Thursday, March 27, 2014

Valparaíso Feels Like Home

Tomorrow night (early Saturday morning, actually), I’ll be on a plane from Santiago to Lima en route to California, and will reach my Oakland home sometime Saturday afternoon. Yesterday, though, I got a preview of home as I rode from Santiago to Valparaíso via the Casablanca valley.
It’s only a couple hours from Santiago to Valparaíso, but the camanchaca that penetrates the coast range here is virtually identical to the coastal fog that often covers San Francisco and usually invades the East Bay throughout the summer (and occasionally at other seasons). I arrived at Casablanca with a lift from Courtney Kingston, a Portola Valley resident whose family has long owned property here and, over the past two decades, has created Viña Kingston (pictured above), an innovative winery that was among the first to plant red wine grapes – most notably Pinot Noir and Syrah – in this cool coastal climate. Courtney (pictured below) had also purchased a copy of my Moon Handbooks Chile and, she says, looks forward to using it as a guide to the rest of the calendar year she’ll be spending here with her husband Andy Pflaum and their three children.
California winemaker Byron Kosuge, a contributor to the project (not here at present), compares the area to the Southern California wine district around Santa María. After a quick tour and tasting, which included a visiting writer from Outside magazine, Andy dropped me off at a bus shelter along the highway, where I caught a shared taxi to Valpo and another taxi to the Hotel Palacio Astoreca, where I am spending two nights.

The Astoreca (pictured above) is a renovated Cerro Alegre mansion that, most recently, served as an arts school before becoming a luxury hotel acknowledged by Relais & Chateaux. It’s almost adjacent to Valparaíso’s recently reopened Museo de Bellas Artes de Valparaíso, in the landmark Palacio Baburizza (pictured below).
Over the next several weeks, I’ll be writing more about Kingston, the Astoreca and the Baburizza but, given my limited time here, I just want to get out and see more of Chile’s most distinctive city, even if the fog never lifts on Cerro Alegre (pictured below).

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Writing from Renca

In 1979, when I first met Marializ Maldonado’s late father Manuel in the northern Andean Chilean village of Putre, he and most of the family were living in the port city of Iquique. Although they owned a house in the greater Santiago municipality of Renca (pictured below), he took a job in Iquique because duty-free customs preferences there made it possible to buy an automobile and for Manuel, from a working-class background, this was an opportunity too great to pass up.
Some years earlier, he told me, he had visited New York for a labor union workshop and, walking down the street, he realized that the stipend in his pocket would have enabled him to buy a used car there. Thus, while his eldest son Víctor and daughter Marializ attended university in Santiago, Manuel, his wife and younger son stayed in Iquique to make the car a reality. Internal customs regulations prohibited taking it out of the northern region for more than two months a year.

I stayed with the family in Iquique and, when I arrived in Santiago, I stayed in the Renca house with Víctor and Marializ and got to know the city for the first time. Their part of Renca, though, was not a central neighborhood – rather, it was a población, a district where the government had built blocks of small and virtually identical semi-detached houses for working-class people. Getting downtown require taking a roundabout bus or taxi colectivo, as Chileans call the route taxis that serve most of their cities.

I have spent the past several days in Renca, a part of the city that few tourists every see, and will be here until Saturday the 29th. In December, when I purchased my new (used) car from a woman in the upscale eastern borough of Vitacura, I think she was a little startled when we had to come here to fetch some documents I had forgotten. She probably thought a foreigner who could afford her SUV would be staying far closer to her own neighborhood.
In reality, though, this part of Renca is an orderly place. Nearly all the houses are well-kept, several have added a second story, and there are other signs of prosperity – as single-vehicle carports cannot accommodate a second vehicle, there are often blocked sidewalks.

I have the house to myself, as Marializ appears to be reuniting with her ex-husband, and there are many things I like. The interior, including kitchen, bath and electricity, is far superior to what it was thirty-some years ago, and I love the mature grapevine that shades the carport. There’ve been few distractions as I’ve finished up maps and photographs for the upcoming fourth edition of Moon Handbooks Patagonia. It’s surprisingly quiet here, though the freeway is just a couple blocks away and there are occasional outbursts from barking dogs.
That said, I wouldn’t idealize it. The houses’ gardens feel microscopically small, the landscaping in the public plaza across the street could be better (though it’s not dirty), and graffiti cover the walls of its community center (pictured above). There are broken trash bags on some blocks. What bothers me most, though, is that there are few services within easy walking distance – there are small neighborhood markets here, but they barely have any fresh produce – and there are no restaurants whatsoever.
Getting downtown is not difficult, as a single Transantiago bus takes me there in ten minutes or so, but getting back is a bit less direct, usually involving a combination of Metro and Transantiago, or a taxi. The Santiago Metro is a superb urban transportation system, but there is no station within easy walking distance of here. In consequence, I feel a bit isolated.

That said, I find Renca considerably more impressive than it was when I first stayed here, and that’s a reflection of the country that Chile has become in the interim.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Blocked in Bolsón? No Calafate for You!

