Thursday, February 28, 2008

Patagonia on Fire

On the outskirts of Argentina's Los Alerces National Park, west of the city of Esquel and near the border with Chile, an arson-set fire is threatening stands of the endemic alerce, the "Redwood of the South." Also known as the false larch, the alerce occurs in a narrow geographical range in the southern Andes, along both sides of the border, though a handful of isolated stands also occur near the Chilean coast. For centuries, it was a valuable timber species for its beautiful grain and resistance to rot; it's now protected in both countries, though there are legal loopholes that timbercutters have exploited, and also cases of clandestine cutting. Its presence on the Chilean side was one of the major reasons for the private conservation initiative at Parque Pumalín, but the potential loss of any alerce forests is cause for concern.

UPDATE: As of Friday, February 29, an unexpected heavy rain--the first since November--was helping firefighters control the blaze. According to the Buenos Aires daily Clarín, only about 100 hectares of the 263,000-hectare park had burned, so it looks as if the worst case scenario has been avoided.

Patrick Symmes, author of Chasing Che, has a fishing cabin near the town of Trevelin, on the southern edge of the park. He writes me that "Helicopters and airplanes were coming in and out of Trevelin's little grass airfield all the time."

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Fencing the Forest?

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the practice of fencing many parks and plazas in the city of Buenos Aires, even when there was no apparent reason to do so. Now the issue has come up in Santiago de Chile, where a group of neighbors and legislators are protesting a planned fence around the Parque Forestal greenbelt that runs along the Río Mapocho downtown. As I suggested before, some public open spaces do need protection from vandalism, but the closure of Parque Forestal would be a big blow to a liveable Santiago. I'm hoping the city consider alternatives before undertaking what should be a last-ditch option--fences are easier to erect than they are to remove.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Sentimental Hygiene

Before anything else, apologies to the late Warren Zevon for my shameless reference to his great song, but it just seemed right.

Last week, in my neighborhood, we saw one side of the urban hygiene issue in Buenos Aires. Several neatly dressed young people set up an information table on the wooded Cerviño median strip near our apartment to explain the new city administration's plan to keep the streets clean: when to put out the garbage, where to put it, when it will be picked up, when the streets will be swept.

No word yet, though, when the city might place containers to help reduce the mess left by cartoneros scavengers when they rifle through the plastic bags left on the sidewalk in search of recyclables (piles of refuse like those in the photo to your right, taken in the historic barrio of Monserrat, are still a common sight in many parts of the city). According to one of the city delegation, barrios such as Monserrat and Palermo, with their highrise apartment buildings, would need several containers per block, and this would take up much of the parking and could block traffic.

This cartoneros issue made headlines last Friday when the administration booted out an encampment of them along the railroad tracks in the barrio of Belgrano. The scavengers had set up the camp because the Mitre railroad line has refused to provide them a special "white train" to carry their goods to their suburban pickup points. Belgrano neighbors complained because the accumulations of trash and lack of sanitary facilities caused, in their opinion, a public health hazard, and the administration agreed.

As it happened, I caught a glimpse of this as my commuter train passed through Belgrano on the way to Tigre, not enough to be able to say whether the eviction was unnecessarily forceful. Attorneys for the scavengers have filed a lawsuit, however, and today the scavengers were vigorously protesting on the Avenida de Mayo. It was noisy, with the bombo drums whose pounding sounds carry several blocks, and police were standing by just in case. Things stayed calm while I was there, but I always recommend to visitors that, if they don't understand what's going on in one of these political protests, to observe it from the periphery.

Meanwhile, any hygiene, sentimental or otherwise, is on hold.

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Mississippi of the Megalopolis

Last Friday morning I took a train north to the town of Tigre and, with my friend Cristián Soler (whom I met ten years ago in Tierra del Fuego), we took his father's boat to explore the channels of the Paraná delta. Tigre, in its early 20th century heyday, was the place where Buenos Aires's elite hung out and was home to numerous rowing clubs; Cristián's father's boat is a rowing scull damaged in an accident and then modified to support an outboard motor. Because of its shallow draft, it's ideal for exploring the delta's smallest channels, but when it goes out onto the Paraná de las Palmas and big freighters pass, the waves make me a little anxious.

