Saturday, July 31, 2010

Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow

Only occasionally do I find myself in Argentina or Chile during the northern summer and, even then, it’s most often for urban doings in Buenos Aires, which I visited last year for a magazine feature in the March issue of National Geographic Traveler. In reality, many visitors prefer to escape the cold winters of Europe and the Atlantic seaboard for the austral summer but, given the recent heat waves in the northern hemisphere - even Moscow temperatures have reached triple digits on the Fahrenheit scale - maybe it’s time to seek the snow in the South American Andes.

According to David Owen, who leads ski and snowboard trips along both sides of the cordillera through his Powderquest Ski Tours, “Overall it has been a great start of the season, especially from Nevados de Chillán south to Chapelco [pictured above, courtesy of David Owen, just outside of San Martín de los Andes, Argentina] and Bariloche [where Cerro Catedral is the top area]. Deep dry snow, cold temperatures and numerous storms back to back have made this season one of the best in recent memory.” Because the Andes are so high, Pacific storms drop most of their moisture at lower elevations, leaving only the finest powder on the slopes.

This week, David is visiting Chile’s Valle Nevado (pictured above, courtesy of David Owen), barely 45 minutes from downtown Santiago (which, among its other virtues, must be the largest major metropolis in the world to have so many first-rate ski areas so nearby). He comments that “Valle Nevado, La Parva, and El Colorado (pictured below, courtesy of David Owen) have received significantly less snow than the southern resorts, but thankfully, very cold temperatures have maintained good snow conditions.” On the other hand, he adds, the legendary area of Portillo, about three hours northwest of the capital near the Argentine border, “has not fared as well this season. The storms have not quite reached Portillo with the same intensity and they are only now just opening the resort to day visitors.” Portillo has been the site of several downhill speed records, including Michael Prufer’s 217.68 kilometers per hour, set in 1987.

Conditions may improve, though, as “six to 17 inches is the forecast over the next days, with the deepest forecasted around Chillán and Pucon,” where the main ski area is at the base of the smoldering Volcán Villarrica. If those hot and humid temperatures continue to plague the northern hemisphere, this could be the time to pull those boots, skis and snowboards out of the closet, board a plane, and cross the equator for the southern hemisphere’s highest slopes and finest snow.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

South Atlantic Design: Posted from Stanley

As a young boy, one of the things that attracted me to geography, and travel, was postage stamps - I was an enthusiastic collector. I was never particularly systematic about collecting, but the illustrations of foreign landscapes, peoples and wildlife instilled a curiosity that survived into adulthood. One placed that intrigued me - though its stamps were so rare that I only saw them in catalogues - was the Falkland Islands, in the remote South Atlantic ocean.

Falkland postage stamps have long been at a premium, because authorities have always issued them in relatively small quantities, so they preserve their value. At one time, postage stamps comprised one of the Islands’ main sources of revenue, though that has long been eclipsed by more lucrative pursuits, particularly fishing.

Commemorative issues almost always deal with local history, landscapes, and wildlife - the stamp depicted above, for instance, illustrates the ruins of Port Egmont, the first British settlement on westerly Saunders Island, established in 1765. In fact, the only non-local figure consistently on Falklands stamps is Queen Elizabeth II, who always appears in silhouette and occasionally in her own commemorative set.

Whenever cruise ships steam into Stanley, in fact, one of the most popular attractions is the Stanley Post Office and its Philatelic Bureau, from whose website it will soon be possible to purchase stamps directly without visiting the Islands. At the same time, the Bureau continues to promote its stamps abroad, as it did in May’s London Festival of Stamps.

What’s really interesting about Falklands stamps, though, is that the government often contracts local rather than overseas artists to design its stamps. Despite a population of only a few thousand, the Islands can boast many talented painters and illustrators. James Peck (pictured above in his Stanley studio), for instance, has done a series on the history of sheep farming, while Tony Chater has contributed a series on scenic landforms of small offshore islands and one on albatrosses, among others. Ian Strange, a naturalist who has contributed to many issues, has recently joined forces with his daughter Georgina to portray the Islands’ seasonal landscapes. Together, all these locals have helped create a memorable philatelic heritage.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Announcing the Winners

Wednesday, in the Casa Rosada (pictured below), Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner signed the congressional bill that legalized same-sex marriage in the country and, as soon as it appears in the Boletín Oficial (Official Bulletin), it will have the full force of law. Meanwhile, also in Buenos Aires, tourism minister Enrique Meyer addressed a meeting of the GNetwork 360, a three-day international convention on marketing and LGBT tourism, making it clear that visitors of all sexual orientations were welcome in Argentina. The convention has some high profile sponsors and participants, including Delta Airlines, Hertz, and the cities of Montreal and Philadelphia.

