Friday, March 28, 2008

Winners and Losers in Valpo

Valparaíso is by far Chile's most interesting city, and not just because of its history and outlandish cityscape. To be sure, the setting is spectacular, its architecture is picturesque, and its rapidly developing hotel and restaurant scene are making it more tourist-friendly than ever. Still, behind the scenes there's a tension that many not be apparent to short-term visitors.

Time was, a couple decades ago, that both locals and the venerable South American Handbook warned tourists against venturing almost anywhere in the hills neighborhoods. My own feeling is that these warnings were always a bit alarmist, though the city had (and still does have) some truly marginal areas. Since then, though, gentrification has run rampant on Cerro Concepción and Cerro Alegre, the adjacent hills neighborhoods where most of the city's boutique hotels and gourmet restaurants now reside. Still, the posters in many windows suggesting that "we need to respect the peace and quiet of the neighbors" suggests a conflict between longtime residents, on the one hand, and newcomers and visitors on the other.

In fact, the density of services has become so great that there appears to be a de facto moratorium on new services in the area--when a Chilean-Australian couple wanted to open a new B&B here, authorities suggested instead that they do so in the Cerro Artillería neighborhood to the west. There's now a cluster of fine but moderately priced accommodations there, but no comparable gastronomic scene has yet developed.

That, of course, has to do with an influx of private capital, but not all neighborhoods have been so fortunate. According to what city tourism official Milos Miskovic told me, the city's oldest neighborhood, Cerro Santo Domingo, will require some public investment for improvements and there are some positive signs. Yet when the Santa Isabel supermarket located here, it roused protests from local residents concerned that it would undercut the small-scale merchants in the historic (if unfortunately grubby) Mercado del Puerto. Any large-scale activity is going to arouse some suspicion in a poor neighborhood, though it's arguable that the supermarket, for instance, can provide a selection of products that even the sum of individual merchants can't.

There are also controversies over the direction of contemporary development in the context of Valpo's World Heritage Site designation--how will the city develop in the 21st century? Some people believe the city should retain its historic style to the extreme that even new buildings should conform to it--a classic example is Cerro Concepción's Brighton B&B which, despite appearances, is barely a decade old. Others think the city needs to enter the future with audacious projects such as Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer's planned cultural center on Cerro Cárcel (some worry that this will displace artisans who presently occupy parts of the former prison, but one also might wonder whether the 100-year-old Niemeyer will live long enough to see it through).

Meanwhile, cutting-edge commerce advances, and Valparaíso is increasingly fashionable despite resentment from some quarters: thus, the improvements in accommodations, food, and style, have also brought a reaction, with occasional graffiti that urge people to "storm the yuppie shops!"

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

We'll Always Have Paris?

Two Sundays ago, The New York Times travel section published a lengthy article on Buenos Aires that wasn't all bad, but its focus on European and North American expats stressed the "Paris-like elegance" that attracted creative foreigners to the city. In reality, the so-called "Paris of the South" is long gone, even if its mansard mansions survive as embassies, hotels and public offices. Whether that Buenos Aires ever even existed is doubtful--BA is, and always has been, a New World immigrant city.

It's remarkable that the Times' editors, even as they're preparing an article with references to "Palermo SoHo" and "Palermo Brooklyn," could fail to appreciate that it's really the "New York of the South" (though we might as easily refer to New York as the "Buenos Aires of the North"). In the 19th and early 20th centuries, both cities were forged by European immigration. The Hotel de Inmigrantes at Puerto Madero was BA's Ellis Island for European immigrants and refugees.

Though I haven't seen statistics, it's at least plausible that more Argentines have Italian than Spanish surnames (one difference is that New York's Italians had mostly Sicilian origins, while Argentina's came from northern Italy). In the Once neighborhood, BA has one of the largest Jewish communities outside Europe; the English-speaking community still has a daily newspaper, the Irish are a presence, and the Germans publish a weekly. The ostensibly traditional San Telmo neighborhood has both Danish and Swedish Lutheran churches. (The French are apparently invisible).

