Sunday, March 2, 2014

"Dispatches from the Pampas"...Days 16-17, Friday-Saturday, February 21-22, 2014

On Friday morning, I wake up at around 7:30AM inside my tiny backpacking tent. With only my blow-up "mattress" (it's like those little pool rafts) and a sleeping bag to sleep on, I feel like I have been run over by a truck. I put on my shoes, unzip my tent and fly and very carefully slide myself out. It rained last night...the ground is muddy, so getting out of the tent without falling in the mud is tricky.
Bleary-eyed, I trek down to the bathrooms. There, I am completely baffled by the toilet. There is no visible means to flush the toilet...no lever, no valve, no button, no chain...nothing. I stand there for several minutes before I figure it out. There's a bucket next to the toilet...ah...you take that to the sink, fill it with water, and pour that into the toilet for your "flush".
Back at camp, I boil water with my little "Pocket Rocket" camping stove...and I pour that into my cup with two packages of Starbucks "Via" instant coffee. Not the greatest cup, but it'll do this morning. I'm out of leftovers to eat, but I did bring a few "backpack meals" with me. I boil more water, pour two cups in an aluminum pouch, wait ten minutes...and...I've got scrambled eggs with ham and peppers. It tastes pretty good on a cold morning.
After breakfast, I break camp...tent down, chair and table packed up. At 10:00AM, I'm on the road to Parque Provincial de Aconcagua...about forty miles further up in the mountains. It's a beautiful drive...lots of photos. I've got the Park programmed into the Garmin but, about eight miles short of my destination, I see a sign for the entrance to the Park. And...there it is...a huge open stone-filled field. There is no "park"...there's just...nothing. And, ironically, you can't even see Aconcagua from the Park that bears it's name. I decide to proceed to my "Garmin destination". There, I have a great view of Aconcagua, but no "Park".
I decide to drive further west...maybe there's a different part of the Park that I've missed...or a campground. Twenty miles late, and all I've found is a small hotel/restaurant. I stop there for lunch (grilled ham and cheese) and chat with the owner, a nice Aussie fellow. I ask him where I can find the closest campground, and his answer is...Chile. OK...switching to Plan B...return to Uspallata and make that my "base".
On the way back, I decide to do some hiking. There are no camps, no trails, no nothing...so I just stop the car and go. It is not the most "fun" hike, and I only make it about a mile before the rough terrain, beating sun, lack of shade and high altitude take their toll. The hike back is not a pleasant one.
Back at camp, I relax with a Bourbon on the rocks (they had ice at the gas station near my campground). I drink, listen to the iPod, and read. For dinner, I've got another backpack meal...Tuscan Beef Stew with Polenta. These meals are made by "Pack-It Gourmet" in Austin, Texas, and they are not bad. Just add boiling water, wait ten minutes, and eat...and throw in a nice bottle of Malbec. After dinner, I watch another beautiful sunset with the rest of my Malbec. By, 10:00PM, I'm nodding off...time for another uncomfortable night of sleep in my tiny tent.

Saturday is not much different from the day before. I'm up early and boiling water for coffee. I drive east ten miles or so...more photos. I return to camp in the early afternoon and, seeing something that looks like a "trail" leading out of the campground, I go for another hike. This hike is much better than yesterday...less sun, trees for shade, lower altitude, smoother trail. Today, I make it out about two miles.
Late in the afternoon, I hike back into town. I stop in the local grocery looking for something to cook for dinner...nothing looks particularly appealing. So...I end up back at the little pizza joint for a small pizza and a one-liter bottle of cold beer.
After dinner, it's back to camp where I have more beer chilling in the cooler with a fresh bag of ice. Some more reading, music on the iPod. Another great sunset...and another night in my tiny tent.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

