by Andrew Collins
Out of Town
After Buenos Aires, the part of Argentina that gay and lesbian visitors tend to frequent as much as any other is the Mendoza wine country, a vast and sunny high-plains expanse within view of the Southern Hemisphere’s high range, the Andes. Argentina’s winemaking reputation lagged well beyond Chile’s for many years, but lately it’s begun to come of age, and this increasingly sophisticated yet unpretentious city at the heart of the country’s viticulture has become highly popular.
With a population of just over 100,000 people, Mendoza is not a large city, but it does serve a metro region nearly 10 times its size. Here and in the surrounding countryside, you’ll find enough wineries, olive-oil producers, and other artisanal farms and food-makers to keep gourmands and bon vivants happy for weeks. From this Mendoza’s tree-shaded streets you’re also within day-tripping distance of some of the most alluring mountain scenery in South America, as well as white-water rafting and hiking in summer, and skiing in winter.
Compared with Buenos Aires, Mendoza has extremely little in the way of a formal gay scene. On the one hand, this part of the country is relatively conservative – many of the GLBT residents of western Argentina aren’t open about their sexual orientation. On the other hand, the city’s growing cachet with upscale tourists continues to increase gay visibility. And “conservative” here more a matter of style than morality – Mendoza lacks the extroverted flamboyance of Buenos Aires, but it’s certainly not a city with any outward hostility toward gays and lesbians. With a large university and dozens of urbane cafes and wine bars, Mendoza isn’t the last place in the world you could expect to meet single gay men and lesbians. But on the whole, it’s a better destination for couples seeking a romantic, epicurean getaway.
From Buenos Aires, it’s advisable to fly to Mendoza, which has a modern international airport (flights take two hours). The drive from the capital takes 12 to 15 hours and traverses a largely barren landscape – it’s not an advisable way to go. From Santiago, Chile, however, the drive take six to seven hours and involves an arduous thought breathtaking drive over the Andes. If you speak Spanish and have a keen sense of adventure, this can be a rewarding way to visit Mendoza – just be warned that taking a rental car over the border can involve some lengthy and confusing back-and-forth at the customs checkpoints. Otherwise, you can fly from Santiago in about an hour. Daily flights to both Santiago and Buenos Aires are plentiful.
Once in Mendoza, it’s fairly easy to get around the city center on foot, but to explore the wine country extensively, your best bet is to rent a car – unless you’ve booked a tour guide. Maps of wineries are available at hotels – it’s quite safe to drive around the area, but bear in mind that road signage is sometimes spotty. It’s never a bad idea to ask your innkeeper or hotel concierge for directions and advice on wine-touring.
To taste wines in the region, there are a few strategies you might employ. First, consider kicking things off with a visit to the Vines of Mendoza Tasting Room, which is right in the city center. You can try dozens of excellent vintages here, and the staff can help recommend wineries (called bodegas in Argentina) to visit. If you’d rather not drive around yourself, you can book an excursion with one of the area’s several reputable tour companies, such as Ampora Wine Tours and Tasting Mendoza.
If you go out exploring on your own, a few notable stops to consider include La Rural, which is interesting because of its historic building and adjacent museum on winemaking, and Catena Zapata, which has a beautiful setting offering breathtaking views of the Andes. On the more high-tech side of things, Bodega Salentein, a sleek and modern facility in the Uco Valley. But there are dozens of wineries throughout the region, so give yourself a few days if you’re a serious fan of this activity.
Where there’s great wine, you’re sure to find outstanding restaurants, and Mendoza is no exception. Head to Avenida Sarmiento, which runs due west from the main square, Plaza Independencia, and you’ll find a slew of excellent eateries. Be sure to plan a meal at Azafran, a cozy yet contemporary spot serving superb, innovative lunch and dinner fare. The restaurant has its own wine shop as well as a boutique selling locally made sauces, olive oils, and gourmet foods. It’s one of the best restaurants in the entire region. Another favorite is Bistro M at the Park Hyatt, just down the street. In this sleek and sexy dining room you can sample some of the finest steaks in the city, and there’s an absolutely huge wine list.
