Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Lands of Fire and Ice

In California, this summer’s been a hot one and, perhaps, the worst wildfire season in our history. Here in Oakland, our worst was the 1991 firestorm—which came close enough to our Rockridge residence that my wife and daughter stayed with friends—but this year’s events have occurred mostly in rural wildlands and we’ve only seen occasional ashfall from them.
Until last Friday, I'd never seen Argentine plates in California.
Coincidentally, though, I received a reminder of another “land of fire” when, walking the dog last Friday, I turned the corner to see a Citroën Xsara Picasso with Argentine plates—the first such plates I’ve ever seen in California—that was decorated with a map of the Americas and the legend “Todo por América, Ushuaia – Alaska.” When I stopped to speak with them, the owners were a bit surprised to hear someone speaking (more or less) Argentine Spanish, but I invited Eduardo Ybarra and Emilia Florencio (and their Australian shepherd Ona) around the corner to meet my (Argentine) wife.
Emilia sips yerba mate, with Eduardo in the driver's seat and Ona in the back.
Eduardo and Emilia, though, had car problems—the starter had given out on their 2012 vehicle and the Citroën itself is almost unknown in this country except, perhaps, for a few collectors. Parking outside, they had to leave the car running (and locked) because they could only start it on an incline. After a brief visit and a thermos of mate, drunk while Ona cavorted with my daughter’s boxer mix in the garden (my elderly and arthritic malamute could only observe), I accompanied them to our local mechanic, who told us they couldn’t work on the exotic French vehicle (Citroën have not been sold in the US since 1974).
In 1991-2, our Peugeot 404 was a frequent guest of Patagonian mechanics.
Fortunately, using the mobile app iOverlander, they located a Guatemalan mechanic who managed to repair the starter, but their situation suggests a greater problem worth the attention of anyone who takes a Pan-American road trip. I myself have driven extensively in southernmost South America, first with a rattletrap Peugeot 404 that belonged to my late father-in-law and somehow survived the ruggedest stretches of Patagonia’s legendary Ruta 40—with help from talented street mechanics—in the days before that highway was even partly paved. In some cases, the surface was not gravel, but rather stones the size of my first.

I have even shipped cars from California—in one case an aging Datsun pickup and, in another, a more versatile Toyota Xtra Cab. In Chile, I now own an SUV, a 2007 Suzuki Grand Nomade with relatively low mileage, and I’ve occasionally encountered other gringos who’ve traveled the length of the Americas, though not necessarily from Alaska.

The type of vehicle makes a difference precisely because of parts availability and mechanical assistance. If, for example, you drive a Prius to South America, finding replacement parts would be nearly impossible, as these hybrid vehicles are only now starting to appear in Argentina and Chile. In my opinion, our new Argentine friends were fortunate to find a capable mechanic willing to tackle their problem—I expect he had to improvise—but if something gives out on the remote Alaska Highway, will they be so fortunate again?
If you're northbound from California, keep an eye out for Eduardo and Emilia.
I’ve never driven to or even visited Alaska, though I suspect that anybody along the route will lend the help they can in case of breakdown, but I still feel the Citroën is something of a ticking time bomb. Alaska also has a short summer, and I would hope they get started soon, as a long drive remains. You can follow their progress at Todo por América.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Finding the Forest For the (Monkey-Puzzle) Trees

