Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Colchagua Valley

During the September 18 Fiestas Patrias last year, we decided to take a train to the Valle de Colchagua. Several of Chile's central valleys have been given over to vineyards, and the Colchagua Valley in particular has gained international renown due to some award-winning wines that have begun to emerge in recent years from this region. September in Colchagua is the last month of winter, and during the first day of our stay we had overcast skies and cool weather. Also, being the end of the rainy season, we were able to enjoy the valley at one of its greenest times of the year. Much like southern and central California, for many months of the year, central Chile receives very little rain, and as a result the valleys, hills and mountains are rarely as green as they are at the end of winter.

Conversely, being the very beginning of the agricultural season, the vineyards themselves were still barren of leaves. As the progressively drier spring and summer wear on in this part of Chile, the landscape changes from green to golden, and ultimately, brown. At the same time, the irrigated basins of Chile's valleys stay a radiant green, ultimately producing much of the fruit that the rest of the world enjoys throughout the northern winter.

Central Chile, bounded by the Cordillera de los Andes to the East, the Atacama Desert to the North, Patagonia to the South, and the Pacific Ocean to the West, enjoys what may be a unique natural isolation compared to any other agricultural zone in the world. Due to this, many of the pests and diseases that have ravaged various types of grapes and other produce have never been able to reach this part of the world. Now that the country is ever more open to global trade, Chilean customs officials work very hard to prevent foreign agricultural products from entering the country, even those brought in by tourists arriving across borders by air or land. As a result, there is for example a variety of grape known as Carménère, which was almost completely devastated decades ago in its native France by a type of fly and is now almost exclusively produced in Chile.

The first vineyard we visited was, as you can see, Viu Manent. We've visited vineyards before, and to a certain extent, once you've toured a vineyard and seen the various stages in the wine making process, the information you receive on subsequent tours will start to become a bit repetitive. That said, each visit to different vineyards during our time here in Chile has continued to hold our interest and reveal more to us about the subtleties of different methods and scales of production. Every vineyard is unique not only in its wine-making practices, but also in the treatment of the tourists who come to visit.

Vineyards are large places, necessarily occupying many hectares in order to grow enough grapes for commercial production. So how to provide a close-up look for tourists of both your facilities and your fields, especially if they are located far apart on your estate? One solution several vineyards have adopted is to plant a selection of vines bearing all of your different varieties of grapes in one place for tourists to see and sample conveniently. Others, like Viu Manent, have found another way. If you have to move people across a long distance, why not move them in style?

Rather than show you the fermentation tanks and barrel room of Viu Manent, I'll refer you to the experience we had in the Cachapoal Valley. After all, while there are difference in production methods, barrels and tanks end up looking much the same. What is always distinctive in each vineyard, however, is the tasting of the finished product. From the presentation of the wine to the wine itself, it's always a joy to sample a bit of the wine that you've been learning about during the tour, and to afterwards, to select a few choice bottles to take home with you as well.

Another treat inherent in the visit to a vineyard is the fact that you are exploring what is, in essence, an expansive rural estate, often graced by historic buildings and the beautiful landscapes that are synonymous with the Mediterranean climate necessary for good wine production. Modern vineyards, while embracing the technology associated with commercial wineries, also invariably have one foot firmly planted in the past. From vines cultivated over the course of decades to wines aged in the controlled climate of a good cellar, the wine making process is steeped in time.

We'll save the rest of our trip for another post. Until the next time!

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Last stop: Piriápolis

No trip to the South American Atlantic coast would be complete without a trip to the beach. Sure, Colonia and Montevideo had beaches, too. But both of those cities have plenty of other attractions to lure you away from the seaside. It's something else to go to a town where the beach itself is the reason to be there.

