Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Queen of the Argentines? Máxima of Orange

According to her harshest critics, Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner often acts as if she were royalty but, in about three months, her “subjects” will have their own legitimate queen, of a sort, to fawn over. At the end of April, Holland’s Queen Beatrix will abdicate her throne, paving the way for her son Willem-Alexander, Prince of Orange, to become king. As it happens, Willem-Alexander’s wife is Argentine-born Máxima Zorreguieta Cerruti, who will simultaneously become Queen Máxima.
Máxima (second from left in the above photograph, whose other figures may also be familiar), hails from Buenos Aires. In the decade-plus since her marriage to Willem-Alexander, she has become a popular figure in The Netherlands, and is fluent in Dutch and English as well as her native Spanish. Also the mother of three young daughters, she has become a vocal advocate for immigrants’ rights in her adopted country.

Initially, she was controversial because her father, Jorge Zorreguieta Stefanini, served as agriculture minister under military dictator Jorge Rafael Videla; though Jorge Zorreguieta was apparently not involved in Videla’s Dirty War atrocities, he was not permitted to attend the wedding. Máxima’s rather irregular acquisition of Dutch citizenship prior to the wedding also raised some eyebrows.
I have not met the queen-to-be, and never expect to do so, but I have dined at her brother’s place – in the lakeside resort of Villa LaAngostura (pictured above), Martín Zorreguieta’s Tinto Bistro has acquired a certain fame, or notoriety, obviously not just for a fusion menu based on seasonal Patagonian ingredients. Martín Zorreguieta also operates the Delfina Restaurant, at the eastern approach to town, and the Cientochenta Club Gastronómico de Montaña at the nearby Cerro Bayo ski area.

Moon Chile - New Fourth Edition
Meanwhile, those of you planning a trip to the other side of the Andes should know that the new fourth edition of Moon Handbooks Chile is due out next month. Until it’s out, though, you can content yourself with my recently published iPhone/iPad app Chile Travel Adventures, which makes an ideal complement to the print book. The app is also available in an Android version.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Kerouac's Patagonia? On the Road, on the Screen

Every summer, more decades past than I care to recall, my parents would use their vacation to drive from our home in Tacoma, Washington, to Moorhead, Minnesota – the figurative birthplace of A Prairie Home Companion – where my grandparents lived. As they alternated behind the wheel – I was far too young to drive - we crossed the steppes of Eastern Washington, the mountains of Idaho and western Montana, and the prairies of eastern Montana and North Dakota before crossing the Red River to arrive at Moorhead, the end point of a non-stop road trip.
That was a little later, and not quite so epic, as Jack Kerouac’s fictionalized odyssey across the United States in On the Road, but it recalls the landscapes of two-lane blacktop and occasional gravel roads in the days before the Interstate Highway System. In the course of updating my Moon Handbooks to Argentina and Patagonia, in particular, I’ve often had the experience of driving through wild, sparsely populated landscapes that recall my childhood journeys.

In southernmost South America, those routes are usually north-south rather than east-west, but I’m not the only person to equate them with the North American West. In fact, Brazilian director Walter Salles chose northern Argentine Patagonia to film scenes for On the Road which, unfortunately, has not yet hit Bay Area cinemas, but I do plan to see it.

Salles, who knew Argentine landscapes from directing the acclaimed Che Guevara road trip adaptation of The Motorcycle Diaries, may have had suggestions from Viggo Mortensen, who plays the role of Old Bull Lee, Kerouac’s fictionalized figure based on William Burroughs. Mortensen, who speaks fluent Spanish, attended school in the more northerly northern Argentine provinces of Buenos Aires, Chaco and Córdoba, and follows Argentine soccer closely.

In fact, Argentina has long been a favorite site for foreign film crews – a couple years ago, for instance, a friend of mine who has dual US citizenship participated in a shoot in which Argentine kids – including his son – dressed as Little Leaguers for a commercial staged at the national baseball stadium. The American-run company San Telmo Productions, in fact, exists primarily to help foreign filmmakers who wish use Argentina for location shooting.
Nobody, unfortunately, has yet been able to tell me precisely where Salles shot the scenes in Argentina, though the crew was apparently based in San Carlos de Bariloche; certainly the scenery along two-lane Ruta Nacional 237 (pictured above), which leads northeast out of Bariloche, could serve as a stand-in for large parts of the American West. Some cast members apparently stayed in Villa La Angostura, which appears to be recovering from the ashfall of the Puyehue-Cordón Caulle eruption of 2011.

