Everybody knows the drill when it comes to a Mendoza getaway: wine, rinse, repeat. After all, there’s a reason Mendoza has become one of the world’s most popular wine regions, from the stunning natural setting to the accessible wines that get better every vendimia (harvest festival). But while no Mendoza vacation would be complete without visits to its renowned bodegas, this Andes-straddling, grape-crushing, art-loving province has so much more to offer. A well-planned visit “out west” can strike the perfect balance between city, wine country, and mountains.
Although it’s hard to go wrong with Mendoza weather (occasionally you’ll run into some uncharacteristic rain), autumn is arguably the best time of year to go. Whether you’re strolling through the city or ambling along a country road, the fall colors provide a striking contrast to the dramatic, rugged Andes. The leaves — of both trees and vines — begin changing by early April, so you can experience a scenic fall vacation in the province before summer ends in the east of the country.
Mendoza’s attractive downtown is dotted by old plazas, trees, and a pleasant pedestrian street lined with small shops and al fresco cafes. With so much to do outside the city itself, though, if you only have a couple days we recommend relaxing in Mendoza for just the morning before venturing further. Take a walk through the Plaza Italia — home to a pleasant fountain, palms and deciduous trees, and a delightfully strange statue of the wolf-mother who raised Rome’s founders, Romulus and Remus.
On the shady side of the plaza, you’ll find one of the city’s must-visit cafes, Silla 14, where you can linger for a delicious brunch and excellent coffee selection. Their location overlooking the lovely Plaza Italia is spot on: the Italian espresso is phenomenal, and the whole place gives off a tranquil Mediterranean vibe that provides a breath of fresh air from Buenos Aires’s hectic pace.
Bring a book and linger on the tiled patio on a sunny day, or ensconce yourself inside the lofty-ceilinged, historic old building the cafe calls home. With homemade breads and pastries, your post-flight hunger is well taken care of, but the unexpected standout is a refreshing banana-ginger smoothie that will give you the energy you need to trek out of the city. (Okay, the espresso might have had something to do with that too.)
Now that you’re acclimated to Mendoza’s slower pace, it’s time to head south for the necessary stop in wine country. While plenty of visitors just take the bus or train (bus is a much better option) down to Maipu and bike between several vineyards in the area, the much best option is to take a taxi or rent a car from the city and head a bit further into the vineyards for the night. This way, you can get off the well-trodden path, skip the most over-priced, touristy vineyards, and avoid being chased by a pack of wild dogs while you bike around (yes, we’ve heard horror stories.)
Push southwest of the city, past Maipu’s agreeable central plaza and town center, to spend the afternoon at Casa El Enemigo Vigil, undoubtedly one of the region’s most unique. You’ll drive for miles along a quiet dirt road lined with olive and pomegranate trees and vines, with the rough, often snow-capped peaks of the Andes stretching out behind you. The small vineyard is exceptional for its blend of architecture, art, food, and, of course, wine — you get a lot in one package, perfect for a quick trip when zipping between many vineyards (and having to designate a sadly sober driver) or paying for a costly, overrated guided tour around the region just isn’t in the cards.
Start with a free guided tour, where an extremely knowledgeable tour guide will lead you amongst the vines and gardens while simultaneously answering many pretentious wine-related questions from Spanish, Brazilian, and Chilean yuppie couples. The property is absolutely stunning, with misty views west to the Andes, and an abundance of different plants and vines, including a quince tree-lined path and an enormous organic garden with over 50 varieties of tomatoes (yes, you get to try them, and yes they are unbelievably good). A gorgeous vine-covered trellis leads up to the owner’s Mediterranean-style home, the explosion of fall colors perfectly complementing the red tile rooftop of the stucco house.
