After the bus conductor turned off the lights, I squinched my semi-cama seatback all the way back, curled up with my iPod, and attempted to sleep. I was completely unsuccessful. Instead, I drowsily watched out the window as we started to climb through the Andes. I saw towering, dusky mountain-shapes slide by us, and kept thinking, “That seems too enormous to exist.” There was an almost-full moon above us, which allowed a rare amount of detail for the dead of night.
Around 2am, we passed the Argentinian border (well, 2am as far as I could tell: the country-change confused my cell phone’s clock so much that it started declaring it was already 10am). We sat idle for two hours inside the bus as we waited for our turn through customs. When it was finally our turn, everyone on the bus shook themselves awake, disembarked, and waited in a giant line to show our passports and forms.
The customs area was located under a giant dome, making the whole experience quite surreal. Giant buses drove around freely and breezes whipped through, so we felt as though we were outside under the night sky, and yet the only thing we could see when we looked up was a geometric latticework.
The man checking passports was the most cheerful fellow I’ve ever met, which was greatly appreciated. After the paperwork, we filed back onto the bus, drove thirty feet, and then piled out again, this time with all our luggage in hand. We arranged our bags onto a semicircle of ridged tables, waited for them to be briefly riffled through, and then trod back onto the bus again, free to enter the great country of Argentina.
I didn’t manage a single hour of sleep on the bus. A few hours through customs, the hills began to lighten, before a vivid orange sunrise lit the sky. Many times, when I go a night without sleeping, I get a burst of energy right around sunrise, and this is precisely what happened.
We arrived at the bus terminal in Mendoza around 6am, but figured it was too early to go to our hostel. Instead, we settled down on some benches outside the terminal and gazed around at the lush trees. We changed some Chilean pesos into Argentine pesos, which was disappointing: Chilean pesos are elegant and springy and decorated with owls and condors, whereas Argentine pesos are more like brownish tissue, often ripped almost in half. I want my money back!
Mendoza is a desert town, like San Pedro de Atacama, but it is its polar opposite in appearance and feeling. Instead of dusty streets and adobe, everything is paved and urban. There is abundant green grass and all kinds of leafy trees, and it’s common to stumble across flowing fountains and swimming pools (no huge concessions to water conservation). The only way one can tell that it is actually a desert town is that it’s stinking hot, but if you had no sense of temperature, you’d never know the difference.
After a quick cup of coffee, we struck out through the city to see if our hostel would let us drop off our bags. The door was opened by an energetic German man, who showed us to our room and let us spread our things out in it, even though the check-in time wasn’t until several hours later. Our room had two bunk beds and one double bed; M. and I both claimed the top bunks of the bunk beds, while R. took the double.
Then, in order to fend off our sleep deprivation, we immediately headed out into Mendoza, with the goal of booking tours for the next two days. After walking for twenty minutes across perilous, busy streets, we reached the city center. At this point, I developed a half-sense of déjà vu: rather than feeling like I was in a South American desert city, I felt as though I could be walking down the streets of a U.S./U.K. city (perhaps like Berkeley, California, but with taller buildings).
We stopped for coffees at a shop that M. and R.’s friend had raved about, but unfortunately, our drinks were watery and poorly mixed. I did have a nice lemon cookie, though, and it was good to be off my feet. We also had time to decide on a plan of action: we hoped to do both river rafting and ziplining the next day, and a wine tour the day after.
After this respite, we asked various tour companies about their options, but many companies didn’t offer ziplining. Finally, we stumbled upon a chic tour office which had everything we wanted and at the best price we’d seen. We booked our Adventure Tours for the next day, including a van to pick us up from our hostel in the morning.
Having achieved this goal, we strolled around town. At the center of Mendoza City Center is a large plaza, called Plaza Independencia. Arranged symmetrically around it are four smaller plazas, with each one a few blocks away from each of Independencia’s corners. We enjoyed browsing street vendors’ wares, from giant macramé flowers to coiled-metal necklaces.
My favorite plaza was Plaza España, which was coated with elegant tiny tiles, both on the ground and in the ceramic benches. It also had handsome trees, a limpid tiled fountain, and a giant statue-thing with art that depicted the history of the plaza.
We meandered back to the hostel, and relaxed in the common area with the German and an Argentinian. A theme of our conversation, which would recur in almost every conversation we had with Argentinians during the trip: Argentinians really seem to dislike Chileans. They never gave us a solid reason why they’re so opposed to the citizens of Chile, but everyone we asked had this aversion. I began to feel very defensive of Chile, after a while.
After a few hours’ recuperation, we nudged ourselves back out into Mendoza. This time, we jumped a bus into the city center, instead of the long walk. We discovered that Argentine buses don’t take coins, only magnetic bus cards, but the driver kindly let us ride nonetheless. Once we arrived downtown, we searched many stores in the hopes of finding cheap water shoes for our rafting the next day, but no luck. We also browsed a giant chocolate store. I chose my sole Argentine souvenir: a bilingual book of Ambrose Bierce, with English and Spanish on facing pages.
We’d decided to have dinner out one time during our trip, so we settled down at an outdoor table at a restaurant. I ordered a milanesa, a meat dish fried in eggs and bread crumbs, which was dry but tolerable. It came with tomatoes, which I gobbled down: wonderful to my slightly dehydrated palate. The dessert was a hunk of neopolitan ice cream which came inside a plastic wrapper.
We stopped at a shop for lunch supplies for tomorrow. I discovered that they sold Kinder Eggs, to my enormous childlike delight (since they’re nonexistent in the U.S.); I bought one, which yielded a plastic bird with long pink legs. We took a taxi back to the hostel, but instead of going to bed, we ended up hanging out with other hostelfolk. They had just cooked a ravioli dinner, and insisted that we share it, so (despite our fullness) we had portions of a second dinner. Finally, we pried ourselves away from the conversation, and headed to bed; an early awakening tomorrow for the adventure tours.
[Administrative note: There has been a massive influx of spam comments on this blog, so I’ve installed ReCaptcha, which should help. You’ll have to type in automatically-generated weird words to comment now, but I hope this shan’t dissuade you from sharing all your thoughts.]