“Dispatches from the Pampas”...Day 15...Thursday, February 15, 2014

I'm up just before sunrise. I sit outside with my coffee and watch the sun come up on a gorgeous day...warm, sunny, a few scattered clouds.
Today, I'm driving about 60 or 70 miles into the Andes to the town of Uspalatta...the only real “town” between Mendoza and the Chilean border. I figure that...with the traffic, mountain driving, stops for photos, etc...it should take me 3 or 4 hours. So...I'm in no rush to leave. I have more coffee, some yoghurt and granola...and pack up the rest of my gear.
Around 10:00, I'm on the road, and the Garmin guides me through the streets of Mendoza onto Route 7...heading west. Within 45 minutes or so, I'm heading up and up...into the Andes. It's a spectacular drive with ravines, rushing streams and snow-capped peaks. I love mountains, and these are very, very impressive.
Around 2:00, I arrive in Uspalatta, and I find a nice little campground just west of the “downtown” area. The rate is 50 Pesos/night. It only takes me about 30 minutes to set up camp...put up my tent, inflate my little air mattress, throw in my sleeping bag and backpacking pillow. I get out my portable camping table and my UM chair. All set.
Now I'm hot, hungry and thirsty. So...I walk into town in search of a restaurant. There are two...one serves a pretty varied menu, but they don't take credit cards or U.S. Dollars. I skip that one because, when I last stopped for gas, I had to pay in Pesos, so my supple has been depleted. The other place is your basic pizza joint...and they take credit cards. I order a half-bottle of Malbec and a double order of empanadas...it's not your “gourmet fare”, but it tastes pretty good.
I walk back to camp...set up the iPod boombox and listen to some Jane Monheit, Bebel Gilberto, Girl Talk. I open a bottle of wine and I read a little. Looking around, I think that this could be a campground in the U.S....there are tents and motorhomes...just like home. Around 8:00, my fellow campers gather wood and fire up the concrete “parillas” across from each campsite. Soon the aroma of grilled meat fills the campground. Around 9:00, I gather wood and fire up my own parilla. I throw on my leftover steak and some grilled vegetables...very nice with the rest of my bottle of wine.
When the sun goes down, the sky is filled with stars. Maybe it's just my imagination, but the familiar constellations...Big Dipper, Little Dipper...look somehow “different”. And my favorite, Orion's Belt, is nowhere to be seen...maybe because it is a winter constellation...and, down here, it's the end of summer.
Around 11:00, I'm ready for bed. I climb into my tiny backpacking tent and slip into my sleeping bag. It's cold out...maybe low 50's. But I'm warm inside of my tent.
I'm out like a light.

“Dispatches from the Pampas”...Day 14...Wednesday, February 14, 2014

If nothing else, I have gotten plenty of sleep on this trip. This morning, I don't even roll over until after 9:00AM. It's another beautiful day in wine country...so...the usual morning “drill” of cigar, coffee, yoghurt.
It seems like the beginning of another perfect day. Little do I know that potential “disaster” is but a few hours away. But...more on that later.
Today, I am visiting the Vino Cobos winery, and I am excited because one of the co-owners is one of my favorite winemakers, Paul Hobbes. His “home base” is in California, and his winery there produces deep, highly-extracted Cabernets. Since they retail for over $100.00 a bottle, I don't drink many (if any) of these. But he is a co-owner and/or consultant for a number of wineries around the world. Vino Cobos produces a great little wine called “Cocodrilo” which I buy by the case at home. It's under $15.00 a bottle, and it is an excellent blend of Malbec and Cabernet. If you can find it at a wine shop where you live, it is a wine that I highly recommend.
I have an appointment for a winery tour, tasting and “picnic lunch” at 12:20...so, around 11:00, I'm off. I've passed the road for Vino Cobos several times on my way to other wineries, so I know where I am going.
At 12:00 sharp, I arrive at a little guard shack at the entrance to the winery. A security guy comes out, asks my name, talks into his walkie-talkie, gets an answer and motions with his arm for me to drive behind the winery building and park. “Piece of cake”, I'm thinking. But as I drive towards the winery, there are several “options”. I choose what seems like the best “option” but,soon, I find myself on a little dirt road through the vineyards...and away from the winery. Eventually, I find myself back at the guard shack and, when the guard comes out, I tell him it's OK.
So now I head again to the winery and choose what seems like the second-best” option. But, soon, I am on another little dirt road through the vineyards...and away from the winery. I am heading back towards the guard shack, but I can not suffer shame of yet another driving “mistake”. So...I decide to back up and retrace my route. To say that this was a “mistake” would be an understatement of considerable proportions...I, apparently, have forgotten the famous phrase...”pride goeth before a fall”.
I back up...I do not see the irrigation ditch...my back wheels go two feet down into the ditch. I try to accelerate out...no luck. I try “rocking” the car...bow I'm three feet into the ditch. I am, as they would say in Spanish, “el stucko”.
Whoa...now I have to walk a third of a mile down the road in the hot sun back to the guard shack to explain my predicament. I wish that I could have photographed the guard's face as I explained what happened. The word “incredulous” comes to mind. He's back on his “walkie-talkie”.
About ten minutes later, two attractive young ladies come walking from the winery to the guard shack. One of them says...”Mr. William, we understand that there is a problem with your car. Let's go have a look”. So...the three of us walk the 1/3 mile back to my car. No problem, they tell me. One gets on her “walkie-talkie” and, soon, a grizzled old guy (the vineyard manager) rides up on a tractor. The first young lady asks me to give her my keys...”We will take care of everything. You should go to the winery, relax and enjoy yourself”. And, the other young lady takes me by the hand and leads me back to the winery. I did not see their “wings”, but I am convinced that these women were “angels” sent to protect and take care of me.
I am now hot, sweaty, thirsty, hungry...and concerned. But, inside the winery, the temperature is cool. I am seated in a big comfy chairs...a huge glass of ice water appears...then a glass of Malbec...I feel much better now.
My tour guide appears...yet another attractive young lady (I sense a “pattern” here). We chat for a half hour or so. Her wine knowledge and English are both very good, but she has only recently been hired. Now the tasting begins, and we are joined by groups of Brits, Aussies and Americans...maybe twenty in all. I opt for the “Malbec tasting”, but substitute “Cocodrilo” for one of the Malbecs...all great wines.
When the tasting is finished, we start the tour. People start asking questions. One Brit, in particular, is asking very, very technical questions. I can see that our guide is beginning to get a little flustered...not because she doesn't know the technical stuff, she's just having trouble translating it to English. And then, at one point, she finished answering a question about fermentation...and...turned to me...and said, “Perhaps Mr. William could also explain this process”. So...I got to give a little talk and display my wine knowledge. The guide turned to me again four or five different times on the tour, and I got to explain the benefits of oak-aging, the difference between French oak and American oak, etc. I have to say, it was all a lot of fun.
When the tour was over, I sat down inside for a “picnic lunch”...a big board with cheeses, meats, olives and really good bread. I was supposed to get one glass of a low-end red with my lunch, but my guide ended up pouring me two glasses of their high-end red...nice!
When I leave the winery building, there is my car...sitting in the parking lot. They even sprayed off the mud with a hose. So...I go back in and thank everyone once again for all of their kindness.
Now it's back to camp...after the obligatory stop at “Perin” for a big cup of excellent ice cream. Back at my cabina, I have work to do. Tomorrow, I leave Mendoza for a little camping trip. So...I check all my gear, top off the charge on my lantern and camera batteries.
When my work is finished, I relax with some wine and watch the sun set. Around 9:00, I heat up yesterday's leftovers for a “snack”...and more wine. At 11:00, I'm tucked into bed.
Big day tomorrow.

