Thursday, January 28, 2010

Aerolíneas Plays Aeroparque

Buenos Aires has two airports. Nearly all international flights arrive at and leave from Aeropuerto Internacional Ministro Pistarini, colloquially known as Ezeiza for the nearby Buenos Aires province town, about 22 km south of the city (because of heavy traffic, it’s 45 minutes from downtown, on a good day). Most domestic flights, plus flights to Uruguay, leave from Aeroparque Jorge Newbery, the city airport on the banks of the Río de La Plata, barely ten minutes from my Palermo apartment.

Because Aeroparque is so much closer to the city, it’s much cheaper to reach than Ezeiza. A cab from downtown Buenos Aires to Aeroparque costs about US$5, while one to Ezeiza costs at least five times as much. There are cheaper alternatives, but they’re much slower and, in these times of glacially slow and tiresome airport security, nobody wants to spend any more time than necessary getting to the airport.

That’s at least part of the reason why, after mid-March, renationalized Aerolíneas Argentinas wants to use Aeroparque for regional departures to Santiago de Chile, Asunción (Paraguay), and São Paulo and Río de Janeiro (Brazil). That’s also why other regional airlines, including Brazil’s TAM, Chile’s LAN, and Uruguay’s Pluna are on the warpath, concerned that this would benefit Aerolíneas to their detriment. The ability to move its regional passengers immediately to connecting domestic flights would be another major advantage.

One could argue, of course, that Aerolíneas, with its record of unreliability, needs every operational advantage it can get to stay solvent (it’s noteworthy that none of the international airline alliances, such as OneWorld and Star Alliance, wants anything to do with Aerolíneas, whose frequent flier program has no affiliates except for some car rental agencies and a few hotels). In theory, other airlines could move operations to Aeroparque, but in practice, it isn’t big enough to accommodate them. Aerolíneas’s Aeroparque foothold is too solid for others to counter a political decision that has economic consequences.

And no one, apparently, has even mentioned the additional traffic and noise that this could bring, with more cars on the streets and more planes overflying the city. And because it’s so much smaller than Ezeiza, the risk of accidents would probably increase.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Ice Cream Capital of the Americas

Buenos Aires summers are hot, wet and sticky - today, the temperature reached 87° F (about 30° C) with 74 percent humidity, and neither figure has changed significantly as the sun goes down. I’ve never spent a summer on the Eastern Seaboard, but I’m guessing this is what John Sebastian was singing about in the Lovin’ Spoonful classic “Summer in the City.”

My apartment here lacks air-conditioning, but it’s got something even better. At the end of December, when I arrived in town for the first time since September, I was thrilled - and appalled - to find that Jauja, one of Argentina’s two or three best ice creameries in my opinion, had opened a branch (pictured above), just one short block from my apartment in Palermo.

Argentine helado comes from the Italian tradition, and more closely resembles soft creamy gelato than it does the denser U.S.-style of ice cream (though sorbets are also common, mostly with fruit flavors). Chains such as Chungo, which has many branches around town, can be very good, but the best are shops that produce custom flavors in relatively small batches. My personal favorite is Cadore (pictured here), which has a single inconspicuous location at the corner of Avenida Corrientes and Rodriguez Peña, a few blocks north of the Congreso Nacional - the chocolate amargo (bittersweet chocolate) and mousse de limon (lemon mousse) are exquisite (and go well together).

But back to Jauja. It is, I guess, something of a chain, but that’s all relative. Jauja began in the Patagonian hamlet of El Bolsón, (pictured here) in Río Negro province, and still produces all its ice cream there (though it has a couple retail outlets in San Carlos de Bariloche, 120 km to the north, and another in Villa la Angostura in Neuquén province, 80 km farther on). It then trucks the product more than 1,700 km (about 1,050 miles) to Buenos Aires. Despite those transport costs, Jauja is actually a little cheaper than Chungo.

