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Mountain Biking and Tea in the Andes

 

 

 

The approaching valley is combed with vineyards stretching deep green and purple towards the horizon. Behind me a bleeding sun tints the snow-capped peak of Mt. Aconcagua, its warmth belying the gelid wind that has been with us all day. Save for sudden gusts that stir the thick arrangements of wild lavender, there is complete silence. Below, the foothill city of Mendoza glows in the growing dark. After an adventure-packed day of mountain biking and white water rafting, the city looks diminutive and deserted.

 

 

Pulling away from the view, I head back towards the rest of the cycling party, which has congregated on the last plateau overlooking our final descent. Awaiting us at the bottom is a much-anticipated calabash of mate (pronounced maté), an Argentinean herbal tea drink, forest green in colour, thick, sweet, and most importantly warm. Pressed forward by the thought of something warm in our stomachs, we imitate Gabriel, our fearless guide, and push our front wheels over the edge and begin our descent.

 

 

The Andes rise in the distance, stunning and coarse, growing higher as we thump down the pitted terrain. From the west, the last remnants of sun streak through the serrated peaks, casting a kaleidoscope-vision of color and light on the unfolding landscape. A cold wind nips at my nose and ears, stinging my eyes and blurring my vision. Through frozen tears, I make out a hut next to the lonely dirt road. Sticking out like a sore thumb is the minibus, our chariot to Mendoza. A row of now-abandoned bicycles lean against the whitewash stone-walled hut; their riders eagerly tossed them aside as they strode towards the hut’s light and the promise of a warm drink.

 

 

By the look on his face, I could tell that Gabriel had been waiting a while: he must have downed a few liters of mate before I arrived. Cautiously I sip the murky brew through the ornate silver straw, not wanting to burn my mouth. The drink has a potent taste, like a cross between green tea and coffee, infused with flavors of tobacco and oak. Despite its foreign taste, it is pleasantly sweet and offers welcome warmth. A wry smile spreads across Gabriel’s face as he watches us sample this foreign substance—a benchmark of Argentinean culture. Nodding towards his cup he says flatly, “mate dulce.” Sweet Mate. I learned later that this is the preference in the Mendoza Province.

 

 

I sip and chew my way to the end, trying to immitate the plump bus driver drinking on a stool in the corner. Feeling full and warm, I return the pot to Gabriel with a nod and a sincere gracias. As others continue sipping, we pass around anecdotes from the day, recollecting the frenzied paddling through the white water rapids and recalling the rugged and remote landscape through which we rode. When the driver finishes he beckons us to the bus and we head back to Mendoza and our varying standards of accommodation; although tonight, hostel and hotel dwellers alike are guaranteed a deep and unbroken sleep.



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