When we made the decision to go as far south as possible on the South American continent (and indeed the world, Antarctica aside) one inevitable question was what happens after that. What goes down must come up, as they (don’t) say. What we noticed while planning the trip was a direct flight from that most southerly point, Ushuaia and Cordoba, Argentina’s second largest city located in the central / north of the country.
Córdoba is not exactly on everyone’s priority list when travelling to Argentina. The deeply unreliable and at times completely inaccurate Lonely Planet South America on a Shoestring describes it as “vibrant, fun, manageable in size and (in places) gorgeous to look at”. We couldn’t help but notice that description could equally apply to us and so putting aside our Lonely Planet reservations (reservations born most likely from the fact we’re twice the age of the books target group – sigh) we booked flights and had our escape route from the south planned. Aside from spending some time in Córdoba this route also gave us a good passage to Mendoza (which really is on people’s priority lists) and onwards to Chile which we aimed to get to just before Xmas.
It was on the slightly-daunting-with-a-baby 4 hour flight to Córdoba that the first signs of Lonely Planet misinformation arose. A very nice man sitting across the aisle started chatting to us and on hearing that we were due to spend 10 days in his home town simply asked, “why”. It was a great question and one we didn’t have a particularly robust answer to.
Regardless we stepped off the plane and immediately welcomed the heat of early summer in this part of the country. Flying 1,600 miles due north does the world of good for the weather and I in particular felt ready to start topping up the t shirt tan.
Our AirBnB hosts had notified us the day before about building work on both sides of the property (cheers for the warning!) so it was with some trepidation that we arrived at our new home. However it was the weekend and moreover – as a result of a bit of luck and some excellent logistical planning – we had Mark and Tom, two dear friends from London, coming to visit us as part of their own month long South American adventure. As such, thoughts of building work were put to the side and what followed was a wonderful, boozy, laughter-filled weekend in the sunshine.
The end of the weekend and the departure of Tom and Mark coincided with the start of the building work. This wasn’t a bit of flat pack furniture building either, it was serious renovation work mainly consisting of lots and lots and lots of banging. We are reasonably hardy and don’t like to cause a fuss but it soon became apparent this wasn’t going to work. To be fair our AirBnB hosts were understanding and after a couple of days we’d arranged to leave early and get a full refund in the process. They were so relaxed about it that I felt a little guilty about the bullet pointed message I sent detailing all that was wrong with the house, aside from the construction noise. Here’s an extract:
- High amounts of dust inside and outside the property
- Two skips outside the property filled with rubbish attracting stray dogs
- Pieces of bedroom wall coming away due to banging and vibrations from building work
- Around 5-10 cockroaches in the property each day, possibly attracted by the mess from the building site
- Broken microwave
- Broken oven only works using a pole which seems unsafe
- Broken tap in bathroom
- Broken tray in fridge which caused us to lose some food
- Hot water in kitchen but not in bathroom
- Intermittent internet access
It was a shame as the property itself was one of the most characterful and quirky we had stayed in on our trip. There’s also something quite novel about an oven that only works with the use of an extendable pole. Amber loved the garden and eating all our meals outdoors was a nice bonus. But we had to escape the noise (even though Amber slept fine – miraculously) and although we’d enjoyed looking around Córdoba we didn’t feel there were huge amounts more to see and do.
As such we decided to take the opportunity to leave the city and squeeze in a bonus destination which ended up being Villa Carlos Paz, a strange little resort town about a 1 hour drive away.
Villa Carlos Paz
Our trusted friend Lonely Planet describes Villa Carlos Paz as “like a cross between Las Vegas and Disneyland”. For a quick bonus trip like this, and given the proximity to Córdoba this sounded ideal. Amber would get her fix of Mickey Mouse and we would, well, so would we. However of all the lies in that book this would turn out to be possibly the most ludicrous.
Villa Carlos Paz, in reality, is a town with largely pleasant and well cared for residential suburbs surrounding a dusty, slightly dingy centre that was more like Skegness than Las Vegas. Quite how one casino, a cuckoo clock (see below) and a couple of amusement arcades led the Lonely Planet author to compare it to two of the USA’s most famous attractions is beyond us. That said the town is beautifully nestled in the Sierra mountain range, benefits from a wonderful climate and was a welcome respite from the banging and busyness of Córdoba.
Our lovely apartment was located in one of the aforementioned pleasant residential suburbs although we should always caveat this with the following – residential suburbs in Argentina equals dogs. And dogs in Argentina equals guard dogs. We have lost count of the number of times, mainly while out running, we have been chased by dogs. It makes running in Argentina an often deeply unrelaxing experience.
Anyhow we were happy in our new home and it served as a great base to explore the area. It really was nothing like Las Vegas or Disneyland but its quirky centre, surrounding hills and warm weather kept us entertained and content for the time we were there. Moreover Amber was on great form despite no sign of Mickey Mouse and overall it was a surprising highlight, partly born out of the spontaneity with which we ended up there.
