Eduardo Di Baia  /  AP file
A rainbow forms at Iguazu Falls in northeast Argentina.
By Travel columnist
updated 9/27/2006 1:20:48 PM ET 2006-09-27T17:20:48

For almost 10 years now, I have been preaching the Gospel of Contrarian Travel: Buy direct, travel off peak, follow the dollar, build loyalty, look for bargains, expect to be treated well. The strategy has paid off, some times better than others. Recently I found myself in South America, hoping to luxuriate in a good hotel, command some pampered attention, eat well, play hard and drink some excellent wine. Finding a place that offered all these things in one location would be a gift. Finding them at discount prices would be my contrarian dream.

I found such a place in the city of Mendoza, Argentina. I first learned of Mendoza two years ago, when I began making regular trips to Buenos Aires. During each visit, the locals would sing Mendoza’s praises and urge me to visit there. Though it is the fourth-largest city in Argentina and has long been a favorite of those “in the know,” Mendoza is still relatively undiscovered by U.S. travelers — which means low prices, good service and a whole lot of fun for those who take a chance on it. But my fellow contrarian travelers need to move fast, as Mendoza and its surrounding province (also called Mendoza) are becoming more popular with both wine aficionados and nature lovers.

Mendoza is located in northwest Argentina at the foot of the Andes near the Chilean border. The town is lively and more stylish than other provincial cities, so it makes a great base for exploring the region, which is famous for its wine. Argentina’s wines have come to the world stage only recently, but are quickly growing in popularity, and most of the vineyards and the winemaking industry are located nearby. Mendoza is also a major destination for outdoor sports enthusiasts who appreciate beautiful surroundings.

Mendoza is easily reached from Buenos Aires (a two-hour plane trip) or from Santiago, Chile (a short half-hour flight). I chose the Santiago route because it was unexpectedly cheaper for me from the United States and because it offered an easy connection to Mendoza’s airport. The flight from Santiago also flies over the Andes, so from a window seat you get a view of one of the world’s most magnificent mountain ranges. Just be sure to declare yourself as a transient passenger when you arrive in Santiago, otherwise you’ll be socked with Chile’s $100 entry fee.

I was met at the Mendoza airport by my charming driver Guillermo, who had been dispatched from my hotel, The Park Hyatt Mendoza. The driver, who spoke perfect English, gave me a brief history of this beautiful city before taking me to the main plaza, where the hotel is conveniently located. The hotel has a beautifully restored 19th-century Spanish Colonial facade, a lobby with granite columns and carved-timber detailing, and a landscaped courtyard graced with palm trees and fountains. The 186 guest rooms and suites each provides a stylish and comfortable environment worthy of the hotel’s five-star amenities (a spa, gym and swimming pool, of course, but also a wine library and a bistro that serves freshly prepared dishes equal to any bistro fare in Paris). The hotel and adjacent park have the look and feel of a Park Avenue luxury hotel, but the rooms ring up at about a third the cost.

The hotel arranged a number of activities for me. I usually avoid hotel-arranged tours because the prices tend to be higher than those you would pay on your own. But not in Mendoza — or at least not through this hotel.

On my first day, the hotel arranged a tour of Mendoza’s famed wineries, an outing that would please the most discriminating wine enthusiast. The tour, which included a driver for the day, a nice air-conditioned car and private tours of the wineries, cost about $80 — and that included lunch for two. It was worth it just to see the famed Catena Zapata Winery. Designed as a replica of a Mayan pyramid, it is one of the most striking wineries in the world.

The next day was more adventurous, with a lineup of activities that included horseback riding and white-water rafting. The horseback ride took me through an awe-inspiring landscape of foothills, desert and freshwater creeks — all set against the backdrop of the magnificent Andes. After a two-hour ride through the pure, clean Andean air, I headed to Aires de Montaña, a neat little resort settled on the banks of the Mendoza River, where I enjoyed a remarkably soothing one-hour massage for $20. The resort is the ideal place to unplug and enjoy the beauty of nature; it even offers a “relaxation room” along the river. A nice restaurant overlooks the river as well.

After the spa, I headed out to raft the great Mendoza River from a launch point in the town of Potrerillos. Argentina Rafting Expediciones offers wonderful excursions year round; in February, the high volume of water and exciting rapids made for a Class IV rafting experience. My trip included five other rafters, a guide and lots of white-water fun — all for less than $20. At the conclusion of the ride, you can purchase a picture CD of your experience, set to music, for about $10 more.

By the end of the day I was tired, but other outdoor sports enthusiasts may want to hike one of the many excellent hiking trails outside Mendoza; there are also many opportunities for mountain biking and climbing. During South America’s winter (i.e., May through September), visitors can take in some great downhill skiing at Las Leñas Ski Resort, on the slopes of one of the highest mountains in Argentina.

Granted, the nightlife in Mendoza doesn’t have the pulse of Paris, but the city’s fine restaurants are world-class. The Park Hyatt Mendoza itself has a pleasant casino with low minimums bets and friendly dealers.

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If you have time, you can make a nice side trip from Mendoza to Buenos Aires. A new addition to that endlessly fascinating South American city is the Palacio Duhau - Park Hyatt Buenos Aires. Located on the famous Avenida Alvear, the hotel is situated right in the middle of the city’s most fashionable residential and shopping district. I had an opportunity to take an advance tour of the hotel and found a refurbished palace that manages to be lavishly luxurious yet understated at the same time. All I can say is, “Wow. When can I check in?” (The answer to that question is as yet unknown, so check with Hyatt Hotels for the opening dates.)

It’s little wonder this varied and beautiful region of South America is experiencing an upsurge in interest from travelers searching for an affordable alternative to the overexposed — and overpriced — vacation destinations of Europe, Mexico, Canada and Central America.

If you are looking for fun and relaxation in Paradise, look no farther then Mendoza. For an extra thrill, throw in Buenos Aires and you’ll have a world-class vacation at a fraction of the cost.

Joel Widzer is an expert on loyalty and frequent flier programs. He is the author of "The Penny Pincher's Passport to Luxury Travel," a guidebook on traveling in high style at budget-friendly prices. E-mail him or visit his Web site. Want to sound off about one of his columns? Try visiting Widzer's forum.

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