Monday, August 26, 2019

Politics and Pesos...

Three Sundays ago, the government of Argentine President Mauricio Macri suffered a serious setback to his re-election campaign, when Peronist opposition candidateAlberto Fernández drew nearly 50 percent of the vote in the country’s presidential primary elections. Discontent with the economic situation, including high inflation and unemployment, propelled a protest vote against the party in power. Fernández is the odds-on favorite in the general election, which will take place October 27th.
Today's official exchange rates against the US dollar.
In the aftermath of the primary, Argentina’s peso plunged from 45 to the dollar to nearly 60 before rebounding slightly into the high 50s. That fueled inflationary fears—though one might argue that’s something Argentines are accustomed to—but the bigger problem appeared to be the Macri administration’s shambolically inconsistent approach toward the issues.
An extensive wine tasting at Aldo's tomorrow will cost about US$10.
In the short term, foreign visitors may benefit—at least until prices catch up with devaluation. For the moment I’ll just note, anecdotally, that a wine tasting tomorrow at Aldo’s—a premium restaurant just a block off Buenos Aires’s central Plaza de Mayo—will cost only about US$10. That includes accompanying snacks, plus discounts on optional wine purchases and dinner itself, if desired (Full disclosure: I have lunched anonymously at Aldo’s and would certainly recommend it).
In 2014, in Puerto Madryn, I changed my dollars at this auto glass repair shop.
Even if there’s a short-term advantage, politics may mean it doesn’t last, especially if the opposition wins in October. Under the previous government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, foreign exchange controls and currency manipulation made travel in Argentina awkward, and encouraged a flourishing black market where tourists and Argentines themselves would change their dollars under the table in cuevas, so-called “caves”—in one case, in the Patagonian city of Puerto Madryn, I changed my cash dollars surreptitiously in an auto glass repair shop.

Meanwhile, in Argentina’s Byzantine politics, the presidential candidacy of Alberto Fernández seems an odd one because the vice-presidential running mate is Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (no relation)—a political powerhouse in her own right who’s under multiple corruption indictments from which her current senatorial seat provides her immunity.
In 1973, when Argentines chose Héctor Cámpora as their president, they knew they'd be getting Juan Domingo Perón.
Given that Alberto Fernández served both the late former President Néstor Kirchner and his successor/wife, Cristina could be the power behind the throne, so to speak. This is not unprecedented in Argentine politics—in 1973, when Héctor Cámpora won the presidency with Juan Domingo Perón still in exile, the party’s slogan was “Cámpora al Gobierno, ¡Perón al poder!” (Cámpora to the government, Perón in power!).

Trans-Continental Coda
It’s worth noting that Argentina’s isn’t the only currency Southern Cone currency showing weakness. When I left Chile, in mid-April, their peso was at 660 to the dollar. Today it’s almost 720, nearly a ten percent decline. That may make Argentina’s neighbor somewhat more affordable, but its economy (and politics) are not nearly so volatile.

Monday, July 29, 2019

In the Falkland Islands, a Week Is Not Enough

As a travel writer myself, I’ve long enjoyed The New York Times 52 Places Traveler, in which a single writer (now one much younger than myself) spends a year exploring the world and producing weekly dispatches from some relatively well-known destinations and other more remote ones. In my own experience, the logistics of organizing several months of travel is taxing enough in my three chosen countries—Argentina, Chile and to a lesser degree Uruguay—that I truly admire the drive and skills of the chosen individual. This year, that individual is Sebastian Modak, whose dispatches appears every Sunday (in print and online).
An aerial view of Stanley Harbour, looking east,
with the city airport at the upper left
For part of 1986-7, we resided in a house belonging to the Sheepowners' Association, at 63 Fitzroy Road.
Yesterday,  Modak’s column dealt with the Falkland Islands, a personal favorite where I spent more than a year as a Fulbright-Hays scholar in 1986-7 and have returned at least half a dozen times. He went, apparently, in early July—“a couple of weeks after the winter solstice”—and says that there were only three other tourists on the Islands (I’m skeptical of that claim). The highlight was penguins, though the only species he mentions are kings and gentoos, which are present year-round (macaronisrockhoppers and Magellanics are migratory summer residents).

