Monday, December 28, 2009

San Antonio de Areco, in the Flood

For most of the past week, I’ve been moving southward from Puerto Iguazú to the Argentine Pampas, through moderate to occasionally heavy rains, before finally arriving at the “gaucho capital” of San Antonio de Areco, in Buenos Aires province, on Xmas Eve. Most of the next day I spent exploring San Antonio, in the process of updating Moon Handbooks Argentina and Moon Handbooks Buenos Aires (in which the town appears as an excursion, only 113 km west of the Argentine capital). I was also writing up material from my travels since mid-November.

On Saturday the 26th I had planned to visit the devotional center of Luján and the nearby village of
Carlos Keen before continuing to Buenos Aires, but the night of the 25th it began to storm, with bright-as-day lightning and louder-than-fireworks thunder, so that I even disconnected the computer to avoid any potential electrical storm damage before going to sleep.

When I awoke that morning, though, the ensuing downpour kept me from continuing to Buenos Aires, and the power had gone off in the vicinity of the central Plaza Arellano, where I was staying at the time. By the time it ceased raining, around midday, I learned that the Río Areco - which often floods in this low-lying terrain - had spilled over its banks and risen to within a block of the plaza. Matheu street, one block north, had itself become a knee-deep river channel. Ruta Nacional 8, which leads west toward Mendoza, was also underwater and it was even difficult to drive east to Buenos Aires. I decided to spend another night in San Antonio, despite the apparently rising river.

I moved, however, to a handsome new two-room B&B, La Demorada, on slightly higher ground and, during the rest of the day, the river dropped slightly. Yesterday, meanwhile, westbound highways continued underwater, requiring major detours for anybody traveling toward Mendoza or Rosario, Argentina’s “second city” on the upper Río Paraná. Yesterday eastbound RN 8 to Buenos Aires dried out and I arrived in the city by early afternoon.

There is some evidence that San Antonio’s floods may not have been an exclusively natural disaster, having been exacerbated by illegal drainage canals on ranchers’ pastures. As so often in Argentina, the search for villains - or scapegoats - is underway.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Argentine Monkeys Howl Back!

My Moon colleague Christopher Baker’s recent post on Costa Rican howler monkeys has inspired me to respond from the Southern Cone. In fact, hardly anybody thinks of Argentina as monkey habitat, but the subtropical northeastern provinces of Corrientes, Misiones, Chaco and Formosa have significant if not abundant forest that supports populations of the black howler Alouatta caraya, which is also present in Brazil, Paraguay, and Bolivia.

The easiest place to spot the black howler (the one pictured above is a juvenile) is the gallery forest across from the visitor center at Esteros del Iberá, just outside Colonia Carlos Pellegrini (the final destination of my recent 4WD adventure), in Corrientes province. On this short signed nature trail, you’re likely to come across the howlers and, if not, you may well hear them at night, as their calls carry across the waters of Laguna Iberá.

I had been to Colonia Pellegrini several times before but, in a recent drive through the Sierras de Córdoba, I also learned that there is a black howler rescue center near the town of La Cumbre. Most of the animals come from the pet trade, and the center accepts volunteers who want to work with them for a minimum of three weeks, "teaching monkeys to be monkeys."

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

My Favorite Xmas Tree

With four Moon Handbooks on my platter - Argentina, Buenos Aires, Chile and Patagonia - every year I spend four to five months, sometimes more, on the road as I update them. Except in Buenos Aires, where I own an apartment, I rarely spend more than two or three consecutive nights in the same bed during that time. Most of my travels take place in the southern hemisphere spring and summer, when most visitor services are open, and new editions of my books appear prior to the following season. I often say, for purposes of clarity, that I leave California when the World Series ends and return for opening day.

That means I miss the northern hemisphere winter and spend the “holiday season” away from my family in California (though I occasionally spend it with my Argentine wife’s family in Buenos Aires province). In reality, though, being irreligious, I find this time of the year a distraction as my January/February deadlines approach. In particular, the dead week between Christmas and New Year’s can be a time when some tourist offices are closed and it’s otherwise difficult to do research. I do sometimes use that week to visit destinations such as Mar del Plata, the Buenos Aires province beach resort that becomes a zoo after the first of the year.

Nevertheless, it’s sometimes nice to kick back, in countries where the sight of a snow-flecked Christmas tree and decorations like Santa Claus’s sleigh seem grossly out of place in, say, the subtropical heat of Puerto Iguazú or even the early summer streets of Buenos Aires. One of my most memorable December 25th’s I passed in Chile’s Parque Nacional Nahuelbuta where, if there were no symmetrical boreal firs covered with colorful ornaments, there were forests of equally symmetrical austral Araucaria (monkey puzzle) trees with no need of ornaments. And I was literally the only person in the entire park.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Argentina's Worst Road? Into the Iberá Marshes

One of Argentina’s greatest underrated and underappreciated sights is the Esteros del Iberá, a slow-flowing river of wildlife-rich floating islands in the northeastern province of Corrientes. It’s the place to see capybaras - rodents the size of a Rottweiler - and caimans, marsh deer and hundreds of bird species, up close and personal.

The problem is getting there. To the village of Colonia Carlos Pellegrini, where services into the these marshes are best, the easiest access point is the west-side town of Mercedes, 120 km from Pellegrini, but Mercedes itself is 230 km from the nearest airport, or an overnight bus ride from Buenos Aires. The Misiones province capital of Posadas, to the northeast, is closer, but the eastern segment of provincial Ruta 40 from the town of Gobernador Virasoro is virtually impassable during or after a rain.

Yesterday I was driving from the Argentine border town of Puerto Iguazú, near the famous Iguazú falls. I would pass near Posadas and, because circling the Esteros to Mercedes would have added an extra 320 km to a 550-km drive, I decided to brave Ruta 40. Taken in Colonia Pellegrini, the photograph here marks the end of the story, but my mud-splattered truck - note the chunks of mud on the roof - doesn’t tell everything.