In the aftermath of the ground-breaking law, widely publicized around the world, gay tourists seem likely to flock to Argentina and, according to one of the convention’s organizers, they have already done so. Addressing the convention, Pablo de Luca of the Cámara de Comercio Gay y Lesbica Argentina (CCGLAR, Argentine Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce) claimed that gay tourists spent US$1.1 billion in Argentina in 2008, with US$850 million of that spent in Buenos Aires. In that year, he added, LGBT travelers accounted for 459,000 of the 2.7 million foreign arrivals in Argentina, and that total arrivals might reach five million this year.

Personally, I am skeptical of De Luca’s figures even though I agree that the trend is upward. Though I am unaware of how he obtained them, it seems implausible that 17 percent of all visitors to the country are gay or lesbian, especially when so many visits are relatively short ones - often brief shopping trips - from neighboring countries. That’s not to deny the growing significance of the gay market, but rather to wonder about the details.

In 2008, for instance, 30 percent of all arrivals (roughly 810,000) were long-distance visitors from Europe and North America; these would be, statistically, the biggest spenders, but there may also be issues of double-counting. If, for instance, a European visitor takes a day trip from Buenos Aires to the riverside Uruguayan city of Colonia del Sacramento, he or she might well be counted as two arrivals - initially at Buenos Aires’s international airport, then at the river crossing at Puerto Madero - in the same overseas trip.

Without denying De Luca’s claims, I hope to learn more about the topic soon; in the meantime, I’m happy to announce the winners of my contest to give away two copies of Moon Handbooks Buenos Aires, or another book of the winner’s choice. The answer to the quiz, as to which other Spanish-speaking country permits gay marriage is Spain, which legalized the practice in 2005.

In fact, I decided to give away three copies, which go to readers Lissa Barker of Alexandria, Virginia; David Vassar of Rice University’s Americas Center in Houston, Texas, and Katie Alley of Necochea, a beach resort in southern Buenos Aires province. Katie, an expat from the suburbs of Philadelphia, provides her own observations on life in Argentina at Seashells and Sunflowers.

Meanwhile, keep checking in for the next giveaway.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Win This Book! Or Choose Another

Acknowledging the importance of tourism to the economy, Argentina recently upgraded its Secretaría de Turismo (Secretariat of Tourism) to full cabinet status, and its top official, Enrique Meyer, is now the country’s first Ministro de Turismo (Tourism Minister). According to Montevideo-based Mercopress, tourism accounts for six percent of GDP and, according to Ministro Meyer (a native of Santa Cruz province who happens to be a neighbor of ours in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of Palermo), foreign arrivals in 2010 will total more than five million.

Though the number of visitors declined in 2009, due in part to the H1N1 (swine flu) scare, there has been a strong rebound in 2010 - figures for May, for example, show an increase of nearly 22 percent over the previous year. With only a brief summary of the statistics, I don’t presume to say this is definitive, but there’s no doubt the industry is looking up.

The breakdown of visitors is interesting: about 30 percent come from Brazil (as its strong currency makes Argentina a real budget destination for Brazilians), about 11 percent from Chile, 19 percent from Europe, 12 percent from the United States and Canada, 22 percent from the rest of Latin America, and the rest from elsewhere in the world. Thus, anyone interested in visiting Argentina will be far from alone but, in the world’s eighth-largest country (slightly smaller than India, but with only about 40 million inhabitants), there will be plenty of places to visit without tripping over other tourists.

That brings me to the point of today’s article: In last Friday’s post, I offered a free copy of Moon Buenos Aires to the first two readers who could name the only Spanish-speaking country other than Argentina that permits gay marriage. Unfortunately, the contest has so far gone unanswered, perhaps because I buried it at the bottom of a relatively long article with several photographs.

On a continent that is often below the radar on the international news scene, the legalization of same-sex marriage brought Argentina more notoriety than anything since the military junta of the 1980s invaded the Falkland Islands - in fact, it even made the opinion page of The Onion. Thus I repeat the offer: I will provide free copies of the current edition of Moon Buenos Aires for the first two readers who can name the only other Spanish-speaking country to permit same-sex marriage.

