During the drive from the Mendoza airport to our hotel in Luján de Cuyo, a rural division about twenty minutes outside the city, we saw that beautiful street art and murals were not limited to Buenos Aires; the industrial buildings and retaining walls along the highway were peppered with colourful scenes and strange creatures. Dividing the twinned highway was a large canal. Our driver explained that Mendoza is located in a natural desert, and complex irrigation of water from the Andes is required to support the trees (all planted during city planning and construction) and, of course, the wineries.
Arriving at Villa Mansa, which was more like a tiny, luxurious resort than a hotel, we were greeted by the owner Viviana and a pair of extremely friendly yellow Labradors. Predictably, I became good friends with the mother-daughter doggie pair, both of whom were the type of dogs who want petting, lots of petting, don’t stop the petting. They were trained never to enter the main hotel building or the guest rooms, and curiously, drank out of the pool.
Our wine tour was booked for the next day. We breakfasted at the hotel, and although, as is usual at breakfast, most of the offerings were not vegan-friendly, the presentation (including food arranged on large slabs of slate) and variety was impressive. The strawberry and quince jams were delicious and the fruit salad fresh and plentiful; bowls of various dried fruits and nuts provided me with some breakfast protein.
Bodega Renacer winery was so breathtakingly gorgeous that I would have been perfectly happy to skip the wine tour and just wander around taking photos. Far from being any kind of wine connoisseur, the truth is that I don’t even really like red wine much (but I’m working on it!). Despite my unrefined palate, I enjoyed the tasting. It started with a tasting and discussion of three pure component wines, then we were invited to combine the three according to our own tastes into a personal experimental blend. After the do-it-yourself portion of the tasting, we were served some of Renacer’s commercial red blends and (yay!) a delightful Sauvignon Blanc. The palate-cleansing snacks available included some golden grapes that were varied in size and colour, looked like pieces of amber, and were so delicious that I fear all of the raisins in my future will be lacking in comparison.
The next winery we visited was Norton, a large-scale operation with wines familiar in Canada. (Both Renacer and Norton wines are vegan-friendly.) We were booked for a picnic lunch and tour. Seated on a blanket under a tree, with a view of the vanishingly large vineyard and the Andes beyond, we unpacked the picnic basket: boards of meat and cheese, meat sandwiches, and fruit. Not a vegetable in sight. I asked about a vegan option, and was informed that I should have pre-ordered this. (I actually had mentioned this to the company that booked us, but obviously there was some miscommunication.) The tour guide said she would see what she could do for me, in a tone that did not inspire much hope. However, as my family finished picking at the food (even the omnivores were overwhelmed by the heavy offerings), the guide returned with a meal for me: a board of grilled vegetables, an eggplant and red pepper sandwich, and a really nice little salad with walnuts. I shared a few of the veggies with my covetous family and devoured the rest, which was delicious. I felt both vaguely smug and a bit guilty that my vegan meal was obviously much better than the standard offering.
I have to say a few words about the food at our hotel, Villa Mansa. We ate quite a few meals in their cozy restaurant, and I was very excited to discover when we sat down to dinner on our first evening that the chef was both vegan-savvy and extremely accommodating. While the menu did not list many vegan options aside from the daily chef’s salad, she came out to speak with me that first evening and offered to prepare me an off-menu vegan risotto with beans from the garden. Between the rich risotto, studded with large green beans that I could not identify, and the warm-from-the oven bread served with spicy local olive oil and balsamic vinegar, I was in carb heaven. The chef and staff were wonderfully friendly, and after my first evening I was always served a vegan alternative to the daily amuse-bouche without having to remind anyone of my diet.
I ordered the daily salad to start every evening. Each one was based on amazingly fresh and diverse greens. Other ingredients on various nights included possibly the best tomato I’ve ever tasted (seriously), corn, green onions, edible flowers, vegan croutons, roasted beets, marinated eggplant…. I could go on. I could also eat one of those salads every day for the rest of my life, quite happily. For main courses, I enjoyed accidentally-vegan corn humita empanadas with pico de gallo, more wonderful risotto (which my family also started ordering), and crispy-fried polenta topped with grilled veggies. It was all fantastic. If you eat a plant-based diet and are planning a trip to Mendoza, you will definitely be well-fed and very happy at the Villa Mansa.
For our last day in Argentina, we took a guided day trip into Mendoza. Despite being home to a million people, the city felt small and almost intimate, with trees and plants everywhere and a seriously massive park occupying the west end of the city. The canals were omnipresent, and even the sidewalks were bordered with three-foot-deep troughs, threatening to cause serious injury to any careless or inebriated tourists. Like in Buenos Aires, we were inundated with murals, flowering purple trees, mosaic art, statues, and lovely parks. As we said goodbye to my sister, who was to stay in Mendoza for a month-long nursing internship, I was jealous that she would have the chance to really get to know this beautiful city.
Our ten days in Argentina were so, so wonderful. Learning a bit about the history and social structure of the country, we commented more than once that Argentina reminded us of Canada; friendly people and lots of socialized public services. I can definitely say this: don’t let a plant-based diet deter you from visiting Argentina. It’s entirely possible to eat well with only a bit of planning and a few key words in Spanish. In both Buenos Aires and Mendoza, one feels immersed in art and beauty. I certainly hope to return again sometime for more days of grilled vegetables, surreal murals, and Argentinian hospitality.