The southern half of El Nuevo Cuyo is taken up by Mendoza Province. Within its borders, you find dramatic mountain landscapes, where you can try all sorts of adventure pursuits, from mountain climbing to white-water rafting. Its lively capital, Mendoza, supplies much-wanted creature comforts after treks, climbs into the Andes or a day of white-water rafting. While Mendoza Province shares many things with San Juan and La Rioja – bleak wildernesses backed by snow-peaked mountains, remarkably varied flora and fauna, an incredibly sunny climate prone to sudden temperature changes, and pockets of rich farmland mainly used to produce beefy red wines – it differs in the way it exploits them. Mendoza leads the way in tourism just as it does in the wine industry, combining professionalism with a taste for the avant-garde. The two industries come together for Mendoza’s nationally famous Fiesta de la Vendimia, or Wine Harvest Festival, in early March, a slightly kitsch but exuberant bacchanal at which a carnival queen is elected from candidates representing every town in the province.
Mendoza Province can be divided into three sections, each with its own base. The north, around the capital, has the country’s biggest concentration of vineyards and top-class wineries, clustered around Maipú, Luján de Cuyo and the gorgeous Valle de Uco, while the scenic Alta Montaña route races up in a westerly direction towards the high Chilean border, passing the mighty Cerro Aconcagua, a popular climbing destination for devoted mountaineers. Not far to the southwest are the much more challenging Cerro Tupungato (6570m) and the remote Laguna Diamante, a choppy altiplanic lagoon in the shadow of the perfectly shaped Volcán Maipo, which can only be visited from December to March. Central Mendoza is focused on the laidback town of San Rafael, where you can taste more wine, and from where several tour operators offer white-water rafting trips along the nearby Cañón del Atuel, or rivers like the Sosneado and Diamante. If you’ve always wanted to ski or snowboard in July, try the winter sports resort at Las Leñas, where you’ll be sharing pistes with Argentina’s jet-set. The third, least-visited section of the province wraps around the southern outpost of Malargüe, a final-frontier kind of place promoting itself as a centre for nature, scientific discovery and adventure. Within easy reach are the Laguna de Llancanelo, home to an enormous community of flamingoes (it can become dried out some years, though, so check with operators on its condition before visiting), the charcoal-grey and rust-red lava deserts of La Payunia and the karstic caves of Caverna de las Brujas.
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, following a major earthquake. Every street is lined by bushy sycamore and plane trees – providing vital shade in the scorching summer, they are watered by over 500km of acequias, or irrigation ditches, which form a natural, outdoor air-cooling system. Watch out 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.
The centre of the urban layout is the vast Plaza Independencia, and its four orbital squares, plazas Chile, San Martín, España and Italia, each with its own distinctive character. The Museo del Pasado Cuyano offers an insight into late-nineteenth-century life for the city’s richer families, while the Museo de Ciencias Naturales y Antropológicas is a natural history museum. The latter sits in the handsome Parque General San Martín, which commands views of the city and its surroundings. The park is also the venue for the city’s major annual event, the Fiesta de la Vendimia, held every March. The ruins of colonial Mendoza’s nucleus have been preserved as the Área Fundacional, where there’s another small museum. The most impressive sight is the historic Bodega Escorihuela, a beautiful winery in a southern suburb.
Most people visit Mendoza principally to do a wine-tasting tour at the many bodegas in or near the city. Within easy reach to the south of the city are two small satellite towns, Luján de Cuyo and Maipú, where, in addition to the majority of the region’s wineries, you’ll find a couple more interesting museums, one displaying the paintings of Fernando Fader – a kind of Argentine Van Gogh – and the other focusing on the wine industry. The city also acts as a base for some of the world’s most thrilling mountain-climbing opportunities.
Argentina is now the world’s fifth-largest wine producer (after Italy, France, Spain and the US), with three-quarters of the country’s total production coming from Mendoza Province, focused on Maipú and Luján de Cuyo in the south of the city. San Rafael, La Rioja and San Juan are also major wine-growing centres.
Many wine experts would agree that Argentina’s vintages are improving rapidly as a result of both a domestic market that’s fast becoming more discerning and the lure of exports. Table wines still dominate, often sold at the budget end of the market in huge, refillable flagons called damajuanas, and sometimes marketed under usurped names such as borgoña, or burgundy, and chablis. Younger Argentines often only drink wine on special occasions, plumping for lighter New Wave wines such as Chandón’s Nuevo Mundo. Many upmarket restaurants offer extensive wine lists including older vintages – but beware of exorbitant corkage charges. Commonly found bodega names to look for include Chandón, Graffigna, Navarro Correas, Salentein, Finca Flichmann and Weinert.
