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Rhymer´s Travel Diary: Entry 40, December 23, 2002
Argentina: Swanky Hotels, Meat that's hard to Beat, Men in Pants and Preachers in Saunas
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Swish Hotels y La Vida Pimpa

A Chilean ski resort - in this case, the vaguely amusingly named Portillo - is a very strange thing in summer. I'm used to Alpine and American resorts which, off season, are all grass and wildflowers and pigtailed women singing 'The Hills are Alive' - and look pretty cute. But this was a desert and not just a vaguely scrubby sort of place either - it's a total bleached bones and Clint Eastwood with his back to the sun kind of desert. All of this is on the road from Santiago to Mendoza in Argentina, a windy mountainous affair which, like most transandean routes is only open six months a year. After that you go through an impressive tunnel and, a little later on, some rather perfunctory customs (that look like part of the ski resort) and you're in Argentina. Surprise, it looks almost excatly the same as Chile, the only real difference being that there is one blade of grass every ten square metres instead of none.

In Mendoza, the Argentinians have created one of the world's nicest cities. It doesn't have particularly outstanding architecture - there are far too many earthquakes for that - but the whole place is irrigated by tinkling little streams and planted with huge plane trees. Thus, a desert city that would, anywhere else, be a scorched and dusty place is shady and inviting and looks, for all the world, a bit like Chiswick in West London.

We were there for a couple of reasons. But first and foremost was to spend a couple of days in the Hyatt, this being Jane's rather cool leaving gift from her company. And not just any Hyatt - the Park Hyatt Mendoza is said to be the second best hotel in South America by whoever it is who says these things. Despite the Argentinian economic crisis it remains reassuring expensive and surprisingly full. Actually the only part of it that seems to reflect recent events is the restaurant where a slap-up meal for two, including booze, can be had for about $25.

Beyond the Hyatt's stately terraces, of course, food is a lot less and usually a lot, lot less. In fact, at a decentish restaurant, lunch can be less than a pound, while an expresso is 20p, a large beer 40p, a pack of fags 35p and so on. I didn't go into that other great barometer of relative global costs, Mc Donald's but, from the queues, I imagine it was pretty cheap too. It's actually all a bit embarassing - here is a country which looks like Italy but costs about as much as Bolivia. You find yourself wishing people would overcharge you - just little a bit. And, of course, you really feel for Argentina's noveau pauvre middle classes. Poverty is all the more poignant when it's dressed in last year's Gucci.

Still, it doesn't stop you living like a pimp. And funnily enough Mendoza doesn't feel like it's in the middle of the worst economic crisis in decades. Possibly because everyone still looks lovely and stylish (there's even a bit of anorexia about!) and eating and drinking are, in relatively terms, about the same as they've always been. And also possibly because, in a reverse of the old order, every weekend several thousand Chileans shoot through the Andean tunnel to take advantage of the low, low prices.

We joined them in the Hyatt's Casino - a curiously awful place - and wasted a load of (not very valuable) money. I am not a great fan of Casinos generally, though I can appeciate that Vegas, Reno, and Monaco all do them very well. The Aregentinians do not - nor is it from lack of custom - the whole place felt more Planet Hollywood with gambling than James Bond.

Meat that's hard to beat

Ludicrous prices aside, Mendoza has always been renowned for its food and wine. I'll start with the food, specifically the flesh. Although meat is good everywhere, the best place to experience Argie carne is in one of the all you can eat barbeque restaurants. These are serve yourself, but not the sort of sweaty cheese buffets you find in the UK. In fact I have never seen anything like them. There are three or four buffet counters with things like salad, spuds, lasagna etc. Then there is a vast flaming barbeque pit with, oh, three or four spread eagled animal carcasses being flambיed at once, surrounded by countless sausages, black puddings, chickens, half pigs, etc. It is like an entire butcher shop being barbequed at once. They even have an industrial bandsaw next to the barbie pit to deal with any oversized carcasses.

And is it popular? My God yes. We got in early but by 10:00pm there was a huge queue outside the door with the security guard having to keep customers out. So, yes, the Argentinans like their meat. In fact, Mendoza is probably pretty close to a vegetarian's idea of hell; it is the kind of place where they consider the chicken an honorary vegetable.

Bamboozled

Having eaten enough meat to give ourselves steakworms (see http://www.rhymer.net/tdacrchive31 for an explanation of this revoltingly descriptive term) we moved onto wine. Although we'd fared pretty well on the meat front, the booze had left us a little, well, bamboozled. The thing is the Argentinians grow all sorts of odd grapes and they export only about 5% of their wine. So, if you go to a decent restaurant, you're confronted with a list the size of an Oddbins catalogue of which you've heard of maybe one or two wines.

