A local’s guide to Mendoza, Argentina

(CNN) — Mendoza, Argentina, is a cosmopolitan city known for its tree-lined streets, sunny climate, Malbec wine and world-class restaurants and spas.

While one could spend days leisurely exploring the plazas and cafes in town, there is incredible outdoor adventure right outside the city that includes white water rafting, fly fishing for trout, horseback riding into the Andes at sunrise, biking through the vineyards for casual wine tastings, and for the more ambitious, climbing Mt. Aconcagua, the highest peak in South America.

Although it is less than a two-hour plane ride from Buenos Aires, the two cities could not be more different. Whereas Buenos Aires is all vibrant hustle and bustle and fiery passion, Mendoza takes the term “laid-back” to the next level.

Wine-fueled lunches can last for hours and formal dinner plans can be dropped last minute to instead throw down a blanket and munch on cured meats and perfectly ripe sun-warmed peaches while viewing an epic sunset over the Andes.

The downtown area is picturesque and easy to find your way around, but the heart of the classic Mendoza experience lies in visiting the vineyards scattered throughout the small surrounding towns and rural areas.

Public transportation is not available to many of these places. The easiest way to get around is to rent a car, although many tour companies offer all-day wine tours that are a great way to see a bit of the countryside (and ensure you always have a designated driver).

Travelers should know that in late February/early March, Vendimia Festival, a 10-day celebration of the grape harvest, completely takes over town. Tens of thousands of people from around the world show up for the party, so booking becomes more complicated and the relaxed vibe in town gets replaced by a bit of festive chaos.

April is a beautiful time of year to get to know Mendoza, as the weather is cooler, the harvest has been collected (making the winemakers more available for chatting), the tourists have mostly gone and the poplar trees turn a gorgeous golden yellow.

Asado et cetera

Dine on traditional asado.

Fernando de Noguera Arnal

As much as for its tango and wine, Argentina is known for asado, or traditional grilling. There is no lighter fluid or bags of charcoal involved, and forget about grilling with gas. Argentines, with all the love and patience they can muster, start burning wood early to create the embers that will be used to slow cook some of the finest cuts of meat in the world. While beef is the most common, lamb and goat are also staples in Mendoza.

Outside of Buenos Aires, a good variety of vegetarian food is not common (although, in a pinch, pasta and pizza and vegetable empanadas can be found on every corner).

Any self-respecting foodie needs to plan their entire trip around a visit to Siete Fuegos restaurant at the Vines of Mendoza resort in Uco Valley, an hour outside of town. This is none other than Francis Mallmann’s asado playground — where the chef and his talented staff blend seven rustic ways to cook with fire, a stunning backdrop of the Andes, a lengthy boutique wine list and some of Mendoza’s best service to give you a food experience for the ages. Try the 9-hour slow-grilled ribeye. Yes, nine hours. Perfection can’t be rushed.

Azafran, centrally located in downtown Mendoza, used to be the local deli. It’s since turned into a tourist hotspot that also has a cult-like following by the locals, so definitely make a reservation first.

While on the pricey side, the vibe is casual. It’s the perfect spot for lunching on a cured meat and cheese plate, accompanied by one of the more than 300 different bottles of wine available on the wine list. For a memorable experience, reserve the large table right in Azafran’s wine room and chat with the sommelier to find the perfect wine for your tastes.

Appropriately located by Plaza Italia, Florentino’s is Mendoza’s most charming Italian restaurant. Between the live acoustic events and the indoor-outdoor patio, you may find yourself coming back to this warm and friendly gem time and time again. While Argentina is not exactly famous for its salads, Florentino’s manages to be creative with theirs — using ingredients such as watermelon or corn as opposed to the basic lettuce and tomato salad usually found in the region.

Didn’t get enough Francis Mallmann food at Siete Fuegos? Get a reservation at his more classic and formal place, 1884, located just outside the city center in Godoy Cruz (10 minutes by taxi).

The restaurant is in an old winery — try to snag a table outside in the gorgeous garden where you will be able to watch the chefs at work. Arrive hungry and go for the ojo de bife for two with provoleta and classic empanadas to start. The service can be hit or miss, but the food is always on point.

Originally the only restaurant in the Uco Valley, La Posada del Jamon is the dangerous kind of warm, family-owned place that after one leisurely meal can convince you that you should up and move to Mendoza and try your hand at winemaking.

It’s where the local winemakers gather to eat well and drink well over long, leisurely lunches, and the extensive wine list reflects the standards of its knowledgeable clientele. The menu revolves around home-cured ham, but if that sounds limiting, it’s anything but. There are pages of options on the menu, but go for the ham that’s been infused with Malbec wine.

Siete Fuegos, Ruta Provincial 94, km 11, Tunuyan, Uco Valley, Mendoza, +54 (261) 4613910

Azafran, Sarmiento 765, Mendoza City, +54 (261) 4294200

Florentino’s, Montevideo 675, Mendoza City, +54 (261) 4649077

1884, Belgrano 1188, Godoy Cruz, Mendoza, +54 (261) 4243336

La Posada del Jamon, Ruta 92, Km. 13, Vista Flores, Mendoza, +54 (2622) 15545314

Worlds of wines

Malbec wine is arguably Mendoza’s most famous export.