The Paraná, which with the Río Uruguay forms the Río de la Plata (River Plate), is one of the world's great river systems. Winding nearly 4,000 km from its source in Brazil, it's longer than the Mississippi, which is probably its best analogue. Imagine the Mississippi delta and its bayous within 30 minutes of New York City, and you get some idea of the economic significance of the Paraná, and the recreational resources it provides, in proximity to Buenos Aires.

In a long day, leaving Tigre around 10 a.m., we spent about eight hours exploring the delta's smaller arroyos in what is called the Primera Sección, a relatively accessible part where many Porteños have summer homes but isleños (as the permanent residents are called) have more rustic residences on palafitos (pilings or stilts). The difference between the two is not always clear--in the place in the photograph to your right, for instance, a once handsome house has gone to seed and the soil it stands on may soon wash away. In all likelihood, some isleños will stay there until it slides into the river. Meanwhile, they'll eke out a living growing fruit, cutting timber, and producing crafts for the Mercado de Frutos in Tigre.

The delta is full of wildlife--plenty of birds, plus capybaras (Rottweiler-sized rodents) and even otters, but the bigger animals are in remote areas and harder to spot. The most abundant wildlife, at times at least, are the mosquitos that attack anyone who steps on land, so carry repellent. It's also full of accommodations, ranging from a modestly priced but excellent hostel Marcopolo Inn Náutico to the luxury La Becasina lodge. On the weekends, the delta's packed with people who come to spend a day at riverside beaches and enjoy a barbecue at its campgrounds or restaurants, but the rest of the time it's as if there's hardly anyone around.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Animal City

Dick Cavett once said that his friend Woody Allen was "at two with nature" and, with their similar urban sensibilites, Buenos Aires residents are also often wary of exotic fauna they perceive to be dangerous (as this photograph taken in Palermo might suggest). Still, Porteños love their dogs and cats.

As office workers and apartment dwellers, though, many Porteños have to hire paseaperros to exercise their dogs or even take them on longer excursions or beach holidays, as I wrote a couple years ago in Latin Trade magazine. Few of them neuter their dogs, though for apartment-bound canines that may be a lesser issue than it is in provincial towns (yesterday, when I visited the riverside suburb of Tigre, the number of street dogs was disheartening).

Both residents and visitors constantly complain of dog droppings in the streets. In today's Buenos Aires Herald, for instance, a Canadian visitor deplores "the stench of faeces and urine," and it's true that many--if not most--dog owners are irresponsible about cleaning up after their pets. Though I'm a dog lover (I wish our Alaskan malamute Malbec could accompany us to Buenos Aires), I resent the quantities of soretes that often speckle the sidewalks in our middle- to upper-middle class neighborhood here.

That said, I notice changes. It's now more common, though far from universal, to see dog owners using plastic bags to clean up after their animals. When walking around town, I myself carry a couple extra bags to hand to people who feign unawareness that their dog is dumping on the sidewalk, but when presented with a way to pick it up they find it hard to refuse. In reality, I think such a simple solution probably never occurred to them, and they often thank me even if they're taken aback at first.

Twenty years ago, frankly, it would never have occurred to me in California, even though I was a dog owner then as well. At some point there, we reached a critical mass where it became unacceptable to allow dogs to do their business on the sidewalk, and now it's the exception when they do so. I think this is happening in Buenos Aires as well, even if it takes some time to become the rule.

The same is not true with cats, however, in public spaces such as the Botanical Gardens. Only blocks from our apartment, the gardens are infested with scrawny, sickly, feral felines that leave an overpowering odor; because of their presence, the gardens are an almost bird-free zone. At night the cats often invade a nearby children's playground to use its sandy surface as kitty litter. Many people abandon cats in fenced schoolyards, where they may get fed--but not vaccinated or neutered--by well-meaning but misguided people. It's something that needs urgent attention, but will be far harder to solve than cleaner sidewalks.