Like New York, with its large numbers of Dominicans and Puerto Ricans, Buenos Aires also has ample immigrant communities from nearby or neighboring countries. Most tourists aren't even aware of the numbers of Bolivians, Paraguayans, and Peruvians who live and work in the city--many of them without documents. They have their own cultural heritage, but it's largely invisible to tourists except for the growing numbers of Peruvian restaurants--ranging from plain but often remarkably good to stylish and truly creative. One of the trendiest men's shops in Palermo SoHo bears the name "Bolivia" because the founder's wife comes from that country.

Likewise, Buenos Aires has its own Chinatown in the barrio of Belgrano, which has a small but vigorous Chinese New Year's celebration. Less visited by foreigners, some southern barrios have seen substantial Korean immigration.

It might be hard to find rodeo in New York but, despite its urban sophistication, that city has long had a country music and even rockabilly scene (Buenos Aires has rockabilly, for that matter, even if it's fringe). Argentina, of course, has its own rural heritage, and the music, dance and crafts at the weekly Feria de Mataderos reflect gaucho traditions. There are also folkloric peñas that embody provincial culture from throughout the country.

It's time to retire the paternalistic Francophile cliché. New York has its mansards, too, but nobody calls it the "Paris of the Eastern Seaboard." Perhaps the only category in which Buenos Aires truly competes with an over-the-hill European capital is the copious amounts of dog droppings on the sidewalks, but at least that's improving south of the Equator.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Closer to Home

As a longtime Californian who spends near half the year in South America, I feel closest to home when I cross the border from Argentina into central Chile. Chile, from its subtropical deserts to its sub-Antarctic moorlands, is a mirror image of North America's west coast, and its Mediterranean coastline, coastal mountains, Andean foothills, and high Andean peaks are, in their basic aspect, virtually identical to California's shoreline and coastal range, central valley and its foothills, and the Sierra Nevada. In Chile, though, the landscape is so compressed that you drop from the shadow of Argentina's Cerro Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Americas, to to the Mediterranean shoreline with astonishing rapidity.

I spent the first night in Los Andes, a growing foothills city in the Aconcagua valley, so that I could visit Viña Errázuriz the following day. Though not one of Chile's highest profile wine routes, the Aconcagua benefits from extreme day-night temperature variations that particularly benefit Sauvignon Blanc and Shiraz, both of which I tasted after a hike through the vineyards. As anyone who's ever visited California will note, the landscape here looks virtually identical to the California coast range, and my best guess (I'm by no means a wine professional) is that it's closest to the Santa Ynez valley made famous in the movie Sideways (though I don't think any Errázuriz visitor would drink from the spit bucket).

It's on the coastline, though, that I feel closest to California. Traditionally, the "Garden City" of Viña del Mar is Chile's premier beach destination and, until the Argentine economic collapse of 2002, it was overrun with Argentines in summer (they've started to return as Argentina's economy has improved). What they often discover, though, is what Midwesterners learn when they visit San Francisco--summer can be cold, windy, and foggy, and anyone wearing shorts and tank-tops often ends up shivering. Even though the fog usually burns off by midday, those who dare to go in the water may wish they had wetsuits.

Viña, though, is not what makes coastal Chile worth visiting. It's the nearby port city of Valparaíso, a warren of winding hillside streets whose distinctive architecture and almost medieval irregularity has made it a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It's tempting to say that Valparaíso is the San Francisco of Chile, but it would be just as accurate to call San Francisco the Valparaíso of California. Here, when I step out onto the deck of my B&B on Cerro Artillería, the view below is the port and the little red-and-white ascensor (funicular) that, unlike San Francisco's cable cars, still forms an integral part of the public transportation network. There's so much to say about Valparaíso that it's hard to know where to start but, staring out the window to watch the fog roll in, the ten days or so until my flight back north seem far less than that.

More about Valparaíso in the coming days.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

I Wait in Line

Last Saturday I drove from the city of Olavarría, in Buenos Aires province, to the city of Mendoza, about 1,000 km to the northwest. The night before, my brother-in-law reminded me that there were sporadic fuel shortages throughout the country, and that I might have problems getting gasoline in some areas. I responded that I thought the shortages were in diesel fuel and, since my car uses gasoline, it shouldn't affect me. The problem, he replied, was that the tanker trucks transporting gasoline were diesel-powered, and thus unable to make deliveries.