At the junction with national Ruta 14, the well-traveled paved highway to Buenos Aires, a sign warns prospective drivers that Ruta 40 is closed in wet weather. Ever since I left Puerto Iguazú there had been high clouds, but darker, lower ones were forming to the west toward the Esteros. A hotel owner in Puerto Iguazú told me the route had been good, except for one sandy 23-km stretch, when he had driven it a few months earlier.

At the beginning, the route was smooth, supporting speeds up to 80 km per hour, and I was somewhat confident that, even if it began to rain, it would take some time to make the route impassable. After about 20 km, though, lightning flashes appeared to the west and, before too long it was a hard rain, if not quite a downpour. The surprise was that even this brief rain turned the road to a brown slush and, in no time, chunks of mud were flying onto the hood and even the roof of the truck. I engaged my 4WD immediately.

Mud was also accumulating on the underside of the chassis as I slipped and slid on tracks left by previous vehicles - the least uncertain means of continuing. By the time those tracks disappeared, there was no turning back, and I took to driving with one set of wheels on the mostly grassy shoulder - but perilously close to water-filled drainage ditches. My speed dropped to about 20 km and, on more than one occasion, I was advancing diagonally along the edge of the road.

Two or three times, I was so stuck in the mud that I had to rock back and forth between first gear and reverse to get out of a wallow that, it seemed, would have held a hippopotamus. Fortunately, the rain stopped and the conditions never got any worse, though I did pass through areas approaching Colonia Pellegrini where it might have rained harder, and one long but slight uphill stretch was particularly difficult.

After about four hours, mentally exhausted, I had covered the 120 km to Colonia Pellegrini and taken a room at Rancho Ypa Sapukai, a comfortable, moderately priced guesthouse that also offers excursions into the marshes.. In reality, I was never in any particular danger - sooner or later a tractor from a neighboring farm would have pulled me out of the muck - but I had no desire to spend a hungry night sleeping inside the truck.

And at least I learned that the eastern segment of Ruta 40 is impossible for an ordinary passenger car, and difficult enough even with 4WD. Nevertheless, owner Pedro Noailles of Ypa Sapukai is taking two passengers to Posadas today over the road - a transfer that now costs from 700 pesos (nearly US$200) for up to four passengers. Considering the route’s difficulty, rising fuel prices, and the distance to Posadas, this is not an unreasonable cost, especially considering that the driver and vehicle have to return.

For my part, after a wildlife-watching excursion today, I’ll be heading west tomorrow toward Mercedes on the all-weather access segment of Ruta 40. I’m not sorry I drove the eastern segment yesterday, but I’ll likely never do it again - unless the weather is perfect or the province paves the road.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Highway Hazards of Argentina's "Four Corners"

Northwestern Argentina, where I have spent most of the past two weeks, is one of my favorite parts of the country. In both geography and culture, it resembles the southwestern United States, with polychrome deserts canyons and a strong indigenous presence. The provinces of La Rioja, Catamarca, Tucumán, Salta and Jujuy possess overpowering scenery and a cultural heritage that traces its origins back to highland Peru and Bolivia. The steep-sided box canyons of La Rioja’s Parque Nacional Talampaya have been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997, and Jujuy’s Quebrada de Humahuaca was declared one in 2003. The latter, in particular, has seen a major influx of tourist investment and infrastructure.

Yet this is also one of the areas that makes me most nervous. It is one of the country’s poorest regions, with serious urban and rural poverty. I have never been concerned about crime here, but scofflaws do bother me and that’s because, like many foreign visitors, I often drive a car to reach the most remote and scenic places. That also means, on occasion, that I have to drive in congested provincial capitals where motorcycles and scooters are constantly darting and weaving among automobiles, buses, and trucks.

In theory, Argentine law obliges the drivers of motorcycles and scooters to wear protective helmets but nothing, apparently, obliges them to wear them on their heads - it’s not uncommon to see riders loop them over their elbows. I estimate compliance at less than one percent, and the provincial police appear to have zero interest in enforcement.

Yet it’s not solitary adult bikers that concern me so much as poor families who have scraped together enough money to buy an underpowered motor scooter that they use to get around town - I have often seen a family of four or five, with babes in arms, careening through town with no head protection whatsoever. Given their precarious equilibrium, a major tragedy is only a small oil slick away, as they could easily tumble in front of my - or your - oncoming car.

Some of these drivers are not even licensed - one Catamarca transit policeman told me that it’s common for fathers to give their daughters a scooter for their quinceañera (15th birthday) celebration. In one recent case, the result was an immediate traffic fatality well before the daughter had reached driving age. When someone’s simultaneously texting on a cell phone, as depicted here, the hazard is even greater.

What explains the failure to enforce the law? It’s complicated, but there are also many junk cars, highway hazards that could not possibly pass any technical inspection because of missing headlights and other defects, that are nevertheless on the road. The usual explanation is that federal and provincial governments would rather keep “social peace” than enforce laws that may “discriminate” against poorer people. In reality, though, this endangers those very people the law supposedly exists to protect. It’s also bewildering, of course, that so many riders seem to have so little regard for their own - and their children’s - personal safety.

In fact, in the city of Buenos Aires, the police have taken to confiscating motorcycles whose riders are not wearing helmets. The provincial capital of Jujuy has taken a different tack - a municipal ordinance now decrees that gas stations may not sell fuel to a helmetless rider, but this of course has many loopholes: “María, why don’t you and the kids stay here while I go around the block to fill the tank?”

Friday, December 11, 2009

Ethical Travel: Argentina & Chile Score High

According to a recent press release from Ethical Traveler, an organization headed by my Oakland neighbor Jeff Greenwald, both Argentina and Chile figure among the ten most ethical destinations for world travelers in 2010. Given where these countries would have figured 30 years ago, when both were under vicious military dictatorships, this is a welcome development though, in the following paragraphs, it will be apparent that the analysis is not quite so simple.

