Plan a Trip to Mendoza, a Modern City in the Shadow of the Andes

Map of Mendoza, Argentina

Mendoza

At one end of the Andes’ busiest highway crossing, Mendoza gets a steady stream of international visitors but also has a flourishing domestic travel industry. Its biggest attraction, literally, is the formidable Andean range—symbolized by the hemisphere’s highest mountain, 6,962-meter Cerro Aconcagua. Many visitors find the provincial capital of Mendoza and its surrounding wine country so appealing that they stay longer than they expected.

Economically, tourism is a major contributor to the economy, but provincial oil and gas fields supply a quarter of Argentina’s fossil fuels. Augmented by hydroelectric power from Andean reservoirs, abundant energy resources have promoted industrial growth.

Mendoza

In the shadow of the arid central Andes, modern Mendoza lacks Salta’s colonial charm or Bariloche’s scenic immediacy, but the provincial capital delights Argentines and foreigners alike as one of the country’s most livable cities. Its dearth of distinctive historic architecture stems from its seismic vulnerability, but Mendocinos have compensated by creating sycamore-shaded streets, irrigated by ancient acequias, with broad sidewalks and verdant open spaces. In the words of Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes, it’s “protected by a roof of leaves woven together like the fingers of a huge circle of inseparable lovers.”

On top of that, it has an active cultural life, thanks to its university, museums, and performing arts venues, and there’s a vigorous nightlife district between downtown and the green expanses of Parque General San Martín. Much of Mendoza’s prosperity depends on the petroleum industry, but dozens of bodegas, open for tours and tasting, draw many visitors. That makes it an ideal place to organize activities like a white-water descent of the Río Mendoza or an icy ascent of Aconcagua and to celebrate them afterward.

History

Named for colonial Chilean Governor García Hurtado de Mendoza, the city dates from 1561. Its early history was one of isolation—for much of the year, Andean snows made travel to Santiago impossible, and even under the best conditions it was time-consuming. The early 17th-century Spanish chronicler Vásquez de Espinosa reported only 40 Spaniards and 1,500 Indians under a Mendoza-based corregidor (magistrate) and various missionary orders. In the late 18th century, though, it came under the administration of the Buenos Aires–based Virreinato del Río de la Plata (Viceroyalty of the River Plate) through the Intendencia de Córdoba.

Peripheral throughout colonial times, Mendoza became central when General José de San Martín trained his Ejército de los Andes (Army of the Andes) here before crossing the cordillera to liberate Chile from Spain. After independence, though, it struggled (Darwin unfavorably contrasted its “stupid, forlorn aspect” with the Chilean capital of Santiago), but the railroad’s arrival linked the burgeoning wine industry to Buenos Aires.

As the city has grown and earthquakes have forced reconstruction, the city center shifted from the colonial Ciudad Vieja (Old City) at the north end of Parque O’Higgins to contemporary Plaza Independencia in 1861. Earthquakes are a constant, most recently in 1968, 1985, and 1997, but they’ve only stalled rather than stopped Mendoza’s growth.

Wine has also remained a constant— Mendoza and vicinity account for more than three-quarters of the country’s production—but nearby petroleum reserves have also encouraged industrial development. Meanwhile, tourism has taken off because of wine, access to the Andes, and most recently, proximity to Chile, as bargain-seekers from across the Andes have flocked here since the 2002 devaluation.

Orientation

Orientation

On the eastern Andean piedmont, 761 meters above sea level, Mendoza (pop. about 112,000, but roughly 1 million when adjacent municipalities are included) is 1,073 kilometers west of Buenos Aires via RN 7 and 340 kilometers northwest of Santiago, Chile, via RN 7 to the Los Libertadores border complex. It is 168 kilometers south of San Juan via RN 40, 665 kilometers southwest of Córdoba via San Luis, and 825 kilometers north of Neuquén via a series of paved highways.

Filling four full blocks, Plaza Independencia is the literal city center, around which four satellites—Plaza Chile, Plaza San Martín, Plaza España, and Plaza Italia—symbolically revolve. Three blocks east of Plaza Independencia, north–south Avenida San Martín (also known as the Alameda) is the axis of the daily bustle, while three blocks north, Avenida General Las Heras is the downtown shopping area. Five blocks south of Plaza Independencia, the Barrio Cívico is official Mendoza’s nucleus.