Although the most attractive wineries to visit are the old-fashioned ones, with musty cellars crammed with oak barrels, some of the finest vintages are now produced by growers using the latest equipment, including storage tanks lined with epoxy resin and computerized temperature controls. They tend to concentrate on making varietal wines, the main grape varieties being riesling, chenin blanc and chardonnay, for whites, and pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon and malbec, for reds – the reds tend to be better than whites. Malbec is often regarded as the Argentine grape par excellence, giving rich fruity wines, with overtones of blackcurrant and prune that are the perfect partner for a juicy steak. The latest trend is for a balanced combination of two grapes: for example, mixing malbec for its fruitiness and cabernet for its body, while toning down the sometimes excessive oakiness that used to characterize Argentine wines. Growers have also been experimenting with varieties such as tempranillo, san gervase, gewürztraminer, syrah and merlot, and very convincing sparkling wines are being made locally by the méthode champenoise, including those produced by Chandón and Mumm, the French champagne-makers.
There are plenty 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. 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 Trout and Wine or Ampora, which does a range of small-group “premium” tours led by English-speaking guides; lunch is included.
Alternatively, you can rent a car and drive yourself or hire a driver; using public transport only works if you’re planning on seeing a very 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 and a backpacker favourite, try the friendly Mr Hugo Bikes, at Urquiza 2288, or a little further down the road Maipú Bikes, at Urquiza 2499.
If you’re going under your own steam, make sure you call ahead to check times, to book a visit and to ask for an English-speaking guide, if necessary. The bodegas are concentrated in Maipú and in Luján de Cuyo, plus the striking (and the most rural) wine region; Valle de Uco, which is made up of the districts of Tunuyán, Tupungato and San Carlos.
Most bodegas charge for tours (which include tastings), and 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, ultramodern producers; at the former you’re more likely to receive personal attention. Best of all is staying the night at one of the several wineries offering accommodation – some of it highly luxurious.
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.
Mendoza has plenty of places to stay, with more than enough beds for its needs, except during the Fiesta de la Vendimia in late February/early March. It has several luxurious hotels, including branches of top-class international chains, as well as plenty of youth hostels, plus a fair number of B&Bs. In the middle range are countless nondescript but decent smaller hotels. At the higher end, particularly interesting options are bodega hotels or posadas, many of which are in the swish suburbs of Chacras de Coria and the district of Maipú. The quiet, suburban location of these bodega hotels does mean that unless you have your own car you may be more or less limited to the delights the bodega has to offer. Always book bodega accommodation ahead, and let your hosts know if you don’t have your own transport, as they will usually pick you up from Mendoza city or airport. If you haven’t got anything booked, the best street to head for is Arístides Villanueva (usually referred to as Arístides), three blocks south and four blocks west of the Plaza Independencia – it’s packed with hostels. For more upmarket options head to the area around Plaza Italia and Plaza Independencía.
Mendoza is the prosperous capital of Argentina’s western region, and the produce grown in the nearby oases is tiptop; as a result, the city’s many, varied and often highly sophisticated restaurants are usually full, and serve some of the best food and drink in the country thanks to the nearby vineyards, fertile valley produce and relative proximity to the fishing ports of Chile.
Mendoza’s bars are lively and it has a well-developed café-terrace culture, with Avenida Arístides Villanueva, to the west of the centre, a hotspot. Clubs are vibrant and mostly concentrated in outlying places such as El Challao, to the northwest, and Godoy Cruz and fashionable Chacras de Coria to the south.
Popular tours include ones to wine bodegas, Alta Montaña and Villavicencio. Mountain-bike tours and horse riding in the foothills and white-water rafting on the Río Mendoza are also possible. Many operators also offer longer trips to La Payunia, Cañón del Atuel, Talampaya and Ischigualasto, but Malargüe, San Rafael, San Agustín de Valle Fértil and Villa Unión are much closer bases for these.
The Andean cordillera, including some of the world’s tallest mountains, loom a short distance west of Mendoza, and its snow-tipped peaks are visible from the city centre almost all year round, beyond the picturesque vineyards and fruit orchards. Even if you’ve come to the region for the wine, you’ll want to head up into the hills before long: the scenery is fabulous, and skiing, trekking and highland walks are all possible, or you can simply enjoy the views on an organized excursion.
