First Trip to South America -- May 2012

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  1. KLA
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    KLA Silver Member

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    Last month I took my first trip to South America and it was amazing! The destination and particulars of this trip were actually picked based on the friend I was traveling with.

    She prefers Europe, I prefer Asia. Our site-seeing preferences varied as well. But we both valued eating really good food (we normed on what “good” is), drinking really good wine, and sitting around looking at beautiful mountains. And while we might want to do other things, if that’s all we did, we’d both be happy. So we picked Mendoza, Argentina and Santiago, Chile.

    We figured out we’d either need Avios or American Airline miles and since I had done the 100,000 BA credit card bonus and she had tons of Membership Reward points, we picked British Airways. When we were trying to book their award reservation system had that ongoing glitch.

    The agent was finding seats on the earlier flight, but showing no availability on the one I wanted. Even asking her to request the particular flight manually yielded no results. Other airlines were showing award seats available on that flight. So, I decided to wait a little while to see if they’d fix the glitch.

    Checked online multiple times over 2-3 weeks, same problem. Finally broke down and called again and got an amazing agent. He was upfront about the problems and willingly checked flight after flight from various departure cities to see if we could get my dates. Still no dice, but using 100,000 Avios miles to fly LAN business class seemed like it was a better value than using 135,000 AAdvantage miles for American Airline First. So I wound up booking tickets the same day, but on the earlier, daytime flight.

    To get from DC to Miami the night before we decided just to purchase the tickets on United rather than burning more miles. I thought a Thursday night flight to Miami would have a good chance of our upgrades clearing in advance but they didn’t, and when I went to check in I got a message for the first time asking if I wanted to split the reservation in order to be on the upgrade list. I decided a free drink and snack for a 2 hour flight wasn’t worth the headache in the off chance something happened to the flight and we were trying to coordinate two separate itineraries. (For more details on the flight, see my post on HeelsFirst)

    The recently opened Element by Westin hotel was our top pick for the overnight in Miami. It was close, it had a free airport shuttle, it was brand new, and only 4,000 starpoints a night! (Not to mention the Hilton had reports of bed bugs on Tripadvisor.)

    It only took us about 15 minutes to make it off the plane, determine there was no restaurant open in the airport and we’d have to get delivery, and get out to the hotel shuttle area. It took us another 30 to catch our shuttle. After about 20 minutes of watching every other hotel van pass by, including the Sheraton which came by at least 2 times, I called and was informed the shuttle ran every 20 min. Hmmm.
     
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  2. KLA
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    KLA Silver Member

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    After another 10 minutes we finally saw the van. I love the Element’s aesthetic, but it’s delicate logo and thin font did not make it stand out compared to the other hotels, so you have to keep an eye out. We did know though, was that we had not seen that van pass by before!

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    The driver was extremely nice though and suggested a great Cuban place that delivered to the hotel which would be much better than Papa Johns and even came inside with us to get us a menu.

    When I was booking the hotel I’d humorously “worried” about a hotel that didn’t have any exterior pictures 3 months after it had opened. As we arrived, I realized why. A tall iron fence surrounds the whole property, making it safe, but potentially visually intimidating to potential guests. Ha.

    Having been warned at check in that the Latin Cafe restaurant would be closing soon, we rushed to place our order, only to be told they had stopped delivering. We went back down to the front desk to inquire about alternatives and were given the menu of another Cuban restaurant and Papa Johns. Fortunately Sabor Latino was willing to take our order and it arrived in 20 minutes. To be so cheap, <$15 for two delivered, it was quite good.

    The room was new and perfectly fine. Having the option of the kitchenette was great, although I’m not a fan of amenities in wall dispensers. (more pictures and details about the stay)

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    The next morning we planned to catch the shuttle back to the airport by 6:15, so we checked out at 6AM and sampled their free breakfast right when it opened. They had a wide variety of options: English muffins or toast, a variety of yogurts, sandwiches with ham and cheese, fresh fruit, pasties, and cereal. A definite step up from a Holiday Inn. They also had a coffee/tea bar and I was impressed by the quality of the decaf coffee.
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    The shuttle was waiting for us until we wanted to leave and as we were the only passengers we got a ride straight to the LAN check in counter. Checking in for our LAN flight was hilarious. Both representatives were helping people when we walked up, but we didn’t have to wait long and soon the male representative was pulling up our itinerary.