Interestingly, a legal battle over the Kerouac estate meant that it took years before On the Road could reach the screen; coincidentally, the intellectual property rights attorney for Kerouac’s executor was also my attorney in a disagreement with a previous publisher whose name I will refrain from mentioning here. The attorney, whom I will also refrain from naming here, lost the Kerouac case but pulled out a win for me.

An Oscar Nomination for No
In other Southern Cone cinema news, Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s film No, about the 1988 campaign against General Augusto Pinochet’s plebiscite to continue as Chile’s de facto president, is one of five nominees for Best Foreign Film in the upcoming Oscars. It stars well-known Mexican actor Gael García Bernal.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Misfortune for Patagonia; Plus, the Dollar-Peso Breach

After more than two decades as a guidebook writer, my style of travel has changed from the days when I strapped on a backpack and took the train south from Mexicali, bound for Tierra del Fuego (a trip on which, however, I got no farther than Ecuador). These days, I rarely set out for new destinations, but rather revisit places that I’ve gotten to know in the process of writing and updating my Moon Handbooks for Argentina, Buenos Aires, Chile and Patagonia.

Of course, there are new sights and services, and newly accessible places in all these destinations, but one of my real pleasures is seeing how places have changed over time – when I first visited Argentina and Chile, in the 1970s, they were unsavory military dictatorships that, over the ensuing decades, have returned to representative government and grown to embrace foreign visitors. The other great pleasure is renewing old acquaintances.
That has a downside, though, as sights and people are not eternal, as I noted in writing about the closure of Gaiman’s Parque El Desafío a few days ago. Sometimes people sell their businesses or, as I learned a couple days ago from a friend traveling in northern Chilean Patagonia, they die. On my last couple trips along the Carretera Austral, I have stayed in Villa O’Higgins at El Mosco, a combination campground/hostel/B&B (pictured above) operated by the gregarious Galician Jorge Salgado who, I regret to say, died last month of a brain tumor in Spain at the young age of 47.
In a town reached by the highway barely a decade ago, Jorge (pictured above, at right) created a physically comfortable and sociable space where everyone felt equally welcome, whether they pitched a tent on the windy grounds, slept in a ground floor bunk and shared meals in the communal kitchen, or preferred a private room on the upper storey. El Mosco became one of the last stops before the rugged overland crossing to Argentina’s El Chaltén, or the first for those arriving from Argentina.

I can’t say that Jorge and I were best friends, but I will say that, when I return to Villa O’Higgins later this year, something – and someone - will be missing.

Peso-Dollar Update
According to the Buenos Aires daily Clarín, Argentina’s erratic domestic trade secretary Guillermo Moreno has admitted that, by year’s end, the Argentine peso could be trading at six to the dollar, as opposed to the current official rate of 4.96 to the dollar. On the face of it, that might sound like good news for intending visitors, but an inflation rate upwards of 25 percent is more than likely to offset any devaluation.

Moreno, of course, ignores the fact that the so-called “blue” dollar, about which I wrote a couple months ago, is now trading upwards of 7.5 pesos. Both Moreno and Banco Central president Mercedes Marcó del Pont have argued that this is a seasonal phenomenon, as Argentines seek to avoid currency controls to travel abroad during the summer high season, but the skyrocketing dollar is probably bothering the government more than they will admit.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Bulldozing El Desafío: "The Challenge" of Patagonia