Penguins in Winter 
King penguins are the biggest attraction - except for the nearby elephant seals - at Volunteer Point.
On FIGAS's "Round Robin" flights, visitors can view impressive periglacial "stone runs" from above.
To see the kings, at East Falkland’s Volunteer Point, Modak took advantage of Falklands Helicopter Services, a new enterprise that obviates the need for an all-day Land Rover tour from the capital of Stanley, but that comes at a cost of £349 (about US$430) per person, with a two-person minimum (cheaper overland options are possible, but probably not in July). I can certainly concur, however, with his recommendation of the “Round Robin Flights” by the Falkland Islands Government Air Service (FIGAS) that can give visitors a spectacular aerial overview of the entire archipelago at a fraction of that cost. He also went overland to the settlement of Darwin to see the Bodie Bridge, the world’s southernmost suspension bridge that’s apparently on its last legs (er, towers…) in the peninsula of Lafonia (while I have visited Darwin, I never made it farther south to the bridge).
Darwin from the air
Bodie Suspension Bridge, under construction in 1925 (Creative Commons)
Stranded in Stanley?
Ross Road, Stanley, as it appeared in early 1987.
The Historic Dockyard Museum is part of Stanley's renovated waterfront.
Modak, meanwhile, is almost shockingly silent on the capital of Stanley even though, of necessity, he spends several days there because weather delays his departure from the Islands. That’s not an uncommon occurrence but, for a journalist scheduled to report on 52 destinations in 52 weeks, it’s a major inconvenience. He uses the time to explore Stanley’s pub culture but, somehow, he overlooks a surprisingly creative food scene and the Historic Dockyard Museum—which might the best in the world for a town of its size (about 2,500 residents).
The Tasty Treat snackbar serves items such as St. Helenian plo - chicken and bacon with vegetables and rice in a South African curry,  topped with a fried egg.
Roast reindeer - once culled from South Georgia and now raised on West Falkland - is on the menu at Malvina House Hotel.
While the Falklands is much more than 1982 war between Britain and Argentina, the museum offers a professionally measured description of that conflict, which he says comes up with virtually everybody he meets. That’s not quite my experience, even though my wife is an Argentine who also spent a year there with me (on her US passport). He also, apparently, overlooked the multi-ethnic melting pot that the Islands have become since the war, with Chileans, Saint Helenians or "Saints," and even Argentines (there have always been some and, at one point, there was an Argentine policewoman).
During the 1982 war, Eileen Vidal kept countryside residents current on happenings in Stanley and elsewhere via radio telephone. When we lived there, she always knew where everybody was.
While Modak had some trouble getting out of the Islands he does, in my experience, overstate their inaccessibility and remoteness: “Consumed by a sense of total isolation, I leaned into the rare feeling of being off the map, stuck somewhere and part of a small community of travelers.” In fact, the Islanders themselves have always been in constant contact with the outside world—whether by mailboat, amateur radio, telephone and now Internet—and often express a sophisticated understanding of overseas events. The Internet may be slow and expensive—I can attest to that—but, as he acknowledges, there will now be a second weekly flight from the South American continent (in addition to the well-established connection with Santiago and Punta Arenas, Chile).
In the summer high season, cruise ship visits can nearly double Stanley's population - briefly.
Had he visited in January, when cruise ships can double Stanley’s population for a day, he might have adjusted his conclusion that “There’s no chance of ever being a major destination…” The Islands may be a niche experience, but one that’s likely to grow, especially as the logistics improve for those who prefer to be land-based. That’s my preference, I’ve been back at least half a dozen times, and I’ll do so again soon.

