It was 6am when we left Santiago, Chile to head east towards Argentina. The snow capped Andes far ahead in the distance, a reminder that the border crossing would be at the summit of these peaks, a natural dividing point between the two countries. For hours our bus revved hard and wound switching back and forth up the mountain sides as the temperature plummeted and the beautiful green of Chile melted into the grey and white of the Andean hills around us. Each hairpin turn is marked with a sign with a number on it. 1…12…28…47…and so on it went seemingly unending. As we approached the border station atop the peak our bus was stopped at the entrance indefinitely for a reason that would not become known to us for hours…
For those that don’t know, the Argentinian economy has seen hard times the past few decades and as a result the value of the Argentinian Peso fluctuates wildly in the currency exchanges. Untrusting of leaving their savings at the whims of the markets, the Argentinian people have taken to putting their savings into US Dollars, specifically US cash. To try and control this, the Argentinian government only allows the Argentinian people to convert a small amount of Pesos to US dollars monthly…legally. This has given rise to a massive black market for US Dollars throughout Argentina with people paying up to 50% more than the current exchange rate just to get the coveted paper. We had heard about this from other travelers and had therefore stocked up on US cash in Bolivia to exchange on the black market when we got to Argentina. A simple way to get more bang for our buck it seemed. But for some, this is seen as an opportunity to make a lot of money, fast.
As we waited for hours on end at the border, the temperature below freezing, word was spreading throughout the growing queue of vehicles waiting to pass. It was a smuggler. Not a drug smuggler. Not a stolen property smuggler. It was a US Dollar smuggler. A man on one of the busses ahead of ours was caught with $100,000 in US Dollars taped to his entire body trying to smuggle them into Argentina. This is why they had shut down the border and why they were now searching every bus top to bottom. We would get through the border after 6 bone chilling hours of waiting that day. As I sat in the bus descending the mountainside towards our destination of Mendoza, Argentina, I thought about what had happened and had a startling revelation as to the enormity of the problem in Argentina and how most of us Americans take the relative stability of the US Dollar for granted. It was definitely the type of eye opening experience we have become so accustomed to on this journey. We would arrive in Mendoza that night, the heart of Argentinian wine country and our home for the next week.
About 16km outside of Mendoza is the small hamlet of Maipu. This would be our destination the first day. With so many wineries and olive farms in one area, we set about exploring the region at first on bus and foot, and then by hitching rides with other visitors and winemakers we met along the way. Beautiful Oak and Willow tree-lined roads cover the region and are surrounded by rolling fields of wine vines and olive trees. It was a spectacular way to spend our first day in the area visiting such gems as the LAUR olive farm for a delicious tasting of various olives and tapenades and the family owned Carinae and Familia Di Tommaso wineries for spectacular Malbecs and Torrontes, the flagship varietals of Argentina. Making friends with the winemaker at Tommaso we hitched a ride with him at closing time to Tapiz winery and were invited to a seven course dinner, produced by a collection of famous local chefs, in honor of Malbec week. Argentinians love wine and good food as much or more than Northern Californians apparently. Not a bad start to our time in Argentina.
The following day we made our way to a local farm to have a semblance of an authentic Gaucho experience. The Gauchos are the legendary Argentinian cowboys known for their love of horses, the guitar, wine and asados (Argentininian bbq’s). The farm and the countryside were breathtaking and as we rode our horses into the hills along a dirt and rock trail the views over the farms, orchards and vineyards of the valley became more and more spectacular. From a cactus covered peak above the entire valley in all directions, we watched the sunset from horseback through the surrounding hills. It would be dark soon. As we made our way down the mountainside in the glow of the failing light, a giant yellow full moon rose over the hilltop beside us. It would light our way as we wound through canyons, across a river and deep into a swamp, our horses shuffling along belly deep in water. We found ourselves in a field of thousands of 6′ Pampas grass plumes, their fluffy white tips were mesmerizing swaying in the breeze and glowing in the moonlight all around us. Words can’t really describe the beauty of the moment. As we arrived back at the family farm, the fire was going strong and steak and chorizo were sizzling above it, filling the air with the aroma of the hearty asado yet to come. The guitars came out, unlabeled glass jugs of local wine hit the fireside table and we feasted into the night with our host family and new friends. The moon full above us and the sound of crickets and whinnying horses in the darkness on the land around us.