In fact, when I went to fill up the next morning, the YPF station at Olavarría would only let me purchase 40 pesos worth of gasoline, less than half a tank's worth, so I had to finish my fillup at a nearby Esso. Just in case, I filled a 20-liter gas can to avoid any problems en route, and stopped to fill the tank at every opportunity. Some stations were out of super grade, but had both higher and lower octane fuel. At the Buenos Aires province town of General Villegas, where I took the above photo, lines were so slow that I decided to continue rather than wait.

Fuel shortages, in fact, appear to be a function of rising demand and the Argentine government's price control policies, which encourage that demand. It will be interesting to see how things play out this weekend, as many Argentines take several days' holiday for Easter.

Meanwhile, when leaving Mendoza, the first YPF station I visited before continuing to Chile limited my purchase to 30 pesos--in a city that has a major oil refinery, it would seem that transportation and delivery may not be the only problems in the Argentine petroleum sector. I managed to fill the tank at another station, and again at the Andean town of Uspallata--where individual purchases were again limited to 30 pesos. That was plenty to get me across the border to Chile, where fuel prices are almost double those in Argentina but, so far, there are no signs of shortages.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Bonding in Antofagasta

According to Mercopress Noticias, citing the Santiago Times (subscription only), Daniel Craig will arrive in Antofagasta March 24 to begin filming scenes for the new James Bond film Quantum of Solace. Unfortunately, they won't be using the Tocopilla Golf Club, but one location will be the Cerro Paranal Observatory, about 125 km south of Antofagasta (Chile has some of world's most sophisticated astronomical facilities, incidentally, and its southern hemisphere location means, of course, that the skies look very different here).

Another location will be the town of Baquedano, about 80 km northwest of Antofagasta. Baquedano makes an interesting choice because the old nitrate railways ran through here. Its weathered wooden train station, with a roundhouse full of antique locomotives, provides a real ghost town atmosphere ideal for an action movie.

Yet another location, Cobija, is a fishing camp about 130 km north of Antofagasta that was once Bolivia's outlet to the sea. Not much is left there, just some crumbling adobe ruins, but Chilean novelist Hernán Rivera Letelier oddly brought Bond and Bolivia together when he claimed indignantly, in a sensationalist tabloid interview today, that the movie would make Chile look like Bolivia.

UPDATE, March 25: This morning's Santiago daily La Tercera broke through the hysteria by pointing out that, in the Bond film, the several Latin American locations in which filming has taken place will represent one fictionalized country. Nobody need take offense.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Tourism in Ruins?

In late 1969, activists from the American Indian Movement (AIM) landed on Alcatraz Island, in San Francisco Bay. They occupied the island, (in)famous for its high profile prison which was then in ruins, for nearly two years to publicize Native American grievances.

Something similar happened last week in Argentina, when the Comunidad Indígena Quilmes took over the country's largest pre-Columbian ruins in the northwestern province of Tucumán. In its physical geography, the area resembles the indigenous highlands of New Mexico or Arizona, but the site itself is the closest thing Argentina has to a Machu Picchu.

In pre-Columbian times, Quilmes was an outlier of the Inka empire, and its inhabitants fought the Spaniards more tenaciously than the Inkas did, but eventually lost their struggle. Most of the survivors were deported to Buenos Aires, where their modern legacy is the name of an industrial suburb and Argentina's most popular beer brand.

It's still possible to visit the ruins, where members of the community are serving as guides for no charge (tips accepted, though). The on-site hotel, restaurant, museum, and even the toilets are closed to public use (apparently tied up in a related lawsuit), and nobody has a guess as to when the issue might be resolved.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Safer than Home

In the course of promoting my guidebooks to the Southern Cone countries, I often give slide talks at bookstores, libraries, and other venues, followed by a question and answer session. Given how little some first-timers know about South America--it's often stereotypes of drug-dealers and military coupmongers--one matter that comes up frequently is personal safety.