Because I want to give the books away soon, I will even offer a hint: the country in question is NOT in the Americas. Please send all entries to the address in the header above; do not comment on this page. If the winners prefer, they may choose a copy of Moon Argentina or Moon Patagonia.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Same-Sex Tango: Argentina Enacts Marriage Equality

Nearly thirty years ago, when I married my Argentine wife in the city of Olavarría, officials of the local Registro Civil (Civil Registry) were uncertain whether they could even perform the ceremony - in their memory, at least, no foreigner had ever been married in this mid-sized city in Buenos Aires province. Apparently concerned that I had no idea what I was getting into, they questioned me every step of the way - though my Spanish was pretty good even then, my accent (at the time, a hybrid of Mexican and Chilean speech that many people found amusing) may have raised a red flag.

Eventually, though, the large crowd of my wife’s relatives and friends carried the day. After a brief civil ceremony, we were a legal matrimonio (married couple), with a libreta de familia (certificate) to prove it. We did not have a church ceremony.

The idea of foreigners getting married in Argentina was unusual then, but it might become far more common after yesterday, when a close vote in the Argentine Senate finalized legislation giving gays the right to marry throughout the country. Despite fierce opposition from the Catholic and evangelical churches, and other conservative sectors, who held a huge rally outside the Congreso Nacional Tuesday evening, gay marriage supporters crossed party lines in a country where bipartisanship - or multipartisanship in a fragmented institution - is often a dirty word. It’s worth adding, though, that opposition - almost invariably on a religious basis - also crossed party lines.

In fact, the city of Buenos Aires has had a domestic partners law for some time, and city mayor Mauricio Macri - though frequently at odds with the federal government under President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner - recently declined to appeal a court ruling that permitted homosexuals to marry. In pushing for the new law, the president and her husband Néstor Kirchner (whom she succeeded as president, and who is now a legislator) were taking on some of their most determined opposition, in a polarized political environment where confrontation is the norm. On one level, The Economist views the measure as an opportunistic power grab on the part of the presidential couple, to unite their base.

Though Buenos Aires has become a major destination for gay travelers over the past decade-plus, one might expect an even greater influx with yesterday’s news, which is getting publicity all around the globe. Plenty of businesses cater to a gay clientele, such as San Telmo’s Pride Café, many more market themselves as gay-friendly, and most others simply don't care one way or the other. They can tango together at La Marshall, a gay milonga. Among the most gay-friendly areas are San Telmo and Palermo, which set the standards for the city’s vigorous nightlife.

Some accommodations openly appeal to gay visitors, such as San Telmo’s Lugar Gay, near the famous Plaza Dorrego flea market, and Villa Crespo’s Bayres B&B, just across Avenida Córdoba from Palermo. The most stylish, though, is Monserrat’s contemporary Axel Hotel (whose garden pool is pictured above this paragraph, with a room below), part of a “hetero-friendly” chain with affiliates in Barcelona and Berlin (somewhat misleadingly, the Axel claims to be in San Telmo, whose limit is two blocks south).

While gay visitors from overseas might well enjoy their honeymoon here, though, they shouldn’t expect to get married any time soon: according to an Associated Press article, “Gays and lesbians who have already found Buenos Aires to be a welcoming place will likely rush to the altar, but same-sex couples from other countries will need to live in Argentina before becoming eligible, and the necessary residency documents can take months to obtain.”

Actually, they’re not likely to rush to the altar, in the most literal sense of the phrase - the churches are gay marriage’s most vigorous opponents but, at least, the civil ceremony is what really counts. Still, if your boyfriend or girlfriend is an Argentine citizen or resident, you may - like me nearly three decades ago - be in luck. According to Dan Perlman, who runs the Casa SaltShaker restaurant out of his Recoleta apartment, “My understanding is that one of the two parties has to be either a citizen or permanent resident, but the other can be a foreigner. They don't want gay couples just flooding in here to get married from other countries, as has happened in Canada.”

Even those ineligible for the hard-backed libreta de familia granted us nearly three decades ago can get a consolation prize: I am offering free copies of the current edition of Moon Buenos Aires for the first two readers who can name the only other Spanish-speaking country that permits same-sex marriage. Please send all entries to the address in the header above; do not comment on this page.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Rescuing Valpo's Funiculars

According to Martin Turner, owner of Valparaíso’s Yellow House B&B, Chile’s World Heritage Site city is recovering nicely from last February's earthquake: "Things are very slow here … but the city is looking good. At this moment they are painting all the buildings in Calle Serrano [in the portside business district] and it has made such a difference. Loft apartments are starting to appear.” Of course, the quake was not so strongly felt here as it was nearer the epicenter, where the cities of Talca and Concepción saw severe damage and still face major rebuilding.

