Saturday, January 28, 2012

Argentine Trains Off the Rails, So to Speak

In 1985, we rode this freight from San Antonio de los Cobres to the Chilean border at Socompa.
A couple weeks ago, at work, my wife was to participate in a lunchtime game that required each person on her team to disclose a fact, anonymously, that nobody would expect about him or her; in turn, the team would try to match the fact with the person. When she asked me to suggest what she might reveal, I told her she should offer that she had once hitched a lift on a freight train, which the two of us did from the northwestern Argentine town of San Antonio de los Cobres to the international border, before continuing on toward Antofagasta on a Chilean freight.
The train station at San Antonio de los Cobres, with my backpack at right.
That was in 1985, on the route now known as the Tren a las Nubes (Train to the Clouds); to the best of my memory, it was the last time I rode a long-distance train – as opposed to commuter and tourist trains - in Argentina (or Chile, for that matter). It was enormous fun, as the crew let us sleep in the caboose and, during the daytime, the engineer even invited us up to the locomotive.
At one time, numerous train left from Retiro to destinations throughout Argentina. Today, only a handful do.
Still, I’m often asked about trains in Argentina and, reluctantly, I tell everybody that, unless you’re a fanatical trainspotter or perhaps even a foamer, it’s best to stick to the bus or plane. In the 1980s we often took the train, most notably on our honeymoon from Retiro (pictured above) to Mendoza, a trip from hell that took place during Argentina’s July winter holidays of 1981. We were on a budget, in “Pullman” seats that reclined only slightly, and our car filled up with military conscripts who, at that time, traveled for free as long as they remained standing on a 24-hour marathon. It was not fun.
Estación Constitución in its early days
That no longer happens, partly because there is no more conscription in Argentina but mostly because there are so few trains, and except for the one that runs between Constitución (Buenos Aires, pictured above in early days) and Mar del Plata, they’re pretty dismal. According to the city daily Clarín, a rail network that stretched some 37,000 km in 1950 now covers only 7,500 km, and freight has priority on most of the remaining track. Trains like El Gran Capitán, which until recently connected the capital with the northern city of Posadas, are by all accounts something to avoid (especially in summer, when the weather is brutally hot and humid). It’s theoretically possible to travel by rail from Constitución to Bariloche, but that requires crossing the Río Negro from Carmen de Patagones to Viedma and then waiting six days for the connection.

Yet the trains are full, and that’s because they’re cheap. To quote Clarín, “According to the level of service, the bus can cost nine times more than the train,” which is the only option for many poorer Argentines. The train to Córdoba, for instance, costs 30 pesos (about US$7), while the bus can cost 250 pesos (roughly US$64). For that reason, the trains sell out early: “In high season, it’s better to buy 90 days ahead of time – the rest of the year 15 should be sufficient – and departures are few: the train departs only Monday and Friday.”

That’s why I discourage anybody but the truly determined from taking long-distance trains in Argentina. My friends Darek Przebieda and Analía Rupar of Eureka Travel recommend the Tren Patagónico from Viedma to Bariloche but, even then, they have to admit that the 18-hour trip averages only about 45 km per hour, and a comfortable sleeper bus would cover the distance in half the time. For my part, I’ll stick with an excursion on Esquel’s La Trochita.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Book Review: The Practical Nomad

Ever since I first visited Latin America, with a spur-of-the-moment train ride from Mexicali to Mazatlán nearly 40 years ago, I have preferred to travel independently and – with the exception of a few necessarily fixed cruise ship itineraries - I’d sooner wing it. Even now, as my Moon Handbooks and other writings include suggested itineraries for those who must fit their travels into fixed periods from a week to a month or more, my own itineraries remain flexible.
Of course, I do travel differently than I did in the days before I had a family, a mortgage, and other responsibilities. Nearly all my travels now have to do with updating my Moon Handbooks to Argentina, Buenos Aires, Chile, and Patagonia, and this differs greatly from traveling “for pleasure.” Given that, almost every year, I spend four to five months in southernmost South America, when I return to my home in California, I don’t feel like traveling much farther than around the block, whenever my dog needs to go out. Even less do I feel like devoting a month or more to, say, take the Trans-Siberian Railway across Asia.

