5 Top Mendoza Highlights
After leaving Valparaíso and crossing back over the Andes mountain range into Argentina, we stopped to explore the bustling town of Mendoza before moving on to Buenos Aires. In the shadow of the mighty, snow-covered Andes surrounded by picturesque vineyards, Mendoza is probably most familiar to wine connoisseurs and mountaineers. Tony and I definitely fall somewhere in between – we do like ourselves a good glass of wine, and we clearly love those peaks. While both wine tasting and day hiking are obvious choices in and around Mendoza, there are some other cool activities that visitors might want to consider when passing through the region.
Relaxing in a hammam
That’s right, HAMMAM! While a Turkish bath may not be the first thing that comes to mind while visiting Argentina, Mendoza is actually home to the first traditional hammam and spa in Latin America. After several months of traveling through some of the coldest and driest regions in the Southern Hemisphere, it was time for some steam. So off we went to the hammam at Entre Cielos, a luxury wine hotel and spa in Luján de Cuyo south of Mendoza.
As we entered the stylish luxury spa, we were greeted by Barbara who introduced us to the workings of the hammam and the six stages of the traditional hammam circuit. Her sympathetic look at our brittle, post-Patagonia skin told us we had come to the right place. Barbara gave us a bathrobe, slippers, an exfoliation glove, a metal bowl for rinsing off, and a thin sarong-like wrap.
We started off in the steam room to adjust to the temperature and humidity. While the hammam circuit is mostly self-guided, someone will let you know when it is time to move on to the next stage. So after 10 minutes, Barbara lead us to the exfoliation room. We quickly found out why visiting the hammm as a couple is quite advantageous. Unlike in Turkish or Arab hammams where patrons are scrubbed, the hammam at Entre Cielos has been adapted to South American comfort levels where personal exfoliation is preferred. After floating in the heated, central pool for a bit, the process of steaming and peeling was repeated one more time and ended with the last stage of the circuit, relaxing on a hot stone bed.
Tony and I also opted for the additional rhassoul treatment, a Moroccan full-body mud pack. While we appreciated the soothing effect of mineral clay, there is nothing more fun than slapping mud all over your body and trying to photograph yourself with a GoPro. All the treatments certainly worked wonders. We felt completely overhauled… and quite hungry, which brings me to our next highlight.
Dining in style
What’s better than combining a spa day with a great meal? Katharina Restaurant at Entre Cielos seemed the perfect location for an afternoon indulgence. We made our way from the hammam through the manicured gardens to the restaurant’s outdoor patio which overlooks the pool, the vineyards and the mountains beyond. This picturesque spot was almost as relaxing as the hammam.
While waiting for our meals, sommelier José poured us four wines from Entre Cielos’ own Marantal collection. In between tasting the Pinot Noir and the three Malbecs, we also tried some of their own delicious olive oil. I’m a huge Malbec fan and quickly fell in love with their Gran Marantal from 2010. Tony, on the other hand, favored the 2010 Pinot Noir.
Both deep-red wines perfectly complemented our meals. Very predictably, Tony went for a rare sirloin steak served with a tossed garden salad. (He was clearly a steak-eating Argentinian in a past life.) And equally predictably, I opted for the rabbit with couscous. Both dishes were absolutely delicious; Argentinians really know how to prepare their meat. (But vegetarians, never fear! Katharina Restaurant also offers a nice assortment of meatless dishes.) Before heading back to town, we finished our late afternoon lunch with a wonderful white chocolate mousse and pear served with sorbet. Yum!
Besides sampling some of Mendoza’s famous wines, our main reason for coming here was to see Mt. Aconcagua. At 6,962 m (22,841 ft), it is the highest peak in South America AND the entire western hemisphere. Although we had caught a brief glimpse of the snow-covered peak after crossing the Chilean-Argentinian border on the way to Mendoza, we wanted to return for a proper viewing.
Because we visited outside the trekking and climbing season, which runs from November through March, our options for exploring Aconcagua Provincial Park were limited. In the end, we decided on a full-day Andes tour for US$30. This tour basically takes you along highway RN 7 almost to the Chilean border and stops at certain viewpoints along the way. This kind of tour is offered by pretty much every tour and travel agency in town.
The highlight of the tour was definitely the view of Aconcagua from Laguna los Horcones. A 5-km circuit walk took us on a marine fossil-strewn path to the viewpoint overlooking a shallow, mirror-like lake. A pair of Andean condors circled high above us. At a distance, across the high-altitude steppe, we could see the broad, snowy peak of Aconcagua. Although it wasn’t necessarily prettier than many of the impressive peaks we discovered in Peru, I definitely felt an emotional connection to the mountain. As I stood there, I thought of our mountain-climber friends Emma and Richard who we met in India in 2008. They had summited Aconcagua that same year on their around-the-world climbing trip. Wow!
