The breakfast in Hotel Argentino is not recommended. Tiny pieces of bread you drop into the depths of the toaster, then have to use metal tongs to pick them out. Watered down orange juice. Lukewarm tea. Old pieces of watermelon. Nobody down here looked like they were enjoying the experience, and I felt like I hadn’t slept properly for a week, which I hadn’t. We also found out that our bus through the Andes tomorrow was cancelled because the road was closed due to avalanche warnings. We may have to stay in Mendoza another day or so. We needed a plan for tomorrow.
A perfect opportunity then for some down-time. Alex and I decided to take a stroll on this sunny winter’s day to give our brains some oxygen through the huge San Martin park, where people were picnicking, lovers petting, people jogging, and loads of people were playing football with jumpers for goalposts. Not just the boys, there were several girls teams too, and some of them were obviously real teams, training in the park with cones and bibs. Hardly a surprise in a country where football is religion, and Maradona is God.
We strolled up and up, and came to Cerro de la Gloria (Hill of Glory). At the top is an impressive bronze monument that pays tribute to the Army of the Andes for its successful campaign of liberation, sculpted by a Uruguayan, the impressively-named Juan Manuel Ferrari. I’d love a name like that. “The name’s Ferrari. Juan. Manuel. Ferrari.” Yes, that name alone would ensure I got on the guest list at most posh parties. The Uruguayan sculptor did not leave any loose ends when creating the magnificent images that make up the monument of Cerro de la Gloria. The opening ceremony took place on February 12th at 4 pm. The time apparently crucial because it commemorates the Chacabuco Battle, one of the most important battles the Army of Andes had to go through. 4pm is the time when the army set off in its liberating campaign from El Plumerillo. Something like that.
The main stone reads: “La Patria al Ejército de los Andes” (“From our fatherland to the Army of the Andes”). Higher up is the General José Francisco de San Martín, arms crossed, looking at estancia Canota, watching how his troops are moving along the high mountains of Mendoza with a thoughtful, calm expression. The criollo horse the General is seated upon has its four hooves on the ground which means that the national hero died of old age. Alex and I walked around the monument from left to right, as this makes it easier to understand, so we were told. Images of criollo and black people can be seen with Friar Luis Beltrán. There is a man with rippling muscles and crossed arms here who it is said denotes that everything was done by manpower. Another man wiping his sweat from his forehead shows that everything has been done with effort. There are images of the patricias -high society women- from Mendoza begrudgingly donating their jewels to the Army of the Andes. On the upper frieze, the most important leaders of the campaign are named. On the other side, some crying women can be seen bidding farewell to their sons or husbands and others donating food to the army. On the upper part, there is an image of Liberty which, thanks to the Fatherland and the Army of the Andes, could fly higher than the condor. This is an amazing piece of work, and, as real condors swooped all around, I was pretty impressed.
The views from the top here were incredible. There were views of the city, the arid desert plains, and the foothills of the Andes. At one side we saw a football stadium, which was one of the stadiums used in the Copa America, and of course in the 1978 Word Cup. Local Primera Division team Club Deportivo Gudoy Cruz play here. As we walked down, Alex and I took an alternative route, and saw a small group of people wearing Gudoy Cruz football shirts, eating panchos, chanting. Alex asked one of the group what was going on. We found out that the first game of the season was taking place that night. There was no way we were going to miss that!
We hurried back now, a spring in our step. We headed to a ski shop as we wanted to do a days skiing and snowboarding the next day. We’d been around a lot of other shops before opting to go skiing. Initially we wanted the ‘Gaucho’ experience – horse-riding in the foothills of the Andes. Most companies weren’t running it the next day, which was our only window, but some were doing rafting trips. We weren’t too sure, as it was bloody freezing, and falling in an icy river didn’t sound like fun. One particular place, which doubled as a backpacker’s retreat, was run by a straggly-haired hombre who was really helpful, and refreshingly honest.
