Saturday, June 25, 2016

Buenos Aires Is Not A Zoo, Literally...

Whenever I’m in Buenos Aires, I always pass by the Jardín Zoológico Eduardo Ladislao Holmberg, the historic zoo that is almost within sight of our apartment and often on my walking routes to sights, restaurants and other attractions of our Palermo neighborhood. The zoo occupies a prime property, and has some memorable architecture – for example, the Hindu motifs of the elephant house (pictured above).
The zoo has always been popular for families with children, but things have been changing in recent years. Mainly, it’s suffered considerable criticism for the conditions in which the animals were kept – not least for the death of a polar bear in the city’s suffocating summer. Thus, there have been calls to close the zoo and, when I walked by last month, small groups of picketers left visible demands for its closure, as pictured above (in previous years, I had seen even larger groups).
Then, earlier this week, city mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta announced the facility’s definitive closure, though it will reopen later this year as a vaguely defined “ecopark” that will rehabilitate animals rescued from illegal trafficking. Some native birds will be released into the riverfront wetlands of the Reserva Ecológica Costanera Sur (pictured above); the remaining zoo specimens will be distributed among “nature reserves” elsewhere in the country, except for those too old or infirm to be moved (they will remain on the zoo grounds, but kept from public view).

In the absence of greater detail, there remain some questions – how, for instance, can large non-native species such as elephants, hippos and rhinoceri be relocated to a suitable environment elsewhere? Also, I wonder, will they necessarily remove thriving native species such as the capybara and Patagonian mara (cavy, pictured above), the latter of which roams freely through the zoo grounds? Traditional zoos may be questionable, but I’m not sure it’s completely wrong to acquaint city children with some of the wildlife of their vast countryside.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Chaitén Reborn

Almost every year, when I head to South America for the summer, I look forward to revisiting the Chilean port of Chaitén – in reality, a modest ferry terminal that connects the major port of Puerto Montt with the Carretera Austral, the southern highway that winds through an area as wild as the Alaska Panhandle.
I first saw Chaitén in 1992, while updating a guidebook, and the view of the Andes rising steeply behind the shoreline was unforgettable. At that time, the town and its surroundings had only about 3,600 inhabitants, but it would soon become one of the access points to Parque Pumalín, the audacious forest conservation project of the late environmental philanthropist Douglas Tompkins. I revisited regularly, but there was a hiatus in 2008, when a surprise eruption of the town’s namesake volcano forced its evacuation.
For a time, Chaitén was a Chilean Pompeii – the volcano did not set the town on fire, but waterlogged ash flowed down the Río Blanco to bury many of its wooden houses under two meters or more of cement-hard debris. The Chilean government tried to move the settlement north, to a more protected area but, while visiting Futaleufú a year later, I drove to Chaitén for the day and found, to my surprise, that a quite a few residents had decided to return. The mountain was still smoking, and many houses and vehicles barely showed beneath the ash, but several residents had cleaned up their properties – including a couple waterfront hotels – and forced the government to provide tanks of potable water.

I’ve had my doubts about Chaitén – and probably wouldn’t invest in local real estate – but seven years later I’m impressed by the effort to rebuild. Last January, I saw a new regional airport, new ferry installations, a new park and playground along the river, and private initiatives including a sparkling new hostel, restaurants, and even an appealing food truck (not so long ago, its espresso would have been unthinkable here). There’s a trail to the top of the volcano now and, while Chaitén is no luxury destination, it’s a rewarding one. I look forward to returning again in November.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Argentina's ATM Annoyances - Not Going Away Soon?

Eight years ago I deplored the fact that, when I used a Citibank ATM in downtown Buenos Aires, I had to pay an additional service charge because, according to the video screen, it was “not a Citibank ATM.” In the interim, of course, Argentine ATM usage became even more complicated because currency controls fostered a labyrinthine system of multiple exchange rates in which, at times, the official rate – offered by ATMs – was at least third less than what you could get on the informal “blue dollar” market. The downside with the blue dollar, though, was the need to carry substantial amounts of cash.
Things changed considerably last December, when Mauricio Macri replaced Cristina Fernández de Kirchner as Argentina’s president and, almost immediately, unified the exchange rate system. This was a significant step but, as I noticed when I used an ATM at El Calafate in January, it wasn’t the last word on the subject. I could only withdraw 1000 pesos, about US$70, with a service charge of US$6 – more than eight percent.
I’ve spent most of the last two months in Buenos Aires where, just in case, I brought plenty of cash dollars with me – and I’m glad I did. As it happens, there remains a small differential between the official dollar and a blue dollar that hasn’t quite disappeared – down the block from our Palermo apartment, the Pago Fácil office where many of our neighbors pay their monthly bills is also a de facto cueva, an informal exchange house where I could readily swap my US cash for pesos.
In the interest of research, though, I finally decided to experiment with the ATMs again, and what I learned was not encouraging. First, I went to a Citibank ATM and, after entering my PIN and requesting 2000 pesos, the machine told me my Citibank card was not valid there – rather worse than having to pay an excessive service charge (as depicted above). Later, at Banco BBVA, the machine told me that I could could not withdraw that same amount because it exceeded my daily limit – even though, only the week before, I had withdrawn US$300 from an ATM in Uruguay (with a two percent service charge).
Those attempts were on a Sunday, but the next business day I asked at Banco Supervielle – two doors away from our apartment – about the limits for foreign ATM card withdrawals, and they told me that depended on my own bank. Their Argentine customers, though, could withdraw up to 10,000 pesos (more than US$700) per day. About to fly back home, though, I didn’t really want any more Argentine money (which, generally, is not a currency you want to hold).