The so-called Alta Montaña Route – the RN-7 – is also the international highway to Santiago de Chile, via the upmarket Chilean ski resort of Portillo, and one of the major border crossings between the two countries, blocked by snow only on rare occasions in July and August. If you’re in a hurry to get to or from Santiago, try to travel by day, to see the stunning scenery in the area. However, if you’ve more time to explore, possible stop-offs along the RN-7 include the pretty village of Potrerillos and Vallecitos, a tiny ski resort that caters for a younger crowd than exclusive Las Leñas. As the road climbs further up into the mountains it passes another village, Uspallata, and then a variety of colourful rock formations – look for the pinnacle-like Los Penitentes. Closer to the border, Puente del Inca is a popular place to pause, both for its sulphurous thermal spring and its location – near the trailhead, base camp and muleteer-post for those brave enough to contemplate the ascent of mighty Aconcagua, the continent’s tallest peak, just to the north. The last settlement before you travel through a tunnel under the Andes and into Chile is Las Cuevas, from where an old mountain pass can be ascended, weather permitting, to see the Cristo Redentor, a huge statue of Christ, erected as a sign of peace between the old rivals, and for the fantastic mountain views.
At 6962m – or 6959m according to some maps – Cerro Aconcagua is the highest peak in both the western and southern hemispheres, or outside the Himalayas. Its glacier-garlanded summit dominates the Parque Provincial Aconcagua, even though it is encircled by several other mountains that exceed 5000m: cerros Almacenes, Catedral, Cuerno, Cúpula, Ameghino, Güssfeldt, Dedos, México, Mirador, Fitzgerald, La Mano, Santa María and Tolosa, some of which are easier to climb than others, and many of which obscure views of the great summit from most points around. The five glaciers that hang around its faces like icy veils are Horcones Superior, Horcones Inferior, Güssfeldt, Las Vacas and Los Polacos.
Although climbing Aconcagua is technically less demanding than climbing many lower-altitude peaks, it is still a challenge to be taken seriously. Fitness, patience and acclimatization are key, and, unless you’re fairly experienced at high-altitude treks, you shouldn’t even consider going up; despite what the agencies may tell you, both independent climbers and people climbing as part of organized treks often end up turning back.
The highlight of any trip to southernmost Mendoza Province, yet overlooked by most visitors because of its relative inaccessibility, La Payunia, protected by the Reserva Provincial La Payunia, is a fabulously wild area of staggering beauty, sometimes referred to as the Patagonia Mendocina. Dominated by Volcán Payún Matru (3690m), and its slightly lower inactive neighbour Volcán Payún Liso, it is utterly unspoilt apart from some remnants of old fluorite and manganese mines plus some petrol-drilling derricks, whose nodding-head pump-structures are locally nicknamed “guanacos”, after the member of the llama family they vaguely resemble in shape. Occasionally, you will spot real guanacos, sometimes in large flocks, standing out against the black volcanic backdrop of the so-called Pampa Negra. This huge expanse of lava in the middle of the reserve was caused by relatively recent volcanic eruptions, dating back hundreds or thousands of years rather than millions, as is the case of most such phenomena in the region. “Fresh” trails of lava debris can be seen at various points throughout the park, and enormous boulders of igneous rock are scattered over these dark plains, also ejected during the violent volcanic activity. The only vegetation is flaxen grass, whose golden colour stands out against the blackened hillsides. Another section of the reserve is the aptly named Pampa Roja, where reddish oxides in the lava give the ground a henna-like tint. The threatening hulk of Volcán Pihuel looms at the western extremity of the reserve – its top was blown off by a particularly violent explosion that occurred when the mountain was beneath the sea.
To Argentines, Las Leñas means chic: this is where the Porteño jet set come to show off their winter fashions, to get photographed for society magazines and to have a good time. Skiing and snowboarding are only part of the fun – as in all exclusive winter resorts, the après-ski is just as important as the snow conditions. More seriously, many ski champions from the northern hemisphere head down here during the June to October season, when there’s not a lot of snow in the US or Europe; the Argentine, Brazilian and South American skiing championships are all held here in August, while other events include snow-polo matches, snow-rugby, snow-volleyball and fashion shows. But even though Las Leñas is a playground for the rich and famous, it’s possible to visit without breaking the bank; you could stay in the least expensive accommodation, or overnight elsewhere nearby, such as in Los Molles or Malargüe. Las Leñas is also trying to branch out into summertime adventure travel, such as mountain biking, rafting and horseriding, making the most of its splendid upland setting and pleasant daytime temperatures. Note that the resort is completely closed down, however, from March to May and October to the end of December.
