Monday, September 27, 2010

Patagonian Natural History: A Compact Field Guide

It’s so simple - if elegantly so - that it’s surprising nobody has done it before. A pair of Argentines, María Cecilia Costa and Diego Punta Fernández, have assembled a lavishly illustrated, bilingual fold-out pocket guide to Parque Nacional Los Glaciares Flora & Fauna that deserves to be in every hiker’s daypack in southern Argentina - and Chile.

Printed on durable paper, this field guide begins with a brief introduction to the park and its environments, complemented by a schematic map of its glaciers, periglacial mountains, Andean-Patagonian forest, scrublands, steppes and wetlands. The guide proper consists of 134 full-color photographs - only a bit bigger than thumbnail size but suitable for easy identification of 60 bird species, half a dozen mammals, and 64 species of vascular plants. All plants and animals are designated by their common names in Argentine Spanish and in English, plus their formal Linnaean genus and species.

In fact, in my opinion, the guide has only two minor shortcomings. First, in this often inclement climate, it would make sense to laminate the paper, even if that adds to the cost. Second, the text would benefit from adding common names in Chilean Spanish, which differs for some plants and animals, as visitors to Chile’s Torres del Paine will find it almost equally useful.

In an email exchange, Punta Fernández told me that the guide is on sale for 35 pesos (about US$9) in various outlets in and around the park. These include El Calafate’s Boutique del Libro and Atando Cabos Libros, Parador La Leona on the highway to El Chaltén, and El Chaltén’s own Viento Oeste alpine supply store and Librería Marcopolo. It’s also available through many hotels in the area, and has the endorsement of Aves Argentinas, BirdLife International, and the Administración de Parques Nacionales (APN, Argentina’s national park service).

For those whose trip also includes Tierra del Fuego, Costa and Punta Fernández have also published a separate field guide to Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego and the Beagle Channel Flora and Birds. I’ve not yet seen it but, if it even comes close to the standards of Los Glaciares, it’s a worthwhile acquisition.

Another Reminder: Moon Argentina Tours California
After tonight’s digital slide lecture at Distant Lands in Pasadena (7:30 p.m.), I will return to northern California for a Tuesday night talk at REI Fremont (7 p.m.), followed by a Wednesday night event for the World Affairs Council of Northern California, East Bay (at the Lafayette Public Library, 7 p.m.) and a Thursday night lecture (7 p.m.) at REI Mountain View, in the heart of Silicon Valley.

Friday, September 24, 2010

National Geographic Traveler's "Stay List" Expands to South America

A couple weeks ago, I received a note from an editor at National Geographic Traveler, for whom I have written both magazine articles and guidebooks, that the April 2011 edition of the magazine will, for the first time, feature hotels in South America for its annual Stay List. Until now, Traveler’s roster of accommodations recommended for their authenticity included only those in Canada, the United States, Mexico and the Caribbean.

In that note, the editor asked me to nominate hotels in my area of geographical expertise - the Southern Cone countries of Argentina, Chile and Uruguay - to comply with their goal of “seeking properties that wholeheartedly reflect
the spirit of their locations both in practice and aesthetic.” In this regard, the magazine’s standards are the following: 1) "Does the architecture reflect its location?; 2) Does the property engage in eco-sustainable practices?
Serve local food?; and 3) Are guests treated to good service and a memorably unique-to-location experience?”

In response to the query, I came up with a list of five accommodations, two in Argentina and three in Chile, that in my opinion meet Traveler’s standards. Whether they’ll make the final cut, I don’t know, but they’re all worth consideration - which is not to say there aren’t others equally deserving that I don't know as well as these (only two of which I have stayed at, and one of which I have not yet even visited (though I know the property, the lodge itself only opened recently). Since I’m not the person who decides whether or not it makes the list, I felt comfortable in nominating it for its obvious potential. In any event, here are my nominees, arranged in north-to south-order, with a brief explanation of the reasons for my choices:

Estancia Rincón del Socorro, Corrientes Province, Argentina
I recently dedicated an entire blog post to Rincón del Socorro, so I won’t go into much more detail here except to add that the Esteros del Iberá, the endangered wetlands that are the Argentine Everglades, probably get less than one percent of the visitors that the famous Iguazú Falls do. That’s not to denigrate Iguazú, but anyone who visits Argentine Mesopotamia without also seeing Iberá is missing the chance of a lifetime.

Cavas Wine Lodge, Mendoza, Argentina
About 20 minutes south of downtown Mendoza, Cavas Wine Lodge was one of the province’s first vineyard hotels and its free-standing rooms - well-separated for privacy - are set literally among the vines. Modern works by local artists decorate the reception area and the restaurant (open to non-guests by reservation). It also hires local musicians to play in a semi-subterranean amphitheater adjoining the wine cellar.