By the time we got around to visiting a resort town like Piriápolis, the weather wasn't very beach-worthy. To be honest, though, we didn't mind too much. With a few exceptions, the majority of the travels we've taken over the years have not tended to include the beach so much. We've instead favored historic and cultural destinations for the most part. When we do choose to head for the sand, however, the first choice is typically far from coastlines crowded with people and highrise hotels. In fact, the fewer people, the better. Better to walk that ever-shifting line where land meets sea, and to feel a little closer to nature, rather than being too close for comfort to waterskis and speedboats.

That said, it was nice to take a stroll through the yacht harbor, a short walk around the bay from the beach. While I'll probably never spend much time on one, I won't deny the attraction of a ship at sail, or the way a view over the sea from land is somehow completed by the sight of sailboats cutting their way gracefully through the water. Most likely because the weather wasn't conducive to it, we didn't see any ships out on the water while we were there. In fact, quite a few of yachts in this harbor were out of the water and sitting up on blocks. I began to wonder how often these boats got used at all.

Across from the harbor was a chair lift leading to the top of a hill overlooking the town and the surrounding coast.

It was starting to look like rain! Despite the ominous skies, you can get a feel for both the smallness of the resort town, with only about 8,000 permanent residents, and the beauty of the surrounding forests and hills. I imagine the beach packs out quite a bit more on sunny days, but even then, Piriápolis has been eclipsed by the popularity of nearby Punta del Este. There, you've got your beachfront hotel skyrises, bronzed beachgoers, all-night clubs, and high-speed watersports. I have no doubt that it's exciting, if you like the energy of crowded beaches. What can I say? Secluded beaches are much more my thing. Thankfully, there are still as many of those as there are places like Miami Beach and Punta Cana.

The view over the other side of the hill. If you zoom in closely, far off on the horizon, you can see the tall buildings poking up from the peninsula of Punta del Este.

What goes up, must come down. The chair lift was, naturally, a round-trip ticket. Also featured, a view of the harbor, and a better perspective of the boats of various sizes/levels of ambition.

What a long day! The rambla, the picturesque Hotel Colonia with wooded hillside in the distance, slender palm trees, and, if you look closely, a modern white hotel with a cluster of solar panels on the roof. Not that they would be doing much on a day like this.

A close-up look at the Argentino Hotel, completed in 1930, by Francisco Piria, the founder for whom the town was named. Judging from the name of the hotel, Uruguay in the 1930's was as much a destination for vacationing Argentines as it is today. It's still in operation today, but with the rain starting to fall, we didn't take the time to inquire how much it cost for a room.

Besides, we had our own place to stay, a two bedroom house with a comfortable patio complete with a quincho for outdoor grilling. We didn't get a tan, but Piriápolis made for a relaxing experience on the green, tranquil and scenic Uruguayan coast. It was the end of a trip that included several busy days of visiting the cities of Buenos Aires and Montevideo, as well as the historic town of Colonia. Ahead of us lay a bus ride back to Colonia, a trip on the ferry across the Río de la Plata to Buenos Aires, and finally a flight across South America, through the turbulent air over the Cordillera de los Andes, and finally landing in Santiago. But for the time being, we were very much enjoying the peace and quiet of Piriápolis.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Unwinding in Montevideo

In addition to the time we spent in Colonia, we made a point to visit Uruguay's capital city of Montevideo. We found accommodations in the beachfront neighborhood of Punta Carretas, a quiet, residential area at the city's southernmost tip. In fact, if you look at the photo above, the thin vertical line next to the palm trees on the horizon is a lighthouse. It lies at the end of a narrow peninsula where the city ends and the Atlantic begins.

Turning to face the city, you see that mid-rise apartment buildings have come to dominate the oceanfront property. Head a block inland and this ambitious construction quickly gives way to one- and two-story homes, but walk in either direction along the city's long, winding rambla and you'll find these ten-floor buildings to be a constant feature.

Despite the number of these buildings along the coast, and the fact that many of them must be given over to vacation rental, Montevideo was the one destination on this trip where we ended up staying in a private room in a hostel rather than a rented apartment.

