Wow. Where do I start? We came to San Rafael on a volunteer work experience to help out on a finca that grows peaches, plums, and Malbec and Shiraz grapes. San Rafael is like one of those small towns in America, where everyone knows everyone else, and doesn’t get a lot of tourists coming through (compared to Mendoza city or Salta). We got a 14 hour over night bus from Buenos Aires to here, and it was like entering a different world! While Buenos Aires is crazy and heaving with people, San Rafael is rural, tranquil, and laid back. We stayed here for 5 weeks and were completely charmed by this area.
Our work exchange program
This was my second work exchange program, Tom’s first, and we completely lucked out with our choice of staying here. The first two weeks were helping around the beautiful farm and house, and the remaining three weeks were for looking after the 3 most adorable and spirited dogs, and one sassy cat. Our hosts were; warm, energetic, friendly, wonderful, generous, hilarious – every positive word you can think of – and I’m going to use every future birthday candle wish hoping our life paths cross again.
I love work exchange programs, as they allow you to have a cultural exchange as well – I could spend the entire article telling about 400 entertaining stories of our 5 weeks there, but I digress. We purposefully chose a work program centred around fruit cultivation, as I am a major foodie and totally relished learning where a lot of famous Argentinian red wines start their journey.
Where we stayed
San Martin Hotel and Spa – Av. Gral. José de San Martín 435, M5600 San Rafael
After we left our lovely hosts (heartbreak!), we had two days left in the centre of San Rafael before our bus to Salta. We checked into San Martin Hotel and liked it so much, booked another night straight away. Our room was spacious, with an enormous white bed, flat screen tv and a large balcony (which was a nice surprise as it wasn’t stated in the booking!). We used the hotel’s laundry service, and our clothes came back quickly, clean and smelling fresh. The staff were also beyond helpful, printing documents for us and making phone calls for us. The hotel staff gave Tom and I free passes to the indoor and outdoor pool, which was a nice touch!
I booked myself in for two treatments at the spa, one was a Swedish massage followed by a hot stone massage, and the second was a Wine Bath. If you’re currently tilting your head at the screen wondering what the hell a wine bath is, fear not reader, I experienced it to give you all the details! I was lead into a big private room with a large bathtub full of dark red liquid, the smell in the air was almost overpoweringly of red wine. I imagine it’s not an actual full tub of red wine, but more like a bath-bomb or bath salts situation. Either way, as I climbed into the wine, the spa assistant explained to me how to move the bath pillow for maximum comfort. I was then left alone for an hour (I was able to leave at any time) to enjoy a soak, and secretly wonder the actual health benefits of lying in a bathtub of wine. I actually really enjoyed the experience, I wouldn’t do it again… but it was fun to try out!
What we did
Bodegas – all over San Rafael (there are bodega maps available!)
This really was the highlight of this town! Being able to drive around and sample wines from different bodegas, participate in tours and tastings was simply luxurious. We visited three main bodegas, the first being La Abeja – probably the easiest to get to as it is situated at the end of the main street. It offers tours in English and Spanish, and claims to be the oldest bodega in San Rafael with an extensive history. Here we tried 4 different wines, samples were a little on the small side, as we went with a tour group.
The second bodega we visited our hosts took us as a treat on our day off, called Goyenechea. Truly beautiful landscape and buildings, we were the only people visiting the bodega and while we weren’t given a tour, we all sampled large glasses of 5 different wines, and the staff talked us through the flavourings, barrels and history.
The third bodega was my favourite, and we ended up visiting three times. This time I drove me and Tom over for a private tour, as it was a 10-15 minute drive from our finca. Here we met the owner, Rúben, who happily gave us a spontaneous, extensive tour of his bodega and explained in great detail how different wines are made. After the tour, we sampled 6 of his stunning wines (and I found my favourite wine ever, (Argana Cabernet Sauvignon if anyone’s buying) including a bottle that was a blend of wines and a ‘cosecha tardia’ which is made from grapes harvested later in the year and tasted exactly like a tawny port. We ended up buying 7 bottles from this bodega, including 2 cosecha tardia’s.
