I arrived into Santiago with the tour group and we managed to get back on our bikes to take a tour of the city and check out food markets, fish markets and local landmarks. We walked through Bella Vista, Santiago’s boho district full of colourful streets, fancy architecture, cafes and bars. We took the funicular, (declared a national monument) up to the top of San Cristobal Hill and look out at the haze the of city below. It’s so bad that you can’t see the Andes mountain range properly. They say that you should go up the day after it rains for the best views with the hope that the smog has been washed away.
From now on my travel style changes. After 3 months on the road with others, I become a solo traveller for the next couple of weeks at least. It’s a new concept for me. I’ve never done the solo travel thing before so it’s with in trepidation and excitement that I start this next journey. I can now go anywhere, do anything, see who I meet and where it takes me. It’s a whole new freedom, not having to take anyone else into account. My only target now is that I have to be in Buenos Aires for Easter.
My first solo expedition is to join the Walking Tour for Tips (Santiago Highlights it is entitled) and see what where it leads. 18 join the tour and we are told that it free but a tip would be appreciated; US $5 is appropriate Filippe tells us! Not too bad for a couple of hours work if he gets that from everyone in the group (not by Chilean living standards anyway). I meet a young Canadian lady who has just arrived into the city with the plan of heading to Patagonia to hike and camp the W, carrying her tent etc on her back. She has never hiked before, let alone carry the heavy backpack. Loco! I was always so thankful when we did our hikes on the W that I wasn’t carrying a big ole backpack. I didn’t mention to her that she might find it a little bit tough.
During the walking tour Filippe recommended a wine bar / restaurant called Bocaderiz which had a choice of 360 bottles of Chilean wine. Low and behold I meet the lovely Christiane on the tour who suggests that we go there afterwards and give a a try. Who I was to refuse her and then, who we were to refuse the waiter’s wine suggestions. We gave all the colours a try! One glass of rosé, one sparkling wine, moving onto red with our food. It was all very delicious and this would be the start of my wine tasting experience as next stop is Mendoza with lots of vineyards to visit.
Up early the next morning, I was booked on a 9am bus to get back into Argentina. Now the bus station isn’t too organised. Forget about boards with times, destinations and bay numbers… Eventually I find an office that tells me to go to gates 40-49. If I had some spanish then I would have found out that you go to the bays, you wait, and look out for the bus with the destination name on it. The bus can park at any of those gates. Whilst I wander up and down the gates looking for the Mendoza bus, there is another gent looking lost too. Well we strike up conversation, he is a Brit, who lives in Santiago but is having to escape for a couple of days so as not to over stay his visa. In the midst of our conversation spot an american man loitering nearby, who is eavesdropping and wanting in the conversation as he too is in a similar position. Transpires that the Brit has the same irish surname as I with a grandfather from Galway (not far from where my father is from). We never figured out if we were related, but there is always the possibility…
It was a scenic bus journey over the Andes in a semi executive seat. Think big leather recliner, with a cup of coffee and a dodgy ham and cheese sandwich to eat. For a couple of minutes you get to see Aconcagua (6,960 m), South America’s tallest mountain as you drive up, up, up and over. At times, the landscape looks more like Mars than Earth. As much as I wanted to enjoy all the views, I was at the back of the bus, trying to negotiate the ever turning bus and altitude sickness. In the midst of this, the American man John was trying to have a conversation with me; well talking at me he was. I had actually vomited once before he realised that I wasn’t well and left me to it!
The border crossing was quite painless and the rest of the journey into Mendoza didn’t have the twists and turns as previously; all was good on arrival. Jump off the bus and the touts are waiting to grab you for accommodation, cambio, taxis… Dave and John were waiting for me and we organised to meet for lunch the following day in the city centre. Dave drops me off in a cab to Hostel Lao for the next couple of days whilst I decide what to do with myself. The hostel has an inviting communal space and on arrival I meet Dick and his wife Helen, from Southampton. They take pity on my solo-ness as they take me under their wings over the coming days and invite me out to join them for dinner over the coming evenings. Though we always seem to end up sitting down in at least three restaurants each night before we find the right one.
In the meantime I go on a walking tour for tips to get myself accustomed with the city. The only issue is my tour guide is a young Italian lady who left Milan 3 months earlier to be with her boyfriend so in theory has not “lived the city” for long and doesn’t know the “real” city. She does her best but all her favorite places are Italian!
I booked myself onto a sunset horse riding out at an estancia with Pingos Tours. We head off on a mini bus, get sized up for our horses and off we slowly clip clop out in a line across the Argentinean countryside to a spectacular sunset over looking The Andes. It was just stunning. The colors, the backdrop; almost prefect except for being eaten alive by mosquitos! Back at the estancia the meat is on the grill and the wine is being poured. Out comes the guitar and our host Charlie breaks out into songs with various old favorite renditions of The Eagles, Bob Marley and others.
For Saturday I found a bicycle tour around the wine region of Maipu visiting 3 different wineries. I am supposed to get myself on a public bus at 8am to be out in Maipu for 9am and meet my wine cycling / tasting group. However, these plans are scuppered. I organised a tinder catch up for the Friday evening. It’s with Shane, originally from Texas who moved to Mendoza 2 years previously. After a lovely bottle of Malbec he offers to bring me out to the Uco Valley the following day. Forget the bike tour, how could I refuse a personal tour guide to take me out?
He picked me up from the hostel late the next morning and off we headed. He suggested that we might be able to talk our way into the Siete Fuegos restaurant at The Vines for lunch. Internationally acclaimed chef Francis Mallmann creates inspired regional dishes, showcasing Argentina’s famous beef. (My friend in the UK had suggested staying there but at £400 a night I couldn’t bring myself to do it). Anyway, Shane’s talking works and we find ourselves sitting at a table overlooking the Uco Valley, another beautiful bottle of malbec and delicious food. So much better than a group bike tour in the Uco Valley.
Next stop is a small family run winery. This is a more casual affair and a group who have been there for a 5 course lunch are most certainly tipsy and enjoying their afternoon. However, the wine tasting it’s not the best. The wine they are serving us to taste is not good. It is too young and had not developed its flavors and they admit to this. If he wanted me to buy any wines I certainly wasn’t going to be based on this tasting.
As this really is a food and wine day we stay out in the region for dinner that evening. We go to another vineyard, in another beautiful setting. This is a lot more modern and retro than the places we were at earlier. Its chilly outside, the fire is lit,and there is more wine to be had. Dinner doesn’t quite match up to lunchtime but nonetheless we’re in a beautiful place and life is good.