MENDOZA is a mostly low-rise city, spread across the wide valley of the Río Mendoza, over 1000km west of Buenos Aires and less than 100km east of the Andean cordillera – whose perennially snowcapped peaks are clearly visible from downtown. Its airy microcentro is less compact than that of most comparable cities, partly because the streets, squares and avenues were deliberately made wide when the city was rebuilt in the late nineteenth century to allow for evacuation in the event of another major earthquake. Another striking feature is that every street is lined by bushy sycamore and plane trees – providing vital shade in the scorching summer months, they are watered by over 500km of acequias, or irrigation ditches, which form a natural, outdoor air-cooling system. Watch out, though, when you cross the city’s streets, as the narrow gutters are up to a metre deep and often full of gushing water, especially in the spring when the upland snows melt.
Mendoza started out as part of the Spanish colony of Chile. In 1561 García Hurtado de Mendoza, captain-general of Chile, sent over an expedition led by Pedro del Castillo to establish a colony from which to “civilize” the indigenous Huarpe; Castillo named the town he founded after his boss. Soon flourishing, Mendoza continued to be ruled from across the Andes, though its isolation enabled it to live a life of its own. The extensive network of pre-Hispanic irrigation canals was exploited by the colonizers, who planted vineyards that soon became South America’s most productive. By 1700, the city’s merchants were selling wine to Santiago, Córdoba and Buenos Aires. After the Viceroyalty of the River Plate was created in 1777, Mendoza was incorporated into the huge Córdoba Intendencia. Mendocinos are still proud of the fact that San Martín’s Army of the Andes was trained in their city before thrashing the Spanish royalist troops at the Battle of Maipú, Chile, in 1818.
Fiesta de la Vendimia
Fiesta de la Vendimia
Mendoza’s main festival is the giant Fiesta de la Vendimia, or Wine Harvest Festival, which reaches its climax during the first weekend of March every year. Wine takes over the city and the tourist trade shifts into high gear. On the Sunday before the carnival proper (the last Sun in Feb), the Bendición de los Frutos, or Blessing of the Grapes, takes place, in a ceremony involving the bishop of Mendoza. During the week leading up to the grand finale, events range from folklore concerts in the centro cívico to Italian food and entertainment in the Plaza Italia. On Friday evening is the Vía Blanca, a parade of illuminated floats through the central streets, while on Saturday it’s the Carrusel, when a carnival parade winds along the same route, each department in the province sending a float from which a previously elected beauty queen and her entourage of runners-up fling local produce, ranging from grapes and flowers to watermelons and packets of pasta, into the cheering crowds lining the road. On Saturday evening, the Acto Central is held in an amphitheatre in the Parque San Martín; it’s a gala performance of song, dance and general kitsch-o-rama, hosted by local TV celebs, eventually leading up to a drawn-out vote – by political leaders representing each department in the province – to elect the queen of the festival. The same show is re-run, minus the election, and therefore less tedium, on Sunday evening. The spectacle costs millions of pesos and is a huge investment by the local wine-growers, but as it’s attended by some 25,000 people it seems to be financially viable. The organizers boast that it’s the biggest such festival in South America and one of the most lavish wine-related celebrations in the world. For more information contact the city’s tourist office.
Bodegas in and around Mendoza
Bodegas in and around Mendoza
There are dozens of wineries in the Mendoza area that are open to visitors. The easiest way to visit bodegas is on a tour organized by an agency in Mendoza (see “Listings”). A typical half-day trip visits two or three bodegas, while a full day visits five or six and includes lunch; full-day trips are better value. Wine enthusiasts willing to splurge should contact Grapevine (t0261/429-7522, wwww.thegrapevine-argentina.com), which does a range of small group “premium” tours led by native English speakers who are also expert tasters; lunch is included.
Alternatively you can rent a car and drive yourself; using public transport only works if you’re planning on seeing a limited number of bodegas. Another option is to rent a bike, but always double check the bike, take an emergency number in case of punctures, and ask which routes are the safest as it’s no rural idyll – some busy roads have bike lanes, but on others you are exposed to industrial traffic. In Maipú, try the friendly Bikes and Wines, at Urquiza 1606 (t0261/410-6686, wwww.bikesandwines.com); or Maipu Bikes, Urquiza y Gómez, (t0261/487-3311, e[email protected]).
If you’re going under your own steam, call ahead to check times, to book a visit and to ask for an English-speaking guide, if necessary. The bodegas are concentrated in Guaymallén, in Maipú and in Luján de Cuyo.
Some visits and tastings are free, but you’re pointedly steered to a sales area at the end (cash only; surcharge for the best tipples). Try and see different kinds of wineries, ranging from the old-fashioned, traditional bodegas to the highly mechanized, ultra-modern producers; at the former you’re more likely to receive personal attention and get a chance to taste finer wines.