Monday, November 18, 2019

Monday Musings - Mar del Plata, Money and Baseball

Today’s entry will be a potpourri about Argentina and sports. It ranges from the serious (the effect of Argentina’s Dirty War on my wife’s family) to the utilitarian (money and exchange rates) to the whimsical (my own tenuous link between baseball and Patagonia).

Southward Bound
Maru Sanllorenti's hometown of Tandil
As I prepare to head to Buenos Aires, early next month, my wife María Laura Massolo and our daughter Clío are already there (but will return to California before I leave). Their trip is partly vacation but also a family mission, as the remains of my brother-in-law’s first wife—a victim of Argentina’s 1976-83 military dictatorship—have been transferred from her hometown of Tandil to a new Panteón de la Memoria (Pantheon of Memory) in the Cementerio de La Loma in the coastal resort city of Mar del Plata.
My brother-in-law's first wife disappeared shortly after giving birth in 1976.
Maru's mother Eva and son Manuel at Mar del Plata's Panteón de la Memoria (photo by María Laura Massolo)
Abducted on the street in the Buenos Aires Province capital of La Plata in 1976, Maru Sanllorenti is survived by family members that include her mother Eva (now aged 94) and her son (my nephew) Manuel (now 43), who was an infant when she disappeared. My wife accompanied her brother Carlos (Manuel’s father) to Mardel for the ceremony there, then returned almost immediately to Buenos Aires, where Clío arrived on Friday. Yesterday, both of them attended a talk that Manuel regularly gives to visiting tour groups at the city’s Parque de la Memoria, which includes a commemorative plaque with his mother’s name.
Manuel Massolo (right) recounts his mother's story to visiting US tourists at the Parque de la  Memoria.
Money Matters
I haven’t been to Argentina since last year and, consequently, my recent information on exchange rates, prices, and transactions has been mostly second-hand. Since last month’s elections, though, exchange rates have remained relatively stable, and my wife informs me that a fine Peruvian dinner for three at downtown’s Chan Chan cost about US$10 per person, including three entrees plus a beer per person. It’s not an elite restaurant by Buenos Aires standards, but that’s still excellent value.
Our neighborhood cueva, on Palermo's Cabello street, was closed on the weekend.
Changing money, though, always requires reorientation. Bank lines are long, exchange houses are mostly downtown, and there’s still a difference between formal and blue (informal) rates. The difference isn’t huge, though, and the informal exchange houses known as cuevas are fewer than they once were. My wife has used the one near our apartment in Palermo, which remains open, but Dan Perlman of Casa Saltshaker informs me that street changers have taken over the business near his apartment (including the weekend’s Plaza Francia crafts fair outside the Cementerio de la Recoleta). Street-changing, of course, holds potential risk for the inexperienced—not the least of which is counterfeit currency.

It’s possible to change at ATMs, but that has its own issues—on the weekend, when our neighborhood cueva was closed, my wife paid a bank charge of US$10 to withdraw approximately US$50 from the machine. I’m not sure what the maximum withdrawal is at the moment, but it’s almost certainly low by international standards. In Chile, I regularly withdraw the equivalent of US$300 per transaction, but Argentina has been roughly half that—making the service charge a true burden.

Baseball and Patagonia
I love baseball and, for decades now, I’ve enjoyed saying that I leave for South America after the World Series and return in time for Opening Day. This year, I’m still stateside, through two weeks without baseball, but I’m looking forward to being back in Buenos Aires (where I’ve played the game myself) in another fortnight.

Actually, the month of October was a big disappointment, as my own Los Angeles Dodgers fell to the mild card (sic) Washington Nationals in the National League Division Series, and I didn’t pay a lot of attention the subsequent rounds or the World Series itself. The Dodgers were clearly the NL’s best but, as they say, anything can happen in a short series. Of all major sports, baseball is probably the likeliest for a lesser team to prevail—there’s really no such thing as an upset.
The top three finishers in the National League's Most Valuable Player voting
Last week, though, the post-season individual awards drew my attention because of a friendly rivalry with my Wisconsin-born but Chile-based friend Todd Temkin, who’s a diehard Milwaukee Brewers fan (his Cerveceros lost to Washington in a one-game playoff for the right to meet the Dodgers). Todd (who splits his time between Valparaíso/Viña del Mar and a farm in Futaleufú) and I disagree on who’s the NL’s best player; his choice is Milwaukee outfielder Christian Yelich, while mine is LA’s versatile outfielder/first baseman Cody Bellinger.
Dinner will probably take place at Futaleufú's Martín Pescador.
Hand-written menu at Martín Pescador
On one level, that’s a subjective judgement, as they’re both elite players, but Todd suggested that we place a bet on the Most Valuable Player award, “given to a player in each league who has contributed the most to the success of a player’s team,” according to the Baseball Writers Association of America. Depending on which player scored most highly in that poll, the loser would treat the winner to dinner—probably at Futaleufú’s Martín Pescador, with its frequently changing menu.
On my last visit, I enjoyed gnocchi with morels...
and a cheesecake for dessert.
As it happened, Bellinger edged out Yelich for the award, while Anthony Rendón of the champion Nationals came in a respectable third (the vote takes place at the end of the regular season, so the Nationals' playoff success was not a factor here). I’m looking forward to that meal, probably in March, when I’ll be updating Moon Handbooks Patagonia there. If Todd’s not around at that time, though, it could happen in Valparaíso or nearby Viña.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Patagonia's Adventure Connect(ion) in San Francisco

