Wine And Near Death Experiences

Our second day in Mendoza began with a trip to their vineyard area – Maipu – which provides 75% of the country’s wine. After an hour on the bus, we picked up our bikes and pedalled off in the direction of the first vineyard – a small, family owned one round the corner. For 30 pesos (around a fiver) we shared a tasting of each of their four wines, the helpful assistant telling us a lot about his family and their business as he poured what seemed like gallons of their precious liquid into the four glasses. An hour later, at 11am, we climbed back onto our bikes and wobbled off down the road, wondering how we were going to make it through the rest of the day, leaving our host to consider how he was going to deal with the group of riotously inebriated young Australian fellows who had pitched up midway through our tasting, singing football songs and skidding their bikes up and down on the gravel outside. According to some other decent English types we met, they’d been drinking constantly since the night before which explained a lot.

We chose to cycle right down to the end of the wine route, partly in order to sober up and partly to get the main part of the cycling done and out of the way. By the end of the day, we’d cycled around 25km and consumed a reasonable amount of the red (and some white) stuff, taking a bottle and a half of our favourites back to drink another day. Exhausted, we fell into our beds after a delicious chicken and chips dinner in town.

The next day began early as we were collected from our hotel at 9am by three macho Argentinian men who, with a grunt of ‘hola’, chucked us into their pickup truck and drove us up into the Andes so we could jump off. Yes, after my protestations that people who do extreme sports are idiots in a previous post, we actually paid money to be allowed to run towards the edge of a 1600m mountain and leap off with only an apparently experienced local paragliding man strapped to each of us. Annika took off first, making some amusing and slightly worrying whooping noises and I followed a few minutes later. After the idiot who was in control of my life managed to take the lens cap of my camera off and then drop it, I quite enjoyed the ride I suppose – the sudden upwards thrusts we got when we hit a thermal were quite consistent in making my stomach churn but it was quite fun and I got some superb photos of Annika high above me.

Slightly shaken, we were driven back to town and booked some tickets on another extreme journey – 18 hours on a bus that night to a small town called Junin de los Andes, further south.

After an afternoon spent lazing in the park after all our adventures, we climbed aboard the bus that was to be our home for the bulk of the next day. In actual fact, it ended up being two buses, as we had to change halfway at 6.30am.

Feeling not at all as bad as I thought I would (I actually slept for 5 hours on the bus!), we arrived at Junin at 2pm the following day, having seen some superb scenery in the last hour or two as the bus drove through Patagonia with a snow-topped volcano on our right.

I checked the Internet for the Arsenal score, smiled when I noticed we were 1 up and we headed for our hostal, round the corner (imagine my surprise when, by the time we got there, we’d thrown it all away and drew 1-1!).

Junin is a small, picturesque, alpine-looking town near the Andes and we stayed in a wooden chalet type thing run by an insane woman and her down-trodden husband. The owner, Alicia, spoke very little English so, ignoring the fact that Annika could understand everything she said in Spanish, insisted on typing everything she had to say into an online translation service leading to some very amusing advice such as to “prune to the mike” whilst we were there.

We chose to ignore the pruning suggestion and instead started with a day of rest and recuperation, featuring nothing but a short walk in the nearby hills and a large amount of reading. Next day, we hired bikes and cycled off in the direction of the nearby lake – Lago Huechulafquen – 27km away.

The road was unmade for the first 4km but then was nice and smooth for a while, giving us hope that we could make it to the lake, despite Annika having poisoned me the night before and my stomach making some truly fascinating noises. However, after another 5km or so the road went back to gravel, stones, ridges and dirt and, unbeknown to us at the time, continued like that for the remaining 15km! We struggled on, the road becoming more painful with every bump and the odd passing vehicle enhancing the experience with a face full of dust as it sped past.

Eventually we arrived at the lake though and it seemed all worthwhile. A huge stunning lake sits at the base of the volcano we saw on the bus down – Volcan Lanin – and we stayed for an hour, admiring the view, taking photos, eating our lunch and getting our breath back. Luckily, there was absolutely nowhere to buy water at the lake and so we were faced with the prospect of cycling all the way back with none, as we’d now run out. The return trip, though not quite as exhausting as I thought it might be as it was slightly downhill, nearly killed both of us and the water we bought at the first petrol station on the way back (2km from the bike shop!) disappeared in seconds as we both stared in disbelief at each other, wondering why we always seem to bite off more than we can chew on occasions such as this.

Nice as Junin was, we had to move on so next day, bidding our insane host (well, her husband – we left at 7am and she certainly wasn’t going to get up at that time of day!) goodbye, we took a bus back across the border into Chile.

We have decided, after much thought and deliberation, not to take the ferry from Puerto Montt down to Puerto Natales and hike around Torres del Paine. Whilst it does sound like a superb trip, the weather does not look like it would be ideal and we’re not sure we have the time so we are going to come back to Chile soon and do that trip on it’s own.

Instead, we are taking things a bit more easily and have come across the Andes, via an amazing bus route round Volcan Lanin, to Pucon which sits in between another beautiful lake and a huge, smoking volcano called Villarica. Our room has (or had – it’s raining now and we can see nothing!) a view of the peak of the volcano and we plan to hike up it as soon as this weather clears. For now, it’s time to do some more reading and maybe do a walk or two.