Ethical Traveler arrived at its evaluation by compiling information on each country’s records on environmental conservation, social welfare, and human rights, from sources such as the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy, UNICEF, Amnesty International, and Freedom House. Specific items taken into account include forestry practices, child mortality rates, and freedom of the press. Admitting that these standards alone are not enough to make a destination appealing, the release adds that each of the countries in question “boasts wonderful opportunities for the traveler - opportunities to experience nature at its most pristine, and to interact with local people and cultures in a meaningful, mutually enlightening way.”

In all these categories, though, there is room for devil’s advocate arguments. In Argentina, for instance, the government may have pledged preservation of endangered Atlantic forest in the northwestern province of Misiones, but at the same time it’s lagged far behind in cleaning up the Riachuelo, a stagnant stream of sludge that runs through the tourist-friendly Buenos Aires neighborhood of La Boca (pictured above). Chile deserves credit for its progressive national parks system but, outside park boundaries, monocultural plantations of exotic Monterey pine often continue to replace native forests. Controversial, massive hydroelectric projects threaten areas the Río Futaleufú (pictured here) and other rivers without formal protection in northern Chilean Patagonia.

Both Argentina and Chile, of course, suffer from great disparities between wealth and poverty, both in the cities and the countryside. Chile has dealt with this in a more systematic manner, providing assistance and opportunities within an institutional framework. Argentina, meanwhile has often tied assistance to political patronage, in both urban and rural areas. In some ways, this has made existing problems worse.

While the political environment in both countries is far superior to what it was three decades ago, it’s not without problems. Perceiving its ebbing support to be a result of an unfriendly press, for instance, the Argentine government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner forced adoption of a new media law aimed at the Clarín group, its most outspoken opponent. In another irony, Chile has invoked a Pinochet-era anti-terrorism law against Mapuche Indian demonstrators (some admittedly violent) in the southern lakes district.

All of this is not to imply that Argentina and Chile are unsuitable destinations for travelers concerned with how the proceeds from their travels will be spent. As it happens, I agree with most of Ethical Traveler’s conclusions, but that doesn’t mean that visitors to these countries should overlook their shortcomings. That’s part of the learning experience.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Moon Handbooks Chile: The Charlotte Observer Interview

Last month, as I was motoring down Interstate 5 in a rental car to catch my flight from Los Angeles to Santiago the next day, I pulled off the highway to receive a phone call from John Bordsen, the travel editor for North Carolina’s Charlotte Observer. After a couple lost connections, I found a high point where the phone signal was dependable, and John interviewed me on Chile for about half an hour, focusing on the new third edition of Moon Handbooks Chile.

The condensed interview finally appeared in last Sunday’s Observer. Surprising, John was most interested not in Torres del Paine and the Atacama desert - the prime destinations for most visitors to Chile - but in the capital city of Santiago (with sights such as the Mercado Central and its fishmongers, pictured above), the colorful port city of Valparaíso, and the Casablanca valley wine country. You can read the entire interview by clicking on the link at the beginning of this paragraph.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

An Argentine President's Getaway

Many hotels claim, at least figuratively, to treat you like a king. Only one, to my knowledge, can legitimately claim to treat you like a president - Estancia La Paz near the village of Ascochinga, about 45 minutes north of the Argentine provincial capital of Córdoba.

In Argentina and Uruguay, and to a lesser degree in Chile, estancias are large landholdings - often measured in hundreds or even thousands of square miles - linked to a traditional “oligarchy.” In most of Argentina, they are cattle ranches, though in the southerly Patagonian provinces they are usually sheep ranches. Over the past couple decades, as livestock raising has proved less profitable than in the past, many of them have opened their doors to paying guests, just as dude ranches did in the United States from the late 19th century.

Estancia La Paz, where I spent a recent weekend, once belonged to Julio Argentino Roca, the military man responsible for the so-called Conquista del Desierto (“Conquest of the Desert”) that drove the native population of southern Buenos Aires province into Patagonia in the late 19th century. Roca also served two terms as Argentina’s president, and Estancia La Paz was where he went to get away from it all.

Today, no longer in the Roca family, the former casco (big house, dating from 1830) is a 20-room hotel on sprawling grounds that include an artificial lake (which attracts many birds), polo grounds, a stable (for non-polo riders as well), a spa, and a fine restaurant that’s open to non-guests by reservation. In 1994, the Alvears, descendents of the Rocas, sold it to Italian interests who neglected the casco and sold off many of the original furnishings. The Scarafia family of Córdoba, who purchased it in 1998, have managed to assemble a credible collection of antique furnishings that at least recreate the feeling of Roca’s heyday.

In addition to the estancia, local attractions include the Sierras de Córdoba, where hiking and other outdoor activities are possible, and the Jesuit monuments near the town of Jesús María (which is home to January’s Festival de Doma y Folklore, a nationally televised festival where gauchos engage in bronco-busting and the country’s top folk musicians play).

For all this, Estancia La Paz is surprising affordable at about US$130 per person for bed and breakfast, with lunch or dinner for about US$20 (with a sophisticated menu that changes daily). Roca’s “Camp David” comes cheap, at least for anyone with frustrated presidential ambitions.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Chilean Peso, and a New Airline, Soar

Last year, about this time, the dollar was riding high in the Southern Cone countries, having reached a peak well above of 600 Chilean pesos. It was also climbing against the Argentine and Uruguayan pesos, so that traveling in the region was a bargain.

In a year, though, things have changed, especially in Chile. As the country comes out of the economic crisis - deftly managed by President Michelle Bachelet and her team - the price of copper has rebounded and there’s been an influx of dollars into the country. Thus the dollar has fallen below 500 pesos, with the end result that prices have risen by about 20 percent, even though Chilean domestic inflation remains low. Chilean agricultural exporters are complaining, as their domestic costs remain high, but they receive fewer dollars for their fresh fruit, wine, and other products. So are incoming tourism operators, who receive their income in dollars, but have to pay their salaries and other expenses in pesos.