Post-Script
While the Argentine occupation left large numbers of land mines,  demining efforts have been successful and no civilian has ever been injured.
This being The New York Times, it’s worth mentioning the readers’ comments, of which there were just 17—almost all of them superficial and a couple astonishingly ignorant. One Patty Mutkoski of Ithaca lamented that there was no place for “long walks” because of “all the land mines left over from the war.” As someone who undertook multi-day treks on both East and West Falkland only four years after the conflict, and has seen the results of removal efforts since then, I can assert that there are many fine hiking opportunities around Stanley and also on the outer islands, such as PebbleSaunders and Carcass. The biggest obstacle is not land mines, but rather the almost incessant winds.
A hike along the headlands of Saunders Island passes through The Rookery, with large colonies of black-browed albatrosses, cormorants, and penguins.
Another reader, Barbara from California, bemoaned that she “didn’t understand why the USA was sending troops to the Falklands [in 1982], and I still don’t, now.” Perhaps that’s because the United States never sent a single soldier there; in fact, the Reagan Administration made every effort to appease Argentina’s military dictatorship before finally providing rhetorical support for British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s counter-invasion. Another commenter, MBV from New York, dismissively proclaimed that “There’s nothing to see here, and it shows.” Just because Modak missed an opportunity doesn’t make that true.

Post-Post Script

Thursday, July 11, 2019

This Year's Eclipse (and Next Year's?)

Chilean eclipse-chasers filled the beach at Caleta Los Hornos (photo by Marializ Maldonado)
I couldn’t attend last week’s solar eclipse in Chile but, indirectly at least, I had a sort of presence. When my longtime friend Marializ Maldonado, at whose house I often stay when in Santiago, asked to borrow my car to drive north to the Coquimbo region, I immediately said yes, and she was able to view the event at the beachside locale of Caleta Los Hornos, north of the city of La Serena.
In the minutes before totality, at Caleta Los Hornos (photo by Marializ Maldonado)
Partly, this was a favor to a friend, but it was also a favor to me, as it’s best not to leave a car unused for months, as I do by necessity in the outskirts of Santiago. Marializ also often does me the favor of paying my highway tolls as, for some incomprehensible reason, Chile’s online payment system does not want to accept my US credit cards (though I use them regularly when I visit Chile).
The Coquimbo region is home to major international observatories such as Cerro Tololo (CTIO), part of the US National Optical Astronomy Observatory.
Marializ arrived just five minutes before totality, which she described as “two intense and beautiful minutes” on the Pacific shoreline. The most vivid account I’ve read, though, came from the New York Times, whose “52 Places” columnist Sebastian Modak saw the event from the European Southern Observatory at La Silla—also pointing out that this was only the third eclipse to pass over a major international observatory in the last 50 years.

The eclipse turned out to be an economic bonanza for the region. According to the local daily El Observatodo, the event attracted more than 300,000 people over five days, and those visitors spent more than US$82 million. Many if not most arrived by private car, presumably from Santiago as Marializ did, but there were also numerous foreign eclipse-chasers. Plenty of people also witnessed it from the Argentine side of the border, though cloud cover obscured things in Buenos Aires.
Path of next year's eclipse
There's no guarantee of clear weather as next year's eclipse passes over Volcán Villarrica.
For Chileans and others who missed this year’s eclipse, there’ll be another chance soon enough. On December 14th of 2020, the moon will once again block the sun in the southern lakes resort district around Lago Villarrica and the town of Pucón, but that area’s marine West Coast climate—resembling Seattle’s—mean that clear skies are no sure thing. A few years ago, some friends and I planned to do a small plane flyover of Volcán Villarrica’s steaming crater but, after several days of fine clear weather, the clouds moved in the next morning and made the flight impossible. Across the Andes, where Argentina’s Patagonian steppe usually has clear skies, could be a better option.
Next year, the rain-shadow steppes of Argentina's Neuquén province might be a better place to observe totality.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Childish Games? In Buenos Aires?