For most of the time I've traveled in South America, whenever I've visited a new place - whether alone or more recently, with family - staying in a hostel had always been my favorite way to spend the night. Being able to cook up a few meals in the shared kitchen is a great way to save money on the road, and inevitably, you'll end up meeting some interesting characters as well.

But as time has gone on, we've learned that for about the same price per night in a private room in a hostel, you can rent an apartment in most cities. This was an accidental discovery made during our trip to Bariloche the year before, but once we saw the benefit of the space and privacy of a temporary apartment rental, it's quickly become our preferred accommodation away from home.

For whatever reason, however, as I was contacting people while we were still in Buenos Aires, in anticipation of our stay in Montevideo, I had a hard time pinning anyone down on the phone. The only person I managed to get in touch with and make a reservation was the owner of a hostel. What we got was a room in an old house two blocks from the beach, not so bad!

With the exception of a young man from Córdoba, Argentina and an older woman from Buenos Aires, all our fellow guests were from Chile, despite the fact that Chile is much further away. Evidence perhaps of the direction the fleeting winds of economic prosperity have been blowing in recent years. Interestingly, none of the Chileans batted an eye at the higher prices to be found in Uruguay, while both of the Argentines were incredulous. Indeed, a visit to a restaurant or supermarket revealed most food to be about double the price of what we'd seen in Argentina.

Our second day in the city was spent in the urban center. What we found was a peaceful downtown, with quiet streets, orderly commerce, and - with some notable exceptions - modest architecture compared to what we've seen in Buenos Aires or even Santiago. Montevideo has always lived in the shadow of Buenos Aires across the Río de la Plata. Maybe as a result, the people of Montevideo are a laid-back bunch. While sharing a virtually identical accent with their Argentine neighbors, and steeped in a history deeply connected with that of Argentina, the pace of life here is decidedly slower.

In a place where even the top politicians intermingle with the public in the street with little fanfare, the Uruguayan people generally seem to ignore pretense and just get on with their daily business. That said, Uruguay has been in the news of late, with President José Mujica making headlines for his unassuming lifestyle, living on a flower farm with his wife rather than the Presidential Palace and driving his old VW Beetle. And more recently, Uruguay seems set to become the first country in South America to legalize the recreational use of marijuana.

Uruguay had long caught my attention as being the home of one of my favorite writers in Spanish, Eduardo Galeano. As we roamed the streets of Montevideo during our short visit, I did a double take in the direction of every bald-headed man I saw, hoping I might have the luck to cross paths with the author of the first books in Spanish I managed to decipher.

While I never saw Mr. Galeano, I did plenty of double takes. Uruguay has a small population with a low rate of growth, meaning an aging populace, and lots of bald heads. That notwithstanding, here we see the next generation of Uruguayans casually soaking up some fine literary tradition during their summer break.

Of course, no visit to Montevideo would be complete without a visit to the Plaza Independencia and the Palacio Salvo. Far and away the city's most iconic landmark, the Palacio Salvo is one of South America's original skyscrapers. At 100 meters in height and with its distinctive architectural flourish, it stood as the continent's tallest building for many years. Today, some lucky citizens even call it home.

The man on horseback is José Artigas, a native to Montevideo turned gaucho (read: South American cowboy). He became something akin to the George Washington of Uruguay. He helped battle both the Spanish and the British as South America began to assert its political independence, and later was instrumental in carving out the Uruguayan identity as separate and independent from what would become Argentina.

As I reflect on our days in Montevideo, I can't help but think that we peeled back very little of the surface of this understated city. While it may never equal the excitement and energy of Buenos Aires or the tropical beauty of Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo is quietly waiting to be discovered. The patient traveler who spends the time to fully explore this well-organized and comfortable capital city of 1.8 million is bound to be rewarded for his effort. With some luck, another trip to this part of South America will be in our future.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Across the Río de la Plata

There was more to our time in Buenos Aires than I've reported in the last few posts. The time we spent roaming Palermo and other residential neighborhoods. The various parks and green spaces, the pizza, grilled meats, and traditional Argentine dishes. The trip by train to the nearby river town of Tigre.

