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Mendoza (Wine time!) & Valparaiso (the San Fran of Chile)

So after a rather pleasant bus ride (champagne on the bus? oh ok don't mind if we do!) we arrived in Mendoza, where we were excited to be spending 5 whole nights without moving anywhere!

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Our first impressions of Mendoza city were that it was incredibly hot (temperatures reached 40c while we were there!) and substantially bigger than we expected. This meant that our plan to spend our first day wandering the city was quickly revised into a much more sensible plan of going for a lovely lunch in a shaded courtyard, accompanied by a nice cold bottle of vino blanco! And so the drinking began...

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For those of you who don't know, Mendoza is Argentina's main wine growing region and is peppered with vineyards, specialising primarily in Malbec. It would, of course, have been rude not to sample any of these wines or visit these vineyards, so on our second day we hired bikes and headed off on a bike tour of one of the three main wine growing areas surrounding Mendoza city, Lujan (the others being Maipu and the Uco Valley).

Our first stop was at a vineyard called Lagarde, which we enjoyed so much we ended up spending half the day there and tasting 8 of their wines! This had nothing to do with the personal attention we were getting from the pretty Argentinian sommelier, who told Shaun he had a "good nose" and a "great palate", of course!! Having spent so long there, we only had time for tours/tastings at two more vineyards that day, but both of those were also excellent. Needless to say, by the time we'd also bought a bottle of our favourite wine at each, that days budget had gone well out the window!

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A couple of days later we decided to push the boat out and hire a car for the day to visit a couple of vineyards in the Uco Valley (around 75kms out of Mendoza at the base of the Andes) and see a bit more of the countryside. This was an awesome day as the wineries we visited (Salentein and Atamisque) were both impressive and driving through the area, with vines as far as you could see in every direction was fantastic.

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In the afternoon, we had decided to take a drive into the Andes to photograph some of the scenery we had heard so much about and try to catch a glimpse of Aconcagua (the highest mountain in South America). The drive was mind-blowing, with huge jagged red mountains lining the windy road and some beautiful sights along the way including a bright turquoise lake called Potrerillos, a giant river bank at the base of the Andes, which was miles long and looked like the huge wall surrounding Mordor in Lord of the Rings, and Puente del Inca, a natural rock formation that is covered in mineral deposits originating from the thermal waters that run down it making it almost rainbow coloured. We only got a brief glimpse of the summit of Aconcagua as the cloud was unfortunately coming in by the time we made it there, but it was still long enough for Shaun to say, "I wanna go up there, can we do that please?" Er....no!

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12 hours and over 530km later, we arrived back in Mendoza. On our final day, we decided to treat ourselves to a nice vineyard lunch, only for our best laid plans to be thwarted by the one thing we found fairly frustrating in Mendoza, namely the fact that all the better wineries insist on you making a reservation ahead of time, even if you just want to do a brief tasting, yet none of them ever seem to answer their phones or respond to emails! As a result of this, we ended up at a vineyard which was not one of our choices but was suggested by our hostel (maybe because it was the only one they could actually get hold of). When we arrived we were, rather bizarrely, shown to a private dining room off their main courtyard, in which they proceeded to serve us the biggest three course lunch we have ever had, including a T-bone steak each that pretty much filled the plate! While it wasn't quite the "terrace overlooking the vines" experience we had been planning, the food was definitely more than we expected and we left feeling like we'd never want to eat again!!

Needless to say we really enjoyed Mendoza and certainly, any weight we may have lost, was gained again thanks to all that wine and those fabulous steaks (Don Mario is a must for any steak lovers who ever find themselves in Mendoza - order the Bife de Chorizo) although we would have loved to have had a car for bit longer to see more of the countryside surrounding the city (and stayed in one of the estancia/lodges attached to a winery - Salentein! Salentein! Salentein!) so that's definitely one for our "places to come back to" list!

From Mendoza we crossed the border (again!!) into Chile, although not without getting stuck at border control for 4 hours, turning our 8 hour journey to Valparaiso into a 12 hour one! Grr! Luckily, however, when we finally arrived in Valparaiso at 10pm, we found that ordering a restaurant meal at 10.30pm seemed to be completely in-keeping with the locals, so we had no problems finding a great Chilean restaurant to feed and water us, which helped salvage an otherwise pretty frustrating day.