Friday, February 22, 2008

When the Desert Blooms

It wasn't so long ago--the mid-1990s--that the northern Chilean desert had almost no coastal roads, and visiting port cities such as Iquique required an hour's detour or more from the Panamerican highway, which followed the interior rail routes established during the 19th-century nitrate boom. When I took the then unpaved road from Iquique south to Antofagasta in 1992, I met no other vehicles on a stunning Pacific shoreline route that's now the main paved highway connecting the north and south.

Things continue to change, though. A friend in La Serena has informed me that a new coastal road, from the port of Huasco north to Parque Nacional Llanos de Challe to Bahía Inglesa, is now open for traffic. I took the first part of this road, in the Norte Chico region about 700 km north of Santiago, a few years ago but could not continue beyond the village of Carrizal Bajo and had to backtrack east to the Panamericana in order to continue to Copiapó and Bahía Inglesa. Later this year I'll check out the new route.

Rarely visited, the vicinity of Llanos de Challe is one of the best places to see the "Desierto Florido," when sporadic spring rains cause ephemeral wildflower blooms that carpet the desert floor. This most often happens in September, but the rains are sporadic and geographically unpredictable. When it happens, though, Santiago travel agencies put together bus tours on short notice, and the new road is likely to make the flowering desert more accessible.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Eternal Campaign

Even for political junkies, the United States' process of choosing presidential nominees and the ensuing campaign seem nearly endless, but usually after the election there's a breather. The same should be true in Argentina, since Cristina Fernández won the presidential election last October and replaced her husband Néstor Kirchner in office on December 10th.

Campaigning continues but, oddly enough, for another country. Spain is holding presidential elections on March 9th, and Spanish citizens resident in Argentina--even those with dual nationality who may never have never been to Spain--are eligible to vote. Thus, both the Socialist party of current Spanish president José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, and the opposition Partido Popular of Mariano Rajoy are plastering Buenos Aires city buses and utility boxes with campaign posters. Maybe when March 9th passes, electioneering can finally take a holiday.

Or maybe not. Italian elections are set for April 13-14, and according to some estimates there are 400,000 Argentines of Italian extraction who are eligible to vote. In fact, Italians resident in Argentina have their own representation in the Italian parliament.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

A Counter-Offensive in the Traffic War?

For 30 years or more, impunity has been an issue in Argentina's dysfunctional justice system. The most notorious examples, of course, were the military dictators and their subordinates who kidnapped and killed thousands of ordinary Argentines in the 1970s and early 1980s, but the phenomenon is far greater than that. On a daily basis, paradoxically, it often means indifferent law enforcement that allows scofflaws to get away with flagrantly dangerous traffic offenses, or corrupt officers who exact bribes instead of enforcing fines. Either way, lack of accountability has contributed to the second highest traffic fatality rate in the western hemisphere.

That's the background for Buenos Aires mayor Mauricio Macri's introduction of a point system for Porteño drivers that could lead to suspension or revocation of licenses for the most reckless of them. The most draconian element of Macri's program would put anyone who runs a red light behind bars for one to five days. Taxi drivers are among the most critical of this provision, but the other night a taxi driver told me he thought "something has to be done" about the epidemic of dangerous driving.

Unfortunately, Macri does not operate in a vacuum. Many drivers reside in surrounding Buenos Aires province, which issues its own licenses, and the point system would not apply to them even though they frequently use city streets. The national government, which claims to support a point system, appears not to want Macri (on the opposite end of the political spectrum) to get credit for it, and the province opposes it actively.

Michael Soltys, a Buenos Aires Herald columnist, analyzes Macri's dilemma in a recent editorial. Soltys, though, seems to think that a point system in lieu of fines would prevent the police from soliciting bribes--but wouldn't a driver faced with losing his license and going to jail be particularly vulnerable to bribery?

Sunday, February 17, 2008

No Whining

In the course of writing my guidebooks to Chile and Argentina, I've often visited wineries, but it's never been quite the endurance test it was last Friday on the outskirts of Montevideo. From 8: 30 in the morning until nearly 9 p.m. I was either en route to or at a winery, tasting upwards of 20 different wines, sampling platters of cold cuts and cheeses, or ingesting a tasty asado of grilled Uruguayan meats and vegetables.