That said, not everything is negative in Chile. The new Principal Airlines is attempting to undercut the established carriers LAN Airlines and Sky Airline on routes to the northern cities of Antofagasta, Calama, and Iquique. How long they may last is open to question - LAN’s resources and services have put several other Chilean airlines out of business over the past couple decades - but for the time being this means potentially cheaper access to Atacama desert attractions such as San Pedro de Atacama (near Calama), the nitrate ghost towns of Humberstone and Santa Laura (near Iquique, which also has some of Chile’s best surfing), and Lauca National Park (in the Andean altiplano east of the city of Arica). Travelers with those destinations in mind may be able to minimize their financial sacrifice.

In Argentina, meanwhile, the dollar has strengthened against the peso, despite a recent minor drop. A year ago, it was at the 3.2 peso level and, today, it’s right around 3.8 per dollar. That’s not to claim Argentina is necessarily cheaper than it was then, as prices of some items such as gasoline and taxi fares have risen - in fact, realistic price rises were long overdue. Yet it’s still possible to find good values in hotels and especially in restaurants, where good meals are available for US$10 per person, and spending a bit more can mean something really memorable - especially in the Buenos Aires gourmet ghetto of Palermo. Even at restaurants, wines are a phenomenal bargain, with full bottles of fine wines available for what, in the United States or Europe, would barely cover the cost of a glass. Those who wish, though, can still spend hundreds of dollars on a truly premium vintage.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

San Juan is Juiced!

When most of us travel overseas, we’re in search of world-class sights and experiences such as Argentina’s Iguazú falls and Chile’s Torres del Paine - the icons that make us endure long flights and rough roads. Unfortunately, those icons often make us overlook the “lesser” destinations, sights and experiences that make travel so rewarding.

Take, for instance, the Argentine city of San Juan. Roughly two hours north of Mendoza, about which I wrote recently, the capital of its namesake province is smaller, drier and hotter than its southern neighbor - in summer, temperatures frequently rise above 40° C (more than 100° F). In fact, when I arrived around midday last Monday, the heat was almost suffocating as I emerged from my air-conditioned car.

Fortunately, like Mendoza, the streets of San Juan’s city center enjoy a dense canopy of sycamore trees that leave it, as Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes noted in writing about Mendoza, “protected by a roof of leaves woven together like the fingers of a huge circle of inseparable lovers.” The shade can’t completely offset the heat but, on the corners around the city’s central Plaza 25 de Mayo (pictured above), the traditional carretas that offer gulps of chilled fresh orange juice for one peso (about 25 US cents) make their contributions as well. In fact, they are so noteworthy that the province has declared them to be “of cultural and tourist interest.”

Orange juice may not be enough to justify an overseas trip, but its sheer refreshment is a small experience I always look forward to when I visit San Juan - even though it has its own notable wine district only a short distance outside the city.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Wine & Wind in Mendoza

Mendoza province is Argentina’s wine cask, and over the last decade-plus its wines have begun to make a global impact, enough so that investors from Europe, North America, Chile, and elsewhere have poured funds to create some of the world’s most distinctive wineries. By some estimates, there are more than a thousand wineries in the province, mostly in Luján de Cuyo, Maipú, the Valle de Uco, and San Rafael. In the provincial capital city of Mendoza, US investors have created the Vines of Mendoza wine bar (pictured here) and a vinoteca in the nearby Park Hyatt Hotel, both of which appear to have been resounding successes, and used them as a forward base for a private vineyard estate project in the Valle de Uco.

Not so long ago, everyone who visited here had to stay in the capital and find their ways to the wineries and vineyards - many
of which were open for tours and tasting - pretty much on their own. Recently, though, there’s been a proliferation of vineyard hotels, some of which, like Cavas Wine Lodge (pictured above), help organize their guests’ winery excursions and other activities - including mountaineering, river rafting, paragliding, and other adventure. Surrounded by vines, Cavas was one of the first of a group that now includes Finca Adalgisa, Club Tapiz (pictured here), and La Posada at the Finca y Bodega Carlos Pulenta.

Arriving in Mendoza last Tuesday, I spent two nights at the most recent entry in the vineyard inn sweepstakes, Lares en Finca Terrada (whose website is a placeholder at present, but is due to be up shortly). Pictured here, it’s a purpose-built hotel, on seven hectares of Malbec vines in Luján de Cuyo, near the suburb of Chacras de Coria (where the owners’ other hotel Lares de Chacras, is located).

Lares en Finca Terrada has only five rooms, two of them suites, and is relatively isolated on the eastern side of Ruta Nacional 7; though it’s only about five minutes by car or taxi to Chacras de Coria and its abundant restaurants, it’s not a practical pedestrian excursion, and the hotel offers occasional meals to guests only.

Tuesday night was mild and windless and, as I sat on the terrace having dinner with an Anglo-German couple, the topic somehow turned to weather. I brought up the subject of El Zonda, the Cuyo region’s fierce katabatic winds that descend from the high Andes to raise havoc, blowing dense clouds of sand and dust and even lifting corrugated metal roofs off houses. Like the North American Chinook and the European Föhn, the Zonda brings higher temperatures and a pressure drop that causes headaches and is hell on people with allergies.

As it happened, I was something of a prophet. The next evening, around 7 p.m., the wind started kicking up and half an hour later it was a full-fledged Zonda as hotel personnel struggled to take down tent shelters and umbrellas before they were ripped to shreds. About that time the power went off and we were reduced to battery-powered auxiliary lighting (Finca Terrada is due to invest in an emergency generator shortly).

Meanwhile, a group of four Finnish women had arrived but, with their taxi afraid to leave because of fallen trees and branches, they could not leave for a planned dinner in Chacras. Amazingly, hotel manager Edmundo Day recruited an emergency chef to come from Chacras for them, even as I was hoping to head there for dinner myself.

By 9:30, though, the Zonda had subsided and I braved the drive into Chacras - through streets that were partially blocked by fallen trees or branches, and occasionally flooded because the deadfalls had clogged the acequias (irrigation canals) that irrigate the vineyards. In fact, most of Chacras was without power as well, though the excellent Chilean restaurant Mar y Monte was open. Returning to Finca Terrada around midnight, I read by candlelight - the batteries for the auxiliary lighting had run down.

