Andrés and I spent the first week of March in marvelous Mendoza! Mendoza is a province of Argentina known for it’s wine cultivation. In fact, Mendoza is the Malbec capital of the world and makes Argentina the fifth largest producer of wine in the world. Apart from all that wine, many farms in Mendoza grow olives and produce olive oil PLUS the natural beauty of the region, with the Andes mountains nearby, is STUNNING! We flew into the capital city of the province, also called Mendoza, but then made our way to a town called San Rafael about three hours away.
After landing in Mendoza, we needed to catch a ride to the Omnibus Terminal for our bus into San Rafael. Our initial plan was to rent a car from the airport and return it before our flight back to BA on Saturday. However, we went to Mendoza during one of their busiest times of year–during Carnaval (where people get two days off of work) and la Fiesta Nacional de la Vendimia, which marks the end of the harvesting season. Despite not being able to book a car for Sunday, I think it was all for the best because booking a car for Monday through Friday in San Rafael proved to be cheaper at about $40/day. We booked through San Rafael Rent A Car. Unlike in the U.S., manual cars make up the majority of cars being driven and often renting automatic cars can be twice as costly as manual cars.
For this reason, we rented a small manual and I let Andrés do the driving after he had not drove in almost three years. I must really trust this man. We got in the rental car and Andrés looked at me and said, “I don’t know if I remember how to drive it.” For about two minutes, as we jerked our way around the parking lot and into the road, I was nervous. But he caught on quick and spoiler alert: we DIDN’T DIE. Although I have to say, this man does not stop at stop signs claiming that they’re just a “suggestion.” Apart from relearning how to drive, I would say our experience with San Rafael Rent A Car was just okay. We got what we paid for but I was a little annoyed with the company on Monday morning and Friday morning. As an American, I am certainly used to things running a certain way: professionally and with punctuality, and yet, I am still not quite used to the way Argentines work and the clock by which they operate. For example, the guy at the rental car place said he would pick us up at our Airbnb on Monday morning at 10. He showed up around 11:20. This is purely Argentine time but it made me feel like we had wasted more than an hour just waiting. Friday was even more annoying. If you know my husband and I, you know we are late. Late to literally everything. If we weren’t late, we rushed to get there. We were late to our own wedding. We are never going to be on time, not in a rush or certainly, early. So on Thursday night, Andrés was going to bed while I was trying to pack all our stuff. He was like, “but we won’t be lazy in the morning, we’ll get it all done!” No, no we wouldn’t have! I know this because on Friday morning as we were rushing to get ready and leave our Airbnb in a respectable state, I broke a wine glass while doing dishes and wasn’t even able to clean it up because we had to leave before we could ask the host for a broom. We were asked to drop the car off at the guy’s house which was strange? So as we were driving there, Andrés told me the gas tank had to be half full when we returned it but it wasn’t. Instead of getting the gas then, which would have been so easy because it was on the way, he said he would just pay the fine. Once we got to the guy’s house, Andrés called him and his wife or girlfriend picked up and said HE WAS IN THE SHOWER. So as the minutes kept ticking closer to our bus departure time at 10:30, we stood outside with our bags in hand and waited for the car to be inspected. Finally, the guy finished his shower and came out to check the car. And guess what? He made us go get GAS. We loaded our luggage back into the car and raced to the nearest gas station. At this point it was 10:20 and the bus terminal was 8 minutes away and even though I was nervously chewing the insides of my cheek, I had accepted that we were going to miss our bus. After putting 1,000 pesos of gas in the car, we went back to the guy’s house and waited about 3 minutes for him to come back outside. Before we had left, he had offered to drive us to the bus terminal so once we got there we unpack our stuff for the second time and waited for him to take us in his car. Except he was taking us in the rental car so we loaded up our stuff ONCE AGAIN and told him our bus left in literal minutes. Honestly the guy was seriously shocked, but nothing compares to my shock of being in the backseat of this tiny Chevy Corsa as this stranger drove us to our deathbed. He almost crashed into cars, ran traffic lights and came pretty close to hitting pedestrians, all the while, questioning us about how sure we were that the bus left at 10:30. After a few Dios míos, we pulled up the bus terminal right at 10:30, threw our luggage out of the car and ran to find our bus…which thankfully was still there. We settled into our seats and the bus pulled away from the terminal a minute later. At this point I told Andrés that it wouldn’t have mattered that we were late for the bus had we died during that car ride.
