Lakes and Rocks

We left Bariloche after buying chocolate which ultimately melted since we aren’t in Antarctica any more, and drove to the small town of Villa La Angostura, which has only one street of touristiness. The book remarked on the consistency of Bariloche’s architecture, which is said to resemble Switzerland, but you can’t see it behind the North Face logos. Bariloche has all the charm of Ciudad Juarez with a bunch of Swiss postcards pasted on the front of the buildings. We did detect Swissitude in Villa La Angostura, though — everything was the same color and roof shape, and had Ripcurl logos. Angostura is the start of the Ruta de Siete Lagos, a road which goes by seven lakes. We probably saw more like ten or eleven, but whatever. It is an increasingly popular drive, which has caused it to be the one thing worse than a gravel road: it is now a road under construction. Perhaps they will pave it all the way. But as they do road construction, the nice old gravel roads are replaced with even nicer new gravel you can’t drive on, presumably the base of a future paved road, with a horrible little parallel detour road you have to drive on instead.

The road ends at charming San Martin de los Andes, a town which seemed to deliver all the promises the book made about Bariloche: good food and consistent architecture. The hostel we checked out had a room available, but no WiFi, so we decided it would be nicer overall to drive back about five kilometers and camp next to the lake, coming into town for dinner. It was a perfect camping spot: not too loud (though fairly full), not too windy (though a steady breeze brought perhaps a little too much campfire smoke through the tent), the perfect summer temperature, billions of stars, and a beautiful lake to wake up to in the morning. Dinner at El Meson included some nice smoked squid as an amuse-bouche, a plate of prosciutto and some smoked eggplant bruschetta, an enormous piece of lamb infused with a mint sauce, and a trout with garlic and more prosciutto. There was definitely no room for dessert, or even a blob of melted chocolate.

There is much made of Bariloche’s chocolate but I think they have been surpassed by Trader Joe’s and others. 72% cacao is still called Amarga (i.e. unsweetened) and any California chocolate eater would think of that as practically a Mars Bar nowadays.

From there we had two days to get to Mendoza, where we are now, and the placement of towns on the road isn’t very good. We could go to Chos Malal or to Malargue, but either choice meant one very long day of driving and one more relaxed one. We ended up in Chos Malal, doing the more relaxed day first. The road there wasn’t particularly noteworthy, but at least it was almost entirely paved. There’s not much in Chos Malal — it used to be the provincial capital of Neuquen, but it isn’t much of anything anymore. It’s a place where kids who get born there figure out how to leave when they get old enough. It has history, but it doesn’t really have a present. What it did have is goat on the menu — a cute restaurant served it to us. Unfortunately, we were the only ones there. (But that isn’t a definitive identifier of business, since we are asleep by the time most Argentines go out, even in villages.)

As we left Chos Malal, we discovered that it was on the skirt of a very large volcano which we got better views of as we continued. The road had a couple 50 km unpaved patches as it crossed this volcano country, and there were some pretty scenic spots, including little black lava flows like Craters of the Moon, and a place where we could look down and see the Rio Grande go between two black lava cliffs that were perhaps 20 meters high and 2 meters apart. From there things started getting much greener and flatter. We decided to turn a nine-hour day of driving into a thirteen-hour one by going through the incredibly cute Canon de Atuel, a little canyon just as sculptured and colorful as the Grand Canyon but much smaller, containing three dams and accompanying hydroelectric plants. We were constantly stopping in the canyon to take pictures of cute rocks and plants, which accounted for half the delay; the other half was caused by the bottom end of the canyon being a huge rafting resort for San Rafael, and it being Saturday: once the road stopped being twisty and dirt, it started being crowded. We ended up driving the last two hours to Mendoza in the dark, but the last half hour of that was on something we hadn’t seen since Buenos Aires: a freeway! No more having to pass trucks or other slow vehicles! We found our hotel, and got directions to the nearest restaurants. Even though it was 11:30 at this point, getting into a restaurant wouldn’t be a problem — it’s opening time. The hotel had just recovered from a power outage, and the nearest restaurants seemed to still be affected by it. Going a little further and being tired and cranky, we found a bar with bar food which took forever to get served because it was crowded not only with the bar crowd but all the people from nearby houses without power. Fortunately we were mostly done before the loud music started, two guys and a sequencer.

