Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Tale of Two Wineries

Compared with neighboring Argentina, Chilean wine tourism is, with some exceptions, badly managed - even in wineries that are otherwise professional and sophisticated. The major drawback is that Chilean producers appear to consider winery tours to be money-making opportunities in themselves, rather than a strategy to showcase their processes and promote their products. A visit to a Chilean winery rarely costs less than US$10 and sometimes up to US$30 or even more - per person. Visiting several wineries really adds up.

By contrast most Argentine producers, even elite vineyards such as the Uco valley’s Bodegas Salentein, charge little or nothing - almost never more than a few dollars per person. They seem to expect, and I think they’re right, that lower charges mean more visits and higher sales, even if a certain number of freeloaders take advantage of their generosity in the tasting room.

That said, there can be significant differences among Chilean wineries, as I realized last week during visits to two vastly different facilities in the Maule region. Friday morning I visited Viña San Pedro (pictured below), which has its principal vineyards and production facilities near the town of Molina, about 20 km south of Curicó. It’s a strategic location alongside the four-lane Panamericana - easy off, easy on, for both southbound and northbound motorists.

San Pedro is one of Chile’s biggest producers, a conglomerate that includes many other vineyards from the arid Elqui valley north of Santiago to the Biobío region south of Chillán. It belongs to the family of the late Andrónico Luksic, one of Chile’s wealthiest men, whose other interests that include mining, Chile’s biggest foreign currency earner.

At Molina, its retail sales outlet offers lower prices than most stores, and it has a tasting room where visitors can sample wines by the glass. With reservations, it’s possible to take a tour of the vineyards and the winery, in the company of a dutiful guide. Still, there’s something lacking - the attention is almost stiffly formal, and the vast mechanized facility feels like part of a corporate industrial empire (which, in fact, it is). I bought a couple bottles of Viognier, on sale at a bargain price, but that didn’t eliminate a disappointment I felt for a one-hour tour that includes two small samples of their reserve wines, at a price of nearly US$20.

Saturday afternoon, though, I visited Viña Balduzzi (pictured at top), a smaller winery in the town of San Javier, about 20 km south of Talca. Despite an apparent miscommunication that had led them to cancel my reservation, the guide in the tasting room - which occupies cramped temporary quarters because of damage from last year’s earthquake - quickly recovered. In fact, she upgraded me and a companion from my Talca hotel from their basic US$10 tour (with a tasting of four basic varietals) to their top of the line visit (normally US$20). That latter option included a tasting of their better reserve wines and even their top blends; not only that, she added a bonus of their Late Harvest dessert wine.

In the course of the tour, we learned that Balduzzi lost 25 percent of its 2010 production to the quake - in some cases, the fiberglass lining in older barrels split and the wine leaked out, while in others stainless steel tanks toppled to the ground. One section of the adobe building was undergoing restoration and reinforcement; this involves, among other techniques, enclosing the walls within heavy gauge fencing wire to help compensate for the structural weakness of individual adobe bricks (as pictured below). When it’s completed later this year, they will add a new tasting room and a restaurant.

At the same time, Balduzzi believes in environmental and social responsibility - Balduzzi contributes 600 pesos (about US$1.25) from the sale of every bottle to the non-profit FairChile program, toward the purchases of seedlings for a native forest restoration program. San Pedro has been approached about its participation in the program, but hasn’t yet committed.

At Balduzzi, I bought a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc and another of Carmenere, contributing two seedlings to FairChile, but I might have bought more had I not spent so much on the tours. If Balduzzi, San Pedro and other Chilean wineries would reduce or even eliminate the cost of their tours, it could mean more visitors, more wine sold, and more trees for Chile’s woodlands.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Watching Waterfalls: Solitude of the Upper Maule


Nearly 30 years ago, when I first trekked Chilean Patagonia’s now famous Paine Circuit, I saw three other hikers in ten days. In many sections, the trail was barely wide enough for both my boots to fit within it side-by-side, and it was often difficult to follow.