Las Leñas is no Gstaad or St Moritz: it’s a purpose-built resort built at an altitude of 2200m, with excellent skiing and snowboarding – when there is enough snow – and a breathtaking backdrop of craggy mountain-tops, of which Cerro Las Leñas is the highest (4351m) and Cerro Torrecillas (3771m) the most daintily pinnacled. The whole area covers more than 33 square kilometres, with 28 pistes, ranging from several gentle nursery slopes to a couple of sheer black runs; cross-country and off-piste skiing are also possible.
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.
The Cañón del Atuel is one of San Rafael’s main attractions, a beautifully wild canyon linking two man-made lakes along the Río Atuel, to the southwest of the town. Visits begin at the reservoir furthest away, the Embalse del Nihuil, reached along the winding RN-144 towards Malargüe, up the Cuesta de los Terneros to the 1300m summit, which offers great views of the valley below; and then via the RP-180, which forks off to the south. The lake lies 92km southwest of San Rafael.
The partly sealed RP-173 then squeezes in a northeasterly direction through a narrow gorge whose cliffs and rocks are striped red, white and yellow, contrasting with the beige of the dust-dry mountainsides. Wind and water have eroded the rocks into weird and often rather suggestive shapes that stimulate the imagination: tour guides attach names like “the Nun” or “the Toad” to the strange formations. The road then passes a couple of dams, attached to power stations, before swinging round the other reservoir, the Embalse Valle Grande. Sticking out of these blue-green waters are more strange rock formations, one of which does indeed look like the submarine its nickname suggests. From the high corniche roads that skirt the lakeside you are treated to some grand views of the waters, dotted with kayaks and other boats, and the mountains beyond. Near here starts the stretch of the Río Atuel used for whitewater rafting. Raffeish, at RP-173 Km35, Valle Grande, is the most reliable and ecologically conscious operator, and has an office here. Trips last an hour, along an easy stretch for beginners, or a couple of hours or more, taking in a tougher Grade II section of the river; take a change of clothes, as you get soaked. The scenery along the way is pleasantly pastoral along the more open parts and staggeringly beautiful in the narrower gorges.
The cordillera south of Mendoza city contains two remote and little visited but stunning provincial parks – the fabulous Parque Provincial Tupungato, 80km southwest from Mendoza and dominated by the soaring volcano of the same name, and the Reserva Provincial Laguna Diamante, with a turquoise altiplanic lake, the Laguna Diamante, at its heart. The latter is a further 140km southwest of Tupungato and only open during the summer; both are well worth the effort it takes to reach them.
Some 220km southwest of Mendoza, Laguna Diamante is the destination of one of the least-known but most unforgettable excursions in the area. The source of the Río Diamante, the lake is so-called because the choppy surface of its crystalline waters suggests a rough diamond. One reason for its relative obscurity is that weather conditions make it possible to reach Laguna Diamante only from mid-December to the end of March. At Pareditas, 125km south of Mendoza by the RN-40, take the reliable, unsealed RP-101, which forks off to the southwest; the drive is one marvellous panoramic view of the Andean precordillera, following Arroyo Yaucha through fields of gorse-like jarilla and gnarled chañares, affording views of the rounded summits of the frontal cordillera, before entering the Cañón del Gateado, through which the Arroyo Rosario flows past dangling willows. At another fork in the road, 20km on, take the right fork to the Refugio Militar General Alvarado, the entrance to the Reserva Provincial Laguna Diamante. Here, you’ll catch your first sight of Cerro Maipo (5323m), the permanently snowcapped volcano that straddles the frontier, some 4000m above sea level. Nestling beneath the Cordón del Eje, a majestic range of dark ochre rock, and towered over by the snow-streaked Maipo opposite – a perfect cone worthy of a Japanese woodcut – this ultramarine lake is constantly buffeted into white horses by strong breezes and its waves noisily lap the springy, mossy banks. The silence is broken only by the howl of the wind.
Now that Aconcagua has become almost a victim of its own success, anyone looking for a challenging mountain trek with fewer people crowding the trails and paths should head for the better-kept secret of Cerro Tupungato, an extinct volcano peaking at 6570m. Its hulking cone dominates the Parque Provincial Tupungato, which stretches along the Chilean border to the south of the RN-7 at Puente del Inca. The virgin countryside within the park is utterly breathtaking, completely unspoilt and unremittingly stark. The park is most accessible from the town of Tupungato, reached from Mendoza via the RN-40 and the RP-86. There’s little to see in the small market town, but this is where you can contract guides to take you to the top of the mighty volcano; you’ll need plenty of time as the treks last between three and fifteen days, depending on how long you’re given to acclimatize at each level – the longer the better. Calculate on US$1000 per person.
Top image: Mendoza vineyard, Argentina © sunsinger/Shutterstock