Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Buenos Aires Fixer

In early 2002, when I was preparing the first edition of Moon Handbooks Buenos Aires, the Argentine government had just collapsed, and the economy was in free fall. At that time, my Argentine wife and I had been considering a kitchen remodel on our California home as we had an inheritance from my mother, but as I wandered the city and looked at realtors' offerings, I realized we could consider our dream of an apartment in the city - for about the same price as our California kitchen remodel. A few months later, we purchased a two-bedroom unit in Palermo, near the Jardín Botánico Carlos Thays, from a dentist who needed the cash to purchase his partner's share of their practice. In fact, he got a pretty good deal - nearly three times the price he had paid in pesos - but had he sold a few months earlier, when the peso was at par with the dollar, he would have done even better.

The Buenos Aires real estate market has since rebounded, and bargains such as the one we got are hard to find except in outlying barrios that, unlike Palermo, have yet to become fashionable. Those with a little cash to spare, though, can consider the 14th-floor apartment in Retiro's iconic Kavanagh building (pictured here). Originally built for Corina Kavanagh, with five bedrooms in more than 700 square meters (around 7,000 square feet) , it's now owned by British Lord Alain Levenfiche and on the market for a modest US$5.9 million - possibly the city's single most expensive apartment.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Not an Xmas Tree

As a guidebook writer, traveling in the Southern Cone countries, I work seven days a week from breakfast to bedtime, and my most frustrating time of the year is the "holidays" between Christmas and New Year's, when the closure of tourist offices and other services make it harder to do my job. Last night in the Chilean city of Concepción, for instance, nearly all the restaurants were closed, and I had to settle for a mediocre Chinese dinner in a restaurant that won't make the new edition of Moon Handbooks Chile that I am presently researching. More often than not, for me, holidays are obstacles.

In reality, Concepción isn't much of an attraction in its own right, but I had to time my visit for Friday - a work day - to be able to consult with the regional office of Sernatur, the Chilean government tourism agency. I'd sooner be in another part of the region, such as Parque Nacional Nahuelbuta (pictured here), where I spent one of my most memorable Xmases - as the only visitor in a beautiful national park that's one of the few places where the Araucaria (monkey puzzle tree) survives in the Chilean coast range.

While I'll be glad when the "holidays" are over, I was nevertheless partly responsible for providing a big Xmas gift for Kirby Johnstone of Vancouver B.C. In the course of my September-October book tour to promote the new edition of Moon Handbooks Patagonia, Kirby attended my talk at the city's Travel Bug bookstore, and won the raffle drawing for a free round-trip ticket from Los Angeles to Santiago or Buenos Aires, courtesy of LAN Airlines.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Southern Cone - On Fire!

Every year, as I update my Moon Handbooks to Argentina, Buenos Aires, Chile and Patagonia, I revisit the cities, towns, and countryside that I've been covering for nearly two decades and, when I can't visit something in person, I always have to verify that the places I cover still exist. Of course, landmarks such as the Casa Rosada presidential palace in Buenos Aires, or its Palacio de la Moneda counterpart in Santiago, are constants, but that doesn't mean that someday they won't be damaged or destroyed by fire, earthquake (likelier in Chile), or some civil disturbance (perhaps likelier in Argentina). As a guidebook writer, I have to doublecheck everything and, even then, there's no guarantee something won't disappear or shut down the day after I leave.

Even as I've been wandering through the Atacama desert for the last several weeks, some lesser landmarks in Chile and Argentina have suffered serious damage that will affect visitors in the short term. Early this month, in Puerto Natales, a fire rendered the Hotel Costa Australis (pictured here) unusable for the peak summer season. While all the guests were safely evacuated, the loss of the city's largest hotel - with 72 rooms - makes it likely that quality accommodations will be at a premium for travelers en route to Torres del Paine National Park.

For example, Hernán Jofré, part-owner of the nearby boutique Hotel Indigo, writes me that "we reached a percentage of occupation we never imagined before." Costa Australis executive Marco Vergara, meanwhile, assured me that reconstruction is proceeding and the building may be ready as early as March - after the January-February peak.

On the Argentine side of the border, in the city of Mendoza, the landmark Bodegas Escorihuela winery (pictured here) has also suffered a serious fire that may end tours and tasting for the foreseeable future. Fortunately for gourmets, celebrity chef Francis Mallman's 1884 Restaurant - widely considered one of the country's best - escaped damage.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Tourist Capital of the Atacama

In 1979, when I first visited San Pedro de Atacama, its only guidebook coverage consisted of a few lines of telegraphic succinctness in the South American Handbook - the Belgian priest Gustavo Le Paige had organized an archaeological museum of the local Atacameño heritage, and there were two places to stay: the Hostería de San Pedro (beyond my backpacker budget) and the modest Residencial Florida (pictured here, now known as "Your Hostal Florida"). I opted for the latter and, at dinnertime, conversed with its only other guest, a Japanese backpacker, in my then rudimentary Spanish.