Today, of course, Torres del Paine is Chile’s most famous national park, and it’s hard to find the solitude there that I and my fellow hikers enjoyed that February - the mid-summer high season for Chilean vacationers. Today, it’s one of the country’s most visited parks: last month alone, it received some 29,000 visitors, 16,000 of them foreigners, many of them day hikers and long distance trekkers. It’s still stunning, but is not the Torres del Paine whose incomparable solitude I experienced in the early 1980s.

So where can someone go to seek wild high country in Chile without encountering hordes of hikers? Ironically enough, it’s the Andean backcountry of Talca, a city only three hours south of Santiago by bus - about the same distance as San Francisco is from California’s Sierra Nevada, a comparable hikers’ paradise. Talca itself enjoys a Mediterranean climate, not so hot or humid as Sacramento (the gateway to the Sierra Nevada), and it’s even closer to the cordillera than Sacramento is to the Sierras.

Last Wednesday, for instance, three other hikers and I joined German guide Frank Holl, of Costa y Cumbre Tours, on a walk to the scenic but previously unnamed waterfall he calls Salto Arcoiris (pictured at top). On the upper Río Maule, it’s reached from a suspension bridge trailhead at Baños Campanario, a rustic hot springs only 126 km (about 78 miles) east of Talca via a smooth paved highway that, most years, crosses the Andes to Argentina. This season, as the final segments are being paved, the 2,553-meter Paso Pehuenche is closed, but it will reopen for the next austral summer.

On a trail that climbs gradually from 1,500 meters, with only a few steep segments, we passed an odd sandstone outcrop known as Los Monjes (The Monks), but much of the landscape consists of columnar basalt that resembles California’s Devil’s Postpile. About two hours and five km in, at 1,800 meters elevation, after sighting several ribbon waterfalls across the Maule, we came in view of Arcoiris, plunging vertically into the river canyon.

This is not a signed trail, and not even part of a protected area. In fact, it’s a stock trail used by local herders who take their cattle into the highland summer pastures. Frank, who walks it frequently, tells me he’s never seen another recreational hiker here even though, most of the time, the guardrails of the international highway are within our sight. We didn’t even see any of Chilean huasos, the local counterpart of the Argentine gauchos, with their flat-brimmed and flat-topped sombreros; we did see a few of their cattle.

Returning to the vehicle, Frank drove us a few miles farther where, after a short hike, we saw the same falls - one of which had a small but swimmable pool, from directly above. At one point, as we stood on a precipice overlooking the valley, an Andean condor glided past us only 20 or 30 meters away, close enough that its white head and its wingtips, separated like the fingers of a human hand, were clearly visible.

The final treat, though, was the 60-meter Salto del Maule (pictured above), not visible from either the highway or the trail across the canyon that we had so recently walked. Even given that the falls can vary in their flow because of upstream releases to fill the Lago Colbún reservoir below, it’s remarkable that such sights are so close to a major metropolitan but still almost undiscovered.

That’s only a sample of what the Talca backcountry, which also features protected areas such as Parque Nacional Rada Siete Tazas and Reserva Nacional Altos del Lircay, has to offer. The five-day Circuito Cóndor, for instance, offers a scenic solitude that approaches what Torres del Paine offered three decades ago.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

From the Epicenter: Chile, One Year Later

For the last ten days or so, since sending off the finished manuscript of Moon Handbooks Patagonia, I’ve been slowly working my way through the area affected by the massive Chilean earthquake of February 27, 2010. I managed a brief visit to Santiago a couple weeks after the quake, but was unable to visit the area in and around the offshore epicenter, which was 105 km NNE of the city of Concepción, and 105 km WSW of the city of Talca.