New growth on an Araucaria branch, Parque Nacional Conguillío
In November of 1911, when John Muir climbed a ridge to camp among the “monkey-puzzle” forests of southern Chile, he marveled at “A glorious and novel sight, beyond all I had hoped for.” At the age 73, the legendary conservationist had sailed to South America, first exploring the Amazon and, after reaching Buenos Aires, he crossed the Andes in search of Araucaria araucana, the “monkey puzzle tree.”
Bark of a mature Araucaria tree
The present-day gateway to Fundo Ontario, where John Muir stayed in his search for the Araucaria
In Santiago—where even Juan Söhrens, director of the national botanical garden, had never seen the tree in the wild—Muir took a hint from a friend of the US ambassador and the train to the city of Victoria, just north of Temuco. Here, he made contact with the Smiths, a Canadian immigrant family, whose Fundo Ontario ranch was Muir’s gateway to the Andean foothills near what is today Parque Nacional Tolhuaca. It was here that sketched the forests and slept beneath the trees he’d come to observe—just as he did beneath the giant sequoias of California’s Sierra Nevada.
Parque Nacional Tolhuaca, with Araucaria trees in the right foreground and atop the ridge in the distance
Several times I’ve had the good fortune to see the area Muir visited, and several comparable areas on both sides of the Andes. The pewén, as it’s known in the indigenous Mapudungun language, has a narrow distribution between 37º20' and 40º20'S. In total, Araucaria forests cover less than 400 square kilometers, mostly in the Andean cordillera but with scattered stands in Chile’s coastal range.
A young ornamental Araucaria on the grounds of Oakland Technical High School
Where are the best places to see this distinctive tree, also known as the paraguas (umbrella tree)? It’s not uncommon as an ornamental—there’s one on the grounds of Oakland Technical High School, about five minutes from my California home—but Argentina and Chile are the Holy Grail. Following Muir’s trail toward Tolhuaca is one option, but access by public transportation is limited at best. Larger numbers see Parque Nacional Conguillío, to the southeast, which is more accessible from Temuco and the town of Melipeuco (though only by taxi).
A mature Araucaria forest at Parque Nacional Conguillío 
In terms of public transportation access, though, the best place to see the Araucariais the more southerly resort of Pucón. Two nearby national parks, Parque Nacional Villarrica and Parque Nacional Huerquehue, have frequent bus service. Personally, I prefer Huerquehue for easy access to hiking trails, dense pewén forests, and great panoramas that include the smoking, snow-topped Volcán Villarrica, which Spanish conquistador poet Alonso de Ercilla called the “great neighbor volcano.”
Araucarias on the Sendero Quinchol, Parque Nacional Huerquehue
On my most recent visit, though, I chose the Santuario Cañi, a private nature reserve that’s only 20 minutes out of town, and also easily accessible by public transport. I first hiked here in the 1990s as a guest of the non-profit Fundación Lahuén, on a sore ankle that caused me some difficulty. This time my joints were healthy, but the trail seemed even steeper than I remembered, and younger hikers were consistently passing me. At the end, though, I reached the plateau of Laguna Las Totoras, a marshy lake surrounded by monkey puzzle trees, but declined to climb to the El Mirador ridge. 
Hikers among the Araucarias in the Santuario Cañi
An Araucaria seedling has found growing space at Parque Nacional Nahuelbuta.
For my money, though, the best place to see the trees is Parque Nacional Nahuelbuta, in the coastal range near the city of Angol, where the trees even find growing spaces in cracks among its igneous outcrops. One of the best nights I ever spent was the campground here on Christmas Eve of 1998, when I had the entire park to myself. Nahuelbuta is scenic, with great hiking trails, but it doesn’t get many Chileans because it lacks water—there are no rivers or lakes suitable for swimming except outside park limits.
A panorama of the Araucaria forests at Parque Nacional Nahuelbuta
Along the trail at Argentina's Parque Nacional Lanín
I’ve barely mentioned Argentina, where the best site is Parque Nacional Lanín, across the Andes from Pucón, and easily reached from the cities of San Martín de los Andes and Junín de los Andes. It bears mention that the indigenous Pewenche—who take their name from the trees—gathered fallen forest nuts for their subsistence. I myself have eaten the toasted nuts and also consumed them in a pesto in a San Martín restaurant that is now, sadly, closed.
Pewén nuts on display at the Feria Masticar, an annual food fair in Buenos Aires

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Sipping and Surfing? Colchagua to Pichilemu