Argentine schedules are imprinted at a young age. At one in the morning there were a lot of kids in the bar, running around and being the way people are who are 6 or 8 years old, but not sleeping or cranky or anything.

What a hotel it is — Casa Glebinias, Hotel Rural. It’s a gated estate with a main house where the host lives, and four or five other little structures around a yard, each with a downstairs and an upstairs unit. Breakfasts are huge and include fresh-squeezed juice, and they just sneak them into your suite around 8:30. (We told them not to give us so much.) The bathroom is comparable in size to some other rooms we’ve stayed in — its cutest feature is that its large round mirror is glued to its translucent large window. (We’ll take a picture.) The host is a retired ice core analyst who has spent a lot of time in Antarctica and at various glaciers nearby — his family has lots of overly friendly dogs.

We drove into Mendoza on Sunday. On the way I asked the GPS to find restaurant 1884 by its address, and it took us to a vacant lot. There has been quite a lot of that lately.

Mendoza is the Napa of the Napa Valley. It has a downtown where many people stay and where there are several restaurants. We’re staying out of town, but we did go to a great little tasting room, The Vines Of Mendoza, downtown yesterday where we tried a flight of five wines. (They have about ten flights to choose from, at prices from $30 to $175 US, plus lots of wines by the glass). They have a brochure listing the most interesting wineries to visit, and the best restaurants to go to. (They also have an online wine store with a subscription feature, and a huge vineyard they’re carving up into 3 to 8 acre chunks and selling to people who want their own little Argentine private label wine.)

The tasting room is black with a TV set. Our hostess did not seem inclined to turn it off so we sat with our backs to it and faced the courtyard. She is from Mexico City, came to Mendoza and fell in love with the place, she said, and so moved here five years ago to continue her studies to become a sommelier. I think she will be very successful. She also said that she had no intention of speaking like an Argentine, and she pronounces “llo” or “yo” as “yo” rather than “sho” as in Buenos Aires or “zho” in Mendoza.

The wines that The Vines of Mendoza are proudest of seem to be much more French and Tannic than the ones I like best. Somebody needs to tell them to stop hiring Dogbert (rhymes with Colbert) and trust the grapes to taste like themselves. The pinot noir they served us smelled like the imported veneer aisle of Southern Lumber in San Jose, which is quite a coup, actually, and not unpleasant, but has anybody ever tasted a pinot noir grape? What are they like?

After our wine tasting we walked through a museum under the Plaza and sat and recovered from the wine and watched all the people performing their civilization.

A match between Boca Jr. and Rio Plata was scheduled for the evening in the stadium so we got offered beer and called Papa Noel on the sidewalks at nightfall by a lot of happy guys. But since one does not take a vacation from one’s self, I still have no use for a futbol game and we had dinner at Azafran instead. It was the usual perfect. About 9:30 PM the waiter stopped seating people on the sidewalk. He knew that at 11 PM the crowds would be coming back down the street in even more vigorous a mood, and the tourists might not want to deal with that level of cultural immersion.

The whole thing is quite like a hurricane. East of Plaza Independencia is a very nice section of town, and many of the grand houses had private guardhouses of a temporary look to them, as if they had been hired for the evening to supplement the fences and barred windows that mark a culture of steep economic derivatives (in the calculus sense, not the side bet on Wall Street sense).

We could spend weeks here, but we’ll have to limit ourselves to two more days’ worth of gavage before it’s time to move on. I hate being full and being drunk, which happens far too soon in the process. I want to be in some Greek myth where you are condemned to eat and drink and be perpetually sated yet hungry, and high yet sober