Last week in Concepción, though, I visited my longtime friend Rolando Rodríguez, who was shaken awake at 3:34 a.m. on the day of the quake and, after the shaking stopped, went immediately to turn off the gas in his solid middle-class home; it suffered no structural damage and was beyond the area affected by the tsunami that hit the nearby port of Talcahuano. Some things were thrown from their shelves and, in the ensuing days, he and his wife lacked electricity, water and food, which were only available through emergency services. They and their neighbors, meanwhile, kept a watch for potential looters, as rumors were running wild - in fact, though there was some looting of supermarkets and other businesses, there were no mobs of looters in residential areas. “We were watching out for something that didn’t exist,” he said.

Rolando’s friend and fellow CONAF employee Jaime Verdugo was not so lucky - but in a sense, even luckier. He was in his eighth floor condominium in the Alto Río building, which he bought for its views over the Río Biobío and its convenience to his downtown workplace, when the quake hit. Thrown into a closet, he stayed there as the building separated from its base and tumbled backwards; had he been on the opposite side, he would have been crushed - as were nine other residents - but, astonishingly, he survived even as the building toppled and split apart between the fifth and sixth floors. Anticipating a tsunami, he decided to stay put but then, scenting a natural gas leak, he left the closet and managed to flag down emergency workers who pulled him out of the building’s ruins (pictured above)

Meanwhile, only a few blocks away, the 15-story Torre O’Higgins (pictured above) still stands despite its sagging upper floors because, according to the Ministerio de Obras Públicas (Public Works Ministry), it needs to be stabilized before it can be demolished. That’s due to take place by July but, in the interim, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere in the vicinity if another quake happened. Ironically, the banners offering offices for sale still hang from its sides.

All that said, despite a few vacant lots where lies a bit of rubble, Concepción has pretty much returned to normal. The same was true in Angol, Chillán and Valdivia, the other cities I’ve seen en route - only minor damage is still apparent, except in Talcahuano, where the brunt of the tsunami hit and even knocked the historic Peruvian ironclad Huáscar up against the docks (pictured above, it’s since been repaired). That said, even the vulnerable Talcahuano waterfront is getting a major upgrade.

All this raises the question, though, of comparisons between the Chilean earthquake (8.8 on the Richter scale) and the recent, larger quake in Japan (9.0 on the Richter). Both were among the largest seismic events ever recorded, but the Japanese quake has killed far more people - perhaps upwards of 10,000, compared with 500-plus in Chile. Leaving aside the issue of relative damage caused by strike-slip (Chile) versus thrust fault (Japan), the big issue in human terms is Japan’s far greater population density - its population of 127 million is roughly eight times Chile’s 16 million, and the population density of 336 per square km far exceeds Chile’s 23 per square km.

Beyond Santiago, which has about six million inhabitants, Chile has no city larger than about 250,000 residents (though the Valparaíso/Viña del Mar and Concepción/San Pedro conurbations total about half a million), so the population is far more dispersed than in Japan. The destruction of low-slung adobes in towns like Talca (which I am about to visit) meant fewer fatalities.

Still, given the magnitude of the Chilean quake, the relatively minor human damage and quick recovery is a tribute to the country’s emergency services and resilience. The issue now raising its head, though, is nuclear power in a seismically vulnerable country - according to a recent survey, 86 percent of Chileans object to reactors. The highly regarded ex-president Ricardo Lagos, who originally supported nuclear-powered plants for a country with limited fossil fuel resources, has reconsidered their seismic safety in the aftermath of the Japanese experience. While public opinion surveys can be notoriously erratic in the aftermath of catastrophic events, such opposition is unlikely to disappear any time soon.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Air Calafate: We Have Two Winners!

Often, when I offer a give-away contest, it seems to take several days to get the winners but, after posting the El Calafate quiz on Friday night, I had three correct answers when I checked my mail the next morning: the first was Lisa Burrell Gardinier of Tucson, who made it even for the day was out; the second was Andrew Zur of Toronto, who answered in the early morning hours on Saturday. Both of them won copies of Moon Handbooks Argentina (though Lisa has asked for a copy of Moon Buenos Aires, which I will be happy to provide instead). Steve Behaeghel of Merelbeke, Belgium, checked in a little too late, but also had the right answer, as did Darek and Analia Przebieda of Burbank (a couple days too late).