Lujan De Cuyo is another superb small wine village near Mendoza. The next day we would rent bicycles and explore the villages wine country under the warm Argentinian sun. It was autumn in wine country and the fields of orange and red vines set the stage for a wonderful day discovering the unique family wineries of Lujan. We learned much about the history of viticulture in the region visiting the preserved hundred year old winery of Clos De Chacras and touring its subterranean network of stone tunnels and wine aging tanks. It was like stepping back in time. We enjoyed a delicious vegetarian lunch at the organic farm of Pulmary and tasted sweets and aperitifs at the splendid Antigua distillery. Lujan De Cuyo is a truly enchanting place and riding bicycles along it’s country roads was one of the highlights of our visit to Mendoza wine country. The Mendoza area is as charming as it gets, at least that was our thought as we headed south towards the lakeside village of Bariloche at the northern tip of Patagonia. Boy were we in for a pleasant surprise.
Bariloche resembles undeniably a Swiss alpine village and it’s lakeside setting among the Lakes District of Argentina is unparalleled. Dotted with hillside chalets and centered around a stone town square complete with clock tower, we arrived a few days before Easter in the chocolate capital of Argentina. Chocolatiers live for Easter and among other celebrations the creation of a 300′ chocolate bar and a 25′ tall chocolate egg in the town plaza captivated the towns and our imaginations. It was autumn in Bariloche and the hills above the lake glowed orange and the winter ski town had a frenetic festive almost Christmas-like energy about it. With no snow on the ground yet we took a ski chair lift to the top of a nearby mountain for magnificent views over the village, the surrounding lakes and the Andes mountains in the distance.
Bariloche was truly an enchanting town but after a few days strolling its streets and enjoying its charms we had to depart for southern Patagonia. Winter was coming and our window was narrow. We boarded a 36 hour bus bound for El Calafate near the bottom of Patagonia and one of the southernmost towns on Earth. The drive was long, the scenery beautiful, and we arrived in the small village of El Calafate ready to step out into the cold, clean Patagonia air.
If you are a lover of the outdoors and you’ve never been to Patagonia in the autumn there are two things you need to know. Number one is that you should absolutely make it a priority in your life. Number two… see number one. The picturesque village of El Calafate is set among golden and orange trees on the shores of a blue mountain lake that is home to flamingos and other migratory birds with the snow capped Andes in the background. The air is clear and crisp and the tap water is as cold and clean as the glacier from which it came. Our primary reason to visit El Calafate was to see the many surrounding glaciers, the most well known being the massive Perito Moreno Glacier. Named after 19th century explorer and environmental preservationist Francisco Moreno, the Perito Moreno Glacier is one of only a few Patagonian glaciers that is still growing.
Our visit to the glacier began early in the morning as we bussed about 45 minutes to the docks a few kilometers from the glaciers face. Hopping on a boat we headed up lake towards where the behemoth of ice meets the water. Icebergs of blue glacial ice broken off the face of the glacier floated by as we headed closer and closer to the 100′ tall and mile wide wall of ice that relentlessly pushes forward at 2 meters a day into Lake Argentino. It was a spectacular sight to behold. Our boat got within 100′ of the face as we watched in awe giant chunks of ice crack and break free from the face, crashing with a thunderous roar into the water below. Some blocks as large as a 4 story building which created waves so powerful our boat rocked and swayed and we had to hold onto the rails to keep upright. Nature seemed to be showing us how impressive it can be.
The rest of the day would be spent hiking the trails and viewing the glaciers many crevices and intricacies from viewing platforms throughout Los Glaciares National Park. It was only our first full day in southern Patagonia and already we were dumbfounded with it’s shear beauty and grandiosity. The next day we would visit the Glaciarium, an extremely well laid out local museum about the geology and structure of glaciers. It was truly fascinating and we concluded our visit to El Calafate with a stop at the subteranean ice bar Glacio Bar Branca, a bar built entirely out of ice! At a consistent temperature of -14 degrees Celsius they give you a parka and gloves at the entrance which when your sitting on a chair made of ice, at a table made of ice, holding a cocktail in a glass made of ice you are very, very thankful for. It was quite an experience but after about 30 minutes it was just so bone chillingly cold that we had to make our exit. It was one of those El Calafate experiences though that we will look back on with a smile and a laugh in our heart. But El Calafate was only the beginning of our Patagonia experience. We were off to the Fitz Roy Range and the even smaller village of El Chalten on the edge of the Patagonian wilderness.