Argentina’s 2009/2010 cruise season

Buenos Aires better off than Patagonian ports.

Bonnie Tucker / FST
For international cruise ship passengers who opt for our far south waters, Argentina can be the beginning or end of a cruise featuring Brazilian beaches on the one hand, or of soft adventure excursions to Patagonian wildlife sanctuaries, Antarctica, or the Chilean fjords on the other. The great divide between the two types of enjoyment is the Benito Quinquela Martín cruise ship terminal of the Port of Buenos Aires, which thus far expects 155 calls (or more than 300,000 passengers) during the 2009/2010 season, according to the Argentine Port Authority. That would be 13 calls more than last summer, when the 260,000 cruise visitors who passed through the terminal set a new seasonal record, and the facility had to handle as many as 14,000 passengers from seven ships in a single day. Thus far, 143 calls have been confirmed for this season. The Argentine government recently announced its intention to increase the terminal’s passenger service capacity to 12,000 per day for the 2010/2011 season.
The terminal is less than one kilometer from the city center, but it is not safe to walk in the port area between it and downtown; passengers must move about in tour buses or taxis.
With the exception of a few small “expedition” vessels that reposition between the Arctic and Antarctica at the beginning or end of the October-April season, or luxury liners that call in the course of round-the-world cruises, the ships that use the Port of Buenos Aires between October and March are those that come and go between the Argentine capital and Brazilian ports (the majority), or between it and Chile.
Argentina’s southern cruise destinations seem to be suffering the effects of the international economic crisis and the pig flu pandemic scare more than Buenos Aires. Antarctic and long Buenos Aires-Valparaíso itineraries are much more expensive than short pleasure cruises to Brazil, and passengers who can afford them (and indeed are interested in them) tend to hail from Europe and the United States, where people plan their vacations a year in advance. Better luck in 2010/2011.

Thus far, Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of Argentina is reported to be expecting 313 calls by 45 cruise ships during the summer. Of these 45 vessels, 32 will be using the city as a base for cruises to Antarctica, which is just 1,000 km away. This is down from 373 calls (100,400 passengers) during the 2007/2008 season and 400 calls last year, when as many as 8,000 passengers were handled in a single day. The pier – used for both passengers and cargo – gives directly out onto Avenida Maipú and the best part of the downtown area.

Puerto Madryn, the Chubut port on the Patagonian coast between Buenos Aires and Tierra del Fuego, expects 33 calls, or more than 60,000 tourists, during the present season. But this too will be down on last year, which was 15 percent above 2007/2008, when 66,300 passengers were reported. This city has two piers. The Luis Piedrabuena passenger pier leads straight to Avenida Roca and the nice downtown area, which includes the helpful local tourist office. However, the Almirante Storni cargo and fishing pier – where the cruise ships that can’t dock at the passenger pier are sent – is not comfortably located at all; it is 6 km from downtown.
The international cruise industry is going almost completely over to monster ships that carry small-town populations of more than 3,000 passengers and crew. A big ship whose length and draught deny it a place at an old-time passenger pier must anchor somewhere nearby and send its passengers ashore in tenders – a procedure that becomes a bottleneck when lots of people want to come and go. The economies of scale offered by the big ships make their cruises affordable, but many of their passengers end up exchanging shore visits for life on board luxuries (which, by the way, can end up costing more than tours and souvenirs purchased on shore).

When several of said vessels arrive at a port simultaneously, their sizes and combined populations can pose serious logistics problems for the port authority, the local travel industry, and the passengers themselves, who are so many that they may end up spending most of the time allotted to each port waiting to disembark and re-embark.
Some big cruise companies also offer vessels at the opposite end of the spectrum – large yachts and small luxury vessels for a few passengers who can pay astronomic prices for exclusiveness on board and easy access to ports and pristine nature spots.

Port pros and cons
Buenos Aires is the only Argentine port with what can be called a passenger terminal, and the only one that is moving in the direction of dealing with the ship size problem. But these efforts may have their limit. Total berth length is 585 meters, and alongside depth about 10 meters. The port can’t be dredged any deeper because its approach canal runs across the broad, silt-bearing River Plate estuary that constantly undoes the work of dredges. The shore visit transfer time that would inevitably result from relocating the port and its terminal away from the river would make tours of Buenos Aires less attractive to many visitors, if not impossible for lack of time.