During the next morning’s breakfast, even as utility crews were clearing the streets and restoring power, the powerful Zonda was all anyone could talk about.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Aconcagua Fees Reach the Roof of the Americas

At 6,962 meters above sea level, Argentina’s Cerro Aconcagua (viewed here from Chile’s Parque Nacional La Campana) is the highest peak not just on the South American continent but in all the Americas. It attracts day hikers, trekkers, and climbers all year, though the approaching summer is most popular (in fact, the official season began on November 1, and will continue until March 15; there is a separate winter season with restrictions).

Everybody who travels from Chile to Argentina over the Libertadores pass catches at least a glimpse of the park and its new visitors center, as Argentina’s Ruta Nacional 7 is its southern boundary. This is where visitors get their park permits, but it’s not quite that simple because customs and immigration - for both Chile and Argentina - are a few kilometers down the road at Los Horcones. It’s necessary to enter Argentina officially before entering the park.

Conditions and fees for visitors to Aconcagua are available at the official website of Parque Provincial Aconcagua, which is not a national park; rather, it falls under the jurisdiction of Mendoza province, which charges foreigners substantially more for park access than in does Argentine nationals. In the December 15 to January 1 peak, for instance foreign climbers pay 1800 pesos (about US$475 per person) for a permit, while their Argentine counterparts pay only 600 pesos. Seven-day trekking permits, to the main base camp, cost 400 pesos (US$105) for foreigners, 130 pesos for Argentines; three-day permits are 210 pesos (US$55) for foreigners, 70 pesos for Argentines. These fees are payable only in the city of Mendoza at the Secretaría de Turismo (Avenida San Martín 1143, 1st floor), but intending visitors can download the expedition permission form as a PDF.

Foreign day hikers now pay 75 pesos (about US$20) except for the short hike to Laguna Horcones (US$2); these fees may be paid at the park visitor center. This is the first season in which there has been any charge whatsoever for Laguna Horcones, which offers excellent glimpses of the peak even for those who never get closer (as the trail photograph suggests). In the past, this has been a doable day trip organized from Santiago but, at present, long overdue road improvements on the almost equally scenic Chilean side are making the trip over the border a slower experience.

On the way back to Santiago, by the way, all immigration and customs procedures - for both Argentina and Chile - take place on the Chilean side of the border.

It’s worth adding that, while Aconcagua’s summit is literally a walkup - there is no technical climbing - the altitude and weather make it one of the world’s most dangerous peaks, and climbers die almost every season. Prime physical condition is essential for anyone even dreaming about the summit and, even then, they have to recognize when to turn back.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Valparaíso's in Fashion

Finally, it seems, the Southern Cone countries are getting some attention from the North American press and, in the case of Chile’s scenic “cultural capital” of Valparaíso, the profile is rising even more rapidly. A few weeks ago, The New York Times dedicated an entire Sunday travel section to Latin America, with special attention to Santiago and Montevideo, and the latest edition of National Geographic Traveler includes a downloadable walking tour of “Valpo,” which is less than two hours west of Santiago.

Almost immediately, the NYT has followed that up with its own gastronomic tour of the city, concentrating on the adjacent Cerro Alegre and Cerro Concepción neighborhoods, both reached by ascensores (funiculars) from the downtown financial district. First-time visitors are often struck by the similarities with San Francisco, and not just from the way these little cable cars climb halfway up the hills: the natural landscape greatly resembles to Northern California, and the climate - with its billowing Pacific ocean fogs that often obscure the sun until late in the morning - is virtually identical, When it finally lifts, though, the views of the port city and its neighbor Viña del Mar are truly stunning.

Unlike nearly every other Chilean city founded in colonial times, Valparaíso does not replicate the pattern of a central Plaza de Armas as the center of a grid of perpendicular streets. Rather, it grew spontaneously up the hillsides, with zigzag paths that became streets and, in some cases, alleyways so narrow that you can almost touch houses on both sides. Rather than a New World city, in some ways it more closely resembles a medieval Mediterranean port except that there are few buildings more than a century-plus old.

Through the 19th century, Valparaíso and San Francisco were the most important ports on the Pacific coast of the Americas, with equally cosmopolitan immigrant and commercial communities. With the 1914 completion of the Panama Canal, though, commercial shipping began to avoid the long and arduous route around Cape Horn, and Valpo’s business dried up. Ironically, this preserved much of the city’s historic heritage, including Victorian and Georgian style houses that, in the case of places like Hotel Zero, have become stylish boutique hotels.

That’s reason enough to make Valparaíso an overnighter - preferably several nights - rather than just a daytrip. It has the additional attraction that, midway to Santiago, the Valle de Casablanca is one of Chile’s up-and-coming wine routes. Lining the highway are bodegas such as Viña Veramonte, for tasting and touring, and restaurants such as House of Morandé for fine dining.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Falklands Wolf? The Enigma of the Warrah

In their isolation off South America's Atlantic coast, the Falkland Islands have always been difficult to reach - so difficult, in fact, that they may have been one of the few places in the world that Europeans truly discovered, as there was no native population when Europeans first saw them in the 16th century. Even after their permanent colonization by the British in the 19th century, there was only regular sail and steamship service until the 1970s, when regular flights commenced from the Argentine city of Comodoro Rivadavia. Today there are several monthly flights from Brize Norton, in Oxfordshire, and one per week from the Chilean city of Punta Arenas.

The scarcity of communications, and the small permanent population (only about 2,500 today), have meant that a cornucopia of wildlife, such as elephant seals, sea lions, and penguins has survived in prodigious numbers here. They’re part of the reason that tens of thousands of cruise ship passengers visit every southern summer, and increasing numbers of land-based travelers make their way to the islands for longer stays.

Interestingly, for an archipelago that now boasts hundreds of thousands of sheep and smaller numbers of cattle and horses, plus a few odd introductions such as guanacos and foxes, the Falklands had only one species of land mammal when Europeans first set foot here: the warrah, or “Falklands wolf.” In fact, the introduction of sheep doomed the warrah, which woolgrowers shot to extinction by the 1870s.

