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Road Trip 2009 - 2010, First Stop

Right after we celebrated Christmas at home, we started getting ready for our big road trip. We were scheduled to leave on Monday, December 28th but we got a call on the 26th to tell us that there was a mechanical problem with the van and they needed all weekend to fix it. That meant that we were going to leave one day later. Rather than move all our reservations back a day, we decided to just spend one less night in Mendoza and stick with the rest of the plan.

By 6:30 am on Tuesday morning, we were on the road. We headed north through the farming community of Los Andes and then on to the Chilean ski resort of Portillo.

We climbed, climbed, climbed through the Andes Mountains. We spent a long time at customs, even though there weren’t many travellers. Not quite sure why it takes so long at customs but there’s nothing you can do about it. Every vehicle that we had seen go through ahead of us had to get inspected once they passed through immigration and customs so we were expecting the same and dreading it, as Der had spent so much time packing the van just so. When I was said that we were a family (little kids and grandparents included) on a big trip, they must have either taken pity on us or thought we weren’t much of a threat as they didn’t even open up the van at all. Phew!

The pass after customs was through the Cristo Redentor tunnel. It actually was shorter than I thought it would be. The Andes on the Argentinean side seemed very different to what we saw on the Chilean side, more rugged.

We stopped at the area where you can hike along trails in the Aconcagua Provincial Park. It was incredibly windy there, which I wasn’t expecting at all. In fact, both kids were really scared of the wind so I stayed in the van with them while Der, Del and Ilene went along a path to get a better view of Aconcagua, the tallest mountain in South America at 6959m high. While we were there, we saw a helicopter land right in front of us. That pilot had to have been excellent because it would have next to impossible to land it in such windy conditions.

We continued on until we got to the Puente del Inca, a natural arch that acts as a bridge over the Vacas River. It is about 2700m above sea level and is not far at all from the Andes. Natural sulfuric hot springs bubble out from cracks in the rock beneath and it is because of them that the rock is the yellow colour. The Inca used this as a bridge in their travels and came to the hot springs for their healing powers. There are several stands set up selling items that have been petrified by the waters. We saw all kinds of things – shoes, bottles, masks, hats. I saw some rocks from the area that had been made into egg shapes and polished. I have wooden eggs from the south of Chile and one of combarbalita (a volcanic rock that comes in many colours) from the Elqui Valley. So, I added it to my collection.

We went a little further and tried to find Los Penitentes, which are rock formations that apparently resemble hooded monks. It took us a while but we did find them – neat spire-like mountains but not as obvious as we had thought.

As we kept driving towards Mendoza, we noticed many shrines on the side of the road, which isn’t that strange in this part of the world. What struck us as different was that they were piled with tons of pop bottles and had signs saying “Difunta Correa”. Here is Wikipedia’s description of it (which matches what we were told but explained much better than I could have):

According to popular legend, Deolinda Correa was a woman whose husband was forcibly recruited around the year 1840, during the Argentine civil wars. Becoming sick, he was then abandoned by the Montoneras [partisans]. In an attempt to reach her sick husband, Deolinda took her baby child and followed the tracks of the Montoneras through the desert of San Juan Province. When her supplies ran out, she died. Her body was found days later by gauchos that were driving cattle through, and to their astonishment found the baby still alive, feeding from the deceased woman's "miraculously" ever-full breast. The men buried the body in present-day Vallecito, and took the baby with them.

The cultus to the Difunta Correa is that of an unofficial popular saint, not recognised by the Catholic Church. Her devout followers believe her to perform miracles and intercede for the living. The survival of her child would have been her first miracle.

Cattle keepers first, then truck drivers, disseminated the figure of the Difunta, creating small altars in several routes throughout the country, with images and sculptures of the Deceased. They there leave bottles of water as votive offerings, "to calm her eternal thirst".

There was a huge change in landscape from the rugged Andean peaks to sparse hills to the flat area around Mendoza. Mendoza has a semi-arid climate and all of the trees that are in the city have been planted by man and have been maintained by an irrigation system. Mendoza’s main economic activities are wine-making and olive oil production and its climate is perfect for both of these.