The right answer is that Avenida Gunther Plüschow and Avenida Jorge Newbery were the runways of El Calafate’s original airport, which closed in 2001 with the opening of the Aeropuerto Internacional Comandante Tola (pictured above, presently underdoing a major expansion), about 23 km east of town. With its location so close to the town center, the original airfield was never suitable for the jets that now arrive here. Until the new airport opened, most Calafate-bound visitors had to fly to Río Gallegos and take a four-hour bus trip just to reach the gateway to the Moreno Glacier (some took an even longer bus trip from the Chilean town of Puerto Natales, after visiting Torres del Paine).

Both Newbery and Plüschow were aviators. Newbery (born 1875 in Buenos Aires), from whom Aeroparque (the Buenos Aires city airport) takes its name), died in a plane crash in Mendoza province in 1914. Despite his British-sounding name, and the importance of Anglo-Argentines in the country, Newbery’s father was from New York rather than England.

Plüschow (born 1886 in Munich) gained fame in Argentina with his pioneering flights in Patagonia, where he was the first to film the region from the air, on both the Argentine and Chilean sides of border (his biography is far more interesting than that alone, but I don’t have time to go into it here). He also died in a crash, near Lago Argentino, in 1931.

Now, of course, the old runways are part of the “Barrio Aeropuerto,” where my cousin and her husband have built their house, and design hotels and less imposing guesthouses are gradually filling in. Whenever I visit Calafate, it’s still something of a shock to drive this broad paved surface that carries almost no other traffic. There has been some talk of moving Calafate’s bus terminal here and, certainly, there’s plenty of room for it.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Win This Book: a Calafate Contest!

Today’s entry includes a contest to give away two copies of the latest edition of my Argentina guidebook, and a link to an interview on Buenos Aires.

The Strangest Street in El Calafate: a Contest

On a hilltop east of downtown El Calafate, in a neighborhood where a handful of hotels have opened and private homes are slowly filling in half-hectare plots among the low scrub and bunch grasses, Avenida Gunther Plüschow is a paved six-lane road that extends nearly two km but gets very little traffic. At this exposed site, the wind blows ferociously and can become tiresome, but its few residents put up with it for the views, and for the relatively low land prices.

In fact, my cousin María Elisa Rodríguez and her husband Sebastián Brina live at the north end of this road, just a short distance from the Design Suites Hotel (pictured above), which overlooks the glacial trough of Lago Argentino. The question, though, is why this avenue, with the width of a freeway, is so overbuilt built when nearly all the other nearby roads are gravel - with one exception. That exception is the perpendicular Avenida Jorge Newbery which, though neither so wide nor so long as the other, is still big enough for a drag race (fortunately, that doesn’t happen here, or so my cousin tells me).

In any event, I will award copies of the new edition of Moon Handbooks Argentina to the first two readers who can explain why these two roads are so overbuilt. This may require a little research, but it shouldn’t be all that difficult to decipher with references to the links above; please send your entries to my email southerncone@mac.com; do NOT send them to the comments box of my Southern Cone Travel blog.

If you’ve won before, feel free to enter again, unless you’ve already won the book in question. Those in need of more cartographic clues might consult the Google map of El Calafate, and blow it up to the desired level of detail.

Buenos Aires Q&A

In conjunction with the release of the new fourth edition of Moon Handbooks Buenos Aires, I recently completed a ten-question interview on “Exploring Buenos Aires” that has gone live on Moon’s web page. If you have any further questions on the Argentine capital and its surroundings, feel free to ask them at the email address above.

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.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Sunday Summary

Today’s entry is a series of short items, mostly on Chile, but with reference to Argentina in some cases.