Apart from the dodgy car experience, I can’t praise San Rafael enough. Especially our Airbnb. I had originally booked another Airbnb and they couldn’t fulfill my request of days and I am so thankful that happened, otherwise we would have never gotten to stay there! This Airbnb is on a vineyard! A real-life vineyard. All the grape pictures above? I took them in the backyard, steps from our door! Also I ATE THEM. For a week we had access to all-you-can-eat grapes and it was INCREDIBLE. We also, especially my husband, really got along with the host, Vincent. He is an American who has been living here in Argentina for almost twenty years (and sure did give me hope that maybe one day I will be able to speak my second language fluently). His wife and kids are Argentine and gave us the most hospitable stay! Vincent even picked us up from the bus station late Sunday night in his v dope vintage Range Rover Defender and gave us a great milanesa and beer. Also speaking of alcohol, since it’s a vineyard, they also make their own wine. He was currently out of red (my fave), but his white wine had me reconsidering what it means to have a favorite type of vino. The first bottle was free and the bottles after that? Only 100 pesos (at the time of writing this that’s 2.50 USD). Oh also, forgot to mention…there were dogs, cats, a pool and an asado to grill some of that famous Argentine beef. If you ever make it down to San Rafael, you have to stay with Vincent. Check out the listing here and if you haven’t had the chance to use Airbnb yet, you can use my code to get $15-$40 off when you book an Airbnb experience or home.
Our first full day was pretty laid back. After waiting for our rental car for a while, I didn’t have much planned for the day. As Andrés was driving, I was frantically searching my Google Maps app for things to do. We ended up going into the town centre to walk around Plaza Francia and find a place to eat. Even the centre of town is much more relaxed than we are used to. It was like being back in Berea! Just everyone spoke Spanish and the driving was just a tad bit crazier.
After walking around the city centre for a little bit, we decided to do lunch. I had done some TripAdvisor research before I had got there and one of the restaurants I had saved was close by so we checked it out! It’s called Mikelinos and serves Italian food and PIZZA. Finding good pizza in Argentina can be a struggle because they have their own, very popular version of it that lacks…how do I put this…an acceptable amount of grease? Andrés asked the waiter to compare their pizzas with the pizzas in Buenos Aires and the waiter told us he didn’t know the pizzas in Buenos Aires and it was funny. You had to be there. ANYWAY, the pizza was good and I would have went a second time.
After pizza, we went on our only wine tour for the entire trip. When in Wine Country, you WOULD THINK winery tours and tastings would be the move. Well, you’re wrong. Andrés is just not that into wine. I was kind of bummed because I enjoyed the tour and would have liked to go on more like it, but now I just know next time we go somewhere, I am going to have a little leverage over what we do (HAHA I am joking please don’t message me and suggest I have an unhealthy relationship). The one tour we did do was of the oldest winery in San Rafael called La Abeja (The Bee). A lot of the wineries in San Rafael have the vineyards at another location meaning what you tour is just where the wine is manufactured and stored. Unlike Mendoza Capital, I noticed in my research that a lot of the tours and tastings were free. The catch being that they’re in Spanish, of course. Luckily for me, I understood almost everything and when I didn’t, I had a living dictionary right next me. The tour at La Abeja was fun and beyond that the wine was super good and I regret not buying a bottle but hey, what can you do?
After the wine tour, we headed outside of the city because I had read there was a large labyrinth dedicated to Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. Even though I had only read a little bit of Borges in my Spanish classes, I still thought a large maze was interesting enough to go check out. The entrance price per person was 120 pesos. This price includes free reign of the grounds and the tiny museum dedicated to his life and the creation of the labyrinth. There’s a movie that plays inside the museum that covers the entire process and all the hidden images and meanings within the design which was pretty cool to see. However, I felt like we jumped in after it started and then sat there for 30-40 minutes watching it and it never finished so I am not sure how long the movie is nor why they would think showing such a long movie in the museum is such a good idea. I don’t know, I don’t run their business. There is a lookout you can climb to view the labyrinth. We did this first because 160+ steps seemed daunting to me and I wanted to get it out of the way. Surprisingly, the view from the top did not prepare or help us navigate the labyrinth. It was pretty confusing. But we eventually made it to the exit.