Edsel Querini

Because there are more than 1,500 wineries spread out through the three main wine regions — Lujan de Cuyo, Valle de Uco and Maipu, it can be overwhelming to even know where to begin. Many of the vineyards are up to an hour outside of town and require a car or a tour van to get to, so its best to make a game plan and get organized.

Search Experience Mendoza to get a feel for all of your options and where they are located. If you have the time, it’s best to not try to hit up more than one a region a day. Make reservations for all wineries and restaurants at least one day in advance, and bring lots of Argentine pesos — many wineries are not set up to accept cards.

There’s no shortage of large, more modern, commercial wineries, (Salentein, Zuccardi, Trapiche, O. Fournier and Catena Zapata to name a few) but with them come larger amounts of tourism. Smaller wineries offer a better chance for intimate tours.

While he may not have a pretty bodega, (you will be double checking your directions when you arrive, as it looks like nothing more than a run-down industrial warehouse), Carmelo Patti is a legend in the winemaking world. He is often referred to as the most passionate winemaker in Mendoza, and while his setup may appear a humble operation on the outside, his wines are widely respected across the globe. He will personally show you around the place, and his love for his wine is contagious.

Also a legend in his own right, Roberto Cipresso, past winemaker for highly acclaimed Archival Ferrer, decided to create Mendoza’s most environmentally sustainable operation with Matervini. Matervini is a pioneer in using 100% renewable energy sources, although the focus on sustainability takes nothing away from his meticulous attention on the standard of the wines.

Cipresso is a spirited artist and grapes happen to be his medium. He plays with growing Malbec grapes in every terroir imaginable, from young to old geologies and from alluvial to non-alluvial soil structures, so his wines can emerge as different expressions of nature.

Make sure to pick up a few bottles of another wine that Cipresso works as the consulting winemaker for — El Callejon del Crimen from Finca la Luz bodega located at the foot of the Tupungato hill. The name refers to a young couple who supposedly decided to die in each others arms in the vineyard back in 1965 because they were forced to be with other people who they did not love. For those who are tired of Malbec, El Callejon del Crimen makes an incredibly intense and brooding Petit Verdot and a lighter Sangiovese in their Gran Reserva line.

With 180-degree views of the Andes, The Vines of Mendoza’s Uco Valley Tasting Room offers a chance to barrel taste, blend your own wines and even see barrel fermentation in action. Their delicious Recuerdo Gran Corte (65% Malbec, 20% Cab Franc, 10% Merlot and 5% Petit Verdot in 22 months in oak) sets a ridiculously high standard, although there are more than 300 incredible vintages from this winery each year.

Much closer to downtown Mendoza and with Francis Mallmann’s 1884 restaurant as their neighbor, is Caro, a joint venture between Argentine Nicolas Catena and French Baron Eric de Rothschild. Caro strives for elegance in every way, not only with their wines, but with how they receive tourists in their exquisitely refined tasting room.

They are the only Mendoza winery to offer tastings at night, making for a unique and relaxed evening out. Tango shows with live music are planned for the near future, and they currently offer wine and movie nights in the cellar.

Carmelo Patti, San Martin 2614, Mayor Drummond, Lujan de Cuyo, +54 (261) 4981379

Matervini, Calle Cobos 2142, Perdriel, Luján de Cuyo, +54 (261) 5616691

El Callejon del Crimen, Armani s/n, Villa Seca, Valle de Uco, + 54 (11) 43284868

Mendoza,

Vines of Mendoza Uco Valley Tasting Room, Ruta Provincial 94, km 11, Tunuyan, Uco Valley, +54 (261) 4613900

Caro, Alvear 151, Godoy Cruz, Mendoza, +54 (261) 4530963

Bikes and Hikes

One great way to experience the region is on horseback.

Adela Jablonska / EyeEm

While the focus of the “Napa Valley of South America” is often solely the vineyards, don’t forget that you are in the Andes with some of the finest outdoor adventure tourism in Argentina at your fingertips.

If coaxing wild brook trout from a high Andean river, surrounded by snowcapped peaks and condors soaring overhead, is your idea of fun and relaxation, head fly fishing with Trout and Wine. From fast-flowing creeks to large, meandering rivers, fishing is possible all year.

Whether you are a seasoned rafter or it’s your first time, the Mendoza River is a great way to spend the day on the water. Argentina Rafting will take you down class II and III rapids. Make sure to bring a GoPro if you have one because you will want to capture the stunning Andean scenery.

If you’d prefer to stay land-based, cycle your way around the vineyards of Maipú with Maipú Aventuras.

