This past weekend we made our very first road trip for a long weekend. We had heard that Mendoza in Argentina was less than a 6 hour drive through the mountains from Santiago. Imagine that, one of the most celebrated wine regions in the world was just a short drive away. Combine that with the fact that the Sudamericano Sub20 Futbol Tournament, the tournament that will decide who plays in the Sub20 World Cup was being played in Mendoza (and Chile was playing incredibly well) and it became a perfect getaway for the Murnane family.
We were planning to leave early Friday morning until we learned that due to some construction on the roads, the route only goes one way at the moment – departing from Chile to Argentina was only possible from 8 p.m. until 7 a.m. So we changed our plans to leave Thursday evening. The drive to the boarder crossing was about 3 hours from Santiago, so as we left our house at 6 p.m. we figured we would time things perfectly, just after the initial rush cleared.
As we got close to the boarder we were now smack in the middle of the Andes. Not a lot around us except for mountains. We came upon a line of cars stopped. It was still nearly 20 kilometers from the boarder which made us think the opening was delayed. We waited for about 30 minutes when the cars started to move again. We only drove for a short time to stop again, still far from the boarder. Now it was nearing 10 p.m. so the sun was setting and the mountains were getting cold. Imagine, we were in the middle of the Andes with nothing anywhere – no McDonalds, gas stations or anything but sharp cliffs.
We began moving again, creeping slowly. Before you cross the boarder, you literally climb up the mountain, zig zagging back and forth, with nearly 23 turns to reach the top. This is the area under construction so traffic was moving very slowly. Just after we made it to the top of the mountain, now nearly midnight, we stopped. We were not sure why, but freezing cold and dark everywhere we were now worried about how long this would actually take.
We finally slowly began to move, rounding a corner after more than an hour, creeping an inch at a time, to see that we were filing into the line for Customs. Only moving a few feet every 20 minutes, John and my mom got out of the car and walked forward to check it out. Now nearly 1 a.m. they counted we were 68 cars back from the checkpoint. John decided to get some sleep and I inched the car forward moving two feet once every 15 minutes. We did this from 1 a.m. until 4 a.m. when we finally reached the customs checkpoint. It was agony.
Not a surprise, the Murnanes didn’t have their paperwork in order. We can’t find the proof that we paid the reciprocity fee to enter Argentina ($160 per person) even with the stamps on our passport from our previous trip to Argentina. We also realized we had only the previous owners paperwork for our car – nothing showing that we actually owned the car. Thankfully I had my computer so after much searching I found the documentation that we had paid the reciprocity fee. The guards stamped our paper and we headed out happy to have avoided any questions about the car. it was now nearing 5 a.m. and we still had a three hour drive ahead in Argentina.
After finally driving at a normal speed for about 30 minutes we came to a check point on the highway where one guard was stopping all cars. He indicated that he needed our form from customs with three stamps – which we apparently didn’t have. After much conversation in broken spanish, it was clear he was not going to just let us go. He insisted, without hesitation, that we needed to turn around and go back to customs.
By that time, our spirits were broken, we were beyond any rational thought, but the idea of turning around and going back to the place we had just spent nearly 6 hours seemed like a cruel joke. But what choice did we have? We turned around and headed back to get our three official stamps. The process took almost 45 minutes – and thankfully for the grace of one customs worker who saw our car paperwork and deduced that we had likely not just stolen our car but that we were simply clueless Americans – we headed out for the second time at almost 6 a.m.
With John driving, I slept for an hour while we made our way toward Mendoza. As we neared the city, we hit a bit of rush hour traffic which seemed hardly possible given we had left Santiago at 6 p.m. the prior evening. As we finally acknowledged that we reached the city of Mendoza we clocked it as a 14 hour journey. If someone had suggested the four of us get in a car and drive straight through the night with no sleep through the Andes mountain range on a trip that would take 14 hours I would have laughed. It hardly seemed possible that we made it.
We found our hotel, the Park Hyatt , which sits right on the main square in the heart of Mendoza. We made the determination that we would not sleep but push on to taste some wine. We had only 3 days in Mendoza and we needed to make that long trip worth the time (If at all possible).
