Archive | March, 2011

Xtreme Mendoza

5 Mar

Our rafting crew

Whitewater rafting is a lot of fun. I am always up for a rough ride down a raging river in a blow up dingy if given a chance. Yesterday I went rafting for the third time in my life on the Mendoza River in Mendoza, Argentina.

The Mendoza river is low this year: a warmer winter meant less snow which feeds the river when it melts every spring. With this in mind I was feeling a little bit cheated when we started our 12 kilometre run downstream. We had a strong current pulling us along, but there were no waves or holes in sight.

At least the scenery was amazing. The Mendoza river runs through a valley walled by rugged mountains coloured in shades of pink and blue. Waves or no waves, we were definitely in a very beautiful part of the world.

Ten minutes or so into our adventure I realised that I had judged the Mendoza river too soon. Sure enough we ran into some serious grade III and IV rapids. Acording to Wikipedia, this class of rapids can be defined as

Intense, powerful but predictable rapids requiring precise boat handling in turbulent water. Depending on the character of the river, it may feature large, unavoidable waves and holes or constricted passages demanding fast maneuvers under pressure. A fast, reliable eddy turn may be needed to initiate maneuvers, scout rapids, or rest. Rapids may require “must” moves above dangerous hazards. Scouting may be necessary the first time down. Risk of injury to swimmers is moderate to high, and water conditions may make self-rescue difficult. Group assistance for rescue is often essential but requires practiced skills. A strong kayak roll is highly recommended. Rapids that are at the lower or upper end of this difficulty range are designated Class IV- or Class IV+ respectively. Limit of open top canoes..

So we were getting some action, were were getting wet and our heart rates started to climb as we paddled like crazy forward and backwards and jumped this way and that to stop the raft from tipping.

At one point I was tipped out of the raft by a big wave. The water was moving so quickly that I was not able to grab onto the side of the raft as we had been instructed. As a rip pulled me under the water my lifejacket pushed me back to the surface of the river. A line from a Gwen Harwood poem came to mind: I was caught by a wave and rolled Like a doll among rattling shells.

In a matter of seconds the experienced safety kayaker was at my side to rescue me. I grabbed on to the front of his kayak but let go when I realised we were heading straight into a huge boulder.

A big wave

Me being tipped out of the raft

The safety kayak comes to my rescue. The yellow blob under the water is my helmet

After a few more dunkings I managed to grip onto the kayak again and was carried to shore. This all happened too fast for me to be scared, and all I focused on during the ordeal was getting my head above the water so I could breathe. Perhaps for a moment the consent form that I signed at the beginning of the trip to say that I understood risks of rafting included injury and death came to mind.

After I caught my breath and my heartbeat slowed down I jumped back into the raft and finished the trip. Riding the rapids was certainly more fun in the raft than out of it.

All in all we had great day, rafing in Mendoza is highly recommended. There are a few rafting outfits operating here, but I can readily recommend Rios Andinos for the quality of their equipment and highly experienced staff who are lots of fun but serious when they need to be.

DIY bike & wine in Mendoza

2 Mar

More than half of Argentina’s world-famous wine is produced in the Mendoza region. We figured that if we wanted to indulge in a few glasses (or bottles) of quality malbec, and learn a bit about where the good stuff comes from, Menoza was the place to be. We traveled to Mendoza on an overnight bus (18 hours) from Salta in the far north of Argentina. Mendoza is 13 hours from Buenos Aires and 7 hours from Santiago de Chile by coach.

In the past few weeks traveling around Argentina we’ve met plenty of tourists who swore that the highlight of their visit to Mendoza was the day they spent cycling through wine country and visiting local bodegas (wineries) to sample the best the region has to offer. We thought this sounded like a fantastic way to spend a day.

Yesterday was a beautiful sunny day in Mendoza, perfect for making this excursion. Late in the morning we took a local bus to Maipu where quite a few wineries are concentrated. The short journey from Mendoza’s city centre took us through the industrial outer-suburbs before arriving in rural Maipu. As soon as I stepped out of the bus I was struck by the postcard perfect green vineyards lining both sides of the road with snow-capped andes in the distance. This is precisely what we traveled to Mendoza to see.

The DIY bike / cycle tour in Maipu is popular enough to support a handful of bike rental outfits competing for tourist business. We rented bikes from the logically named Maipu Bikes which cost us 25 pesos for the day, and included a free bottle of water, a map showing the location of local bodegas, olive groves and olive oil factories, restaurants and beer gardens, as well as the costs of tours and tastings,
and a bonus glass of wine at the end of the day. As far as I could tell, competitors offer the same package for the same price.

Alex and his bike

The first kilometre of cycling was tough as the road was under construction. Riding through sand and gravel required a lot of effort under the hot sun, especially since I haven’t ridden a bike for months. I was relieved when we got back on to a sealed section of road. Cycling here became easier and tall leafy trees lining the trail provided a lot of shade.

Our first stop was at the Bodega Familia di Tommaso, or Bodega 1869, a small artisan winery that has been run by the same family since it was established in, you guessed it, 1869. This is one of the oldest continually running bodegas in Mendoza and a number of buildings on site date from the late 19th Century. I appreciated the warm welcome we received here. For only 13 pesos we were able to take part in a wine tasting session and tour. We were invited to try three different malbecs and a desert wine as their varying traits and qualities were explained to us, before visiting the heritage listed buildings.

We chose to have lunch in the on-site restaurant here. It was lovely to eat outside with a view of the vineyard. Alex and I both selected the menu del dia which was a country-style chicken stew served with salad and rice, and we shared a a great bottle of torrentes to wash it all down.

Lunch at Tomasso's

The Bodega Familia de Tommaso is open from 10.00am to 6.00pm Monday to Saturday for tastings and tours. You don’t need to make a reservation, just turn up.

After lunch we thought it might be a good idea to have a break from drinking alcohol, so we cycled to the Laur olive grove and olive oil factory. Alex and I consume a lot of olives and olive oil, so it was nice to see where this all comes from. The tour of the groves and the factory was brief but interesting, and afterwards we are able to taste yummy olives and olive tapanades. The tour and degustation cost 15 pesos per person.

After the olives it was time again for wine. We turned around and started our journey back to Maipu Bikes with plans to drop in to one more winery on the way. We visited one bodgea called ‘Templo de Alba’ that looked kind of like a morman temple from the outside. I didn’t get a good feeling about this huge operation. There wasn’t much of a personal touch here, no one was on staff to welcome visitors so we completed the small self-guided tour that was available and moved on.

The Vina el Cerno Bodega was located just 100 metres away from the Templo. We decided to stay and try for more wines here. Alex and I shared four half-glasses of a sparkling white, a young sirah, and a mature oak-aged malbec and cabernet sauvignon. The staff were friendly here and very happy to talk to us about the wines that we chose to taste. This is another winery that I recommend visiting.

As the sun set we rode back to the Maipu Bikes garage a little bit tired, a little bit dunk, but overall in good spirits. We had a great day.

All in all we rode just over 20km. My legs have never been so sore. Today I’m spending the morning bumming around the hostel and writing this blog post while my quads recover. Still I think our adventure was worth the pain.

Key info for DIY bike and wine tourists

  • Catch bus no.10 from corner of Rioja and caramarca to Maipu. Remember to have coins to pay for your ticket (2 pesos each way).
  • Hire a bike 25 pesos a day, including a bottle of water and a map of the area. Discounts are available for bigger groups (4+ people).
  • You will get a map with your bike. Maps can also be picked up at the tourist information offices in Mendoza and here.