26 January 2015-
Some days it’s hard to get myself moving. This day I’m planning to hitchhike to Mendoza, another long journey of 1400 kilometers or so, and I’m having trouble getting myself going. Hitchhiking is rewarding and interesting, but far tougher than just hopping on a long-distance bus. It’s a slow, distracted morning that ends with me forgetting some clothing in the hostel closet and nearly leaving town without paying my bill.
By 12:30 I’m out at the northern limits of Bariloche where the highway starts in earnest. I’ve drunk some mate with a couple of guys who have been waiting on a ride for two days (yikes). I’ve got my sign reading NEUQUEN ready. I’ve already decided to split the journey into two days of travel – one day to Neuquen, about 500 kilometers away, and the next day on to Mendoza.
I’ve been waiting a half hour or so when a car pulls over. There’s another hitchhiker already in the front seat – as it turns out, a woman I saw hiking a trail in El Bolson. It’s an astonishing coincidence that we should see each other again, considering we never spoke on the trail – and what are the odds she should happen to pass by my stretch of highway this day? We talk for about 10 minutes before she hops out at another intersection – she’s headed to another town in the Lake District. She’s from the Basque country, friendly and talkative. I’m sad to see her go, and regret it even more when the driver, a man in his 50s, begins flirting with me. “Do you do yoga? You look flexible. I only take pretty hitchhikers. I love women,” etc. I’m not thrilled when he pulls onto a dirt side road on a stretch of highway a couple of hundred kilometers fr Neuquen and says this is as far as he can take me, but I’m glad to be out of the car, even if it means I’ve got to wait for my next ride out in the middle of the wilderness.
As it turns out, I’m only waiting about five minutes for my next ride. In a weird way, being stuck in the middle of nowhere has its advantages – people are more likely to take pity on you and offer a ride. A big red tractor-trailer pulls over and a bald, smiling man with an open, honest face stows my big bag in a compartment under the oil container he’s hauling. As we drive off he introduces himself as Mateos. He says he usually doesn’t take hitchhikers – I can’t catch the exact reason why, but it has something to do with him not liking their lifestyle. This makes me feel a little uncomfortable so I try extra hard to impress him with stories of how hard I worked at my last job and what I’ve been learning traveling through Argentina. I’m not sure if it works, but Mateos doesn’t seem in a hurry to kick me out of his truck, and we settle into friendly, easy conversation for the several hours’ drive to Neuquen.
The road from Bariloche to Neuquen leads us out of the pretty Alpine mountains and into flat, dry country more like a desert. Far away in the distance I can see the high cone of a volcano. We’re still covering flat plains of scrubby bushes like I’ve seen in Patagonia, but the vegetation thins as we approach the industrial town of Neuquen.
In the cab of Mateos’ truck there’s a largeish propane cooking stove. While driving, he turns on the gas, which makes me nervous, and lights it, which makes me more nervous. One hand on the wheel and one eye on the road, he carefully fills a metal water kettle with water and heats it on the stove. I realize he’s preparing a mate for us. I offer to do the preparations so he can watch the road, but Mateos has done this hundreds of times before and the truck stays steady as he pulls out a tiny stainless steel cup with two handles and fills it with yerba. First a little water, then the bombilla, the first few burning sips, and finally the mate is ready and we pass it back and forth for hours as the kilometers crawl away behind us.
I ask my standard set of questions: how are things in Argentina? What is the political system like? Do you like Christina (Argentina’s president)? He’s not happy with the current government (I haven’t met many argentines who are) and tells me he thinks the president has mafia connections. He asks if I like president Obama, and I do my best to explain in Spanish a complicated political stance that involves disappointed hopes and extreme dislike of the Republican Party, vast contempt for the unwillingness of either political party to behave like grown-ups, and the American two-party political system in general. I’m not sure if I communicate any of it well but Mateos seems sympathetic and offers me more mate. The afternoon deepens and the hills start to turn red and dusty as we crawl along towards Neuquen.
Finally as the sun sets we hit the edge of town – as usual, the outskirts of the city are not flattering, and I mainly experience the town as a long, very boring series of stoplights. For a while we’re behind a van transporting dogs in cages, and Mateos inches his truck right up to the bumper of the van so the dogs stay cool in the shadow of the truck.
Neuquen is big and sprawling and I think about how much time it will take me to find an actual hostel in a city not usually visited by backpackers, and I imagine the hassle it will be to navigate the city sprawl out to the highway tomorrow for another full day of hitchhiking. I mentally weigh the cost of a hostel room tonight and a day of travel tomorrow versus the price of an overnight bus to Mendoza, think it over for the duration of another stoplight, and ask Mateos if he can let me out near the bus terminal. Better to keep moving and take an overnight bus, I think. If it’s really too expensive I can get a city bus into town and look for a hostel. But there’s no need for this plan – within 20 minutes I’ve found a reasonably priced bus leaving for Mendoza and soon I’m tucked into a window seat next to a very pregnant argentine lady who seems unfazed by the discomforts of bus travel and cheerfully passes a mate back and forth with her husband. It’s a nearly 12-hour ride to Mendoza and I sleep when I can. The bus stops several times during the night to pick up passengers, and each time the lights on the bus come up.
