About 650 miles from the pulsing city of Buenos Aires lies Mendoza, where urban rhythm gives way to natural opulence, and where wine is more than a business, it’s a spiritual pilgrimage. Mendoza hugs the Chilean border, giving easy access to the mighty Andes mountains and the South Pacific Ocean. After a week in BA with traffic and crowds (and some awesome meals), I was more than ready for some quiet time in the snowy peaks. It was late June — winter in South America — and I’d left the U.S. without giving the weather much thought. Hiking Argentina, however, is not for the unprepared.
My pack always has my hiking boots and sleeping bag either packed or strapped outside, but I still had to buy a warm hat and a thick alpaca jacket. Then I dashed off to meet my Chilean guide, whose English was about as good as my Spanish. (Bano — that one I know. Por favor and gracias. And cerveza. Basic survival words.) She had another dozen alleged hikers in tow, most of whom were wearing expensive headphones and flimsy fanny packs, and one of whom was actually wearing suede boots with heels. From the moment I squished into the van, I was planning my escape.
I got my chance at the first lookout point, when I spotted a pile of backpacks against a rocky crest. Just over the ridge, with the majestic Aconcagua mountain rising in the distance, I found a group of women backpackers on the tail end of a week long trek, drinking wine. (It’s Argentina. You can’t drink the water.) Even more luck — one was a Brit! She spoke English! (Well, kind of.) Did they have room for one more? Could we be the Golden Girls?
“We’ve 3 days left hiking Argentina,” Bridget Jones said, eyeing my hydration system and my scuffed boots. “And no time for whiners.” Another girl whispered something urgently to Bridget; I only caught one word, but it was enough. I produced a lush Malbec and a bright Viognier from my pack. I was golden.
My Chilean guide was not pleased with my decision to take off with strange, tipsy women, but she couldn’t really stop me. I gave her a hug and a gratuity that was either very generous or very scroogey. I’d lost track of the peso/dollar conversion several weeks earlier in Paraguay. One of my new best friends offered her a ziploc bag of questionable raisins, but she declined and hurried back to her heated van.
Not 2o minutes up the trail, we came to a complete stop. Guanacos. Possibly the goofiest looking animal in South America. They stared at us in silence. In the next 3 days, we’d see foxes, chinchillas and a strange, slimy not-really-a-lizard-thing with a bumpy tail.
My new mates turned out to be new friends themselves. Cassie (aka Bridget Jones), Shar and Ines had only met a month before, at a hostel in Peru. They’d each been winding their way through South America, when they decided to team up and tackle the Andes together.
Apparently, they’d bonded over a hall toilet in a sketchy hostel. It had no door, just a toilet and a rusty metal basin to use as a sink. “We took turns standing in the doorway while the other one peed. Or, whatever.” Cassie giggled. Shar hid her face in embarrassment, making me laugh.
We enjoyed near-perfect weather; cold but clear skies. Shar and Ines shared a tent, but Cassie had given hers away somewhere on the journey. My sleeper was warm and dry, and I would’ve opted out of a tent anyway; I could barely sleep from staring at the stars.
The girls were also getting sick of granola, raisins and freeze-dried everything, so they were overjoyed to see my rations. I had apples and peanut butter and hard salami and tuna pouches. And Snickers bars, because chocolate. A feast!
I got back to Mendoza on Sunday and met up with my daughter, who’d been wine tasting and spa going ever since I’d left her. I dragged my muddy pack into the sparkling lobby of the Hyatt Regency, and I saw her wrinkle her nose. She looks just like my mother when she does that.
“We’re going a fancy place — to 1884 — for dinner,” she said, not brooking any argument. “We’re not eating jerky or berries or raw anything.” She sniffed delicately. “And you’re taking a shower.”