Warming Up to Mendoza

The kids were troopers as we waited for a cab that never came and then walked back carrying the groceries.

The kids were troopers as we waited for a cab that never came and then walked a long way back carrying the groceries.

My first impressions generally hold true, but it turns out I got off on the wrong foot while getting to know Chacras de Coria, the town where we spent the past eight days. A week ago, Morgan and I briefly considered leaving here early; now, on our last day, we don’t want to depart.

This suburb of Mendoza has been described as “tranquil” and a “gourmet ghetto” of restaurants, but our introduction to the town goes down as one of our more stressful days of travel.

We came to Mendoza to see the wine region and stay at the highly rated Casa Glebinias — an enchanting collection of casitas in a garden setting. Exhausted and stiff from a 17-hour overnight bus ride (read Colly’s post for details) and lacking a rental car, we decided to walk the three kilometers to the main square in search of groceries rather than call a cab.

The first thing we noticed were high walls, bars and razor wire encasing each property. Graffiti and litter covered much of the streetscape, as though little care is given to the world beyond each person’s guarded property line.

Home, safe home: Driveways like this are typical around Mendoza.

Home, safe home: Driveways like this are typical around Mendoza.

Walking to town turned out to feel riskier than crossing eight lanes of traffic in Buenos Aires. Most of Chacras’s narrow streets are lined by two-foot-wide open irrigation ditches called acequias that are part of Mendoza’s historic and ingenious system for watering its bodegas. Morgan, the kids and I carefully walked single file between the ditch and the street, trying not to fall into the murky water or get hit by cars that graze the shoulder as they impatiently pass each other. We frequently were startled and inadvertently jumped sideways as barking Dobermans and other ferocious-looking guard dogs rushed at us from behind cyclone fencing.

Irrigation ditches on virtually every street in the Mendoza region capture runoff from the Andes and transport the water to the bodegas (wineries).

Irrigation ditches on virtually every street in the Mendoza region capture runoff from the Andes and transport the water to the bodegas (wineries).

When we reached the center of town, we realized we had made the mistake of coming mid-afternoon, when everything shuts down for siesta. Virtually every business opens from about 9 to 1 or 2, then closes until 5 and reopens until 8. Restaurants generally serve lunch from 1 to 3:30, when families eat a large meal and then nap. People return home from work after 8 and start dinner around 9:30 or 10.

We arrived to the center of Chacras around 3:30 and found the business district eerily deserted, every store locked and barred. We killed time exploring until the market reopened. (The kids periodically asked, “Where are we going?” and wilted each time we answered, “Not sure.”) After we bought groceries, we asked a nice clerk to call us a cab — and waited, and waited. Eventually, we shouldered the groceries and began a long march back. The kids were silent and stony faced, having crossed over to that point everyone periodically reaches during travel, when exhaustion, disorientation and over-stimulation push the body and mind into an autopilot mode of endurance.

The back doors of our casita -- the one the dogs know how to open -- leads to the garden.

The back door of our casita -- the one the dogs know how to open -- leads to the garden.

It was one bad afternoon — that’s all, and it was soon to be erased by the rejuvenation we discovered at Casa Glebinias, where we’re renting a two-bedroom casa.

The gate to this property, which sits on one of the town’s cleanest and quietest streets, opens to nearly two acres of garden in full bloom. Some fifty trees — including different types of conifers, maples and citrus — surround and dot the property. Roses, azaleas, lavender and blooming vines climb and color every wall. The perfumed 80-degree warm air is filled with the sound of songbirds and two honking peacocks.

Colly gasped when she saw it and said, “This is just like The Secret Garden!” She’s right — it’s a hidden garden paradise.

Colly and Kyle were thrilled to discover their "secret garden" includes a play structure.

Colly and Kyle were thrilled to discover their "secret garden" includes a play structure.

This view of the other side of the play structure shows the owner's house and pool in the background.

This view of the other side of the play structure shows the owner's house in the background.

A retired couple named Alberto and Maria Gracia tend the garden and host the guests. He worked as a scientist and she was an art historian before they became full-time innkeepers. They built their home here twenty-five years ago, and only three years ago built the casitas for rentals. Alberto recycled and restored much of the building materials — including tall, century-old doors with intricate moldings and antique hardware — so the guest houses look as though they were designed in the early 20th century.