Puerto Madryn presides over a deep-water natural harbor that doesn’t need dredging. Its two piers --- the 400-meter Luis Piedrabuena and the 1,500-meter Almirante Storni – have a maximum alongside depth of 11 meters. It lacks a passenger terminal and most downtown shops are closed during the afternoon, but passengers buy tours at the ship travel desk that show them local wildlife, a paleontology museum or a sheep ranch, or fill them in on the region’s Welsh settlement story outside the city.
Ushuaia is also a natural deep port. It has a multi-use terminal and a broad pier with 1,163 meters of wharfage, and a maximum alongside depth of 11 meters. Passengers who are pressed for time usually book a guided tour of the Prison and Maritime Museum, or Tierra del Fuego National Park. Those with a day in port can see all the city’s four very interesting museums on foot, map in hand.

Southbound passengers tend to be more enthusiastic about Madryn’s wildlife than those coming from Ushuaia down south, where they have already seen penguins and sea lions. However, the landscapes and histories of both cities are different enough to make stops at each worthwhile. And Ushuaia does not have whales or Commerson’s dolphins.
Regardless of their natural and historical attractions, both cities need to build proper passenger terminals with bathrooms, restaurants and lounges, and lengthen their piers into deeper water to accommodate cruise vessels that are getting bigger and bigger. Construction of a terminal for what in reality is a short cruise season could be economically justified if the installations serve as a multi-purpose cultural center during the long months when there are no cruise ships in port.

PHOTO CREDITS: Port of Buenos Aires, Buenos Aires Port Authority. Port of Ushuaia, Ricardo Marengo. Piedrabuena pier, Port of Puerto Madryn, Bonnie Tucker. Interior of Holland American vessel, Holland America Line. Guanacos and sheep at the San Guillermo tourist ranch outside Puerto Madryn, Bonnie Tucker. Prison Museum in Ushuaia, Bonnie Tucker.

Argentine vineyard country clubs

The race is on in Mendoza.

Bonnie Tucker / FST
Wine is in vogue and a weekend or retirement lifestyle themed to wine making is what several new vineyard country clubs are offering in the Argentine province of Mendoza, producer of most of the country’s fine wines.
The move toward owning a vineyard and living in it began here in 2005, when Viñas del Golf opened in San Rafael in the southern part of the province (see photo below), and two young nomadic US wine lovers opened a tasting room in the provincial capital that ended up becoming the small The Vines of Mendoza wine country club near Tunuyán in the Uco Valley.

A vineyard of less than 25 hectares is not economically feasible. And the costs of installing and running a winery make bottling wine with one’s own label impossible for most people, even those with a good income. Vineyard country clubs sell lots that occupy 2.5 hectares on average, but the economies of scale they offer in centrally organized vineyard maintenance for all club members and vinification of their produce in the club’s winery can make individual winemaking dreams come true.
At present, four developers are racing to finish installing vineyard country clubs in Luján de Cuyo and the Uco Valley, and Viñas del Golf (which now goes by the name of Algodón Wine Estates) is expanding existing facilities and developing new activities in San Rafael. All sell lots with small private vineyards, and most offer purely residential lots as well. Upscale boutique hotels and restaurants are considered musts. All but one of the developers offer activities in addition to wine making, and the priorities they assign to each activity make it possible to divide them into the categories of Golf and Wine; Wine and Polo; Wine, Golf and Polo; and Wine Only.

Wine, golf and polo
Of these, Tupungato Winelands, the latest venture of Burco América, is the most matter-of-fact of the four in the northern part of the province: it began planting vines in 2008 in the private vineyard lots (called “fincas”), and they are already in production; the buyer selects the lot with the grape variety that most takes his or her fancy. The others allow buyers to decide what variety they want planted on their plot of land.
This development is a Mendoza re-edition of the successful formula used by Burco in its famous Arelauquen Golf & Country Club in Bariloche, which offers members facilities for said sport and for polo, and has a five-star boutique hotel in which to coddle tourists who could become buyers. The Belgian developer’s new property 8 km from Tupungato in the Uco Valley is for clients who like golf or polo and are also wine fanciers. The property covers 800 hectares, of which 400 are arable. There will be 140 private vineyard lots of 2.5 to 4.5 hectares, on which 3.000 m2 are reserved for a house and yard; 150 residential lots that occupy 5,000 m2 each, and a public vineyard. Thus far, the company has planted nine grape varieties. Wine maker Michel Rolland will advise private vineyard owners who want to join forces and make blends. The owners can bottle wine with their own label in the club’s winery or sell their produce elsewhere, but it is the club that does the maintenance of all the vineyards.