We told him of our various plans, and he shot them down, one by one. Gaucho experience: “Look, I’m not gonna lie to you guys. It’s winter. Cold. Freezing. Your whole body will go numb. You’ll want to cry. And the views you see of the Andes foothills? Too misty. And if it snows…..visibility will be nothing. Leave it a few days until it clears up.” Rafting: “Look, I’m not gonna lie to you guys. The river is a trickle. Grade III if you’re lucky. More like Grade II. It’s cold. You won’t enjoy it.” Skiing. “Look, I’m not gonna lie to you guys. There’s too much snow. It’s freezing cold. The visibility will be zero.” He managed to successfully talk us out of everything he offered. We were clearly here in the wrong season. We felt dejected. What were we going to do tomorrow?
We stopped by another ski shop, and the young fellows inside had reggaeton on full blast, and didn’t speak a word of English. Alex and I were in a hurry. We needed to get back to the hotel, shower, change, and head out to the footy game. It was a painful experience trying to arrange transport to one of the ski resorts, Penitentes. Tours to the best ski resort, Las Lenas, weren’t running the next day. We booked 2 tickets, got fitted out with ski wear (for Alex), snowboard wear (for me). Then one of the lads said that actually there was no room for us. We were in the process of getting our money back, when it was decided that actually we could now go, so we had to go through the whole payment process again. Neither Alex nor I could understand a word of what was going on. Was it my Spanish, or was it them speaking really quickly and using lots of youthful slang? Whatever it was, it made me realise that my Spanish was really crap, and I had a lot of work to do.
It was all sorted eventually, and we got a taxi to the stadium after a quick change at the hotel. Joining other fans braving the cold wind, hands in jean pockets, leaning into the wind like everyone else, I felt that growing excitement when going to a stadium to watch football. The chanting coming from inside the stadium was distant at first, then got louder and louder as we approached, and the adrenaline started flowing. We bought tickets for the stands – far more exciting than a seat. They are also the cheapest tickets, and the ones that give you a real, local experience. The last time I’d watched football in a stadium standing up was when Huddersfield Town played York City in the final game at their old stadium, before moving to new all-seater premises. I was with my Dad and all his mates, and it was a brilliant time. Alex and I now headed into the stadium. It was loud, thousands of feet stamping on the terrace above us. We came out into the stands, the home stand behind the goal. Chaos. Everybody was chanting, flying flags, spreading out those huge banners that go over hundreds of heads. The passion was intense. We picked a spot in the middle, and just joined in the fun. The game was hardly watched, the fans focused instead on singing, rallying others to sing, and, incredibly, a group of fans near us were doing lines of cocaine off the floor, using rolled up money as a hoover. Others were passing around giant spliffs. Not many people were drinking alcohol. It was anything goes. Everybody seemed to be part of this big community and nobody looked twice at Alex or I, as we were accepted too through our jumping up and down, singing, calling the referee a ‘hijo de puta!’ (son of a bitch!). Gudroy Cruz scored and everybody went absolutely mental, hugging each other, jumping up and down, and singing even more loudly. Gudroy Cruz got a man sent off. The fans insulted the referee mercilessly from this point forth. I heard the word ‘puta’ more than any other. Half time came, and a line of armed riot police escorted the referee off the field, then lined up in front of the home stand. Not what you see in England.
The second half was uneventful, and it was no surprise when the opposite team equalised. The game ended 1-1. Alex and I sprinted out with the others, and stopped to get a thick pancho from one of the many stalls set up outside the stadium. We had to be careful. Argentinians like all kinds of weird things in their panchos, like liver, kidney, heart etc. We opted for one that looked ‘normal’ and it was smothered in ketchup, mayonnaise and mustard. A mistake. My pancho was full of gristle, and I could have filled a bottle with the grease running off it. This was the only chance of a proper dinner, wasted. Never mind. I opted for an alcoholic dinner instead (I’ve been drinking far too much on this trip) at William Browns, the Irish bar. Beer for the main course. Fernet and coke for dessert. Delicious.