We arrived in San Rafael on the 27th at 4:30am to completely dead quiet streets. The 13-hour trip from Bariloche took us through cool mountains, hot dusty flatlands and into the hot desert of Mendoza province. We booked into Hotel Rex and slept for a few hours. When we awoke, we stepped out and into a pile of bicycles. Literally hundreds of them, parked everywhere, rolling to and fro on the streets, sidewalks, alleys and hallways. San Rafael has the most cyclists in Argentina, and that is abundantly clear in the morning hours before siesta. The bikes are mostly single-speed "beach cruisers" and almost all have canastas (baskets). There are no helmets, no bike-specific bits of clothing - the only piece of gear the locals use is a single clothes pin to clip back the trousers. And they all ride in style - from old men to women with two or more children with them, young boys with their girlfriends on the front handlebars and workers loaded down with wood and tools on their way back from the job. When there are more people than bikes, things get interesting.
Here is a breakdown of some of the many unique riding positions we´ve witnessed (and photographed):
- The Forward Seated Front Bar: mostly teenagers with their friends riding no hands or feet on the front bars. Often checking phone messages, smoking or chatting with the rider next to them - anything but paying attention to the road
- The Backward Seated Front Bar: usually reserved for smaller kids and their parent so the kid can look at mom or dad
- The Forward Seated Rear Rack: again, no hands or feet and usually preoccupied with other bits of life when getting a ride
- The Side Saddle: ladies, young and old, prefer this method when getting a lift from a man, often in combination with a Forward Seated Rear Rack
- The Standing Frame: A smaller child will often stand on the middle of the frame in front of their parent, holding onto shoulders and getting a good view of the road
- The Rear Rack Stand & Lean: Another child´s position, this time the youngster stands on the rear rack, faces forwards and leans onto the adult riding
- The Comfy Girlfriend: We´ve only seen this once, but it worked very well in late afternoon traffic. The girl sits on the seat, legs up and over the front bars. She is steering. The boy sits on the rear rack and does the pedalling. A true testiment to love (or maybe that´s faith?)
Of course, there are multiple combinations of all of these and sometimes you have four people on one bike, all looking comfy and sharing the duties of riding. This town is nuts for biking and it makes for some great people watching from café patios.
Bodegas on Bikes
So, we had to get some bikes ourselves. But we chose to get one each to buck the trend. Two old cruisers to take us out of town and into wine country. We hit the paved bike path under shade of the magestic sycamores and pedalled West to a number of Bodegas (wineries) for some tours and tastes.
The first one we hit was Suter, an older bodega started by a Swiss couple in 1897. We were the only ones on the tour and it was in Spanish so it was interesting. We got some of it, but since we had already been to some tours in the Okanagan, we were able to understand the processes. This place had an amazing underground brick tunnel and some wines in the cellar from 1924 and earlier. At the end we tried the "FritzWine" which was ok, but I think they held off on the Malbec due to our language barrier.
We then stopped at Fincas Andias, but they had no tours so we just admired the vines and moved on.
About 6km down the road we went to Champantera Valentin Bianchi, world famous makers of delicious Extra Brut Champagne. Again, this tour was en Español so we sat waiting for the start and were treated to a full glass of Malbec (pretty good) and a tall flute of their signature champagne (delicious!). I think they felt bad about us not getting an English tour so the extra wine was a bonus no one else got. The tour was great, very modern facilty producing thousands of litres, and at the end...more champagne! We stepped back out into the 30-degree sun and suddenly felt pretty good...
Next stop was Finca y Bodega La Abeja, the oldest bodega in the region, founded in 1883 by Rodolfo Iselín who also founded the town of San Rafael to bring the railway to his winery. Since then, dozens of bodegas have popped up and many are very well-respected in wine circles. This tour was done, for the first time, in English by Carla who, although only 17, knows a lot about wine. We were told more about the history of the area and the old-style of winemaking with wooden barrels, water-towers and shrines to honour the matron of the vines. We tasted some Malbec and bought a bottle, it was so good. This was our favourite stop.
So, four bodegas, three tours, five glasses of vino tinto & champagne and a leisurely cruise back into town just in time for the end of siesta and an exciting start to the night. San Rafael has been good to us, and we´ve stayed longer than we thought.