The Andes tour also included a stop at Los Penitentes, a boarded-up ski resort with a lift running up to a mountain viewpoint. We also visited the very unique natural stone bridge, Puente del Inca, six kilometers further on. The striking bridge and the adjacent area are covered in bright orange deposits from the gurgling waters of a warm sulfuric spring. The ruins of an old spa clinging to the cliffs below the bridge and a tiny nearby church are still visible, but the whole area is off-limits today due to avalanche risk. It still makes for an interesting stop and you can snap some cool photos from the busy viewpoint across the Cuevas River.
Exploring Mendoza’s city center
To be honest, Mendoza wasn’t at all what I expected. Mendoza in my mind was a quaint rural town dotted with wineries and set amidst sprawling vineyards. But what we found was the urban sprawl of a bustling cosmopolitan city. As I learned later, these peaceful little towns do exist around Mendoza and are the perfect destination for sampling local wines (see our next highlight).
After I got over my initial disappointment, I quickly realized how wonderfully walkable Mendoza is with its broad, tree-lined avenidas and its less busy pedestrian streets. We particularly liked Avenida Sarmiento between the main thoroughfare San Martin and Plaza Independencia which hosts a daily handicrafts market. Packed with outdoor restaurants and lined with shops, tour agencies and banks, this seemed to be the heart of all that is happening in Mendoza. Clearly, the perfect location for people-watching and a coffee!
Only three blocks from Plaza Independencia on the corner of Las Heras and Patricias Mendocinas is the mercado central. This is where locals and tourists come to grab a bite to eat or shop for fresh produce. We were staying in an apartment with kitchen at Modigliani Suites, so this was a great find. We also enjoyed checking out some of the smaller plazas around Independencia such as Plaza España with its beautiful tile work.
Sampling some of the finest wines
Considering Mendoza is located in a desert, it is surprisingly green and fertile. Thanks to an old system of river-fed aqueducts, the region not only produces world-class wines, but also aromatic olive oils and balsamic vinegars. And for visitors to Mendoza, there are several ways they can sample some of these great products. (One word of advice: Most wineries are closed on the weekends. If you have your heart set on wine tasting, make sure you visit during the week.)
As we mentioned above, we did some wine and olive oil tasting as part of our amazing lunch at Katharina Restaurant in Luján de Cuyo 19 km south of Mendoza. Many other wineries are located in this laid-back satellite town as well and offer wine tasting experiences for a small fee. It is easy enough to take a bus or taxi to Luján de Cuyo, hit a few wineries and head back to Mendoza the same way you came.
Another great area to explore is Maipú, 15 km southeast of Mendoza. This small, rural town packed with wineries and olive oil farms can easily be reached by bus or taxi. Once there, you can rent a bike and start exploring. Bike rental places often provide maps of the area, but just to be safe, try to pick up a map from the tourist office in Mendoza ahead of time. It’s definitely a great way to do some wine tasting AND see the pretty countryside.
The more comfortable and quickest way of exploring Mendoza’s wineries is taking one of the many wine tours offered around town. These deluxe wine tours are not cheap, but they often include a gourmet meal, provide an English-speaking guide and access to some of the most prestigious vineyards in the country. Many tours include the Uco Valley, a remote, up-and-coming wine-growing region 150 km south of Mendoza. Without your own transportation, this area is quite difficult to reach, and a tour can make all the difference.
Thanks to Modigliani Art & Design Suites
We want to thank Modigliani Suites for hosting us during our stay in Mendoza. The small boutique apart-hotel is centrally located right on bustling Avenida Alem and is super convenient for exploring Mendoza on foot. We also liked that it was walking distance to the bus terminal.
The self-catering apartment came with its own bathroom and a kitchenette with a sitting area. We loved that the kitchen was well equipped with surprisingly high-end pots and pans, great cooking utensils, a coffeemaker and even a mate tea set. Modigliani Suites also provided us with salt, pepper and olive oil as well as a welcome breakfast consisting of eggs, fruit, müsli, jam, cookies and coffee.
Thanks also to the wonderful staff. They really went out of their way to help us find whatever we needed in Mendoza, including some of the tourist highlights I mentioned above. If you would like to find out more about Modigliani Art & Design Suites or would like to contact them directly, visit them at www.modiglianisuites.com.