After Villa Carlos Paz it was on to Mendoza. We were originally booked on an 11 hour overnight bus from Córdoba to Mendoza but in what would become somewhat of a habit we bottled the bus option and instead opted for the far more civilised 1 hour flight. Our budget (which by this point was a dribbling wreck pleading for mercy) again took a further pummelling but one we considered necessary.
Mendoza is known as the land of “vino y sol” and we like both of those things so it was with a considerable degree of excitement that we landed at the newly reopened airport and made our way to our accommodation. It was however somewhat of a surprise when our frst two days there were wash outs. The intensely dry desert climate defied all meteorological sense and treated us to 2 days of relentless rain. We spent most of the time drinking.
The rain cleared along with our fuzzy heads and the sunshine returned. Mendoza is a beautiful city, partly due to having been largely destroyed by an earthquake in 1861. As a result of that earthquake the town planners rebuilt the city with wide avenues (to accommodate rubble from future earthquakes) and spacious plazas (for evacuation spots). Along most streets are beautiful trees offering shade from the fierce sunshine. And to the west is the enormous, stunning Parque San Martin – the perfect place for running, walking and playing.
We also made sure we took advantage of the two big attractions Mendoza offers – the hundreds of vineyards in the surrounding valleys and proximity to the Andes and in particular the highest mountain outside the Himalayas, Aconcagua.
Given the length of time required and the high altitude we decided to take it in turns visiting the Andes. We chose to do the same trek though so we could still share the experience and compare notes.
The trek started with a 3-hour bus ride from Mendoza along the route used to get into Chile. This stunning route took us higher and higher into the mountains and as we approached the Chilean border we caught our first sight of Aconcagua.
The mountain is not only the highest outside the Himalayas but also by definition the highest in South America and therefore considered one of the “7 summits”, i.e. the highest peaks on each continent. This means that Aconcagua is a very popular mountain with thousands attempting it each year either independently or as part of a guided expedition. It is a serious undertaking as while there is no technical climbing expertise required the weather conditions are notoriously unpredictable with extreme wind, cold and storms regularly occurring. The altitude is also a major hazard with the summit reaching 6,962m above sea level.
Our day trek would take us to the first approach camp called Confluencia, one of multiple camps used by climbers on their way to the summit. The camp is located at 3,400m above sea level with much of the trek following the Horcones river, in the shadow of the legendary, vast south face of Aconcagua. My guide was a former expedition guide and had summited the amount around 19 times (he couldn’t remember exactly!) so I took the opportunity to ask a multitude of questions and further plant the seed in my mind that one day I might come back to do the whole thing. Claire and I both had a great time on our respective days. The hike was reasonably straightforward, going at a slow pace due to the altitude and gently ascending to Confluencia. After a lunch stop at the camp we then retraced our steps before getting the bus back to Mendoza. It was a full day, leaving around 8am and getting home around 8pm. Throughout the trip we both felt incredibly lucky to be amongst some of the world’s highest peaks and to get close to Aconcagua itself. We both have a love for the mountains and this was an ideal and manageable (given we are with Amber) way to sample them more closely.
With both our treks done the only way to properly celebrate is by drinking wine so on 2 of our final days in the city we decided to visit a couple of vineyards in the area. The first was Matervini, a new, boutique winery located in Lujan de Cuyo, around a 30 minute drive from Mendoza. The setting for the winery was absolutely stunning – a beautiful mansion surrounded by vineyards in all directions and the snow peaked Andes in the distance. Our guide was excellent, immediately affectionate towards Amber and very passionate and knowledgeable about the wine. The concept behind the winery is to demonstrate how varied their wines can be despite being largely from just one grape, Malbec. And they do this in a completely sustainable manner, being the first vineyard to source all their power from solar panels.
During the tasting two things were abundantly clear – the wine was exceptionally high quality and we didn’t really know what we were doing. No amount of swilling, nosing and tasting could hide our amateurish ways. However our guide was very patient and dealt tactfully with our insightful remarks like “ooh I like this one” and “this smells really nice”. All in all we tried 5 wines ranging in price from $30 to $95 per bottle. With the budget bloodied in the corner we showed it no mercy and in a display of downright reckless giddiness bought a bottle for $45. Why why why. Even Amber looked shocked.
The second winery we visited was Carinae, a much larger yet still boutique vineyard located in the Maipu valley, again around 30 minutes drive from Mendoza. This was a very different experience with a more homely, comfortable and family run atmosphere compared to the sophistication and elegance of the first tour. What it also gave us was much more of a detailed insight into the actual wine making process. The wines were again of high quality and the tasting was good fun. Yet again we couldn’t help but come away with a souvenir in the shape of another bottle of Malbec albeit this one was priced at a far more civilised level.
At this point our stay in Mendoza and Argentina as a whole was coming to a close. What lay ahead was the 6 hour coach ride over the Andes from Mendoza to Santiago, Chile. And yet again we bottled the long bus trip in favour of a 1 hour flight. In our defence we had subsequently found out that the bus went to altitudes that may impact Amber (and us) and with that uncertainty about how she would cope we didn’t want to take the risk. So bus tickets refunded, flight tickets purchased and off we went to our 4th country of the trip, Chile.