Hiking in the Andes

I was lost in the Andes Mountains.

There were no signs of other hikers en route to the waterfall summit. The trail’s check-in did not have maps or even much of a trail for that matter. Footprints had guided the way: Now they lessened, then drizzled down to nothing. My hostel’s “concierge,” a curly-headed Scandinavian, told me that it would take four rigorous-but-manageable-if-you-pack-a-sandwich hours to reach the summit, even on my own. My memories of trailblazing in Boy Scouts vanished after only fifteen minutes.

How did I get here? After spending four months studying life and language in Buenos Aires, I spent my last full weekend in Argentina in its wine country. I was a city boy in sprawling Buenos Aires and wanted a change of pace with a trip west to Mendoza, where horses were the modes of transportation, not maniac cabistas. This weekend was my final exam on a semester abroad as well as my chance to dive into a country’s wine culture firsthand. But on my own two feet, I was going nowhere fast. In between hyperventilating, I reflected on a weekend full of wine memories, each one inspired by a sense of exploration and adventure.

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Mendoza’s vineyards were a flight in themselves. Along with a couple from New York City and a girl from New Orleans, I cycled along a five kilometer (and rocky) trail, bouncing to whatever sounded good and learning to repair a broken bike chain on the way. I had never been on a vineyard tour before, so I was open to anything, including a flaming shot of absinthe at our first stop. The burn of the green fairy put the heat into the rest of the bike tour. I half-expected a James Bond villain behind the industrial decanters at Vistandes, while Bodega Viña Maria’s security was a scrawny black and white dog named Pirata. I tried a Malbec flight at a wine bar in downtown Mendoza and learned the distinction of hue, body, alcohol content and aroma’s effect on flavor. My itinerary-obsessed self had brought a guidebook along, but I quickly decided against it. My palate would be a blank slate; these wines were unfurling my viewpoint.

Early one morning, I took a bus past Cerulean Lake to Potrerillos, a pinpoint town that’s the last stop on Route 7 in the Andes foothills. It had felt great to be on a cross-country trip, using Spanish to make new friends and getting my perspectives defined with great tasting wine almost every step of the way.

Not that any of that mattered. I was alone and lost and I was convinced I would die. Just when I couldn’t lose more hope, a bush started talking to me in heavily accented English.

“Excoooooze me, are you lost?”

“Sí, sin duda.”

Behind the bush was a Mendocino family. After meeting Cesar Sebastian Molina, his sisters and their cousins, I joined their group. We took a route past high brushes and joked in Spanish about our favorite cartoons. None of us actually knew the way around the mountain, but like my bike group, we stumbled along and wisecracked. We snagged photos at the summit and got lost again. Instead of finding a footprint trail, we happened upon some wild horses as the sun went down. Sunburnt, exhausted, with purple-stained lips and knees jigglier than flan, I waved them goodbye and bounced from stop to stop on the trip back to Buenos Aires.

Cesar and his sisters had found me. What did I find that weekend? I found I like tasting; more importantly, I found an attitude as lively as the wine I was trying. I had made the trip to learn about wine; in the process, I learned how to treat wine as an exploration, with my own intuition as a guide. Wine suddenly had an association with adventure, with kind people and with ultimately finding a sense of place. It is a never ending education, and it all starts with getting lost.

Tommy Werner is a freelance food writer/glorified home cook/Southern transplant living in New York. You can follow him at Table Scraps.

Image via Shutterstock.com