By Marcela Gómez
Photos: Demian Colman
Mountains are omnipresent in Mendoza, surrounding the region from all sides. This is due to the fact that the geography that separates the nation from the Pacific Ocean, a mere 250 miles from the border, is comprised of three successive mountain ranges, separated from one another by valleys.
The Precordillera, which sits across the Uspallata Valley from the Frontal Cordillera, stretches from the border with San Juan to the Mendoza River. These foothills descend gradually until they finally disappear to reveal the Frontal Cordillera, which rises up more than 19,000 feet in a massif comprised of several ranges: El Tigre, El Plata, El Portillo, and others.
Take Route 40 south towards the Uco Valley where the Cordillera Principal, the country’s real border with Chile, rises up around the emblematic Tupungato Volcano. Arriving at the border, you will also find the Aconcagua.
Aconcagua Park, one of Mendoza’s seventeen nature reserves, sits high in the Andean Cordillera. It preserves glaciers, water basins, fauna, flora, and Incan archeological sites. The park is also a well-known setting for mountain sports.
One of the most popular itineraries, naturally, is the trip to Alta Montaña and the towering king, Mt. Aconcagua, which rises 22,834 feet above sea level, making it the highest peak in America and the second highest in the world, after the Himalayas.
Puente del Inca
The Puente del Inca, located along the road between the border with Chile and Aconcagua Peak, is another major tourist attraction. This natural bridge over the Cuevas River is home to hot springs reaching 95° F.
Although somewhat rare, it is possible to catch a glimpse of the majestic Andean condor in flight.
Oasis and Irrigation Ditches
The Cacique Guaymallén Canal is representative of the exemplary way water in Mendoza is managed. There is even a special water police squad that enforces a rigorous watering system. According to architect Ricardo Ponte, “these channels have accompanied the city throughout its many stages and various social activities.”
From time to time Mendoza’s bucolic landscape is interrupted by another symbol of the regional economy: oil.
The irrigation ditches form a network that furrows for more than 300 miles through a stony, arid land, allowing for the construction of the three oases that bring life to Mendoza and make it possible to cultivate the land.
The history of Mendoza wines deserves a chapter of its own, but for now, we’ll simply say that, in 1987, the city was declared an International Wine Capital. It is number eight on a list of other famous cities that also includes Bordeaux and Florence and Malbec is its trademark grape. Mendoza, where 70% of Argentinian wine is produced, has over a hundred wineries that create outstanding organic and high-quality wines. The wineries that welcome tourists also offer excellent food and fantastic accommodations.
Cecchin’s has used the same traditions to make its organic wines since its founding, over six decades ago. Victor Hugo is part of the experience.
A Complete Package
Wineries such as Alpasión and Entrecielos, to mention only two, offer fantastic accommodations in the middle of the desert, with a mountain view through every window. Others, such as Andeluna, feature outstanding restaurants and excellent wine tasting
Zuccardi’s Piedra Infinita bodega was awarded an international architectural prize.
The Old City
On March 20, 1861, an earthquake that registered 7.0 on the Richter scale destroyed the provincial capital and killed 4,247 people –30% of the population. Most of the buildings collapsed, including the Cabildo and the San Francisco Basilica, where mass was being celebrated.
The Monument to the Nuevo Cancionero, on the corner of Pedro Molina and Costanera, honors the artistic movement of the same name that arose in the city, led by Mercedes Sosa, Oscar Matus, and others.
At the time the church collapsed it was under the tutelage of the Franciscans, since the Jesuits had been expelled from the country by Spanish kings.
The Foundation Area Museum preserves the history of life in the city prior to the earthquake.
Pasaje Galería San Martín
The new city was first imagined with low buildings in case of earthquakes. It began its skyward ascent in 1926, with the design of Pasaje Galería San Martín.
In 1863, engineer Julio Balloffet laid out the new city, making fast emergency evacuation a priority. He designed wider streets and more squares to serve as easily accessible refuges for residents.
The designer laid out the new city like a checkerboard, with the largest plaza –now called Independence Square– in the center, covering 17,880 square feet and featuring two theaters, a museum, and an artisans’ promenade. Four other squares are equidistant from Independence Square: San Martín, Chile, Italia, and España.
In the 1950s, taller buildings were constructed. Edificio Gómez was among the pioneers, standing 112 feet and twelve stories high.
Los Portones (Gateways)
The people of Mendoza wanted the park to have a monumental entrance so, in 1907, they purchased this gateway from a Scottish smelter. Originally commissioned by Turkey’s Red Sultan, the portal was abandoned when the Sultan was deposed before the gateway could be delivered.
Monument to the Army of the Andes
An important part of Mendoza’s history is linked to the acts of liberation carried out by General José de San Martín, which began in the city. This monument, honoring the Army of the Andes, was built in 1914 by Uruguayan sculptor Juan Manuel Ferrari. It was placed at the top of the Cerro de la Gloria monument in the middle of the park.
General San Martin Park
The visionary attitude of this extremely arid city led to the creation, in 1896, of a green space designed by French architect and landscaper Carlos Thays, who created a park that now has over 740 cultivated acres and 200 acres in development.
Cacheuta Hot Springs
Along a winding mountain road, just twenty-four miles from Mendoza, are the Cacheuta Hot Springs, a spa featuring Argentina’s only thermal caves and a sauna. Its luxurious facilities offer indoor and outdoor thermal pools, stone pools with varied temperatures, and mud baths.
Your day at the spa includes an exquisite luncheon featuring local cuisine.
Equally gorgeous and slightly more affordable is the adjacent water park.
Some of Mendoza’s most characteristic landscapes are located in the Uco Valley, which covers three departments: Tunuyán, Tupungato, and San Carlos.
Martín Gómez, a horse lover who encourages taming “with love,” is representative of the independent “no-frills” tour guide movement. At home, in the glow of his fireplace, he shares the history of horses in Argentina and offers to take us out to search for wild horses.
Old Route 40
San Carlos has preserved a section of the original mythical National Route 40, which combines wonderful landscapes, hidden treasures, fruit, garlic, oregano, and wine. Well-organized rural tourism has made it possible to taste the fruit of the tempranillo grape while listening to a gaucho serenade.
From North, Central, and South America and the Caribbean, Copa Airlines offers four weekly flights to Mendoza, Argentina, starting November 15, through the Hub of the Americas in Panama City. Flight CM 420 leaves Tocumen International Airport (Panama) at 3:40 p.m. every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday and arrives at El Plumerillo International Airport (Mendoza) at 12:21 am the next day. From Mendoza, Flight CM 421 leaves at 1:34 a.m. every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday and arrives in Panama at 6:30 a.m.
Where to Stay
The city offers excellent hotels such as the Hyatt Park, the Intercontinental, the Sheraton, and the Hotel Esplendor, where the team from Panorama of the Americas stayed. There is a fine selection of boutique hotels available along the winery route.