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.
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. Once Argentina gained its independence, however, Mendoza began to suffer from its relative isolation, stagnating by the mid-nineteenth century.
Worse was to come, though: as night fell on March 20, 1861, three hundred years after the city’s founding, an earthquake smashed every building in Mendoza to rubble, and some four thousand people, a third of the population, lost their lives. It’s believed to have been one of the worst ever to have hit South America in recorded history, an estimated 7.8 on the Richter scale. Seismologists now believe that the epicentre lay right in the middle of the city, explaining why the damage was so terrible and yet restricted in radius. Pandemonium ensued, God-fearing Mendocinos seeing the timing – the city’s anniversary and Eastertide – as double proof of divine retribution. Remarkably, a new city was quickly built, overseen by the French urban planner Ballofet, who created wide streets, open squares and low buildings for the new-look Mendoza. The city’s isolation ended soon afterwards, with the arrival of the railway in 1884. The earth continues to shake noticeably at frequent intervals, but all construction in modern Mendoza is designed to be earthquake resistant.
Gran Mendoza (or “Greater Mendoza”), with a population of close to one million, includes the city centre – home to around 150,000 people – plus leafy suburbs such as Chacras de Coria and Las Heras, and industrial districts, such as Godoy Cruz. Wine, petrochemicals, a thriving university and, more recently, tourism have been the mainstays of the city’s thriving economy.