Unlike Cadore, which is fiercely traditional in its flavors - and all the better for it - Jauja experiments with oddities such as calafate (a Patagonian berry) made with sheep’s milk, mate cocido (made from Argentines’ favorite infusion, resembling green tea), and even crema de maní (peanut) and cerveza (beer, as El Bolsón is famous for its hops and local brews).

As I suggested above, I’m thrilled to have Jauja so close to my apartment, but I’m also appalled. Cadore is always a temptation, but it’s halfway across town. Jauja is so close that I have to restrain myself whenever I have an urge to enjoy my favorite dessert. That’s not easy when this week’s temperatures are projected to remain in the high eighties.

Despite the quality and diversity of the ice cream here, Argentines remain relatively conservative in their tastes. According to a recent article in the daily Clarín, 18 percent of Argentines prefer dulce de leche, the sickly sweet caramelized milk flavor that they often devour straight out of the jar in its non-frozen form. The next most popular is strawberry, with only six percent, followed by chocolate.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

La Cuarenta: Argentina's Top Road Trip

From the Bolivian border near La Quiaca to its southern terminus near Río Gallegos, Ruta Nacional 40 is Argentina’s great unfinished interior highway. Some segments of “La Cuarenta,” in the central Cuyo provinces, are smoothly paved, while others in the Andean northwest are rough and rugged. None of those, though, enjoys the notoriety of the segment between the El Calafate junction and the town of Perito Moreno, on the cusp between the Patagonian steppe and the icy southern Andes.

Roughly parallel to Chile’s Carretera Austral, it may not be Argentina’s loneliest road - some of the dead-end routes that spin off it seem simply abandoned. But for Argentines and foreigners alike, it’s become the standard for adventurous driving and cycling, thanks to its secluded Andean lakes, isolated estancias (guest ranches), plentiful wildlife, and rare sights like the pre-Columbian rock art of Cueva de las Manos (Cave of Hands, pictured above). Even the advent of (infrequent) public transportation has not diminished its mystique.

As late as the early 1990s, it was possible to drive the southernmost stretch without seeing any other vehicles, and services were almost nil. Since then, traffic has not exactly burgeoned, but the summer season sees a small but steady procession of motorists, motorcyclists, and bicyclists. A selective bunch, at least, have absorbed Darwin’s insight that the appeal of the bleak Patagonian plains was “the free scope given to the imagination.”

It’s clearly not for everyone, though, and a trip up or down La Cuarenta requires planning. With accommodations and supplies few and far between, bicyclists and motorcyclists must carry tents and cold-weather gear, even in midsummer, and plenty of food. Detailed maps, like the Automóvil Club Argentino’s newest regional sheets, are essential. Preferably, automobiles should carry at least two spare tires.

Also carry extra fuel - between El Calafate and Perito Moreno, the only dependable supplies are at El Chaltén (a 90-km detour), Tres Lagos, Gobernador Gregores (a 70-km detour), and Bajo Caracoles (pictured here, it sometimes runs out). Some tourist estancias will sell gasoline to their clients or in an emergency, but don’t count on it.

Road hazards are numerous. Bicyclists and motorcyclists must contend with powerful Patagonian winds that can knock them down in an instant, and deep gravel adds to the danger. Even high-clearance vehicles are vulnerable to flipping on loose gravel, especially when braking suddenly, and 50-knot gusts make things worse. Though four-wheel drive is not essential, some drivers prefer it to avoid fishtailing on gravel.

Chipped, cracked, and even shattered windshields are par for the course on RN 40 and other graveled roads. Normally, rental-car insurance policies do not cover such damage, and replacements are expensive in Argentina (though fairly cheap in Punta Arenas, Chile). Approaching vehicles usually brake to minimize the possibility of such damage, but some drivers find they need to play chicken to slow down an onrushing pickup truck or SUV.

The big news is that within a few years, thanks to former Santa Cruz governor (later Argentine president) Néstor Kirchner, this segment of RN 40 will be entirely paved and may be rerouted to pass through Gobernador Gregores. Hearing that RN 40 will be paved evokes enough nostalgia for a tango, but there will remain plenty of unpaved gravel roads.

