Beyond Buenos Aires
Sunday, November 1, 2009
Your guide to heading out of the city and exploring what lays beyond Buenos Aires.
By Katie Hammel
For the ambitious traveler, the best of Buenos Aires can be seen in a few days, and even those who want to take a more relaxed approach can get a good feel for life in the city in about a week. But chances are you shelled out a good amount of money for those tickets to Argentina, so taking a short trip is hard to justify. Luckily, there are plenty of other areas in Argentina worth visiting nearby. During a recent trip to Argentina, my husband and I decided to spend a few days in Mendoza, then take a couple of day trips to the Pampas and to Uruguay, all doable side trips beyond the border of Buenos Aires.
Two hours by plane from Buenos Aires, Mendoza City sits at the heart of Argentina’s wine country. The area’s high desert climate at the base of the Andes mountain range is responsible for the uniqueness of the wine produced here. The city itself is small enough to explore in an afternoon, so you can devote the rest of your time to wine tasting or taking advantage of the region’s outdoor activities. For our first day, we chose to concentrate on the wine.
We’d booked a room at a bed and breakfast in the center of town. The owner’s son, Javier, offered to arrange a day of wine tasting for us. Since planning tastings in Mendoza on your own can be a little daunting for newcomers — staff at many places don’t speak English and reservations are mandatory — we decided to take him up on the offer.
We started the day at Achaval-Ferrer, one of the largest producers in the valley. We toured the production facilities and then moved on to the chic marble and wood tasting room that overlooked the vineyards and the snow-capped mountains in the distance. We tasted three wines of the same variety that were grown at three different altitudes. We were amazed at the extent to which the altitude affected the taste of the wine. We purchased a bottle of the signature Malbec and moved on to our next winery.
After visiting two more wineries and eating a light lunch, we continued to our final stop which, turned out, to be our favorite stop.
Carmelo Patti, a small, boutique winery run by Carmelo himself, was a complete change from the expansive estates we’d just visited. Instead of rolling vineyards spread before us, we saw a potholed parking lot inhabited by a few old cars and a mangy dog. Instead of a sparkling new tasting center, we saw a dusty room with one rickety table. And instead of a bright, modern production facility, we saw an archaic, faded collection of machines collected on a dirt floor. We were skeptical that the wine would be as good as Javier promised.
But, as we began our tour, our opinion quickly changed. We couldn’t understand Carmelo (he only spoke Spanish so Javier translated), but we could hear the passion in his voice. Javier explained that Carmelo didn’t own any vines; he bought his grapes from a trusted supplier and acted as a one-man operation, creating all the wine himself. From the pressing of the grapes, the aging of the wine, to the bottling of the finished product, Carmelo was in on every step (though he did sometimes hire one or two workers to help with distribution and packaging). We began to understand why Carmelo was so passionate about his wine.
Carmelo then led over to an oak barrel. He uncorked it, inserted a long glass tube, and pulled out a sample of the young wine for us to try. It was far from being ready to drink, but Carmelo wanted us to taste the progression of the wine as it aged.
We moved into the rustic tasting room, only now I saw it in a new light. I accepted a glass of Carmelo’s latest Cabernet and I understood: this wasn’t the crummy hovel of a poor wine producer, this was the simple facility of a man who has dedicated his life to making great wine, and who let the wine speak for itself. And speak it does. Carmelo doesn’t advertise in any way, relying only on word of mouth and good press to sell his wine all over the world. It’s a strategy that seems to be working: the majority of Carmelo’s business is in exporting, and his wine has won numerous awards.
Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay
Colonia del Sacramento was founded by the Portuguese in 1680, making it the oldest city in Uruguay, and is located just across the Rio de la Plata from Buenos Aires. Regular ferry service runs between the two cities with an option between taking a one-hour boat ride, or a cheaper, slower three-hour boat ride. We were a bit crunched for time, so we opted to take the fast boat and plan for a visit of four hours.