The first nine holes of an 18-hole golf course by Adam Golf Design and the first of two polo fields are expected to be ready by March 2010. The first houses and the hotel have yet to be built, but several private vineyards and residential building lots have already been sold to people who see presence in this club as a good investment.

Burco also creates a clubby feeling of belonging with the promise that people who buy a finca or lot in the Mendoza property will get discounts on Burco lodges and activities (including heliskiing) elsewhere in the southern part of the country and Chile.

Other proposals
Golf and Wine. As its original name suggests, Viñas del Golf in San Rafael is for fanatical golfers who like the idea of dabbling in wine making. Most of the vines and fruit orchards of the property were planted long ago; the 9-hole golf course was installed amid them by Ricardo Jurado, grandson of Argentine golf luminary José Jurado. Nowadays it goes by the name of Algodón Wine Estates because the original Argentine company sold 75 percent of its share packet to a big US developer. Purchase of additional land has taken the property’s total area to 830 hectares, and another nine holes will be added to the golf course. The club already has a small lodge, but a new lodge, a luxury hotel and a new boutique winery are planned, and 300 homesites of 0.4 to 6 hectares will be available in six “villages” in different environments. The club is diversifying into polo and tennis, and wants to become a venue for important sporting events.

More Golf and Wine. South African golfer and golf course designer Gary Player is a co-developer of Amuray Winemakers and Golfers Valley, which he simplifies to Amuray Wine & Golf Club on his Website. Local partners are urban designer Santiago Obarrio and winemaker Eduardo Lávaque. Located in Luján de Cuyo, the property covers 4,000 hectares, of which more than 1,000 are for vineyards and olive and fruit groves. The area with irrigation dam lakes will be part of a 1,300-hectare nature reserve. The project includes an 18-hole golf course, a six-star boutique hotel with 60 rooms, 5,000-square meter residential lots, and 2.5-hectare vineyard estates.
Wine and Polo. Luján de Cuyo will also be home to Santa María de los Andes, Pueblo de Vinos, an 820-hectare development of the Fiducia Capital Group, which is also marketing Villa María and other former ranches around Buenos Aires. There are 191 vineyard lots and 97 residential lots. Lot size starts at one hectare. It is billed as a place for “serious wine fanciers and high-handicap polo fans” who want a weekend or vacation house. It is rumored that Sarah Ferguson has bought a lot here.
Wine only. At The Vines of Mendoza in the Uco Valley, there is room for winemaking only. The property covers more than 200 hectares and lots range from 1.2 to 6.1 hectares. Members are expected to choose the grape variety they want to surround their homestead, and transform their produce into wine in the club’s boutique winery for customized small-lot production, which should be finished by March 2010. So far, owners have planted 13 varietals. They will define the personality of their wine with the help of oenologist Santiago Achával. A wine resort with a spa and a 15-room boutique hotel for tourists will come later.

PHOTO CREDITS: A golfer putting at Viñas del Golf en 2006, Bonnie Tucker. Vineyards, and work on the 5th tee of the future golf course of Tupungato Winelands in November 2009, courtesy of Burco América. Polo at Algodón Wine Estates, courtesy of Algodón Wine Estates.
TAGS: Argentina, Wines

Sweet treats in BA

Indulge in being a rebel.