If driving or cycling doesn’t appeal to you, but you still want to see the loneliest highway, summer bus and minivan services now connect El Calafate and El Chaltén, at the south end, with Perito Moreno and Los Antiguos at the north end of the province, and with Bariloche. Unfortunately, the four-day overland safaris from Bariloche to El Calafate that used to overnight in Río Mayo (Chubut), Estancia Los Toldos (for Cueva de las Manos), and Estancia Menelik (for visits to Parque Nacional Perito Moreno, pictured here) have been suspended, at least for this season.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Tandil Rock(s)

In southern Buenos Aires province, about 350 km south of the city of Buenos Aires, the town of Tandil and its surroundings offer literal relief from the unrelentingly flat Pampas. Nobody will mistake this area for the Alps or the Andes - its summits top out around 500 meters above sea level - but their barren pre-Cambrian granites create a deceptive illusion of high country in what, along with Sierra de la Ventana, serves as the nearest hill station for residents of the Argentine capital. It's particularly popular with hikers and mountain bikers, and its cheeses and salamis are famous throughout the country.

Tandil’s downtown, where cobblestoned streets still surround the central Plaza Independencia, exudes genuine charm, as do open spaces such Parque Independencia, with their panoramas of the city and its countryside. For centuries, though, Tandil’s top attraction was Cerro La Movediza, a geological curiosity about three kilometers northwest of the plaza, where a 300-ton boulder had wobbled in the wind for millennia.

According to legend, the so-called Piedra Movediza even resisted the efforts of General Juan Manuel de Rosas’s draft animals to pull it down, but it finally tumbled on its own in February of 1912. In 2007, local authorities with perhaps too much money to spend placed a hollow 12-ton replica, created by engineers at the Universidad Nacional del Centro de la Provincia de Buenos Aires, in its stead, but many locals deride it is as the “Movediza Trucha” (Bogus Movediza). Unlike the original, the pseudo-Movediza does not even teeter in the breeze.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Wine & Dinos in Patagonia

When foreigners think of Patagonia, their first thoughts are usually of a remote region in the antipodes, where the winds blow and the snow falls. Few think of grapes and even fewer of wine grapes but, in reality, grapes grow as far south as Punta Arenas (Chile), Estancia Sara (in Argentine Tierra del Fuego), and the Falkland Islands.

That’s a little misleading, because these destinations have table grape vines that grow indoors, as in the winter garden restaurant at Punta Arenas’s Hotel José Nogueira (pictured above, with a net to keep the fruit from falling onto the diners' tables). Nevertheless, wine grapes have grown, with commercial success, for more than a century in Argentine Patagonia - Bodega Humberto Canale, half an hour east of the provincial capital of Neuquén, celebrated its centennial in 2009.

In fact, the Patagonian wine industry is expanding rapidly with the new San Patricio del Chañar district, less than an hour northwest of Neuquén. Having made The New York Times’ list of “31 Places to Go in 2010,” Chañar figures to grab even more attention in the coming years, thanks to bodegas such as Bodega del Fin del Mundo, Bodega NQN, and Bodega Familia Schroeder. The latter two also have fine restaurants, but Schroeder is the only one that can boast an in situ dinosaur fossil, discovered during the construction excavations.

Neuquén province is a hotbed for field-based paleontology research and especially dinosaur discoveries - so much so that Schroeder has named one of its lines “Saurus” - with a triangle of paleontological museums at Lago Barreales (west of Chañar), Plaza Huincul (pictured here, west of Neuquén), and Villa El Chocón (southwest of Neuquén). In theory, it would be feasible to visit most of the wineries and museums in a day, but that would be extremely rushed, and two days would be desirable.