That night we grabbed a quick dinner from the city centre to take back home and Netflix & Chill. I don’t remember what it was called but not that it really matters because I wouldn’t suggest it! I felt like I was having a heart attack after I ate it and I was really questioning my eating habits! HA HA. There’s a reason I gained 40lbs in a matter of months. It’s called being a vegetarian for three years and then eating meat again.
Our second day was much more adventurous! San Rafael’s government tourism website was super helpful and gave me a lot of information. This day we explored the Diamante Circuit, which included a small town called 25 de Mayo, El Tigre dam, and Los Reyunos. We hiked, road a boat to see a rather underwhelming rock formation, and stopped to get some delicious tortas fritas. 12 tortas for 80 pesos. My husband was flabbergasted. He just kept asking “Doce fritas por 80 pesos? 80 pesos? Doce fritas?” The woman was like “YEAH and??” Listen lady, we are from Buenos Aires. 80 pesos is not even two Diet Cokes… Tortas fritas (as far as I know) are an Argentine pastry kind of similar to a donut but flat and can be covered with sugar.
After checking out 25 de Mayo, we headed to the El Tigre Dam, hopped the barrier and did some hiking. Here’s a warning: this is the first of MANY dams.
From there, we checked out the next dam at Los Reyunos. Unlike El Tigre, there were no chances to hike. But lots of water activities in the reservoir. The adventure tourism company we went to ask about seeing Los Elefantes (a rock formation named after it’s “elephant” shape) was called Kaike. After asking the guy at the front desk, we learned the boat ride to and from the rock formation takes an hour in total. Andrés wasn’t sold but I really wanted to see them. But jokes on me: they were totes disappointing. They are SO MUCH smaller in person than in the pictures. Like WTF? In addition to boat rides, Kaike offered zip-line rides, four-wheeler rentals, scuba diving, and kayaking.
After our day of hiking and adventuring, we had dinner reservations for one of the top-rated restaurants in San Rafael. Our Airbnb host also highly recommended it. It’s called L’Obrador and tbh, we weren’t SUPER into it. They have a fixed menu that includes a picada, an empanada, a main dish and dessert. The picada was enormous and generally people get one per person. I can’t even imagine that. We shared ours and we still couldn’t finish it. The empanada though? Grade A. For the main course, we got Carne a la masa which is a typical dish for the area and another carne dish that I can’t remember the name of. And the tiramisu was BOMB DOT COM!
On our third day, we did the Atuel Circuit. We originally had head out to Valle Grande to do some white water rafting. As we drove further into Valle Grande, passing all the MANY adventure tourism joints, the road ended at yet another…dam. This is dam of Valle Grande. We got out of the car, looked around a bit, and then decided to go further down the road. We drove up the hill, steeper and steeper, and came across a tunnel built into the side of a mountain. I don’t know if Andrés wants me to write this but: this man turned that car around and wouldn’t go through. He was too scared. But as we were turning around, a car passed us and went through the tunnel saying, “At least if we get caved in, we won’t have to eat each other.” Thank God for peer pressure because Andrés turned back around and we followed them through to the other side of the dam to a gorgeous reservoir.
From there, we really didn’t know what to do but keep going. And let me tell, that little car should be so proud of itself and also my husband is an amazing driver. To handle the dirt roads, curves and cliffs we encountered that day, you gotta be a good driver so SHOUT OUT TO MY MANS. The drive was through Canyon Atuel and ended in a super, tiny ghostlike town called El Nihuil. Was the ending worth it? Nah, it was all about the journey to get there. It was such a beautiful drive.
And the best PART OF ALL? Surprise burros!! BURROS. “Burro” is Spanish for donkey. I had encountered wild burros once before in South Dakota but we knew about it. Like we knew we were gonna see them so we brought snacks for them. This was a complete surprise. As we were driving through the dusty desert, we saw cars stopped up ahead in the middle of the road. Why? Donkeys were sticking their heads in people’s cars!! All our snacks were in the truck but we did get to pet some burros. I said goodbye to the sweet things and then we kept driving ONLY TO COME UPON MORE BURROS. So I practically ~screamed~ at Andrés to stop the car and let me get the chicharrón from the trunk so I could give them snacks. And boy, did we give them snacks. Two of them came around to my side, one of which was a BABY, and then as I am shrieking with joy, one comes around to Andrés, sticks his head in the car, DROOLS all over his leg and takes the entire chicharrón in one bite. I died. And went to heaven. Even though El Nihuil was a tad disappointing, the drive through the canyon was absolutely beautiful and I highly suggest it (burros burros burros).
