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).


Thursday, April 28, 2016

Book Fair Buenos Aires: the Good, the Bad, the Ugly & the Offbeat

One of my favorite Buenos Aires events has always been the Feria del Libro, the region’s biggest book fair, comprising 45,000 square meters of space at the elegant Sociedad Rural fairgrounds. It started on Sunday, when I walked past the entrance after having lunch in Las Cañitas – it’s gratifying to see so many Argentine readers lined up to buy tickets – but I wasn’t able to go myself until Wednesday afternoon.
A showcase for Argentine book culture, though foreign participation appears less conspicuous than it used to be, the Feria consists of hundreds of stands that include bookstores, publishers, distributors, provincial governments and newspapers. They vary in quality of course – I quickly bypassed the Confederación Espiritista Argentina (Argentine Spiritualist Confederation, pictured above), nor do I have much patience with other self-help organizations (including Alcoholics Anonymous) and psychoanalysis.
One thing I did find encouraging was the presence of English-language bookstores and distributors, such as Kel Ediciones and Estari Libros. In a country regarded as the region’s most most proficient in English, the so-called “currency clamp” and import restrictions had limited the arrival of Anglo-friendly titles – the former trade secretary Guillermo Moreno even claimed that the ink in books printed outside Argentina contained “dangerous levels of lead.” In response to my question, one bookstore at the show confirmed that the situation has improved considerably.
The US Embassy stand, meanwhile, seemed more oriented toward travel and tourism, with information on visiting the States as Argentina advances toward inclusion in the Visa Waiver Program. I was surprised that the invited US “literary figures” included two cheesy romance novelists, but amused that a chalkboard let visitors scribble graffiti – some of it humorously critical.
My own favorite stand belonged to Aves Argentinas, which included a number of worthwhile natural history guides. Having spent a year-plus in the Falkland Islands, I also found the abundance of titles on the 1982 war and its aftermath to be startling, even though such “banal nationalism” (a phrase from Michael Billig via Klaus Dodds) is an obsession for many Argentines.
Ever since my boyhood – I’m a post WWII “baby boomer” – Argentina has had an unfortunate reputation as a haven for Nazi war criminals and, as Uki Goñi has chronicled in The Real Odessa, it’s a cliché that's not undeserved - even though some have been brought to justice. I was startled, though, to realize that there’s such a cottage industry of books claiming that Hitler himself took refuge here.
I was also surprised at the absence of books on travel and tourism, even though the Ministerio de Turismo does have a stand at the entrance to the main exhibit hall. As a guidebook author, though, I found it disturbing that the only book in my genre was one (at bottom of photo) that included Adolf’s and Eva Braun’s supposed haunts in Bariloche. Unfortunately, there always seem to be somebody who'll believe in the preposterous.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Welcome Back! Argentina Ends "Reciprocity," Forever?

When US president Barack Obama arrived in Buenos Aires last month, it wasn’t for a Patagonia vacation – though he did manage to take some time in the Andean lakeside resort of Bariloche – but he accomplished something that many travelers thinking of a Patagonia cruise or other similar holiday have reason to be grateful for.
In 2009, the government of Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner imposed a so-called “reciprocity fee” of US$160 on US visitors to Argentina – equivalent to the charge that Argentines pay to apply for a US visa. Leaving aside the question of fairness, the fee and its awkward bureaucracy created a disincentive for foreign visitors, including Australians and Canadians (who pay US$100 each). At a time when Argentina needed hard currency (as it still does, to help pay off its debts), this was a curious and counter-productive policy decision.

During Obama’s visit, though, the government of recently inaugurated President Mauricio Macri announced the fee’s suspension - pending progress on incorporating Argentina into the Visa Waiver Program that allows certain nationalities to enter the United States for tourism or business without an advance visa. The Obama administration responded by eliminating consular interviews for some but not all visa-seeking Argentines, but the presumably there will be additional progress sooner rather than later. It’s worth adding that Chile once collected a similar fee, but eliminated it in 2013, after being accepted into the Visa Waiver Program.
Recently, when I passed through immigration at Buenos Aires’ international airport (pictured above), I still carried proof of having paid the fee six years ago (pictured below, it was valid for ten years), just in case, since I wasn’t sure when the suspension would take effect. Other US citizens in line had no concerns, but Australians and Canadians are still on the hook, as I confirmed with telephone calls to their consulates. With luck and some official dedication, the measure will become permanent for US citizens and soon be extended to their Australian and Canadian counterparts.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Río Grande Mission