Mendoza’s relatively small population is misleading in that the provincial capital’s compact grid borders on several adjacent and nearby municipalities—Guaymallén (to the east), Godoy Cruz (to the south), Las Heras (to the north), Maipú (to the southwest), and Luján de Cuyo (south of Godoy Cruz). In a sense, Gran Mendoza’s large population is also misleading in that some municipalities include fairly distant rural communities and sprawling wild areas that are almost unpopulated—Luján de Cuyo, for instance, is an area of 4,847 square kilometers that extends west all the way to the Chilean border.

Information

Information

The municipal Centro de Información Turística (CIT, Garibaldi and San Martín, tel. 0261/420-1333, 9 a.m.–9 p.m. daily) has maps, brochures, and capable personnel that usually includes an English speaker. Their parent office, the Dirección Municipal de Turismo (9 de Julio 500, tel. 0261/449-5185), is open 8 a.m.–1 p.m. weekdays only.

At the Guaymallén bus terminal, there’s a separate and very efficient Oficina de Informes (Alberdi and Reconquista, tel. 0261/431-3001, 7 a.m.–11 p.m. daily).

The provincial Secretaría de Turismo (Avenida San Martín 1143, tel. 0261/420- 2800, 8 a.m.–9 p.m. weekdays, 9 a.m.–10 p.m. weekends) has good information on the entire province, but only a techie could love the organization of its new website.

ACA (Avenida San Martín 985, tel. 0261/420-2900) has road maps and other motorist services.

Services in Mendoza

Services in Mendoza

At one end of a key border crossing, Mendoza has the most complete services of any provincial city.

Mendoza is one of the easiest places to cash travelers checks in the entire country, thanks to efficient exchange houses like Cambio Santiago (Avenida San Martín 1199), which is open late Saturdays; it charges a 2 percent commission, however.

Downtown ATMs are abundant, including the ones at Citibank (Sarmiento 20) and Banco de la Nación (Necochea and 9 de Julio).

Correo Argentino (Avenida San Martín and Avenida Colón) is the post office; central Mendoza’s postal code is 5500.

There are countless downtown locutorios with Internet access, and the Sarmiento pedestrian mall is a public Wi-Fi hotspot.

Student- and budget-oriented Asatej (Sarmiento 223, tel./fax 0261/429-0029, mendoza@ asatej.com.ar) will seek out the best airfares. ISC Viajes (Avenida España 1016, tel. 0261/425-9259) is the Amex affiliate.

Many agencies offer excursions ranging from simple city and wine tours to river rafting, climbing, and trekking. Among adventure operators, try Campo Base Travel & Adventure (Sarmiento 231, tel. 0261/425-5511), specifically for climbing and trekking; and Aymará Turismo (9 de Julio 1023, tel. 0261/420-2064) for mule trips, trekking, rafting, and winery visits.

Two bordering countries have consulates: Chile (Belgrano 1080, tel. 0261/425-4844) and Bolivia (Garibaldi 380, 1st floor, tel. 0261/429-2458).

For visa extensions (US$100), visit the Dirección Nacional de Migraciones (Avenida San Martín 1859, Godoy Cruz, tel. 0261/424- 3512), but it’s nearly as cheap to cross into Chile and return.

For Spanish-language instruction, try the Instituto Intercultural de Lenguas Extranjeras (República de Siria 241, tel. 0261/429-0269). It’s best at one-on-one.

The Asociación Mendocina de Intercambio Cultural Argentino Norteamerica (Chile 987, tel. 0261/423-6367) has an English-language lending library.

For laundry service, try La Lavandería (San Lorenzo 338, tel. 0261/429-4782).

The Hospital Central is at Salta and Alem (tel. 0261/420-0600). For ambulance service, contact the Servicio Coordinado de Emergencia (tel. 107 or 0261/428-0000).