Stepping off the boat, we located a map and oriented ourselves toward the ”Barrio Histórico,” a 10-minute walk from the ferry docks. The main part of the town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is small enough to be covered in an afternoon. We wandered down to the waterfront, strolling lazily along the quiet cobbled streets, past colonial buildings and antique cars. For faster transport, many locals and visitors opt to get around by scooter. Rental shops line the streets by the ferry dock and rent the small bikes for as low as $20 per day.
We snapped photos of the harbor and the sailboats that bobbed in the choppy brown water and then we browsed the souvenir shops selling leather goods and Maté gourds. If there were a national drink of Uruguay, Yerba Maté would be it. Everyone in town seemed to be carrying around a hollowed out gourd full of Maté and a thermos of hot water for refills. We bought our own gourd and supply of the tea and then stopped for a light lunch. Like Argentina, Uruguay’s cuisine is heavy on beef and pork, and there are plenty of options for Italian cuisine. Fish is also popular and there were many restaurants serving freshly caught offerings from the harbor. We settled on a little pub and enjoyed some pizza and a few Quilmes beers.
After lunch, we walked to the historic lighthouse and climbed the narrow winding stairs to the top. We surveyed the scene before us, from the murky waters of the Rio de la Plata to the colonial charm of the streets below, and then headed back to the ferry dock for our return journey.
Just outside the sprawling expanse of Buenos Aires, concrete gives way to farmland and people are replaced by the cows that provide the country’s famously tender beef. There are multiple estancias, or ranches, that welcome visitors for an afternoon or overnight experience. Some are quite touristy and feature rodeo-like competitions and staged performances of stunt riding. We wanted a more authentic experience, so we chose Estancia Los dos Hermanos, a working cattle ranch run by genuine gauchos, and known for its quality horses and lavish asado lunch spreads.
The estancia’s driver picked us and another couple up and drove us an hour outside of Buenos Aires to the ranch. We enjoyed a light breakfast and then got to know our guides and horses. We were each matched up with a suitable mount and then climbed into the traditional gaucho saddle, a massive, heavily padded affair that resembles an American Western saddle but without the horn. After a short walk from the barn, we set out trotting through the pastures of the property. Once we were out in the open fields we separated into two groups: the beginners who would only walk and trot, and the more advanced riders who would be comfortable at a gallop.
I’ve ridden quite a bit, so I elected to head out with the advanced group. As soon as we separated, my guide, Juan, gave me a smile, clucked to his horse, and took off. We raced across the open fields and I was amazed at how well the horses were trained. Mine obeyed my every command and effortlessly carried me over the countryside. All too soon, our hour-long ride was over and we returned to the ranch house for lunch.
We arrived to find a spread of flaky empanadas, cheese, jamón, wine, and beer waiting for us. We snacked, talked, and then moved over to the dining table that had been laid out for us in the field. More wine and beer were served alongside fresh salad and crusty bread with a sizzling platter of grilled sausage and short ribs. We all tucked in and enjoyed the succulent meat, laughing and talking about everything we’d seen on our ride. When the meat was gone, we were surprised to find that another platter was brought out, this time of beef tenderloin. The meat was everything we’d imagined the Argentine beef to be: tender, juicy, and perfectly flavorful. Just as we were about to burst, a final platter of strip steak was brought out, followed by a rich dulce de leche cake and coffee.
After all that food we needed to rest. We retired to the nearby hammocks for a siesta while other guests went hiking, played cards, or sunned by the swimming pool. An hour later we remounted for our final ride, heading in the opposite direction as before to explore the rest of the estancia’s sprawling grounds. As I galloped alongside the others, the Argentine sun beating down on me, the grassy expanse of the Pampas spread before my eyes, the only sound I heard was the rhythmic pounding of hoof beats. “Bien?” Juan asked as the scenery passed in a blur. “Si”, I replied, unable to keep myself from grinning. “Perfecto.”