That’s not to say my travel is not pleasurable – I greatly enjoy revisiting the sights of the Southern Cone countries, and seeing people I have grown to know over more than two decades as a guidebook and travel writer. I enjoy good meals and fine wines, but at the same time I’m aware this is now work. While a first-time visitor to Buenos Aires needs to find one hotel, I need to know dozens or more; where the one-timer needs to know when the next bus leaves from Bariloche to El Bolsón, I need to know them all. Guidebook writing means long days and much of the product is inevitably formulaic – there’s only so much you can do with bus schedules.

I don’t regret this change in the way I travel but, at the same time, I do miss the spontaneity with which I once backpacked down the “Gringo Trail” all the way to Tierra del Fuego and through Western Europe in the days before the Berlin Wall came down. Another person who’s adapted to the times is my travel-writing colleague Edward Hasbrouck, probably the best-traveled person I know, who’s just released a new fifth edition of The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World.

The Practical Nomad is exactly what it says: a nuts-and-bolts manual on traveling abroad – not necessarily literally “around the world” - for extended periods of time. It is not destination-oriented; rather, it offers suggestions on how to get the best out of whatever destination you choose. I recall that, after renting our apartment in Buenos Aires, he and his companion Ruth Radetzky found plenty to see and do in muggy subtropical Posadas - a city that foreign air travelers rarely even see and most overlanders visit only long enough to change buses for Iguazú falls. To quote a phrase from the classic People’s Guide to Mexico, “Wherever you go, there you are.”

That said, it The Practical Nomad offers informed tips that, given Edward’s background as a professional travel agent and right-to-travel activist, are far more knowledgeable that the scuttlebutt rumors I used to get from other travelers whose paths I crossed. They are light years better than any crowd-sourced information on the Internet, even though I might quibble with some of his details. I agree with him, for instance, that the countryside of Argentina, Chile and Uruguay is best seen by rental car, but would emphasize that Chilean roads, particularly, are fast reaching North American standards – especially given the fact that Chile is investing in its infrastructure, even as the United States is letting its highways go to pot(holes).

The Practical Nomad, though, focuses on topics such as getting time off for foreign travel and financing it, flights and other transportation options, the bureaucracy of documents, visas and border crossings, and especially tech suggestions. Edward also writes the informative blog of the same name, The Practical Nomad, which stresses of freedom-of-travel issues but also provides perspective on topics such as The Amazing Race “reality” TV show.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Torres del Paine: The Final Word for 2012?