Bonnie Tucker / FST
Fed up with the perpetual diet culture that has been fed us over the years by slimness gurus, gymnasiums, and manufacturers of food substitutes and home gym equipment, who are also advertisers in media that publish kilos of articles that showcase anorexic fashion models, promote body sculpting and stress how bad it is to be fat?
Most of us feel like stepping out of the box and sitting down to enjoy something sweet at least once or twice a year, but fine tea pastries do not form part of the Argentine culinary tradition, which is rooted in proteins and decrees dulce de leche (milk jam) for all the rest. In most cases, sweet tooth fantasies have to make do with the medialunas (croissants) that accompany the morning “coffee with milk,” and an unimaginative flan (crème caramel), fruit salad or ice cream served after a heavy pasta- or beef-centered meal. Those who want the real thing in pastries have to find a tea room where they will be served the delicate infusion of their choice, accompanied by small portions of fresh-baked pies and cakes whose sole mission is to delight the diner with their combinations of flavor, texture, color and decoration.
This sort of pastries has its place of honor in the lounge of the Caesar Park Buenos Aires, renowned for the refinement and variety of the tarts and cakes created by Beatriz Chómnalez (who by the way is not overweight). An Argentine-born master chef specialized in French cuisine, as well as a pastry chef, Beatriz is a product of Parisian cooking schools who has long taught her trade in Buenos Aires. She changes her pastry menu twice a year, inventing at least 20 new items each time so that people with a sweet tooth will keep coming back for more at tea time in the hotel lounge.

Her team at the hotel excels at creamy cold French marquises and frothy, colorful mousses, as well as pies named after historical characters and a deconstructed Opera cake. Potential rebels against the perpetual diet culture are also pleased by the fact that 14 of the creations on the tea list can also be bought as intact cakes or pies in the hotel and taken home.

PHOTO CREDITS: Cream cheese tart with grapefruit slices. “Medicis” dacquoise. Courtesy Caesar Park Buenos Aires.

2009 Bitácora tourist industry awards

The outbound market has its say.

Every year, El Mensajero Producciones, a publishing house that keeps the Argentine travel industry up to date with developments in the trade at home and abroad, hands out Bitácora (binnacle, or log book) Awards to companies, organisms and institutions in recognition of their effort, creativity and hard work in promoting this growing economic activity. Awards in 23 categories are voted on line by more than 400 travel agents and officials from a list of three candidates for each prepared by the publishing house. Most of the winners of these awards, like the majority of the country’s wholesale and retail travel agencies, specialize in the outbound market.
This month, more than 60 companies and institutions received their respective Gold, Silver or Bronze awards during a big dinner show attended by travel industry people in the Frers Pavilion at the Rural showground. This year’s winner of the Platinum grand prize of the fourth edition of El Mensajero’s Bitácora Awards was Juliá Tours, an Argentine wholesale travel agency that also took Gold in the Website, Mexico, Caribbean, and US & Canada categories. LAN Argentina won the top place in both the domestic (see photo) and international airline categories. Mexico and the Argentine province of Salta were considered to have done the best job of promoting themselves in this country. The Alvear Palace Hotel was voted the best Argentine hotel and the Sheraton the best international chain hotel.

Photo credit: On board a LAN jet headed for Puerto Iguazú. Courtesy of Ricardo Marengo.

Comfort in the wild

Deluxe geodesic dome tents in a Patagonian forest.

Bonnie Tucker / FST
The El Calafate airport is two hours away, and you may have to get out to open and close several cattle guards to get to your home away from home for the next few days because it is in a small beech forest on the ranch that is furthest from nowhere in this solitary corner of the Argentine province of Santa Cruz.
When you get out of the pickup truck and walk toward the forest, your arrival may send up a flock of elegant crested tinamous that had been walking amid the bushes. You will doubtless spot several other birds when you walk down to the lakeshore to gaze at the Perito Moreno glacier in the distance.

Back in camp, you see that your bed in the headroom-high geodesic dome tent atop a wooden platform is properly made up with a quilt, two fleece blankets and crisp white sheets on a thick mattress. There are eight tents in the forest.

During dinner in the large multi-purpose dome that serves as a dining and living room for all the guests, you sip fine wine and enjoy choice cuts of beef or lamb with vegetable side dishes as you chat with fellow nature lovers from the First World who revel in pristine places, but also appreciate comfort.

There is hot water for a shower in the wooden bathhouse with ladies’ and men’s sectors.