Two hours south of Santiago, as I leave the freeway, trucks with bins of grapes slow the traffic on the westbound two-lane road toward the town of Santa Cruz, in Chile’s Colchagua valley. With the warm dry March weather, it feels like September in the Napa Valley, in my home state of California. This, though, is farther than a day trip from my house, so I’ll spend several days sampling the wines and dining in the country’s premier wine district—tourist-friendly Colchagua is due to host next year’s Congreso Mundial de Enoturismo (World Wine Tourism Conference).
The balconies at Hotel TerraViña have vineyard views.
My first stop is the Danish-Chilean Hotel TerraViña, nearly surrounded by vineyards on the outskirts of town, where I’ve stayed on previous trips. From here, it’s a short stroll through the vines to Viña Laura Hartwig, which now offers carriage rides through its grounds and new tasting facilities for an expanded wine list. They’re part of the Movimiento de Viñateros Independientes (MOVI), an alliance of smaller wineries with an increasingly high profile. I sample a Cabernet, a Merlot and a blend, accompanied by a plate of almonds, cheese, cold cuts and crackers.
Wines to sample in the recova at Laura Hartwig
View across the soggy lawn at Hotel Casa de Campo
The next morning, I move across town to the Hotel Casa de Campo, where the only drawback to my spacious room is its relative proximity to the highway. Fortunately, its French doors face a sprawling lawn with views of the Chilean coast range, though I’m a bit shocked to see the flood-style irrigation in an area where water's at a premium. I’m pleasantly surprised, though, when a gardener knocks on the door with a bowl of freshly picked prunes.
Santa Cruz's Plaza de Armas
From there, I head to Santa Cruz’s walkable downtown, with a lushly landscaped Plaza de Armas surrounded by low-slung buildings and a parish church that was totally rebuilt—on its original design—after severe earthquake damage in 2010 forced its demolition. On this visit I skipped the imposing Museo Colchagua, created by Iran-Contra arms merchant Carlos Cardoen, whose foundation also financed the church’s reconstruction, but the museum’s natural history and agricultural machinery displays are well worth seeing.
The Museo de Colchagua is part of a complex that also includes a hotel and a casino.

After severe quake damage in 2010, Santa Cruz's Iglesia Parroquial underwent  demolition for a total rebuild on the original plan.
Quinotto of scallops, shrimp, and squid at Casa Colchagua 
That afternoon, I eat on the patio at Casa Colchagua, a renovated adobe just a stone’s throw from TerraViña. Rather than bread, the appetizer is a sopaipilla enhanced by the savory tomato-onion-garlic salsa known as pebre. For the main course, there’s quinotto with shrimp, scallops and squid rings–Chile’s diverse seafood is world-class—plus a pisco sour with a touch of ají verde, and a nice glass of Sauvignon Blanc.
José Antonio Bravo opens up his tiny adobe at OWM Wines
In the afternoon, I drive to the village of El Peral to visit OWM Wines, a low-tech operation that produces only blends and does much of the work manually, while bodega itself is a tiny adobe within a far larger garage full of heavy machinery. With a minimum of two guests (maximum of eight), winemaker José Antonio Bravo does the tours himself, and encourages guests to make their own blends. Later, back in Santa Cruz, I dine at Vino Bello—an established Italian option—for a seafood risotto.
Patio dining at Vino Bello
The patio and tasting room at Clos Santa Ana
The next day, an unseasonably rainy one, I meet British photographer Matt Wilson and his wife Andrea—a winemaker at Clos Apalta—for dinner at their house near the Viu Manent winery (whose wines are most readily available in California). We chat about travel writing, photography and the madness of Brexit, among other topics, and enjoy several glasses of Apalta’s wines (Apalta is not a MOVI member). The next morning, I moved to the westerly site of Clos Santa Ana, where Italian winemaker, art collector and dog fancier Luiz Allegretti invites me to a long Sunday lunch with his neighbors—one of whom is also a winemaker—and to spend the night in his sprawling colonial home, with its multiple interior patios. That’s a privilege, but Allegretti also has a tasting room for the general public.
At Clos Santa Ana, Luiz Allegretti has an eclectic art collection.
On the road to Pichilemu, there's a shrine to the Argentine folk saint Difunta Correa.
The next morning, I drive west through the coast range toward the beach town of Pichilemu, passing a large roadside shrine to the Difunta Correa (do Argentine surfers leave bottles of water for San Juan’s legendary folk saint?). Once an exclusive playground for the rich—its renovated cultural center is a Francophile structure built by the Anglo-Chilean Agustín Ross Edwards, whose name also graces the handsome waterfront park. The downtown’s seeing signs of rejuvenation, but much of the action has moved south to Punta de Lobos, which attracts a cosmopolitan surf crowd comparable to what comes to northern California during the famous Mavericks competition. Sacred to surfers, the point of the peninsula here is now a protected reserve under the aegis of the Fundación Punta de Lobos.
Pichilemu's Centro Cultural Agustín Ross was originally a casino.
Pichilemu's Punta de Lobos is sacred to surfers.
There, the budget crowd stays at La Sirena Insolente, the newest member of a small hostel chain that has comfy private rooms as well as dorms. At the other end, I stay at the luxury surf lodge Hotel Alaia, at a spacious room with ocean views and a private deck, not to mention its skateboard park, climbing wall, beach bar, a freshwater pool, and surfing lessons. I don’t ride the waves—at Punta de Lobos there are small monuments to surfers who died here—but I dine its stylish restaurant—primarily using locally sourced ingredients.
At Hotel Alaia, all the rooms have easy beach access.
At Punta de Lobos, I also find a cluster of food trucks offering some unexpected treats such as a Peruvian burrito—perhaps the ultimate in fusion cuisine? Unfortunately, when I arrive around noon the following day, the Peruvian’s hasn't yet opened, and I need to return to Santiago. That tantalizing burrito will have to wait.
When I first saw the Peruvian burrito trailer, I'd already had lunch.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Requiem for a Friend

