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San Rafael, Mendoza Province, Argentina

Initially we were going to leave Malargue for Mendoza city, but so many people had made negative comments about Mendoza in our weeks in Argentina, and after so many small towns the idea of a sprawling, large and busy city was a little intimidating! Comments about San Rafael, which is 230km south of Mendoza, had been positive and was suggested as a more pleasant alternative, so we arranged to stay three nights there.

Arriving on a Sunday the bus drove past vast groups on the outskirts of town taking shelter from the sun under trees, socialising with friends and family so by the time we arrived and wandered about we felt we were in a ghost town!  Sunday in Argentina seems to be a day to head to the park or out of town with family and friends, get the logs on the asado and have a barbeque, shops are closed and it seems no one is around. We bumped into Nicki, a lovely English lady we met on the Cavernas de las Brujas and Payunia trips and who escaped Malargue on the same bus as us, and we commented on the very sleepy town we had arrived in, it seemed the town was not as she’d expected either.  Plans were hatched to head out to the Atuel Canyon which is worth a visit according to guides and the tourist office the following day.

White-water Rafting

Rafting start point

Rafting start point

Monday morning we were to meet Nicki on the bus out of town to the Canyon at 7.30am to get us there around 8.30am with our plan to go white-water rafting on the Rio Atuel.  Alarms set, we failed to get a good night’s sleep due to the party in the hotel, so we then woke with shock at 7pm, knowing we needed to leave at 7.10am get a taxi to the bus terminal to catch this 7.30am bus!  I have never moved so fast!! Running from the taxi to the stop, which Nicki had text me to say was not where we intially thought, we jumped onto the bus in the nic of time! The bus journey out was lovey, as the sun rose over the pink hills and we saw locals starting their day.

Still half asleep I was convinced that I saw a sign for the rafting company we wanted to do our rafting with, so we all jumped off the bus, to then discover as the bus drove off that we were actually 5kms away from where we needed to be! Rather humbled and apologetic the Kiwi and Nicki were in good humour about it and we decided it was good excercise and gave us an opportunity to see the canyon! It was a lovely walk, it has to be said!

We arrived at Raffeish Rafting to find it all quiet.  With such an early departure we were in search of breakfast, and this proved to be a problem as nothing was open!  A guy told us that rafting would be possible around 11am…. it was 9.00am! Fortunatley Rafffeish is situated on the banks of the river and behind their office is a lovely garden supplied with deck chairs so we settled down and took in the peaceful scene and watched the green river flow by.  Raffeish are an ecology-conscious rafting operator and the guys were friendly and helpful. There is a restaurant with a terrace above the garden by the water, so it’s easy to spend a day there!

The kiwi went for a jog to see what was beyond this spot, searching for potential breakfast.  He found a place that was setting up, so we headed off walking 5 mins.  When we entered we were told they had no food, not even a coffee to give us! Frustrated we headed back and waited…. next door the lovely looking restaurant stirred to life and we pounced, asking for breakfast…. coffee was no problem, but the only breakfast they had was in the form of an apple tart – That was going to have to do!

Pink Canyon Atuel

Pink Canyon Atuel

We headed back, paid our $40 each (around £7.50) for the 12km rafting trip and got changed.  Attractive purple helmet on and life jackets secured we joined Nelson, our guide, in the boat for a quick lesson on what his instructions meant and what we were to do, then we were off.

I had never rafted before, Nicki had once and found it a bit of a non-event, whereas the Kiwi had done a class 5 before! This was a Class 2 at the moment, and that was reassuring to me.

FABULOUS!  What a great way to see the canyon, and what fun too! The gentle drifting down stream enabling you to take in the views, then a flurry of activity as you paddle – “Adelante!” – through the rapids, me squeeling regularly as i got soaked by the cool waters. The canyon is lovely, with varying rock formations and colours and this was providing a completely different view point. Nelson encouraged us to get in the water for a paddle, practically chucking you in the river will accomplish that! The water was lovely, although a little cool in the morning before the heat of the day has picked up.

This was the end of the season so it was very quiet and peaceful.  A walk up the valley later in the day to the dam made us realise that normally there are numerous rafting operators there, all closed for the season when we were there, and the place must be packed in high season.

From the large dam you get a great panorama down the Atuel Canyon and then over to the man made lake of blue waters and unusual mountain sides. After our strenous walk (!) we headed back to Raffeish’s garden for a beer and decided that this area would have been the place to come and rent a Cabana, chill out and relax.  Vast Asado areas suggest that this is popular with locals on Sundays to barbeque and socialise, and where better a place to do it?

Wine Tasting

Grape delivery

Grape delivery

San Rafael is a major wine producing centre with around 80 bodegas in the area so we thought we would spend a day wine-tasting as it was suggested that Mendoza wine tasting was stuffy and formal, but in San Rafael it was more relaxed.  We had a disappointing day! We found that wineries were only letting you taste maybe one wine, in the case of Suter it was a cheap, sweet white wine – how can you get a sense of the wines produced by the place on the basis of that?! We wanted to visit Bianchi, one of the biggest wine producers, but had been told by the Tourist Office you had to make an appointment to do a tour and tasting, gave us a phone number to call and told us they spoke English. We called, they didn’t speak English so we didn’t go – to then meet Nicki and find that she rocked up there and had to wait for 15 mins but got a tour and tasting no problem! Pah! One successful tasting was at Jean Rivier, although they are only open until 11am then between 3pm and 6pm.  We were taken down to the basement where the vats were and, in Spanish, given details of 4 wines and tastings.  It was relaxed, they knew their wines (in some places they didn’t know that New Zealand produced wine!) and it was very good! Bodega Vieja is a long established winery and they still use the old method, there is a tour of the winery with information on it’s history and then a tasting of a few of their wines. Otherwise, it was a disappointment, and I felt that some places merely provided a warehouse catering to bus tours that would come and buy up cheaper wines by the box, rather than really wanting to show off their wines. I would like them to spend a day in New Zealand, round Blenheim, wine tasting to see what it’s really about!

In all, San Rafael is a small town, pleasant enough but not really, in my opinion, worth  a detour – a visit to the Canyon is certainly on the to do list, with a stay in the canyon a great possibility, and maybe some of the wineries.  Nicki did have a lovely time at an Olive Oil farm, where they had a tour, tasted the oils then sat outside and had lunch which sounded great. But really, I would say head to Mendoza!

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