Chacabuco Lodge, Aisén, Chile
Like Rincón del Socorro, Chacabuco Lodge belongs to environmental philanthropist Doug Tompkins and, while I haven’t yet seen the newly constructed lodge in person, I have visited the site - within the proposed Parque Nacional Patagonia - several times. That’s why I wrote a separate blog entry about Chacabuco last month, and am looking forward to seeing it with my own eyes some time before Christmas.

Ecocamp Patagonia, Torres del Paine, Magallanes, Chile
Strictly speaking, the Ecocamp Patagonia is not a hotel, nor does it lie within the iconic Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, but close counts here as much or even more than it does in horseshoes. Perhaps the ultimate in luxury camping, its geodesic dome accommodations lie just outside the park boundaries, and its “dome suites” (pictured at top and immediately below) are superior to many four-star urban accommodations; the regular domes are comfortable enough, but have shared baths. It recycles virtually everything, including wastewater, and hauls any unavoidable refuse back to the town of Puerto Natales. It gets its electricity from an inconspicuous, eco-friendly run-of-stream turbine (I myself have cleaned the leaves clogging the intake).

Hotel Indigo Patagonia, Puerto Natales, Magallanes, Chile
Puerto Natales is the gateway to Torres del Paine and, while Indigo Patagonia’s striking minimalist design has made it a landmark on the city’s waterfront, the energy-efficient interior is a creative industrial-style maze of criss-crossing ramps that lead gently to compact and simple but handsome rooms. Most of those rooms enjoy extraordinary views of Seno Última Esperanza (Last Hope Sound) and, in the distance on a clear day, the Torres del Paine themselves. The view is even better from the rooftop spa, and the adjacent bar/restaurant seamlessly incorporates a previously existing building into the new construction.

A Reminder: Moon Argentina Tours California
Next week is a busy one, as I will deliver four digital slide lectures on Argentina. The first will take place Monday, Sept. 27, at 7:30 p.m. at Distant Lands in Pasadena, then back to Northern California on Tuesday, Sept. 28, at 7 p.m. at REI Fremont.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Announcing the Winners - and More!

Today’s post is a potpourri of items from and about Argentina and Chile.

The Chilean Bicentennial Book Awards
Well, it was Isabelle Allende who won the Chile’s National Literature Prize earlier this month but, for my part, I can finally announce the winners of last week’s quiz to give away four copies of the third edition of Moon Handbooks Chile, for those who could distinguish between two volcanoes, one in the Chilean lakes district and the other in the Cascade Range of California, Oregon and Washington. They were Jacques Couvion of New York City; Meghan Reynolds of Brooklyn, New York; Jennifer Rose of Morelia, Michocán, Mexico; and Wendy Walker of Córdoba, Argentina.

Of the four, Jacques was the only one to identify the photograph above as Volcán Llaima (pictured above), in Parque Nacional Conguillío, east of the city of Temuco, and Mount Shasta, in Northern California. I originally said I would give away two books to those who could simply tell me which was from Chile and which from the Cascades, and two to those who could identify the specific volcanoes in question, but I relaxed my rules to be certain I would get four winners.

The obvious giveaway, for anyone who looked at this quiz but decided not to enter, was the Araucaria araucana sapling in the foreground of the Llaima photograph; the coniferous “monkey puzzle tree” grows only in a narrow swath of the Argentine and Chilean Andes. That photograph was taken from the north side of Llaima - a very active volcano - in early summer; the other shot was an aerial photograph of Shasta taken on a commercial flight from Oakland to Seattle.

In any event, keep your eyes on this space for further quizzes and contests, especially with the new third edition of Moon Handbooks Argentina about to hit the stores.

Moon Handbooks in Your Town
Speaking of which, this is simply to remind everyone in Marin County (as well as San Francisco or elsewhere in North Bay) that I will be “Exploring Argentina” at REI Corte Madera at 7 p.m. tomorrow (Wednesday) night. The presentation will a digital slide show on Argentina’s attractions and recreational possibilities, followed by a question and answer period. This is free of charge but, with limited seating, phoning for a reservation might be a good idea.

For upcoming events over the next-month plus, please refer to the previous post, which has a complete schedule.

Bloomberg on the LAN-TAM Merger
According to Bloomberg News, the financing for the proposed merger of Chile’s LAN Airlines and Brazil’s TAM Mercosur - a topic I covered in a post last month - may be a little more complicated and tenuous than originally anticipated. Personally, though, I would not bet against LAN and its continued expansion.