Given the scale of the recent wildfire disaster at Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, and the fire's strategic location, it’s reassuring that things in the park are returning to relative stability, if not quite normality. Those still intending to visit this season may not get to see everything they’d like and do everything they’d hoped, but there’ll still be plenty to occupy their time.
According to a note I received from Werner Ruf, the co-owner of Puerto Natales’s Casa Cecilia guesthouse, Refugio Grey (on the west side of its namesake lake) will soon reopen. Unfortunately, the Paine Grande Mountain Lodge – a key stop on both the “W” (pictured above) and Paine Circuit trekking routes – will apparently be closed for the season, despite its operators’ optimism.
That means that neither route will be feasible in its entirety for the rest of the season, but the greater part of these routes will still be open from Guardería Laguna Amarga, the main entrance on the east side of the park. From there, a road leads to Hotel Las Torres (pictured above), where the “W’ begins; according to Werner, the route is open to Refugio Los Cuernos (pictured below) and even to the Valle Francés, but not from the rustic Campamento Italiano to Paine Grande. This means that trekkers will have to turn around and go back to Las Torres, but that’s still a rewarding three-day excursion.
From Laguna Amarga or Las Torres (which also has hostel accommodations, pictured below, for those who prefer day hikes; some private rooms are available), the section of the Paine Circuit is also open along the Río Paine to Campamento Serón (about four hours on the trail). It continues from Serón to Refugio Dickson (about six hours), and from Dickson to Campamento Los Perros (another five hours or so). Again, however, this means backtracking to Las Torres or Laguna Amarga, rather than completing the circuit by continuing over the north side of the Paine range to Lago Grey and beyond. That’s not likely until the end of the year.
Argentina Travel Adventures: a Reminder
So that nobody forgets, I'll repeat that my new Sutro Media iPhone app, Argentina Travel Adventures, is now on sale at the iTunes Store for just $2.99. Also designed for the iPad and iPod Touch, it’s an ideal resource for researching your trip to the buoyant capital city of Buenos Aires, the thundering Cataratas of Iguazú, the wine country of Mendoza, Patagonia’s groaning Glaciar Moreno, and many other destinations. In the near future, there will be a comparable app for Chile.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Subte's Soaring Fares; Airports & Ash

It’s been hot in Buenos Aires but, of course, that’s not unusual in January. What’s made it hotter is that, with the New Year, the federal government turned over authority to the Subte (the capital’s underground railway) to the city administration of mayor Mauricio Macri, with the knowledge that Subte fares would have to rise. After a city court affirmed the legality of the increase, it has taken effect – in theory.
That’s because employees of Metrovías, the private concessionaire that runs the Subte, object to the fare increase even though it would help pay their salaries. Despite receiving a 200,000-signature petition, Judge Fernando Juan Lima dismissed a legal freeze on fares; in response, the employees have opened the turnstiles between from 7-10 a.m. and 4-7 p.m. weekdays, so that the great majority of city commuters are riding for free. At other hours, riders must pay the 2.50 peso fare, a 127 percent increase over the previous 1.10 peso rate.

That sounds like a lot, but federal government subsidies had maintained the previous rate for years and, even with the peso increases, fares are actually cheaper in dollar terms than they were a decade ago. At that time, with peso at par with the US dollar, the fare was 70 centavos; before the recent peso increase, it was was approximately US$0.25 – that is, in an economy suffering roughly 25 percent inflation (despite official figures of around ten percent), the price of commuting in Buenos Aires had actually fallen by more than 60 percent. Even after the current increase, the fare of US$0.59 represents a fall of more than 15 percent since 2001.
By contrast, fares on the Santiago Metro (pictured immediately above) range from 530 Chilean pesos (US$1.05) to 640 Chilean pesos (US$1.28). Of course, as I’ve written before, Santiago riders are getting more for their money – the Chilean capital’s system is more extensive, and modern, than the Subte. In recent years, the Buenos Aires system has expanded to previously underserved neighborhoods, but it still lags far behind Santiago’s impressive expansion. It’s probably no coincidence that, today, Macri announced the start of construction on six new stations on Línea H, the north-south line (pictured at top) that will help some passengers avoid downtown – until now the only place to change lines easily - and shorten their commute times.

Bariloche Reopens, Shuts, Reopens
At the other end of the transportation spectrum, San Carlos de Bariloche’s Aeropuerto Teniente Candelaria reopened last Friday after being closed for months because of ashfall from Chile’s Puyehue-Cordón Caulle volcanic complex. Local residents had hopes that a restored flight schedule would help kick-start a slow tourist season in one of the Andean lake district’s prime destinations (pictured below). For much of the summer, Buenos Aires passengers have had to land in Neuquén (429 km northeast) or Esquel (290 km south) and continue overland to Bariloche (which, admittedly, is better than a 1,600-km bus ride of up to 25 hours).
As of Monday, though, the wind kicked up enough ash that both Aerolíneas Argentinas and LAN Argentina had to divert their flights once again. Today, flights resumed again, but it wouldn’t be surprising if this pattern continued on and off the entire summer or longer. Volcanoes and other natural phenomena do not respect vacation time.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Paine's Road Back; Chiloé Update

