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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Of mate, and other fine Argentine traditions

Yerba mate (pronounced mah-tay) is a plant, a shrub/tree actually – specifically Ilex paraguariensis – and, the basis of a national addiction here in Argentina. It’s found throughout the south of South America in Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, and southern Brazil. Argentina consumes more mate than anywhere else on the planet (although Uruguay has higher per capita consumption). It’s 4 times bigger than coffee here. And, despite what a few hippies might tell you, it does, indeed, contain caffeine. About the same amount as coffee (maybe a bit less), cup for cup, give or take.

The standard concoction, referred to simply as “mate”, is made by grinding up the dried leaves and stems of the plant, and essentially making a tea-like infusion that is then imbibed. Now, that makes it sound like just another tea – it ain’t. Like many things in Argentina, it’s a social obsession and more of an event than just a simple drink. It is to Argentina, what espresso is to Italy, beer is to Germany, vodka is to Russia, toques are to get my point.

The standard mate kit includes: a small gourd (confusingly also referred to as a “mate”) which comes in a variety of shapes and colours, a metal drinking straw (the bombilla), a thermos of hot water, and of course, a container of mate. The kits vary from a more elaborate “home” setup, to a more basic “travel pack” complete with an over-the-shoulder carrying case, to a stripped-down camping version we saw plenty of back at the refugio in Cordon del Plata (see previous posts).

Mate is an “anywhere anytime” kinda thing. Day or night, morning or evening, it’s always a go. The basic ritual involves any number of Argentines (plus an invited gringo or two) sitting or standing in a circle. The chico or chica with the gear – the cebador – fills the gourd with mate, then pours hot water onto the mate until the gourd is full to the rim, then inserts the bombilla. The cebador then passes it to the person on the left, not to the right, or not straight across the circle like some kind of animal, to the left. Said person grabs the gourd without saying a word, sips on the bombilla until that slurpy sound of emptiness occurs, indicating this person’s “turn” is over. The person hands the gourd back to the cebador, who then refills the gourd with water from the thermos, and hands it to the next person to the left, who repeats the process. This goes on...well, until people drop out, or just fade away. It could go on for hours (e.g., campfire situation), or a few minutes (e.g.,   waiting for a bus), depending on what’s happening. The obvious parallel, as a similar social reference, is passing a joint around (which we, like Bill Clinton, have never done).

There are rules. Do not touch the bombilla.  Just wrap your lips around it and suck. That’s the most common mistake us gringos make. We want to handle the bombilla like it’s a straw in a chocolate shake, and maybe mix the mate around a bit. Nope. Not allowed. I suppose it has something to do with your hands might be dirty and that’s the part everyone is putting in their mouth...which brings up an interesting point. They do not seem to care that everyone is wrapping their lips around the same metal straw, turn after turn. Again, kind of like passing a joint around. Those opposed to swapping spit with strangers should just back away slowly and then run J

Anywhoo, rule number 2, which we also customarily break, is: do not say anything, especially not “gracias” when the gourd is passed your way. “Gracias” means you are done, and do not want any more, and it therefore goes to the next person. I’m not certain, but I think saying “thanks” has something to do with it being an insult to imply that the person is doing this as a favour to you, and that it therefore requires a thank you. Saying nothing implies that giving someone mate is as natural as taking a breath. That’s my theory anyway. Of course, we gringos are in the habit of saying “gracias”, first because it’s one of the few words we know well, and, because that’s what our moms taught us since birth if someone gives you something. Pretty funny to watch us gringos struggle with that. You just...gotta say’s not natural!

One of the best things about mate, is that everyone everywhere accepts the idea of having boiling water on hand. We didn’t, at first, understand why the hotel guys would proudly talk about the availability of boiling water to us. Tea and coffee? I would say. Uhhh, sure, would be the response. It was only after seeing a carload of Argentines run into a hotel and fill up their thermoses that we realized what everyone was referring to.

So ya, Argentines and mate, like peanut butter and jam. Funny though, I said that the other day to an Argentine and I first had to explain what peanut butter is (it doesn’t exist here; there is no word for it, just “mani molido”, literally “ground peanuts”), then try to explain why anyone would fine ground-up peanuts mixed with jam an appealing combo. I could have been talking about the political situation in the Ukraine to a 3-yr-old. But that's another story...