The big island of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago has only two significant cities, both on the Argentine side, and only one of them – Ushuaia – is a true destination for Patagonia-bound adventurers. Ushuaia has striking glaciated mountains and a scenic seaside setting, but Río Grande occupies a site on the wild-blown steppe of the island’s Atlantic seashore (though its rivers offer fine trout fishing).
Most of the year I live in California, where Franciscan fathers built a series of missions, at regular intervals, to catechize the area’s first peoples. Today those adobe missions are appealing attractions to visitors who follow the highway north from the Mexican border to Sonoma, about an hour north San Francisco. There aren’t a lot of comparisons between California and Tierra del Fuego (or the rest of Patagonia, for that matter), but the area had its own mission presence that should interest travelers who find themselves in the southern extremities of the Americas.
For backpackers and many others, an overland trip between Punta Arenas and Ushuaia is an intriguing option, but a long one on a roundabout route that includes either one short ferry trip or another longer but less frequent one. Either way, it’s a full-day itinerary on which Río Grande, a service center for the wool industry, also includes the historic Salesian mission (pictured above and below) – dating from 1893 - on its northern outskirts. Obviously, it’s far newer than the California missions, and its metal-clad buildings are very different from quake-prone adobes.
When I first visited the mission, in the early 1990s, the mission was weathered and dilapidated, with mundane and poorly organized museum collections. Recently, though, it’s undergone a renovation and reorganization, providing an exceptional introduction to the wildlife, native peoples (and the impact of sheep ranching on them), and the role that missionaries played in converting them to Roman Catholicism.
That was a mixed blessing to say the least, but the Salesian fathers managed to rescue many of them from the brutality of the ranches – in his memoir The Uttermost Part of the Earth, the Fuegian pioneer Lucas Bridges created a pseudonym to condemn the “unscrupulous” Scots-Canadian “Mr. McInch.” Alexander McLennan, the foreman employed by a large ranch, took pride in assassinating Selk’nam natives who had resorted to hunting sheep in lieu of their traditional food source, the guanaco, which had declined in numbers.
Recent Salesians have taken a strong interest in taxidermy, and the birds and other wildlife on display have undergone professional preparation (the present-day mission is also an agricultural school). In addition, there are exhibits on topics like the local radio station, which the friars pioneered at a time when communications were precarious. It’s also an open-air museum, with historic structures like the Capilla (chapel) and the Casa de las Hermanas, where the earliest nuns taught weaving and sewing to Selk’nam women. Right along the highway, with helpful and informative staff, it’s become an essential stop for overland travelers.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Holiday or Not? US Presidents in Argentina

When Air Force One landed outside Buenos Aires on Wednesday, Barack Obama became the sixth US president to visit Argentina – technically speaking, that is, for reasons to be explained below. In the last year of his presidency, Obama’s schedule-makers arranged a trip to follow his path-breaking visit to Cuba this week, but that caused something of kerfuffle because the date of his visit to Buenos Aires – March 24 – coincided with the 40th anniversary of the coup that toppled the government of President Isabel Martínez de Perón in 1976 and started a reign of terror that became known as the Guerra Sucia (Dirty War) – for which many Argentines have blamed the United States.
With that as background, it could be helpful to provide a short chronology of those presidential visits – the first of which was Theodore Roosevelt in 1913 – or was he? By that time, Roosevelt was an ex-president whose term had expired in 1909, and he had lost as a third-party candidate in 1912. He did visit Buenos Aires, but his heart was in Patagonia, where he met the pioneer Argentine conservationist Francisco P. Moreno in Bariloche (in the photo above Moreno, dressed in white, stands to Roosevelt’s left).
In truth, then, the first US president to visit Argentina officially was Dwight D. Eisenhower, who spent four days in Buenos Aires, Mar del Plata and Bariloche in February of 1960. Hosted by then President Arturo Frondizi, he even spoke to the Argentine Congress but, at the same time, police tear-gassed demonstrators loyal to the exiled Juan Domingo Perón. In Bariloche, though, Eisenhower fished and golfed while staying at the classic Hotel Llao Llao (pictured above).
It was another 30 years before President George H.W. Bush’s visit coincided with a military uprising by so-called carapintadas, rogue junior officers who had been staged several rebellious incidents in previous years. Bush, to his credit, did not cancel or postpone his trip at a time when many still considered Argentine democracy a fragile flower.  He did, however, play tennis with then President Carlos Menem (pictured above).
President Bill Clinton’s October 1997 visit included a breakfast with Menem, where (in retrospect) he overstated the success of Argentine economic reforms that ended in the economic collapse of 2001 and their reversal under the populism of Presidents Néstor Kirchner and his successor/wife Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Clinton also met with Jewish leaders concerned about Buenos Aires terrorist bombings in 1992 and 1994 – neither of which has been solved – and participated in a televised town hall. Like Eisenhower, he stayed at the Llao Llao, indulged himself in golf there, and also went for an excursion on Lago Nahuel Huapi  (pictured above) and spoke about global warming.
All those visits were congenial, but the 2005 visit of George W. Bush – for the fourth Summit of the Americas in the seaside resort of Mar del Plata (pictured above) – was a disaster. It may not have been so catastrophic as his Iraq invasion but, as the New York Times editorialised,  "he and his delegation failed to get even a minimally face-saving outcome at the collapsed trade talks and allowed a loudmouthed opportunist like [President Hugo Chávez} of Venezuela to steal the show." There was no thought of a recreational breather - the widely despised Bush Jr. left with his tail between his legs.
Most recently, last week, President Obama received a warm welcome from newly elected Mauricio Macri, who succeeded Fernández de Kirchner (whose relations with the US were tense at best). Obama’s arrival put the conservative Macri in the awkward position of having to acknowledge “Dirty War” crimes of a period he’d probably rather ignore. One stop was the riverside Parque de la Memoria, dedicated to victims of the dictatorship, where the US president tossed a wreath into the water. The wall depicted above registers names of the victims, one of whom was my brother-in-law’s first wife.