What’s my final assessment, then? For the time being, at least, it still makes sense to carry US cash and change it when convenient. At banks and formal exchange houses, which are easy to find, you’ll get the slightly less advantageous official rate but, of course, cash entails the risk of loss or theft. Personally I’m comfortable with that, but not every visitor may feel the same.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Whitewater and Wineries? The "Fu" Has Both

In northern Chilean Patagonia, surrounded by mountains near the Argentine border, the scenic village of Futaleufú (pictured above) has become a world-class adventure destination – primarily because of the Class 5 wild whitewater of its namesake river (pictured below), which has led several international operators to set up operations here for weeklong (or longer) rafting and kayaking holidays. Chilean operators have followed suit, and all of them also offer day trips on the “Fu” and other nearby rivers. It’s even possible to paddle over lakes and rivers all the way to the Pacific Ocean – a genuine Patagonia expedition.
Futaleufú is a couple hours east of the Carretera AustralChile’s emblematic adventure highway – but is well worth the detour. I’ve been down the river – hiked parts of the valley and rafted the “between the bridges” segment that’s suitable for less experienced folks like myself – and always look forward to my nearly annual visits. In a thinly populated region, the town itself has a youthful vigor, and improving accommodations and food in a setting comparable to the Rockies or the Alps, but without the crowds. There’s also horseback riding and, to a lesser extent, hiking (because the surrounding mountains have, as yet, relatively few foot trails).
The area’s latest surprise, though, is the appearance of a new wine district just across the border (where the river’s headwaters are). Most of Patagonia’s wineries are farther north on the Argentine side, where warmer weather and the rain shadow effect of the Andes make the climate more suitable for vineyards. Here, though, Viñas del Nant y Fall is probably the world’s southernmost winery, though the property also provides soft fruits and preserves.
Over the past few years, I’ve made brief stopovers at Nant y Fall – which owes its name to the Welsh immigrants who arrived in Chubut province in the late 19th century – and I’ve just learned that they held their first harvest festival this year. Planted six years ago, this season’s yield from hardy Pinot Noir vines - pictured below in the early spring - will become a sparkling wine.
Sergio Rodríguez, the property’s owner, acknowledges that this is a marginal area for wine – the growing season is relatively short and unexpected frosts can be a challenge - but seems committed to the project. But, at a time when climate change is testing the limitations of traditional wine grape cultivation – you can’t transplant mature vines north or south to maintain or improve production – perhaps the area has more potential than first glances might suggest. I look forward to my next visit, probably in November, and soon enough rafters and kayakers may enjoy cross-border excursions to sample the wines.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Ice, or Ice Cream? Or Both?

Almost everyone who visits Patagonia looks forward to seeing the great glaciers of Chile’s Fuegian fjords or the massive southern icefields that culminate in Argentina’s Moreno Glacier (pictured below). There are other cool treats that await visitors, though - on their palates, in the form of ice cream (or gelato, if you prefer). Some of it is found in Patagonia itself, but it’s also popular in gateway cities like Buenos Aires.
Most but not all of those treats are from Argentina, stemming from the Italian tradition that has spread throughout the country. I’d like to recommend a sample of ice creameries and flavors, though I’ll acknowledge a personal prejudice at the beginning: I do not share the adoration for dulce de leche, made from caramelized milk (which Chileans call manjar) that all Argentines and many Chileans drool over. Personally, I find it sickly sweet and, if you choose to try it, don’t say I didn’t warn you. I will not mention it further.
For more than three decades, my personal favorite has been Cadore (pictured above) in the Congreso district of downtown Buenos Aires (one of the gateway cities for many a Patagonia itinerary). In the same family since it opened in the 1950s. it’s won awards in Italy itself. The roster of flavors may be less diverse than some more contemporary heladerías, but the quality is extraordinary. My recommendations: chocolate amargo (bittersweet chocolate) and mousse de limón (lemon mousse) are an unbeatable combination.
In northern Argentine Patagonia, at the base of the Andes, the town of El Bolsón is the cradle of Helados Jauja (pictured above), which produces many standard flavors but specializes in local fruit flavors, among them the wild calafate berry (according to legend, whoever eats the berry will come back to Patagonia for more). In recent years, this one-of-a-kind ice creamery has opened branches in Buenos Aires and elsewhere, but still produces everything at its home base. My recommendation: calafate con leche de oveja (calafate berries with sheep’s milk) and mate cocido con tres de azúcar (Argentines’ favorite infusion, roughly comparable to green tea, is also popular in parts of Chile).
Meanwhile, in the Chilean ferry port of Puerto Natales – the gateway to Torres del PaineMesita Grande (pictured above) is a pizzeria that takes its name from the single long table that its diners necessarily share. That said, it prepares its own ice cream and, when I offhandedly mentioned Jauja’s calafate flavor, Mesita’s Argentine manager went out of her way to track down berries and sheep’s milk to try to duplicate it. A couple days later, she phoned me to come try it, and the result was a promising experiment that’s not on the regular menu. Still, in its absence, here are my recommendations: chocolate and ruibarbo (rhubarb). There’s also a branch in Punta Arenas, the gateway to the glacial fjords of Tierra del Fuego (pictured below).

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