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Mendoza wine country

We found it: the best bottle of 3-dollar wine on the planet. Well, at least it’s the best bottle of 3-dollar wine we have ever had. San Huberto Roble Merlot 2008 (roble means “oaked”). A 6-yr-old oaked merlot, off the rack for 320 pesos (+/- 3 bucks at black market rates). We ran into it yesterday during an impromptu tasting as we whizzed by the San Huberto winery in Lujan de Cuyo – one of the big wine areas outside Mendoza. Shopping for wine in the 2 to 3-dollar range, even here, can be a bit hit or miss. This was a serious hit.

So that’s been our mission lately: cycle-touring around the wine areas south of Mendoza. It’s a bit challenging since unlike the Okanagan, our usual stomping grounds, things are spread out here. The terrain is flat as a pancake, so there’s lots of room for everyone to sprawl out. The wineries tend to be gigantic and spaced far apart. But we’re managing somehow. J

The tasting scene here is all over the map. Some are open for tasting, some are not. Some are free, some are not. Some require reservations, some do not. Some have it dialed, some do not. Again, we’re managing somehow. At one place, Bodega Trapiche, the señora sat us down in a lounge right out of downtown Toronto or Vancouver, lined up 4 bottles of wine, told us in English “drink as much as you want, stay as long as you want”, then walked away. We had the place to ourselves. It was a rainy day, so hey, we stayed for a while. Couldn’t get through the 4th bottle though. J The next day, another winery (Bodega La Rural), we belly up to the tasting bar, point to the “basic testing”, which was the cheapest option, sit down at a table with 2 chairs as directed, and then watch as the señora brings over a tray with 6 full glasses of wine on it. She diligently points out the chardonnay, merlot, and malbec, then walks away. Whoa! Luckily there was a British couple there on the same program, so we shared a table and laughed and talked until they literally shut the place down and kindly asked us to leave. What did they expect? 12 glasses of wine...not gonna be quick and easy! Can’t imagine what the bigger options were...
As the fifth largest wine industry in the World, Argentina’s wine scene is huge and growing bigger every day. Amazingly though, 90% of production is consumed internally by Argentines...kind of tells you how serious they are about drinking wine. The 10% export market however is thriving and demand is up – largely driven by Malbec, Argentina’s claim to fame in the wine world. Malbec actually originated in France, but the grape does so well in Argentina, that it has become their signature grape. When our Canadian identity is revealed in tasting rooms, they love to tell us which of their wines are now available in Canada. In fact, when we were at Bodega (recall, bodega = winery) Trapiche, the señora was brimming with pride to tell us that they were the first Argentine winery to breach the Canadian market. Apparently Canada is a tough market to crack due to our arcane liquor laws...go figure!

Our base has been a cozy little family-run hostel (Hostel Huar) in the Mendoza suburb of Maipu. With all the usual comforts of home including kitchen and vine-covered courtyard (gotta love reaching up and grabbing a bunch of ripe grapes anytime you feel like it), it feels like home. It feels like home, because it is one. Our wonderfully friendly hosts, Pedro (a retired cop from the Mendoza police force) and Claudia putter around cleaning the place and keep it up. “Buenos dias, todo bien?” is their key phrase (“hello, everything is good”?).  It’s the kind of place where the TV is on in the background and their 15-yr-old dog is lying in the middle of the kitchen. The other night was their son’s 29th birthday. It was a good ole’ Argentine ho-down in the courtyard. The homies came over with their instruments and they rattled off their best Argentine classics. I took a turn on lead bongos which was a blast. Not sure if it was the wine, but having a gringo on bongos seemed to be a big hit. A lot of red wine went down (the 90% local consumption thing) and fun was had by all...a bit rough the next morning though J

It’s not all about wine. Another big ticket item around here, and one of Amy’s favourite food groups, is olives and olive oil. Just like the bodegas, olivicolas (olivicola = olive farm) offer tours and tastings. Being the first time either of us has even seen an olive tree, the olivicolas are really fascinating. There’s a big fat world of olive oil out there complete with local variatels, blends, and olive oil snobs. We will never look at supermarket olive oil the same way. Just like good wine, good olive oil is marked by blends and variatels like Arbequina, a famous Spanish variety, and Arauco, Argentina’s signature olive. Like the malbec story, Arauco olives came from Spain but thrive in the Argentine terroir. Did you know: the only difference between green and black olives, is time. Black olives are simply ripe green ones, and vice versa. And, did you know, all olives are the same species (olea europaea). Like dogs, there are simply different varieties (and a few subspecies) of the same species. Hmmm. Fascinating.