At that time, excursions such as El Tatio, perhaps the world's highest geyser field, were next to impossible because, simply, you needed your own 4WD vehicle to travel the appallingly bad roads and, on a backpacker budget, this was impossible. I settled for walkable nearby sights such as the Pukará de Quitor, a 12th-century fortifications, and the Tambo de Catarpe, and Incaic administrative center. It was more than a decade later, after Chile's return to representative government, that San Pedro began to become the Atacama desert's premium destination for backpackers and, increasingly, upscale foreign tourists.

I visit San Pedro at least every third year, and the changes are ever more breathtaking. The main street, Caracoles, now consists of almost wall-to-wall restaurants and travel agencies that arrange visits to El Tatio and other sights. And, according to an information file provided me by the local office of Sernatur, San Pedro now has at least 72 accommodations options, ranging from campgrounds to five-star hotels. Since the installation of the controversial Explora chain about a decade ago, there has been a proliferation of all-inclusive resorts, many of whose staff are Explora alumni. These range from the intimate Hotel Awasi (only eight rooms, and just a short walk from the town square) to the outlying Tierra Atacama and Alto Atacama (pictured here, near the Pukará de Quitor). Many people feel ambivalent about San Pedro's transformation to a tourist economy but, at the same time, it's hard to imagine that things would be better here - economically, at least - without the investment that has taken place. Whether the area's resources, especially its limited water, can handle the growth is another question.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Out of the Closet and into the Wine Cellar?

Anyone who's been to Buenos Aires since the political and economic meltdown of 2002 is aware that the city has become the THE top gay travel destination in all of South America, and one of the most important in the world. This week's Economist provides a good summary of BA's gay appeal, with its vigorous nightlife (including a gay milonga or tango dance club), Latin America's most liberal domestic partnership laws, and even the five-star "hetero-friendly" Axel Hotel on the edge of San Telmo.

Another of Argentina's attractions, for all sexual orientations, is the country's wine. As far as I know, though, Buenos Aires is the only city in the world with an openly Gay Wine Store, near Plaza San Martín in the upscale barrio of Retiro. Personally, though, I'm bewildered as to what constitutes gay wine, and would appreciate it if anybody could clue me in. Red, white, or rosé?

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Skies of the Atacama

Early Sunday morning, I left the tiny Chilean fishing port of Taltal, with its dilapidated but atmospheric heritage of wooden buildings from the nitrate era, and headed into the coastal range of the Atacama desert - the shortest route north toward the city of Antofagasta and my ultimate goal of San Pedro de Atacama. The coastal road north from Taltal turns to gravel after about 20 km and then, at the fishing village of Paposo, swerves up a steep canyon known as Quebrada del Despoblado - so called because nobody lives there and, given its stark aridity, that's not surprising.

Emerging on the high coast range, though, the road becomes smoothly paved and, about halfway to Antofagasta, a short paved lateral climbs west to the European Space Organization's Cerro Paranal Observatory (pictured here). I've been past it several times and had always wanted to visit the facility, but unfortunately they only offer public tours the last two weekends of each month (except December). This, however, was the last Sunday of the month and, although theoretically you need to make reservations well in advance, I figured I had nothing to lose by storming the gates, so to speak. It was also around 10:30 a.m., nearly four hours before the first scheduled tour but, in one of those occasional miracles that can make travel so memorable, a special tour was leaving almost as I arrived and I was able to talk my way onto it.

Cerro Paranal is one of the world's most sophisticated observatories, and each of the four buildings depicted above - very different from the traditional dome-style architecture - contains an eight-meter mirror lens; the four sometimes pool their efforts to increase the light and literally magnify the images they get from distant space. Visitors get to enter one of the buildings, accompanied by highly professional guides who handle both English and Spanish, and also get to visit the control room (which was extremely quiet on this Sunday). The highlight for many visitors, though, is the so-called "Perla de las Dunas," the astronomers' hotel that ostensibly went up in flames in the latest James Bond saga, Quantum of Solace. The photograph here is not the corridors where 007 and his companion fought off the bad guys, but rather the central dome garden - which looks unreal compared to the desert outside, where not a blade of grass grows. As it happened, when the guide learned that I was press and that we had a mutual friend from La Serena, I got special treatment to get a closer look where the rest of group - mostly students from an Antofagasta high school - couldn't go.

All in all, a remarkable stroke of good luck that left me in a great mood on the rest of the long day's drive to San Pedro (about which I'll write more in the coming days). Meanwhile, en route, I stopped in the village of Baquedano, whose vintage train station (pictured here), about which I wrote more in an earlier post, was also a location for Quantum of Solace. That, though, was enough Bonding for the day, and I got back on the road to San Pedro, arriving around 7 p.m.
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