But we'd better keep the story moving forward. After a week in Buenos Aires, we boarded a large ferry boat and headed across the estuary separating Argentina from Uruguay. It's famously called the Río de la Plata, or as it is sometimes translated into English, the River Plate. But let's be realistic, it's really more estuary than river. As we headed out onto the water, we were granted a nice view of the city we were leaving behind.

There are two kinds of ferries you can take across the border. There's a smaller, faster boat that takes an hour and has seats much more like an airplane's to relax in during your short voyage. The other option is a slower vessel designed more like a cruise ship, with an open air deck on the top, a bar and café, and even live music on the lower deck. That's the one we chose to take. We weren't in any hurry, and it was still morning, so why not enjoy a laid back trip across the water?

 Crossing the Río de la Plata by boat is one of those essential moments for any traveler trying to have a full South American experience. While the River Plate is not quite a river, it's also not quite the sea. Calm water, brown from the sediment pouring off the continent, all silent proof of the sheltered waterway you're sailing across. And just as you lose sight of land and the metropolis of Buenos Aires behind you, you see another coast coming into view ahead. As your ship presses onward, the shroud of summer humidity gives way and you catch your first glimpse of the historic city of Colonia, your port of entry to Uruguay.

There's nothing like being in a seaport town in the summer. Looking out onto the expanse of water from the vantage point of a quiet beach, blue skies, hot sun, cool breeze, boats sailing in and out of the harbor. Tropical music provides the right ambiance to complement the sound of the gentle waves lapping up onto the shore. What a fantastic way to spend your days. At times like this, you start to wonder why you live so far from the seaside.

But Colonia is famous not for its beaches or its port. Its port does receive quite a few cruise ships and ferries, like the one we arrived on, and a beach like the one in the photo above. But Montevideo, Uruguay's capital city, is the main port city for the country. And if you're in Uruguay for its beaches, cities like Punta del Este are much trendier destinations. Instead, the main attraction in Colonia is its historic center.

Founded in 1680 by the Portuguese, the settlement changed hands between Portugal and Spain several times throughout its history. This constant push and pull has left an indelible architectural mark on the city, as the Portuguese and Spanish both imparted their own legacy on the varied street plan and buildings to be found there today.

Uruguay itself, a tiny country sandwiched between the two huge countries of Brazil and Argentina, was forged as an independent nation mainly in order to create a buffer zone between the ambitions of those two larger countries, which had fought to a stalemate in a war in the region. And while this small territory has a border with Brazil as long or longer than the one it shares with Argentina (depending on how you want to define the border along the Plata River), culturally speaking, Uruguay is much closer to Argentina.

Uruguayans speak Spanish in an accent (for me) indistinguishable from the famously characteristic dialect of Argentina. The Uruguayan people also share Argentinian's appreciation for the drink yerba mate.  It could even be argued that Uruguayans surpass Argentines in their fanaticism for the beverage. While we saw plenty of people drinking mate in the streets and parks of Buenos Aires and other cities we've explored in Argentina, we typically saw them drinking it in the afternoon, presumably as an excuse to spend some time relaxing outdoors, after lunch.

Unfortunately we didn't get any demonstrative photos of Uruguayans and their prodigious consumption of mate. But we were impressed to see people there drinking it in the morning with breakfast, as well as at lunch, and after dinner. And it was not uncommon to find people walking around with a leather pouch across their shoulders, custom designed to hold mate, gourd, and hot water thermos, for easy consumption whenever you want. I can't blame people for enjoying it so much, it's a great way to spend a leisurely afternoon in the park. If you're not sure what mate is, you can easily investigate online. But, I digress...