The highlight of Amy’s life (our wedding aside of course) just could have been the olive oil tasting at Olivicola Santa Augusta. It’s a wonderful old colonial building in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by olive trees. The señorita was lovely and did her best in English to show us her passion for olive oil.  We went for the 5-dollar “full tasting” which was basically lunch (Amy’s favourite snacks like cheese, baguette, sun dried tomatoes, olives), with wine, and of course, 4 varieties of olive oil. Tasting, or shall we say, “drinking” olive oil is an interesting experience. Like good wine, the subtleties of each variety come out, from spicy to smooth to strong. Funny thing. Afterwards she asked us if we would like to have a shot of generic supermarket olive oil for reference. Wow. After having the good stuff, the supermarket stuff tasted like the used cooking oil coming out the back of a McDonald’s. Oh no...not another expensive addiction to deal with J

OK, tomorrow we ride back to the big smoke and our Mendoza base hostel. Amy’s parents are flying in this weekend to meet us. That gives us a few days to do some housekeeping items. Things we bought earlier in the trip are starting to wear out, like a new front tire for the one I blew a couple days ago. It’s a tire we bought way back in Columbia. Oh, and 2 pairs of socks I bought in Ecuador. They’re done! Alrighty then, more on Mendoza with the parents soon. Chau chicos.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Los Andes: Part 2


Aconcagua (pronounced with a silent “g” as in: a-kon-ka-wa) – 6961 m, and the highest mountain in the western and southern hemispheres. And, lucky for us and the rest of humanity, conveniently located right off the highway about 190 kms from Mendoza. From Cordon del Plata (see last post) we returned to civilization, and the lovely little town of Uspallata, for a couple nights to regroup, shower, stock up on food, and enjoy a chilled bottle of Chardonnay in the afternoon. Then it was back on the bus and west towards the Chilean border and the drop-off for Aconcagua.

The plan was rather simple. With no intention to actually climb Aconcagua – a task that requires a full-on and expensive “expedition” along with very expensive permits and long-term planning, not to mention gear that we obviously do not have with us (see last post) – our plan was a simple 3-day hike to the bottom of the south-face base-camp location. Interestingly however, regardless of climbing or just hiking, Argentina imposes relatively large fees for just “being there”. Our 3-day hike, even in the cheaper off-season, still costed us 90 bucks each just for the permits. But hey, it is the biggest mountain in the Americas and kind of a must-do situation.

The mission went off without a hitch. No snow this time, just lots of cold wind and physical exertion. Despite the wind, the MEC Volt A/C 2 came through with flying colours. For a tent that was never designed to be used for what we are using it for, it did us well. Although, it was hard to look at others’ 4-season tents, with their fully enclosed windless interiors and triple-ply flies, without envy.

The hike into “Confluencia”, the first camp at 3400 m, and intersection of the trails leading to the north or south face, was stunningly beautiful and relatively uneventful (i.e., perfect). Aconcagua is visible from the highway, and then looms large over the valley for the entire hike. The usual route to the summit taken by the vast majority of climbers is the north face – which is a relatively “easier” non-technical route that can be performed without ropes and other climbing gear. However, given the elevation and weather issues associated with a 7000-m mountain, every year people die trying to summit. Overall success rate is about 60%.

Confluencia is an interesting place complete with pumped-in water, a public toilet, a ranger station, and a doctor. The park authorities are very strict with permitting and require check-ins at each point along the way. In Confluencia a check-in with the resident doctor is mandatory to determine if you are OK to continue (i.e., altitude-related issues), and includes all the standard tests like pulse and blood pressure. We were a bit nervous that our 1-litre tetra-pak of vino tinto (perfect for camping!, and only 1 dollar!) that we just enjoyed might throw off our vitals. But whew, we both passed the physical with flying colours. All systems were go for tomorrow’s hike up to base camp.

The south face, or pared sur, is a much gnarlier intense route to the summit, and only attempted a few times a year. It’s a challenging technical route that is a whole different ball game than the north face. For us, the hike to the bottom of the south face is much shorter (and much cheaper) than to the base of the north face (3 days versus 7 days), and much more spectacular, so we opted for the south face base camp, otherwise known as “Plaza Francia”.