Meanwhile, Chañar isn’t the only novelty on the Argentine wine scene. Near the town of Sierra de la Ventana, one of the few places in Buenos Aires province where bedrock rises above the legendary Pampas, the new Bodega Saldungaray (pictured here) has planted nine hectares with a diversity of grapes that includes Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Franc. Available only in southwestern Buenos Aires province, these are young wines - the vineyards were planted only six years ago - that aren’t ready for export, and the winery doesn’t really have a specialty yet. Still, it's worth a visit, especially with free tours and tasting during the day, a restaurant that’s open until midnight, and nightly tastings, paired with food, under the guidance of its sommelier.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A Mighty Wind Hits Buenos Aires

After I descended from a five-hour bus ride at Buenos Aires’s Retiro bus terminal at 6:15 this morning, the ensuing taxi ride to my Palermo apartment took me through a scene of arboreal devastation. An early morning storm, with high winds, had left dozens of fallen trees and limbs, ripping some of them straight out of the soil. As of this evening, some of them are still blocking streets and sidewalks.

Some 40 cars suffered damage from falling branches, at least one bicyclist was hospitalized after being hit, and the wind even lifted the roof off a large downtown gas station. In the Buenos Aires province town of Caseros, a pedestrian was electrocuted by a high-tension cable, and in some areas it was necessary to shut the electricity off for several hours.

In fact, this is a predictable occurrence whenever a big storm hits the city. In part, it’s because of the near total lack of maintenance - rather than being regularly pruned, street trees here are often left to grow up to seven or eight stories, rather than being kept at a uniform height. The branches often spread out of control as well, with many weak joints that are almost certain to break under the stress of a big storm. Rotted or rotting branches and trunks are rarely removed.

In a warming world, Buenos Aires (and all big cities) need more shade trees. But taking care of the ones they already have is at least as important - rather than just showing up with chain saws, a few days later, to clean up the mess.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Carretera Austral: Chile's Top Road Trip

Not so long ago, to visit northern Chilean Patagonia's wild temperate rainforests, pristine lakes, rushing rivers, fathomless fjords, and sprawling ice fields with jagged glacial summits, you went by sea or air. Weekly ferries from Puerto Montt called at tiny ports like Chaitén and Puerto Puyuhuapi en route to Puerto Chacabuco, 80 km west of the regional capital of Coyhaique. Small planes and air taxis used grass or gravel airstrips at pioneer settlements like Chaitén, and only the smallest jets could land at Coyhaique's airport because there wasn't enough level ground to handle anything bigger. If you wanted to go overland, you went over bad Argentine roads.

In the 1970s, though, Chile began a project to unite the sliver of the country that lies south of Puerto Montt via the Carretera Austral Longitudinal, a narrow, discontinuous, serpentine highway that now winds south to Villa O'Higgins, linking isolated hamlets over more than 1200 km. Steadily improving, this still rugged route, rarely wider than a single LA freeway lane, has begun to hook the handful of adventurous travelers who seek it out. It has brought an influx of foreigners like Esprit founder Doug Tompkins, who has created his own private national park; rafters and kayakers who have turned the tiny burg of Futaleufú into a burgeoning adventure center; cyclists and bikers en route to Tierra del Fuego, the tip of South America; and pods of budget travelers who join forces to rent pickup trucks in Santiago, Chile's capital.

Near Coyhaique, the two-lane Carretera is wide and paved, but in some sections "highway" seems a misnomer for a precarious road that needs frequent grading to smooth spine-shattering washboard and countless potholes. In summer, highway crews hack back the wild vegetation that, left unchecked, would cover the road in a season or two. It's no longer a 4WD road but, though there's still more cow patties and road apples than blown tires, speeds more than 40 km per hour are often inadvisable.

Literally the biggest destination near Chaitén is Tompkins’ Parque Pumalín, an 800,000-acre private nature reserve that includes groves of the long-lived alerce (false larch, Chile's counterpart to the redwood), north of Chaitén. Unfortunately, the 2008 eruption of Volcán Chaitén (pictured here) has closed this section of the highway, and most of the park, for at least the 2010 season.

