Many foreigners spending time in Chile think of Mendoza, Argentina as a place to do a visa renewal run and little more. I believe now you can pay a fee and extend it without traveling, but Mendoza is still worth a visit. Unfortunately, the Argentinean government is desperate for cash so they’ve expanded the entry tax fee from only airports to any means of entry and you have to prepay online. This covers Australians and Unitedstatesians traveling for tourism or business, and Canadians traveling for tourist purposes. If you are a resident of a MERCOSUR country but not yet a citizen, and your identification states that you are from one of these three countries, they will still charge you. The payment lasts for ten years, even if your passport doesn’t. You can just give them the number and they’ll look it up and confirm you’ve paid if you no longer have the original. If prepaying online here, print out your PDF to bring with you. Scroll down to Online Instructions under Tasa de Reciprocidad.
This place feels like Chile and Argentina had a romantic fling that resulted in a mini-city. This hybrid nature is most easily recognizable in the linguistic blend. They’ve got the ‘cachai’ and ‘huevon’ variants of Chile, but choose ‘vos’ and put the accent on the penultimate syllable in the imperative, leaving out the stem-change as Argentines do. Instead of ‘siéntate’ for example, they say ‘sentáte’. Of course that last accent mark is superfluous; I just put it there for emphasis.
Mendoza also looks like a small version of Buenos Aires with pasta, pizza, steak and fernet everywhere served in unique cafés that have much more style than does Chile. Fernet is one of the most consumed alcoholic beverages in Argentina, originally from Italy. The liqueur itself is made with a number of bitter herbs and is technically a digestif, but most drink it as a mixed cocktail with cola. The soda makes it sweeter. It’s a unique taste that can’t be compared to anything precisely, but is similar in style to other stomach-soothing herbal liquers. The coffee in Mendoza and Chile is bad. Tea is more typically drunk in Chile, while yerba maté is the thing in Argentina as well as southern Chile. I think that accent mark in the English spelling serves to distinguish it from ‘friend’ or rhyming ‘mate’ with ‘ate’. However, the stress is on MA.
The center of the city is Plaza Independencia, a very large square with two indoor theaters as well as two outdoor staging areas for live music and kids’ shows. Artisans line one entire strip of it, extending for several blocks where talented improptu rock bands and evangelical Christians share space. I like these evangelicals. They set up shop and are there to talk and hand out literature, but don’t get in your face with microphones while shouting about Satan. How refreshing. These particular artisan offerings are honestly the most unique, quality pieces I’ve seen so far in any Latin American country. I got myself a handcarved mate cup made of Algarrobo wood. It’s got one of the typical Argentinean keys folded onto the side as a handle, like those old school ones seen in children’s animated movies.
There are four smaller plazas found equidistant from the central one: Chile, San Martín, Italia and España. Each has a unique design and setup. It’s worth it to walk around the different barrios to find the various art museums, beautiful buildings and food districts. The Sarmiento strip that cuts through the central plaza is the size of a street, but for pedestrians only. This is where you’ll find a lot of bad coffee and average food. Walk on by. Las Heras street on the northwest side near the Plaza de Chile is the center of the Tenedor Libre spots, or all-you-can-eat. Don’t make my mistake of going there in the late afternoon. This city shuts down for siesta time. I forgot about siesta, because it’s not a thing in Santiago. They have distinct lunch and dinner hours. The best meal we ate there was on Arístides Villanueva moving westbound, passing up Plaza Italia. Marce and I had two bottles of delicious Argentinean syrah, and dinner that included two empanadas as an appetizer, juicy steak, salad, side and dessert plus a fat tip for about 35 USD total. That’s nuts. Great service as well. The area is considered a “gastronomic zone” and you can wander up and down the street until you find something that suits you on one of the spacious outside patios or hip interior spaces.
There is plenty of lodging, but I will definitely recommend where we stayed. It’s near the bus station on Don Bosco called Alojarse en Mendoza. Not too original on the name, but the space is an old family building converted into lodging with high-ceilinged private or shared rooms. I had booked a private room with shared bathroom via email and didn’t have to put down a deposit. When we arrived they gave us a room with a private bath and patio as well, simply because it was available – and at the same price. It was about 45 USD per night and included an excellent breakfast of yogurt, granola, dried fruit, various teas, croissants with dulce de leche and hot ham breakfast sandwiches, a wide variety of teas, juice and yes, instant coffee. They prepare it for you at the hour you wish. If you want to be ignored, don’t stay here. They will help you plan any tour or give you tips on anything you’d like to do or see. Alicia will also engage you in long conversations if you let her. But as she’s funny, interesting and a joy to talk with, that’s not a bad thing. When we left we told her we’d be seeing her the next time we return to Mendoza. She says that we can stay even if we don’t have any money and then just pay her whenever we can. Who says stuff like that?
Mendoza is the heart of Argentina’s wine-making region, and I’d like to return for the vendimia [grape harvest] sometime. This trip we spent time listening to live classical music instead. The International Classical Musical Festival is a ten-day event each April with a variety of artists playing in the city and at each of the different wine bodegas. The tickets are only offered in exchange for powdered milk. No cash, no online sales. So we bought the milk and found the office to trade it in and we were told they had no more tickets. Not cool. Well we went to four concerts anyhow. After they let the ticketed folk in, if there were seats left, they’d let us in. There was always plenty of available seating.
From Santiago, Mendoza is only six or seven hours by bus, as long as the mountain pass isn’t closed with snow. If traveling in winter, you’ll likely have to fly. The view driving through the mountains is spectacular. The leaves were changing into fall colors and many of the peaks are naturally pink in color. There are restaurants, shops, horses and small businesses dotted throughout the drive. Oddly, I had expected to see little en el camino. There is nothing better than staring out the window at gorgeous scenery, watching it all shift and twist as you snake through the Andes.