Chilean Gasoline Prices

As elsewhere in the world, Chilean gasoline prices are rising rapidly in the wake of the Libyan crisis - Chile has almost no fossil fuel resources, and must import virtually all of its oil. In Puerto Varas, where I am presently, the price last week rose by 32 pesos (nearly 7 US cents) per liter, and the price for mid-grade premium now stands at 796 pesos (US$1.66) per liter (US$6.30 per US gallon). TV news has interviewed irritated drivers at the pump, but most Chileans seem to take it in stride - except for taxi drivers, whose livelihood depends directly on gas prices. Those prices are set to rise another 20 pesos next Thursday, raising the cost to about US$1.70 per liter (US$6.46 per US gallon) at current exchange rates.

Tsunami Warnings and the Nuclear Option
In the aftermath of Japan’s massive Friday earthquake, the Chilean government has relaxed its tsunami alerts for the coast, but a couple here in Puerto Varas told me the warning cost them a visit to the Puñihuil penguin colonies on the Isla Grande de Chiloé - local operators, rightly, would not take tourists out in small boats in rocky headlands.

Since its own colossal quake and subsequent tsunamis in February of last year, Chile has posted evacuation route signs in exposed coastal areas. It will be interesting to watch, though, the Japanese quake’s impact on Chile’s energy policy - President Sebastián Piñera’s government has discussed nuclear power but, given the near meltdown in Japan and Chile’s own seismic vulnerability, they may well reconsider.

That could have repercussions elsewhere, though. It could give impetus to advocates of the massive hydroelectric dams proposed in the Aisén region, at the expense of its wild and scenic rivers. Such a project would also require major deforestation for transmission lines; either way, the environment could be the loser.

Hora de Verano
In the United States, daylight savings time took effect early this morning and, at present, the time difference with Chile is one hour with New York, two hours with Chicago, three hours with Denver, and four hours with California. Time was, so to speak, that Chile ended its own daylight savings time (“hora de verano”) in mid-March, but it now extends until midnight on the first Saturday of April. Here, in Puerto Varas, that means daybreak does not come until almost 8 a.m.

Presumably, daylight savings time is an energy saving measure, but my guess is that it’s nearly a wash here, as early risers need the power to turn on the lights that they otherwise would have used last night. Of course, in a country with Chile’s latitudinal extent in a single time zone, sunrise and sunset times can vary dramatically from the subtropical north to the sub-Antarctic south.

The Tobacco Wars - Tobacco Losing Again
On my recent drive from Punta Arenas to Puerto Varas, I sped through Argentina as quickly as possible, but I did notice that the Santa Cruz province cities of Puerto San Julián and Río Gallegos have finally enacted tobacco-control laws, so that smoke-free dining there is the rule rather than the exception. Though El Calafate gets hordes of foreign tourists it, surprisingly, does not have such a law, but most of the restaurants in town act as if there were one. Even those that do allow smoking, such as the highly regarded grill restaurant La Tablita, have a well-segregated smoking area, in this case upstairs.

Because Argentina is a federal state, the laws are a patchwork there, varying from province to province. In Chile, they are uniform but much weaker - restaurants do not even have to set aside smoke-free areas, though no one younger than 18 may enter a designated smoking restaurant. With few exceptions, bars and pubs are total free-fire zones.

Nevertheless, that may change soon. According to a survey cited in the online Santiago Times, 78 percent of Chileans support banning tobacco in all restaurants, and Health Minister Jaime Mañalich has announced a measure that should eliminate smoking in enclosed public spaces. Chile is the region’s most egregious tobacco consumer, and the measure is long overdue.

