All posts by Todd

Lilting Gazelles and Thundering Hippos

It’s been awhile since we’ve blogged. Clearly. Sorry. And, in addition, I’m not really going to cover the craziness of being back in the states. That topic is one of those that’s going to take a herculean effort I’m not quite up to yet. (Erin, go for it if you’re ready.)

Today, I woke up a little groggy, with some funny things going on in my belly, gurgling and all sorts of remnants from our last Thursday in Kansas City. Last night was a fun crew, mixing all the senators of various sorts. (And, for those of you who slept through your computer history course, I present to you, The Lisa) Pizza, beer, and some goodbyes all made for a great night.

I decided that what I needed to do was take a run. You may remember that we ran a half-marathon in Mendoza a couple months ago. We’ve been running pretty regularly, more or less as we can squeeze it into our schedules, which are surprisingly busy. So this run was nothing special, really. I decided to run a 3 mile loop, started off and immediately cramped up. I felt like there was monkey wrench bouncing around through my intestines. So… I slow down, let my body adjust to the idea of running. I kept talking to it, alternatively giving it words of encouragement, You can do it!, and apologies, I’m so sorry about last night. Eventually, it came around after the first half-mile. I started going at a nice pace, waving to the middle-aged dog walking wives of Brookside. I preened, nearly choking on my own ego as I watched them watching me. The thoughts that go through your head while running can be pretty ridiculous. Running without a shirt on a valid form of community service, really. We just normally don’t admit them out loud, and certainly not in a public forum like the internet. Oh well.

So, I hit the midway point and was pretty pleased with how things were going and, like the horse turning home, decide to kick it up a notch. Or two. Or as many as possible. Now, I’m just flying through the streets, passing 3 deep lines of baby strolling moms. But no longer am I a gazelle, gracefully lilting through an urban savannah. Now I’m more like a thundering hippo running to the muddy river. Get out of my way! If you’ve ever seen a hippo run, it’s pretty funny and I felt pretty ridiculous, panting the entire time. You start to wonder what you’re even doing out there.

Then the eye of the hurricane hit me, calmness all around, and all I could think about was how my nose and mouth were like a gigantic stovepipe going down to my lungs. I couldn’t believe the sheer quantity of air I could move! For those who have never picked up smoking and then quit, you’ll never understand the difference. For my body to be able to pull air like this was incredible. I don’t remember being in high school and having lungs like that because I never knew there was another option. I had the tar in my lungs pointed out to me on x-ray in Paris. I trained for a marathon in college and didn’t quit smoking because I didn’t think it was affecting me that much. The debilitating change had come on so slowly, I truly didn’t recognize it. So, I know what it’s like to run, exercise, hike, do whatever physical activity and have lungs that aren’t what they could be, but recognizing the difference was a different story.

So, in this moment of calm that lasted the last mile, I just ran at full bore and marveled at what my lungs were doing. I wasn’t thinking about how much my legs were screaming or how I might throw up from the sheer physical effort. I was literally imagining the vast quantities of air leaving my lungs and forming little cloud cubes so that I could count how many cubic feet of air I was using. This simple activity of sucking air in and forcing it out became a marvel of it’s own. It was as beautiful as any African sunset, any Guatemalan volcano, any Bolivian jungle or Argentine wine.

That runner’s euphoria they talk about? Yep. That’s it.

Wines We Enjoy…

So…  As has become evident by our blogs, our time and our interests, we enjoy wine.  We’ve been in Argentina about 22 weeks.  We spent 8 days touring vineyards, tasting about 15-20 wines per day on those days.  While we lived here, we tasted probably about 4 new wines a week.  So… that’s a lot.  We’ve estimated that we’ve probably tried at least 70 Malbecs, not even mentioning blends.

Therefore… we thought that people would enjoy knowing what wines we liked.  This isn’t a complete list, just ones that we decided we would search for when we had the money to buy them.  Some are expensive, some cheap, most in the middle somewhere.  The list is in no particular order.