Recently, reviewing the English translations on a Chilean hotel website, I came upon the bewildering phrase “childish games” as one of the hotel's features, and I had to refer back to the Spanish original to find the term “juegos infantiles” to realize that what they meant was “playground for kids.” They'd apparently relied on translation software—thanks, Google!—to promote themselves to English-speaking audiences.

Recently, in the New York Times travel section, Danielle Pergament offered an account of seeing Buenos Aires through her children’s rudimentary Spanish. For Pergament, who proudly proclaims that neither she nor her husband speaks a word of Spanish, this was a potential interesting conceit, but one that failed in its execution—at least in my opinion and my Argentine wife’s.

So far as I can tell, Pergament ignored what should have been visible evidence regarding the status of children in Argentina, and Buenos Aires in particular. I say that as someone who helped raise a half-Argentine daughter, with many Argentine nieces and nephews whom I’ve known since their early childhoods.

Somehow, Pergament concludes that children are peripheral to local life—she cites the example of an English-speaking waitress and a concierge who chose to address her rather her kids—but she mightn’t think that if, somehow, she had noticed that young children often accompany their parents to very late meals, often well after 9 p.m. In fact, dinner at home is often that late and even the youngest children are an integral part of the event, though if it’s a big family dinner the kids may have their own separate table.
Children watch a street performer at the Feria Plaza Francia.
She also missed a big opportunity by not having her kids—ages eight and ten—interact with their Argentine counterparts by paying more attention to parks and playgrounds. Easy walking distance from her lodgings at Recoleta’s Hotel Mío Buenos Aires, the Feria Plaza Francia (a sophisticated crafts fair that she dismisses as a “trinkets market”) often has street performers that appeal to children, and the Plaza Emilio Mitre has a fine playground.
Plaza Emilio Mitre is one of many where Porteño parents bring kids.

Freddo is a fading presence in the quality ice cream sector.
She does recognize one aspect of Buenos Aires that certainly appeals to kids, and that is ice cream. Sadly, her kids appear to have sampled only chains like the moribund Freddo (no longer the go-to choice it once was), Lucciano’s (very decent) and Rapa Nui (a chocolates specialist that originated in Bariloche but has branches here and in beach resorts). In fairness, these were conspicuous locales the Pergament and her family were likeliest to come across in their walks around the tourist-oriented northern neighborhoods, so more distinctive choices like Heladería Cadore were not on their itinerary.
Rapa Nui is primarily a chocolatier that got its start in Bariloche, in northern Argentine Patagonia.
At Palermo's Jardín Japonés, the colorfully carp-filled ponds appeal to kids.
Other child-friendly sights she suggests are the Abasto Shopping Center, the Centro Cultural Recoleta with its motto of ¡prohibido no tocar! (not touching prohibited!), Palermo’s Jardín Japonés and Planetario Galileo Galilei, and the often quirky Museo de Arte Latinoamericano Buenos Aires (MALBA). All of these are worthwhile, especially the MALBA, but I can’t stop thinking of her own childish oversights.
A young Porteña stands alongside the late León Ferrari's dark-themed "Mushroom Cloud" at the MALBA.




Saturday, May 18, 2019

Chasing Chile's Eclipses...Across the Andes, Perhaps?

Many times I’ve visited north-central Chile’s desert regions—CoquimboAtacama and Antofagasta—which are home to some of the world’s most important astronomical observatories. There is also a constellation of smaller community observatories that offer visitors a chance to see the austral night skies through what, not that long ago, would have been professional telescopes.
The clear skies around Cerro Tololo Observatory (upper left here) an ideal for astronomy.
Combarbalá is one of many town and cities eagerly anticipating July's eclipse.
That said, I’ve never seen a solar eclipse there or elsewhere in South America, even though Chile (and Argentina) experienced major events in 1994 and again in 2010. There’ll be another opportunity soon, though, in the best of all possible areas—on July 2nd, the path of totality will pass directly over the city of La Serena and the Coquimbo region, home to Cerro Tololo and several other observatories. Even area beyond totality expect to take advantage of the event, as I learned last month when I visited the town of Combarbalá, which lies just south of the path.
The July eclipse's path takes it over the Coquimbo region and into Argentina's San Juan Province.
On the Argentine side, totality will pass over the Humid Pampas and just south of Buenos Aires, but winter weather could obscure the event.
From Coquimbo the path then trends southeast, crossing the Andes to the Argentine province of San Juan—another ideal viewing location for its clear desert skies—and continuing toward Buenos Aires. The eclipse will not be total in the Argentine capital, though it will be—theoretically at least—in parts of Buenos Aires province. Theoretically, I say, because that part of the Humid Pampas has a good chance of heavy cloud cover and rain in mid-winter. The skies will darken, certainly, but there’s no guarantee of seeing the moon cover the sun.