Last week, I attended a promotional event for Chilean Patagonia in the Adventure Connect series, organized by the Adventure Travel and Trade Association (ATTA). At a time when Chile’s undergoing political upheaval, the occasion brought the Magallanes regional representative of Sernatur, the national tourism secretariat, and representatives of several different operators to San Francisco as part of a national promotional tour.
The setup at San Francisco's Hotel Zetta
The event took place in the lobby of Hotel Zetta, where eight different operators were to discuss their services with Bay Area travel companies and invited writers (of whom I was one). The format was a sort of musical chairs in which each operator met with one or more attendees for eight minutes before a timer sounded to move elsewhere. This went on for 2-1/2 hours, with a coffee break that included a giveaway raffle, before adjourning to a conference room for a presentation by Sernatur’s regional director Ximena Castro that was probably most useful to those with less experience than mine in the region. Later, there was a Chilean social hour that included snacks and one of the finest Sauvignon Blancs I’ve ever tasted—especially welcome on an unusually hot San Francisco day.

Ximena Castro addresses the attendees.

The Chileans brought this Sauvignon Blanc along with them and, so far, I've been unsuccessful in finding it stateside.
Originally, eight different operators—some of whom I already knew—were to attend the event. In the aftermath of the recent upheavals in Santiago, though, the representatives of Antarctic Airways—with whom I would have liked to discuss their updated services—and Lago Grey - Experience Hotel were unable to get flights out of Santiago. I already knew the owners of Big Foot Patagonia Adventure and the representative of Vértice Patagonia (operator of mountain huts on the famed Paine Circuit, plus a new boutique hotel in Puerto Natales), and was familiar with Antártica 21  and Australis Cape Horn & Patagonia (both of whom sent US-based representatives). New to me were the Chile Nativo adventure operator and HD Hotel Natales (the rebranded Hotel Cisne de Cuello Negro) in Puerto Bories.

The not quite unspoken topic that permeated the meeting was what effect Chile’s recent political disruptions and disorder might have on the upcoming season. There was certainly concern, but also consensus that the Región Metropolitana de Santiago and the coastal region of Valparaíso would be more directly hit than remote Magallanes. That said, cruise ship and hotel cancellations would certainly affect a city like the regional capital of Punta Arenas, which has seen some demonstrations. I recently saw an online story—can’t find the link now—whose headline spoke of “80 percent cancellations” in Chile, but what the story actually said was that 80 percent of hotels and other services had experienced cancellations (which could have been just a single cancellation each for some).

That’s not to dismiss the issue of vandalism and disorder by a destructive fringe, even as the great majority of demonstrations have been peaceful, but President Sebastián Piñera’s embattled government has cancelled the upcoming COP climate conference (at which Swedish activist icon Greta Thunberg was due to appear and also the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.

Personally, I would not hesitate to travel to Santiago, Valparaíso or elsewhere in Chile at present, even though I’d advise those with little or no experience of the country to be on alert. In a recent newsletter, the private Federación de Turismo de Chile cited the Subsecretaría de Turismo to the effect that  “our tourism continues to function throughout the country and the most popular destinations visited by international tourists, such as San Pedro de AtacamaElqui Valley, the islands of Rapa Nui [Easter Island] and Juan Fernández [Robinson Crusoe], the Chilean Patagonia and Torres del Paine National Park, are operating with normality.” Aeropuerto Internacional Arturo Merino Benítez is back to normal, but visitors would still do well to have travel insurance in case of disruption.

And the Money?
For foreign visitors, there may be a bright side to all this. About two months ago, the last time I wrote about exchange rates, both the Argentine and Chilean pesos were slipping against the US dollar, and that has continued with the upheaval in Chile and the recent election in Argentina, when the Peronist Alberto Fernández defeated the incumbent president Mauricio Macri.
The Dólar Blue Hoy app is a useful addition to one's smartphone.
The so-called “markets” (and many individual Argentines) have little confidence in Peronism and, consequently, Argentina’s Banco Central (Central Bank) has reinstituted a cepo cambiario (“currency clamp”) that restricts Argentines’ overseas ATM advances to US$50 per transaction (oddly, it puts no restrictions on the number of transactions per day, but those ATM charges could really add up. Meanwhile, individual Argentines can now officially purchase no more than US$200 per month, a measure that seems to be encouraging the informal dólar blue (visitors to Argentina might consider downloading the Dólar Blue Hoy app, pictured here, on their smartphones). Exactly this will develop as the Macri administration gives way to Fernández remains to be seen, but it seems likely that the informal exchange rate will benefit tourists in the short to medium term.
Chile's peso has also slipped against the US dollar and some other currencies.
In Chile, meanwhile, the peso has dipped to 740 per dollar, a fall of roughly three percent since August. This may affect prices slightly, but if foreign visitors avoid the country because of the perception of instability, services such as hotels and tour operators may drop their prices. In any event, matters are less predictable than they seemed even a few months ago.

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