During our stroll through Colonia's historic district, we happened upon this group of men in old-timey hats and suspenders. For obvious reasons, film crews regularly descend on the town, to take advantage of its ready-made colonial backdrop. By the time we came upon the group, the filming for the scene was coming to its conclusion, and for the rest of the afternoon the actors went loitering about town in their own various directions, still in costume. They lent an extra air of history to our afternoon, the sight of people casually walking by in their old-fashioned vests and trousers, roaming the streets around us.

South America has no shortage of historic neighborhoods and cities. There are Unesco World Heritage sites to be found in just about every country in Latin America, and many more whose colonial buildings and other storied locations deserve international recognition. I've been fortunate to have the opportunity to explore and even live in or near several of these beautiful places over the past few years. Colonia, though, for its superb summer climate, lush foliage mixed with lovely cobbled streets and well-maintained old buildings, all facing a quiet inlet on the Atlantic coast, made for one of the most peaceful historic locations I've had the chance to visit. Sit in the shade of an old tree, taking in the fresh sea breeze amongst its silently aging walls, and its history begins to descend serenely upon you, leaving an impression of timelessness. Timeless, in the sense that your short stay starts to extend into one of those eternally lasting, long, sunny afternoons we've all enjoyed in the midsummer. And timeless, because at that moment you feel at one with history, at one with the place you're in, a place you already know you'll never forget.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Buenos Aires for export

Another of our days in Buenos Aires was dedicated to exploring the neighborhood known as La Boca. No trip to Argentina's capital would be complete without visiting this place, with its colorful buildings and equally colorful history, characterized largely by its Italian (mainly Genovese) influence. Today its streets are given over to the overwhelming amount of tourism the neighborhood receives.

Drawn to the neighborhood mainly for its picture-perfect, brightly colored walls and art situated on cobbled streets, tourists have many places to rest and take in their surroundings. The varied colors of the houses apparently date back to the original days of the neighborhood, when the immigrant families moved into conventillos as they did in San Telmo.

Here in La Boca they painted their homes with the leftover paint they used to paint the boats they used to make their livelihoods. As this paint consisted of whatever colors and quantities remained after their boats were painted, the houses ended up with a mix of colors.

In more recent times the painter Benito Quinquela Martín, who was a resident in the neighborhood and found inspiration for his art in the port working-class character of the area, encouraged his neighbors to revive the tradition of assorted colors on their houses and buildings. So it is him we can probably thank, not only for the colorful and artistic character of the neighborhood, but also for the amount of tourists who flock there to see it.

The conventillos are still there, but their original purpose, as blue collar tenement houses, has given way to antique and souvenir shops.

And the huddled masses yearning to be free have been replaced by bustling tourists yearning to have lunch.

Dark, narrow alleyways have become well-appointed, well-lit thoroughfares. It may have lost its authentic flavor, but La Boca has been transformed into something of a cultural playground. Buenos Aires, for export.

More than a colorful mural, this wall painting illustrates a moment in history when La Boca asserted a very temporary secession from the rest of Argentina at the end of the 19th century. The Genovese flag, whose influence can be seen in the shield of La Boca pictured here, was raised in rebellion against outside authority. It was almost immediately taken down personally by the Argentine President, who took it upon himself to address the demands of the inhabitants of the neighborhood.

The neighborhood of La Boca, at least the part given over to tourism, consists of only about six narrow blocks, each heaving with visitors at peak hours. Some efforts have been made to expand the tourist zone beyond its current borders. As we were seeking our own place to have lunch, a couple of promoters pointed us in the direction of a restaurant only a block away from the dense pack of outdoor patios.

A palpable change in atmosphere overcomes you when you walk out of the tourist playland. La Boca, like many of the neighborhoods south of Buenos Aires, is a low-income area. With the blocks around El Caminito being a notable exception, tour guides will advise you not to wander far from those colorful streets. Perhaps for that reason, we felt wary enough to heed that advice and have lunch in the more populous zone.

If we had gone to that other restaurant, maybe some ill fate would have befallen us. Or maybe we would have gotten a cheaper lunch. As it was, we found a tasty, but very expensive meal at a restaurant that charged us even for the cubierto. I understand that word to refer normally to the silverware, but in this case was a general fee just to partake in the restaurant, beyond the cost of the food and the tip expected from the waiter.