Nobody knows exactly where the warrah came from. There had long been speculation that, like the Australian dingo, it was a hybrid of domestic dog and wild canid that came from South America, but no one has ever explained satisfactorily how it got to the islands. Conceivably, if improbably, it could have come with Fuegian natives from the South American continent, but their canoes were very precarious craft to cross several hundred miles of the open South Atlantic. Some such canoes have, though, been found on Falklands shores in the past.

All that speculation, though, has been overturned by DNA analysis of four museum specimens, which has determined that the warrah specimens share a common ancestor dating back some 70,000 years. It closest living relative is the South American maned wolf, but that connection is far more remote. In any event, the warrah reached the islands long before humans did.

The big question is how. Geologically, the Falklands appear to have been a rotated microplate that, before the breakup of Gondwanaland, were linked to eastern South Africa. They have never been connected to the South American continent and, even when sea level fell during the Pleistocene there would have been no land bridge. Sea level fell only about 45 meters (150 feet) at its maximum, and it would have taken a drop of 180 meters (nearly 600 feet) to unite the islands with the mainland. For the foreseeable future, then, the warrah will continue to be a mystery.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

National Geographic Traveler Rates the Southern Cone

In its November-December issue, National Geographic Traveler presents its sixth annual “133 Places Rated” scorecard, evaluating destinations around the world in terms of their “authenticity and stewardship,” as evaluated by more than 400 experts in a variety of disciplines. The highest rated is the Norwegian fjords, for its scenery and traditional rural life, while the lowest rated is Spain’s Costa del Sol, sardonically known as the “Costa del Concrete.”

Several Southern Cone destinations appear in the survey, which has more detailed commentary in the online version than in the print magazine. The highest ranked is Torres del Paine (whose iconic "Cuernos" or horns are pictured above), tied for sixth with a score of 77, despite some worries about overuse, as one commentator remarked that it was a "Great area, but the isolation and distance are more of a deterrent to a massive influx of tourism than any regulations.” The next highest, tied for 12th with a score of 71, is Easter Island (Rapa Nui) where, remarked another panelist in a similar vein, its "Relative sustainability is due mostly to the site's remoteness.” The cancellation of a proposed casino was a positive development, but some expressed concern about the new Explora Rapa Nui hotel (pictured here), relatively close to major archaeological sites on the island.

Still, both destinations were considered be in good to excellent condition, even though it’s common to hear complaints about crowding on Paine’s trails and the impact of 40,000 annual visitors to a truly remote island, with a popular of fewer than 4,000 and severe water shortages. The Explora project, for what it’s worth, is surprisingly inconspicuous and built in a style that mimics the island’s historical construction techniques. In at least one instance, they altered the project to avoid damaging a cave with potential archaeological value. The Economist, however, has taken a darker view of the island’s ecological challenges.

Chile’s UNESCO World Heritage Site of Valparaíso, by contrast, ties for 24th with a score of 59 as a “place in the balance,” described as “the poster child of lack of interest in developing a beautiful and traditional urban landscape" but, at the same time “a living, breathing city with tremendous visual appeal.” In reality, Valparaíso (pictured here) has the shortcomings of any port city, and it’s arguably unfair to consider it by the standards of, say, the California coast from Santa Barbara to Monterey, which gets a higher rating in the survey. Elsewhere in the magazine, Valparaíso is the subject of an outstanding walking tour, which can be downloaded as a PDF, and suggests how much the “San Francisco of South America” really has to offer.

The only other Southern Cone destination rated is Argentina’s Patagonian Andes, which ties for 17th with a score of 66, comparable to the Colorado Rockies. The panelists criticized the lack of environmental planning, but also praised it for "High ecological quality, extraordinary aesthetic appeal, wonderful hiking” (pictured here is Lago Nahuel Huapi, near the city of Bariloche). The strongest criticism, though came from panelists who noted the lack of effort to include Argentina’s Mapuche population in tourism development. In fact, anyone who visits the area will note their marginality - if indeed they see them at all. The Mapuche are a far more visible presence on the Chilean side of the border.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The NYT Finally Gets It: Buenos Aires, Santiago & Montevideo

Traditionally, Sunday travel sections in daily newspapers, at least in the United States, are stunningly Eurocentric. I have no statistics to support my contention, but I would estimate that upwards of 75 percent of all foreign destination coverage is European, with another 15 percent devoted to Asia and the remainder to the Americas and Africa. Coverage of the Americas is most often Mexico and the Caribbean, while that of South America and especially the Southern Cone countries is almost nil.

That’s why it was such a surprise to see last Sunday’s New York Times Travel section devoted exclusively to Latin America, including pieces dedicated to Argentina (reviewing a new design hotel in Buenos Aires), Santiago
(a brief hotel review and a longer piece on the city), and Montevideo (the section’s weekly feature “36 Hours”). Buenos Aires, along with perhaps Rio de Janeiro, is probably the South American city that most frequently appears in the Times, but Santiago and Montevideo are relative novelties.

The Santiago article, more than half a page long, bore the headline “Chile’s Capital Awakens From Its Eternal Sleep” - quoting Nobel Prize poet Pablo Neruda as to the city’s seeming somnolence - and describes it as an “electrifying place of vibrant contrasts, with lush new parks, renovated Beaux-Arts neighborhoods, and blocks of glamazon-thronged galleries and cafes clustered around ‘Sanhattan,’ the soaring financial district.” As Chile’s 2010 bicentennial approaches, the article implies, Santiago is an underrated destination worthy of a visit in its own right, rather than merely a transfer point to the Atacama desert or Patagonia. Attractions such as Neruda’s La Chascona home (pictured above) and the Museo de Arte Precolombino merit lengthy explorations, and it’s even possible to arrange bicycle tours through La Bicicleta Verde (English spoken). Although the author barely mentions it, the city has a thriving restaurant scene, especially but not exclusively in the Bellavista neighborhood.