In the aftermath of the recent wildfire at Torres del Paine, the Chilean government is trying to do what it can to salvage the season – whose peak is normally January and February – in the country’s iconic national park. With that in mind, they’ve adopted measures that can only be described as small-minded: in the country’s costliest park, whose entrance fee for foreigners is roughly US$30 (Chilean residents pay about US$8), they have decided to allow children under age 15 in for free.
This is a half-hearted measure at best. Many if not most of Paine’s visitors are foreigners, and very few of them bring children under age 15. Chilean families do, of course, but a relative handful of them are trekking the backcountry as most overseas visitors do. It’s hard to see this as an effective incentive for foreign visitors to head to the gateway city of Puerto Natales (whose economy depends on the park) and on to Paine, given the publicity the fire has gotten and the fact that the Argentine settlement of El Chaltén (pictured below), which offers comparable trekking in the adjacent Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, costs nothing to get in (other sectors of the park, most notably the Moreno Glacier, do impose a charge).
I’ve always objected to differential fees for foreigners, which both Argentina and Chile do in a haphazard manner, and not only because it’s flagrantly discriminatory (and don’t get me started on “reciprocity fees”). As a policy, differential charges assume that foreign visitors are more affluent that locals, even if they’re from neighboring countries. From a long-term perspective, it makes a bad impression on budget travelers who, if they make their initial visit as peso-pinching backpackers, might refrain from returning as prosperous professionals.

Still, if the government really wanted to make an impact, it might announce, for example, that park entrance would be free of charge for January and February, or perhaps even through April (when the trekking season ends for all practical purposes). Alternatively, it could include Paine in the new national parks pass, announced last year, that permits entrance into all Chilean parks, except for Paine and Rapa Nui (Easter Island) for one calendar year.
Meanwhile, last Sunday’s New York Times revealed its list of 45 places to go to in 2012, and two of them were in southernmost South America: Chilean Patagonia (No. 8), and Chiloé (No. 37). Both figure prominently in the new third edition of my Moon Handbooks Patagonia title; for the former, the Times mentions two new Paine-centric properties, Tierra Patagonia and The Singular, that opened only very recently. The other property is one that’s nowhere remotely close to Patagonia, though it does enjoy a spectacular location less than two hours from Santiago.
For Chiloé, the Times notes that “President Sebastián Piñera has plans to share the island with the rest of the world,” but inexplicably overlooks any express mention of Piñera’s spectacular new Parque Tantauco (pictured above and below), a conservation and tourism project that I explored last February. It does mention the new airport near the city of Castro, which will improve access to the island, and environmental concerns over a 56-turbine wind farm. But the failure to mention Tantauco borders on negligence.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Tango Mexicano, ¿Rancheras Argentinas?

One of my most incongruous memories is the sight of a band of mariachis, in full regalia including elaborate wide sombreros, spilling out of a Buenos Aires taxi at 3 a.m. on downtown Avenida Callao. In an urbane city whose Mexican restaurants start at mediocre and headed downward, the vision of a rural brass band with multiple violins, guitars and guitarrón felt hallucinatory, to say the least.
Still, it’s not so implausible as it might seem at first glance. I’ve worked in southernmost South America by preference but, before starting Moon a decade-plus ago, I wrote three editions of a guidebook to Baja California for another publisher best not named. In the process, I acquired a taste for Norteño music, primarily corridos and rancheras, but also the occasional mariachi, to complement the Tex-Mex conjunto I had always enjoyed from artists like Flaco Jiménez and Mingo Saldívar. On moving to Moon, I gave up Baja California (which, at Moon, was then in the hands of the legendary Joe Cummings), though I did produce one edition of Moon Handbooks Guatemala (since totally redone by Al Argueta).