In 1861, Mendoza suffered a huge earthquake, believed to be 7.8 on the Richter Scale, and it left the city ruined. All buildings collapsed and over four thousand people died. It is believed that the epicenter was right below the city and that is why it caused so much damage. Thousands of people were left homeless, without food, water or anything. The rest of Argentina, Europe and Chile all provided help to the Mendocinos at this time. The French urban planner, Ballofet, designed the new look of Mendoza – the wide streets, open squares and low buildings.

Mendoza is known for its wide, tree-lined streets and avenues and its plazas. There are shady plane and sycamore trees along every street, which are very welcome the hot summer weather. They are watered by irrigation ditches that run alongside every street; these ditches also act as a natural, outdoor air-cooling system. They are really deep and we had to make sure the kids didn’t walk on that edge of the sidewalk. I kept thinking of open sewers (even though they aren’t) and critters that could crawl out. Guess I’ve been in too many developing countries.

We visited San Martin Plaza our first afternoon there, since our apartment was very close to it. It is a rather plain plaza but it does have a statue of General San Martin on a horse looking towards the Andes. His Army of the Andes was trained in Mendoza before crossing over the Andes and defeating the Spanish troops in the Battle of Maipu in Chile in 1818.

The next morning, we visited the main plazas. We went to Plaza Independencia first of all since it is in the centre of them all. It’s four blocks in size and is very pretty with all of the trees, fountains and monuments.

After Independencia, we went to Plaza Italia, named after the Italian community of Mendoza built two monuments in honour of Italy. One of them is a bronze statue of the Roman wolf feeding Romulus and Remus. There is also La Patria, which is the main monument and is made of stone and bronze. On either side of her is a statue of an aboriginal and another of a Roman philosopher. Around the bottom of the monument, there are scenes of the Italian immigrants to the area ploughing, building and harvesting. Much of Mendoza’s population is of Italian descent.

Then it was off to Plaza Espana, which was the most beautiful of them all. There are ceramic tiles all around the plaza, which makes it so pretty. There are Andalucian tiles decorating the benches, blue and white tiles in among the terracotta tiles that make up the pathways and other tiles that make up the scenes along the bottom of the monument commemorating the Spanish discovery of South America. There are fewer people of Spanish descent in Mendoza than of Italian but the old, traditional families of the area came from Spain.

We skipped Plaza Chile because we ran out of time that morning. This plaza was dedicated to Chile after all the help it provided to Mendoza after the big earthquake.

That afternoon we went to the zoo in San Martin Park. The park is apparently one of the most beautiful in the country and is huge, 4 square kilometers in size. There are lots of open green spaces, as well as the city’s main soccer stadium, an amphitheatre, a weather observatory, a monument, a rowing lake, a tennis club, a hospital, the university campus, a riding club, a research centre for agriculture, restaurants, a rose garden and a museum. There are more than fifty thousand trees planted here of 750 varieties. This is quite impressive since Mendoza was built in almost desert-like conditions.

The zoo is located in the park on a hillside, next to Cerro de la Gloria, and it covers a lot of ground. It’s a big zoo and is one of the best in Argentina for the variety of animals and the conditions they’re kept in. We can agree with that to a degree but still, some of the enclosures are pitiful. The worst ones were the African elephant, where the poor thing wandered around without any shade or water and nothing to even look at, and the pumas, where there were eleven pumas cramped into a tiny enclosure. The setting, though, was beautiful – lots of trees and plants with the paths winding along the hillside. There were monkeys roaming freely and it freaked me out. Derwin, of course, thought it was very cool. We walked and walked all afternoon and it was great fun for the kids.

While in Mendoza, we stayed at an apart-hotel, which we have discovered, is a great way to travel when you’re a family. There’s lots of space so the kids don’t get feeling so cramped in, and you can make meals there so you’re not always eating in a restaurant. Kids just need “normal” food sometimes and having the option of not having to eat out all the time is great. We stayed at Gala Apart-Hotel, which was quite close to all the squares and downtown activities. It was a great location for what we wanted to do.
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