Meanwhile, the Times devotes nearly an entire page to Montevideo, an almost equally underrated city in the shadow of Buenos Aires (just as Uruguay lies in the shadow of Argentina). There are excellent choices for sightseeing such as the Museo Gurvich, displaying the work of one of Uruguay’s top 20th-century artists (it’s worth noting that Uruguayan banknotes feature artists and writers rather than pompous generals on horseback) and the Palacio Salvo (pictured above), and for lunch at the classically carnivorous Mercado del Puerto (pictured below), which is a sight in itself. In addition, it suggests taking in tango (Uruguayans love it as much as Argentines) or candombe at Baar Fun Fun, an informal bar and night club.

For those continuing to Uruguay’s No. 1 destination, though, there may be some glitches this summer. According to the Buenos Aires daily Clarín, hotels in the beach resort of Punta del Este are embroiled in a bitter dispute with credit card companies and are not accepting American Express, Diners Club, MasterCard or Visa. Given hotel prices in January and February, Argentines and others planning to summer in Punta could have to carry lots of cash.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Viagra Cures Jet Lag - in Argentine Hamsters, at Least

When I wrote Tuesday's blog entry on jet lag, I was unaware that, in 2007, Argentine biologist Diego Golombek (pictured here), of the Universidad Nacional de Quilmes, had received an Ig Nobel Prize in Aviation for his discovery that Viagra aids jetlag recovery in hamsters.

According to a summary of Golombek's research in a transcript of a Scientific American podcast, the hamsters suffered from grogginess and disorientation after Golombek and his assistants "booked them on the red eye from Buenos Aires to Bucharest - or the laboratory equivalent of turning on the lights six hours early." When that happened, "it took a while to figure out when to start running in their exercise wheels, which they usually do after dark. What the researchers found is that hamsters that were given Viagra the night before the time change recovered faster than hamsters that do it without the drug. Whether similar treatment would provide relief to weary world travelers is an experiment that's probably been inadvertently done, but not reported." Perhaps Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina has some experience with this.

In receiving his prize at the annual awards event in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Golombek stated that he “would like to thank my colleagues and my students for performing wonderful research that made us laugh and then think, and also for going to the drugstore to get the Viagra for all of us.”

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Chile & Argentina: Jet Lag, Time Zones & Daylight Savings

One of the greatest misconceptions about South America, and specifically the Southern Cone countries, is that it is remote, but this is relative. The distances to Buenos Aires and Santiago are great but, in more than one sense, they are much closer to North America in terms of time.

Most North Americans think little of hopping on a plane to London, which is five time zones east of New York and eight time zones from California, but this normally means jet lag that costs them at least a day on arrival in Europe. Crossing the Pacific to Asia involves even greater distances and, if you’re unable to sleep, the time change can be truly torturous.

The South American continent, by contrast, is only slightly east of North America, and for most of the year, the hour in Santiago exactly the same as New York City, while Buenos Aires is an hour ahead. Visitors to the Southern Cone, then, are likely to arrive far less jet-lagged than visitors to Europe or Asia.

The difference is even greater when you realize that most flights from North America to the Southern Cone capitals are night flights that arrive first thing in the morning. If you’re able to sleep aboard a plane - it helps, of course, to go by clase ejecutiva (business class) or primera clase (first class), you’re likely to arrive refreshed, without losing a day.

This changes slightly in the approaching Southern Hemisphere summer, however. On October 10, Chile advanced the clock for daylight savings, and it’s now an hour ahead of New York - exactly the same as the difference between Chicago and New York. LAN flight No. 533 from New York, for instance, presently leaves at 8 p.m. and arrives at 7:50 a.m. Chilean time, an elapsed time of 10 hours and 50 minutes.

Chile will observe daylight savings time until March 13. When daylight savings ends in the United States at the end of this month, however, the difference will be two hours, still a relatively minor difference if jet lag is an issue. However, for travelers from, say, Los Angeles, the difference is five hours.

Despite Chile’s latitudinal extent, from the subtropics along the Peruvian border to the sub-Antarctic in Tierra del Fuego, virtually the entire country comprises a single time zone. This causes some oddities - in the northernmost city of Arica, where daytime and nighttime are roughly equal throughout the year, it’s not fully light until after 8 a.m. In Punta Arenas, by contrast, midsummer daylight can start around 5 a.m. and last until 11 p.m. Easter Island, five hours west by jet, is two hours behind the mainland.

In Argentina, oddly, daylight savings has become a big political issue because many of the provinces, which depend on agriculture and tourism, resent being dictated to by Buenos Aires in the name of energy conservation; the western province of San Luis has resisted for years. The tourism industry likes an earlier sunset because it gets visitors to restaurants and bars earlier and, it seems, they’ve won this year’s argument.

For foreign visitors this southern summer, this conveniently means that Chile and Argentina will be on the same schedule - but the historic clock tower in the Chilean town of Pisagua (pictured above) is unlikely to help, as it hasn't functioned for decades. Still, in most Chilean cities, the fire station sounds a noontime klaxon to let the citizens know the day is advancing.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Argentina Mourns Sosa, Uruguay Celebrates Candombe

Earlier this month, two significant events took place in the Southern Cone musical scene. On the one hand, Argentine folksinger Mercedes Sosa, who gave outspoken performances in public even after the military coup of 1976 before being forced into exile, died at the age of 74. Sosa, perhaps the most beloved performer in all of Argentina, was honored by a three-day official mourning period, with her ashes to be scattered among her northwestern birthplace of Tucumán, the western city of Mendoza, and the city of Buenos Aires. Sosa won three Latin Grammy awards in the last decade, but was no purist, performing with artists such as Argentine rock icon Charly García and Colombian pop singer Shakira.

On a more positive note, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared Uruguayan candombe, a music and dance that derives from Afro-Uruguayan tradition, as part of the world's Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Mostly concentrated in Montevideo’s Barrio Sur, the Afro-Uruguayan population is only about 5.5 percent of the country’s 3.6 million people, but candombe, with its rhythmic drumming on barrel-shaped tamboriles is not exclusive to Afro-Uruguayans, as the accompanying photograph, taken in the World Heritage Site of Colonia, would suggest. It is most commonly seen in January or February, during Carnaval festivities, which are not so exuberant as in Brazil, but considerably more so than in Argentina.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Moon Handbooks Chile: We Have Two Winners!