To tackle our ignorance we went on a rather prepackaged wine tour of two average local vineyards. Having done a few New World wine tours now, my advice would be don't unless you are absolutely fascinated in wine for its own sake. If you want to see cute or interesting wineries, go to France where they really do have lovely chateaux. Almost everywhere in the new world, no matter how great the end product, the winery will be a bunch of shiny stainless steel vats and pipes which could be any old food factory, which, of course, it is, albeit one with a charismatic end product. Jane (who is a food technologist and is used to hanging around such places) said it reminded her of work..

Young Americans

This tour was (perhaps predictably) the only place we saw any other tourists, mostly travelers, though with an interesting difference. These guys were mostly Americans, although one was an English architect and one of the world's most miserable bastards to boot: he hated not only his home country, but pretty much everywhere else he'd visited too. The Americans were an mixed bunch. Mostly in their early twenties, they had that odd and initially rather irritating self confidence that suggests that they are used to having their opinions listened to. Once you got round this they were actually quite nice.

But I've noticed that Americans of this age all tend to have this weird pushiness and self assuredness. Personally I blame an education system that spends forever telling everyone that they are a unique, gifted individual that can do absolutely anything they want to. Incidentally Yanks in their late 20s tend not to be like this. That is because most of them have had to get crappy jobs in the HR department of some faceless megacorp just like everyone else. No matter what you've been told for 20 years, it's hard to believe that you are a unique and gifted individual when you are better known as 'Employment Unit 213466'.

Mountain costs

Our final reason for being in Mendoza was to organise climbing Mount Aconcagua. At 6964m this is the highest peak in the Andes and also the highest in the world outside the Himalayas. That it is way down between Santiago and Mendoza is a total fluke. The Andes are at their highest and widest in Peru and Bolivia, but down here, thousands of kms from the principal cordillera on some skinny offshoot of the main chain is the highest mountain. Anyway, geographic anomalies aside, Aconcagua is also interesting in that it is as an exceptionally high mountain that you can 'just walk up'.

A curious characteristic of many of the northern Andes is that, despite their vast height, many of them are more like hills on steroids than normal mountains - you don't get that really jagged, craggy look you get in the Alps or Himalayas. So, to climb Aconcagua, all you really need is to be pretty fit and lucky with the weather. Of course, this is a vast oversimplification, but nonetheless we'd met loads of travelers in Peru and Bolivia who'd lazily opined 'Yahhh, I might have a go at Aconcagua...it's technically [i.e. in terms of mountaineering skill] very easy you know.'

I don't expect to see any of them up there. For one, you need to be genuinely fit - 7000 meters makes the Himalayan treks look like a walk in the park. Moreover, the wind gets up to 160 kph and temperatures go down to -40C. Perhaps most importantly though, because of all the extreme equipment (actually necessary here) it costs about $1000 per person, a serious crusty disincentive.Unless, that is, you are stupid enough to try it without a guide, which is a real good way to die.

We looked into climbing it before Christmas, but decided against it, mainly because December is early in the austral summer and there is still tons of ice around. Eventually we plumped for a booking in mid January when the weather is likely to be better. I have no wish to make it any harder than it has to be and still believe that most people who kill themselves on mountains (Ben Nevis in January anyone??) do so because they have been pretty stupid. I know that to say that sounds like tempting fate, but I'll leave it in anyway, as if anything does happen to me in a month's later it'll make a schadenfreudtastic epitaph for a smug bastard.

Underdressed in Underwear and Sweating Preachers

Once we'd secured (or rather Jane) had secured the services of a guide called Leo (and remembering our last mountain experience, written a four page contract) we headed back to Santiago to catch a flight to Patagonia. It had only been a week, but somehow I'd managed to forget that the pass is at 3300 metres and shorts and a Tshirt are not good clothes to be wearing in the snow. But at least I was wearing nicely tailored shorts and a Lacoste top. The guy next to me, a Swiss chap was wearing unfeasibly high cut shorts. I looked again. No, he was wearing boxers, presumably (though by no means definitely) with horrible, skimpy Europants beneath. And he was wearing a vest. It didn't help that he had one of those slightly femininised plump bodies either, his nasty, sausagey legs covered in sparse gingery hair. But his physical shortcomings notwithstanding, what kind of fool wears his underwear up into the mountains?

But, to close, I want to go down several thousand metres and back a couple of days to another situation involving male near nudity. In the sauna at the Hyatt, I got one the best answers I've ever heard. So good, I'll relate it verbatim.

The scene. RR is sitting in a sauna sweating out the previous night's red when a huge bearded American sits down. They get to talking - nothing fruity, you understand - and it turns out that the chap is an evangelical preacher who the deep south who has been spreading the word in these parts for the past 18 years.

RR (trying to make conversation): 'So...what drew you to Argentina?'
Preacher, pauses weightily, then replies in a treacly Alabama drawl, 'Ahhh...Ahh guess ahh just felt a need.'

Top God Bothering response. Speaking of which, Merry Christmas to anyone who's reading this. I hope you all get loads and loads of really expensive stuff.