Named for colonial Chilean Governor García Hurtado de Mendoza, the city dates from 1561. Its early history was one of isolation—for much of the year, Andean snows made travel to Santiago, Chile impossible, and even under the best conditions it was time-consuming. The early 17th-century Spanish chronicler Vásquez de Espinosa reported only 40 Spaniards and 1,500 Indians under a Mendoza-based corregidor (magistrate) and various missionary orders. In the late 18th century, though, it came under the administration of the Buenos Aires–based Virreinato del Río de la Plata (Viceroyalty of the River Plate) through the Intendencia de Córdoba.
Peripheral throughout colonial times, Mendoza became central when General José de San Martín trained his Ejército de los Andes (Army of the Andes) here before crossing the cordillera to liberate Chile from Spain. After independence, though, it struggled (Darwin unfavorably contrasted its “stupid, forlorn aspect” with the Chilean capital of Santiago), but the railroad’s arrival linked the burgeoning wine industry to Buenos Aires.
As the city has grown and earthquakes have forced reconstruction, the city center shifted from the colonial Ciudad Vieja (Old City) at the north end of Parque O’Higgins to contemporary Plaza Independencia in 1861. Earthquakes are a constant, most recently in 1968, 1985, and 1997, but they’ve only stalled rather than stopped Mendoza’s growth.
Wine has also remained a constant—Mendoza and vicinity account for more than three-quarters of the country’s production—but nearby petroleum reserves have also encouraged industrial development. Meanwhile, tourism has taken off because of wine, access to the Andes, and most recently, proximity to Chile, as bargain-seekers from across the Andes have flocked here since the 2002 devaluation.
© Wayne Bernhardson from Moon Argentina, 3rd edition