By the time I arose and read by email this morning, my inbox already two correct answers to yesterday’s quiz, provided by Tyfannie Ammeter of Santiago (who has her own blog La Chilenguita) and Christian Mondorf (whose email address comes from Denmark but whose name sounds German to me). Both will be receiving a copy of the new third edition of Moon Handbooks Chile as soon as I can realistically get them in the mail.

For those of you who hadn’t figured out the answers: 1) The photograph destination is Chilean Patagonia's Parque Nacional Torres del Paine (including the Cuernos del Paine or Horns of Paine, pictured here from a different perspective); 2) the animal in question is a guanaco, a wild relative of the domestic llama and alpaca that is abundant in the park, and now tame enough to be easily photographed. It’s one of the big successes of Chilean conservation.

I’m due to return to Chile at the end of the month, when I will pick up my car and head across the border to prepare the new edition of Moon Handbooks Argentina. In the interim, I will continue to post about topics in travel to the Southern Cone countries, and may even have another quiz (with a slightly more difficult question).

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Moon Handbooks Chile: Win the New Third Edition!

Friday afternoon the UPS delivery brought two large boxes that, as I anticipated, included my contractually stipulated 50 copies of the new third edition of Moon Handbooks Chile. Just in time for the upcoming southern hemisphere travel season, it’s fully updated, particularly with respect to the Chilean wine country, the latest in hotels and restaurants, and even the ins-and-outs of visiting volcano-ravaged Chaitén. The book also covers southernmost Argentine Patagonia, including Tierra del Fuego, and Chile's Pacific possessions of Easter Island (Rapa Nui) and the Juan Fernández archipelago.

In recognition of the new edition, I’m opening a contest that, I hope and expect, will soon have TWO winners. That’s because I’m giving away free copies of the book to the first two correct answers to following quiz, which I think is a fairly easy two-part question: 1) What is the destination depicted on the cover of the new edition?; 2) what is the common name of the animal appears within the photograph?

Please send your answers to the email address that appears in the header above. Previous quiz winners should, as Michael Feldman always remarks before the quiz on his public radio program Whaddya Know?, “sit on their hands and let someone else win for change.”

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Pichilemu's Public Schools To Become "Surf Schools"

With a Pacific coastline that stretches for more than 2,500 miles (over 4,000 kilometers), much of it resembling the state of California and Mexico’s Baja California, Chile makes an ideal destination for surfers. From the desert coast of the Norte Grande, where the cities of Arica and Iquique make the best bases, to the headlands of the Chilean heartland, north of Viña del Mar, there are almost endless options for surfers. Because the community of Chilean surfers is relatively small, the competition for waves is not what it would be in, say, Southern California.

That could change, though, if mayor Roberto Córdoba of Pichilemu - Chile’s almost undisputed surfing capital west of the Colchagua valley wine district about three hours southwest of Santiago - has his way. Pichilemu (whose Punta de Lobos point break appears here) is already home to the Campeonato Nacional de Surf, the national surfing championships, but according to the Santiago Times, the mayor plans to introduce surfing as an elective course in four of the town’s poorest performing schools.

The idea, says Córdoba, is to encourage an activity that has economic potential - there are several surf schools and rental equipment in town - and also to provide a recreational outlet for disadvantaged kids who are otherwise bored and, sometimes, in trouble. That many of these kids could become professional, as the mayor seemed to imply, is doubtful, especially as the cost of equipment, training, and travel is well beyond the means of most of them. Still, the idea of making them participants, rather than just observers, seems worth the effort.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Argentine ATMs: Foreign Visitors Get a Break

Almost as I was leaving Buenos Aires in July, the Argentine banking networks Link and Banelco started imposing ATM charges of 11.45 pesos (approximately US$3) on every withdrawal by foreign customers. As banks struggle for profitability in the current financial crisis, of course, it’s unsurprising to see them try to milk every possible penny out of their customers, but the Argentine case had a special characteristic: it was combined with a withdrawal limit of 300 pesos (about US$79) per transaction. Anyone using Link or Banelco ATMs could do at least three consecutive transactions, but this would have meant an additional US$3 fee for each transaction. I estimated personally that, given the amount of time I travel in Argentina every year, those fees might have cost me an additional US$100 per month in bank charges.

Fortunately, there is a (sort of) happy ending. Under pressure, apparently, from international banks, Link and Banelco have been forced to rescind the 300-peso limit - on my most recent trip to Buenos Aires, I was able to withdraw 790 pesos on one transaction, and might have been able to get more. The ATM charge of 11.45 pesos (in addition to any your own bank might impose) still holds, but that’s a lesser concern if there’s only a single transaction rather than three.

It’s worth repeating that, in general, Argentine ATMs pass out large banknotes that can be difficult to change - that’s the reason I asked for an uneven amount such as 790 pesos, which ensured that I would get some smaller bills. On my last exchange before the limit was lifted, however, I requested the maximum 300 pesos and received an unheard of 30 ten-peso notes, which filled my wallet to overflowing - go figure!

At the same time, Argentine two-peso notes have supposedly been in short supply because of a TV promotion - an Argentine station has been conducting a sort of lottery based on their serial numbers. While that shortage wasn’t so obvious, finding sufficient coins continues to be difficult, and having the proper change to board a city bus or pay for small purchases such as newspapers continues to be difficult.

Meanwhile, in Chile, the Redbanc system has imposed ATM charges of 2000 to 2500 pesos (about US$3.70 to US$4.60) per transaction, but it has never even tried to enforce the sorts of withdrawal limits that their Argentine counterparts have. According to some of my Chilean correspondents, though, Banco Estado, Banco Desarollo, and Corpbanca still do not collect ATM charges on foreign debit cards. This information, though, is subject to change without notice.
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