Retire To San Rafael, Mendoza

The Best Of Old World Living In The Americas

Tom Phelan, an American friend, traveled to Mendoza province, Argentina, five years ago to attend a conference. He intended to stay for three weeks but extended that to three months once he got a good look at the place.

Then he and his wife decided they’d like to stay on in Mendoza for good.

Tom and Yvonne aren’t alone. This part of Argentina has that effect on people. It’s estimated that 400 American families live in the area.

San Rafael, with its unique situation at the point where the ríos Diamante and Atuel emerge from the Andean foothills, is a big part of the appeal. After the neighboring desert, San Rafael is lush, with sprawling vineyards It has been observed that this town of about 170,000 residents is to Mendoza as Sonoma is to Napa, California–smaller and quieter and producing great wine.

Tom equates San Rafael to the Norman Rockwell California of 50 years ago (though it’s probably the most modern of Mendoza’s towns).

More than West Coast U.S., though, San Rafael feels like forgotten Europe. Acequias, or streetside canals, line the clean, broad sidewalks. All along them, cafés buzz with the conversation of people tomar un cafe (having a coffee). The central square is alive always with couples walking hand-in-hand and kids on bikes, their girlfriends riding on the handlebars, and the benches are full of people chatting in the shade of the sycamore trees. San Martin’s heroic Andes crossing is memorialized by a huge bronze statue here, and the classical San Rafael cathedral looms from the square’s northeastern corner.

San Rafael is a place to come to slow down and savor life. Not a fast-food restaurant anywhere in sight. The afternoon siesta, which lasts from lunch until about 4 p.m., quiets traffic and creates a calmness. The town comes alive again at dusk.

San Rafael is flat and laid out on a grid, so it’s very walkable, an easy place to find your way around. Living here, you’d never have to drive a car again. Bring your bicycle with you or rent one in town when you want to two-wheel it. The most popular ride leaves from the Bicipartes rental shop and continues parallel to Avenida Hipolito Yirigoyen. The wide bike lane here goes straight through the heart of San Rafael’s wine country, taking you past a multitude of wineries.

The oldest part of San Rafael is the ruins of the Fort San Rafael del Diamante on the banks of the Diamante River. Built in 1805 to defend the farms and villages of San Rafael from the wild raids of Indians from Mendoza and Chile, the fort was eventually destroyed by a river flood. The ruins were declared a National Monument in 1942. Once the area was safe, Italy, Switzerland, and France imported and planted their grape varieties here to take advantage of the perfect climate and soil.

As you walk along the riverbanks, you’ll understand how instrumental the Diamante and Atuel have been to the progress of the town. They irrigate and provide fertile earth. If not for this, the region would have developed very differently, without the prosperous vineyards and orchards.

Argentina produces about one-half of all the wine made annually in South America, and about three-quarters of Argentine wine comes from the Mendoza region around San Rafael.

If you’re seeking a solitary existence, you won’t find it here. Indeed, if you are alone, odds are someone will join you soon enough. Argentines value nothing so much as socializing and telling stories. In towns across the country, you find cafés and plazas filled with people chatting, debating. San Rafael is no different. Conversation is a way of life here.

Make sure your overall budget, therefore, allows for active socializing. People in this part of the world adore going out, and, should you decide to live here among them, this will become part of your lifestyle, too. The good news is that entertainment is affordable and accessible.

I’ve spent time in this part of the world, and I’m sold. This is a place where I could imagine settling in long term, certainly part-time.

If you fall for charming, laidback San Rafael, you might never need to visit Mendoza City, located 235 kilometers northwest. But, now and then, you might enjoy a trip to the big city. This one offers real cosmopolitan distractions, including a sophisticated and polite people who dress carefully and mind their manners. You could travel to Mendoza for the five-star restaurants, the shopping, the performing arts…

Mendoza is not only lively and bustling but also livable. As in San Rafael, cycling is a preferred means of transportation. Vuelta Ciclistica de Mendoza is a primary road for cyclists. And, again as in San Rafael, this city’s streets are shaded by sycamore and acacia trees, making rambling a pleasure. The whole of the city is clean and well-kept.

An earthquake devastated Mendoza in 1861, and, when the Argentines rebuilt it, they did it right. The landscaped plazas are adorned with fountains and intricate tile work, including murals that tell tales from Argentine and Spanish literature. Look, and you’ll see the story of Don Quixote.

Sixteenth-century Mendoza was isolated in its early years. It wasn’t until the arrival of the railroad that its wine industry was linked to Buenos Aires and the rest of Argentina. Wine continues to be the big draw in this part of the country, for both investors and visitors.

Kathleen Peddicord

P.S. San Rafael serves up the best Old World-style country living you’ll find in the Americas on the doorstep of the best wine routes in Argentina. This town is charming, friendly, safe, walkable… And healthy.

Thanks to the altitude, the fresh air, the year-round sunshine, and the relaxed way of life, San Rafael offers good, clean living. And Argentine wines are considered among the healthiest in the world. The reds, especially, boast the greatest antioxidant content of any wine anywhere.

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