Salto de la Rosas – San Rafael, Mendoza Province
This is a little area outside San Rafael centre that shouldn’t be looked over. On Sundays they hold Bolivian markets that sell all sorts, such as clothes, every type of football t-shirt, spices, fruits, churros and street food. The first time we came, we ate a ‘Bomba de Papa’ which was a ball of mashed potato with a meaty filling (similar to a shepherds pie filling) that had been deep fried (wow!). We also managed to locate cumin and aji peppers, as we had sorely been missing some flavour and spices, and we unable to get them in supermarkets. Argentinians do not like spice, and as we were paying for the chilli’s as local tapped me on the shoulder and informed me the chilli’s were very hot and I shouldn’t buy them! And in my best Spanish I explained, we love spice! 🙂
Furthermore, I ended up having the best massage of my life in Salto de la Rosas. I injured my back on the finca and couldn’t get out of bed for two days! It just so happened that our neighbour who lived 2km away was a nurse who could speak English, and she recommended the lovely Vera to me, and her husband drove me to her house. Vera has studied massage for a long time, was able to the route of my back pain instantly and melt away what felt like 4 years of tension. On a serious note, if anyone is heading that way and is in need of a totally life curing massage, drop me a message and I’ll send over her details!
What we ate –
This is a hard one for this article, because the majority of our meals were cooked on the finca; we had a LOT of asados cooked in a fire pit using all different types of meat, and a LOT of farm fresh vegetables.
La Delicia del Boulevard – Av. Hipólito Yrigoyen 1594, M5600 San Rafael
We visited this restaurant about 3 or 4 times a week while we stayed in San Rafael, it was a favourite of our hosts, so it became a favourite of ours too. The menu is more extensive that any other menus I saw in San Rafael, and offers more American style breakfasts. They also make hundreds of chocolates, truffles and cakes on site, as well as gorgeous ice creams of various flavours. Staff are friendly and quickly started recognising us as ‘The Chico’s’ as we attended so much. Comfortable seating, plugs and fast Wi-Fi too, a lot of my early blogging articles were written and uploaded at La Delicia.
La Máquina – 18 Avenida Bernardino Rivadavia, M5600 San Rafael
Right around the corner from our hotel, this restaurant struck me as rather modern for San Rafael. We invited one of our hosts here as a farewell dinner, and we had the chicken Caesar salad, Carne de cordero and Matambre, a large bottle of Alma Mora red wine, and 2 tiramisu desserts. Very tasty.
La Esquina – Nicolás Avellaneda 98, M5600 San Rafael
This little cafe appears to just be a corner shop, however venturing inside it is a little cafe with plugs and, according to our host, internet so fast you can download films! Inside here, Tom and I discovered a food called Super Pancho’s, which are large hot dogs with sauce and CRISPS on top. These treats fast became Tom’s favourite food here. La Esquina is situated directly across the road from San Rafael bus terminal, so its perfect for grabbing a bus snack!
Side note! Centre of San Rafael also features a lot of beautiful old cars, and I fell in love with some of them:
San Rafael was so freaking fun. I find it hard to stay in a place for 2 weeks, let alone 5, but the people here are absolutely inspiring in their generosity and open nature, and the landscape was so idyllic – I feel like I was in some kind of dream for the entire 5 weeks. The finca we stayed on had no Wi-Fi and I thought I was going to struggle massively, but a break from the drama of social media was so needed, and two weeks in I didn’t even miss it.
Looking back on it now, the whole experience was completely healthy; from eating solely organic and fresh food, to having regular exercise 3 times a day, making art, two wonderful, supportive hosts, and no social media to worry about… it reminded me of those health retreats that people pay thousands for – and we got it for free. It was also the best learning experience I have had learning Spanish first hand, and really observed my Spanish skills take off in leaps and bounds, from semi articulate to now having full blown conversations. The whole experience totally set me up ready to tackle the rest of South America.
Upcoming post – Surviving Long Haul Buses: Argentina