As the deadline approached to submit the manuscript for the new edition of Moon Handbooks Patagonia, I spent most of the last week of February enclosed in my accommodations in Bariloche, snacking on takeaway empanadas and downing repeated mugs of tea. One of my biggest disappointments on this whole trip, though, was that I was only able to take a day to visit El Bolsón, one of my favorite destinations in the region.
Even then, I was mostly resigned to verifying existing information for the new edition, but I did get to stroll around Saturday morning’s Feria Artesanal (pictured above). There I sampled one of the Belgian waffles, with fresh local raspberries and whipped cream, a treat that I first sampled here some 20 years ago.
I had had a really disappointing dinner the night before but, at the very least, there was always Jauja (pictured below), the mother ship of my favorite ice creamery’s increasing network of locales around the country. Since December, I had already visited Jauja's shops in Neuquén and Bariloche, but those lacked the full complement of creative flavors that Bolsón usually boasts.
Even this, though, turned out to be a bit disappointing. I was especially looking forward to calafate con leche de oveja (calafate berries with sheep’s milk), and the frambuesa con leche de oveja (with raspberries) that I had sampled in Bariloche was only a distant runner-up. When I got to the counter, though, there was no calafate to be had – a batch was in the works, I was told, but it would be a couple days (that I didn’t have) before it would be ready. I settled for chocolate profundo (bittersweet chocolate), ristretto and mate cocido (another of my favorites, though many Argentines find an ice cream made from their favorite bitter infusion, which resembles green tea, a little too challenging for their tastes).
That accomplished, I returned to Bariloche to finish up the text, which I sent off to California despite some email glitches (Argentina has some of the world’s slowest Internet service, and there are frequent outages in Bariloche especially). I’m now back in Pucón, on the Chilean side of the border, and heading to California at month’s end.

Even so, my travels may not quite be done. Yesterday, I learned, I may have to make a separate trip to Buenos Aires to take oversee some remodeling of our Palermo apartment (where the local branch of Jauja is just a block away, but the calafate season will likely be over). That’s before my wife and I make a two-week trip to Norway and Sweden at the end of May. Maybe, there, we’ll get to sample lingonberry ice cream.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Waiving Visas & Dollar Developments

Yesterday, finally, I finished the manuscript for the new fourth edition of Moon Handbooks Patagonia, and that liberates me to consider other matters. It doesn’t liberate me completely, as I still have to prepare map updates and choose photos in the near future, but at least I can take a breather to write about something else. I’ve chosen two items of recent significance, most notably Chile’s entry into the US Visa Waiver Program and recent development in Argentina’s “blue dollar” market.

Waiving Those Visas…
Last week, the Department of Homeland Security announced that, thanks to Chile’s acceptance into the US Visa Waiver Program, Chilean citizens will no longer need a visa to enter the United States for business or tourist travel for periods shorter than 90 days. Of 38 participants worldwide, Chile is the only Latin American country to qualify, though Argentina and Brazil previously did so.
I’ve written about this topic with some frequency because of Chile’s so-called “reciprocity fee” collected from arrivals at Santiago’s Aeropuerto Internacional Arturo Merino Benítez – US$160 in the case of US citizens. Canadians pay US$132, Australians US$95, Mexicans US$23, and Albanians (!) US$30.

Chile’s acceptance into the program means that US citizens will no longer have to pay that fee and, as I understand it, that policy has taken effect already – the stars and stripes no longer belongs on the photograph I took in November - even though the US measure does not come into effect until May 1. Chilean visitors will, however, have to register through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization, at a cost of US$14, and are eligible to do so immediately. The ESTA waiver is valid for two years, or until the expiration of the passport.

It is not clear, though, whether US citizens will have to pay that fee, at least in the short run – at present, the Santiago airport website shows only the aforementioned countries. Still, it would seem logical in the longer term, though presumably Chile would continue to allow US visitors to pay the fee on arrival, as has been the case until now. I always thought the reciprocity fee was a foolish measure that deterred some visitors and diverted money from the private sector – service providers who offer lodging, meals and transportation – to the government.

That’s all in the past now, and I hope to see many more US visitors in Chile, and many more Chileans in the US. I’d also like to see Argentina, and Brazil return to the program, and many other countries to join it.

Patagonian Dollar Developments
It’s been an oddly quiet time in the Argentine “parallel market,” largely because the government declared a two-day Carnaval holiday that ended last night. Before the holiday, the “blue dollar” in Buenos Aires had tumbled to 11.20 from almost 12 as the official dollar nearly held its own against US currency.
That said, I had a contradictory experience in northern Patagonia. Even as the dollar slipped in the capital, the official exchange house Cambio Andina here in Bariloche was openly paying 11, the best rate I had gotten except in Puerto Madryn in January, when the official peso nosedived. In principle, at least, exchange houses should be paying the official rate of 7.89.

Almost every operator and hotel is offering 10 but, on the day after I changed, I lunched at a new and excellent Italian restaurant, Nebbiolo (pictured above) that offered 12 to the dollar, so I decided to pay with a US$50 banknote that I had in my wallet. My experience, of course, is anecdotal but, in a region where the parallel market is less active than in Buenos Aires, it seems to suggest that the scenario remains complex.

Afternoon Update: Around midday today, when I went to Andina Cambio, the blue dollar rate had fallen to 10.30 pesos. Oddly, the clerk surprised me by asking for my passport as I changed US$100 - theoretically, this is obligatory, but nobody has ever asked me before. Meanwhile, at Nebbiolo, they are holding with the 12-peso rate, but only to pay the restaurant bill.
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