try the much more challenging, dramatic Río Diamante. If you’re exploring the southern parts of the province, you’ll find a wider choice of accommodation in San Rafael than in Malargüe, although the latter still makes a far more convenient base.
San Rafael has a flat, compact centre that lends itself to a gentle stroll, but otherwise there aren’t any sights to speak of – the town is essentially a base for visiting the surrounding area. The main drag, with most of the shops and hotels, is a continuation of the RN-143 from Mendoza, called Avenida Hipólito Yrigoyen west of north–south axis Avenida General San Martín and Avenida Bartolomé Mitre to the east. Streets change name either side of both axes.