Avenida de Mayo walking tour

On Saturday, May 30, the Buenos Aires Tourist Guides’ Association will offer a walking tour of Avenida de Mayo, conducted (in Spanish) by architect and tourist guide Tito Gastaldi. The tour will leave from in front of the City Hall (Av. de Mayo 525) at 10.30am. Cost: members 10 pesos, non-members 15 pesos. Walks are called off if it rains. Information: 4322-2557 or 15-5746-4641.

Recoleta Cemetery walking tour

On Sunday, May 31, Eternautas, the travel agency run by historians, will conduct (in Spanish) a free walking tour of the Recoleta Cemetery, the final resting place in Buenos Aires of many of the men and women who made history in Argentina during the 19th and 20th centuries. The two-hour tour will leave from the entrance to the cemetery (Junín 1760) at 2.30pm. Walks are called off if it rains. Information: 5031-9916 or 15-4173-1078: consultas@eternautas.com.

Tigre celebrates new access

More than 90,000 people attended Tigre’s May 25 folk music bash in front of the Club Hacoaj to celebrate the inauguration of the city's new traffic circle (roundabout). La Sole, Los Nocheros and El Chaqueño sang during the two-hour show, which ended with a big fireworks display.

A travel agency in the Catamarca Puna

The adventure travel agency Socompa has opened a new office in El Peñón at 3,200 meters above sea level in the middle of the Catamarca Puna. They offer 4WD excursions and photo safaris to the crater of the Galón volcano, the Cayo de Piedra Pómez badlands, the Laguna Grande flamingo reserve, the Antofalla oasis, and the Los Colorados rock art site. For further information, call +54-387-416-9130, e-mail info@socompa.com, and see http://www.turismocatamarca.gov.ar/.

A Sofitel brunch

The Sofitel Buenos Aires on Calle Arroyo is again offering Sunday brunch, French style. The cold buffet includes rabbit, fish or wild boar terrines, prawns with different sauces, oysters, mussels, smoked salmon and assorted cold cuts; the hot buffet suckling pig, lamb, rabbit, fillet steak and waffles; and the dessert table includes mousses and creations that showcase chocolate or caramelized milk. It costs 170 pesos, including wines and bubbly. 4131-0130.

Two styles for Carmelo

A modern international resort synergizes with the past.

Bonnie Tucker / FST
Ever since it was inaugurated in 1999, the exclusive resort with the Four Seasons brand in Carmelo has been an architectural benchmark for home builders in that part of Uruguay. When its management was taken over by the the Canadian chain in 2001, its service set a standard to be imitated on both sides of the River Plate, and the massages and beauty treatments done in its Balinese-style spa are still unbeatable.
Its 18-hole par 72 golf course, designed by a prestigious architectural firm, is the venue of many important international tournaments. Most people go there to relax in the spa, play golf and be pampered. There are, however, additional options in the surroundings, including a surprise connection with the region’s colonial past.
One of the most interesting excursions offered by the resort is a horseback ride to Finca Narbona, a farm with dairy cattle, an artisan cheese factory, a vineyard, an old winery that harbors a two-room inn, and a restaurant where you are served prime cold delicatessen accompanied by a full-bodied Tannat wine, and maybe a plate of pasta later if you have room for more. The ride through the forest and hills takes two hours, and after lunch a minibus will take you back to the resort if you feel more like a nap than further riding.

But there is much more than this upscale undertaking to be found in the Uruguayan countryside halfway between Carmelo and Nueva Palmira. Finca Narbona occupies only a tiny part of what was once Estancia Narbona, an extensive colonial estate that lived more off limestone quarrying and lime making than cattle. The property belonged to Juan de Narbona, an enterprising Spaniard who in 1707 arrived in Buenos Aires young and illiterate, but endowed with a keen business sense. Like many other entrepreneurs of his time, he was involved in a vaquería business, tanning hides and making tallow from fat obtained from wild cattle hunted by gauchos. However, he found slave trading and limestone quarrying to be more lucrative. Less than 10 years after his arrival in the New World, he was Buenos Aires’ leading lime producer and Governor Juan Valdez Inclán gave him the land on which he built the Pilar Church, inaugurated in 1732. It was said at the time that he did very well in smuggling and usury as well. The tunnels between his Buenos Aires mansion and the river were the talk of the town.
It was also rumored that Bruno Mauricio de Zabala, the governor of Buenos and founder of Montevideo who helped Narbona get a concession to the land in Uruguay where he established a new limestone quarry, was one of his debtors.
Narbona built his Uruguayan estate house with its adjacent chapel on a hilltop above the Víboras River around 1735. The lime kilns he installed there were the first in that part of the River Plate Viceroyalty. Firewood from the virgin forests in the region and the hides provided by the enormous herds of wild cattle that roamed there were additional sources of income that helped him consolidate his fortune in Buenos Aires, get further construction contracts, and build the Catalinas monastery and church, inaugurated in 1745.
When Narbona died in 1750, he was buried beneath the floor of the Pilar Church, long before the Argentine government banned such enterrements and built the present Recoleta Cemetery.
The Jesuits, who began operating the Estancia del Río de las Vacas in the vicinity of Narbona’s estate in 1742, also quarried limestone. They too had slaves and were the ones who introduced viticulture in what is now Uruguay. But grapevines were not planted around the present-day Finca Narbona until the beginning of the 20th century.