Steve Anderson and his wife, Loreto Roselló, on the deck of their Panitao home
Last month, I was shocked to hear the news that a longtime friend, Steve Anderson, had died in an automobile accident near his home at Panitao, outside Puerto Montt. I first met Steve when he lived in Santiago, where he founded the online newspaper Santiago Times—still extant under a different publisher—to provide English-language news about Chile. Over the years, I often visited the Times’s offices along the Río Mapocho, and even stayed at his cul-de-sac home on the slopes of Cerro San Cristóbal—sometimes crashing in my sleeping bag on a deck that overlooked downtown.
Steve Anderson shopping for produce at the neighborhood farmers' market
Steve was a southern boy, a native of Arkansas, who had worked in the office the legendary Senator J. William Fulbright(who was indirectly responsible for funding my own graduate research through a Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad grant). He had come to Chile to help with the “No” campaign against the Pinochet dictatorship in 1988 and, in his new home, married a Chilean woman and fathered a now 21-year-old son who’s a student leader in Santiago.  In his home at Panitao, he had become a leading advocate—with significant local support—for preservation of strategic wetlands that were threatened by suburban sprawl.
Whenever I visited Steve at Panitao, there were unlimited blueberries on the table.
In fact, I had recently stayed at his home for four days, which let me avoid the Semana Santa (“Holy Week”) period when much of the region is overrun with Chilean tourists on a long weekend. It’s also a time when I tend to get more work done sitting at the computer than I would running around checking practical details in towns like nearby Puerto Varas. At that time, he told me, he was planning to return to the States to work on the midterm congressional elections. He loathed the current occupant of the White House.
Tributes to Steve Anderson appeared in the letters section of the local newspaper.
I don’t know the details of the accident, but Steve’s place lay about a kilometer south of the paved two-lane highway between Puerto Montt and the town of Calbuco via a dirt access road. Entering the highway from his access road involved a slight climb that was partially obscured by trees, so it’s possible he never saw the car that hit him. Whether or not that was the case, I will miss him, and so will his family and neighbors.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

In and After Europe; Money Matters in the Deep South (Argentina & Chile)