That night we decided to stay in for dinner and made use of the asado in the backyard to grill some meat. We drank the vino casero, grilled and I tried to dance the merengue (I am so sorry, Andrés, you can dance, I cannot. It’s life.) Anyways, vegetarianism who? Speaking of, Vincent (Airbnb host) was also a vegetarian before he moved to Argentina. What can I say? Things change down here.
On Thursday, we were pretty lazy. We slept in and took our time heading back out to Valle Grande. I had gone white water rafting the previous year in Bariloche (read about that here) and wanted Andrés to experience that too! Lucky for us, we decided to go not a day later. We rafted on the last day of the season! The river was a level 2 whereas the last time I went, it was classified as a 3 or 4. However, this trip was probably even more intense because someone on our boat practically died. It was us, the guide and a family of 5. The father ended up slipping out of the boat after we hit a rock and lost both his life vest and jacket. So much for safety precautions, right? Thankfully, a nearby raft was able to spot him and pull him from the water but I cannot imagine the fear that family was experiencing! We finished the trip with good spirits, all things considered but wow, what an experience. The group we went through was called KinTun Expeditions. The crew was really nice and didn’t force you to buy the pictures at the end. They put them on Facebook for free! It was 900 pesos for the both of us, which is pretty affordable. The trip lasted about an hour but it depends on the time of year and the conditions of the river. Faster flow? About 40 minutes.
And white water rafting pretty much signaled the end of our vacation in San Rafael. Friday morning, after just BARELY making our bus, we headed back to Mendoza capital for the night before our flight back to BA in the morning. While on the bus, we stopped at a bus station in a small town and Andrés decided he needed chocolate. He ran off and back on the bus with chocolate in hand…right into the TV above our seat. So that pretty much put us out of commission for the rest of the day. Once we got to our Airbnb in the Las Heras neighborhood, he requested some Tylenol and was ready for bed.
But here’s the fun story about our Airbnb because of course, I have one. I booked this Airbnb solo. With the other Airbnb, since we were there longer, Andrés helped me pick it out. This one was just for a night and I was looking for something close to the airport. I picked out a $14 room in the house of a sweet woman whose reviews focused on her kindness, hospitality and her lack of English. I messaged her letting her know our plans and apologized if any of the Spanish was incorrect and that in person, my husband was fluent. However, I had forgotten about this message when we were on our way to the Airbnb. Andrés said he was going to pretend he only speaks English to force me into having to do all the talking. And man, she was totally surprised when she asked who knew more Spanish and he said ME. I feel like we truly scammed this sweet woman when all Andrés was trying to do was get me to practice my Spanish. She even woke up super early to make us breakfast. She was SO nice so I highly suggest staying with Meli if you’re in Mendoza. And just a note about Mendoza in general: Uber only just started there a few months ago and one of our drivers said there were only 70 drivers in the city so just as a warning, make sure you have back up options when traveling!
Because we took a nap when we got to the Airbnb, we didn’t do much exploring. Instead, we ate. For lunch, we did McDonald’s because in one of the wine capitals of the world, you can get Malbec at McDonalds.
For dinner, a friend suggested probably the best restaurant of the entire trip. No restaurant like this exists in Buenos Aires, we are convinced! It was so nice, absolute quality food and the price was just right for how good it was. It’s called Anna Bistro and we loved it. If we go back to Mendoza, we will for sure be going back to Anna Bistro.
And we truly hope that we get to go back! We loved Mendoza province and we would love to visit again so that we can get to know the capital city better. And maybe next time I can convince Andrés to do a few more wine tours.
Have you been to Mendoza or San Rafael? What was your experience like? Or favorite thing? If after reading this post, this is on your travel list, what are you most looking forward to seeing or doing?
As always, thanks for reading!