The hike to Plaza Francia, follows alongside a glaciated iceflow right to the base of the south wall. Despite the wind and cold, it’s a spectacular mind-blowing hike. It’s a massive world of rock and ice – the kind of place that makes you feel like you could get squashed at any second, and no one would know or care. At times the landscape is surreal and looks like the images of Mars we see on the news. As we got closer to Aconcagua, things just got bigger and bigger. The south face of Aconcagua is enormous and impressive, and nothing short of incredible. Plaza Francia is a moonscape devoid of life. At 4200 m, the south wall of Aconcagua extends vertically almost another 3000 m upwards. While there is evidence that humans have been to Plaza Francia before, no one or nothing was there. Sitting there enjoying our cheese and crackers, and staring up at this gigantic glaciated face, the thought of climbing up never crossed our minds. In fact, why anyone would be drawn to attempting the south face is beyond us. It is truly a gigantic, cold, gnarly, dangerous place.

Upon finishing off our cheese, we wrapped things up and headed back down the valley to our camp at Confluencia.  Again, everything went smoothly, other than cold wind and exhaustion, which is to be expected. Nothing is really that comfortable at 4000 m and surrounded by ice. Back at camp the wind was still howling and it blew all night, but the mighty MEC Volt A/C 2 stood firm and didn’t give an inch. We are proud of our little tent!

Next morning we hiked to the highway and caught the first bus going east towards Mendoza, and back to our base hostel, which now feels like home. Within minutes of arriving we were showered and sipping on a chilled Cafayate Torrontes (our new favourite white) in the sun. What a difference a day makes!

So the plan from here is to chill for a few days at our hostel. Dry out the gear, organize a few things, eat some steak, then launch into the other big thing to do around here: wineries! Our plan is to load up the bikes and head south of Mendoza to a couple of nearby wine towns, and, well, drink some wine (you know...the “tasting” thing). Cycle wine touring -- should be good. As always, more on that soon. Chau!

Los Andes: Part 1

We wanted mountains. We got mountains. And mountain weather! It’s been an action-packed couple of weeks since last post with two back-to-back missions to report: (1) Cordon del Plata, and (2) Aconcagua base camp. The Andes up close and personal.

Literally “The Silver Cord”, Cordon del Plata is a mountain range embedded in the high Andes just outside Mendoza (about 80 kms). Along with a pile of peaks in the 4000 to 5000 m range – all doable as hikes and scrambles – it contains one of Argentina’s highest peaks: Cerro Plata (Silver Mountain). As a non-technical ridge walk right to the top, it was long considered the most accessible 6000-m peak in the world. On a perfect day you can literally walk to the top with a pair of running shoes (altitude and weather issues aside, of course). Although, recent surveys with more accurate equipment put the official summit elevation just shy of 6000 m (the map we bought says 5955 m). Whatever, 6000 give or’s a big freakin’ hill!

“Amy! We’re going to the top of a 6000-m peak! This is going to be incredible!!”.  I was sooo excited, I could hardly contain myself. The real beauty of Cordon del Plata and Cerro Plata, is that there’s no red tape. i.e., no permits, no guiding companies, no park fees, no expensive access issues...nada. Just show up and start climbing. It could be the single best non-technical mountaineering location in the world – certainly the best place we have ever been for camping in the mountains and scrambling huge peaks.

48 hrs later
The basic plan of attack for most parties is a 4 to 7-day mission culminating in the big prize on the last day: summiting Cerro Plata. The multi-day requirement isn’t so much because of the distances involved. A super-fit person could probably go from parking lot to summit in one gigantic day. But, the effects of elevation might just blow his/her head off. The standard approach therefore, is to slowly crawl your way up the valley, camping at various lower elevations, maybe bagging a lower peak or two along the way, eventually getting to a high camp and into a position to summit, all the while allowing your body to adjust to the elevation and thus avoid dying from altitude-related issues. From the parking lot at approx. 3000 m, camp 1 is at about 3200 m, camp 2 at about 3600 m, and camp 3 at about 4200 m. From there, most people take another day off to adjust and make sure their head isn’t going to explode, then summit the next day. So that was our plan: food for 7 days with an optional day-off and/or scramble up a 5000-m peak along the way. YEEEHAA!

But alas, as with a lot of things lately, Argentina had a different plan for us. Someone forgot to tell Los Andes that it’s supposed to be summer here. Things were going perfectly for the first 15 mins. :-) Joking aside, it was a perfect summer blue-sky day when we left the bus terminal in Mendoza, made it to the end of the bus route, caught a ride in a pick-up for the rest of the gravel road up to the parking lot and trailhead, strapped on our packs, and started hiking up towards camp 1. We arrived in perfect order at camp 1 under sunny skies, and started into the one celebratory cerveca we had packed just for this occasion. Cheers honey, we made it! Amy wasn’t done hers yet when we looked up and realized the sky was falling, as only the sky in the mountains can do. In a pseudo-panic tent-pitching scenario, we got the tent up and crawled in. Over the next 48 hours – in the midst of a good old-fashioned mountain snow storm – we emerged only for the call of nature, and to dig our tent out of the snow with a plastic bowl. We ran out of reading material on day 2.