Motorists coming from Carmelo find the entrance to Finca Narbona a little past the 150-year-old Castells bridge and water mill on the Víboras River. The dirt road to Estancia Narbona, on the other hand, is immediately to the right after crossing the bridge. It leads to another dirt road that branches off to the left and up to the hilltop where the main house is located.

Surrounded by an informal park graced by large native trees, the grey, humidity-besieged house looks a bit like a fortress with its thick walls, high gabled roofs, tall windows with wrought iron gratings, and three-floor lookout tower. The “L” that it forms with the chapel embraces a broad paved patio enclosed by a low wall in which the wrought iron entrance gate is flanked by massive pillars.
In the chapel two wall niches contain religious images, and a wooden door in the floor leads to a sepulcher in which local people and the family’s slaves were buried and, it is believed, to a tunnel leading to the river.
The tower was built by Narbona’s son-in-law, Martín Camacho, who continued exploiting the property after the death of his father-in-law.
When I was there in 2006, several long ceramic “thigh tiles” used for roofing – so called because slaves formed them atop their thighs – lay in a pile beneath one of the windows of the church.
The resort does not encourage guests to visit the old Estancia Narbona estate house because it has had little if any maintenance work, despite being a National Historical Monument and property of the Uruguayan government since the 1950s. However, they will tell you the open hours and you can go in a remise.
The Narbona estate house and chapel can be visited every day but Monday and Friday, from 9am to 5pm. Call the caretaker at +598-540-4154 to say when you plan to arrive.
The phone number of Finca Narbona is +598-540-4778, that of the Four Seasons resort in Carmelo +598-542-9000.
PHOTO CREDITS: Golf course and swimming pool of the Four Seasons resort in Carmelo, Bonnie Tucker. Finca Narbona restaurant entrance and window of winery, Bonnie Tucker. Pilar Church in Buenos Aires, Bonnie Tucker. Entrance to patio of Estancia Narbona main house, Bonnie Tucker. Patio of Estancia Narbona main house, Bonnie Tucker. Interior of chapel and "thigh tiles" at Estancia Narbona, Bonnie Tucker.

Tales of Valdivia

Chile's "Rivers City" combines past and present.
Bonnie Tucker / FST
After years of insistently demanding administrative autonomy, Valdivia, the northernmost province of Chile’s Lakes Region, finally saw its dream come true in March 2007, when President Michelle Bachelet signed the law that converted it and a neighboring province into the Rivers Region.
As its name suggests, the 18,429.5 km2 it occupies between the Lakes Region and Araucanía contain many rivers.
Three of them converge in the city of Valdivia, its capital, which lies 19 km inland from the Pacific Ocean.
The Spanish, Mapuche and German place names that appear on maps of the city’s downtown area and surroundings give an inkling of its tumultuous history.
Overrun by the Mapuches 46 years after its foundation in 1552, Valdivia was reconstructed in 1684 to become Spain’s southernmost maritime stronghold, with several forts around the bay at the mouth of the Valdivia River. Its fame for being invincible came to an abrupt end following an unexpected attack by Chilean patriots in 1820. The European immigrants who arrived later in the 19th century built shipyards, sawmills and other industries that brought prosperity.