Caelum Rose
Pulenta Chardonnay
Trumpter Malbec Rose Sparkling
Altavista Atemportal Sparkling
Yacochuya Torrontes
La Garde Viognier
Bressia Canela (Char/Viognier)
Mariflor Sauvignon Blanc
Krontiras Malbec Reserva
Pulenta Malbec
Sin Fin Malbec
Sangre de los Andes Malbec
Punta Final Reserva Malbec
Enrique Foster Malbec Reserva
Viña Amalia Malbec
Fin del Mundo Malbec Reserva
Yacochuya Malbec
Monteviejo Lindaflor Malbec
Clos de Chacras Gran Estirpe Malbec
Doña Silviniña Malbec Reserva
Val de Flores Malbec
Azul Reserva Blend
O.Fournier A Crux
B Crux
Clos de los Siete Clos de los Siete
Bressia Conjuro
Vistalba Corte B
Corte C
Caelum Cab Sauv
DV Catena Syrah – Syrah
Lorca Petit Verdot
Ricominciare Cab Franc/Cab Sauv
Carmelo Patti Cabernet Sauvignon
Benegas Libertad Vineyard Syrah
BL Cab Franc
BL Meritage
Errazuriz Seña

Cafayate in all it’s glory.

Well well well, so we’re back from Cafayate. It was only a mere 22 hour bus ride, but we’re back. It seems fitting that our last big bus ride would be an overly long one. And that it was. We left Mendoza on Tuesday night at 9pm, arriving at Tucuman around 10:30am. Cafayate Luckily, we had planned in advance and purchase a swanky bus ticket so that we would arrive rested and ready to taste some wine. It was nice. Full 180° seats are absolutely the best. In addition, we were served a hot meal and had an open bar. A couple glasses of wine, a full belly, and I was ready to sleep. A 12:00 bus to Cafayate arriving at 5pm meant that it was a mere 20 hours to get there. We checked into our hostel, walked around for a bit, then hit the bed. We had a big day ahead of us.

The next day was pretty simple in theory. Cafayate We would rent bikes, tootle around the vineyards, taste some wines, have a lunch, then come back to the hostel. The morning activity worked out just fine. We picked up a couple of old one-speed bikes and headed out of town to visit Etchart Bodega. The tour was pretty normal, especially given that Etchart is a massive winery, one of the biggest in the region. But it was enjoyable, especially since we were tasting Torrontes. This is emblematic of the region and one of the main reasons we came. Folklore says that it is only grown in the Cafayate area, which adds a little extra something to it.

Following Etchart, we pedeled to Lavaque, Cafayate who told us that their tour guide was on vacation, so we coasted to Hermanos Domingo, which we definitely expected to be a low-quality, high-volume production. It was. But it was more. Their reserve line was actually really good, and we picked up a couple bottles of the Tannat to drink later. You know, because the first thing you want to do after a day of wine tasting is crack another bottle of wine.

We left the winery in plenty of time to make it up to Finca los Nubes, which is owned by Jose Mournier,Cafayate another well-known Argentine winemaker. This is where we were to have lunch. I had some technical difficulties with my bike, which left me cursing and wondering how a one-speed bike could have issues with a chain. So… I had the wonderful opportunity to push it up the hill, all the way into the clouds. But… after rinsing my hands and taking a quick breather, I was ready for a tour and lunch. This was a small winery, which is always a nice change from a big one. Decent wine, and then lunch. What was lunch? Yummy, yummy cheese, candied apples, and a Torrontes was the first course. A perfect parrilla (grill platter) for the second course with the Cabernet-Malbec blend. Finished with coffee and cookies. We talked about how when we lived in France, how we had thought this is what it would be like. We didn’t really find it there, but a simple 20 hour bus ride had gotten us here, so better late than never. The afternoon was classic Argentine: siesta. We slept through the afternoon, woke up for dinner of sausage and cheese, cracked a bottle of the Tannat we had purchased, then went right back to bed for the next day.

