Mendoza pops the cork on adventure
IT might have been the drink, but I wasn't immediately worried about the motorcycle cop waiting in the winery carpark.
I didn't think anything of it when he looked me up and down as I mounted my bike and I was still none the wiser when he pulled out of the carpark to follow me at very low speed.
My suspicions grew as he shadowed my wife and I along the highway. And I became increasingly worried as he patiently traced my course around a roundabout and back to the bike hire headquarters. When he parked outside and strode purposefully down the drive, all I could do was scurry off to hide in the toilets.
This was a wine tour, Argentinian style, where, it turned out, that policeman was just making sure another gaggle of wine-addled gringos made their way safely home.
We were in Maipu near Mendoza, close to the border with Chile and just more than halfway up the country. It's one of Argentina's biggest and most important wine-growing areas; one of the major drawcards for visitors.
We booked our bikes through Mr Hugo, one of many bike renters in this area. He didn't speak much English and my Spanish was somewhat limited, particularly as the day (and drinking) wore on, but we got on famously.
Maipu is the perfect place for a wine tour by bicycle. It's almost flat, with about 20 producers of wine, beer, liquors and gourmet deli-style treats all close enough to make an easy day or afternoon's excursion. And if you don't fancy your chances in the saddle after a round of tastings, there are plenty of organised bus tours.
What was particularly heart-warming on a chilly late-winter afternoon were the compliments for New Zealand wine. We were told several times it was the home of the world's best sauvignon blanc.
It's worth dallying in Mendoza for more than the wine though. It is a relatively small city that somehow feels much bigger - many of the 115,000 residents live close to its centre meaning the streets are always bustling. From here the Andes are less than two hours' drive away and there are all manner of outdoor adventures to be had trekking and rafting.
The more adventurous could try scaling Cerro Aconcagua, one of the world's taller peaks at close to 7000m above sea level.
The city is also, theoretically, a ski destination. Although, a lack of snow meant Los Pentinentes, a two-hour drive away, has barely opened this winter.
When you're done with the great outdoors, you can eat and drink on Mendoza's Avenida Villanueva, a Ponsonby Rd-style strip of cool shops, bars and restaurants. The city shopping is good and the tree-lined streets are wide - a result of rebuilding after an earthquake that levelled the city in the mid 19th century.
Further north lies Cafayate, another major wine-producing area, with more boutique wineries than its big brother. The small town is surrounded by vineyards and wineries and is geared tastefully to tourists.
You can get there from Mendoza with a 20-hour bus ride or by flying to the charming city of Salta and taking a four-hour bus ride (there are several buses each day). If you take this option you'll travel through the Quebrada de Cafayate. People have described it as a mini Grand Canyon and the description is apt, with red rocks towering above a river.
We saw that from the saddle too; for a tiny fee you can put your bike on a Salta-bound bus and get off after 50km. You cycle to town past a series of stunning rock formations - just be sure to take plenty of water and try to avoid the headwinds that flare up in the afternoon. That's a lot harder than cruising back from a winery under the watchful eye of a policeman.
If you go:
Mix a trip to wine country with a visit to one of Argentina's other world-class destinations:
Iguacu Falls, in the far northeast, is a phenomenal complex of cascades on the Rio Iguazu which divides Argentina and Brazil. You can, and should, visit both sides. Each has a walkway taking you closer to the churning water than you might feel is safe. From the Brazilian side, you see the falls from halfway up, from the Argentinian side, you see them from above. You can also take boat trips and jungle tours.
Buenos Aires is not to be missed. It's vast but still a great city for walking and is generally very safe. The ornate tombs of Recoleta Cemetery, the redeveloped waterfront area and the parks of Palermo are among the many sights worth seeing. And if you're a football fan, make sure you go in-season. Boca Juniors and River Plate are the biggest clubs, and South American fans really know how to back their side. Don't forget to sample Argentina's famous beef. I'm getting hungry just thinking about the steak at El Desnivel in San Telmo.
Cycle: Explore Mendoza's wine country with a bike from Mr Hugo; www.mrhugobikes.com Hireage costs less than a decent bottle of wine.
Chill out: In Cafayate at the Rusty K hostel. Run by some of the nicest people in South America, the cute en suite rooms open on to a suntrap of a terrace for an end-of-day relax.
Currency: Argentinian pesos - about three to $1.
Time zone: Currently 15 hours behind New Zealand.
Language: Spanish and Quechuan, an indigenous dialect.
Recommended: 11 hours and 30 minutes to Santiago de Chile and 55-minute connecting flight to Mendoza.