Either way, I won’t see this year’s eclipse because I’ll be in California and, in the days leading up to it, we’ll be hosting our Argentine nephew Manuel, his wife Ivana, and their son Simón. They’re flying back to Buenos Aires on July 1st, and I’m not sure whether they’ll arrive in time for the big event. I suspect that a lot of Porteños will leave the city, if just for the day, to spend some time in totality, especially if the weather seems likely to cooperate.
The map here indicates the 2019 eclipse coverage at various locations throughout Chile.
The map here indicates coverage during the 2020 eclipse. 
Even if you (or I) won’t see this one, there’s another upcoming opportunity. On December 14, 2020, Chile will experience another total eclipse in the southern mainland region of La Araucanía, passing over the prime tourist towns of Pucón and Villarrica. The downside is that, like the Pacific Northwest, this area enjoys a marine west coast climate that can bring cloud cover and drizzle at any time of year. It might be better seen in Argentine Patagonia, as the rain shadow of the Andes usually means clear skies on the sprawling steppes. It can get windy there, though, so the beach resort of Las Grutas might be the comfiest option.
For the 2020 eclipse, it won't quite be high season at Las Grutas.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

I've Never Been to Spain?

I’ve never been to Spain. Well I have been, I guess, if you count Catalonia as part of Spain, because I once spent a week in Barcelona. But I’ve been to Salamanca…oh, wait, not that Salamanca! Earlier this month, I spent two nights in the Chilean city of Salamanca, which I’d visited before, but this was an escape from Santiago after spending most of the previous two months in Patagonia.
Gregorio de la Fuente's "Abrazo de los Pueblos" still decorates the now disused passenger  terminal of Los Andes' Ferrocarril Transandino.
How did I get to Salamanca? Well, I started slow, thanks to late-rush hour traffic out of Santiago, but then headed north to the town of Los Andes, where the Ferrocarril Transandino once carried passengers and freight across the Andean divide to Mendoza. I had no intention of visiting Argentina this time, but I did want to see the mural by Gregorio de la Fuente—his "El Abrazo de los Pueblos” (Embrace of the Peoples) at the old train station is a celebration of Argentine-Chilean friendship. It was just a brief stop, though I did learn that there’s now an occasional tourist train on this route.
Vehicles pass along the old railroad route through Túnel La Grupa, near the town of Cabildo.
Symbolically, at least, trains played a role in my route to Salamanca, as I took the paved highway west to the town of San Felipe and then north through scenic Andean foothills that resemble the higher, drier parts of Southern California. There are only scattered settlements along this route E-71, which leads to the town of Cabildo; there, a traffic light controls access through the Túnel La Grupa, one of a series of tunnels that belonged to the Longino, the Ferrocarril Longitudinal that connected La Calera (west of Santiago) to the nitrate mines and ports of the northernmost Atacama Desert.
The landscape here resembles the higher, drier areas of Southern California.
I’d driven this route before, but not for several years. In the interim, authorities have either paved—or begun to pave—much of it north of the border between Region V (Valparaíso) and Region IV (Coquimbo). This is significant because most of Coquimbo’s population resides along the coast, where cities like Los Vilos and La Serena attract beachgoers from Santiago, and this is a more adventurous (if slower) alternative to lesser-known points.
Túnel Las Palmas marks the border between the Valparaíso and Coquimbo regions.
Café Quarzo is one of few roadside services here.