When you wake up the next morning you will observe the lichen-draped branches of the beeches around you through the transparent PVC picture window of your tent, and decide whether you want to spend the day hiking, birding, biking or hearing a guide explain the local flora and fauna. More than one burned-out urbanite spends the first 24 hours sleeping or reading a book, with short breaks for eating. Breakfast is served in the big dome, but it can also be brought to the tent.

Thus far, the ages of the people who have been going in for this sort of experience since the tent complex opened in 2007 (when I visited the site) have ranged from 24 to 80. About 90% of them are foreigners who hail from such countries as England, the Netherlands and the United States.
Adventure Domes, the eco-undertaking of two Santa Cruz outdoor aficionados, offers three-day (two-night) all-inclusive packages that include a transfer to and from the glacier in front, and may be prolonged if the client so desires. Minimum: two persons. Cost: approximately US$250 per person per night. Information and bookings: and 5199-0401 in Buenos Aires.

PHOTO CREDITS: All photos courtesy of Adventure Domes.

The National Sulky Festival

Simoca renders homage to this traditional two-wheeled vehicle.

Bonnie Tucker / FST
In big cities, everyone who is not a harness racing fan or into antique carriage driving tends to think that horse-drawn conveyances are symbols of underdevelopment. The people of Simoca, a bastion of folk music and rural tradition in southeastern Tucumán, don’t see it that way. In this town of 8,000 inhabitants, the popular Argentine version of the sulky – a light, two-wheeled, one-horse carriage with a single seat for two passengers – has been awarded a monument. Hand-crafting these vehicles is considered a fine art, and using them as a means of transportation is an affirmation of local culture. On Saturdays, when Simoca’s colorful outdoor market is in full swing, many of them ply the streets of the town, which is a mere 50 km from the provincial capital.

In Argentina there are still two kinds of sulkies: the miniscule ones used in races, and the heftier working vehicles in which common people get about in the countryside. The latter are made in Simoca.
Traditionally, a “sulky” seats just one person – its name is an English adjective that refers to the fact that it is for a “sulky” driver who likes to be alone. In Anglo-Saxon countries, all kinds of races with animals (horses, camels, greyhounds and ostriches, among others) have captivated spectators for the past two centuries. Among these events are harness races featuring trotting horses whose drivers occupy tiny, lightweight single-seat racing sulkies.

Until the mid-20th century, Argentine country doctors still used the working version of the vehicle to call on patients who lived along dirt backroads. And nowadays, many poor farmers and other people who live along roads that have yet to be paved, still use working sulkies to take kids to school and do shopping and other business in town. So the seat of a working sulky seats more than one.
Simoca sulkies are made entirely of wood, with wooden or metal wheels, and are painted bright colors. This makes them the delight of tourists who can buy rides on the weekends, or during the National Sulky Festival, which this year takes place on December 12.

At 8pm, hundreds of sulkies, as well as a few old-time wagons and ox carts, will parade through the city streets, some of them bearing the girls who will compete for the festival queen title. The folk music festival will begin at 10pm.

PHOTO CRÉDITOS: Detail of the back of a sulky seat in Simoca, Racing sulkies of the 19th and 21st centuries, as seen by US artist Nicholas Winfield Scott Leighton (1849-1898), and by Google images, respectively A sulky parked on a back street in Simoca,

A year-end get-together

The story behind La Rioja’s Child Mayor ceremony.

Bonnie Tucker / FST
At noon on the last day of every year, the turning point in the history of the northwestern Argentine city of La Rioja is commemorated by the Lord Mayor and two religious images at the corner of the main square facing the Cathedral and the provincial Government House. The image of St. Nicholas of Bari, patron of the city of La Rioja, is taken out of the Cathedral and brought to the corner by a procession of the Alféreces (ensigns), a brotherhood representing the Spanish settlers of early colonial times. That of the Child Mayor is removed from the Church of St. Francis of Assisi and taken to the square by a procession of the Aillis, who represent the Diaguita people.
The image of St. Nicholas is made to kneel three times in front of the Child Mayor, and all the dignitaries and townspeople present in the square do so as well. Then the Lord Mayor symbolically hands the keys of the city to the image of the Child Mayor, which is taken into the Cathedral along with that of St. Nicholas. Three days later, on January 3, a much simpler ceremony takes place outside the Cathedral: the Child Mayor takes leave of the city’s patron saint and returns to his place in the old Franciscan church.
The ceremony of December 31, called the “Tinkunaco” (which means “encounter” or “fusion” in the Quechua tongue), commemorates a non-aggression pact that the Spaniards and Diaguitas struck in 1593. Thousands of Indians who were fed up with the slavery that had been imposed on them by the Spanish colonists had descended on the settlement to demand the resignation of the mayor. The Spaniards were few, but they had firearms and cannon. On the other hand, the Indians were many and threatened to dam a river in the mountains to leave the city without water. Father Solano – already famous in the region for captivating Indians with his singing and violin-playing – was asked to mediate.