Ice Cream Special
In last Sunday’s travel section, devotedly exclusively to Latin America, the New York Times focused on Buenos Aires ice cream in general and the sickly sweet dulce de leche - not a personal favorite here - in particular. Dealing primarily with chains, they lagged well behind my own coverage of phenomena such as Palermo’s Heladería Jauja and the Heladerías de Buenos Aires guide to the city’s ice cream. Readers of Southern Cone Travel are well ahead of the curve.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Moon Handbooks Argentina - on the Road!

Usually, around this time of year, I go on the road to help promote new editions of my guidebooks, and this year is no exception. Over the next month-plus, I will be giving 13 digital slide lectures to promote the new third edition of Moon Handbooks Argentina (pictured above, it also covers the southernmost parts of Chile, including Torres del Paine) The upcoming fourth edition of Moon Handbooks Buenos Aires, which includes excursions into the surrounding Pampas and coastal Uruguay, will be out a few months from now.

All talks will be followed by a question-and-answer period, plus some time to socialize with the author, store and other venue priorities permitting. The dates and times are as follows:

Wednesday, Sept. 22, 7 p.m.: REI Corte Madera, California

Monday, Sept. 27, 7:30 p.m.: Distant Lands, Pasadena, California

Tuesday, Sept. 28, 7 p.m.: REI Fremont, California

Wednesday, Sept. 29, 7 p.m.: World Affairs Council of Northern California, East Bay

Thursday, Sept. 30, 7 p.m.: REI Mountain View, California

Saturday, Oct. 9, 7 p.m.: Tango by the River, Sacramento, California

Sun, Oct. 10, 1 p.m.: Book Passage, Corte Madera, California

Wed., Oct 13, 7 p.m.: REI Berkeley, California

Saturday, Oct. 16, 5 p.m.: Travel Bug Books, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Monday, Oct. 18, 7 p.m.: Village Books, Bellingham, Washington

Tuesday, Oct. 19, 7 p.m.: Travel Bug Books, Vancouver BC

Wednesday, Oct. 20, 7 p.m.: Wide World Books, Seattle, Washington

Tuesday, Oct. 26, 6 p.m.: Geographic Society of Chicago, Illinois (at Adventurers Club)

Wednesday, Oct. 27, 3:15 p.m.: Geographic Society of Chicago, Illinois (at Chicago Cultural Center)

Please also note that a couple of these events are not yet up on their websites, but all of them except Cambridge are confirmed. Hope to see you there!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Win This Book! Chilean Bicentennial Update

Chilean liberator Bernardo O’Higgins (depicted above by the famous Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siquieros at Chillán’s Escuela México) would not be pleased. As of Wednesday evening, California time, we have had only two winners in the contest for four copies of Moon Handbooks Chile offered in Monday’s quiz. Another contestant actually came up with the correct answer, but did not follow the rules that stipulated sending the response to the email in the header above, and not to the comments section on the page. I don’t want to be picky, but I would hope that the person in question would resend her entry through the proper channels to claim her book; even if she does that leaves one copy available.

In any event, I’ll have to impose a deadline of Saturday the 18th, when 16 million Chileans will celebrate their independence, for the contest. If there are no more correct answers by then, I will have to withdraw the remaining copies for another day.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Win This Book - for Chile's Bicentennial!

This coming Saturday and Sunday, September 18 and 19, are Chile’s two biggest holidays - and this year the Fiestas Patrias will be even bigger, as Saturday marks the de facto bicentennial of Chilean independence, as declared by a local junta that took over government in the name of Spain’s King Fernando VII in 1810. In reality, it was nearly eight years later - February 12, 1818 - that liberator Bernardo O’Higgins approved a formal declaration, and another 22 years before Spain finally acknowledged independence.

Still, the February declaration is barely an afterthought to the September festivities. When the dates fall during the week, Chileans often turn them into a four- or five-day mini-vacation during which they will dance the traditional cueca (pictured above), don the traditional huaso clothing (the huaso is Chile’s counterpart to the Argentine gaucho) of ponchos and flat-brimmed chupallas, ride their horses in rodeos, and gobble food and drink from ephemeral fondas (foodstands) erected in the streets and parks of Santiago and other cities. In fact, last week, Chile’s Congress voted to extend the holiday to include Friday the 17th and Monday the 20th for this year only.

Chile, of course, is a country still recovering from February’s calamitous earthquake and concerned with the drama of 33 miners stranded by a collapsed shaft near the northern city of Copiapó - as Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman put in context in a CNN opinion piece and an appearance on NPR’s "Talk of the Nation" earlier today. Still, this will be an overdue opportunity for rejoicing in the country’s accomplishments of the past two centuries.