27 January 2015
6:30 – finally it’s dawn in Mendoza. Purple light brings a handsome mountain range into focus as the bus pauses in two more small towns on the outskirts of the city. I see dry, hardy vegetation, small bushes and low trees leading up the slopes of high mountains that rise out of a green valley.
At a gas station near the bus terminal I drink coffee and spend an irritating hour walking around a quiet, residential neighborhood looking for a hostel. The streets are wide and lined with grown sycamore trees that remind me of Montevideo. Heavy backpack on my shoulders, I step carefully to avoid tripping into the deep canals that line nearly every sidewalk, forming gullies of about a meter deep between the concrete and asphalt. They are all dry.
Finally I sling my backpack down in a miserable, tiny room that must be a converted garage. Through holes in the wall by my bed I can see busy traffic outside. It’s too hot to sleep so I grab my daypack and explore Mendoza.
The city is tidy and pleasant, with the wide avenues and plentiful shade, but not actually that exciting. I pass through the main square with fountains and monuments and on to a large park. For some reason there are people actually running here in the baking afternoon heat. I chug cold water and sleep for an hour in the shade of a sycamore before continuing my slow trek, up past an ugly stadium and strange zoo, up to the top of a hill overlooking the city. The views of the mountains are lovely as the sun sets, dusky red and purple granite peaks and soft vineyards lining the valley. The views of the city – well, it’s a city. I think Mendoza may be one of those cities that’s lovely to live in but not so interesting to visit.
Back in town at my hostel there’s free wine tasting. Clearly wine is the reason most come to Mendoza, and with good reason. Argentine wine may be the best I’ve tasted, and the wine from Mendoza the best in Argentina. This is enjoyable enough although as one might expect it lends a superficial character to the general atmosphere, especially in hostels full of young people easily excited by the idea of drinking wine for a week. By now I’m rather bored with meeting people who have traveled somewhere primarily looking to find new places to get drunk.
27-31 January 2015
My days in Mendoza blur together and I confess, readers, that they are somewhat quiet. I make friends with two men traveling South America on motorcycles (cheers, Chris and Andy) and pass many hours in conversation and relaxation with them. There are some nights spent drinking wine and some lazy days watching movies and sleeping off a hangover, and in a way I too become a little infected by the party atmosphere. It’s easy to criticize but sometimes hard to resist.
One day I decide to try a horseback riding tour. I’m skeptical at first, given that I’m going as part of a large group and it’s likely to be a rather touristic experience (lots of hand holding by an English-speaking guide carefully shepherding us through immaculate farmlands specially prepared to look “rustic” for our ignorant first-world eyes, I think) – but to my surprise, I find it delightful. The touristic hand-holding is there, but I’m so distracted by the enchanting novelty of riding a horse for the first time that I forget to be cynical and accidentally end up quite enjoying myself. I’m seated on a small, old brown horse with a white muzzle (“his name is bigote – moustache” our guide tells me). This horse has seen it all and is more patient and stoic than the younger, excitable animals in our group. Our guide gives me a small stick to gently tap on Bigote’s hindquarters if he “stalls” but I don’t have to use it. The horse knows the route by heart and every time he stops without my pulling on the reins, it turns out there’s a good reason (another horse in front of us having trouble, a planned stop by a river, etc). The horses plod down a dirt road out of the farm, through a stream, and up a series of dry, steep hills and canyons full of scrubby desert vegetation. At the top of our ascent we’re looking back out at the high buildings of Mendoza and the dusky mountains behind as the light fades over the expanse of vineyards. I’m delighted. Bigote leads the horse train down the steep canyons back to the farm and I settle into the rhythm of his footfalls, enjoying the challenge of balancing on his broad back as he navigates the steep trail.
On another occasion, I take a city bus to Maipu, a nearby town, and rent bikes with Raffael, a Swiss traveler from my hostel. We ride down the hot, sunny streets of Maipu and turn down a shady, unpaved lane with a sign pointing to a winery. In the cool shade of more sycamore trees we cycle past fields and fields of vines heavy with purple grapes. We tour Trapiche, a large and apparently quite prosperous winery famous for Malbec. As with many wine tours, I’m left feeling a little like the parts of the winery that we tour are not where the actual production takes place. They seem a little too well-manicured, too perfect, none of the bustle and stress of an actual production center. The wine tasting, however, is excellent – a reserve and grand reserve Malbec and one white wine I can’t recall, all delicious. I remember touring a large winery in Napa valley back in the US and paying $20 to taste wines that in the end were mediocre. For 80 argentine pesos (around $6) I taste some of the best red wine I’ve ever tried.
Raffael and I point our bikes toward Mevi, which turns out to be a tasting room rather than a large winery. In a sun-drenched restaurant we try more wines and a cheese plate as we watch the afternoon slowly wane over dusty, picturesque fields that remind me of Tuscany.
As we leave the restaurant Raffael convinces me to try dessert – sweet, ripe grapes picked surreptitiously off the hanging vines at the edge of the vineyard.