There are few services on this stretch of “highway” but, surprisingly, one enterprising local has opened a small café on the northbound descent from Túnel Las Palmas, which marks the regional border. She sells ground coffee drinks—in a country where Nescafé is often still the default option—as well as juices and mineral souvenirs (hence the name Café Quarzo). The road continues, passing several railroad bridges, to the enigmatically named village of Caimanes (there are no carnivorous aquatic reptiles here, though; the name apparently comes from an indigenous Mapundungun [Mapuche] word meaning “six condors”).
Carnivorous aquatic reptiles do not populate the area around Caimanes.
Túnel Las Astas is the last of three short tunnels north of Caimanes.
The foundations of the old railroad station still stand here, but there’s no more obvious evidence until a short distance north, where the road passes through three short tunnels with no traffic lights. Several years ago, in Argentina, I met two US cyclists who’d taken this road on my guidebook recommendation and loved it, but they confessed their trepidation in riding through the narrow tunnels, with little room to dodge any oncoming vehicle. That said, this route remains a potentially great ride for adventure-seeking cyclists.
The old train station at Limáhuida is now a country store.
Emerging from the Túnel Los Astas, the road continues to Limáhuida, where the old train station is now a small market and fading wooden workshops still stand below it. That’s also where a new bridge crosses the Río Choapa and leads east to Salamanca, where I spent two nights at the modern and comfortable Hotel Recanto, on the eastern outskirts of town.
Hotel Recanto is full during the week, but nearly empty on weekends.
Oddly—or not—I was virtually the only guest in contemporary accommodations with spacious rooms, solar-powered hot water, and an outstanding restaurant. That’s because it clears out on the Thursday and Friday, as mining managers—there are large copper deposits in the area—leave for the weekend.
Farm-fresh garlic spreads at Salamanca's central plaza
Salamanca's old train station is now a museum and part of a pleasant public park.
Nevertheless, the hotel was still walking distance from a handsome central plaza with a lively crafts and farmers market, a former train station turned museum and municipal park, and easy access to nearby petroglyphs. There are also wineries in the area, though I didn’t get to visit those, but Salamanca—where I’d stayed once several years earlier, still struck me as a good weekend getaway.
The pre-Columbian petroglyphs at Cerro Chalinga are walking distance from downtown Salamanca.
It’s not the area’s only attraction, though. The next day I took the paved highway north to Combarbalá, a village which, on the face of it, resembles some Mexican villages, with narrow streets lined by adobe houses and even ranchera music. To get there, I did veer northwest off the more direct but still unpaved railroad route (though, had there been tunnels, I would have taken it again).
The fountain at Combarbalá's central plaza represents indigenous Diaguita motifs.
Mexican ranchera music is popular in rural Chile, including Combarbalá.
Small-scale mines extract combarbalita for local crafts workers.
What Combarbalá does have is small-scale mining for the semi-precious gemstone combarbalita (I visited a local mine, thanks to Paola Yáñez of Inti Wasi Tour), and the community astronomical Observatorio Cruz del Sur, which offers nighttime tours in one of the best possible areas for professional and amateur astronomy. I stayed at the cozy Eco-Hostal Alto Algarrobal, one of many accommodations that will fill up in for July 2nd, when a total eclipse of the sun will pass nearby (Combarbalá will be slightly south of totality).
The approach to Observatorio Cruz del Sur, in the daylight hours.
The beginning of a nighttime tour at Observatorio Cruz del Sur
Combarbalá and other nearby towns will fill up for the July 2nd eclipse.
After a night at Combarbalá, I headed the next morning for the coast, where Los Vilos would make an ideal beach break for Santiaguinos returning to Chile’s capital. For my part, I continued along the coast to Viña del Mar and Valparaíso, which will be another story here in the near future.
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