By Jeff Van Pelt
I knew about Mendoza. Argentine wine country. I love good wine and had long been intrigued by the thought of a visit to Mendoza. But I had never heard of Salta. It is an old colonial city in the far north of Argentina, about the size of Cuenca, and like Cuenca it is situated in a valley surrounded by the Andes. It was founded in 1582 as an outpost between Lima, Peru and Buenos Aires.
Esteban’s guided tour was to start in Salta, spend a week there, stop for a few days in nearby Cafayate, then take a flight to Mendoza and spend a week there during their wine harvest festival. Then another flight to the glaciers of southern Patagonia.
I’m in, I quickly said, along with my wife. As did around 14 other gringcanos (Esteban’s name for gringos in Cuenca).
We arrived in Salta a day before the start of the tour, and Esteban met us at the airport with a driver to the hotel. Other grincanos arrived the next day.
Our first group meal out was at a local hot spot in the old part of town. We ordered a couple of Malbec Reservas for around $7.50 a bottle, which were superb. In addition to excellent, good priced wine, Argentina is beef central, so of course we ordered beef (except for our one vegan).
We sat at outdoor tables beside the cobblestone street in the not-uncomfortable, late summer evening warmth. My plate came with a three-inch thick piece of beef that would have been two or three normal meals for me.
In my fervor I took too large of a bite of beef and didn’t chew it long enough. It stuck in my throat and I began choking and gasping for air. I remembered the sign for choking – put your hands to your throat. The waiter quickly got it. I stood up and he compressed my chest until the meat came out into a napkin.
He said he had never done that before but had seen a video. I said I hadn’t either, and I complimented him on his performance. When we left, we hugged.
The next night we enjoyed a loud, in-your-face, gaucho song-and-dance number with dinner. So fun!
We visited the Museum of High Altitude Archaeology, which has three Inca child mummies.
Wikipedia says the “Mummies of Llullaillaco” were discovered in 1999 near the summit of Llullaillaco, a 22,110 ft volcano in the Andes mountains on the border between Chile and Argentina. The children were sacrificed in an Inca religious ritual that is believed to have taken place around 1500. In this ritual, the children were drugged, then placed inside a small chamber five feet below ground, where they were left to die. Experts have called them among the best-preserved mummies in the world.
Indeed, they are so well-preserved that the clothes and skin are intact, and you can even see the eyelashes. Search Google Images for “Salta Mummy Museum” to see photos. To our dismay, they only display one mummy at a time.
Salta province is known for its superb white Torrontés wines. I had had Torrontés in the U.S. but they were nothing like the delicate, well-balanced wines we tasted at vineyard after vineyard on this trip. Some visits included sumptuous meals. And the tour was not only about eating and drinking. It included some hiking and biking.
We left Salta and headed south to Cafayate. There we hiked to caves with pre-Columbian drawings, and then walked to a winery, visible in the distance from the trail, for good food and Torrontés. We did some biking through the flat countryside, which was almost entirely lined with vineyards.
The next day we visited the ruins of an ancient city, wherein had lived the Quilmes people. This city of 6,000 was on a dry plain, but with ample water flowing from the nearby mountains. They successfully resisted the incursion of the Incas – perhaps the latter didn’t find it worth their while to send a large army to such a dry, barren place, as they did for their many conquests.
The Quilmes also resisted a Spanish military assault but succumbed later when the Spanish interrupted their water source. Why the Spanish felt they needed to destroy this city of no value to them is beyond me.
Another day trip was to Mt. Aconcagua, the tallest mountain in the southern and western hemispheres, on the highway between Mendoza and Santiago, Chile. The scenery along all these drives was as stunning and beautiful as the destinations. Endless vistas of craggy peaks, some snow-capped; flat desert valleys dotted with cacti and divided by rivers fed by those mountains. And there was always a visit to a vineyard serving food and wine at the end. Did I say this was a wine lovers’ tour?
Next stop was the city of Mendoza, during one of the biggest wine festivals in the world. The first image that stuck out in my mind was red wine flowing from a big fountain in the Plaza de la Independencia. But why weren’t people crowding around it with wine glasses outstretched?
We learned that a couple of times in years past the Mendoza province produced so much wine that they couldn’t sell it all. So, in a festive spirit, various wineries brought their excess to the main plaza and replaced the water in the fountain with Malbec. It has since become a tradition to replicate that stunt by dying the water red.
The wine festival comprises a number of events. Mendoza has its roots in Italy and one event is an Italian festival, held – appropriately – in Plaza Italia. The main attraction was the opera, which delighted me as I love opera.
The next day was a parade – an all-day parade! It started with demonstrations and protests for various causes – no fracking, no mining, abortion rights, violence against women, water rights, and agrarian reform (land for workers). It struck me as brilliant to give protesters a legally sanctioned forum to peacefully state their concerns.
