View of the Andes near the Pucará de Tilcara, pre-Inca ruins located outside of Tilcara, in the Northwest Argentine province of San Salvador de Jujuy.
The Old Patagonian Express is advertised as ‘a journey through the landscape and time.’ The train ride serves principally as a tourist attraction and for most this will entail a trip meandering from Esquel through the hills to the village of Nahuel Pan 22km away. The train is stationary for fifteen minutes before departure, allowing spectators time to take it the sight as well as a lungful of the characteristically thick steam-engine smoke as the train gets ready to depart.
The journey itself takes almost an hour, with the train rumbling along the tracks and affording excellent views of the vast, sparse landscape as it lists on one of the many broad bends in the track.
Much of the land through which the route travels is part of a vast estancia, an Argentine ranch. A herd of horses might playfully gallop alongside the train, and the journey affords the ability to spot other Patagonia wildlife, including packs of llama-like guanacos, ostridge-like rheas and occasionally, condors.
It is fitting that Paul Theroux championed in his work of the same name the importance of the journey itself, not the destination. The little pueblo of Nahuel Pan is an underwhelming, sparse place to arrive.
Half a dozen shacks greet the passengers disembarking the train each offering different services: soft drinks, snacks and several local handicraft workshops. The torta fritas, literally ‘fried cakes’, are very similar to a doughnut without the jam and are a delicious value. A tiny museum offers an exhibit on the history of the area and its native Mapuche Indian inhabitants.
The highlight of the Nahuel Pan stop is getting a look at the pair of disused trains resting beside the tracks. It is a sad sight to see these formerly imperious engines, brown with rust, lying dormant and slowly being eroded by the Patagonian breeze, but they are fascinating objects to inspect close-up and pose for a photograph with (bonus points for those clutching their copy of Theroux).
The schedule changes according to the season and unfortunately The Patagonia Express has developed a reputation as being unreliable. As well as the trip from Esquel to Nahuel Pan, another more substantial 406km journey is offered from the town of Maiten, near Bariloche, to Bruno Thomas Pass 55km away.
The official website is now up and running again but the information can be at odds with what the stationmaster has to say in his authentic wooden ticket office at Esquel station. Those interested would do best to just show up to see if the train is running, you can also try to double check details over the telephone, if anyone answers.
The last word should go to Paul Theroux, who after his journey on board ‘La Trochita’ in the 1970s noted, ‘The engine looked derelict, as if it would never run again – but it had a hundred more years in it, I was sure.’ Nearly halfway there, he might just be right.
—by George Warren
← cont. from: Rolling through the Andes: The Old Patagonian Express
Esquel to Nahuel Pan
All trains depart Esquel at 10 a.m., returning at 12:45.
Telephone Inquiries – Esquel: (02945) 45 1403
El Maitén: (02945) 49 5190
Mendoza, with its tree-lined streets, plentiful plazas, and prime location at the foot of the Andes is one of the world’s most beautiful wine cities, ideal for casual strolling through the streets.
Early immigrants from Europe realized the potential for viniculture when they saw that not only was the area blessed with abundant sunlight all year round, it also had a ready-made canal system, courtesy of the Huarpe natives, which brought water from the Andes mountains. The area proved ideal for the cultivation of wine grapes, especially the previously under-appreciated Malbec grape.
The effective water-distributing canals are also the reason for the healthy verdure of the trees lining the downtown streets, as well as the fact that it is illegal to cut down or even trim one of the city’s characteristic trees without permission from the local council. That particular law is great for the aesthetics of Mendoza, but not always favorable to its residents – it’s not uncommon to see a huge tree smack in the middle of someone’s driveway, or slowly strangling some poor telephone wires into a crackly death.
It’s also surprising that more people don’t break their ankles by tumbling into the grate-less streams running alongside every street, which are especially hard to notice after a few glasses of the local product.
Such a clean, organized and well thought-out city seems like a far-fetched idea for anyone who knows the lovable, but shambolic Argentines well. The contrast between Mendoza and sprawling, chaotic Buenos Aires is striking. This can partly be put down to sheer size difference between the two cities, and perhaps the typically slower pace of provincial life.
Tragedy has also played a part in shaping the Mendoza of today, as a massive earthquake in 1861 almost totally leveled the city, and wiped out an estimated 80% of the population. From the rubble, the city was rebuilt along a carefully laid out plan that included low buildings, wide streets and dozens of open plazas, which would act as sanctuaries in case of future earthquakes in the volatile region.
Visiting the Vineyards
Conveniently for tourists, the main wine producing districts are all located within 40km of Mendoza city center, so it’s easy to visit a handful of vineyards in a single afternoon. Hiring a car is a popular option, but those who haven’t can either visit the vineyards as part of a tour group (easily booked through most hotels), or by hiring a personal driver for the day for a fixed rate.