Similarly impressive if you’re planning a special dinner, the 1884 Francis Mallman is a 10-minute cab ride south in the suburb of Godoy Cruz. The romantic restaurant and winery serves French-inspired Argentine food, and while you’re here, you can also tour the bodega and attached art gallery.
For more casual fare, check out the casual, open-air cafes set along Aristides Villanueva, a short walk southwest of Plaza Independencia. Here you can enjoy filling and affordable sandwiches, salads, and snacks at La Carmela or La Margeurita (the latter has excellent pizzas). Foodies seeking a lunch break while wine touring shouldn’t miss Cava Gourmet, an 1880s hacienda that now comprises a fantastic restaurant and a gourmet-food shop selling house-made jams, oils, and sauces. You’ll also find very good meals prepared at Casa de Campo, a historic restaurant just down the street from the famed Bodega La Rural winery and museum.
Along Sarmiento’s restaurant strip, Ferruccio Soppelsa and Perin Heladeria lie on opposite street corners and compete for the attention of Mendoza’s many enthusiastic fans of ice cream – either of these spots is ideal for dessert. For a light snack, afternoon espresso, or sweets, stroll east from Plaza Independencia along the Sarmiento pedestrian way and you’ll find a handful of lively cafes (plus several mid- to high-end shop).
Mendoza’s not exactly a magnet for nightlife activity, especially for GLBT visitors. But many of the better restaurants in town also have lively wine bars, and same-sex couples won’t feel out of place just happening by the city’s lounges and bars. There is one quasi-gay bar in town, however – La Reserva is a cozy spot just three blocks east of Plaza Independencia. This narrow, dimly lit bar that also serves light snacks has live music and even drag shows occasionally, and it draws a mix of gays, lesbians, and open-minded heteros of all ages.
Accommodations in Mendoza are reasonably priced and include a mix of upscale business hotels and B&Bs. There’s also one property, Life Apart Hotel that markets specifically to gays and lesbians and is reliably comfortable and very affordable (although a short taxi or car ride outside the city center). The hotel, which has about a dozen one-bedroom units with kitchens, caters largely to Argentineans, and its website is in Spanish. But the staff is very friendly and helpful.
Among international chains, the posh Park Hyatt Mendoza has not only an outstanding location overlooking Plaza Independencia along Avenida Sarmiento’s bustling strip of restaurants, it also contains 186 stunningly decorated rooms, the swank Bistro M restaurant (mentioned above) and Uvas wine bar, a typically loud and festive casino, and a full-service spa. Less pricey but still quite upscale, the NH Cordillera is a centrally located branch of the popular Spanish hotel chain. The 105-room property has well-outfitted rooms.
La Escondida, a gay-friendly B&B on an attractive residential street not far from Parque San Martin, has simply yet elegantly furnished rooms. The inn opens to a large yard with a swimming pool, and the staff is incredibly helpful and knowledgeable about the area. With reasonable rates and a perfect location, La Escondida makes a terrific base for partaking of Mendoza’s many charms.
The Little Black Book (Argentina’s country code is 54)
Ampora Wine Tours 0261-429-2931, http://www.mendozawinetours.com.
Azafran 0261-429-4200, http://www.bve.com.ar.
Casa de Campo 0261-481-1605, http://www.casadecampomza.com.
Cava Gourmet 0261-454-9862, http://www.mendoza.com/en/foods/cava-de-cano.
1884 Francis Mallman 0261-424-2698, http://www.1884restaurante.com.ar.
Ferruccio Soppelsa http://www.fsoppelsa.com.ar.
La Escondida 0261-425-5202, http://www.laescondidabb.com.
La Reserva 0261-420-3531.
Life Apart Hotel 0261-431-2259, http://www.lifeapart.com.ar.
Mendoza Tourism Office http://www.turismo.mendoza.gov.ar.
NH Cordillera 0261-441-6464, http://www.nh-hotels.com.
Perin Heladeria 0261-425-7624.
Park Hyatt Mendoza http://www.mendoza.park.hyatt.com.
Tasting Mendoza 0261-424-6540, http://www.tastingmendoza.com.
Mendoza Tasting Room 0261-438-1031, http://www.vinesofmendoza.com.