The skies finally parted midday on day 3. In all, about 40 cms (knee-deepish) of nice fluffy snow had blanketed our universe – more, much more up higher. Hmmm, should have brought the ski-touring gear. My Patagouchy approach shoes just ain’t gonna cut it here. Not to mention our paper-thin full-mesh cycling tent. Funny thing. While shoveling out the tent with the bowl, I notice the name of the tent proudly displayed on the fly: MEC Volt A/C 2. Hmmm, I then realize what the “A/C” stands for: air conditioning...a reference to the full mesh interior...nice and breezy, perfect for those hot days on the road. I am willing to bet that the specs do not include “ideal for winter camping at high elevations in the Andes”. J

With 48 hours to think about it, we decide to retrace our steps back down to the parking lot, where we knew there to be a refugio – the classic South American version of a “cabin” – to regroup, check weather, get info, etc. The refugio was stuffed with Argentine weekend warriors out enjoying the long weekend. With classic Argentine hospitality, Adrian the “hut keeper” made space for us in the overflow cabin and we passed the rest of the day and night amongst the Argentines and sharing their beloved mate (i.e., yerba mate...needs its own post one day; long story there).

Next day, based on a good 3-day forecast, and coffee in the sun, we decide to head back up. This time we bypass camp 1 and head straight for camp 2. It’s easy going actually because of the posse of weekend warriors in plastic boots blazing the trail for us. As long as we don’t leave the trail, it’s all good. Camp 2 is nice. Piedras Grandes they call it, meaning “big rocks” because of the huge chunks of rock that have broken off the cliffs above and landed on the trail. Hmmm, good spot for a camp...can’t think about that though.

Next day onto camp 3. Again, blue skies and warm midday temps lured us upwards. Again the trail was blazed by the plastic boots of those before us, making it doable. The scenery is stunning with 4000 to 5000-m peaks in every direction. Although it looked and seemed more like ski-touring than hiking. We made it to camp 3, the high camp used as a base camp for those summiting Cerro Plata. It was upon our first view of camp 3 that we fully realized the absurdity of what we were doing. It could have been an advertisement for North Face. The MEC Volt A/C 2 was definitely going to be a story the boyz would be telling for many years...”so there was this gringo couple in running shoes and this ridiculous air-conditioned tent...what a couple of idiots!” I can hear the stories now, because that is exactly the story I would tell if I was them.

Anyhooo, we set things up, barricaded the tent with rocks as best we could, Amy did some yoga on a bare patch of rock, I made some tea, and we hunkered down for the night amongst the North Face crowd. The standard uniform was plastic mountain boots, North Face snow pants, and a huge puffy orange -30 Mountain Gear down jacket with full hood. We were dressed for a stroll on a windy fall day. It was really sent home when I went down to the water hole for water, and I was the only guy there not wearing crampons. When asked what our plan was (no doubt because they wanted to know if we were going to die or not), they all sighed in relief when I told them we were going down tomorrow. “La proxima”, they said, meaning “next time”. Yep, next time.

Funny thing about the mountains, especially big ones. Anything is normal, including intense gale-force winds in the middle of the night. Otherwise known as katabatic winds, this area, and indeed this very campsite, is especially known for them. Needless to say it was a sleepless night listening to the wind violently thrashing our translucent onion-skin tent, and waiting for the fly of the MEC Volt A/C 2 to cleave down the middle and just blow off into infinity – thereby leaving nothing but a fine mesh between us and the Andes. There was no plan B.

The sun hitting the tent in the morning was a gift from god, and we took it. Coffee, oatmeal, a bit more coffee, and we teased the rocks lining our tent out of the frozen ground. The 3-am summit teams were long gone when we started down, so we had the place to ourselves. It was a beautiful morning with a golden view of the high Andes. What could be better? By midday we were sipping a beer back at the refugio, watching the dark clouds rolling in. The Andes was not done yet with this system. It was a good call and good to be down underneath the weather. Disappointing to be sure though, given that the summit was only a 10-hr mission away if we had our gear that was tucked away in storage boxes back in Nelson. Ah well, la proxima!  

Cerro Plata from camp 3 -- so close yet so far