Saturday 13 April 2013

The best bed in Mendoza

Finding the best place to lay your head each night can become something of an obsession for the backpacker.  For me, “best” doesn't equal luxury – give me quirky any day: a musty cave in Turkey, a tree house in Laos, or a hostel in Damascus accessed up a dodgy rope ladder over the old city walls. 

Pre-internet, it was all about stumbling on these places, or meeting other travellers who recommended them. Now word-of-mouth has moved online, and while the research junkies of this world can spend hours comparing reviews (I can’t help it….), it’s now easier for the best places to stand out.

Hostel Lao was top-rated in Argentina’s wine capital Mendoza. A converted house, it didn’t have any of the wacky features that usually attract me – but this was one of those places where you wake up and ask “can we stay another night?” It did what many hostels can’t muster: it made you feel at home in a foreign country.

Reason one? Common areas. I’ve travelled a lot on my own, and this is the first thing I look for. It should be illegal to have a hostel without good places to talk to other tourists. Hostel Lao had a comfy lounge like a student flat, a grassy backyard, and the crowning glory: a pool. It was the type of place where people looked up and smiled, and each new entrant was embraced into any activity (including an inventive and very competitive game of pool volleyball using a tennis ball and some string.)

It also had owners who genuinely wanted to share their city with you. Hostel Lao was run by a Brit called Mike and his Argentinian wife Celeste. Mike was smitten with Mendoza – not just with Celeste – but with the region’s fine wines, and was keen we drunk only the best.  We’d heard good things about Hugo’s bike tours round the vineyards (Dan’s brother and his fiance may even have named their son after him) but Mike was mortified.  “Don’t do it,” he said. “You’ll rock up looking like the backpackers you are and they’ll feed you all their shit wine.” Instead, he teamed us up with a German couple and drove us round on a personal tour of his favourite wineries: which quickly descended into hazy hilarity.

Many Argentinian hostels have asado nights, where enormous slabs of meat are BBQ’d and shared, washed down with vats of (cheap) red wine. It’s a fantastic way to get to know other travellers, and at Hostel Lao we were lucky to stumble on a bunch kindred spirits, from the UK, Norway, Germany, Canada and the States. The annual wine festival on – and each night we’d head out en masse to sample wine, and dance. (I think the boys might have taken out this dance off….)


And we did go cycling – but Mike sent us off on an alternative route, where down an unmarked drive we found an old man with the best Malbec in Mendoza, Carmelo Patti, who told us his life story, fed us samples of his exquisite drop, and sent us on our way with no charge. We wiled away the afternoon chatting in the gardens of Alta Vista, and topped off the day with flaming schnapps shots.

There aren’t many days on a trip where I’m happy to abandon sightseeing and not leave the hostel. But with a large hangover, takeaway empanadas, and new friends, we spent our last day in Mendoza hanging poolside. The best bit? As we caught the bus north that night, we had half the hostel in tow.

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