Traveling to an unfamiliar destination always raises questions, and certainly there are dangerous places in South America, but it's a diverse continent and there's great variability even within countries. To choose an extreme example, I'd never recommend backpacking into remote areas controlled by Colombia's FARC guerrillas. Yet I wouldn't hesitate to urge travelers to visit the colonial Caribbean port of Cartagena, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that hosted Travel Mart Latin America last September (this year's event will take place in Quito, Ecuador). If Cartagena weren't safe for tourists, Hilton, Sofitel, and other luxury hotels wouldn't be investing there.

Anyone intending to visit the Southern Cone might want to note that Latin Business Chronicle today issued a report that rated Chile, Costa Rica and Uruguay as Latin America's safest countries. Since I don't care to pay US$399 per year for a subscription--I get their free newsletter with summary coverage--I don't know where they rated Argentina, but my own feeling is that it shouldn't fall far below the other three.

A couple years ago, while I was giving a talk on Buenos Aires in Southern California, this very topic came up with respect to the Argentine capital. Given that we were in Los Angeles, my first impulsive response was that "In Buenos Aires, there are no drive-by shootings."

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Chile, at a Walker's Pace

According to the Santiago daily La Tercera, as cited by the online Santiago Times (subscription only), the Sendero de Chile, an ambitious 8,500-km recreational trail running the length of the country, will not be finished until the year 2038. Intended for non-motorized use only, conceived under the administration of former president Ricardo Lagos, the first segments of the trail opened in 2002; it now comprises about 1,800 km that pass through wild backcountry such as the Altos del Lircay National Reserve, pictured to the right.

The announced date represents a 28-year postponement of an ambitious project that was, initially, intended for completion for Chile's 2010 bicentennial. In reality, it links together and formalizes existing backcountry routes (much like the Appalachian Trail in the eastern United States) in the Andes. There are also segments elsewhere in the country, for instance on remote Easter Island, and even if progress is slower than originally projected, visitors to Chile will find plenty of paths for hiking, biking, and saddling up.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Riding to the Ridge where the Wine Commences

After tying up some loose ends in Buenos Aires this coming week, and with apologies to Cole Porter, I'll be heading west to Mendoza and its wine country for a shorter time than I'd like, before crossing the Andes into Chile (where, fortunately, wineries are also abundant). On both sides of the cordillera, it's the fall harvest season, the best time to visit with wine in mind.

For those of you unfamiliar with Argentina's wine country, or who'd like to catch up with the latest there, I've just published a new article on wine resorts in both Mendoza and the northernwestern province of Salta. After clicking the link, you'll have to leaf through the magazine to page 40.

Over the next few weeks, I'll be adding some entries on Chilean wineries and other destinations in the country, including possibly Easter Island (though that trip may be postponed until November).

Friday, March 7, 2008

Uncertain Priorities, Unclear on the Concept

Argentina is famous for musicians and singers (such as Carlos Gardel), political icons (Eva Perón), and soccer players (Diego Maradona) . The tango that Gardel popularized, Evita's oddly romanticized image, and Maradona's athletic greatness define Argentina to the world (though in the United States, where soccer is a niche sport, Maradona is at most a minor figure; basketballer Manuel Ginóbili is better known there) . Their images are everywhere, and their graves are pilgrimage sites (except of course for the erratic Maradona, whose continued presence on the planet is almost as inexplicable as that of Keith Richards).

Meanwhile, individuals such Bernardo Houssay, who won the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1947, seem to have been virtually forgotten by Argentines and foreigners alike. At the medical school of the Universidad de Buenos Aires, a small museum bears Houssay's name, and last week I went to see if, as I had been assured a couple years earlier, it had undergone a reorganization. Only by banging on the door of a hard-to-find office was I able to speak with an apologetic curator who told me that, in the country's premier medical school, Houssay's legacy remains disorganized and essentially inaccessible to the public--even to the thousands of students who roam its halls.

Meanwhile, in a country which has made a spectacular economic recovery since 2002, the medical school's dingy hallways suggest that education is not one of the current administration's priorities. The building's facade may honor figures such as Hippocrates, Paracelsus, and Pasteur, but the students don't seem to aspire to Houssay's achievements, even if the shabby infrastructure may not be their fault.

