Like Denver, Mendoza is nested tightly against the east side of a spectacular mountain range whose foothills spill over to within a few miles.  As in Denver, I notice for the first time mixed among the bus terminal throngs faces that are clearly indigeno – native American.  On the way from the bus terminal to the hotel, my taxista tells me that 1.6 million people live here and I believe him, but the open skies of this sprawling low-rise city belie it.

My hotel is situated along a broad main street and on this Saturday mid-afternoon I venture out between a nap and a city tour scheduled to follow before evening begins.  Traffic on the avenida is light, and the next block down is occupied by hostels and restaurants and lined by late-model parked cars. Early Bird dinner specials may just be beginning back in the States, but here the Latin lunch is barely ended.

Streetside dining, Avenida Sarmiento, Mendoza

In contrast to B.A., where restauranteurs drag a few extra tables onto the sidewalk when the weather’s good, it’s clear that sidewalk dining is a fixture here.  Sidewalks separate restaurants from outdoor tables stacked three and four deep and covered by permanent-looking awnings with foul weather flaps neatly rolled up underneath. The main dining rooms are decorated in a casual brand of Old World elegance.  I lazily pick the one nearest to the hotel, where the menu runs a dozen pages and includes not only traditional Argentine dishes, but Continental specialties.  And then there’s the wine list, which runs even longer.  It’s ordered not by variety, but by local chateau, and I now know that I am in serious wine country.

Parched from the long bus ride,  I commit the ultimate blasphemy by first ordering a beer to quench my thirst.  The waiter arrives with a bottle of the local Quilmes that I swear is 750 ml large and served in an iced bucket as if it was champagne… along with a pair of empanadas that has also somehow sneaked onto my order.  I tell myself that I’m saving my appetite for dinner.  The crowd here is both young and old and clearly far more casual and laid-back than even in mellow B.A.  This place feels so much like Northern California that I wonder if some secret society of vintners stamps its cultural imprint on every place in which the grape is grown.  Think Big Sur or Mendocino with a gaucho twist:  Two tables down a striking,olive-skinned Latina in European designer glasses sits opposite a bearded guy in a plaid short-sleeved shirt , his baseball cap planted firmly over a bandana headdress.  Los viejos – the older ones – wear polo shirts beneath their sports coats.  If B.A. has wrung the pretension out of its European roots, then Mendoza has wrung from B.A. its essence, erasing the lines and leaving only the light and color as if in some Impressionist painting.

The empanadas hit the spot.  I apologize to my waiter for my poor Spanish, a tack which invariably earns both sympathy and magnanimity, before forging ahead.  I’m tempted to order una copa de vino – a glass of wine – but I can’t seem to find on the menu any selections by the glass and the price of a full bottle here is less than that of a tasteless Stateside flight.  I ask the waiter to pick me out a Malbec and for good measure to tack onto my order  two yet-untried flavors of empanadas.  He brings me a half-split that’s on par with the best bottle I’ve yet tasted Stateside. I spoon some killer salsa chimichurra over the empanadas, uncaring that it’s probably intended just for steak.  A joke spreads from the diners a couple of tables away to their waiter and from him to the next table and their waiter and to the table beyond.  This is decidedly looser than even mellow B.A. and I am enjoying the tableau as much as if I was a participant. I’m prepared to die at this moment a very happy man.

The empanadas have fallen short of absorbing the Quilmes + Malbec, but I’ve committed to the City Tour at 4 and I’m a man of my word.  I exchange names and shake hands with my waiter Mario, tip him generously, and haul myself and my fresh buzz back to the hotel.  All of this, incidentally, has cost me little more than US$15… with tip.

Parque San Martin, Mendoza

The City Tour turns out to be much more about listening to the guide lecture than about photo opps, which does not bode well for a gringo with bad Spanish and a camera, but it gives me the lay of the land for forays to follow.  It also includes a magnificent view of the city from a mountainside monument and one of the most spectacular metropolitan parks I’ve seen anywhere. Satisfying as my sleep on the bus may have felt, I’m apparently still running a sleep deficit because I’m catapulted into an impromptu nap as soon as I reach my hotel room; I emphatically deny that the Malbec had any part in this.

My “short” nap ends when I awaken abruptly nearly 4 hours later at 10:45PM.  In the States my dining options would now be limited to IHOP or Denny’s, but I am thankfully in Argentina.  I pop out onto the sidewalk where lights are blazing up and down the block and patio dining is raging at full tilt.  I’m torn between my newfound loyalty to the Estancia La Florentine and the equally tempting Giovanni’s across the street.  I rationalize that my La Florentine waiter Mario is now off-duty and that it’s not really cheating on him if I sample Giovanni’s, where the lighting is not quite as bright nor the tables quite as packed with large parties.

It’s late, so I pass over entrees like the quarter chicken – I’m certain that buried somewhere among the entrees is also a quarter steer – and take the easy way out. I graze my way tapas-style through a fistful of empanadas and some pumpkin soup.  Once again I do the I-only-want-a-glass-of-wine routine and once again I end up with a tasty Malbec split.  The empanadas – the spiced meat criolla is fast becoming a new favorite – are outstanding, but the pumpkin soup is exquisite.  As he clears the table my waiter asks how I like it.  I tell him more truthfully than he knows Spanish words fail me, and – arm outstretched – pantomime myself mainlining it directly into my veins.  He laughs at the crazy gringo, but I think he’s warming up to me.

Now the moment of truth has arrived:  To dessert or not to dessert.  It quickly become obvious that my waiter Diego’s practice of reciting the choices in Spanish isn’t going to fly, and we retreat to the menu where I pick out the flan de casera.  It is, however, not that simple:  I can have it con crema or con dulce de leche.  It’s already a foregone conclusion that before the trip is done I’ll have to return to the jogging trail at that magnificent urban park and do penance for the sins I’ve already committed, so I take the plunge and go for the dulce de leche.  I decline an accompanying coffee; these guys are purists who refuse to serve decaf and the gargantuan dollop of  dulce de leche containsenough sugar to keep me bouncing off the hotel room walls for the rest of the night.  And anyway it’s now past midnight and I leave at (OUCH!) 7AM for the High Mountain tour.  I ask reluctantly for the check and find that I’ve yet again failed to break the US$20 barrier, with tip.

My hotel is mercifully within eyesight of Giovanni’s, which is a good thing because the dulce de leche has just hooked up with the Malbec somewhere just south of my aorta and my brain isn’t quite certain if I’m coming or going.  I stand waiting in front of the elevator for the longest time until I remember that it’s one of those quant antiques which requires you to open a hinged door, pull back an accordion gate, and navigate yourself to your floor of choice. I have to remind myself to close the door and the gate behind me upon entering.

On the way up I replay the phone call received from the tour operator earlier in the day recommending that I substitute the High Mountain tour for the Canyon Tour.  It turns out, she tells me, that the photogenic clouds I saw on the bus ride here were the remnants of a storm that washed out some roads normally used by the Canyon Tour.  Then she blows completely past the TMI (too-much-information) threshold to tell me that as a result of the storm it took two days for them to retrieve the guests from last Thursday’s 1-day Canyon Tour.  Then she breaks her own freshly-minted TMI record to share with me that 4 casualties ( as in “mortalities”) resulted from a storm-induced the landslide.

I’m thinking that tomorrow morning I may forego my ritual cappuccino and instead get myself down to the local cathedral to light a few candles for them… and perhaps for myself.