Obama took some flack for his arrival at this sensitive time – in fairness, presidential itineraries are not easy to arrange – but he responded by announcing the release of confidential documents about US encouragement of the 1976 coup. That was not enough for large crowds of the previous president’s supporters, who seemed to think he was a coup-mongering second coming of George W. Bush.
Obama had made some untimely public criticisms of Fernández de Kirchner, but the visit still seem sto mark the end of her administration’s international isolationism. Following the meetings with Macri, the Obamas headed for Bariloche – now the traditional destination of US presidents in the country – where they stayed at the Llao Llao, took a boat trip on Nahuel Huapi, and Obama himself sipped a brew at the Cervecería Berlina (pictured above).

Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Whales of the Strait

One major highlight of any Patagonian cruise is the wildlife. From the decks of any vessel, and on land excursions, passengers can enjoy the sight of countless birds – many of them unique to the Southern Hemisphere – and marine mammals such as elephant seals and sea lions. Literally and metaphotically, though, the biggest attraction is the whales.
On Argentina’s Península Valdés, Puerto Pirámides (pictured above) is the continent’s main whale-watching site; from July (mid-winter) to November (late spring), pods of southern right whales arrive to mate and give birth. Most visitors arrive from the town of Puerto Madryn, which has cruise-ship facilities, though Madryn gets many more overland travelers. Most Pirámides vessels are larger catamarans that can seem crowded, though it’s not quite mass tourism – some smaller rigid inflatables get closer to the animals.
For visitors to southern Patagonia, though, there are more intimate options, viewing southern humpbacks (pictured above) in the western Strait of Magellan. In January and February, operating out of Punta Arenas, Cruceros Australis does special whale-watching itineraries that make a detour to Isla Carlos III before returning to their usual Beagle Channel route to Cape Horn and Ushuaia. In rigid inflatables, passengers can get even closer to these gregarious (and enormous) animals.
I’ve never taken that specific itinerary, but I have visited the western Strait on two other occasions. A decade ago, I took one of the earliest trips with Whalesound, which converted a small river vessel from Argentina in a comfortable shuttle for a dozen or so travelers to Isla Carlos III, where it had set up a dome-tent camp (pictured above) connected by boardwalks to its dining room/clubhouse (pictured below). During the day, the ship took us to see the whales, but it was also possible to hike to sea lion and penguin colonies.

More recently, in January, I took a two-night one-day excursion on board the M/V Forrest (pictured above) with Punta Arenas’s Expedición Fitz Roy, which has rehabbed a vessel that formerly hauled wool around the Falkland Islands, where I first saw it in 1982. The accommodations are cozy – cabins with two or four bunks each – but the dining lounge is comfortable and the exterior decks provide plenty of opportunity for cetacean close-ups. The Forrest also makes a side trip to Isla Santa Inés (pictured below), shuttling passengers ashore for close-ups of the glacier there.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Food Trucks for Patagonia

Perhaps my favorite route in southernmost South America remains Chile’s Carretera Austral, running through a region as wild as the Alaska Panhandle and the Canadian Yukon. Its downside, though, is the paucity of services – there is only one city, the regional capital of Coyhaique, and except for scattered resorts, there are few places to grab a bite along the highway.
That’s changing, though, even in some of the smaller settlements as the highway improves and road trips become more common. One intriguing aspect is the arrival of food trucks such as Coyhaique’s Kawescar (pictured at top), just a block off the pentagonal Plaza de Armas, but also in out of the way places such as Villa Cerro Castillo, where La Cocina de Sole (pictured above) occupies two parked buses where the southbound pavement ends (though preparations for paving the next segment are well underway).
Lupe’s is basically a roadside sandwich shop, with quality versions of Chilean comfort food such as the Barros Luco (beef and grilled cheese) or ave palta (chicken with avocado, pictured below) on homemade pan frica (hold the mayo, please!). It’s comfortable inside, prices are modest, and it gets plenty of motorists and cyclists passing through town (or staying in town, for that matter). For me, it’s the best of the bunch.
On the way north, though, I found another appealing food truck (a bus really, like Sole’s) in the town of Chaitén, which is making an impressive comeback after a major volcanic eruption and subsequent forced evacuation in May of 2008. I still wouldn’t buy property there, but I’m happy to stay in a town that hasn’t completely recovered an already limited restaurant scene, the new Natour food bus is a welcome development.
That said, the region’s food truck scene is in its infancy compared to more northerly destinations. The resort town of Puerto Varas, outside the ferry port of Puerto Montt, has the most diverse food truck scene along its lakeshore. Varas also has many fine dining options, but the food trucks (and buses) – with Chilean, French, German and even Mexican choices, are a welcome change of pace.
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