Welcome to Mendoza, a city of one million people, most of which are called Gustavo and Mauricio, Mariela and Nathalia. Walking around this garden city, one of the first things you’ll notice is the dykes running along the sides of each street. Many people think they are storm drains when in fact they are irrigation canals (known as acequias) that carry melted snow from the mountains over a huge grid that feeds trees, plants and vineyards. Without this web of water this city would turn to dust as we are in the middle of a desert. In fact 94% of Mendoza’s surface area is dry scrubland and mountain. Only 6% of the province is lived upon and cultivated.
As you can see this is a city of trees. They say there are more trees in Mendoza than people. The most unusual thing is all these trees are not from here but were introduced from abroad with species from all over the World. The native desert trees are small, hardy shrubs. The trees serve a practical purpose as they provide badly needed shade in such a hot and sunny city.
Mendoza is one of the few pre-planned cities in South America. The original city was completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1861. The people in charge of reconstruction decided to move the city one kilometer west, with much wider streets and lots more plazas and parks. The idea was the citizens would have plenty of open, safe areas to run to should an earthquake happened again. Always a dusty frontier town on the way to Chile, Mendoza was never very important in a commercial sense as it was too isolated. What changed things dramatically was the arrival of the railway in 1885. Suddenly goods and people could be shifted in one day to Buenos Aires, what before was a difficult journey that took two weeks. Buenos Aires provided a huge thirsty market for wine and Mendoza began to provide that wine. European immigrants flooded in, many from the Mediterranean who knew how to grow vines. The wine boom began.
In 1890 an Italian hydraulics engineer called Cesar Cipoletti designed and built a dam in the Andean foothills, now called Cipoletti Dam. This water source transformed the province, opening up huge tracts of land for cultivation.
The Mendoza government then offered free land to any immigrants who knew how to cultivate vineyards. The city exploded in growth. Within 20 years it had the biggest winery in the World, called Giol, located in Maipu. It employed 6000 people and produced 60 milions liters of wine per annum, plus other products such a tinned fruits.
It had a 2 km suspended pipe called a vinoduct that carried wine from the winery to the train station. Long closed, the winery buildings still exists and looks like a huge abandoned oil refinery.
Driving through the western section of the city, known as the Quinta, you’ll see some beautiful properties as this is where all the old wine families lived before they fled to the gated communities in the suburbs.
Parque San Martin is a 400 hectare site of beautiful meadows and woods. It is undoubtedly one of the best designed and maintained municipal parks in South America. It contains a rather large lake, a huge university campus, a World Cup stadium, tennis courts, sports clubs. childrens playgrounds, an equestrian center, a Natural History museum, a golf course, a Greek Amphitheater and rather elaborate entrance gates.
At the back of the park is a hill known as Cerro de la Gloria (Glory Hill), on top of which is an extravagant monument celebrating San Martin and his famous invasion of Chile over the Andes. From the monument you get commanding views of the city and suburbs with the Andean foothills in the background.
Plaza Independencia is the city’s main square and home to an underground theater and museum. In 2004 a runaway truck with no brakes came steaming through the city from the park, crashing through traffic and past terrified, fleeing pedestrians. It eventually ploughed through trees, benches and bollards in the plaza and finally come to rest hanging over the entrance of the main theater.
The Park Hyatt hotel is located on Plaza Independencia and has an imposing neo-classical facade. Prior to changing hands and being renovated in 1999, it was known as the Plaza Hotel. In 1995 a wine buyer from Tesco was trapped for two days in his room when the door handle fell off and the telephone would not work.
Las heras is one of the main commercial streets of Mendoza, with many souvenier shops, leather stores and handicraft outlets. There is also a foodhall called Mercado Central and some huge indoor markets, known as Persas. This is where you come for the knock-off Boca Junior jerseys.
The Alameda is an open space that extends along San Martin Avenue for several blocks. It has a small, interesting museum dedicated to San Martin but is better known for its bars and restaurants that offer a more underground, alternative scene to the bars on Aristides Villanueva. We are now entering the old part of the city which centers around the original central plaza known as Plaza Pedro del Castillo. Here you’ll find the foundations to the city and the ruins of San Francisco church, destroyed by the city in 1861.
Parque O’Higgins borders one of the main water canals and the airport highway. Beyond it to the east is the city’s bus terminal. O’Higgins was the main independence leader in Chile who fought alongside San Martin to expel the Spanish.
At night this area becomes a red light district. In 2008 a naked Brazilian was apprehended running through these streets chasing two women who had robbed him. This district of the city was the site of the city’s movie theaters. All those cinemas have now moved out to the suburban malls of which there are four, mostly in the richer south side.
Plaza San Martin is the banking district of the city. Only 50% of Argentines actually have a bank account. Another interesting statistic is only 6% of Argentines have traveled by aeroplane and 30% complete secondary school. We are now back at Ave. San Martin and Sarmiento.
Despite Mendoza’s many plazas and government buildings, this junction is the main focal point of the city where the citizens come to protest or celebrate.