You can leisurely pedal around the most representative wineries in Maipú, go to an olive oil tasting and learn about the history of wine in Argentina at a wine museum. The roads are flat and paved, although there is car traffic (that is very used to bikers). Bring a hat and sunscreen, because the sun can be intense and many of the roads are unshaded.

For someone looking to check off one of the Seven Summits from their to-do list, climb Aconcagua with Mountain Madness. At 23,838 ft., it’s the highest mountain outside Asia and the highest point in both the Western and Southern Hemispheres.

There are six expeditions between November and March. Great physical condition is a must, as is a tolerance of the legendary “white winds” of Aconcagua that keep this mountain respected by climbers worldwide.

To get up close and personal with the Andes without having to be a mountain climber, indulge your inner gaucho and set up a horse ride with El Viejo Manzano.

Run by local larger-than-life personality Nino Masi at his mountain retreat, you’ll soon find out that the horse ride is just a pleasant bonus to a lunch of the freshest local produce and meat, and wine is just an invitation for dance, song and stories accompanied by new friends. A day or half-day with El Viejo Manzano will open your eyes to true Argentinian hospitality.

Trout and Wine, Espejo 266, Mendoza City, + 54 (261) 4255613

Argentina Rafting, Amigorena 86, Mendoza, +54 (261) 4296325

Mountain Madness, +1 (800) 328-5925

El Viejo Manzano, Los Chacayes 5664, Tunuyán, +54 (261) 5356678

Para dormir

While Mendoza offers a good mix of backpacker hostels, Airbnbs and bed and breakfasts, it shines when it comes to spa resorts nestled into vineyards at the base of the Andes.

Located within 35 acres of vineyards in Lujan de Cuyo, a bit less than an hour from downtown, the Relais and Chateaux Cavas Wine Lodge has built itself a well-deserved reputation for being one of the most enchanting and romantic luxury options in the area.

Each guest has their own private lodge hidden in the vineyards, so privacy is at a maximum. Bikes are available to go visit nearby vineyards, and don’t worry about leaving for dinner — the restaurant features a seasonal menu of organic, harvested foods and there is a wine cellar that holds 250 carefully selected Argentine wines. Stumble your way back with a full belly to stargaze from the roof of your lodge.

Newer to the hotel scene, but racking up acclaim for its sky-high standards and impeccable service is the Vines of Mendoza. Set among 1,500 acres of pristine vineyards in the Uco Valley, this place offers nothing but the best — the on-site restaurant is Francis Mallmann’s Siete Fuegos. Santiago Achával is the consulting winemaker.

The “rooms” are more the size of houses, ranging from 1,000 to 2,700 square feet. The resort is a bit out of the way (over an hour from downtown Mendoza), but once you check in, you won’t want to go anywhere as you will feel like family here in no time. Need a solid excuse to come back? Play winemaker by purchasing a plot of private vineyard land on-site and have your crops looked after by the resort’s expert agronomist — you can waltz in just to blend and drink.

The Inn of Vistalba is located not too far from town at the Carlos Pulenta Winery, and there are only two rooms available.

This exclusivity means you get incredibly personalized attention and get to learn about the winemaking process from start to finish, as guests have firsthand access to the winery and its workers, can walk freely through the vineyards and even taste the wines with the oenologist (the Corte B is a must try). Vistalba is also a good starting point for visiting nearby wineries, including Kaiken, Favre Montmayou and Nieto Senetiner.

While there is no lack of vineyard hotels in Mendoza, there’s only one with a hammam — Entre Cielos, a boutique hotel that has arguably the best spa in Argentina. Make your reservation for the six-stage circuit hammam and float back to your Vineyard Loft room for a long siesta.

Located in an extra-friendly neighborhood in Mendoza city, and within walking distance from the city center, Casa Lila bed and breakfast is the best central option for mid-range budgets. Casa Lila has all the amenities that a host family can offer, from guided tours and excursions to giant family-style meals.

Also downtown (right on historic Plaza Independencia), but quite a bit pricier is the Park Hyatt Mendoza, the first five star hotel in the city and easily the classiest. It is a large hotel perfect for business travelers or luxury travelers who want to be based right in town, with a casino, extensive vinotherapy treatments and one of Mendoza’s most modern and well-equipped gyms.

Cavas Wine Lodge, Costaflores s/n, Alto Agrelo, Mendoza, +54 (261) 4106927

The Vines of Mendoza, Ruta Provincial 94, km 11, Tunuyan, Mendoza, +54 (261) 4613900

The Inn of Vistalba, Roque Saenz Peña 3531, Lujan de Cuyo, Mendoza, +54 (261) 4989400

Entre Cielos, 1998, Guardia Vieja, Lujan de Cuyo, +54 (261) 5244890

Casa Lila, Nicolás Avellaneda 262, Mendoza, + 54 (261) 4296349

Park Hyatt Mendoza, Chile 1124, Mendoza, +54 (261) 4411234

Cathy Brown (@cathybrown2100 on Instagram) is an adventure, family and luxury travel writer raising her three kids in the Andes of Argentine Patagonia.

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