Obama to Visit Chile
Visitors to Santiago should be prepared for heavy security on March 21, as US President Barack Obama pays an official 24-hour visit with his family. Between the 19th and the 23rd, Obama will also visit El Salvador and Brazil, but not Argentina.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Days of Wine and Rubble

In the Southern Cone countries, autumn is approaching, and that means the wine harvest season - March is the best time to visit the vineyards of Argentina, Chile and Uruguay. It also marks a change of pace - with January/February high season over, travel throughout the region feels more leisurely and, what’s more, prices fall gradually until they recover a bit in July’s winter holidays. Personally, March is my favorite month to travel in the region.

Of course, in my case, that may also have to do with the fact that I’m not facing any immediate deadline. Within a few days, as soon as I finish up the manuscript of Moon Handbooks Patagonia, I will spend the rest of the month heading north as I begin research on the new edition of Moon Handbooks Chile. The lack of deadline will be especially welcome in Chile’s Mediterranean heartland, where the vineyard zone so closely overlaps the area battered by the massive earthquake of February 27, 2010.

In terms of research, the earthquake presents a unique challenge. In the course of updating every edition of my guidebooks, I have to double-check lots of information on the ground to see what’s changed since my last visit - a shingled Jesuit church in Chiloé may have stood for the past 200-plus years, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t burn to the ground in the interim. This month, though, it will be a particular challenge to assess the damage in cities like Concepción, Talca and the Colchagua valley town of Santa Cruz, not to mention surrounding villages (Santa Cruz's 19th-century parish church, pictured above, is a thing of the past). Some sights and services, of course, will be gone, others will still be in the process of rebuilding, and others will have escape almost untouched. Still, it promises to be a challenge, and the next edition’s coverage will differ significantly from the current one - which came out only a few months before the quake.

A Small Earthquake in (Northern) Chile
Speaking of quakes, there was a 6.2 event on Saturday near the village of Putre in northernmost Chile, in the Andes east of the city of Arica, near the borders of Bolivia and Perú. My friend Barbara Knapton, who runs her Birding Alto Andino nature tours out of Putre (pictured above), says it was no big deal: “[I]t lasted about a minute. I did finally go out of the house, but it never really got worse, the electric poles were waving, the wires too, but there was no dust in the quebradas, which happens frequently when it's bad enough for the rocks to roll down. Nothing fell off of shelves…”

Uruguay's Wine Festival
Meanwhile over the Andes and across the River Plate, Uruguay’s third annual Festival de la Vendimia (wine harvest festival) will take place this Saturday in Montevideo, nearby Canelones, and Maldonado (near the high-powered resort of Punta del Este). A dozen wineries that market themselves under the label Los Caminos del Vino (Wine Roads) will open their doors to locals and tourists alike for tours, tastings, live music and asados (barbecues) on their grounds. One of those is Establecimiento Juanicó, Uruguay's largest producer, pictured below.

I’ve written several other entries on Uruguayan wines, which are a little-known pleasure outside their home country and in a few other areas privileged to have access to their signature Tannat and other more standard varietals. Suffice it to say that, for anyone in Buenos Aires, this weekend would be an ideal time to take the high-speed ferry to Montevideo and visit a winery or two on Saturday, take the bus to Colonia del Sacramento Sunday and spend the night there, and return to the Argentine capital by catamaran after Monday lunch. All these destinations get ample coverage in my new fourth edition of Moon Handbooks Buenos Aires.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Saturday Summary: Books, Boats & Wine

Today’s entry deals with a variety of topics including a controversy over the Buenos Aires book fair, the powerhouse Chilean wine industry, and the latest developments in the Navimag ferry saga.

Banning the Nobelist?
Buenos Aires’s annual Feria del Libro, due to take place next month, is the Spanish-speaking world’s largest book fair, and a wonderland for lovers of literature (the photo below is from the 2007 event). It’s not just for Spanish speakers - there are publisher representatives and literary figures from around the world. Invariably, there’s a high-profile keynote speaker from the literary world and, this year, it will be Peruvian Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa.