He told the Indians that Christ was a good person like themselves, and he scolded the Spaniards for their unchristian conduct. The Indians ended up accepting baptism in exchange for the “replacement” of the Spanish mayor with an image of the Christ Child. In 1624, the Jesuits invented the Tinkunaco festival to commemorate and institutionalize the deal arranged by Father Solano. The resourceful priest, the first New World saint, was canonized in 1726.
Must-do excursions to places not too far from the city of La Rioja: Quebrada de los Cóndores, a canyon where curious condors approach visitors,

and Talampaya National Park in La Rioja (below) and Ischigualasto Provincial Park (Valley of the Moon) in neighboring San Juan, both famed for their eroded landforms.


PHOTO CREDITS: An antique image of the Child Mayor, and an ailli costume, both on display in the La Rioja Folklore Museum. Bonnie Tucker. Quebrada de los Cóndores (Condor Canyon), courtesy of Sandra Bonetto. Talampaya National Park, courtesy of Sandra Bonetto.

Puerto Madryn ready for big ships in December

Most do the Buenos Aires-Valparaíso route, which includes the Malvinas.

Bonnie Tucker / FST
Puerto Madryn is Argentina’s third most important cruise ship port, after Buenos Aires and Ushuaia. The small vessels that have already called there this season, and the big ones that are about to do so, are examples of the types of passenger traffic that pass through the region at this time of year.
With fewer calls scheduled for the 2009-2010 season than last year, but with hopes for more passengers given the size of the ships that will be berthing at its Luis Piedrabuena passenger pier, Madryn is looking forward to the arrival of the Norwegian Sun on December 3. One of the largest vessels that will be calling this summer, she is 258 meters long and has 13 decks for more than 2,000 passengers and 968 crew. She is on her way to Buenos Aires from Valparaíso, having called at Puerto Montt, Punta Arenas, Ushuaia and the Malvinas (Falkland for English-speakers) Islands. This is the first of the ten cruises on the Buenos Aires-Valparaíso “bioceanic” route that she will be making this season.

Another giant, the 294-meter Celebrity Infinity, with a maximum 1,950-passenger capacity and 997crew, will call six times at Puerto Madryn on the same route.
In all, Puerto Madryn expects 33 calls to bring more than 60,000 tourists in 2009/2010.

Different approaches to Antarctica
Puerto Madryn’s cruise season began officially during the early days of November, with the arrival of the 50-passenger Russian expedition ships Professor Multanovskiy and Professor Molchanov. Both arrived empty on their seasonal repositioning cruises from the Arctic, took on passengers and headed for Antarctica.
Many of the passengers who booked the early-season cruises aboard these two ships arrived three to four days in advance of sailing in order to have time to tour the Puerto Madryn area. It is a good time of year to come because there are still whales in the Golfo Nuevo.
Until January, the Professor Multanovskiy will be based on King George Island to take passengers who fly in and out from Punta Arenas (Chile) on short cruises to the Antarctic Peninsula and sub-Antarctic islands. Later in the season, she will use Ushuaia (Argentina) as a base for more conventional Antarctic excursions.

Super-luxury cruise ships that will call at Puerto Madryn in December are the Corinthian II, an all-suite mega-yacht for 114 guests and 70 crew that cruises Antarctic waters; and the all-suite Silver Cloud (296 guests, 210 crew) and the Crystal Symphony (1,010 passengers, 545 crew, with staterooms and suites), which do the Buenos Aires-Valparaíso route.