    When it came to the question of how many bags we were checking, all my crankiness about having limited myself to only what I could fit in a carry-on vanished.

    “How many bags will you be checking?”

    “None.”

    “What?” <comes around the counter and stares in slight disbelief at our two suitcases.> “Let me just pick this up and make sure it will fit the weight limits."

    "Yep, you’re fine.”

    His expression of both shock and humor during the rest of the check in process had us highly amused.
     
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  3. KLA
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    KLA Silver Member

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    Security was much less amusing. I opted out (as I always do). They were civil about it, but it took awhile to get someone to come do the “female assist.” She shows up, panics a little bit about carrying my suitcase, laptop case, the bin with my laptop, and the bin with my shoes , coat, and toiletries to the pat down area. She finally settled, much to my chagrin, with putting my laptop bag on top of my jacket and then putting all of that on top of my laptop. *crack*

    She was impersonal enough, but gave me one of the most thorough pat downs I’ve had in awhile. I learned a couple of months ago that wearing a dress through security reduces the invasiveness of the pat down. Because they don’t want to risk lifting my skirt, they usually just pat the front and back of my upper legs, thus skipping the “moving up your thigh until I meet resistance.”

    Not this time. She managed to “hit resistance” on the front and back of each leg. :( I felt worse for my friend, because they became extremely irritated that they had two back to back female opt-outs and were more brusque with her than me.

    We finally headed to the Club America lounge, although having spent an extra 25 min waiting in security, we had only enough time to grab some water and use the restroom. Not a huge hardship as the lounge was very basic. Decent view of the Miami skyline, nice bathrooms, but the food wasn’t very appetizing. At 7AM, potato chips, egg salad sandwiches, and Milano cookies aren’t very appetizing.

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    When we arrived at the gate we discovered the non-stop LAN flight we thought we’d booked had acquired a stop in Caracas. Once on the flight I was hoping that explained the amenity kit, the likes of which I’d never seen.
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    It contained socks, ear plugs, an eye mask, a plastic wrapped pen, and a cheap bag. No toothpaste, lotion, chapstick or anything. But I figured since it was only at 3 hour flight, we might get a better goody bag on the next leg.

    The seats were lie-flat but on the narrow side. The armrests were only about 3 inches wide which meant you were extremely close to your seatmate. The entertainment system had a large screen and lots of options to choose from, including several full seasons of tv shows.
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    The fasten seat belt sign was turned off quickly, before we’d even reached a cruising altitude, but they didn’t start serving breakfast for another 45 minutes. They came by with luke warm towels beforehand, but did not offer any beverages until the meal. Our choices were “plain omelet” or meat and cheese. We both chose the omelet and coffee. We’d toyed with the idea of ordering some champagne to kick off our vacation (they had Roederer), but there was no offer of any alcoholic beverages and we decided to wait.

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    I would have liked a second cup of coffee, but they never came round with refills for the remainder of the 3 hour flight and I didn’t feel like pushing my call button.

    When we landed in Caracas, Venezuela, there was some confusion about whether those continuing on to Santiago had to deplane and we were halfway down the aisle with all our luggage when the announcement came that we should stay. *Phew* It would have been fine if we’d had to go through transit security there, but we just felt a lot safer staying on the plane.
     
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  4. KLA
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    KLA Silver Member

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    The one part of the deplaning process I really appreciated was the flight attendants kept the curtains shut and blocked the doors to allow the biz cabin to deplane without everyone from economy surging up while you’re trying to get your stuff together.

    We were on the ground for about 40 minutes and when the plane was reboarding we were offered more juice options for a pre-departure beverage as well as a nut/cranberry mixture.