The morning started with a tasting at Varela Zarranz, about 30 km north of Montevideo, where the historic winery once belonged to the politically influential Diego Pons. Pons hosted presidents and other prominent politicians in the Italianate house now occupied by owner Ricardo Varela (Varela's grandfather bought the winery following Pons's death).

At that time, the winery produced mostly jug wines under the brand name Vudu which, though it still exists, has nothing to do with Caribbean witchcraft--rather, it was the acronym for the Viticultores Unidos del Uruguay, a producers' cooperative. Now, Varela Zarranz and a handful of other Uruguayan wineries have focused on fine wines, though some of them still produce jug wines for the domestic market. The house's basement is now an atmospheric tasting room, where Varela and his marketing assistant Magdalena Américo offered samples of its Tannat (Uruguay's signature varietal) and others, most notably the fruity white Petit Grain Muscat--which I had never even heard of.

From Varela Zarranz, I continued to Bodega César Pisano which, by a small margin, has overtaken Juanicó as Uruguay's biggest exporter of fine wines by value.  I'd visited Pisano before, but they still had a couple surprises: as elsewhere, Tannat is the standard, and it's one of the most opaque reds around, but in Uruguay's climate and terrain it's lost the astringency it has in its French Basque homeland. Pisano also produces a sparkling version that's so dark it's almost black, and a dry white Torrontés that Argentine winemakers cultivate at at altitudes up to 3,000 meters. Here it's almost at sea level, and it's different, but still worth seeking out.

Following the asado at Pisano, the tour went to Bodega Filgueira, where a walk around the vineyard with Manuel Filgueira preceded a brief tasting that included Sauvignon Gris of which, according to Filgueira's website, there remain only 50 hectares planted worldwide. By this time, with the amount of wine and food I'd consumed, I was so tired that Manuel offered me a bed for a half-hour nap before continuing to Bodega De Lucca.

Educated in Pennsylvania and France, Reinaldo De Lucca communicates his passion both for wine and for the natural environment that surrounds it, eschewing pesticides and fertilizers, and encouraging wildlife including birds that other winemakers frighten off with recordings and scarecrows. With the sunset over El Colorado creek, it made an ideal spot to wind up the day, while sampling Marsanne (another uncommon white) and a variety of premium reds before I got dropped off at the port of Montevideo to catch the boat back to Buenos Aires.

My several days in Uruguay, in which I visited seven different wineries, reinforced my opinion that Uruguay is an underrated secret in the wine world. Uruguayan vintners have done well to carve out a niche with Tannat, as an entry into markets where their small production--all of Uruguay produces less wine per annum than the Chilean juggernaut Concha y Toro--would otherwise work against them. For wine tourism, the small scale works strongly in their favor, as visitors are often attended by the owners and winemakers themselves. It's a truly personalized experience.

Admittedly, I'm not a wine professional, but I've gained a new admiration for professionals. Especially after a 12-hour day which, if it wasn't exactly stressful, was enough to leave me snoozing in my seat on the three-hour trip back to BA.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Miscellanea

This has been a very full four days so far in Uruguay, and I won't have time to write anything else before my departure for Buenos Aires tomorrow night. Tomorrow, in fact, will be a test of stamina as I'll be visiting four Montevideo area wineries: Varela Zarranz, Pisano, Filgueira, and De Lucca. By the time the day's over, I may not be in shape to do anything but sleep on the boat back to Buenos Aires.

Meanwhile, as I prepared my essay on Argentines and Uruguayans yesterday, I neglected to mention a notable event: the arrival of the cruise ship "Celebrity Infinity" which, according to the Montevideo daily La República, was carrying 2,000 gay passengers. From the look of it, all of them were enjoying themselves yesterday in Punta del Este and today in Montevideo's Ciudad Vieja, the old colonial quarter. Tomorrow they're headed to Buenos Aires.

Finally, a request. In the last two months or so, I've acquired quite a few regular readers and many more sporadic ones. I'd like to know who you are and whether you're planning to travel to the Southern Cone. If you have any questions or suggestions, please direct them to me at southerncone (at) mac.com (I don't want to use a hyperlink here, to avoid getting spammed).