A multi-purpose clipper ship
An even more picturesque visitor at the Puerto Madryn pier in early November was the Stad Amsterdam, a replica of a 19th-century clipper ship that is owned by the Municipality of Amsterdam and Randstad, the temporary staffing service company. According to its website, this three-mast sailing ship has 14 luxury cabins and can be privately booked for “business events, luxury cruises and adventurous sailing trips.”

At present, the Stad Amsterdam is on a round-the world cruise that follows the route of 19th-century English naturalist Charles Darwin, creator of the evolution theory. Darwin took part in the second voyage of the HMS Beagle, which began in Plymouth, England on December 27, 1831 and lasted five years. The Dutch sailing ship left Plymouth on September 1, 2009, nearly 178 years after the Beagle’s departure. Her voyage will last eight months. On board is Sarah Darwin, the great-great granddaughter of the man whose findings in South America inspired his theory of human evolution, which he put into writing in On the Origin of Species, published in England in 1859. She is accompanied by her husband and two children, a film crew, and a group of family members and notables who are working on a picture titled Beagle, on the future of species for the Dutch VPRO and Flemish Canvas public broadcasting companies.
The voyage of the Stad Amsterdam can be followed in English in the capitain’s log at, and at VPRO’s The latter is in Dutch, but there are English, Spanish and Portuguese options. On November 28, the group was looking into the maw of the still-active Chaitén volcano in Chile and recalling that when Darwin sailed past the Chilean coast, he saw three volcanoes erupting simultaneously.

But this filming mission did not stop the handsome clipper ship from complying with her multi-purpose role during her four-day call in Puerto Madero in Buenos Aires Oct. 26-29. During her stay in port, she was used for an event celebrating the 20th anniversary of Randstad’s Argentine branch, and was opened to the public.

PHOTO CREDITS: Puerto Madryn’s Luis Piedrabuena dock, Alberto Patrian for the Puerto Madryn Tourist Office. The Norwegian Sun, Norwegian Cruise Line. The Professor Molchanov in Antarctica. The Stad Amsterdam at sea, courtesy of Randstad. The Stad Amsterdam in the Port of Buenos Aires, Jeroen Bartos /

Bariloche, a botanist’s dream vacation

Surprising flowers await hikers in a variety of ecosystems.

Bonnie Tucker / FST
The delicate high-altitude Andean flowers that bask in the sun amid dry, coarse volcanic rocks in the northern sector of Argentine Patagonia are one of the miracles of nature that fascinate hikers at this time of year. Just a couple of months ago, the plants that support these miraculous blooms were buried beneath meters of snow.

At lower elevations on the same mountains, forest floors are strewn with beautiful yellow alstroemerias.

Sun-loving fire bushes border lakes and clearings, and shrubs bearing yellow and pink blooms beautify the steppe.

Meanwhile, the humid forests tucked away in Andean valleys are rife with fuchsias and wild orchids.

Around the northern Patagonian town of Bariloche, arid steppe, humid forest and high mountain environments are very near each other, and in the spring and summer the blooms that represent them await hikers who have a few days to explore the surroundings.

Diversidad, a travel agency run by native son mountaineer Clemente Arko, offers a wide variety of hiking excursions in this area, including specialized hikes for botanists. In addition to the photos of the viola, the forest-floor alstroemerias and the dainty wild orchid seen above, they have sent us the following photos of high-altitude blooms to share with you.

Seeing is believing.
One of the mountain tops around the Challhuaco Valley where these blooms can be seen is included in their four-day hiking program which includes other environments as well: the Mount Tronador area that offers nalca plants with sunshade-sized leaves, fire bushes, fuchsias and a “black” glacier; the humid forest of the Llao Llao Peninsula area, and the steppe with caves, ancient rock paintings and lots of birds.

PHOTO CREDITS: An example of floral mimicry, Diversidad. Alstroemerias in the forest, and detail of a bloom, Diversidad. Flowering fire bush and neneo shrubs, Bonnie Tucker. Fuchsias, Bonnie Tucker. Chloraea alpina orchid, Diversidad. Peak of Mount Challhuaco, Diversidad. Oxalis, Rhodophiala, Ranunculus and Viola flowers, Diversidad.

Hernán Uriburu

A tribute to the dean of Argentina’s pack trip outfitters.