My ties with South America, particularly those with my Argentine family and Chilean friends, have always been stronger than those with Mexico, but Mexican music still emanates from my iPod as I drive through Argentina and Chile. Musically speaking, of course, Argentine tango would appear to be a world apart from Mexican borderlands music in its suave urbanity – even granting the fact that tango originated in working-class neighborhoods with a strong Afro-Argentine influence (Indeed, the tango had to go to Paris and back before the Argentine elite would accept it).

That said, there’s more compatibility between Norteño and tango than one might expect – Mexican music is suitable for tango arrangements and many arrangers have done so. In 1933, Rosita Barrios and Luis Mandarino adapted a version of Mexican composer Alfonso Esparza Oteo’s classic 1920s bolero “Un Viejo Amor,” which is a mainstay for Flaco. Though he’s not a tango musician, Argentine chamamé accordionist Chango Spasiuk – whose music traces its origins to the Ukraine - once told me he feels a real kinship with North American borderlands music that, in part, stems from Central Europe.
All that’s an introduction to the video clip at top, in which Argentine rock star Andrés Calamaro accompanied by the Norteño legends Los Tigres del Norte, sings “En La Mesa del Rincón” (“At the Table in the Corner”) as a credible tango and then, mid-song, switches to ranchera style.  Here’s to musical fusion and versatility!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Book Review: Malbec Conquers the Wine World

Over three decades ago, as a peso-pinching backpacker in South America, I first tasted Argentine wine. In the Bizarro world of an Argentine economy where prices sometimes rose 50 percent in a month, it astonished me that a bottle of wine could cost less than a liter of a sugary soft drink that I will refrain from naming, since it needs no more global publicity.
Now, after reading Ian Mount’s The Vineyard at the End of the World, I realize that many if not most Argentine wines of that era probably were worth less than a plastic bottle of colored, carbonated, artificially sweetened water. In this entertaining analysis of vines, wines, egos and intrigues, from colonial times to the present, the Buenos Aires-based writer points out that Argentines primarily consumed cheap table wines by producers who valued quantity over quality. Under the 1976-83 military dictatorship, which took over managing the bodegas of the shadowy dealer Héctor Greco (it’s hard to call him a producer), domestic bulk wine prices fell by more than 80 percent.

In retrospect, though, hitting bottom was the best thing that could have happened. The rest of Mount’s story builds on the eye-opening experience of Nicolás Catena, one of the few winemakers who managed to survive the crash of the 1980s, who visited the Napa Valley while on sabbatical in Berkeley. His experience there gave Catena (whose daughter Laura wrote the Vino Argentino guide that I reviewed a little over a year ago) the idea that, like Napa, his Mendoza homeland could produce New World wines to challenge the hegemony of European producers.

Catena started with traditional French varietals like Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon and had success with those, aided by consultants such as the American Paul Hobbs. Technological innovations included drip irrigation instead of flooding the fields, stainless steel tanks in place of epoxy-lined vats, and oaken barrels in lieu of picturesque but useless casks. They took advantage of Mendoza’s unique micro-climates, where high-altitude vineyards favorably altered the balance between sugars and tannins.

Sooner than anyone expected, Argentine wines were drawing attention from figures like Robert Parker, but they did not gain their real identity until a group of adventurous Tuscans rescued the overlooked Malbec grape from obscurity. Nearly extinct in its southwestern French homeland, it had survived as old-growth vines in Mendoza, and the Italians turned it into gold – in fact, the book’s subtitle is “Maverick Winemakers and the Rebirth of Malbec.”

Malbec’s become such a success that even French vintners have turned their attention back to the grape that Michel Aimé Pouget had brought to Mendoza in the 1850s. It’s worth adding that other European consultants, most notably Michel Rolland, have played key roles in the Mendoza boom, which has made the western desert city a destination for tourists as well. So many wineries are open for tours and tasting, it’s hard to keep track of them, and that’s without even mentioning underrated areas like the northern province of Salta, renowned for its fruity white Torrontés.