That said, Naviera Sur ferries from Puerto Montt and Quellón (on the island of Chiloé) are still delivering motorists, motorcyclists, bicyclists, and even pedestrian passengers to Chaitén, which has been largely evacuated though some accommodations remain open and bus service south to Coyhaique continues. Sights and attractions along or near the route include the whitewater rafting and kayaking Mecca of Futaleufú; Parque Nacional Queulat, with its hanging glacier (pictured here); the Termas de Puyuhuapi hot springs; the city of Coyhaique itself; Parque Nacional Laguna San Rafael, where the ice meets the sea; the pinnacles of Reserva Nacional Cerro Castillo (pictured below), and the terminal town of Villa O’Higgins (where, however, it’s possible to continue by fjord and overland - on horseback and foot - to the Argentine trekking capital of El Chaltén.

For anyone who wants to drive the Carretera Austral, the long days of the southern summer are an ideal time. The simplest option is to fly into Coyhaique and rent a vehicle, heading either north or south, but this involves considerable backtracking to see the entire road. Reserving a car is essential in Coyhaique, which has a relatively small fleet of vehicles, well in advance.

It’s also possible to rent a vehicle in Puerto Montt, but this will mean either retracing the entire route, returning via Argentina (at extra cost for paperwork and insurance), or expensive dropoff charges in Coyhaique (the only option along the highway).

Anyone driving the Carretera Austral’s should be aware of its hazards. There is relatively little traffic, but in many areas it is narrow, with a high center and sloping sides, little or no shoulder, and many blind curves - sound the horn at every opportunity. 4WD is not essential, but high clearance is advisable even if some drivers now do the route in a normal passenger car.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

When I'm 64: Sandro Leaves the Building

Sandro has finally left the building. Nearly two years after I wrote that he was awaiting heart-and-lung transplant surgery, which he underwent in November, Roberto Sánchez - the “Elvis of Argentina” - died yesterday in Mendoza’s Hospital Italiano, age 64.

Today, every newspaper in the country features a photograph or caricature of “El Gitano” on its front page, and TV screens everywhere are featuring 24/7 coverage of the first Latin American singer to perform at New York’s Madison Square Garden. For most of the day, his body has been lying in state in the Congreso Nacional (which, one might well argue, is a greater accomplishment than anything else to come out of Argentina’s notoriously dysfunctional legislature in many years). For most of the day, blocks-long lines of his adoring “chicas,” many of them now grandmothers, have been filing past the body, which was flown to Buenos Aires from Mendoza and will be interred in a private cemetery at Burzaco, a Buenos Aires suburb.

One could also argue, meanwhile, that Sandro - a heavy smoker who suffered so badly from emphysema that he sang attached to an oxygen tank in his last performances - was an unsuitable candidate for such major surgery. Whether or not his celebrity gave him access to organs that could have done more good for a younger, otherwise healthier candidate, in his last years he became an outspoken tobacco critic.

He also took responsibility for his health problems: ''I am to blame for the condition that I am in. I deserve it; I sought it out. I picked up this damn cigarette.'' In today’s Argentina, where virtually every province has enacted surprisingly effective tobacco-control legislation, a contemporary Sandro might have a longer, healthier life.

The best English-language coverage of Sandro’s life and legacy appears in the Buenos Aires Herald, particularly in a column by Pablo Toledo, but look for other Herald links as well.

Late update: according to TV reports from Buenos Aires, Sandro remained available for viewing throughout the night, with lines stretching anywhere from eight to 13 blocks. It finally closed around 5 a.m. Wednesday morning, but reopened at 10.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Dakar 2010 Takes Its Toll

In 2009, for the first time, the Dakar Rally was held outside Africa because of safety and security concerns - particularly the threat of terrorism in the country of Mauritania. Instead, organizers moved the event to Argentina and Chile, where this was not an issue. On New Year's Day, the 2010 South American event began in Buenos Aires, after the participating vehicles were on display near Palermo’s Sociedad Rural (as pictured here) for several days.

