Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Argentina, Chile and the NYT

Two Sundays ago, The New York Times travel section published a long feature on Bahía Bustamante, a remote company town on Argentina’s Patagonian coast north of Comodoro Rivadavia. Founded as a kelp gathering settlement, it’s part of the “Parque Interjurisdiccional Marino Costero Patagonia Austral,” which comprises a coastal strip roughly 100 km long in Chubut province, south and west from Cabo Dos Bahías.

Only about 30 km southeast of Ruta Nacional 3, the main coastal Patagonian highway, Bahía Bustamante dates from 1953; it once had 400 residents - most of them employees - but now has only about 40 or so. Many of them gather seaweed along the shoreline; it is then dried in the sun and trucked to Gaiman (best known for its Welsh teahouses), where a factory processes it into food additives.

At Bustamante, where I spent a couple nights two years ago, the streets take their names from species of seaweed, and its restaurant La Proveeduría serves meals that often use seaweed as a condiment. Only a handful of the houses are occupied, but some of those - the former administrators’ houses - have been transformed into stylishly retrofitted guesthouses now called Casas del Mar, facing the beach, at premium prices on an all-inclusive basis.

The Times article goes to great lengths to stress Bustamante’s exclusivity, almost portraying its owner Matías Soriano (pictured above, left) as a near-hermit who limits access to his own personal Galápagos - home to thousands of Magellanic penguins, cormorants, dolphin gulls, and steamer ducks, plus large colonies of southern sea lions and fur seals. It implies that Bustamante’s wealth of wildlife is available only to those able and willing to pay upwards of US$400 per night (double) for the privilege.

In fact, while Bustamante is a company town and the surrounding lands are a sheep estancia, all private property, the site is readily accessible by public roads, another of which leads south from the town of Camarones. Having met Soriano in Buenos Aires and dined with him at Bustamante, I can affirm that he’s gregarious and far more open toward budget travelers than the Times suggests - in fact, he’s even permitted people to camp nearby, and the simpler “Casas de la Estepa” offer cheaper accommodations with kitchen access (US$120 for up to three persons), though meals and excursions are extra (full-board guests have priority on the excursions).

Those excursions include a visit to an offshore island full of Magellanic penguins and other birds, but this is possible only at high tide - the five-meter tidal range makes it impossible for the flat bottom launch to navigate at low tide. At low tide, though, there are other options: on the nearby steppe, guanacos and flightless choikes (rheas) scamper through the bunch grasses and scrublands. Farther inland, Bustamante possesses a remarkable badlands with a sprawling petrified forest comparable to Santa Cruz Province’s Monumento Natural Bosques Petrificados and Chubut’s own Monumento Natural Bosque Petrificado de Sarmiento.

It would be a shame for anyone to pass up Bustamante simply because of the Times’s implied exclusivity.

Santiago’s No. 1?

Meanwhile, across the Andes, the Times recently named the Chilean capital No. 1 among places to go in 2011. In correspondent Paola Singer’s words, “Santiago has in recent years added modern museums, smartly designed hotels and sophisticated restaurants. The city has become decidedly more vibrant.” She suggests that new hotels, such as The Aubrey (pictured above) and the W Santiago (pictured below), along with arts landmarks such as the Centro Cultural Gabriela Mistral (ironically enough, once the administrative center of the Pinochet dictatorship) have turned the city around. Next month, it will host the Lollapalooza music festival.

Personally, I’ve always thought Santiago was an underrated city, but it’s always kept a lower profile than its trans-Andean counterpart of Buenos Aires. Santiago has outstanding restaurants, museums, and theaters, plus easy access to an Andean backcountry that Buenos Aires can’t come remotely close to. All that said, I can’t honestly say I’d consider it the world’s No. 1 destination - but I would say that anybody visiting Chile should spend at least a few days here before or after visiting Torres del Paine, San Pedro de Atacama, or the nearby wine country. In this case, the Times’s hyperbole is not completely misplaced.

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