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Relatives and Neighbors

A few years, an Uruguayan soldier surprised me--almost shocked me, really--when he said "We should be part of Argentina." On a superficial level, it might make sense, and the two countries are already part of Mercosur, the South American common market that also includes Brazil and Paraguay. Their accents are similar enough that, for a non-native speaker, it's hard to tell them apart. Uruguayans eat as much or more beef than Argentines, and drink as much or more mate.

At the same time, the two countries have often had a contentious relationship. In the mid-19th century, Argentine dictator Juan Manuel Rosas blockaded the port of Montevideo for years. At present, Argentine protestors from Gualeguaychú have blocked the border crossing there because of an ostensibly polluting pulp plant on the Uruguayan side.

All this came to mind today as I visited the Uruguayan resort of Punta del Este, the playground for rich and famous Argentines whose primary occupation appears to be posing for papparazzi. In January and February, many of them anchor their boats in Punta del Este's yacht harbor and party until dawn. One of them, Porteño publicist Gabriel Alvarez, is in prison awaiting trial here after his driver killed two Argentine motorcyclists in a high-speed collision on Punta's outskirts (the Buenos Aires daily La Nación keeps a bureau in Punta del Este to report on the doings of Argentines here).

In area, Argentina (the world's eighth-largest country) is about the size of India, while Uruguay is a little bigger than England. Argentina's population (around 39 million) is more than ten times that of Uruguay's 3.4 million or so. For their economic well-being, Uruguayans need Argentines, even if they feel ambivalent about them. In a sense, Uruguayans share the dilemma of Canadians, who also share a long border with a sometimes overbearing neighbor who's also a relative and trading partner.

Argentina and Uruguay will always have differences, but it could be far worse. After I remarked to a Montevideo friend that Argentina was the size of India, we speculated that a similarly densely populated Argentina would mean a billion Argentines--including 300 million Porteños--facing Uruguay's shores.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Days of Wine and Cachilas

One of the wine world's best-guarded secrets is Uruguay, where a handful of family-owned boutique wineries specialize in the deep red Tannat, originally from the French Basque country, in the vicinity of Montevideo. I'm spending the next several days in and around Montevideo, visiting seven or eight of them in the process, to update and expand the coverage in my Buenos Aires guidebook, which includes excursions to the Uruguayan capital.

One of those wineries is Bodega Bouza, barely ten minutes from downtown Montevideo but a world apart where verdant vineyards surround handsome brick buildings that now include a stylish restaurant and tasting room. On cruise ship days, it can serve upwards of a hundred people, but today I had it almost to myself.

Wine isn't everything here, though. In a custom-built addition, there's also an automobile museum where Juan Luis Bouza has assembled a fleet of classic cachilas, as Uruguayans call the cars that were imported for so many years (unlike neighboring Argentina and Brazil, tiny Uruguay never had an automotive industry). When I last visited Bouza, three years ago, most of these cars looked like wrecks, but now they seem as if they just came off the assembly line. Bouza's collection also includes a sample of vintage motorcycles.

All cars imported prior to 1946 used right-hand drive as, with the strong British influence here, Uruguayans originally drove on the left. Immediately after World War II, though, Uruguayans started to drive on the right and all newer vehicles have left-hand drive.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

No Second Fiddle

As the poster shows, Bob Dylan will be playing Buenos Aires on March 15, and I know at least one person who's seeing him in Santiago de Chile on March 11 and then flying across the Andes to see him here. He'll also play March 13 in Córdoba, March 18 in Rosario, and March 20 in Punta del Este (Uruguay, at the hideously pharaonic  Conrad Casino).

Given how many native English speakers are in both Santiago and Buenos Aires at present, there's likely to be more than a few foreigners in each crowd. I don't know who's the opening act in Santiago, but everyone in Buenos Aires will have the pleasure of hearing León Gieco, whose career parallels Dylan's in many ways.