The vineyard’s other buildings are a sharp, contemporary contrast with the owner’s classically European home, but somehow the architecture blends together well, representing the mix of tradition and modernity, Old World and Nuevo Mundo, that Mendoza’s wines and vineyards are famous for. Your tour takes a weird and wonderful turn when you’re guided down into “Hell,” i.e. the shadowy, stone-walled cellars, which have been converted into an art gallery with rotating pieces by Mendoza artists. The fascinating collection features dark, twisted sculptures and a stunning 1,000 page record-keeping book from an old vineyard that’s been converted into a unique work of art. Several irresistible pieces from artist Sergio Roggerone are on display — in fact, he lives right next door in a palatial chapel-like house filled with art. If you’re lucky, you may be able to get a tour of his home, but you’ll need to cross your fingers and plan in advance.
Inside El Enemigo’s attractive vineyard buildings, enjoy a wine tasting at their bespoke restaurant. The Pinot Noir and the Malbec are both rich, full-bodied varietals, and all wine tastings come with a delicious spread of fresh breads, patés, and some of the fresh produce grown in the organic garden. If you’re sufficiently impressed, stay for the pricey food-and-wine tasting menu for dinner — if there’s one thing to splurge on this weekend, it’s this.
If you’re on a tighter budget, or if all that wine and exploring has you ready for a siesta, go down the dirt road (as in literally 600 meters down the road) to your home for the night: Finca Fisterra. This tiny bed-and-breakfast, just a few lovely rooms on a small farm with olives, apples, and grapevines, is the definition of peaceful. Walking around the property, you’ll hear nothing but birds and rustling leaves. Take a five minute walk along the street to try some artisanal cheese at Qualtaye Asajo. Even better, your Argentine and Galician hosts are the height of Mendoza charm and helpfulness, going above and beyond to give you a wonderful stay. Their daughter, a chef by day at a vineyard restaurant, makes delicious dinners for guests who want to stay in for the night, including fantastic steak, pasta, and champagne. The promised breakfast won’t disappoint either, and you’ll start out your second day in Mendoza wondering how you were able to do so much in one day.
Now that you’ve gotten your taste of wine country, it’s time to head up into those craggy peaks that make Mendoza’s vineyards so scenic. Or more specifically, into the precordillera (foothills), where snow has not yet fallen and the altitude and climate are more mild. You can drive, or head back to Mendoza’s main omnibus station, where buses run regularly up into the mountains. Before you start out, grab a picnic lunch and a bottle of wine to enjoy at your next destination: spectacular Andean hot springs.
After a busy day of travel yesterday, it’s time to relax and unwind before you have to return to workday life. As the mountain roads get steeper and the bare rock-face, flecked with a million ancient earth tones, plunges down dramatically to the Mendoza River, you’ll arrive at the Cacheuta Hot Springs. You can choose between the expensive, luxurious spa complex or the better-value public springs, but don’t feel you’re missing out if you go with the budget option: the municipal public complex is stunningly beautiful and offers an amazing variety of indoor and outdoor pools at different temperatures.
The naturally-occurring springs perch at the edge of a gorge, offering breathtaking views of the river far below and the Andes all around you. For the best views, stroll out to the bridge just up the Panamerican highway, which amazingly stretches from Alaska to Patagonia). The brave of heart can venture onto an old wooden rope bridge that resembles one from an old adventure movie, while more cautious adventurers can enjoy the views from a modern concrete bridge — take in the rough-hewn mountains, the abyss, and the river, which rushes through during the summer and nearly dries up in the fall and winter.
Spend the rest of the day luxuriating in the hot springs with choripan and a fine Mendoza wine. One word of advice: bring your own robe, the rentals go fast. Also, the idea of a rental robe is a little strange. Stick to the outdoor section of the springs, as the indoor covered area is more accessible and therefore noisier, and often extremely crowded with the many groups of retired Argentines and Chileans who regularly enjoy the springs. When your day comes to an end, grab a beer at the springs’ craft brewery and head to the airport, or spend one last night in any of the comfortable cabanas along the river.