For the second time in 24 hours, I was treated to a view of the snow-capped Andes from the windows of a bus. Only this time, the mountains were alongside us, instead of in the distance, and I was going to take advantage of their presence, instead of just appreciating the breath-taking beauty. Our bus wound through the peaks on bumpy, hard-packed dirt roads. Had I not been on a bus surrounded by 50 other skiers and riders, I would have thought we were driving into the middle of nowhere. After about 40 minutes gradual climbing, I caught my first glimpse of Las Leñas ski resort, rolling mounds of white, soft and inviting, topped with scraggly brown points and strung with a black web of ski lifts. On every side were more peaks, each decorated with its own unique combination of snow and rock, and each more powerful than the last. It was like an enormous fence, set down to keep out the rest of the world. It was beautiful.
Getting off the bus, I was greeted by a brisk wind and gray skies that reminded me that here, at least, it was still winter. I collected my gear and started walking towards the cluster of buildings at the base of mountain. At this point, you might have thought that I was ecstatic, that I was ready to sprint towards the lift and strap in with my pack still on my back. No; in reality, I felt as if I had just come home after a long trip. I have been in more ski area parking lots than I can count, and the routine from there is as relaxing and familiar as making breakfast:
Get to the ticket booth; set down board; change into ski clothes; stow away gear; buy ticket; walk towards lift; strap in; get in line; head up.
It wasn’t until I was taking the view from a gently humming lift, board strapped to my feet, that I began to get some inkling that things were different. The snowfields of Las Leñas splayed out below, above, and to the sides. The clouds cleared, and fresh, warm sunlight illuminated the surrounding mountains, making them pop as if they had just gotten a fresh coat of white paint. The view was incredible, but it wasn’t until I set my first tracks into South-American snow that the endorphins started flowing in full force. I was doing it. I was snowboarding. In summer. In Argentina.
For the next 3 runs I couldn’t keep the grin off my face. I savored each turn, feeling the increasingly-soft snow give way to my heels and toes, hearing the smooth friction of my board on the slope, like blowing air through closed teeth. Tsshhh, Tsshh, Tsshh. After a few runs, I was able to shake off a little of the disbelief and settle into the rhythm that comes with riding alone. You let the board take you where it will, creating a steady stream of laps punctuated by lift conversation or quiet musing. It is thoughtless, medatative, and amazing.
It could have been like any other solo day, if not for the fact that it was a brand new mountain, in the Andes, and the lift conversations were in Spanish. I met a guy named Facundo, and linked up with him and a friend. By this time the sun was out in full force, and the trails were getting softer with every run. Between that, the temperature, and the relaxed atmosphere, it almost felt like a spring day at Sugarloaf. I took a string of runs with my new amigos before taking their advice and heading across to check out the other side of the resort.
Three straight lift rides brings you to the tallest peak at Las Leñas, where the view hits you with full force. I spent one of the lift rides enjoying a thick and delicious PB and banana sandwich that I stuffed into my snowpants early in the morning, allowing me to skip going in for lunch. I spent the early afternoon enjoying beautiful sights and long runs, before pointing my board back towards the lower mountain sunlight. I finally finished out the day around 4:45 with tired legs and a enormous grin stuck to my face. The day had been absolutely everything that I could have hoped, and I couldn’t have been more satisfied. I caught the 6:00 bus, was back to the hostel by 1:00, and fell gratefully into the lower bunk for a well-deserved rest.
(**Note: For the sake of time, I’m going to try to shorten the rest of the account just to get this post published. It was, after all, about 3 weeks ago, and I’ve done a few other things since then that could be worthy of documenting. So bear with me, and use a little imagination to fill the holes that I leave.)
The next day, Sunday, Jess and I had reserved a spot for an all day hike, or trek as they say here in Argentina. After a hearty breakfast of crepes, cereal, eggs, coffee, and fruit, we headed to the lobby to meet our group. It was an international mix: a couple from England, a “mate” from Australia, two Argentine guides, and 2 lowly American college students (Jess and me). We loaded into a shuttle, and for the second time in as many days, I was headed to play in the Andes! I traded the snowboard boots for hiking boots, and the snow for 75 degree sun and a desert-like landscape. But mountains are mountains, and I will always feel at home there.