    They served lunch an hour after takeoff, this time with warmer hot towels and more friendly service. My choice of shrimp wasn’t available by the time they got to me, so I went with the chicken which was surprisingly good.
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    Wine was on the cart for lunch, so I started with a 2009 Malbec Gran Reserva from Mendoza. Their wine presentation was one of the things they did best. Your food may arrive all at once on a tray from the cart, but the wine is presented, described, and then a tasting poured before they fill your glass.

    When they came around with the dessert cart we chose the fresh fruit and tried a red blend from Chile next. Everyone else in the cabin immediately went to sleep after lunch which surprised us, since it was only a 5 hour midday flight. We stayed up and sipped our wine and chatted about our trip plans, switching to the Roederer champagne after the red blend.

    We wound up pushing our call buttons for refills on water and wine about every 45 minutes as they never came around on their own. During our 4th small glass (in 3 hours) the purser came back to chat with us about where we were going and what our plans were. It seemed pretty obvious that she was really checking on our sobriety. We both have high tolerance, so 4 small glasses in, we had only begun to relax and were perhaps more articulate at that point, not less.

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    An hour and a half before landing they served us a small snack (not on the menu) of two turkey and brie sandwich halves. I’ll admit, I was surprised at the small portions and lack of food offerings on such a long flight. Comparing it to United Domestic First or Business for a 5-6 hour flight, the only way it was better was the wine presentations.

    The best part of the whole flight was coming in over the Andes at sunset. Wow. We knew the trip would be good, but this was prettier than we dreamed!
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  5. KLA
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    As soon as we landed we hoofed it to the payment desk to pay the $140 USD reciprocity fee required of all Americans entering Chile for the first time. A bit steep, but good for the life of your passport. You can pay in cash or by credit card. We both used our Chase Sapphire Visas to avoid the foreign transaction fee and hopefully get double points for spend on travel.

    There was no line at immigration, and with no checked bags, we went straight to customs. Chile has easy customs forms, if you consider it part of your luggage, you don’t have to declare it. We just ran our bags through the X-ray and headed out to find the Holiday Inn Santiago Airport.

    After confusedly wandering around a little trying to get our bearings, we found a map, and discovered the Holiday Inn was directly in front of arrival doors 3 & 4. The minute you walk out, you can see it across the street.

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    I’d booked the hotel on $60 cash & 5,000 points, the equivalent of $100. We had a friendly reception at the desk and as a Priority Club Platinum I was given a room on the 6th (top) floor overlooking the departures level. The room was nice for a Holiday Inn and the bathroom was large and felt new. Amenities were Bath & Body Works coconut verbana, which left my hair a little rough and greasy.

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    We were a little hungry so we headed down to the hotel restaurant. The menu was basic, and probably expensive for Chile, but by American airport hotel restaurants it was reasonable. I had a shrimp bisque soup (mediocre) for $10 and my friend got the empanadas for $11, which were much better although a little doughy. The room service menu was the same as the restaurant with about a 20% mark up.

    We got up the next morning at 5:30 to be ready to check in for our flight at 6:30. There was only one breakfast option, a buffet for $17USD, so we decided to skip it and grab something at the airport.

    Getting to the LAN check-in area from the Holiday Inn was easy. Figuring out how to check-in was hard.

    We saw long long lines for the LAN bag drop counters, but no check in lanes. We finally saw the self serve kiosks in the middle of the terminal. We eventually figured it out and we were ready to go! Once again glad that we were not checking bags.

    Going through security was easy. The line through immigration was short and there was no wait in security.

    Not surprising since you could keep your coats and shoes on; your liquids could stay in your suitcase (in fact it wasn’t clear if the 311 rule applied here); and your laptop could stay in the bag.

    Next stop was to find breakfast. There was a Dunkin Donuts near our gate, but as we got to the front of the line, we discovered they spoke no English. And they used floury bread that was not the croissant pictured on the menu, but we didn’t discover that until later.