Sunday’s Día del Ejército (Armed Forces Day) follows the official independence day and it’s worth mentioning that, despite their reprehensible role in the 1973 coup led by General Augusto Pinochet, respect for the Chilean military has not disappeared. There will be a well-attended, highly applauded Parada Militar (military parade) down the broad Alameda in Santiago, but it will be non-partisan in the pre-Pinochet tradition (this non-partisanship was less evident last Saturday the 11th, on the coup’s 37th anniversary, when police detained more than 200 demonstrators in Santiago).

Any bicentennial, of course, deserves fireworks but Chile has abundant natural fireworks in the form of the numerous active and dormant volcanoes that dot the Andes - just like the Cascade Range that stretches from Northern California into Canada. With that in mind, in honor of Chile's bicentennial, I will give away two copies of the current edition of Moon Handbooks Chile to the first readers who can tell me which of the volcanoes (pictured above and below) is from the Chilean Andes, and which is from the Cascade Range. Enter soon as this is, in my opinion, not a difficult quiz and should have a winner soon - after all, you've got a 50-50 chance - but only one entry per contestant please. Those who have won before should sit on their hands and let somebody have a chance.

In addition to those two copies, I will give away two more copies to the first contestants who can identify the volcanoes in question - a more difficult task. Please send all entries NOT to the comments section - I will delete those automatically - but to the email address in the header at the top of the page.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Socorro Means "Help" - for Argentina's Iberá Marshes

After posting recently about Chile’s proposed Parque Nacional Patagonia and the new lodge there, I realized that, on this blog at least, I had never written about environmental philanthropist Douglas Tompkins’s projects in Argentina but, in 2004, Tompkins and his wife, Kris McDivitt, donated parts of the former Estancia Monte León, in Santa Cruz Province, to Argentina’s national park service through the Patagonia Land Trust. That’s noteworthy in its own right, and I’ll write about it sometime soon, but this post will be dedicated to the Esteros del Iberá, the northeastern wetlands where he has purchased several estancias open to the public and begun to reintroduce the giant anteater. He now spends the southern winter at Estancia Rincón del Socorro, a prime property on the south side of the marshes that’s become a destination for environmentally oriented tourists.

Rincón del Socorro and the surrounding marshes have just about everything, including innumerable birds, caimans (pictured below), capybaras, howler monkeys, marsh deer and rarely seen maned wolves (which are few and nocturnal). In late 2006, though, Tompkins’s efforts earned unwanted publicity when piquetero demagogue Luis D’Elía - then a federal government official - falsely claimed that Tompkins had blocked a public road through Estancia El Tránsito, in another part of the marshes. In a blatant publicity stunt, D’Elía staged an invasion of Tompkins’s property with ostensible campesinos in support.

D’Elía and a handful of congressional xenophobes called for expropriation, but he badly misjudged his own position. Tompkins’s donation of Monte León had benefited then President Néstor Kirchner’s home province of Santa Cruz and, combined with the fact that other Corrientes landowners united behind Tompkins, D’Elía soon found himself jobless.

That’s not been Tompkins’s only challenge, though. The latest villain is Forestal Andina, a timber company that’s built unauthorized earthworks to drain parts of the marshes for cattle grazing. Such a project would disrupt water flow elsewhere, with unpredictable but almost certainly negative consequences.

Meanwhile, the capybaras - Rottweiler-sized rodents (pictured above) - and rheas still stroll the lawns at Tompkins’s Hostería Rincón del Socorro. Managed by Anglo-Argentine Leslie Cook and his wife, Valeria Verdaguer, it has six impeccably decorated guest rooms with high ceilings and fans, plus three separate bungalows, along with a restaurant open to nonguests by reservation only. Much of the food, including spectacular tomatoes, comes from their own organic gardens. Additional amenities include a quincho for barbecues, a game room with a DVD player (though the guest rooms are TV-free), a library, and even satellite WiFi.

Besides accommodations, Rincón del Socorro organizes boat excursions into the marshes from Colonia Pellegrini, 35 kilometers east, plus horseback rides and catch-and-release fly-fishing (at certain seasons). Guests also have access to mountain bikes.