With such a high demand from the clientele in such a small neighborhood, any business in the area is in a good position to ask for more money than you would usually expect to pay. Closer to the old docks while we waited for the bus to take us downtown, we saw cheaper fare for sale: panchos (hot dogs) and other fast food sold from pushcarts. But with bellies full of Argentine asado, even at an inflated price, we were content.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

San Telmo

During our visit to Buenos Aires, we did our best to explore as many of its diverse neighborhoods as we could. In addition to its trendier and more modern areas like Palermo and Belgrano, other sections of the city reveal its deeper history. In the case of San Telmo, one of its oldest neighborhoods, we found a community that once housed the city's dock workers who earned their keep in nearby Puerto Madero.

In the past as much as today, working class society did not have the resources necessary for many families to prosper in a house they could call their own. Instead, these laborers, often first generation immigrants from Europe, lived communally in conventillos. These large buildings stretch far back from the front door to street, deep into the city block, often enclosing as many as three interior patios with two stories of separate dwellings packed around each one. With shared kitchens and bathrooms, and the patios serving as common areas as well, life in close proximity to one's neighbor was the reality for Buenos Aires' working poor.

Much like Puerto Madero, San Telmo has had its renaissance in recent years. Enough of its historic buildings have survived the turbulent years of the 19th and 20th centuries to attract attention from both tourists and locals, and a slow but steady regentrification of the neighborhood has been taking place. Located just blocks from the Casa Rosada and the Plaza de Mayo, San Telmo is a living reminder of Buenos Aires' past, in the heart of the city's urban center.

Also like Puerto Madero, San Telmo is home to plenty of cafés and restaurants. But here you can find meals at less than half the price of those you'll find listed along the port's fashionable bistros and grills, all the while taking in the arguably more authentic surrounds. We chose to have lunch in a wide, deep hall with worn wooden floors and high ceilings. It bore the name pulpería, a reference to the old, working class general stores that had anything you might need for the home, and also had a bar ready to pour you a glass of your alcoholic beverage of choice. The restaurant, true to its name, had a classic, long, wide bar over which you could imagine any class of sundry good or after work imbibe sliding into the waiting hands of its clients. The place was also decorated with an assortment of antique furniture and domestic products, immersing you into an induced nostalgia of Buenos Aires' imagined past.

The neighborhood was also once the home of Argentina's beloved Quino, cartoonist and creator of Mafalda. Mafalda and her friends are as well-known and loved around the Spanish-speaking world as Charlie Brown in the US. Here she can be found sitting a few doors down from the building where Quino had lived. Now she brings delight to countless children and adults who find her waiting with a smile on the corner of Chile and Defensa.  She marks the beginning of an short and entertaining walking tour of Argentina's tradition of comic strips and cartoons, punctuated by appearances of many of its most famous characters.

There's quite a bit of shopping to be done in the neighborhood as well, where you can find everything from antiques to modern fashion, plastic souvenirs and original artwork plied in well-appointed stores and open-air markets alike. The people of Argentina, and Buenos Aires especially, are famous for their gregarious spirit. This translates into a natural predisposition for salesmanship.

The sellers have another advantage to begin with, as any visitor to Argentina invariably has some special purchase in mind during their stay in its most famous city, be it well-aged malbec, jewelry, leather, literature, clothing, local pastries, or simply a token reminder of their time there.

San Telmo, only about 10 blocks long and even fewer wide, is one of Buenos Aires' smallest neighborhoods. You could walk from one end to the other, have lunch in one of its restaurants, and feel as though you'd seen it all in just a couple of hours. Nonetheless, this neighborhood of many layers of history and as many hidden corners and corridors will reward the more patient explorer with a more profound understanding of what the city is, what it once was, then leave you to imagine where it might be headed, and when you might return.