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    I knew just enough high school Spanish to understand that they were out of “huevos” for the sandwiches and to order coffee con leche. The sandwiches weren’t quite what we were in the mood for, but we to make sure we had something in our stomachs before a full day of wine tasting.

    Because we only knew a little bit of Spanish, the LAN boarding process was not intuitive. The instructions were mostly in Spanish, the occasional English translation over the intercom was more of a tribute to offering another language option rather than trying to communicate.

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  6. KLA
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    KLA Silver Member

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    The flight was about 25 minutes long, just enough time to fill out Argentina immigration and customs forms. The view of the Andes during that flight was amazing. Worth the entire trip just for that view.

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    Once we landed, they deplaned from both ends of the plane (yay!) via stairs. (Was very glad I was wearing wedges and not heels that day.)

    The immigration line was long for locals, the majority of the passengers, and only about 10 minutes for us. Since we hadn’t checked any bags, we quickly sailed through customs and went out to meet our guide.

    Our wonderful guide Miguel Sanz (j_miguelsanz@hotmail.com) picked us up at the airport and whisked us away to begin our first day of wine tasting in Mendoza.

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    Figuring out which wineries to visit was actually one of the major planning challenges. We like nice wine, we want to try nice wines we can’t get or can’t afford in the US, but how can we tell if the wineries being recommended would actually be to our taste or if they’re just the usual for tourists.

    Miguel was recommended by a friend of a friend, so there was already some trust, but he didn’t know our preferences yet and surfing the winery websites with little knowledge of the region wasn’t very illuminating. We were able to run the list of suggested wineries by the friend of a friend who gave some insight on which to keep and which to substitute.

    Having decided upon the wineries, the next challenge was scheduling. Some of the ones I picked weren’t open on Monday and we’d originally set aside Sunday and Monday for tasting. Thus, the solution was for Miguel to pick us up immediately upon arrival on Saturday and get things going.

    On the menu for Saturday was Lujan de Cuyo Valley:

    The first thing that struck me enroute was the beauty of the Andes visible from almost everywhere. Wow.

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    The second thing that struck me was the lack of paved roads once you got off the highway. Even the secondary roads that were “paved” looked more like gravel driveways than official roads.

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  7. KLA
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    We arrived at the Park Hyatt Mendoza after we finished our last tasting at Alta Vista in the late afternoon. It’s a massive, impressive structure, crammed onto its block and overlooking the city center park. Someone immediately appeared outside to take our bags, and another person greeted us and directed us to reception.

    The check-in process was quick and courteous. The desk clerk was happy to exchange my 100 peso note for smaller 20 peso bills so I could tip the bellboy. (Although 10 peso bills would have been more reasonable)

    My Platinum Hyatt Gold Passport status got us free internet access and for only 12,000 points vs $600 a night, we had a Park Suite with a city view. The suite was amazing, and possibly one of the best values I’ve redeemed for.

    The living room was spacious with a half bath opening off it. There was a nice desk/office area, and the dining room table for 6 made ordering room service a great option.

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    The master bedroom was nice, but unremarkable. It was the bathroom that really caught my attention. The sink and counters were clear. The shower was also interesting, it was immediately adjacent to the tub, with a drain in the floor. The downside was if you had a bath shortly after the shower was used, you might wipe out on the wet marble floor as you got out.

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    Also a little unfortunate was that there was no door to the toilet room, just the main door to the bedroom. Since the closet was housed in the bathroom as well, it definitely limited your access or your privacy.

    The bath amenities were great! Full size wine themed products from their Kaua spa, including two shampoo choices — a Savaugnion Blanc and a “Table Red” Shampoo. We liked the Sav Blanc version best, it had a light distinctive scent that was enjoyable while lathering and lingered throughout the day. The “Table Red” had a weaker presence. Both the body wash and conditioner smelled like grapes.

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    Random aside, the toothpaste that was provided had no scent and no flavor. We wondered if it was intentional, so as not to destroy the palatte of those about to go wine tasting? A yoga mat was available in the closet. The only thing missing was any kind of coffee maker or tea options.

