San Rafael (650 m, 2132 ft) continues to be known among Mendocinos as a small town, but it has seen rapid growth in recent years. Today, more than 140 000 people call the city home, easily doubling the 1980 census. Despite the increase in size, the town maintains its small-town atmosphere and crime remains nearly non-existent.
San Rafael was founded at the confluence of the Rio Atuel and Rio Diamente in 1805. Although Villa 25 de Mayo became the departmentâ€™s capital in 1810, it was reverted back to San Rafael shortly after when its rapid development became obvious. Villa 25 de Mayo, located only 25 km north, remains a historical landmark for its wealth of Swiss, Italian and French colonies, but San Rafael is the undisputed economical center.
The diverse economy is run by national tourism and wine exports. In fact, Bodega Bianchiâ€™s New Age label is the number one Argentinean wine in the USA in terms of profit and sales. Many other wineries, all of which give free tours and tastings, compete on a similar level. Bodega Sutter, for instance, is world-renown for its extensive champagne cellar.
Large hydroelectric dams, run by the Edemsa Electric Company, have played a double role in the area, as well. The importance of electricity for the entire province and for the Argentinean power-grid is obvious, but the series of reservoirs has spawned the tourism market. El Nihuil, Los Reyunos and El Tigre all offer vast lakeside developments that give visitors the ability to sail, water-ski, and fish among a variety of other activities.
El Sosneado, located nearly 142 kilometers west, houses an amazing set of hot springs amid the same mountains where the ill-fated Uruguayan rugby team crashed in the Andes and lived the epic survival tale known as Alive. Back in town, a handful of parks and plazas are spaced out among a growing business center.
Hotels and apartment rentals are abundant, but Solar Maiten seems to offer the perfect blend of both in a relaxing setting on the edge of town. Food lovers may be disappointed, as Cocina del Autor provides the only alternative to standard parrilla, pizza and pasta restaurants that are found through both San Rafael and all of Argentina.