The latter option is surprisingly inexpensive, and allows a great deal of freedom to roam. The drivers are used to escorting tourists around, and they’re locals, so their inside knowledge can be really valuable. The best strategy here is to mix it up — visit a couple of the big name wine producers, and also some smaller, boutique bodegas (wineries).
One of the biggest names in Argentine wine is Rutini, and their lovely La Rural Bodega (Montecaseros 2625 – Maipu) is well worth a look. Tours start with a visit to their very own wine museum, which offers an insightful journey through the history of wine production in Argentina, from the early days of pressing the grapes by foot in large leather troughs, right through to the modern methods involving the grape passing through a series of impressive looking machines, each the size of a room, before the juice is fermented in massive temperature controlled vats. The tour guides are slick and well informed, and at the end of the tour they will talk you through a tasting of some of Rutini’s famous wines.
There are other similarly extensive tours in the likes of La Guarda (Abraham Tapia 1380 – San Juan), and Terrazas de los Andes (Thames y Cochabamba – Lujan de Cuyo – book in advance) with their vast vineyards and sophisticated production facilities, show visitors how traditional methods have been combined with modern technology to produce the quality wines, in vast quantities, that end up on our dinner tables.
Small Bodegas around Mendoza
One of the real pleasures of visiting a wine region like Mendoza, however, is discovering for yourself your own little gems of winemakers. One such gem is Carinae (Videla Aranda 2899 – Maipu), owned by French couple Brigitte and Philippe Subra, who fell so in love with the region and its wine culture, that they decided to become a part of it, enlisting the help of world renowned French Enologist Michel Rollan to produce a multi-award winning range of wines. Phillippe’s other love, astronomy, works as a theme all through the bodega, from the names of constellations which appear throughout, to the starry design of the labels on the bottles.
Bodega Cecchin (Saez 626 – Maipu) is a maker of organic wines and olive oils of excellent quality. Tours have that personal touch, and the wines you can taste and buy here can’t be found in stores.
Similarly intimate is the vineyard Cavas de Don Arturo (F. Villanueva 2233 – Maipu), a family-run vineyard whose staff is knowledgeable and passionate about their product. You can also find limited edition wines, which are designed by Don Arturo himself and produced especially for family occasions such as weddings and birthdays, and are available to buy only at the estate.
These are just a few examples of what can be found amongst the 682 wineries of Mendoza. Once you are there you can go ahead and discover some of your own. It’s worth noting that harvest time for the grapes is between February and April each year, and culminates with the Vendimia Festival – a huge celebration of the grape harvest and a perfect time to visit.
Other Activities in Mendoza
There are plenty of other things to do in and around Mendoza apart from tasting wine all day, although you could be forgiven if that’s all you did.
Apart from vineyards, the region is also prosperous in fruit growing and oliviculture. Many wine tours will also include a stop at one of the numerous olive groves, where you will be able to see how olive oil is pressed, and sample some delicious varieties on crusty bread.
For the more adventurous, there are plenty of outdoor activities such as kayaking, horse riding and trekking, as well as some very good trout fishing.
A typical city tour, which takes half a day, will include pretty plazas, historical ruins left by the great earthquake, a drive around the General San Martin Park with its elaborate gates and Romanesque fountains, and a trip up nearby Cerro de la Gloria (Hill of Glory), which has a view of the picturesque city and its surrounding vineyards.
At the peak is quite simply the coolest monument you will ever see, depicting San Martin, ‘Liberator of the Americas’, astride his horse with arms crossed in all-conquering confidence, flanked by a horde of hellacious warriors, above whom rises Liberty, in the very moment in which she is shattering the chains of oppression. It’s as subtle as a train wreck, and spectacular. General San Martin is a constant presence in these parts – his name is on everything – as this is the place where he crossed the Andes in 1817 to liberate (or invade, depending on who you talk to) Chile.
Being so close to the Andes, a must while in Mendoza is taking a drive up through the three levels of mountain ranges, each greater than the last.
The long and winding road up Mount Villavicencio, famous in Argentina for being a source of bottled spring water, culminates in some spectacular views from the top. Deeper into the ranges is Las Penitentes, one of the most popular of numerous ski resorts in the zone.
Just before the highest peaks, and the border with Chile, is an attraction known as La Puente de las Incas, a colorful natural bridge formed by limestone that is rooted in native Huarpe legend, and renowned for the healing qualities of the hot springs found there. Looming over everything is Aconcagua, the Andes’ highest peak, and the tallest mountain in the world outside the Himalayas.
Mendoza offers so much variety that it’s an ideal destination for young and old travelers; couples or families; adventure seekers or those just wanting a relaxing time drinking wine and wandering around.
You’ll need at least three or four days to see the basics, and could spend much longer time here without running out of things to do.
For anyone planning to visit more of Argentina than just Buenos Aires, sunny Mendoza is a worthy destination.
—by Dan Colasimone
→Read our guide to accommodation in Mendoza here
→ See all hotels in Mendoza