    A fruit plate was waiting us on arrival and was refreshed every day. Every evening a different complimentary dessert was delivered.

    Winetasting every day from mid-morning to late afternoon left us tired so we wound up ordering a lot of room service so we could relax and not have to stay up until the restaurants opened at 8:30PM. And with no service charge, delivery fee, and extremely reasonable rates ( a burger or salad was $10), there was no reason not to order it!

    Delivery was always quick, but our lack of spanish sometimes led to misunderstandings when ordering. Trying to order the American breakfast package wound up being “ala carte” with the hashbrown potatoes coming out as fries. They did send us a complimentary Malbec Cherry dessert though and every delivery came with a sweet vase of daisies.

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    Another night we tried to order the “meat & cheese” charcuterie platter and wound up with a plate of steak with 4 slices of cheese adjacent. We figured something was up when they called back to see if we wanted the cheese on the meat, but didn’t know to double check they were sending up charcuterie.

    My decaf coffee tasted strongly of root vegetable (probably a side effect of honing my wine tasting palatte) but they always brought pots of steamed milk for the coffee, which I like far better than creamer.
    One night we visited The Vines branch in the hotel as an alternative to going out or room service. The place was small, but had great outdoor seating with heat lamps. They had a fair selection of wines, not as extensive as the main branch around the block. Prices were expensive for Mendoza, probably because it was in the hotel. We went right at the beginning of dinner hour, so it was enjoyably quiet.

    We visited the Kaua Spa twice, as prices were about 30% less than in the US. Situated on the 2nd floor, the spa encompassed the fitness center and had decent locker areas, although we didn’t spend much time in them. The décor was restful, though not luxurious, the treatment rooms looking out onto a private garden area.

    Our facials on the first visit were relaxing but simple. I got the wine antioxidant option which focused on stimulating the circulation and reviving the skin with various topical treatments, no extraction. My skin felt fresh, and some red spots had faded, but otherwise I didn’t notice a significant difference.
    The 90 minute Thai-style massages we had the next night were relaxing. I’ll admit I’m totally spoiled by my trips to Asia, so this one was but a shadow of an “authentic” one, but it felt good and I particularly enjoyed the 15 minutes of intensive stretching at the end. My therapist spoke decent English, although I couldn’t seem to successfully convey I wanted stronger pressure. So if you’re going, look up massage-related words in Spanish first. Spa treatments entitle you to all day access to the spa and fitness facilities, but after a busy day we were ready to crash.

    The hotel features a standard casino which we breezed through once looking for an ATM. Mostly I was impressed at how the presence of the casino doesn’t dominate the hotel atmosphere at all.

    Our first night there was a big game between the local rival soccer teams and the road beneath our windows turned into an impromptu parade ground and we had the perfect view.

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    We ate breakfast at Bistro M on our final day. We were quickly seated and our order taken, but there were subsequently long delays in service. That could have been because the power went out twice for 5+ minutes as they were working on the elevator. We both ordered crepes, which tasted great.

    My decaf coffee arrived with a beautiful milk froth. Unfortunately it wasn’t actually decaf so my friend later had to put up with a lot of involuntary anxiety at the airport.

    Check out was quick and they were happy to apply my excess pesos to the bill (a great way to avoid getting gouged by exchanging your left over currency at the airport).

    I HIGHLY recommend staying here if visiting Mendoza, especially on points!
    (Many more photos of the room available here: http://www.heelsfirsttravel.com/2012/05/27/mendoza-trip-report-6-park-hyatt-mendoza/)
     
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  8. KLA
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    Sorry this has become so lengthy and I'm only half way through the trip! I'll try to be a little more concise in the next posts!
     
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  9. KLA
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    The second day of wine tasting we headed to Uco Valley, which is a beautiful hour/hour and a half drive from Mendoza. We visited Andeluna Cellars, Salentein, Bodega Azul (click for our reviews). The first two are great, although their wines are a little overpriced. The grounds are incredible though. We had lunch at Azul, which was the exact opposite -- home cooked food, rustic seating, etc -- and loved it. I highly recommend lunch there, it was only $45 for the set lunch and you can smell the grilled pork cooking before it comes to your table.