On the other hand, one of the city’s signature features appears to be at risk - several of its ascensores, the picturesque funiculars that connect the portside flatlands with the steep hills behind them, are faced with closure, and it’s not because of seismic movevments. According to Todd Temkin, president of the non-profit Fundación Valparaíso, “We currently have more elevators out of service than any time during the city's history. The Companía de Ascensores Valparaíso, owner of nine funiculars, has closed six” because, with one major exception, they are not profitable.

That leaves only four private and three public ascensores in service, from a city that once boasted 33 of them. Not so long ago, a total of 14 were still operating but today, the company’s only functioning lines are Ascensor Concepción (the most profitable of the bunch, providing access to the gentrifying hills of Cerro Concepción and Cerro Alegre), Ascensor Espiritu Santo (pictured above), Ascensor Artillería, and Ascensor Cordillera (open only sporadically). Three municipally operated funiculars remain: Ascensor El Peral (pictured below), Ascensor Polanco (the only true elevator of the bunch), and Ascensor Reina Victoria.

In general, those that continue to operate serve tourists rather than locals. This, says Turner, “is because most locals live farther up the hills. This means that they can catch a bus or colectivo [route taxi] and pay just one fare and get home. If they were to take an ascensor then they would need to look for a bus to get the rest of the way home and the total cost is more.”

Temkin, a U.S.-born poet who is one of the funiculars’ most outspoken supporters, has written extensively about the need to preserve the city’s architectural heritage, of which the ascensores - the oldest of which dates from the 1880s - are a major feature. About a month after he wrote a newspaper column (reproduced here in his blog) advocating that the national government purchase the funiculars, former President Michelle Bachelet agreed to do so, “but she couldn't pull it off before leaving office.”

Shortly after the newly elected Sebastián Piñera took office, though, Temkin received direct assurance that the project is a priority, and he has also been meeting with Piñera’s regional intendente (governor, appointed from Santiago). “I know negotiations are moving forward,” says Temkin, “but the owners are not acting in good faith (in my opinion).” If there’s no progress soon, some of the city’s most endearing features may not disappear, but they’ll certainly be on a shakier basis.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

A Bridge Too Near?

From Buenos Aires to Uruguay, the closest overland crossing is the one between the Argentine city of Gualeguaychú (Entre Ríos province), on the right bank of the Río Uruguay, and the smaller city of Fray Bentos, on the left bank. This is, generally, a cheaper way of reaching Uruguayan attractions such as the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Colonia del Sacramento and the capital city of Montevideo, which are only an hour and 2-1/2 hours, respectively, by Buquebús catamaran from Buenos Aires’s Puerto Madero waterfront.

That overland crossing, though, has been closed for four years by Argentine pickets protesting the Botnia pulp plant erected on the Uruguayan side of the border. Since late last month, though, the Puente Internacional General San Martín has been open again to private and commercial traffic so that bus service can once again operate on the most direct route between the two countries. Visitors to Gualeguaychú, even if they don’t plan to continue to Colonia or Montevideo, can at least do a day trip to Fray Bentos, which includes attractions such its as Museo de la Revolución Industrial (the former Liebig’s Extract of Meat factory, pictured above) and the handsome Teatro Young. Likewise, visitors from Uruguay could once again cross the river to enjoy’s Gualeguaychú’s Carnaval del País, a celebration whose exuberant dancers (pictured below at an event in Buenos Aires) are only part of the Rio-type atmosphere. Merchants on both sides of the bridge, at least, should be dancing at the prospect of increased commerce between the cities.

I have written about Gualeguaychú and the Botnia controversy several times, and don’t care too spend much more time on the political intricacies at the local, national, and international level; there’s an excellent summary of this in a recent issue of The Economist. Suffice it to say that, while the bridge is open at present and the two governments are showing good will toward a solution that would include monitoring the river with a third party to break any impasse, it’s not clear that the asambleístas who have recently retreated from blocking the bridge will continue to do so: if, after 60 days, the two governments do not come to a final agreement that’s to their liking, they’ve vowed to resume their blockade.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Whale Meet Again

For most visitors, Patagonia is a summer destination, when long days allow extended sightseeing and outdoor activities such as hiking and river rafting. Even if the climate doesn’t always cooperate - the wind rarely relents in the blustery summers and some Andean locations can even see snowstorms then - there are usually breaks in the weather that make it possible to get out and do things.

In the Patagonian winter, that’s less so, but there are two major exceptions: wildlife-watching at Argentina’s Península Valdés (pictured above in a NASA image) and “off-season” skiing at resorts on both sides of the Andes, in Argentina and Chile. I’ll devote today’s column to the former but, for skiers, there’ll be something in the near future.