In addition to Rincón del Socorro, there are also accommodations at Estancia San Alonso, reached only by private plane. Because of Socorro’s isolation, some guests arrive by plane; there is a one-kilometer airstrip 800 meters from the hostería. For those who can’t afford to stay at either, there is a greater diversity of accommodations, along with moderately priced tours, at Colonia Pellegrini.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Tortoni Effect

In the restaurants of Buenos Aires's trendy Palermo neighborhood, the table staff are more often than not youthful, and can be either male or female. Traditionally, though, the occupation of mozo (waiter) is both male and professional, especially in the city’s classic cafés. For these men, waiting on tables is not just a temporary expedient but rather a lifetime calling - or recalling, according to a study by researchers at the Instituto de Neurología Cognitiva (INECO, Institute of Cognitive Neurology), the Universidad Favaloro’s Instituto de Neurociencias (Institute of Neurosciences), and the Cambridge-affiliated MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit.

That’s because, in an experiment that required them to spend many hours in those cafes - which, as porteños, they might well have done anyway - they discovered that the waiters at Café Tortoni (pictured above), the Confitería Ideal, El Gato Negro and other landmark cafes have cultivated the skill to “memorize all the orders from respective clients and take the orders without written support of as many as ten persons per table. They also deliver the order to each and every one of the customers who ordered it without asking or checking.” This they call the "Tortoni Effect," after the city's iconic café.

Apparently, the waiters made use of both spatial and visual cues when committing the orders to memory, but their performance suffered somewhat when the researchers attempted to confuse them by switching places at the table. When interviewed (after being informed of the experiment, which could not have worked otherwise), one of the waiters remarked that “I’ve been doing this for 35 years and have never written anything down. Besides, if there are a lot of people and it’s busy you just don’t have time to write down notes. The most practical thing is to memorize, it’s a way to work.” One of the youngest subjects, a 25-year-old, told the researchers that “It’s unnecessary to write anything down, unless you have to handle 20 tables. But up to 12 or 13 I handle well…In a year or so, you can do it.”

The researchers concluded, nevertheless, that it takes up to nine years to acquire the mnemonic skills to work as a waiter here - and that this is something that does not occur in other countries with a café tradition, including France, Italy and Spain. According to another waiter, “It’s matter of concentrating on your work. And the years of experience help.” It’s not that often that Argentines are complimented for their work ethic and service, but the beneficiaries, in this case, are the locals and visitors who frequent the city’s cafes.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

On Foot in the Paine

When I first hiked the Paine Circuit in 1981, there was no guide but a sketch map provided by Chile’s Corporación Nacional Forestal, which administers Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, plus tips provided by its rangers in a language that I understood imperfectly at the time. Surprisingly, it’s taken nearly three decades for someone to publish in English (or any other language, to the best of my knowledge) a guidebook to the park and its trails. My own Moon Handbooks to Chile, Argentina and Patagonia cover the park in some detail but, because they’re comprehensive guides that cover much greater areas, there’s not room for the detail of a specialized hiking guide.

Published in the UK by the walking guide specialist Cicerone, Rudolf Abraham’s Torres del Paine is the only guidebook of which I’m aware that focuses (almost) exclusively on Chile’s most famous national park and the hikes within it. Following the introduction, it details eight walks - four treks and four day hikes - seven of them in Paine and one in Argentina’s Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, starting from El Chaltén. It also includes brief descriptions of a couple other walks and a few other excursions including the rarely visited Sierra Baguales and Argentina’s popular Moreno Glacier.

The key walk, though, is the Paine Circuit, which Abraham describes in easy to understand stages that can be combined, as desired, in various days of hiking. He also covers side hikes off the main trails, such as the one up the Valle Francés, which can be taken while undertaking the circuit or the so-called “W’ route, which is rather shorter. The guide includes full-color maps and photographs, though the maps are good enough for orientation only - though they give a sense of the topography, they lack scales and the contour lines do not even indicate the intervals between them. Nor do they include the heights of the summits.

Abraham also includes a fairly substantial entry on the town of Puerto Natales, the gateway to the park, and sketchier entries on Punta Arenas, Santiago and, oddly enough, the UNESCO World Heritage city of Valparaíso, two hours northwest of the capital. Apparently Abraham, as an avid photographer, couldn’t resist Chile’s most photogenic city, even if the single photograph of it seems out of place in the introductory section, among depictions of wildflowers and park landscapes.

Practical information, such as bus transport to the park and accommodations with it, is arranged in easy-to-read tables. There are occasional Spanish language errors and typos in the text, but the material is always serviceable.

Paine’s trekking season starts soon as, with relatively low trail elevations in Paine and Los Glaciares, the snow there melts early. At 200 pages, the book’s compact size (roughly seven by 4.5 inches), light weight and weather-resistant cover make it a suitable companion on the trail - as a complement to my own more comprehensive efforts, of course!
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