Wining in Mendoza

Mendoza is the wine capital of Latin America, and we looked forward to doing a lot of wine tasting, especially the Malbec which is the most famous Mendoza wine.

Norton winery

There are many ways to taste wines in Mendoza, and we tried three of them:

Vines of Mendoza

In downtown Mendoza there is a tasting bar named The Vines of Mendoza which came highly recommended. They offer several “flights” of 5 wines and also has a big wine list by the glass/bottle. They also serve some light food to accompany the wine. We tried a flight of five Malbecs to taste the differences the soil/altitude/storage does to the wine, and it was really interesting comparing them all at the same time! The servers at the bar are very knowledgeable and and gave us a good introduction to the various wines we tasted. The flight cost 70 pesos and was among the cheaper options. We also tried the meat and cheese platter and a sandwich, both reasonably priced. All in all highly recommended to get an introduction to Argentinian wine!

Biking in Maipú

Next, we did a day of biking in Maipú, one of the wine regions just outside Mendoza. We took the local bus to Mr. Hugo’s who rented us bikes and supplied us with a map of local wineries (there are several options, but Mr. Hugo came highly recommended from some blogs, and we were happy with the choice!).

Biking in Maipu

Wine ranks of Maipu

The bikes cost 35 pesos per person, we could choose which places we wanted to visit, and a tasting cost around 20-40 pesos. We visited Entre Olivos (a tasting of olives, oils/condiments, jams, chocolate and liquor), Familia di Tommaso (tasting of both white and red wines + tour) and ended up at Tempus Alba winery for lunch. We actually did this tour on the 17th of May (Norway’s national day), and it was a nice way to spend the day.

Entre Olivos

Biking is a relative cheap option and one can opt to go only to the cheapest wineries, but that also means that the quality of the wine is not the best. Overall it was a fun experience and Mr. Hugo had some nice bikes and good recommendations for us to make the day the best we could. To get to Maipú one can take the #10 bus (171, 172 or 173) from the bus terminal (or in some of the streets in Mendoza) for around 3,5 pesos each way. Just ask the bus driver to stop at Mr. Hugo.

Tempus Alba Malbec

Higher-end wine tour in Luján de Cuyo

Finally we wanted to try a more high-end tour in Luyán de Cuyo to taste some of the better wines. We arranged a tour through Kahuak (Mendoza Wine Experiene) and they picked us up from our (shabby) hostel with a private driver in a nice car. This tour was by far the most expensive, but then the wineries were more exclusive and the wines were also by far the best we tasted. We visited Viña Cobos, Achaval Ferrer and finally Norton (where we also got a delicious lunch).

We started off at Viña Cobos with five wines (red and white) at 10 in the morning – a nice start to the day. At Achaval Ferrer we got to taste some of the highest ranked wines in the world, straight from the tank! At Norton we tasted the wine in the different stages of production, first fresh wine from the tank, then oaked wine from a barrel and finally aged wine from a bottle, letting us taste the difference the process makes to the wine. They  were three very different wineries which gave us three very different experiences. It was expensive (830 pesos per person) but worth it!

Fermentation at Viña Cobos

Beef stew inside bread

We probably would have enjoyed Mendoza even more if we didn’t both get a cold from the very long bus ride from Uyuni to Mendoza. We were traveling for a total of 44 hours (5 of which were spent in a broken down bus in the mountains in the middle of the night..) on 5 different buses to get to Mendoza, and the dry air and lack of sleep definitely took a toll. Luckily we were still able to do the wine tasting, although we probably didn’t get the full experience. Anyway it spurred a love for Argentinian wines and especially the Malbec that we explored even further in our quest for the perfect steak in Buenos Aires (coming in the next post!).

Owl watching the vines

Vines and olive trees at Achaval Ferrer

2012 Finca Altamira straight from the tank

Bottle wall

See more of Mendoza and the rest of Argentina here.

Otherworldly Uyuni

There are some places on earth that feels like an other world, like you’ve left earth and gone somewhere else. The Salar de Uyuni (salt flat of Uyuni) is one of those places and is somewhere we knew we wanted to visit. We’ve seen so many spectacular photos from other travelers and many we’ve met touted it as the highlight of their trip. The Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world with an area of 10,582 square kilometers. It is located in the Bolivian Altiplano, at an altitude of 3,656 meters. The depth of salt ranges from a few centimeters to several meters.

Zen

We decided to book a 3D/2N tour with Red Planet Expeditions after reading a lot of reviews on different tour operators on Tripadvisor. Red Planet didn’t have all excellent reviews, but they didn’t have any reviews talking about drunk drivers or other big turn-offs either. Reading reviews of the different tour operators suggests there is a fair amount of drunk drivers in the Uyuni.. We’re not sure how big a problem it is, but we didn’t want to end up with any of them.

The tour started with a quick visit to the antique train cemetery in , where several trains were abandoned in the 1940s following an end to the mining in the area. It is like a ghost town of trains, and the artwork on some of the trains enhanced the creepy feeling. We’d love/hate to visit it at night.

Train conductor on a ghost train

Horror train

After a 20 minute drive we started to see the immense white salt flats in front of us. It is blindingly white with only some small cones of salt breaking the perfectly flat landscape. The cones are the first step in the process of extracting the salt, as it needs to be dried in several stages. We learned about how to extract the salt from the people in Colchani, a small village nearby with only about 25 families, all living of harvesting salt. Much of the salt ends up as table-salt, but there is probably bigger business in using the salt for removing ice on roads and extracting lithium for batteries. Unfortunately for Bolivia they mostly export raw material and don’t have the technology yet to refine it for more advanced products.