Hernán Uriburu, Argentina’s first pack trip outfitter, whose approach to people, horses and his beloved province of Salta launched lifestyle tourism in the country, is no longer with us. One of the province’s best-loved native sons, Hernán thought that a backcountry pack trip should offer riders a cultural experience in addition to a series of impressive landscapes. His passing has deeply saddened those who were fortunate enough to take part in one of the many memorable rides he led into the mountains over a period of more than three decades, because those expeditions included contact with local families, and with his philosophy of life.

For Hernán, watching the landscape change from atop a horse that picked its way up and down mountain trails was the best way to “ruminate” (assimilate) it, and to slow down enough to enjoy living a rustic life for a few days. Indeed, one’s concepts of time – and priorities in life – inevitably changed during the course of one of his rides.

The first rule of the game was implacable: all your essentials had to fit into the saddlebags behind your saddle. There was room for just a few toiletry items (soap, towel, toothbrush, comb, toilet paper), a change of underwear, and clothing for dealing with heat, cold and rain, all of which could be experienced in a single day at certain times of the year. In the outdoors, nothing can be taken for granted.
As the hours and days passed, you learned the value of patience, prudence, caution, silence, the simple things in life, and respect for others. Riders had no need to fear, or be ashamed to ask for help when they needed it. And they soon understood and accepted the need to eat lightly to avoid altitude sickness while acclimating in places that presented the problem, and to use the same outer clothing throughout the ride.

Hernán lived in the city of Salta and took his clients on three different circuits in semi-arid and high-mountain areas in the province. On each circuit he used the horses of a local supplier (usually a small rancher), who accompanied the ride and took care of his animals. He said that local horses know the terrain, and what poisonous plants they are not supposed to eat.
Hernán took care of the riders. His preferred mount was a small mule, which apart from being sure-footed, was close enough to the ground to allow him to dismount and remount easily several times a day to solve any problem from a loose cinch to a lost hat. He did the cooking if the group was small. If there were more mouths to feed, he brought along a cook.
His clients included many a stressed businessman, systems analyst and diplomat, as well as a few journalists. During his first two decades in the business, most of them were foreigners. Later, groups included several Argentines.
In 1995, I signed up for his classic four-day mounted venture into the mountains behind the town of Guachipas, about halfway between the capital and Cafayate. I particularly remember focusing the camera on a perfect figure of a rhea at an impressive rock art site, chatting with a family of goatherds, and toiling up a trail to a mountain peak tall enough to offer close-up views of condors flying over the valley below.

We lived four days without electricity. On the first night we ate and slept beneath a storm lamp on the porch of a rudimentary ranch house. On the second and third nights we slept in tents, or under the stars. A sole kerosene lamp illuminated the family table at which we devoured noodles on night two, and on night three, food was prepared by flashlight and eaten around a campfire because the host (a curandero, or practitioner of popular medicine) had no lamp at all. Earlier on the third day, when we had tea in the curandero’s cookhouse, we learned that by sitting on a low stool, one escapes the smoke, which rises and goes out the door.

Hernán called this sort of experience “alternative tourism” – that is, “doing something different from what a consumer society proposes.”
He insisted that mountain people are not poor. “They pay grazing rights, they have their own animals, but they have no boss. They subsist with no money but they have a lot. They have freedom because they live there because they like it, not because it’s imposed on them. If not, the mountains would be uninhabited.”
After a ride in Hernán’s mountains, his clients returned to civilization and their everyday lives. But for more than one, something had changed.
Bonnie Tucker

PS: Hernán’s son Marcos, who accompanied his father on several pack trips with tourists, will continue organizing rides in the Salta backcountry. Information: (0387) 401-1200, or

PHOTO CREDITS: Hernán Uriburu. Bonnie Tucker. Riders in the hills behind Guachipas. Bonnie Tucker. Hernán with a local guide. Courtesy Lihué Expediciones. Thousand-year-old painting rock painting of a rhea. Bonnie Tucker. A goatherd milks one of his animals. Bonnie Tucker. The author with local hosts. Courtesy Lihué Expediciones. Hernán Uriburu with riders in the kitchen of a local family. Courtesy Lihué Expediciones.