“Dispatches from the Pampas”...Day 13...Tuesday, February 18, 2014

I'm up around 8:30AM and, looking outside, it is an absolutely gorgeous day...skies are clear and the sun is out. So...I have my morning coffee and yoghurt (along with a cigar) outside at the little table in front of my cabina.
I've got another winery visit today...a 60 mile drive south of Mendoza to Bodega Fournier for a winery tour and gourmet lunch with the nice folks from Switzerland that I met yesterday at Catena Zapata.
It's only 60 miles, but I have been advised to allow two hours for the drive because of traffic, constructions and a number of small towns along the route. At 10:00, I'm on my way...down Route 40 to the town of San Carlos. Fournier is not in my Garmin GPS, so I figure that I'll just wing it” when I get to San Carlos. At around 11:55 or so, I'm in San Carlos, but I'm having trouble finding the winery. I drive around for awhile before stopping to ask a young guy for directions. He draws me a little map and, at 12:10 or so, I'm at Bodega Fournier.
A nice young lady invites me inside, and I enjoy a glass of Malbec while waiting for my Swiss friends. At 12:30, they join me, and we sit down for a fabulous lunch. The restaurant at Fournier is regarded as one of the best in Argentina and has consistently been voted one of the top 10 winery restaurants in the world. They do not disappoint...Cold Beet Sorbet, Roasted Corn Soup, Savory Empanadas. We all order the “premium” wine package, so each course is accompanied with the Bodega's finest wines...buttery Chardonnay, inky Malbec, and two of the Bodega's blends which contain Tempranillo and Touriga Nacional blended with Malbec. And, all through lunch, I am enjoying the most excellent company of my Swiss friends (who speak great English). We talk about food, wine, travel, politics (particularly French politics), camping...you name it.
Lunch lasts a little over three hours and concludes with ice cream and coffee. Then I bid farewell to my friends and head off with my attractive guide for the winery tour. Fournier is owned by a retired Spanish banker worth a billion or two. In 2001, he came to Argentina to build a winery. Construction began in 2002 and was completed almost two years later.
And...the winery...it is magnificent. I love wine and I have visited wineries all over the world. But I have never seen anything like Fournier. The winery rises up out of the vineyards...several floors supported by massive concrete columns at the corners. Trucks drive up ramps to the top of the winery to unload. The grapes then move one floor down to be pressed. The juice then flows down to the next floor for fermentation. There are no pumps...everything is “gravity-flow”. The juice is fermented in stainless steel tanks, oak tanks (I've never seen this before) and concrete “foudres” like they use in France. It's the ultimate combination of architecture and wine-making...of traditional and modern techniques. Aging takes place one floor down in a massive room that's built like a huge cathedral...and filled with various works of art. There's no temperature control...we're way down below ground level...so it's a perfect 55 degrees.
I am sorry when the tour at last comes to an end. I wish that I had time for a second tour. But, it's almost 5:00PM. So...I buy two bottles of their “Beta Cruce” blend, and I'm on the road back to my campground.
Back at camp, the weather is still great. I sit outside with a cigar...drink wine...check emails, post to Facebook. Around 9:00, I fire up the grill behind my cabina and throw on yesterday's leftover steak and grilled vegetables...a little snack. I eat, drink more wine and watch the sun set behind the small mountains that surround my camp.
I drink wine until after midnight...then...time for bed.
Days don't get much better than this day.