Salt reflections

Then it was time to head into the actual salt flats. We drove out to a point where we could take all the typical cheesy photos, a place where it is really flat in order to get the fun perspective distortion in the photos. It is actually so flat satellites use it to calibrate their trajectory. Taking the pictures was a little difficult because everything had to line up properly, but it was a fun thing to do. We visited Incahuasi Island which is a coral island filled with cacti, some of them several hundred years old. The whole area used to be underwater, which is why there is a coral island there.

On the tripod

Kiss kiss

Big cactus

Day two we visited several lakes. Most of the lakes are filled with flamingos (although not as pink as we hoped for) which opened for excellent photo opportunities as we could get quite close to some of them. Mathias sneaked around with hunched back in the straws as not to scare them away, just as we learned in the jungle. One of the more special lakes was Laguna Colorada, which is a red lake colored by iron. We also saw some interesting rock formations (rocks shaped like trees!) and volcanoes on the way.

A flamingo

Layers of colors

Mathias on his stone

Tuva and the stone tree

The place we stayed at the second night was just 100 m from a hot spring pool, where we went down after dinner to lay in the pool looking at the stars in the sky. There was practically no moon so the night sky was incredibly clear with several shooting stars as well. It was freezing in the air, and the water at 38C was soooo nice. The next morning we were met with 20-something tours going for a morning bath and it seemed quite crowded compared to what we had the night before. A nice touch from Red Planet.

The milky way

The final day we drove to the Chilean border (most of the people on the tour were continuing to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile), letting us sneak over the border for some quick shots before heading back to the village of Uyuni. On the ride home we drove through the Altiplano, seeing lots of llamas, vicuñas, and even some ostriches. It was mostly a transport leg, but we did stop for some photos on the way.

All in all we were quite happy with the Red Planet tour, although we have to say that the English guide wasn’t all that we hoped for. We paid a premium price for a tour with English guide and we literally had to drag the information out of him. He knew quite a lot, he just wasn’t that keen on sharing it. From the second day he made sure to go straight over to us an explain what was about to happen and answer our questions as it seemed that we were the most interested in the tour group. Also, the food we got served was pretty mediocre and we had expected better.

Apart from the guiding and the food the guides and drivers were really nice people and we felt totally secure the whole time. The itinerary was very good and we saw a lot in 3 days without it being overcrowded with other tourists, thus we would recommend Red Planet to other travelers with these few remarks. The trip itself lived up to our expectations and Uyuni is a must-do when travelling to Bolivia, just make sure you go with a good company!

Cars in the desert

Posing by the green lagoon

A llama

Salt desert jeep

Shadows in the salt

Interesting stone

Flamingos fighting

No fly zone

Mirror mirror

Thermal pools and the Milky way

See more from our tour of the Uyuni, lagunes and the rest of Bolivia here.

Bolivians are loco!

Before we came we’d heard rumors about La Paz being a big city like nowhere else, but nothing could prepare us for what we saw as we came driving over the Bolivian Altiplano by bus. The city is located almost 4000 meters above sea level in a huge bowl/valley dug out by a (now underground) river and houses cling to the surrounding hills all around. Just the fact that someone would build such a big and important city in a place like this says a lot about Bolivians, not to mention that the name La Paz (“the peace”) has a stark contrast to its rather violent history of power struggles, dictatorships and coups.

Clinging to the valley

Another thing you recognize pretty fast is that the streets are death traps for pedestrians, and you are best off taking every precaution before crossing the rather narrow and always car-filled roads around the city. Bolivians drive like crazy as if their life depended on getting somewhere before everybody else. If you take a look up from the streets you see a spaghetti mess of power lines going everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Being an electrician in Bolivia is probably more like being a brain surgeon with no eyes..the possibility of screwing something up when changing the power lines is almost 100%, and that’s probably why they just keep adding more lines instead of fixing the ones that are there.

Streets of La Paz

Wires

Bolivians seems to be a rather superstitious people, with religious roots to Pachamama mixed with Catholicism. One can clearly see this when visiting the witches market in La Paz, where they sell everything from lucky charms to magic powders (ex. to keep you husband from cheating on you) to dried lama fetuses that they bury under the construction of a new house for good luck. We did the very excellent Red Cap free walking tour and were told that for bigger constructions they use live cows/oxen and supposedly for the most important buildings/constructions (like a bridge) bury live humans (like drunks that no one will miss)…go figure.

Dried llama fetuses

Owls

We were also told some other interesting stories about the infamous San Pedro prison. In this prison the guards only control the outer perimeters and the prisoners themselves control the community within. They are allowed to have wives and kids inside (who go out daily for school and work), and they have housing markets, restaurants and shops, all controlled by the inmates. If you are rich, this is a very good prison to stay in, as some of the best “cells” have 5 star accommodation with several floors and internet among other things. On the darker side the prison is a big producer of cocaine (said to be the best quality), which they manage to get out by bribing the guards. It is also a nesting place for scams on the outside, and the corruption goes right into the local police (and maybe higher up) in order for them to get away with it. There used to be tours in the prison for tourists, but not anymore as a lot of the prison secrets came out with the tourists. It is still possible to visit, but you are not sure to get out (yikes!).

Okay, so Bolivans are pretty crazy, but they are also really nice and we had a good time walking around the streets of La Paz looking at all the wackiness. We also found our favorite lunch food, the salteña, which is very similar to empanadas, only the dough is a bit sweet and not fried, and the inside is like a stew with chicken or beef or vegetables. We found the best salteñas at Paceña la Salteña in Loyza street and ate there everyday for lunch. This is definitely a food we will be making when we get home!

Salteña

Plaza Murillo 2

Guards

Burglar or jewelery salesman?

Heavy load

Colorful shoes

Sleeping beauty

More photos from La Paz and the rest of Bolivia can be found here.