According to one survey, three out of ten Argentine cardiologists smoke and the halls of the med school, whose institutional autonomy means that the city's anti-smoking ordinances do not apply here, are a free-fire zone for tobacco junkies. A significant percentage of the students, it seems, are ignoring overwhelming medical evidence, and the failure to honor figures such as Houssay is symptomatic of both cultural and political shortcomings.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

A Yellow Fever Scare?

Northeastern Argentina, popularly known as Mesopotamia because most of it lies between the Uruguay and Paraná rivers, is an area that boasts extensive subtropical forests and one of the country's greatest tourist attractions in Iguazu falls. Along with Buenos Aires and Patagonia's Moreno Glacier, it's one of the big three for first-time visitors. Recently, though, Argentine authorities have reported the first confirmed case of mosquito-borne yellow fever in 40 years, in the Mesopotamian province of Misiones. Bordering Paraguay and Brazil have had more cases, some of them resulting in deaths, but the Argentine victim (who was apparently unvaccinated) is recovering.

Once so widespread that an outbreak killed thousands in temperate Buenos Aires in the 1870s, yellow fever survives mostly in the humid tropics. Its presence in the region is no cause for panic, but Iguazú-bound travelers should be sure their yellow fever vaccinations are up to date. The individual in question had apparently been clearing trees in a remote area where several monkeys (presumably howler monkeys, which are common in the area) had recently been found dead.

UPDATE: As of Tuesday, March 11, there has been one yellow fever death in northeastern Argentina. Many people here in Buenos Aires are being vaccinated, but it's not really essential unless you're traveling to that region.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Me llamo Bond...Santiago Bond

According to the Santiago daily La Tercera, foreign and Chilean crews will spend 12 days later this month filming part of the new James Bond movie, Quantum of Solace, in the Atacama desert region of Antofagasta. About 1300 km north of Santiago, the producers are looking for arid open spaces where 007 (now played by Daniel Craig) can pursue his nemesis Dominic Greene.

They'll find an abundance of possible locations limited likely by the need to house and feed some 300 people involved in the project. I'd expect them to choose something pretty close to the coastal city of Antofagasta, the capital of its namesake region, which has a critical mass of hotel rooms and catering options. Calama might work if they decide to film at the imposing open pit copper mine at nearby Chuquicamata, but its travelers' services are fewer. My own preference, though, would be to see 007 challenge a Goldfinger-style villain over the fairways and "greens" of the Tocopilla Golf Club--the literal Pebble Beach--on the coast about two hours north of Antofagasta.

UPDATE: As of Tuesday, March 11, the Chilean daily La Tercera reports that the advance crews are staying at Antofagasta's waterfront Radisson, and that Daniel Craig is due to arrive in Chile Monday the 22nd, with shooting due to start two days later.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

My Ride's Here

I was staying at the Marriott
With Jesus and John Wayne
I was waiting for a chariot
They were waiting for a train...

With only a week or so left in Buenos Aires, as I'm nearly finished with updating my guidebook to the city, I've been tying up some loose ends. One of those loose ends is checking out improvements to the public transportation system, which means another opportunity to borrow a song title from Warren Zevon, whose lyrics I've quoted above. I'm not quite ready to check out permanently as Warren did, but there's a tangophile melancholy as I get ready to leave my second home and head to Chile, before returning to California at month's end.

My main task was to ride the Subte's new Línea H, but I got sidetracked en route when, near the university medical school, I saw one of the new articulated buses that are being introduced into the city. I didn't ride it, as it wasn't going anywhere I was headed, and there aren't any on routes through my barrio of Palermo as yet. It remains to be seen how efficient they'll be in navigating narrow colonial streets in Monserrat, San Telmo, and other historic areas--despite the vehicles' flexibility, difficult turns would seem to limit their usefulness along many routes.