This has been a busy spring, what with my return from six weeks in Chile and then, following a brief interregnum in California, nearly three weeks in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Sweden. Europe’s not an area I normally write about, except when it bears some relation to my interest in South America. I’d intended to write on this blog while in Europe, but the ten-hour time difference and short-stay cities worked against me.
Willem descends the from the 4,900-meter (15,901-foot) mountain pass of Abra Choquetacarpo (scanned from a Kodachrome slide)
I did, however, did meet up with my longtime Dutch friend Willem Oosterberg, with whom I explored Peru’s Cordillera Vilcabamba in 1979—a time when that area, near Machu Picchu, was off-limits to visitors without special permission, which I managed to obtain from government officials in Cuzco. We managed to see many unique archaeological sites, such as Yurac Rumi, on a week-long trek that we somehow managed without detailed maps.
Open only since November, Amsterdam's Not Only Tinto is an Argentine wine shop that will also offer tastings and empanadas.
The previous time my wife and I visited Amsterdam, in 1985, I recall seeing Argentine and Uruguayan parrillas—grill restaurants—across the street from each other, just as Argentine and Uruguay face each other across the Río de la Plata. This time, I estimate we saw at least ten Argentine parrillas in town (though none that claimed to be Uruguayan) and even an Argentine wine shop. On the other hand, in Rotterdam, we spotted a Brazilian rodízio just about ready to compete with a nearby Argentine grill. That said, we didn’t try any of them on this trip.
We saw no Uruguayan restaurants in the Netherlands, but this Brazilian grill is about to open in  Rotterdam.
In Bruges we did spot one Argentine grill and, in Brussels, a Peruvian food truck outside the Central Station—unfortunately, it wasn’t open when we went looking for lunch. We did enjoy a Peruvian meal in Stockholm’s trendy Södermalm district, but the most notable South American item we saw came from the city’s Nobel Museum, which displayed the “Report on Argentina” that helped earn Amnesty International a Peace Prize in 1977.
Amnesty International's 1977 report on human rights abuses in Argentina.
Money Matters in Chile (and Argentina)
Last month, before I left Chile, the US dollar had been weakening and, by extension, my travel costs had been rising. At the beginning of last year, when I was updating Moon Handbooks Patagonia, the rate was pushing 700 pesos to the dollar, which made the country a relative bargain. That didn’t hold and, when I returned in early March for a brief research trip, it had fallen to 600 pesos, making prices higher in dollar terms.
Toward the end of my stay in Chile, the dollar slipped below 600 pesos.
Over the course my six-week stay in the country the rate remained relatively stable until, just before my departure, it dipped below the 600-peso level and seemed headed farther south (so to speak). It continued to drop and then, almost as suddenly rose as high as 634. Since then it’s slipped back into the mid-620s, but that’s still a significant recovery for the dollar.
Today's official exchange rates
Historically, the International Monetary Fund has drawn lots of fire in Argentina.
I won’t go into the macroeconomics of the issue but it’s worth noting that, across the Andes, the Argentine peso is reaching new lows against the dollar. When I arrived in Argentina in mid-November, the rate was about 17.5 per dollar but now it’s at nearly 25, and then reached the point where President Mauricio Macri has asked the International Monetary Fund—long considered an ideological pariah in Argentina—for assistance in propping up the currency. On the informal “blue dollar” market, which persists despite the liberation of the formerly fixed exchange rate, it has reached nearly 26.
The informal "blue dollar" persists in Argentina, but the differential is far smaller than it used to be.
That doesn’t necessarily mean Argentina’s getting any cheaper—unlike Chile, the country still has serious inflation issues. At present, it’s about 25 percent per annum, down from 2017’s 40 percent, but this is still a fragile economy. At best, prices may remain relatively stable in dollar terms, but keep an eye on things.

Friday, April 27, 2018

From SCL to LAX and Out...

Last weekend, I began the end of my six-week excursion to Chile with a Sunday afternoon shuttle from Renca to Aeropuerto Internacional Comodoro Arturo Merino Benítez. There, to my surprise, I found absolutely nobody in line for the 8:30 p.m. flight to Lima, where I would transfer for the overnight flight to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and then continue to my Oakland home.
The airport shuttle line at SCL
Though I wondered, at first, whether there had been some cancellation issues, I was merely early—airport shuttles err on the side of caution and the Sunday traffic was especially light. That said, the early arrival may have worked to my advantage in another way—the single ticket agent at the LATAM counter asked whether I would prefer a later nonstop flight which would, however, get me to LAX at least an hour earlier.
It's not Peruvian, but it's still a pisco sour.
I had my own reading material, but was still disappointed to find the  SCL
The only downside would be a lost opportunity for a Peruvian pisco sour at Lima but, after the agent reissued my ticket, I passed quickly through immigration and airport security and did find a perfectly good Chilean sour (and a rather less perfect prosciutto on a baguette—on Sunday evenings, apparently, the best dining options run short). I was also disappointed with the fact that the airport’s new book exchange was empty, and that the cheapest by the glass option at the Vinum Chile wine bar was 7500 pesos (about US$12.50)—about twice what I had paid for my sour. Just a few months earlier, it had been notably cheaper.