Unless, that is, Aníbal Fernández would have his way. Argentine President Cristina Fernández’s cabinet chief considers Vargas Llosa to be anti-Argentine and told the Cámara Argentina del Libro that he would not be the appropriate person to open the fair. According to Buenos Aires Herald columnist James Neilson, Aníbal Fernández (no relation to the president) has described Vargas Llosa as “a true example of the most reactionary rightwinger that has ever been seen.”

What has Vargas Llosa done to deserve such condemnation? According to the acerbic Neilson, the novelist committed the unpardonable sin of moving from a youthful leftist idealism (when he enthusiastically supported Fidel Castro) to a more conservative adulthood. In 1990, he even campaigned for the Peruvian presidency as a free-market “neoliberal,” a dirty word among Argentina’s Peronists (and some other sectors as well). Of course, compared to his victorious opponent Alberto Fujimori (currently imprisoned for human rights violations and corruption), Vargas Llosa looks pretty good today.

As Neilson points out, the novelist has consistently spoken out against dictatorship, censorship and xenophobia, but many of Argentina’s populists see him as an apologist for organizations such as the International Monetary Fund, which they blame for Argentina’s failure to achieve its potential. Foreign investment, presumably leading to economic exploitation, is their bogeyman.

This is not the first time Vargas Llosa has run into problems with the Argentines, but the most notorious previous instance took place under the sadistic military dictatorship of 1976-83, which banned his comic novel Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter for supposedly being anti-Argentine. According to the novelist, quoted in the Buenos Aires daily Clarín, "I have an absolutely marvelous decree signed by General Harguindeguy, who was then interior minister, explaining how I had offended the Argentine people..."

This time, at least, President Fernández has had the good sense to tell her cabinet chief to shut up and leave the Feria del Libro to the literati.

Chilean Economic Imperialism?
While on the subject on international foreign investment and acquisitions, it’s worth noting that Chile’s wine giant Concha y Toro has expanded its overseas operations by purchasing California’s Fetzer Vineyards, one of the United States’ ten largest producers. Does this mean Chilean domination of the international wine market or, perhaps, control over the US economy?

Navimag Update
According to Navimag product manager Adrien Champagnat, the damaged ferry Evangelistas is presently undergoing drydock repairs at Talcahuano, the port of Concepción. “At the moment,” he writes, “the return of the Evangelistas is predicted to be March 25, but it could be a little later.” That means that, for the rest of the high season, the smaller Puerto Edén will continue to operate on the route.

Meanwhile, he adds, the Navimag Cruceros experiment of shifting the Mare Australis cruise ship (pictured above) from the Fuegian Fjords to the Castro to Laguna San Rafael route - directly competing with the established Skorpios company - has been “a total success, but I don’t know yet whether we’ll have the Mare next season. I think so…but we’ll figure that out in March.”

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Weekend at Piñera's

Doug Tompkins may have started something. Since the US environmental philanthropist succeeded in having Parque Pumalín declared a formal nature sanctuary under Chilean law, Sebastián Piñera - elected Chile’s president in 2010 - has created his own private nature reserve in the virtually roadless southwestern sector of the Isla Grande de Chiloé. This past weekend, for the first time, I visited Piñera's Parque Tantauco.

Since acquiring the property and declaring it a park in 2006, Piñera - who consulted with Tompkins about the project - has built an attractive guesthouse, an elegant campground with modern bathrooms and a spacious quincho for cooking, several hiking trails, and a series of refugios (shelters) along those trails for hikers who brave the park’s nearly incessant rain and soggy forests. At the same time, he’s created a plant nursery to reforest areas damaged by fire and logging, principally near the park’s overland entrance at Chaiguata, near the city of Quellón.

The park’s nucleus is its headquarters at Caleta Inío, a settlement created some 30 years ago to exploit the area’s extensive kelp beds. Accessible only by foot or motor launch from Quellón (2.5 to six hours away, depending on the vessel), Inío has a permanent population of about 50. Many of them are now park employees; others benefit from the park’s presence by offering lodging, meals, and handicrafts for sale. Given Inío’s isolation, they also benefit because Tantauco’s daily launch takes them to and from Quellón for free, on a space available basis (paying passengers have priority).