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    We'd left our third day open in case we wanted to do anything other than wine tasting, but after two days out in the countryside with the Andes always in view, which was not the case where we were in Mendoza, we realized we much preferred the thought of more bodegas to shopping downtown or visiting a museum.

    Luckily it was low season and Miguel was free, so we accordingly booked a half day with plans to visit a winery he recommended and then eat at a nearby restaurant he recommended. Before he picked us up we decided to walk around downtown Mendoza and find an ATM, since the one in the hotel was being serviced.

    So apparently everyone in Mendoza goes to the ATMs on Mondays at 10AM. Every ATM was at least 10 people deep, a couple of banks had lines stretching around the block. So if you need to use the ATM, don’t do it Monday morning.

    Miguel took us to CarinaE Vinedos & Bodega, which I highly recommend. To say we fell in love with the atmosphere at CarinaE is an understatement. The winery had been purchased in 2003 by retirees from Toulousse. They had no wine knowledge, but a love of the area, and purchased the vineyard. The grounds are charming -- stark with a Mediterranean feel. The tasting room is lighted with stain glass windows. Definitely do the Premium tasting, that's where they hold their own with the larger wineries.


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    From CarinaE we went to Casa de Campo. It was wonderful. Their English was very limited. Miguel dropped us off in the capable hands of George, who was perhaps the owner, maybe the chef, and definitely the sommelier.

    We were seated at a table, and presented with the menus. The waitress finding a helpful way to get around the language barrier – pointing to a few dishes in the menu and giving us a thumbs up with “Bueno” and “Muy bueno”. That helped us narrow our choices to the veal, the roasted pork, and the rabbit (which earlier had been unfortunately mentioned in the car by Miguel as “bunny”).

    So with those options in mind, we ascended to the wine cellar with George, which was more of a wine attic. George knew limited English and I knew limited Spanish, but he still helped us pick out an amazing bottle. We told him which proteins we were likely to eat and he started pointing at bottles and naming prices, which amazingly enough I was able to follow in Spanish. Although given my limited vocabulary, much of it went down like this:

    The first bottle: “Nice bottle. You like. Smooth.” Then to the next bottle, “Mas rica, muy bien.” “Mas rica. MUY BIEN!”

    We chose the bottle that was the third “mas rica”, a Mora Negra made from Bonarda, roughly $70, and worth every penny. We wound up choosing the lechon and rabbit and George knew what he was about with the pairing.

    We started with a beef empanada that was the best empanada I think I’ll ever have. The pastry was flaky and soft, the beef wonderfully seasoned. Mmmmmm.

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    And then for the main course. I went for the rabbit, because I never ever order rabbit. I figured Los Campos was probably going to do a good job, so this was the best time to try it. It came out covered in flavorful chopped greens, and had the texture of chicken, although fortunately not the taste, because doesn’t everything exotic supposedly taste like chicken? The taste was fantastic (I’m guessing it tasted like good rabbit?) as was my friend’s pork.

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    We got back mid-afternoon and were surprisingly lively, so we decided to go visit the main branch of The Vines of Mendoza before our massage appointments to check it out and pick up a bottle for later that night.

    It was not the bottle shop we expected, so we wound up sharing a white wine tasting (something we’d experienced very little of on our tastings). I was shocked at how good the tastings were. They weren’t terribly expensive for 6 generous pours(roughly $30), and there was no selection that we wanted to stop after a sip. If you go, be sure to check out The Vine’s own label of Chardonnay. To be slightly oaked and under <$20 it was shockingly good.

    We enjoyed the tasting so much in fact that my friend decided to sign up for the wine club, abeit the red-only option. The prices including shipping were very reasonable and they pull wines from across the region, giving you a chance to experience different wineries. Not to mention that signing up (roughly $150 per shipment of 6 bottles) waived our tasting fee.
     
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