In reality, Península Valdés - which juts into the South Atlantic Ocean like the blade of a medieval battleaxe - is an all-year destination. In winter, though, it means whales, and the hamlet of Puerto Pirámides is the whale watch central for the southern rights (photo by Michaël Catanzariti) that cavort, and give birth, in the sheltered Golfo Nuevo. En route to Puerto Pirámides (pictured below), the new visitors center at the Istmo de Ameghino (the narrow neck that links the peninsula to the mainland) contains beautifully reconstructed right whale skeletons, along with displays on the rest of the peninsula’s wildlife. That includes elephant seals and penguins (both of which are primarily summer residents), southern sea lions (present all year), and orcas (which, at the peninsula’s Punta Norte, sometimes lurch ashore to snag unsuspecting sea lion pups, pictured immediately below).

Those who want to stay close to the whales should make reservations at Puerto Pirámides, which has limited (though very good) accommodations, well in advance. That’s even truer on the rest of the peninsula, where only Estancia Rincón Chico (where elephant seal expert Burney Le Boeuf of the University of California Santa Cruz has done field research), Hotel Punta Delgada, Estancia La Elvira and Estancia La Ernestina offer accommodations. There is a municipal campground at Puerto Pirámides (pictured below), but elsewhere on the peninsula camping is prohibited.

Many if not most whale watchers stay in the city of Puerto Madryn, about an hour south of Pirámides, and take advantage of tours that spend the day on the peninsula; renting a car here is another option. Madryn’s seaside Ecocentro, which opened a few years ago, is an even better place to learn about the South Atlantic environment than the peninsula’s visitor center, and the city has far more abundant accommodations and a better choice of restaurants. It’s also only about an hour from the town of Gaiman, the picturesque Welsh-founded settlement that’s home to at least half a dozen teahouses such as Ty Nain (pictured below).

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Punta Arenas, Antarctica, and the Humpback

In the city of Punta Arenas, on the east side of its central Plaza Muñoz Gamero, a white block building with a Parisian mansard has long housed the Instituto Antárctico Chileno - but not for much longer, apparently. According to Montevideo-based Mercopress, the regional government of Magallanes will soon build a US$30 million International Antarctic Center, to include the Instituto’s offices and laboratories, along with a museum chronicling Chile’s Antarctic presence.

That presence dates from 1916, when the Chilean cutter Yelcho, whose prow now overlooks the harbor of Puerto Williams, rescued British explorer Ernest Shackleton’s marooned crew from Elephant Island, in the South Shetlands. In an unheated vessel, in mid-winter, pilot Luis Pardo Villalón (pictured here in a commemorative postage stamp) survived collisions with icebergs to get there. The Yelcho’s return to Punta Arenas gets a cameo appearance in British director George Butler’s The Endurance, an extraordinary documentary of Shackleton’s expedition.

Today, Punta Arenas is one of Antarctica’s main gateways, though the Argentine port of Ushuaia is a day’s sailing closer to the Antarctic Peninsula and most cruise ships leave from there. At the same time, there are regular Aerovías DAP flights from Punta Arenas to the Chilean “settlement” of Villa las Estrellas on Isla Rey Jorge (King George Island) , where it’s possible to board a small cruise ship without suffering the ultimate seasickness experience of the infamous Drake Passage.

Chile built Las Estrellas, which includes a school, a hospital, a hotel, a bank and a post office, to support its Antarctic claims. While it has civilian residents, in reality it’s part of the Base Presidente Eduardo Frei Montalva, an air force base that would not exist without government support. Only 200 meters from Russia’s Bellingshausen Station, it sits in territory also claimed by Argentina and Great Britain (whose Antarctic claims differ slightly from those of Argentina and Chile). By the Antarctic Treaty of 1959, all such territorial claims are on hold, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t become significant at some point in the future.

Meanwhile, closer to the South American continent, the Global Environment Fund has declared its intention to build a new research center on Chile’s Isla Carlos III, the whale-watching center of the western Strait of Magellan. Chile has been one of the strongest voices for whale conservation within the International Whaling Commission.

Part of the Parque Marino Francisco Coloane, Chile’s first maritime national park, Carlos III lies just off the main feeding grounds of the southern humpback whale, and has been home to an eco-camp of geodesic domes for several years now. Other operators also take groups to the park, with accommodations aboard ship. It takes most of a day to reach Carlos III from Punta Arenas, followed by a full day on and around the island, and a morning’s sightseeing before returning to Punta on the third day.
Custom Search