Our group quickly fell into step along a rocky trail, lined with shrubs and a few cacti. I spent the first part of the hike talking to one of our guides, Jesús. Like any outdoorsman, he was passionate about preserving the world that we enjoy so much. In fact, both he and our other guide, Juan, are Environmental Conservation majors at their university in Mendoza. He had thoughts and hopes for the world that would have made Eric Brown proud.
I spent the rest of the hike bouncing around the group. I learned the Spanish names of local plants and animals from Juan and Jesus, talked to the English couple about their planned year-long trip around the globe, and discovered that our Australian friend, Jason, had been doing ultimate fighting since the age of 14. Between solving the world’s problems and dreaming of potential trips, our group managed to summit two peaks, take in the amazing sights, and make our way back down with tired legs and another tick mark on the Argentine bucket list. We toasted to the trip in a restaurant at the base of the mountains before heading back to Hostel Empedrado for shower and change of clothes. For dinner, Jess and I joined a young couple from Norway for cheap pizza underneath a dark Mendoza sky. Warm conversation was matched by a warm night, which was matched a warm bed.
Finally, Monday rolled around, and to complete the Mendoza trifecta, I geared up for a bicycle tour of the local wineries. After all, no trip to Mendoza is complete without sampling a fair share of Argentine Malbec. Jess sat this one out, and instead I was joined by Jason, the Aussie from yesterday’s hike. We caught a bus to a rental shop about 30 minutes outside the city. The gentleman who runs it is named Mr. Hugo, and he just may be the nicest man on the planet. No exaggeration. He sat Jason and I down in front of his shop (which doubles as his home), and talked us through a map of the 15+ bodegas that were available within a 5 mile radius. We hopped on well-loved bikes and headed off towards wine country. It was another typical day in Mendoza: sunny, 75, and a blueberry sky. It will be a lone time before I forget the sight of miles of vineyard, colored by the sun and framed by an enormous snow-capped peak.
Unfortunately, I had to be back at the hostel by 5 to catch the bus for Buenos Aires, so my time in this paradise was all-too limited. With that in mind, Jason and I pedaled hard until we stumbled, quite at random, onto Los Vientos bodega, part of the Trivento brand, which is one of the largest in all of South America. It was here that I was treated to my first ever winery experience. It was a 40 minute, VIP tour that gave us an explanation of the philosophy and process behind Los Vientos wine. It was masterfully done, and by the time we arrived to the tasting room my mouth was watering. Our guide talked us through the looking, smelling, swirling, and (finally!) sipping of a Malbec and a Chardonnay. We were giddy with the experience and the flavor, and began tossing around words such as: dark, rich, velvety, plum, leather, spice, (Malbec) bright, clear, crisp, apple, citrus (Chardonnay). I gained a new appreciation for how wine could taste, especially after knowing its roots.
After Los Vientos, our guide recommended a small, family winery called Familia Di Tomasso. Jason and I arrived just in time for a tasting of 4 different wines: Malbec, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and a liquor called Vino Generoso that is made from grapes, but tastes more of honey and apple than wine. They were, obviously, delicious, and could only be bought on premises. The Di Tomasso property also gave a glimpse at the other end of the spectrum: small, family-owned, and traditional, compared to the industrial, professional nature of Los Vientos.
Sadly, after this visit it was time for me to head back towards the hostel. I could have spent 3 days touring the vineyards, but didn’t think my teachers would accept enjoying wine as an excuse for missing class. Mr. Hugo sent me off with a few cups of lemonade, a bottle of my own Malbec, and a hug. I got back to Empedrado with just enough time to pack up and catch a bus back towards the big city. I could feel the memory of snow, sun, mountains, wine, good food, and great people tugging at me, but departure was made easier knowing that I will, without a doubt, be back to Mendoza. Anywhere that sits at the base of a world-famous mountain range is my kind of place.