Dispatches from the Pampas”...Day 12...Monday, February 17, 2014

Another day...another winery.

I have now settled into a comfortable morning routine...sleep late, make coffee, and sit in my doorway to enjoy my morning cigar. And, for the first time, on this morning I can sit outside at the little table in front of my cabina. It's cloudy, but not raining.
So...this morning, I relax and linger for three hours over coffee and a breakfast of yoghurt and leftover bread from yesterday's lunch.
Today, I am visiting the Catena Zapata Winery. I am looking forward to this because Catena was the first really “great” Malbec that I ever drank. I buy at least a case or two every year, and I have some bottles that are ten years old and still drinking beautifully.
At 11:00, I head out for the winery and my 12:00 appointment. The route is now familiar to me, as most of the places I have visited are near one another. With the route now familiar, I'm able to be in the correct lane for turns and roundabouts. And, I have noticed that, with the Garmin, the screen map is much more accurate than the verbal instructions.
My visit to Catena is mildly disappointing. They are having some sort of conference, so the restaurant is closed to “casual” visitors. The “tour” consists of a look into a fermentation area and a barrel area...that's it. And the tasting is mostly their low-end entry-level wines. Still, I drink these wines a lot, so I ask a lot of questions. Apparently, I ask too many questions because a woman from Boston seated next to me asks me how long I have been in the wine business.
I also meet a group of people who live in the French-speaking part of Switzerland...anfd they speak perfect English. So...we talk a little about wine, food, French politics...lots of things. They are visiting the same winery (O. Fournier) as I am tomorrow for a tour and lunch...so we agree to dine together. I buy two bottles of my favorite Malbec and head back to Mendoza for lunch.
I find the same street with all of the little cafes/restaurants, and I park around the corner. On that street, just a few doors down from the place where I had lunch yesterday, is a restaurant that comes highly recommended by my guidebooks...”Azafran”. I get a table outside and order the lunch “special” for 120 Pesos. Inside, there's a large wine cellar, so I ask the sommelier to pick me out a great Malbec...and she does. For lunch, I get two absolutely perfect Empanadas, a filet (perfectly rare) that could feed an army, a nice salad with really ripe tomatoes, and a big scoop of ice cream for dessert.
Most of the people that I have spoken here do not like the current government which describes itself as “Leftist-Peronista”. The current President is serving out the last two years of her second term, and her husband served two four-year terms before her. The government's relationship with the United States, while not hostile, can best be described as “cool”
My waiter at Azafran is an enthusiastic supporter of the government. Yes, he agrees, there is inflation...but he believes that the pace of “social progress” is ahead of the inflation. The inflation, he believes, is caused by the wealthy...the banks...foreign speculators. The government, he says, has been good for him and his family. His family is poor, but he is able to attend college. And, at school, he can get a good lunch (subsidized) for only 3 Pesos. The “Precios Cuidados” system means that his family can always afford food and never go hungry. I ask him if he worries about the effect of the high inflation on his savings. He replies that savings are for the wealthy, and it is their “speculation” which is causing the inflation. The restaurant will accept U.S. Dollars, but only at the official 4.5 Pesos to the Dollar rate...the restaurant , he says, does not “speculate”.
So...for me, a fascinating discussion. Before this trip, I studied the history and politics of Argentina just so that I could have such a discussion. I love discussing politics, whatever the view, and this has been discussion has been most interesting.
After lunch, an obligatory stop at my new favorite place for ice cream...three scoops this time. Then, a stop for gas (I opt for gasoline as opposed to diesel).
Back at camp, the usual “drill”...wine and a cigar outside at my little table...leftover pizza and salad from yesterday's lunch. And, to my great surprise, I discover that my tiny little campground up in the hills has Wi-Fi. The signal is weak and speed “snail-like”, but I am able to post a few photos and status updates to Facebook before bed.