Getting There

Getting There

Mendoza has both domestic and international connections by air and road. There is talk of reviving rail service to Chile, but this is unlikely for the near future.

Aerolíneas Argentinas (Sarmiento 82, tel. 0261/420-4100) and close affiliate Austral f ly several times daily to Buenos Aires’s Aeroparque, sometimes via Córdoba.

Mendoza’s only international connections are with LAN (Avenida España 1002, tel. 0261/425-7900), which flies at least twice daily to Santiago, Chile. LAN also flies to Córdoba and Buenos Aires.

Mendoza’s gigantic bus station, Terminal del Sol (Avenida Gobernador Videla and Avenida Acceso Este, Guaymallén, tel. 0261/431-3001 or 0261/431-0500), is just over the departmental line. Provincial, regional, long-distance, and international services (frequently to Chile, less frequently to Perú, seasonally to Uruguay, and no service to Bolivia) are available. There are also restaurants, shops, and even showers.

To the upper Río Mendoza Valley destinations of Uspallata and Los Penitentes (for Parque Provincial Aconcagua), there are three or four buses daily with Expreso Uspallata (tel. 0261/431-3309).

Vallecito (tel. 0261/432-4456) goes daily to San Agustín del Valle Fértil via the provincial capital of San Juan and the Difunta Correa shrine, while several other companies go to San Juan only. There are also services to Barreal and Calingasta, in western San Juan Province, and to Jáchal, north of San Juan.

In ski season, several companies go directly to Las Leñas, including Turismo Mendoza and Expreso Uspallata, but the rest of the year it’s necessary to change in San Rafael or Malargüe.

Typical destinations, times, and fares include San Rafael (3 hours, US$6), San Juan (2 hours, US$6), Uspallata (2.5 hours, US$5), Los Penitentes (3.5 hours, US$8), San Agustín del Valle Fértil (6 hours, US$13), and Malargüe (5 hours, US$12).

Mendoza is a hub for long-distance buses, with frequent departures in almost every direction except perhaps the Mesopotamian littoral (Puerto Iguazú, for instance, has just a few buses each week).

Typical destinations, times, and fares include Córdoba (9 hours, US$25–33), Neuquén (13 hours, US$30–40), Tucumán (15 hours, US$35–50), Buenos Aires (14 hours, US$42–66), Mar del Plata (19 hours, US$63–75), Salta (19 hours, US$57–73), Bariloche (18 hours, US$50), Puerto Madryn (21 hours, US$65), Corrientes (20 hours, US$60), Puerto Iguazú (26 hours, US$80), and Río Gallegos (37 hours, US$110).

Numerous companies cross the Andes to the Chilean capital of Santiago (7 hours, US$15–18) and the beach resort of Viña del Mar, but shared minibuses like Coitram (tel. 0261/431-1999) and Chiar Autos (tel. 0261/432-3112) to Santiago are faster and only a little more expensive (6 hours, US$21). Empresa General Artigas (EGA, tel. 0261/431-7758) and El Rápido (tel. 0261/431- 4093) go to Montevideo, Uruguay (22 hours, US$80), with onward service to Punta del Este and Brazil.

Getting Around

Getting Around

Getting around compact central Mendoza is fairly straightforward on foot, but reaching wineries and other suburban sites requires using taxis (not extravagantly expensive) or buses. The bus system has undergone a major rerouting project; riders need a rechargeable Redbus card or, alternatively, they can pay with coins (but get no change).

Aeropuerto Internacional El Plumerillo (tel. 0261/520-6000) is six kilometers north of downtown along RN 40. From downtown’s Calle Salta, bus No. 60 (Grupo 6) goes directly to the terminal, or a remise costs about US$6.50.

Just across the departmental line in Guaymallén, the Terminal del Sol is easily accessible via a pedestrian underpass from Avenida Alem.

Rental agencies include Avis (Primitivo de la Reta 914, tel. 0261/420-3178), Dollar (Primitivo de la Reta 936, Local 6, tel. 0261/429-9939), Hertz (Espejo 591, tel. 0261/420-3313), and Localiza (Primitivo de la Reta 936, Local 4, tel. 0261/429-6800).


Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Argentina.

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