Most people forget that Mendoza province is a vast barren plain of sandy scrubland, especially in the city’s lush green oasis. But there is one place you can go where the arid climate is emphatically apparent: Lavalle, a dusty, sun beaten hamlet, only 20 minutes away from the city.
The red, fiery ball of a sun peaked over the horizon as we drove down the highway. It was early and we had not had our mate yet, so it was a quiet, groggy observance. My bag was packed with everything from wool hats to sunscreen. How does one prepare for her first Argentine desert adventure? As the sun rose quickly into the orange glazed sky, the open-plain sunrise made our joke about our ‘day trip to the Sahara of Mendoza’ seem a bit more real.
To a native Mendocino, it is general knowledge that Mendoza’s natural landscape is classified as desert. The dry, arid climate does not tell lies but because of the canal irrigation system initiated by the Huarpe Indians and expanded upon by an Italian water wizard called Cipoletti, it’s easy to forget, or in fact even know that Mendoza’s natural landscape is more suited for lizards and armadillos than winemakers and tourists. Does this mean our only hope of experiencing the desert that is Mendoza lies within the capacity of a time machine? Luckily, the answer is absolutely not.
Just 20 minutes north of the city in the region of Lavalle, visitors and natives of Mendoza alike can experience the continued tradition of true Mendocino life, where people preserve the customs of the native Huarpe Indians. From Mendoza center, a mere day outing and local bus fare stand between you and an experience of sand dunes and desert folklore. No camel required.
LA ASUNCION: Where Clocks Hang in the Sky
The setting of La Asuncion is reminiscent of scenes from an old Western movie – flat, arid, dusty land scattered with variant desert plants and simple, adobe buildings draped with awnings to create refuge from the hot, midday sun.
La Capilla Vieja (Old Chapel) is one of the main attractions in La Asuncion. Thousands of people flock to this small village every year during the third week of August to celebrate the Fiesta de la Asuncion and La Virgin del Transito, whose figure rests inside the small, straw-and-mud built chapel. The chapel was already constructed when the first settlers arrived in 1882, so its true age remains unknown and adds to the area’s mystical history. If you arrive and the chapel is closed, just ask the next door neighbour for the key. The family have been the ‘guardians’ of the chapel for generations.
The importance of community is evident throughout the town, including the relationship to the land and natural surroundings. “People laugh at me when I tell them the time of day without looking at a clock,” explains Angela, the chapel guardian. “Why wear a watch when I can look to the sun or moon in the sky and know exactly what time it is?” For visitors who want to do a bit of rural tourism, La Asuncion offers a variety of activities including wool and leather-making workshops, cooking classes, and guided horseback rides throughout the historic landscape. Contact the local government for tourism contact details (0261) 494 1011.
RESERVA BOSQUES TELTECA – A Botanist’s Disneyland
To the untrained eye, the Telteca Forest Reserve seems to be a randomly selected part of the desert that they’ve fenced off, put up some colorful signs, and named it a national reserve. The desert heat makes people do crazy things, and this may have been one of them.
Through a botanist’s eye, however, this desert mirage would look a lot more like Disneyland. The reserve spans 20,400 hectares and contains the most bio-diverse selection of native plants to Mendoza one can find, including the all important algorroba tree. Telteca is a word derived from an aboriginal Huarpe language for ‘ripe fruit’, most likely of the carob tree – the tallest and most protected native desert tree in Mendoza. Elusive puma and guanaco lurk amidst the cactus and thornbush whilst fox and hare hide in the shade. Telteca may not have the flashy allure of a big game safari park, but this botanical theme park is worth it if you want to see a protected, authentic version of the Mendocino desert. Open Mon – Sat.
LOS ALTOS LIMPIOS – The Sahara of Mendoza
When I had to change my scarf into a head turban, I knew I had made it to the heart of our desert experience. The sand dunes of Los Altos Limpios satisfy any craving to experience the quintessential ‘Sahara-like’ desert setting. Although the dunes may not be as towering as those in northern Africa, the sand is soft and wind-carved, and baked with the radiating heat from the sun. You may have left your camel at home, but if you’re a surf fanatic, be sure to remember your dune board as you can certainly surf down the sandy slopes if you feel so inclined. Also make sure not to overlook the hundreds of animal and bird prints that lay on the dunes, most of the dwellers here only come out at night but there are a multitude of different inhabitants living in the desert plains.
LA GRISELDA QUESO – A tale of two men and 700 goats
Although it may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Argentinean cuisine (wait…there’s something beyond chorizo?) artisan cheese making does exist here, and in good form. Or rather, goat form. La Griselda goat cheese is run by two men who have a passion for quality and take pride in being involved in every part of the cheese making process from start to finish. Their facility is located in the El Retiro district of Lavalle on a 100-hectare pasture, where the goats are free to romp around with each other and eat bale after bale of hay. A visit to the goat farm is a wonderful experience getting to see the entire process, from the mothering goats and their baby kids running around the farm, to the cheese factory with everything happening on one premises from the milk pumping and pasteurizing to maturation and labeling. You can taste the artisanal love in all of their flavors and styles which can be bought in Mendoza in the Jumbo, Vea and other supermarkets as well as the Mercado Central in fresh soft cheese or hard cheese form.
LA FINCA MARUJITA – A Diamond in the Rough
The ultimate goal of any desert journey is finding the diamond in the rough. And as you pull into the luxurious world that is La Finca Marujita after passing kilometer after kilometer of, well, not much else, you know you’ve found it. The owners of Marujita have created an entire world around their 110-hectare olive orchard that enables visitors to escape outside life, reconnect with nature, and, oh yeah, catch a flick in the underground bar too. They have a small rustic posada, a new restaurant (opening mid November), café and tasting room that includes their Conscience product lines of extra virgin olive oil, chutneys, marmalades, and cosmetics; all made on site and with local ingredients. There’s also an animal farm for the kids to play in while you meditate within the olive branches, where nirvana is finding the inner olive pit of your soul. www.fincalasmarujitas.com.ar
By Elizabeth Butler
Published in the October/November 2012 edition of Wine Republic