Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Shipwrecks Along the Shore

Hundreds of Patagonia cruises pass through the ports of Punta Arenas and Ushuaia every year. Not so long ago, though, only merchant shipping and local vessels sailed the Strait of Magellan and the Beagle Channel where, today, picturesque hulks still lie along the shoreline. For the most part, they’re not along the Cape Horn cruise route between Punta Arenas and Ushuaia, but they’re easy to see on overland excursions.
The most striking site is Estancia San Gregorio, on the Strait of Magellan about 125 km north of Punta Arenas, where the faded but imposing buildings of a sheep station line both sides of a smoothly paved highway (it’s a worthwhile detour for travelers, especially photographers, bound for Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine). Along the beach, a short walk from the road, the Ambassador (pictured below) is a British clipper (launched in 1869) whose weathering wooden hull and rusting iron skeleton once hauled tea from China to England. It’s withstood more than a century of Patagonian winters and, in 1973, Chile declared it a national historical monument.

Almost alongside the Ambassador, another national historical monument also built in Britain, the Amadeo (pictured below) was a local steamer that operated from the 1890s until 1932 before being grounded here. Visitors can explore the wreckage of both vessels, but be careful when doing so – they’re not likely to collapse, but slipping and falling could have serious consequences.

At the Argentine end of the itinerary, it’s even easier to see a historic shipwreck - but not so easy to reach it. In downtown Ushuaia, offshore near the Club Naútico but not accessible on foot, the Maine-built rescue tug St. Christopher (pictured below) was originally a US Navy vessel that became the Royal Navy’s HMS Justice and may have served during the D-Day invasion of Normandy in 1944. Purchased by an Argentine company after the war, she served in salvage operations along the Beagle Channel before being scuttled in the mid-1950s.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

My Dinner with Anthony? On Bourdain in Paraguay

Last month, I got a surprise email from a CNN editor who asked whether I could write a brief listicle (I hate the word) on “ten things you didn’t know about Paraguay” to accompany an upcoming program on celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” travel series. While I knew Bourdain’s reputation, I had never seen the program but I did know something about Paraguay – I first visited in the 1980s and, while working for a publisher whose name I’d rather not mention, I traveled there extensively during the 1990s.
While Paraguay’s no longer a priority for me, I was able to expand that list from ten to 14 for CNN’s benefit. Nearly surrounded by the South American giants of Argentina and Brazil, not to mention Bolivia, Paraguay has no knockout attractions in its own right, but it can be a place where (to quote myself) “closer contact and the lack of preconceptions can lead to memorable, even intimate, experiences at underrated sites.”

Bourdain’s agenda was a bit different from mine (the video above shows the entire program). While his background is gastronomy, he was also seeking traces of his great-great-great grandfather, who immigrated to Paraguay in the 1850s. In the process, speaking with local journalists, historians and even a (fairly recent) German immigrant, he doesn’t whitewash the country’s unfortunate history of vicious dictatorships and Nazi refugees, and an economy that has long depended on contraband (though that may be changing with a soy boom).

While Bourdain is a chef, he’s no food snob, and he relishes street eats like fried empanadas (I almost always prefer baked), calorie- and cholesterol-laden lomito sandwiches, and sopa paraguaya (“Paraguayan soup” but, in reality, the local version of cornbread). He does show people eating ice cream (underrated here) and sipping mate (which Paraguayans sip cold as tereré in the withering summer heat), but he doesn’t comment on either of them.

To me, the most appealing dishes Bourdain ate were fresh river fish – the surubí (Paraná catfish) and dorado (“river tiger,” so called because it’s great sport for game fishing) - and the program shows the local fishermen on the Río Paraguay. Sad to say, he didn’t get far beyond the capital city of Asunción, but his river excursion did take him to the ruins of Nueva Burdeos, a brief French colonization experiment where his ancestor had once been. Nueva Burdeos is now Villa Hayes, named for the obscure US president who awarded the savannahs and thorn forests of the Gran Chaco to Paraguay after the country’s War of the Triple Alliance against Argentina and Brazil.