Over the course of thirty years’ travel in southernmost South America, I’ve seen nearly all the great natural sights, from Chile’s northerly Atacama desert to the Moreno Glacier and Cape Horn, and even the South Shetland Islands and the Antarctic Península. In the process, though, I’ve always looked forward to enjoy the region’s quirkier sights, such as the shrines to the Difunta Correa of San Juan province and the Gauchito Gil of Corrientes, and Parque El Desafío, in the Patagonian province of Chubut.
In the process of researching my books and apps, I have been a reluctant participant in “social media” to the point that, even though I recently began a Facebook page to supplement my Southern Cone Travel page, my own name does not even appear on it. In reality, I’ve used it primarily to post photographs of sights that are not on typical tourist itineraries, but that have brightened my own travels. One of those was El Desafío, an oddball theme park in the town of Gaiman that was created by Joaquín Alonso, who died in 2009 at the age of 90.
I first visited El Desafío in the early 1990s, when Alonso was a lively septuagenarian who crafted everybody else’s refuse into endearingly kitschy junk sculptures that became an obligatory excursion even among those who came primarily to taste the pastries at Gaiman’s several Welsh teahouses. In an Argentina that lurched from crisis to crisis, El Desafío offered a humorous breather until its creator became too elderly to maintain it well, and it closed at least temporarily after his death.
In reality, it’s hard to imagine anyone else, even family members, with the commitment and talent to make the park work (it was never really a commercial enterprise). Even so, when I posted a photo of El Desafío the other day, it was a disappointment to read when my nephew José Massolo commented that, when he went to see the place with his girlfriend,  “We found they had sold the lot last year and a bulldozer demolished the entire place.”
What exactly happened with Alonso’s creations, I don’t know and, unfortunately, I won’t be able to revisit Gaiman until later this year or early next year. Still, in his memory, I include here some El Desafío photographs which, unfortunately, don’t have the visual clarity of my more recent work. These are scanned from slides, as I was never able to return to the park after my acquisition of a digital SLR.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

South Atlantic Highlights: Falklands 2013

In last Sunday’s New York Times, the gray lady’s travel section listed its top 46 places to go in 2013 and, to my surprise, only one of those destinations was in the Southern Cone countries. Apart from the singularly curious number – why not the top 50? – even more surprising, on another level, was that the Southern Cone choice came not from Argentina, Uruguay or Chile. Rather, it was the Falkland Islands which, claimed writer Michael Luongo, “are a cold, rugged Galápagos-like spot” where oil money in the capital of Stanley (pictured above) is likely to “transform [its] ethnic, economic and social character, driving development in this tiny, eccentric village of about 2,000 year-round residents.”
I know Luongo slightly and, even within the limits of the single paragraph the NYT allotted him, I found his generalizations superficial. While the Falklands are indeed a wildlife paradise with penguins, other birds, and marine mammals, they lack the species diversity of the tropical Galápagos – but the sub-Antarctic Islands compensate with phenomenally large populations of relatively few species. As for the need to visit soon because oil investment will change the place beyond recognition, that train left the station a quarter century ago, when local government first granted fishing licenses to foreign squidders and others. Income from those licenses has helped make the Islands’ small population one of the most prosperous peoples on Earth, with a per capita GDP of roughly US$32,000.
Oil is still a question mark, as none of the offshore fields is a sure thing, but tourism has added to that prosperity and Argentina, ironically, has recently made its own contribution despite its aggressive irredentism toward the Islands, which it calls the Malvinas. In late 2011, the combative administration of President Cristina Fernández decreed that vessels docking in the Islands without Argentine permission would not be welcome in Argentine ports including Buenos Aires and Ushuaia (whose port, pictured below, gets significant cruise ship traffic).
The idea, apparently, was to enforce an embargo to make life more difficult for the Islanders, but it’s at least partially backfired. Earlier this year, Ushuaia businessmen were indignant that the new rules stopped several cruise ships from anchoring in town and, consequently, kept passengers from spending millions of dollars in the city.

More recently, the British line P&O has announced that its luxury liners Arcadia and Adonia, which will leave Southampton on round-the-world cruises next month, will skip Buenos Aires, Puerto Madryn and Ushuaia in favor of Montevideo, the Falklands, and Punta Arenas. Given Argentina’s capricious politics, and the fact that passengers from other cruise ships have been harassed by protestors, they have decided that Argentine ports are simply not worth the trouble.

The Falklands stand to gain. For every cruise passenger who visits, the Islands collect a landing charge of £18 which, in the 2009-10 season, amounted to more than US$1.3 million – a substantial figure in a territory with only about 2,500 permanent residents. That might not be oil money, and it’s only a fraction of the US$18.5 million that fishing licenses earned in the same year, but it’s enough to provide a high standard of living in Stanley.
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