Mendoza is a miracle of human effort. It is in the midst of the desert and the effort of man, starting with the Incas and Huarpes Indians who constructed the main irrigation channel (Cacique Guaymallen), converted this desert into a huge oasis. This channel existed in 1563, and probably even before that. The Incas, who had already arrived here, taught the Huarpes Indians their agricultural secrets, and this is why, from Lake Potrerillos, I was able to see cultivation terraces in the mountain. Maybe they were not many, but there they were.
Mendoza has one of the lowest rainfalls in all of Argentina, but irrigation has converted this land into a paradise. Practically all streets have their irrigation ditches and the trees are very tall, mostly eucalyptus.
The population of Metropolitan Mendoza—Mendoza city, Godoy Cruz, Guaymallen and Las Heras—is nearly one million inhabitants, and at least one third of the population is of Chilean extraction, but the downtown is near the beautiful park General San Martin, at a walking distance, maybe about one mile away.
The park is beautiful. It has its artificial lake with a rowing club and a floating cafeteria, a rose garden, the Amphitheater where the Annual Vintage Festival is held (Fiesta de la Vendimia) that is probably the most attractive celebration in all Argentina. Up on the hill, there is a monument to the Army of the Andes, that contributed to the liberation of Chile. Chileans will say they did it themselves with O-Higgins, and Argentinians will say that Argentina liberated Chile and Peru, but I believe it was a joint effort, although I am no historian. Inside the park, you will also see a beautiful zoological garden. I was living in Mendoza at that time, but had not gone yet, and had a good laugh when we visited it with my elder brother. His four-year-old boy pointed all enthused at a chimpanzee, and started yelling "Daddy, Daddy!" I said, "It seems as if he has recognized you."
The lake faces the Rowing Club and the other side the rose garden. You can see the foothills from the park, and the whole area is really beautiful.
A walk along the pedestrian street is enjoyable. There are not as many shops as you would expect to see in the downtown, because there are also shopping centers. The Palmares shopping center in Chacras de Coria, a high-class residential area, really deserves a visit. You can go in a taxi or on the local bus service. Since I was short of time when I went to Mendoza last year, I hired a taxi and, paying $15 to $18, visited the San Martin park all around, the Chacras de Coria residential area, and a vineyard at La Carrodilla, where there is also an historical church. I did the whole trip in about three hours. There are also local bus services inside the park, although their rate is higher than the public transportation system, but the ticket is valid for getting off the bus and on again as many times as you wish. They run about every half hour.
You can take the local buses up to the Potrerillos Dam and lake (25 miles away, where you can fish rainbow trout). I imagine that the best spot must be where the Mendoza river runs into the lake. This point is changing constantly, because the lake has not yet reached its maximum elevation. It will take another ten years until it is completely full. The project for the construction of this dam, for flood control, regulating the volume of the river, irrigation, and recreational activities, had existed for a long time. The last government made a survey, and found out that if they constructed the dam they would win the elections, and there it is, a beautiful lake for all to enjoy with the added value of probably more power generation.
The local buses to Uspallata, 65 miles away, offer you the possibility of visiting this charming village at an altitude of 7,000 feet in another green irrigated valley with views towards the mountainside. The buses go all the way to Chile, passing in front of the Aconcagua, but also give you the opportunity of visiting the Penitentes ski center and chairlift.
If you go in the winter and can afford the expense, for $30 to $35 you can take a taxi to the Vallecitos ski center. As far as I know, there is no local bus service there—the earth road starts at Potrerillos towards the left—but it could be that, during the ski season, there could be a local bus line. If not, a taxi would be the only option. I visited both Potrerillos and Vallecito on a taxi for $30. Well, we were unable to go all the way because the road was blocked by the snow, but I really enjoyed that outing.
Local buses take you to Tunuyan and Tupungato, two other beautiful valleys where you will see vineyards, and apple and peach plantations, with the Andes in the background. Tunuyan is holding anually a folklore festival called Festival de la Tonada, that is gathering multitudes of people.
These are some of the things you can do in Mendoza without buying a tour. There must be many more, but these will give you at least an idea.
Welcome to Mendoza, the home of the Vintage Festival.