Several years younger than Dylan, Gieco grew up with the Beatles and Stones but, like Dylan, he has shown a genuine interest in what, for lack of a better term, academics call ethnomusicology. Like Dylan on Highway 61, Gieco traveled from the Bolivian border to the tip of Tierra del Fuego to document traditional Argentine music and incorporate it into his own work. Like Dylan, he often accompanies himself on mouth harp, and his Bandidos Rurales thematically resembles Dylan's John Wesley Harding.

While all this might sound derivative, Gieco is an original. No less a figure than Pete Seeger played with him in Buenos Aires and invited him to the United States, where Gieco also played with David Byrne. If Dylan fans are smart, they won't miss a minute of an artist who's well-known in the Spanish-speaking world, but deserves a wider fame. An onstage collaboration between the two would be something to see, and I regret that I'm likely to be gone from BA by then.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Making Tracks for Mar del Plata?

Last Thursday the "Gran Capitán" train, which covers the 1,007 km from Buenos Aires to the Misiones province capital of Posadas, arrived five hours late. That's the good news. On its previous run, with 550 passengers en route from Posadas to Buenos Aires, it arrived 18 hours late and had to change locomotives three times. The average speed was barely 20 km per hour, and the trip took 48 hours.

It seemed ironic then that, hot on the rails of her recent announcement of a bullet train from Buenos Aires to Rosario and Córdoba, president Cristina Fernández yesterday announced plans for a similar project, to cost US$800 million or more, to the Buenos Aires province beach resort of Mar del Plata, 500 or so km south. When completed, it would whisk passengers from the federal capital to the Atlantic sands in two hours-plus. Theoretically, at least, you could spend the afternoon in Mardel and return home for dinner.

The project is audacious but passenger traffic to Mar del Plata, unlike that to Rosario and Córdoba, is decidedly seasonal. Another question is what it will cost the passengers: even with a superannuated infrastructure nearly in ruins, trains like the "Gran Capitán" are already highly subsidized, and it's only the poorest Argentines who use them. Fares from Buenos Aires to Posadas range from US$13 to US$23, depending on the ticket category, compared to about US$45 for the cheapest bus.

Either the latest bullet train will be far more highly subsidized, or it'll be so expensive that only the wealthiest Argentines will be able to afford it. Meanwhile, the "Gran Capitán" has apparently made its last trip.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Uruguay Clears the Air

Uruguay is a small country--its total population of 3.4 million residents is fewer than most South American capital cities--but it's placed itself on the frontlines of the tobacco war. According to a radio report on NPR's "Morning Edition," Uruguay's anti-smoking efforts have overcome heavy industry lobbying to enact some of the world's most effective tobacco controls.

The other main Southern Cone countries, Chile and Argentina, have mixed records. Chilean laws control smoking in the workplace and other public areas, but allow bars and restaurants to declare themselves tobacco-friendly (in the case of restaurants, this cuts off their access to the important family market, as individuals under age 18 may not enter such venues). The city of Buenos Aires has enacted a surprisingly effective law, but surrounding Buenos Aires province ( with more than 30 percent of the country's population) is still a free-fire zone.

Much of Uruguay's progress derives from the leadership of President Tabaré Vásquez who, among other achievements, received the 2006 Director General's award from the World Health Organization for his efforts in curbing tobacco use in Uruguay and elsewhere. President Vásquez is, appropriately enough, also an oncologist.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Uruguay's Different Drummers

Carnaval may have seen a revival in Buenos Aires, but it's never really gone away in Uruguay. In both countries, former slave communities played a major role in its development; in Argentina, though their visibility waned as successive governments, promoting a progressive "European" country, shunted them into the background. In the words of historian George Reid Andrews, Afro-Argentines were "forgotten, but not gone."

Across the River Plate, though, Afro-Uruguayans remained far more visible and their heritage still permeates the culture. Last night in Colonia, while returning from dinner, I came upon a small but lively parade of candombe dancers and drummers who beat their colorful tambores with an inexorable African rhythm (though none of them was, to my eyes, obviously Afro-Uruguayan). One measure of the enduring African heritage has become might have been the elderly woman, aided by a cane, who danced down the street as best she could, somehow managing to stay a step ahead of the drummers.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Hi, Neighbor!