We hired a car to take us to two wineries: the first was Casa Del Visitante where we got a tour and taste of Family Zuccardi wines. We had a wonderful classic Argentinian barbecue at their restaurant which was spectacular and included delicious Argentina empanadas. We then headed to a boutique winery Carinae where we toured the very small winery and did a wonderful tasting of many wines. Jack was a trooper the whole time (Madie was at her sleep-away summer camp so she didn’t make the trip).
We were proud of ourselves for pushing through and not wasting one of our three days in Mendoza to sleep. We were especially proud of my mom, who managed to sleep a total of 15 minutes in the car and still hung with us the whole day. My mom and Jack headed back to the room for an early night and John and I ventured down the street from our hotel to The Vines of Mendoza which is a wonderful wine bar/tasting room that features any and all wines available in Mendoza.
The next day, John and I got to do a tour with Trout & Wine a fantastic tour company. They picked us up from our hotel and we visited four wineries with a very small group. The wineries we went to were some of the best in Mendoza, Vina Cobos started the day with great Malbecs and a really wonderful Felino Chardonnay. It was really interesting to taste the different wines that were the same grape but just grown in different locations of the vinyards in Mendoza.
Achaval Ferrer was my absolute favorite wine and winery. The backdrop was fantastic as we did our tasting outside. We then got to go down into the cellar and actually taste from the barrel – something I had never done before. The wines were spectacular, if indeed out of our price range. We learned that they actually trim down the grape clusters just before Harvest (which is in late Feb/early March) in order to concentrate everything into the best grapes. Amazing to see they just leave what appear to be perfectly good grapes on the ground to fertilize the others.
Next, we visited a very old winery that is now a restaurant and small hotel, Club Tapiz. We had a chance to tour the old winery where we saw the old barrels, a beautiful mural and some old dresses made to represent the history of wine harvests in Mendoza. We had lunch in the second story of a beautiful old building and each course was accompanied by the wines. Our group consisted of a couple from Ottawa, Canada, a gentleman from England and a young woman from the Netherlands – a super interesting group to spend the day with.
We ended our day at Alta Vista which offered a interesting blend of old and new wine traditions. They have a highly rated Torrontes which is a grape only grown in the north of Argentina in Salta. But in Mendoza, Malbecs rule and Alta Vista is most known for their Alta Vista Alto wine which was indeed delicious.
Our last day in Mendoza we spent the morning visiting one last winery Belasco De Baquedano which we thought would be fun because they have an aroma room where you can test your senses to identify different wine characteristics. The winery itself has beautiful views and great wine.
After the winery visit we got ready to go to the Chile vs. Urguay Sudamericano Sub20 tournament. Chile had been playing really well and given that the national men’s team has not been playing well, everyone was getting excited by the this younger group suggesting some potential for the future of Chilean Futbol. The Uruguay team was also staying at the Hyatt Regency Mendoza and the hotel was kind enough to give us some spectacular tickets. We couldn’t decide if the strong police presence at the stadium made us feel safer or suggested we should worry, but everything was perfectly fine.
Unfortunately, Chile lost the match 1-0 Uruguay. Jack was very disappointed, expecially when we returned to the hotel to see the Uruguay team bus pull up at the same time filled with celebrating under-20 year-old boys. But we had one last fantastic meal in Mendoza at a small restaurant named Azafrán Restaurant which was terrific. The small restaurant has their own wine cellar rather than a wine list so you actually go with the sommelier to pick out your wine.
You can only imagine how nervous we were to start our long drive home. We all secretly assumed that the drive could never be as bad as the trip to Mendoza but we were all too scared to say anything out loud just on the off chance we might jinx it. We also took solace in the fact that we could see the beautiful mountains since we would be traveling during the day. Everyone had told us part of the reason to make the drive was the view driving through the Andes.
We headed out after breakast and thankfully had an uneventful time back. Customs heading into Chile took 10 minutes and even the few stops we had to make at the construction once in Chile only lasted a short time. We made it home in 7 hours – half the time it took us to get to Mendoza.
It was a tremendous trip. Would we do it again even with the tough journey….No. I will never again drive into Argentina. But, I will make sure to go back to Mendoza. Just take a plane next time.