Anyway, back to the Subte. Línea H, which opened in October, runs from Once (a transfer station with Plaza Miserere, on Línea A) in the north to Avenida Caseros in the south. There are additional stations at Venezuela, Humberto Primo (a transfer station with Jujuy, on Línea E), and Inclán. Eventually it will run north from Once to Recoleta, uniting some of the city's poorest barrios (such as Barracas) with what is probably the richest. I was impressed, though, with the improvements to the street level station at Plaza Miserere, which is also the starting point for the Sarmiento railroad's suburban commuter lines to western suburbs in Buenos Aires province. This is traditionally a rundown line, and I don't usually recommend it for excursion destinations such as Luján (the bus provides better service and is more direct). Part of the Sarmiento is due to be undergrounded, which should reduce car-train accidents in the city.

One of the Subte's shortcomings has been that all the transfer stations are downtown, so that travel to outlying parts of the system is indirect. Going from Palermo to Caballito, for instance, means changing trains at Plaza de Mayo, then backtracking. In that sense, the Subte resembles Argentina's air transportation system. It's impossible, for instance, to fly from the northwestern city of Salta to the western city of Mendoza without passing through the Buenos Aires hub and changing planes--effectively doubling the travel time and distance of a direct flight (there are none in this instance). When Línea H is finished, the distance and time for crosstown trips should be shorter, and it may even reduce congestion in downtown trains.

Meanwhile, at Plaza Miserere, I found it possible to transfer from Línea A (the city's oldest subway line) to Línea H (the newest), but not easy. You have to enter the Subte and then follow a complicated system of low-ceilinged catwalks before emerging into a tunnel that, after a considerable walk, finally delivers you to the glistening new Once station. Trains are not yet frequent, however, and only run about every ten minutes, compared with five or six minutes on other lines. Though it was around 5 p.m., the train I rode to the end of the line at Caseros was almost empty.

Part of the reason might be that it's hard to get information about the improvements. In riding the Subte the last several days, I've observed that none of the system maps yet includes Línea H, so Metrovías still has some work to do though it finally has appeared in their online map (which is hard to find if you don't know where to look on the site). On the station platforms, the ubiquitous SubTV screens provide frequencies for every line except Línea H.

On reaching Caseros, I turned around immediately to Humberto Primo, where the transfer to Jujuy station (Línea E) and connection to San Telmo was far simpler. Still, the few passengers I saw made me wonder about the line's viability, at least until the rest of it opens. For most Porteños, the Subte takes them to and from work, but few Recoleta residents work in Barracas (and few probably ever venture there). It's possible, though, that the new line will eventually help maids and dogwalkers who make their living in Recoleta get to their jobs more quickly.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Running from Extinction?

According to the online Santiago Times, quoting from the dailies El Mercurio and La Tercera, there remain only 24 surviving individuals of the flightless ostrich-like lesser rhea or ñandú in Torres del Paine National Park. Conaf, Chile's national park service, attributes an apparent decline to predation (from pumas and foxes), poaching (which seems improbable within the park), and road kill (unsurprising, as improved roads to, from, and in the park now permit higher speeds).

While I can't quarrel with statistics that must be the result of a local census, they did surprise me to some degree. I visit the park almost every year, and I often see at least that many birds en route from Puerto Natales and additional individuals within. It's anecdotal, but when I drove Argentina's Ruta 40 from El Calafate to Bajo Caracoles in December, I think I saw more rheas than ever before, even as they're apparently declining within Paine.

I'm only speculating, but a reduced rhea population within Paine could have to do with conservation measures there--outside the park, sheep ranchers often shoot foxes (which eat rhea eggs) and pumas (which can attack adult rheas), both of which are protected within. The number of foxes within the park is greater than I've ever seen and their boldness is remarkable, but again this is an anecdotal observation.

Another biogeographical issue related to the rhea has also aroused my interest. The guanaco, a relative of the domestic llama, is common in the Patagonian steppe, where it often shares habitat with the rhea, but the rhea appears to be absent from similar habitats on the island of Tierra del Fuego (where the guanaco is common). I would speculate that the guanaco was present in Patagonia well before the rhea, and that when continental drift created the Strait of Magellan, it survived on both sides of the Strait. The rhea, then, would have evolved or immigrated after the Strait came into existence, and could not cross the water.

According to the IUCN (see the link for the lesser rhea above), there is an introduced population on the northern part of Tierra del Fuego, but I've never seen it despite many trips through the area. If anyone knows anything more about this, I'd be most interested to hear.
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