In the end, Bourdain’s local contacts manage to locate documentary evidence of his family connection, who may have imported gunpowder to support the dictatorial regime of Carlos Antonio López (whose portrait appears in the banknote above). Those contacts believe the late Bourdain relative lies in the city’s Cementerio de la Recoleta (not quite so prestigious as its Buenos Aires namesake), but poor record-keeping and subsequent construction make it impossible to locate the tomb.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

In Chatwin's Footsteps

When the wandering Englishman Bruce Chatwin headed to South America, in the early 1970s, he wasn’t on a typical Patagonia vacation, but his ensuing narrative In Patagonia (published in 1977) established the region’s contemporary credentials. Many of the places he visited – such as Butch Cassidy’s cabin in the Argentine province of Chubut - have become offbeat pilgrimage sites.
Chatwin first got interested in Patagonia on seeing the remnant of skin of what his grandmother told him was a “brontosaurus” sent to Britain by his distant cousin Charley Milward, a shipwrecked sailor who stayed in Punta Arenas and built a house there, now colloquially known as the Castillo Milward (“Milward’s Castle,” pictured above). Still standing, in prime condition, it’s barely nine blocks from the Muelle Prat (pictured below), the pier where Cape Horn cruises sail twice weekly.
Chatwin visited the house, which he described as “a Victorian parsonage translated to the Strait of Magellan,” and it’s an attention-grabber in a city with an impressive architectural heritage. It was then, and still is, a house with “high-pitched gables and gothic windows. On the street side was a square tower, and at the back an octagonal one.” Chatwin quotes the neighbors as having said that “Old Milward can’t decide if it’s a church or a castle” and, on getting a tour from its owners, he enters “a hallway of solid Anglican gloom.”

After seeing Milward’s home, Chatwin had one more goal. What his grandmother called a “brontosaurus” was in fact a mylodon, a giant ground sloth that may have existed simultaneously with the earliest humans to populate the region. In the vicinity of Puerto Natales, Chatwin hiked to a cave where he found no skin to match what he had seen in England, but he did collect a few stray hairs resembling those he’d seen attached to that skin. He’d get in serious for that trouble today, since the Cueva del Milodón is now a national park – complete with a life-size statue of the beast that once took shelter there.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Climbing Cerro Dorotea

Thirty years ago, the seaside town of Puerto Natales didn’t have a single traffic light, but it was already the gateway to Torres del Paine – even though many if not most visitors were shoestring backpackers who thumbed their way to Chile’s most famous national park. Most of them stayed in town only long enough to acquire supplies for rugged treks that often meant a week or more with limited luxuries, to say the least.
Today, with its modernized waterfront, innovative hotels and surprising sophisticated restaurants, Natales has become something of a destination in its own right – still the gateway to the park, but also the takeoff point for excursions including the day trip up Seno Última Esperanza (“Last Hope Sound”) to the Balmaceda Glacier (pictured above). That’s a full day but, even if there’s just an afternoon available before or after visiting Paine, there’s a rewarding possibility that fits in between lunch and dinner.
That’s the short but scenic climb up Cerro Dorotea, the 549-meter (1,800-foot) ridge (pictured above) that overlooks Última Esperanza just to the north of town. It’s a short taxi ride to the trailhead, where local farmer Juan de Dios Saavedra collects a token trailhead access fee and, when you return, provides afternoon tea. The footpath, on private property, climbs steeply and then more gently to panoramic views of the sound and, on a clear day, Torres del Paine in the distance.
There are forests of southern beech here, most of it secondary growth that includes some remarkable wind-flagged specimens. The wind, which often blows relentlessly, can be the most trying part of the hike – but that’s one reason why Patagonia is some memorable to so many people.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Argentina's Adolescent Peso

Throughout Latin America, the quinceañera is a rite of passage that marks a stage in the passage from girlhood to adulthood. It’s a celebration marking the onset of adolescence, at least in the social sense – 15-year-old girls are ready to date, and it’s often an elaborate (and expensive) acknowledgment of that fact by her family.
Argentina arrived at a similar sort of landmark Wednesday when, for the first time, the so-called Dólar Blue reached 15 pesos (the official dollar stands at 8.43 pesos, a breach of 78 percent). The Argentine government blames this on speculative attacks, rather than its own erratic economic policies and, even less credibly, on US Judge Thomas Griesa for the technical default on its foreign debt.

