April 3-8: quaint Mendoza and onward to Malargue

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I had first visited Mendoza in late 2005 together with my friend Daniel and his then-girlfriend Carina. We arrived on New Year’s Eve, in a rental car we had picked up in Buenos Aires, and were underwhelmed. It was warm, but there were barely any people outside celebrating. We left after only one night.

Sometimes second impressions count more than first. Upon my return from San Francisco via Santiago de Chile’s airport, I gave myself a chance to reassess Argentina’s main urban center at the foothills of the Andes, and I am glad I did. Several good coffees, medialunas and walks in leafy parks later, I have to ask for the city’s pardon. Te quiero, Mendoza.

 

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Harry and I stayed on Camping Suizo campground, which despite its name bears no obvious connection to Switzerland (in fact, most of the owner’s family now lives in Germany). It is one of the few places that are still open at this time of the year. For Argentinians the 2016 camping season is already over, and so we were grateful that Lalo and his crew received us for several nights.

 

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Of course a stay in Mendoza required ample wine tasting. Good (greasy) food makes Malbec taste even better.

 

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Argentina is probably the only country in the world (possible exception: the State of Texas, although I haven’t yet come across anything similar there) where restaurants openly praise the healthy qualities of red meat — while conveniently ignoring dozens of recent scientific studies proving the exact opposite. Beef remains an important source of national pride for Argentinians, and the thought that it could in fact be directly linked to ill-health understandably irks many of them.

 

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Before leaving Mendoza on April 6, we paid a visit to the local Toyota dealership. Aside from a popped fuse and a broken front light (both easy fixes), la bestia has lately been suffering from an altogether more troublesome ailment: her brake sensor is broken. This means that her brake lights are on — all the time. Disconnecting them would be possible but would take a toll on our road safety. The main problem with the current situation, however, is that the permanently switched-on lights rapidly deplete her battery, so I need to disconnect the latter every time we stop for more than a few minutes, which is pretty annoying. Unfortunately a replacement sensor is nowhere to be found in Argentina. We are hoping for a solution in Chile.

 

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On April 6 we were ready to head west to cross the border, but then an Argentinean SENASA (animal and livestock administration) official who was helping with Harry’s papers in Mendoza told us about a much nicer crossing 450km further south. It was too late in the day to get there in time, but we had already checked out of the campground. So we ended up wild-camping under a bridge and were rewarded with a beautiful night sky.

 

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The next morning we were on our way. We filled up on gas — and discovered this reminder of a dollar-pegged peso. Back in the day, not so long ago in fact, one Argentinean peso was equivalent to one US dollar. Today the exchange rate is closer to 15 pesos to the dollar! Meanwhile, gas prices in Argentina are the highest we’ve encountered during our entire trip across North, Central and South America. Fortunately the southern provinces benefit from a reduced fuel tax, which will relieve some of the stress on the trip’s gas budget.

 

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We continued on ruta 40 for most of the time. Much like the Panamericana, surface conditions vary between recently redone asphalt and meandering dust ripio.

 

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Occasionally ruta 40 was in such poor state that we took detours. One of them led us to Embalse Agua del Toro, a water reservoir…

 

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… which at one end is bordered by a massive dam and hydro plant.

 

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A fresh look at the map and iOverlander suggested that there was another option to cross into Chile: via Las Leñas, one of Argentina’s premier ski resorts. We arrived in Las Leñas two hours later — and found the French prefab-style town (think concrete-based 1970s modernism) virtually deserted. The ski season only starts in late May, and aside from a guard and a Chinese shopkeeper there was no one around. Moreover, the guard told us that the border crossing farther west was closed. He allowed us to camp on the empty parking lot, but since it wasn’t dark yet we decided to turn around and drive back toward ruta 40.

 

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Deja-vus are becoming quite common these days; for instance, the landscape here in southern Mendoza Province bears a striking resemblance to what we’ve driven through in northern Montana and Alberta.

 

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Half an hour east of Las Leñas we stopped for the night. La bestia‘s brake lights make her easy to spot…

 

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… and their bright red color also inspired the sky that evening!

 

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I am seriously considering summarizing the trip in a dual series of (1) mountain photos and (2) sunset photos.

 

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After a cold night in the wild–I woke us several times to put on socks, a woolen hat and yet an extra layer–we reached Malargüe on April 8 and were thrilled to find its municipal campground still open (though nearly as deserted as Las Leñas). Following a hot shower I spent several hours catching up on e-mails while Harry was dozing in the mild autumn sun.

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