Along with Buenos Aires and Patagonia's Moreno Glacier, Iguazú Falls is one of Argentina's top three attractions, and one of the places people most ask me about. To be sure, it's a spectacular sight, far wider and higher than Niagara, with volumes more water, but I've grown to dislike its Disneyfied commodification--the approach to the falls feels like "Iguazú Theme Park." Away from the falls, in the rest of the surrounding national park, there's plenty of wild subtropical forest.

Still, anyone seeking a really unique experience, without the crowds, should travel to the downstream Iberá marshes of nearby Corrientes province. That's where you'll easily see fauna like the yacaré negro (black caiman) up close and personal.

Even if you don't seek them out, maybe they'll come to you. Today's Clarín carries an account of a five-foot caiman that parked itself on a family's doorstep near the port of Reconquista, across the Río Paraná in Santa Fe province. Responding to the attempted home invasion, local coast guard officials cautiously detained the reptilian perpetrator, then deported it to its natural habitat.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Uruguayan Values

Except in the European Union, whenever you cross a border, you have to deal with a new set of banknotes and, simultaneously, a new set of historical figures you may never have heard of. Most countries in the Americas showcase portraits of soldiers and politicians who played key roles in their independence struggles and comparable historical events. With its volatile economic history, Argentina has gone through countless currency changes, but at present every banknote showcases a general, including the uniquely vicious despot Juan Manuel de Rosas on the 20-peso note (in fairness, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, on the 50-peso note, was also an educator and an implacable foe of Rosas). Chile depicts mostly military men, though it also includes Nobel Prize poetess Gabriel Mistral and educator Andrés Bello (a Venezuelan by birth).

Uruguay, though, is different: all of its banknotes offer representations of artists, educators, and writers who enriched to the country's cultural life, though some (like painter Pedro Figari, pictured here on the 200-peso note) were also politicians. The backside of the note usually shows a sample of their work. Uruguay does acknowledge independence military hero José Gervasio Artigas, but only on coins.

Perhaps this says something about Uruguay's priorities, but I've also had practical concerns. Since I last crossed the river from Buenos Aires, a couple years ago, the Uruguayan peso has (like the Chilean peso) gained strength against the dollar. Then worth about 25 per dollar, it's now about 20, and prices have risen accordingly. That said, it's less costly than Chile, even if more expensive than Argentina: it's possible to find hostel beds for US$10 or less, or a decent hotel for US$50 or even a bit less, though most cost more. Dining out costs about the same as in Buenos Aires, with lunches for less than US$10 and dinner correspondingly more expensive. In Buenos Aires, though, quality restaurants are far more abundant, and their menus are more creative and diverse.

Merchants in Colonia, for their part, don't worry much about banknotes per se. Accustomed to foreign visitors, they happily accept their own pesos, but also Argentine pesos, US dollars and, increasingly, Brazilian reais and euros. In fact, restaurant checks often suggest equivalents in three or more currencies.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Crossing the Plate

As I left my apartment this morning, my down-the-hall neighbor Enrique saw my bags and asked where I was going. To Colonia, I responded, and Enrique told me he'd heard it was a beautiful place. In reality, the Uruguayan town, with its cobbled, sycamore-studded streets, is more than just beautiful--its historic citadel is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the Southern Cone's best-preserved example of early colonial urbanism. It's barely an hour by boat from Buenos Aires, across the River Plate, but Enrique--who's probably in his sixties and spends several weeks every summer in Brazil--has never been here.

I first visited Colonia in the early 1980s, and its "Portuguese ranchos" and other period houses look just as they did then--local ordinances properly prohibit fiddling with their facades (one hotel, which has two streetside rooms, cannot install air conditioners in those rooms because they would be visible from the street). Many of them are museums, as well as guesthouses and restaurants catering primarily to Argentines. Colonia's also become a stop on the cruise ship circuit, though.

While Enrique's never been here, plenty of Porteños have, as it's a popular weekend destination all year and, in summer, it's overrun with them. As I strolled around looking for a place to eat, diners had spilled out of the restaurants and onto the sidewalk and plaza tables on a warm, windless evening.