Friday was our second day of touring wines, and the last scheduled one. Cafayate We were a little worn out on wine, as you might imagine, but we decided to keep the dubious reservation at Yacachuya, owned by the Etchart family. Rented a couple of bikes, started up the 7km hill to the winery, then POOOFFF!!! My tire was not just flat, it was totally worthless. The bike rental guy had warned us about the spines in the road, and I apparently was destined to find one of them. (Note: if you’re counting, I have had some issue with 4 of the last 4 bikes rented. Luckily, I’m not counting.) So… we get to walk up another hill, this one longer and steeper. Oh, joy. But, it was worth it.

We arrived, both without shirts on, sweating, panting, dirt on our hands and dust in our hair. Cafayate We quickly headed to the bathrooms to make ourselves more presentable, or at least as much as possible. We exit to bathrooms, still shaking water off our hands, to meet Cecilia, the daughter in law of Arnauldo Etchart, founder of Etchart winery which we visited the day before. She was quite nice and a definite talker, so we did a quick tour of the small-production vineyard and bodega before heading past the “No Admittance” sign, going towards their house. She’s talking about her kids, the difficulty of the reservation, the fact that her english is terrible, everything. Erin and I are looking at each other with disbelieving eyes that say, “We’re going in there?”

We walk into Cafayate a small, but nice room with a plate of cheese and crackers setup. Cecilia talks for awhile about the essence of wine, how it’s about the moment, and I’m sitting there wondering about etiquette. Okay, so there’s a delectable cheese plate in front of starving me, a glass of torrontes wine I want to chug like Franzia, but I’m in an old hunting lodge-esque room, there’s a lady in huge chunky jewelery who hasn’t touched the food yet. What do you do? I went for the cheese as delicately as possible and sipped the wine as quietly as possible. But as soon as she left, we started taking dorky pictures of us pretending to be high class. Of course, we got caught by Mrs. Arnauldo Etchart, wife of the founder. What bad luck! Oh well. I don’t think we were fooling anyone.

The owner’s wife sat down and talked to us for awhile about Cafayate and the Torrontes grape, why they did the winery, etc. It was all pretty interesting and in the middle of it, she would quickly scold us for not eating more cheese. I thought I was being dainty, but honestly, how can you eat a lot of cheese daintily? So I abandoned the cotillion-style and went for the (still dainty) shovel-method, which, I think, the grandma really appreciated. Then, the man himself shuffled in. He was doing normal things, like bringing in the paper and mail, talking to his wife about something or another, just generally being a bit crotchedy. We shook his hand, sat down to eat some more cheese, and just listened.

Don Arnauldo Etchart was (and is) a dominant figure in Argentine wine, primarily because he was one of the main reasons the french winemakers came to Argentina, starting with Michel Rolland. Arnauldo Etchart called Michel Rolland down to Cafayate in 1985 or so, which is really early in the fine-wine world of Argentina. So… we were definitely a little star-struck.

After the cheese plate scene, we moved into Cafayatethe formal dining room, complete with a glass hunting case of stuffed poultry to look over the proceedings. We definitely felt awkward, but I’m pretty sure this just added to excitement. We had an incredible lunch, in a beautiful setting with great wine. And afterward, Cecilia even put our bikes in the back of the truck and took us back to town. It was way beyond anything we could have expected.

Once back in town, we settled down for a bit,Cafayate then headed back out to visit a couple more wineries, namely Nanni. We were expecting to go in for a tasting, so when someone handed us a glass, we thanked them and drank it. But, crazy this, they were all french and quebecqois. So, we popped back into our French mode. But, kind of like forgetting to clutch when you shift, it didn’t work so well. French/Spanish/English words came out in orders that made no sense. Thankfully, they spoke english and we embarassingly reverted to our tongue.

