Eden of the Andes

The Andes, commanding and whitecapped, contrast starkly to the smooth, expansive, desert of western Argentina. Settled on this wide, arid plateau, Mendoza itself is sharply delineated from its surroundings. Within the city, you’d never know you were in a desert—it’s rich with urban green space and trees canopy the wide city roads.

Mendoza was originally a stop-over city, used by the Spanish colonists and Jesuits. Their real aim, in the 16th century, was to get to the Andes’ gold. Mendoza was only a necessary rendezvous point before heading on to Buenos Aires and then by ship back to Spain.

The Andes
A view of the Andes from Mendoza

There’s little architecture left from that time. Being situated so close to the mountain range has its drawbacks, one of them being regular earthquakes. But the largest and most important piece of architecture in the region remains intact, although almost unnoticeable.

“Acequias,” Spanish colonists’ historic irrigation systems, are found across the Americas. The word, as well as this irrigation practice, comes from northern Africa. In Arabic “as-sāqiya,” means water conduit, or bar maid. Throughout South America to as far north as Colorado, these acequias crisscrossed the landscape.

But in Argentina, the Spanish arrived in the foothills of the Andes and discovered that someone had already beaten them to it.

The indigenous Huarpes were the Argentinian natives living in this arid Cuyo region. Endless ditches were dug throughout the plateau, making what was relatively inhospitable, dry dirt into an oasis. Fed by the Andean snowmelt, it’s these native acequias that set Mendoza apart.

Mendoza, as many know, is the wine capital of South America. Within Argentina, over three quarters of the country’s wine is produced on this irrigated plateau. The first grapes were cultivated as early as the 16th century, when the Jesuits founded their mission in Mendoza and planted the first network of grape vines. 

Known as the “land of sun and good wine,” the foothills of the Andes are robust and fruitful, even though the region gets only eight inches of rainfall each year. The Huarpes are who to thank. 

A vineyard under Aconcagua, the highest mountain in South America
A vineyard under Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Americas

Malbec grapes, making the region’s most popular wine, were first brought in 1852 by a French botanist. The thick skin of the deeply purple grape produces an inky wine, with fruity notes and great legs. Without pretending to be a sommelier, I will say that Argentinian wine is my favorite. (Don’t tell my French family!) 

Some of my earliest memories in life are from Argentina, when I lived there as a girl. Going to the vineyards and walking the long aisles of sweet-smelling fruit. Tasting the grapes and pointing giddily at my brother’s purple tongue. Watching the mashing process of grapes in fascination, and then finishing the tour with a sip of grape juice. I suppose they knew a six-year-old could hardly appreciate the nuances of a fine Malbec.

Young as I was, I’ll say that my time in Argentina is not lost on me. From cheap to fine, Argentinian wine is what I gravitate to in any market. And the smell of a parrillas, the lit iron grill with sizzling beef makes my mouth water. When the scent of sweet grapes and chargrilled chorizo smoke drift past, you know that you’re in Mendoza, the “Eden of the Andes.”

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