Unlike Buenos Aires, Colonia is pedestrian-friendly: cars, trucks, motorcycles and even taxi cabs defer to walkers--even jaywalkers. Instead of cars, people rent bicycles, scooters, or even golf carts to get around town. The quality of accommodations, ranging from hostels to boutique guesthouses and high-end resorts, is outstanding in every category. In my opinion, it's the single best excursion from Buenos Aires, even if Enrique hasn't yet seen fit to get that Uruguayan stamp in his passport.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Dueling Festivals?

Early this afternoon, I took the No. 60 bus from Palermo to the northern barrio of Belgrano, to lunch at Contigo Perú, my favorite family-style Peruvian restaurant. I was surprised to find the bus packed, even though many people do take the train from Belgrano station to the riverside suburb of Tigre on Sundays. After finishing lunch, I walked back toward the station and found nearby Arribeños street packed with pedestrians from sidewalk to sidewalk.

What was it, I wondered? My first thought was that it was Carnaval, which has just started--while it's not the international spectacle it is in Brazil, that event has been making a comeback in Buenos Aires barrios the last several years. Then I remembered that I was in Buenos Aires's Chinatown, and the crowds (plenty of Asian faces, but mostly Porteños) were celebrating Chinese New Year's. I've been to Belgrano's Chinatown many times, but it had simply never occurred to me that New Year's could be such a big draw here.

In fact, Contigo Perú is part of the Chinese presence. While the menu is predominantly Andean, it has a page in Chinese, and dishes such as fried rice owe their origins to the Peruvian tradition of coastal Chinese restaurants known there as chifas.

Barbie Power!

For over half a century, starting with Evita Perón, Argentine women have directly influenced politics at the highest levels. Even if Evita and the hapless María Estela Martínez ("Isabelita") gained their influence through marrying Juan Perón, there's no question they exercised political power, both openly and behind the scenes.

At present, of course, the highest profile female politician is President Cristina Fernández; even if she owes part of her success to her husband and predecessor Néstor Kirchner, there's no question she's capable and charismatic in her own right. Since the 2002 political and economic crisis, one of the main opposition figures is former congressional deputy Elisa Carrió, who finished second in the 2007 presidential election. Former Buenos Aires province gubernatorial candidate Margarita Stolbitzer has long been influential in the Radical party of former president Raúl Alfonsín (despite their name, the Radicals are a fairly conventional--and ineffectual--middle class party).

Culturally, though, there's another extreme: an obsession with impossibly slender fashion models that starts early. There’s no better place to observe the phenomenon than Buenos Aires's first-of-its-kind, Mattel-sanctioned Barbie Store that not only sells dolls, but encourages pre-teens (and their mothers) to emulate their style. Where else can five-year-olds saunter down the runway, in clothing inspired by their anorexic template of a toy, for their birthday parties?

Franchises are available.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Tired of the Tango?

Apparently Mauricio Macri is, or at least the newly elected mayor of Buenos Aires is tired of the people who have run the highly successful Festival de Tango for most of the last ten years. One of his first actions on taking office was to fire those in charge of the festival, which normally follows Brazilian Carnaval in late summer (February or early March). The pugnacious Macri has been trying, with limited success, to rid city government of ñoquis (ghost employees whose primary duties are picking up their paychecks at month's end), and this may have been part of his long-term strategy.

After Macri's functionary Hernán Lombardi denied the festival would be suspended, he replaced the staff with his own people, who then shifted it to August to precede the annual Mundial de Tango (World Tango Championships). Together, the two will fill the last two weeks of August, but visitors who planned their trips around the February/March event will be disappointed. There's still plenty of tango, but nothing quite matches the festival's critical mass of talent, both musicians and dancers. It's possible that next year's event will return to its normal schedule.

Economically speaking, tango is a critical part of the tourist economy. According to a recent Reuters article, it brings in US$450 million year year, about ten percent of all entertainment spending in Buenos Aires, and the "tango economy" is growing 25 percent annually. Giant dinner clubs with tango shows, such as the Esquina Carlos Gardel, charge upwards of US$100 per person and are running full, even though few Argentines (other than the performers) go anywhere near them.
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