In stark contrast to the angry guard dogs that scared us elsewhere in the neighborhood, Alberto’s three dogs — two shepherds and a black Lab mix — adopted us as soon as we moved in.  The black one stands on his hind legs and uses a front paw to work our door knob (we don’t have the heart to lock him out), and he and his two friends freely enter our house and lay at our feet throughout the day.

I'll miss working in this spot! We had a lot of good meals and homeschooling sessions around this table.

I'll miss working in this spot! We had a lot of good meals and homeschooling sessions around this table.

These are two of the three pooches who were by our side all week long.

These are two of the three pooches who were by our sides all week long.

Turned off by Chacras on our first day, and lacking transportation, I decided I’d be content to stay ensconced in our secret garden compound. Gradually, though, we ventured out, each time warming up to the neighborhood and its people. The restaurants, which seemed so off-putting when we first saw them darkened and locked behind bars during the day, transformed themselves after dark into lively hubs that revealed large back yards with outdoor seating. Everyone was so friendly when we met them. One of our favorites, Las Negras, warmly welcomed us on a night when power was lost in a wind storm. They stayed open for business by the light of dozens of candles. Every bottle of Mendoza malbec we tried there and elsewhere lived up to its reputation, always superior to the white wines we tasted.

This restaurant made do during a power outage with dozens of candles, and we had an unforgettable meal.

This restaurant made do during a power outage with dozens of candles, and we had an unforgettable meal.

After a few days, which included an unforgettable excursion on horseback, we felt overdue to explore the city center of Mendoza. We expected a smaller version of Buenos Aires with high rises, traffic and noise, but instead found a leafy city with stores and sidewalk cafes reminiscent of Santa Barbara.

We started by walking around Plaza Independencia and noticed groups of teenagers and adults, probably at least 300 total, parading with banners and colorful flags in preparation for some kind of performance. The banners revealed that they were choral groups from all over Argentina celebrating an annual gathering. We stood among them and watched curiously as they divided into roughly four big groups, grew quiet, and then followed a conductor’s instructions to break into a chorus of Handel’s Messiah. As the familiar English lyrics and brilliant four-part harmony hit my ears, I felt tears spring to my eyes and goosebumps on my arms — that was not what I expected to hear on that random afternoon in Mendoza!

Choral groups from around Argentina filled Mendoza's Plaza Independencia with song during our visit there.

Choral groups from around Argentina filled Mendoza's Plaza Independencia with song during our visit there.

We returned the next day, this time in running gear, and headed for the vast Parque San Martin, which is about as big as Central Park and houses a decent zoo. The park was designed 100 years ago by a famous French-Argentine named Carlos Thays who also designed the glorious 3 de Febrero park in Buenos Aires. Morgan and I took turns touring the zoo with the kids (who were enchanted by all the springtime baby animals, especially the baboons) while the other one of us ran around the park.

The gothic gates to Mendoza's Parque San Martin.

The gothic gates to Mendoza's Parque San Martin.

Morgan and I keep puzzling about how our feelings toward the town of Chacras and the greater Mendoza area evolved over a mere week. We’ve grown accustomed to the feel of the place; as we walk to and from town for errands, we overlook or shrug off the crumbing infrastructure and graffiti and instead focus on the trees, the interesting hand-lettered signs and the textured color washes of paint. Many of the security details — the bars, wire mesh and fences — appear on closer inspection to have decorative touches. How can someplace that at first seemed rather intimidating and unattractive now seem so comfortable and quaint? I’m sure there’s a lesson about traveling to be spelled out from that, but for now I’ll just accept it with gratitude and leave with a more open mind.

Goodbye, rock and corner that felt like home after a week. (That's me in blue in the background.) This is a well-known landmark in Chacras; if I told any cab driver to turn right at "la piedra pintada," they knew where to go.

Goodbye, rock and corner that felt like home after a week. (That's me in blue in the background.) This is a well-known landmark in Chacras; if I told any cab driver to turn right at "la piedra pintada," they knew where to go.

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