For foreign visitors, as the Southern Hemisphere’s high season approaches, this promises to make Argentina a cheaper destination but, as I’ve written before, dealing with the informal exchange system can be complex for those who don’t know their way around. It also means, as I’ve noted, carrying a walletful of banknotes to make your purchases – at the blue market rate, the 100-peso note (Argentina’s largest) is worth less than US$7.

Chile Cheaper Too?
Meanwhile, across the Andes, there’s no black market for the Chilean peso but, in recent weeks, the currency has also been declining. Since I submitted the manuscript for the upcoming fourth edition of Moon Handbooks Patagonia early this year, the rate has fallen from 550 to almost 600, so Chile is also likely to be cheaper.

Unlike in Argentina, though, there’s no sense of panic on the part of Chilean government officials, who oversee a stable economy, honor their debts, and understand the ups and downs currency markets. Nor do Chilean operators worry – much of their revenue comes in dollars, but their expenses are in pesos, so the decline actually benefits them.
Visitors from overseas, meanwhile, can conveniently use Chilean ATMs without paying a penalty to do so and, when they leave the country, they can exchange their leftover pesos with only a minor loss. I might add that BancoEstado ATMs do not collect a commission on foreign users.

In Argentina, though, it’s nearly impossible to turn your remaining pesos back into dollars or any other foreign currency, so plan wisely – try not to change more than you need - and spend whatever Argentine currency remains. Odds are that, even if you plan to return fairly soon, those Argentine pesos will be worth less (if not necessarily worthless).

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

A Farewell to Soda; Plus, Buenos Aires in California

Argentine rock musician Gustavo Cerati, founder of the power trio Soda Stereo, died last week in Buenos Aires after a four-year coma. Larry Rohter, the New York Times South America bureau chief during much of the musician’s career, wrote Cerati’s obituary for the paper. The clip below shows him on stage with Shakira in the Argentine capital.
Except for tango, and the occasional folk musician such as the late Mercedes Sosa, Argentine music has had relatively little influence beyond the South American continent. Even the major figures of rock nacional, such as the brilliant but erratic Charly García, haven’t had a great impact in the English-speaking world, though Soda did record one album in New York.

I’ve seen García live, as well as Fito Páez and David Lebón, and listened to quite a few other Argentine rock musicians – I particularly enjoy the Dylanish León Gieco – but I never managed work up any interest in Cerati or Soda Stereo. Even my Argentine wife can’t recall anything memorable, and her sister’s husband – who still owns a CD shop and often provides me music – never saw fit to even mention Cerati to me.

I don’t want to belittle Cerati, but my only real memory comes from a visit to the northwestern city of Tucumán when Soda Stereo was playing there. To promote the concert, a sponsoring tobacco company was passing out free cigarettes on the central Plaza 9 de Julio – ironically (or appropriately) enough for Cerati, whose three packs a day habit undoubtedly contributed to the stroke that put him in a coma at age 51. Argentina's tobacco laws have since changed, for the better, but I don't know whether or not this type of promotion is still legal.

Buenos Aires Live! In Saratoga (California)
Next Monday night at 7 p.m., at the Saratoga Community Library (in Silicon Valley, near San Jose), I will present a digital slide lecture on travel to Buenos Aires. There will be ample time for questions and answers, and my Moon Handbooks to the Argentine capital, Argentina, Chile and Patagonia will also be available at (slightly) discounted prices.



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