During my weekend, I stayed at the park guesthouse (pictured above), which offers only bed and breakfast, unlike Pumalín (which has a full-scale restaurant). I took my meals from the simpática Doña Silda Cadín, whose kitchen produced far better food than I had any expectations for. Her greenhouse cucumbers and tomatoes, for instance, formed the basis of superb salads, and her carbonada (beef stew) and grilled fish were as good as, or better than, any restaurant in Quellón. She also offers decent accommodations, with full board and even satellite TV in the evening, for less than US$40 pp.

On arrival at Inío, I took a three-hour hike on the Sendero Punta Rocosa (pictured above), a trail that climbs to a solar-powered lighthouse erected by the park and then loops through rocky headlands punctuated by several small, secluded beaches. Tantauco, in fact, may have some of South America’s most beautiful secluded beaches, even if the South Pacific at this latitude is a bit too chilly for swimming except on the warmest summer days.

Though Tantauco’s really in its early days, one trek appears likely to become an instant classic: several hikers I met, almost all of them Chileans, had completed the five-day, 52-km Sendero Transversal from Chaiguata (reachable by bus from Quellón) to Caleta Inío, where they would catch the launch back to Quellón. En route, they stayed at the four simple refugios, which eliminate the need to carry a tent. The shelters also have cooking facilities and latrines (not flush toilets).

At first glance, the daily distances suggested - ranging from 7.5 to 15 km per day - sound pretty modest for experienced hikers at low altitudes (the trail’s highest point is only about 250 meters above sea level). That’s misleading, though, because a good part of the route crosses soggy (sometimes muddy) terrain and involves climbing up, over and down fallen tree trunks. Many but not nearly all of those trunks have steps cut into them, even then, they are often slippery and require caution to avoid spills and sprains (both of which I experienced over the weekend). In some areas, boardwalks, bridges and staircases make things easier.

Another option is the Sendero Quilantar (pictured above), a two-day, 22-km loop from Caleta Inío that includes a night at Refugio Quilantar; I hiked part of this route on Sunday. All trails are clearly marked with bright metallic triangles every 100 meters; at regular intervals, these also have numbers that indicate progress along the route. Still, given the area’s copious rainfall and winter storms that often knock down trees, maintenance is a major issue.

Combined with whale-watching in the Golfo de Corcovado, Parque Tantauco could make Quellón a notable eco-tourism destination. At the same time, Tantauco lacks some of the attention to detail that Tompkins brings to Pumalín and his other projects - Tantauco’s guesthouse, for instance, lacks double-paned windows, there are no books (though there are bookshelves), and there are no towels (bring your own). Electricity comes from a diesel generator (there are no suitable sites for a hydropower turbine, but wind power is a real possibility here).

It’s hard to imagine that Piñera can’t afford a wind turbine for Tantauco - his fortune, made largely through LAN Airlines and the pioneering implementation of credit card payment systems in Chile, must be immeasurably larger than Tompkins’s. On the other hand, for the Chilean president, Tantauco is just one of many projects; conservation appears to be Tompkins’s principal life goal.

In any event, I would recommend visiting Tantauco sooner, rather than later, before it’s become a fixture on the international eco-tourism circuit. If not, though, there may be at least one other option - across the Golfo de Corcovado, near the even more isolated settlement of Melimoyu, the Sociedad Naturalista Patagonia is assembling a 100,000-hectare ecological reserve in and around the 2400-meter Cerro Melimoyu. Sebastián Yancovic Pakarati, one of the of the Sendero Transversal hikers I met at Inío, is working on that project, which is not yet open to the public (in fact, from the website, it’s not clear that it ever will be). Sebastián, interestingly, is of Croatian and Rapanui (Easter Island) descent.
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