The next say was 'Valpo day' - our one full day in the city, so we made the most of it exploring as much as we could. Valparaiso is an artistic and incredibly pretty city, built on hills overlooking the Atlantic and surrounding a once bustling port. It's steep cobbled streets are awash with traditional 19th century houses which have been painted in an array of bright colours and there are lovely caf├ęs, bars and restaurants on every corner. And that's not to mention the fact that the streets are also lined with street-art style paintings/murals (or Muriel's as I kept calling them, much to Shaun's amusement!) which create a bohemian vibe and endless photo opportunities. It really is a photographers paradise and we both found ourselves thinking that it was exactly what we thought San Francisco would be like, but wasn't! I think the photos below capture it much better than I possibly could in words.

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Given the number of steep hills in the city, to save our legs we took a few rides on Valparaiso's ascensores - funiculars dating from the 18th century, that whip you up the hill for 15p a ride. I enjoyed these much more than Oblivion at Alton Towers, and they're much cheaper too!

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We also discovered that, by pure fluke, the annual Dakar Rally (an off-road endurance rally for trucks, cars, motorbikes and quad bikes formally from Paris to Dakar but now through Bolivia, Argentina and Chile) was finishing in Valparaiso that day. Given that we had, unintentionally, been pretty much following the Dakar route for the last few weeks but missing the rally by a day or so everywhere we went, it seemed crazy not to try and take a look so we spent a couple of hours by the circuit, watching the riders parade through. Shaun was disappointed that we missed the cars coming through, and mainly just caught the motorbike riders, but I can't say I was complaining! The other great thing about the final stage of the rally being in town was that, unexpectedly, after dinner, we were treated to a fantastic fireworks display, which lasted for what felt like an age and was truly spectacular.

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The next day we spent some more time exploring the city (including visiting Cerro Carcel, which houses an ex-prison that has been turned into gardens and an exhibition space - can't see them doing that with Holloway!) before heading to the bus station to catch a bus to Santiago (1.5hours away). Here's where the fun started....

Having been told by our hostel that the buses to Santiago run every 15 minutes, we turned up at the bus station at 5.30pm to find it absolutely heaving with people and to find that seats on the buses were selling out at a rate of knots and going for a premium (most likely due to Dakar). Despite being first told at the bus company desk that there were spaces on a bus leaving at 6pm, when we came to book the tickets, they had gone and we were told the next available seats were at 8pm, only for the same to happen again and us to end up with tickets for a bus at 9.15pm (over 3.5 hours later!). (This chaos was also punctured with a brief interlude in which we spotted a bus with a different company leaving for Santiago that was practically empty but who's ticket office was closed. So having asked in our best Spanish if we could take the bus and buy a ticket onboard, and being told yes by one member of staff who then loaded our rucksacks on to the bus, we were then thwarted by a total 'jobsworth' rep for the company who came along and refused to let us buy tickets, and ordered our luggage off the bus! The bus then duly departed with around a tenth of the seats filled and us standing bemused in the manic bus terminal!) Anyway, when the time (finally!) came to catch our bus, this brought more chaos as, when we tried to board the bus 9.15pm bus to Santiago with the company we had booked with, we were told our tickets were for a different bus (also with that company and also leaving at 9.15pm but apparently from elsewhere!) which was nowhere to be seen amongst the 15+ buses at the station!! Given that we had to make it to Santiago that night to catch an early flight to Patagonia the next morning, we started to get pretty worried we were going to get stuck in Valparaiso. Eventually a helpful fellow passenger, who spoke English, came to our rescue and spoke to the unhelpful bus company staff for us and helped us find our bus (which, in typical South American style, was running late!) and we finally boarded bound for Santiago (although I can't tell you we have made it there yet as, as I write this it's midnight and we're still on that bus, now stuck in traffic!!)

So, hopefully, we'll catch our flight to Patagonia in the morning (thank god we are flying there as, after the last few bus journeys, I think if we never see another bus again it will be too soon!) and so our next update will be to hopefully let you know we have survived the abrupt change in climate and the 9 day trek we have planned in Torres del Paine National Park. Wish us luck!

Posted by shaunandhan 19:54

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