The 11-hour flight was uneventful (I managed to sleep about half the time), but the worst part of coming home—especially since January of 2017—is going through US Customs and Immigration. In January, when I returned home from Buenos Aires, for the first time I faced the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) machines that demand a mugshot selfie from the passport bearer. It was a slow and cumbersome process and, as I have since learned through the efforts of my friend Edward Hasbrouck, it is not obligatory.

This time, having read Edward’s advice as linked above, I informed the line-minder that I would opt out of the machine entry, and got an immediate bypass to a human being. I estimate that I saved at least half an hour, and the Guatemalan-born immigration officer who stamped my passport treated it as utterly routine. US citizens and green-card holders can avoid the invasive hassle of what Edward calls the “selfie kiosks,” but non-resident foreign arrivals are still subject to the CBP’s “digital webcam-type” surveillance.
Ceviche and chips at La Cosecha, Paso Robles
When returning from South America to LAX, I prefer to avoid additional hassles from US “airport security” and, instead, I often choose to rent a car. It’s an all-day drive back to the Bay Area but, given the possibility of delays on a long international flight, I would still need some flexibility in scheduling a connecting flight north. Thus, I prefer a leisurely drive via US 101, normally with lunch in the Central Coast wine capital of Paso Robles, where I enjoyed a fine ceviche at La Cosecha, facing a central plaza that resembles some of Latin America’s finest. And with my family and dogs to greet me on arrival in Oakland, just a couple hours later than a connecting flight would have been.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

¿Un Burrito Peruano?

Two of my favorite cuisines are Mexican and Peruvian—arguably the best of their respective North and South American continents. I rarely visit Mexico any more and haven’t been to Peru (except for Lima’s international airport) in nearly as long, but Mexican food is common throughout the United States and especially California, and Peruvian gastronomy is expanding rapidly out of its homeland. There are only limited choices in my hometown of Oakland, but it’s abundant in Argentina and Chile, the two countries where I travel most.
The Buenos Aires branch of La Mar Cebichería is one of Gastón Acurio's several upscale restaurants.
The evangelist for Peruvian cuisine has been Gastón Acurio, whose Astrid y Gastón and La Mar Cebichería now have branches throughout North and South America. I’ve eaten at La Mar in Buenos Aires, Santiago and San Francisco, and at Astrid y Gastón in Buenos Aires (where La Mar eventually replaced it) and Santiago (where’s it temporarily closed pending a move to new quarters). Both of those, however, are so pricey as to make them an occasional treat as best.
Santiago's Pantaleón II is more modest than La Mar, 
but its excellent mixed ceviche costs a fraction of La Mar's.
Instead, I usually resort to modest but still excellent options such as Buenos Aires’s Status and Santiago’s Pantaleón II. Recently, I dined at La Casita de Barreales, in the Colchagua valley wine capital of Santa Cruz but, in the surfing mecca of Pichilemu, I encountered something completely different in the food trucks at Punta de Lobos.
The Morros at Punta de Lobos mark one of Pichilemu's top surf breaks.
El Burrito Pe overlooks the Morros.
I rarely eat burritos any more but, though some people dismiss their authenticity, I’ve long considered them a form of fusion cooking that we might describe as comida fronteriza—food from the porous US-Mexico border. I wasn’t quite prepared, though, to see an offering of “Peruvian burritos” at El Burrito Pe, on the road just above the landmark Morros (promontories) near the beach’s best breaks.
I can only wait for my next chance.
Unfortunately, when I stopped there I had already eaten lunch, but I spoke with the Peruvian owner and planned to return the next day, before leaving town. Unfortunately, though he said he would open at 1 p.m., there may have been circumstances beyond his control and I finally decided could wait only so long. My double-hybrid burrito with huancaína or rocoto will have to wait until my next visit to Pichi.
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