Then there were the beauty queen candidates – lots of them – on floats, tossing all sorts of things to the onlookers. A girl next to me received a head of garlic.
Next came the Bolivians, literally thousands of them, for hours. Dancers and prancers, musicians and floats, cowboys and horses, and girls in miniskirts (always girls in miniskirts). Thanks to Esteban’s organizational skills we watched it all from a table under a canopy while sipping wine and eating lunch. In contrast, the poor paraders looked exhausted and scorching hot by the second and third hours. When we left, Bolivians were still marching.
Next to our hotel, a signboard on the sidewalk said, in Spanish, “a meal without wine is a breakfast.” And by this time, I had a painful acid stomach from living that philosophy. I went into a crowded pharmacy and said, “Yo quisiera medicina antiácida para un estomago que ha tomado demasiado vino.” (That is, I would like antacid medicine for a stomach that has had too much wine.) The whole room, employees and customers alike, erupted in laughter, or at least smiles. One pharmacist said, when you are in Mendoza you must do it. With the drugs I soon felt better and got back with the program.
We also visited wineries around Mendoza. These produced almost entirely red wines, mostly Malbec. One served us a seven-course lunch with wine pairings. A huge, delicious chunk of medium-rare beef was the fifth course. I cut it up in small bites and chewed it well. But by then I could hardly eat any more. I gave a part of it to our local guide.
At the end of the second week we flew to Califate in far southern Patagonia, bordering Tierra del Fuego. Therein lay the biggest ice mass in the southern hemisphere, excluding Antarctica.
The first outing was a hike across the glaciers. Lamentably, I had pulled a muscle when I slipped getting out of a swimming pool in Cafayate (it’s a tough life) and I couldn’t do the main hike. But others’ photos reminded me of Shackleton’s epic trek. There were rugged “trails” worn into the ice, and deep crevices and seemingly bottomless holes that could swallow a truck.
But I didn’t totally miss out. I and another friend did a 1.5-hour hike that skirted the glacier and looked onto a body of water full of icebergs.
We got amazing views of the glacier from a short distance away. We heard and saw calving, which sounded like thunder or artillery. And we got to have a hot meal with wine afterward, while the others had to pack a cold lunch. Ideally, I would like to have done both hikes, and I think the others agreed when they saw our photos.
The next day was a boat tour on Lago Argentino, the largest lake in the country (lots of superlatives on this trip). We dodged icebergs to navigate among the glaciers, closeup, with amazing views.
Our final excursion, before the coronavirus crisis struck, was a hike to some surreal caves that had been inhabited centuries earlier. There were cave paintings that were discovered just recently by a seven-year-old out riding his horse. We saw a flock of flightless, ostrich-like birds called rhea being chased by a puma – well I couldn’t see a puma but some of our group said they did. The birds sure were booking for some reason.
On our way back from this outing to our hotel Esteban got the message that Ecuador was closing its border in two days. Amazingly, he booked a van in a few hours to take us to the nearest functional airport four hours away in Rio Gallegos. From there we got flights to Buenos Aires and tried to book flights to Ecuador.
It wasn’t to be. All flights to Ecuador were, not surprisingly, booked. Every Ecuadorian in Argentina was trying to get home. In hindsight the government’s window was woefully inadequate. We were stuck and on our own in Buenos Aires.
To be sure, some of our group cobbled together a plan which involved crossing the land border, as those were not yet closed. They flew first to Lima, then to Tumbes, Peru, then took a bus to the Ecuador border, then hired a van driver from Cuenca to pick them up at the border crossing and take them to Cuenca. We thought it sounded too iffy, so we opted to stay in Buenos Aires – an extended vacation, we thought.
And for two days it was. But then Argentina imposed a 24-hour per day, two-week quarantine, for almost everything except grocery shopping. We sure enjoyed those trips to the market. To maintain social distancing, no one could enter the stores until someone else left, which sometimes meant long lines. But standing in those lines and shopping were a refreshing break from being shut in.
My wife and I rented a nice studio apartment for a month, with a kitchenette, full-size refrigerator, king-size bed, and small terrace. This is where I sit, in quarantine, as I write this. We don’t know when we will be able to get back to Cuenca, but at least we can cook and keep food chilled or frozen. Cereal for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch, and pasta for dinner have become our mainstays. Pasta puttanesca, spaghetti with Asian peanut sauce, raviolis – not bad, but I miss the restaurants of our first few days in town.
And now, the main task is killing time. And waiting. And hoping.
Jeff Van Pelt earned his master’s degree in social psychology from New York University and his doctorate in counseling from the College of William and Mary. He has worked as a psychotherapist, wellness program consultant, and health and psychology writer. Jeff and his wife are retired and have lived in Cuenca since 2013.