Three decades ago, when I first tasted Argentine wine, I didn’t really know what to think about it. Now, with the help of this rewarding read, I can put the changes since then in context. Wine aficionados, those who enjoy the occasional glass, those who know Mendoza, and those who want to know it better should find it equally rewarding. On another level, it’s also a case study of how an industry recovers and flourishes in a challenging economic environment.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Paine Catches Fire: the Aftermath

It’s felt like a long week in Torres del Paine, and a lot has happened in the aftermath of the fire that consumed almost 15,000 hectares (roughly 36,000 acres) in Chile’s premier national park but was finally brought under control last Sunday night. President Sebastián Piñera has responded to furious criticism from Puerto Natales, the city with the most to lose from Paine’s shutdown, by proposing harsher penalties on those who start wildfires, whether intentionally or not. Rotem Singer, the 23-year-old Israeli accused of starting the blaze by carelessly burning toilet paper, faces 60 days in jail.
Whether or not Singer does jail time as the responsible party – he denies his culpability - it’s unlikely that stronger criminal penalties will prevent future wildfires. The fact is that, since I first trekked the Paine backcountry in 1981 and saw only three other hikers in ten days, park visitation has increased by leaps and bounds. It's now pushing 150,000 visitors per year and, while not all of them hike the strenuous overnight circuits that offer the park’s optimum experience, numbers alone make it likelier that some inexperienced camper will commit a costly blunder.

No increased legal penalty is likely to reduce that statistical probability but, arguably, closer supervision of hiking permits could help. While I would not want to see the park trails limited to guided hikes, obligatory attendance at a fire safety lecture by park authorities could make sense – this would be easy to organize when visitors pay their park entry permits - and rangers should hike the trails to check permits.

While we’ve heard lots of sensationalism and political opportunism in the aftermath of the fire, we’ve not heard much detail about the actual impact. Fortunately, the Corporación Nacional Forestal (Conaf) has published a statistical summary that provides a more thorough glimpse into what happened. Of the area in question, roughly 60 percent consists of bunch grass steppe that, other things being equal, will recover quickly. Nearly all the rest, however, comprises native forest of southern beech and a few other species that, in this environment, have a short growing season, so this is more problematical. The Conaf map above suggests the extent of the fire, but not its intensity in any given area.

Meanwhile, from Puerto Natales, my friend Tim Burford – author of a competing guidebook whose name I will refrain from mentioning here – reports that the park is indeed open. Staying at the new all-inclusive hotel The Singular, in nearby Puerto Bories, he wrote that they were sending two trips into Paine, one to the isolated eastern Sector Laguna Azul, and that the highly regarded Berkeley operator Wilderness Travel – for whom I once worked briefly – was also sending a group. The Glaciar Grey segment of the “W” route may be closed for January but, as Tim says, “there’s a lot of pressure to get the rest of the park open ASAP to keep Natales alive."
As a digression, it’s worth mentioning The Singular, which was under construction when I was in Natales during the last austral summer. It’s taken part of the historic Frigorífico Bories (pictured above around 1920), the meat freezer that was one of the area’s biggest employers, and recycled it into a state-of-the-art facility that presumably will compete with other elite accommodations such as Hotel Indigo Patagonia, Hotel Altiplánico del Sur, and Hotel Remota.

Argentina App Update!
To repeat, my new Sutro Media iPhone app, Argentina Travel Adventures, is now on sale at the iTunes Store for just $2.99. Also suitable for the iPad and iPod Touch, it’s an ideal and inexpensive resource for researching your trip to the buoyant capital city of Buenos Aires, the thundering Cataratas of Iguazú, the wine country of Mendoza, Patagonia’s groaning Glaciar Moreno, and many other destinations.
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