The two quebecqois were about our age and quickly invited us to an asado they were making back at their campsite. We said absolutely, let’s meet in the square. Erin and I were wined out by this time, but it wasn’t long until we bumped into them again. Cafayate We changed plans to go out for pizza. After all, it’s so much more simple to order a pizza than to go to the campsite, carry wood, make a fire, grill the meat, and all the other things that go into it. A long night at the pizza place left us with a wine-barrel mouth the next morning.

BUT… it was our last day on our last trip in our last month and we were troopers. Cafayate So we bought a big bag of Lays potato chips and headed out after a huge pot of coffee. Nothing too notable with the exception of the tiny Bodega Salvador Figueroa. Nothing to bring it back to the essentials. It was a warehouse with a bunch of plastic tanks. Stainless steel? Nope. Mechanical presses? Nope. They even bottled by hand, which is just crazy. 6,000 bottles total production means it’s a small family production. Fun stuff.

After that it was quiet time. We had some lunch, watched an old car rally take over the town square, and waited for the bus to leave. We left at 6pm, and arrived at 4:30pm the next day. 22 hours goes by incredibly slow when there’s nothing to do. It was broken up by a drug raid where they found quite a bit of coca leaves, which really is pretty harmless stuff since they just make mate out of it. But, it did provide an half hour of entertainment in the middle of the Argentine desert on our last bus ride. Oh, nostalgia.

Vallecitos is a Pretty Place.

VallecitosSo… this weekend was my “surprise weekend” for Erin.  It’s not really a surprise when you have to say, “Plan on being gone for these next couple days, but I’m not saying where.”  So, there were bits of it that were a surprise, but she pretty much guessed it all.  The surprise was renting a car and going to a mountain refuge for a couple days.

It was wonderful.  I picked up the car around noon and headed back to the apartment to pick up all the stuff that we had ready.  Then, it was off.  IVallecitos picked an alternate route from the standard one towards Chile.  This was a famous backcountry road with a gorgeous view of the Mountain Aconcagua (22, 841ft).  Now, some people seem to think that little 1.2 liter engines, 2 door and low clearance cars aren’t meant for poorly graded gravel roads.  However, we’re in Argentina where anything goes, so off we went.  There were a few moments where large rocks blocked our way, but we managed to drive around them, up the 365 switchbacks to see some incredible views.  Along the way, we passed Villavicencio, an old hotel with gorgeous gardens among the fall leaves.

After we left the gravel road and came out at Uspallata, we headed back along the highway to Jerome Brewery.  When Erin’s dad came in town, he noticed Vallecitosthe label of the microbrewery was a German Shepard, which is the animal that would be on their family shield if they had one.  So, we were on our way to taste the beer and try to pick up some t-shirts or sweaters, or something for the dog lover in us all.  The beer was there, and it was delicious.  They had a beer that was aged 12months in french oak and it was fantastic.  Mmmm.  We had lunch, a couple of vicuna burgers.  Also, yummy.  They had shirts, wait, actually, no they didn’t, they didn’t have anything.  No sweaters, no shirts, nothing.  That was a bit disappointing, to be honest, but it was a fun trip anyway.

From the brewery, the final surprise was still to be revealed to Erin: the San Bernardo Refugio.  This is a small log cabin just outside of the ski village Vallecitos. Vallecitos Hikers use it in the summer for acclimatization, skiers use it in the winter to go skiing, but in the fall, it’s not really used at all.  There were 3 other people at the lodge, that’s it.  So we pretty much had the run of the place.  We were dead tired from the drive in, so we went to bed around 10pm, which earned us ridicule from our new friends.  But, it was good to rest.