Safety and security, of course, are relative terms when it comes to fossil fuel “sports” such as off-road automobile and motorcycle racing. It’s certainly not secure for the plants and animals destroyed or killed by speeding vehicles as they tear up the desert and the Andean altiplano (the Chilean town of San Pedro de Atacama specifically requested Dakar to keep away from its natural and archaeological resources). And it’s not secure for humans either - last year, the rally claimed three lives and, this year, Dakar 2010 needed only one day to take its first life, a spectator in Córdoba province. Five other spectators were injured.

In what other “sport” is grisly death a predictable outcome of the competition? Even leaving aside the question of whether we should encourage extravagant recreational consumption of fossil fuels, which are a limited and declining resource, Argentina and Chile should rethink their support of Dakar. Or at least, perhaps, we should acknowledge that this is a blood sport.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Reciprocity v. Prosperity in Argentina

More than a year ago, the Argentine government first floated the idea of a “reciprocity fee” for foreign tourists whose governments require visas, with similar fees, of Argentine citizens. This past Monday, it finally imposed such fees and, from now on, citizens of the United States, Canada, and Australia will be required to pay such a fee on arrival at Buenos Aires’s Aeropuerto Internacional Ministro Pistarini, better known as “Ezeiza” (pictured here). However, according to some sources, up to 22 countries may be affected sooner or later.

The government’s measure (which resembles a similar policy in neighboring Chile) is not unfair. For an Argentine, or any other foreigner applying for a US visa, for instance, the process is expensive and cumbersome. Not only must he or she pay the non-refundable fee in advance, but a personal interview at the US consulate in Buenos Aires is obligatory even for someone who lives in, say, far-off Ushuaia - an expensive four-hour flight that would, in all likelihood, require the applicant to take time off work. The process can be invasive and even humiliating, as the US government asks for bank records and other personal information.

Yet, while it’s not unfair, the Argentine policy is foolish. For visitors from the aforementioned countries, Argentina is a distant destination, and flights here can be costly. Some indignant Argentines claim, of course, that it’s even more expensive for them to travel abroad with a weak peso, but it’s all relative. The tourism industry does not exist in a vacuum, and a middle-class North American couple might look at the extra $524 it would cost their family of four to travel to Buenos Aires and decide instead on, say, Mexico or Costa Rica, where flights are more affordable as well.

As ideology trumps pragmatism, the economic impact could be unequal but long-lasting. It’s unlikely to affect truly wealthy visitors, but could deter youthful backpackers for whom Argentina has become a popular destination over the last several years. If they do come, they are likely to reduce their aggregate spending by the amount of the fee - making this simply a transfer from the private sector to the government. If they choose another destination, flourishing institutions such as hostels and local tour operators, as well as small businesses such as supermarkets, would lose more revenue than five-star hotels. At the same time, Argentina should be looking to create a market for return travelers, rather than single visits, and those who never come will never return as prosperous middle-age professionals. Tips, which go directly to service providers, are likely to decline.

Details of the measure are unclear as yet as there is no complete summary on the website of Argentina’s Dirección Nacional de Migraciones. Some sources suggest that US nationals’ fee will be valid for ten years, as Argentine visas to the US are - making it a relatively minor expense for frequent visitors. On the other hand, others say that the fee for Canadians (US$70) and Australians (US$100) will only be valid for a single entry. For the time being, in any event, it will only be collected at Ezeiza.

Then there’s the question of revenue. According to interior minister Florencio Randazzo, as quoted in the weekly newspaper Perfil, “the revenue will permit us to modernize border crossings and migration control of those who enter Argentina by air, land, sea, or river.” In fact, the anticipated revenue of roughly US$40 million per annum - about US$1 per Argentine - is a pittance if, as Randazzo states, the goal is “to bring equipment up to date and comply with international standards on biometric identification.”

What’s clear is that the measure was poorly conceived and is likely to be equally poorly executed. While it may satisfy a certain impulse for dignity and equality among some Argentines, it could be a drag on one of the most vigorous sectors of the economy.
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