The next morning we woke up, had a leisurely breakfast and went out for a hike.  We weren’t planning on anything too strenuous.  For example, one of the other hikers got up at 5am to summit a 5,500m peak. Vallecitos Nope, we passed on that opportunity.  Instead, we walked up the catwalk.  A nicely graded trail with two tracks where we could walk side by side and amicably chat about nothing.  Which we did, stopping to play in the decrepit  and unsafe chairlifts.  When we got to the top of the mountain, we broke for lunch of delicious sausage and cheese.  Then we headed back down to the refugio to relax from the exhausting hike.

Then, theVallecitos last part of the day, was about to start.  I had planned an asado of our very own.  We put on some firewood, got it going, built up the coals, then put on the side of veal, some chorizo and blood sausage.  We spent the night playing guitar with some Canadiens, talking politics and drinking wine out of a damajuana. (A damajuana is a classic argentina 5 liter bottle of wine, of generally low quality.)

This morning, we got up for some breakfast and gave the canadiens a ride to town.  Back in Mendoza, we returned the car, bought some bus tickets to Cafayate, where we’re off to next.  Today, we’re going out with an old friend, Dustin, who we met all the way back in Guatemala.  There aren’t too many of our friends still traveling around the Americas, so it’ll be nice to catch up to see where he’s been.

Fun in Arenales

My goodness! Where have we been? What have we been doing? It seems like it’s been so long since we talked, I know, I know. I’ve been busy, you’ve been busy, just couldn’t quite connect. But it’s good that we are talking again, finally. So, to bring you up to date, I went climbing last Monday and Tuesday. I found a rock climbing guide who was certified and experienced so that he could teach me how to be safe while on the wall. He was recommended by two separate climbing shops here in town, and he’s been up Aconcagua ten times as a guide, which is pretty impressive for someone who’s only 28.

He picked me up at 8am for the 3 hour drive to Arenales. Arenales We went up the very same valley that Erin and her dad went fly fishing in. We arrived at the refugio, which is just a shack, to be honest. We shooed the cows and horses away from the building and threw all our sleeping bags and food in the shelter. Then he started to pull out gear. The amount and weight of it alone was crazy. I was learning how to do traditional climbing, aka “trad”, he brought a whole slew of anchors to put in different situations. I knew the names and uses of most, but it was good to review and go over everything. Especially since everything was in spanish. You couldn’t just say “quickdraw,” “carabiner,” or “cam.” It was “espres,” “moscaton,” and “fier.” Arenales This translation of everything made for some difficultly, but not really. The most difficult part was the actual setting of the anchors. Imagine hanging on a wall with about 30 extra pounds of gear attached to your belt, looking at a crack in the wall and trying to figure out which type of anchor to use, and then decide which size will fit the best. For me, there was a lot of time and energy wasted trying to do this. But rather safe then sorry, which was the reason I was there.

We would then get to the top of the pitch and we would set up a belay station where we would both be at equal height on the wall, hanging from the same anchors. Setting this up safely was another part of the course. Then, we had lunch up on the wall. Kind of hokey, but kind of fun. We spent a lot of time going up, setting up pulley systems to bring up the haul bag, dropping it down, going up, going down, setting anchors, and fun things like that. At the end, we did a 3 pitch route, which was the end goal of the course.

I’ve been climbing in gyms for a long time now, Arenalessince about 2002 or so, when I first started getting into it because of some friends. But my outdoor climbing experience was much smaller.  The fear factor is something that takes a while to get over, and I still haven’t really. Indoor, everything is controlled, there’s very little that can go wrong. ArenalesThe gym is setup to be safe. Outdoor is different because the safety factor falls squarely on your shoulders.  In addition, it’s just a little crazy. For instance, I was on the last pitch of our climb, and I had a hand-foot match (where the foot comes up to be on the same ledge as the hand) but, when I looked down to find the ledge, I saw the ground was 150ft down. It just makes your head swirl a little bit before you get used to it. But then you look at all the safety mechanisms and realize that you really are quite safe, in a strange way.

All in all, I really enjoyed it. I’m definitely ready to start climbing more, so watch out Idaho!