Today, the 150,000 residents of the bustling city go briskly about their business on clean streets lined with neat modern concrete buildings and a smattering of century-old wooden houses.
Valdivia is a university city that attracts artsy world travelers. It is full of hostels that cater to this sort of client, as well as several fine hotels in new buildings or refurbished early 20th-century houses.
Teja Island, where tiles were made in colonial times, is home to the Austral University whose students give city streets their young, progressive look. Bordered on all sides by the three rivers, it also houses a botanical garden, a park, and museums of history and modern art.

The city’s riverside market, behind which sea lions and cormorants compete for fish offal thrown into the water, has stalls where fishmongers sell salmon, hake and croaker, as well as clams, sea urchins and a host of other strange marine delicacies.

Between their stalls and the sidewalk facing the market, another row of stalls sells a selection of fresh produce that ranges from sea kelp (used in soups) to fresh fruit, vegetables and gigantic garlic cloves, each of which is the size of what is considered a normal head elsewhere.

Cakes, chocolates and beer
Extra spice to this mixture of the produce of the sea and the field, so typical of southern Chilean coastal areas, is added by the traditions in sweets and beverages brought to the country by German immigrants who arrived in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Entrelagos, which began business as a confectionery more than 30 years ago, today sells 50 different cakes and pies and 24 flavors of ice cream, in addition to making chocolates and retailing a selection of high-quality hand-woven clothing and crafts. Alter Fluss, a much newer confectioner’s shop, specializes in marzipan and chocolates filled with fruit such as melon, kiwi, papaya or dates, and is not above appealing to adventurous palates with another line of chocolates, to which a bit of pepper, oregano, tarragon or even garlic has been added.
However, Valdivia’s greatest contribution to southern Chilean cuisine is beer, thanks to the first group of German immigrants that the Chilean government settled in the region at the end of the 19th century.

The biggest brewery is Cervecería Kunstmann, which has a restaurant, a pub, and an interesting museum in which a guide explains how the brew is made and what it has meant to Valdivia over the years. Visitors may indulge in tastings during which they nibble on delectable hors d’oeuvres as they savor six different beers in shot glasses before ordering. In the pub, groups of serious drinkers who agree on their preferred beverage from the onset of the evening sit at large tables, each of which is crowned by a high glass column full of beer from which they serve themselves. When the waiter sees the level go down at a table, he comes and pours in some more. Several Internet pages give beer-friendly food recipes and indicate which types of brews go best with certain dishes.

The biggest tourist attractions are the ruins of the Spanish forts in the towns of Corral and Niebla, whose location on either side of the river mouth threatened to subject invading ships to a withering crossfire. In February 2, 1820, troops of a Chilean naval squadron landed on a beach to the south, took the Corral garrison in a surprise overland attack, and quickly overcame all the Spanish forts in the area as well. Locals stage a re-enactment of the Battle of Corral twice a day during January and February. After the show, the youths who played the roles of Spaniards and patriots pose for pictures in exchange for cash.

Two traumatic events
The well-built wooden houses that one sees in the old downtown area, remnants of the old Valdivia built by the first European immigrants, are reminders of two of the most traumatic events in Chilean history. Their structure, which gave them flexibility, allowed them to survive the world’s worst earthquake and tsunami, which on May 22, 1960 caused the city and the surrounding river valleys to sink two meters, converting rich farmlands into permanent swamps. The quake, which measured 9.5 on the Richter scale, was felt throughout southern South America, and the tidal waves it produced reached as far as Japan, Hawaii, the Philippines and the west coast of the United States, claiming hundreds of lives. The main tsunami entered Corral Bay at the mouth of the Valdivia River with a height of 10 meters and hit inland Valdivia with a 7-meter wall of water. During the next 20 days, there were more than 30 smaller quakes, and further waves as high as 6 meters. Rivers changed their course, lakes appeared from nowhere, and the Puyehue volcano erupted. Nearly half the city’s homes were destroyed and 20,000 people were left homeless. The casualties reported in Valdivia itself – 15 dead and 100 injured – were mercifully few because big quakes had hit Concepción and Curanilahue a day earlier, and most of the city’s population had fled to high ground as a preventive measure. In the rest of the 10th Region, more than 4,000 people died, 3,000 were injured and 2 million were left homeless in other locations nearer the sea. In Chile the total death toll was 24,000. See www.wikilosrios.cl/index.php/Terremoto_de_1960 for a more detailed account of how Valdivia coped with the cataclysm.
It was the determination of the local population and their authorities that headed off another disaster that would have done even more harm. Ninety kilometers to the east, the quake had caused three hills to slide into the San Pedro River, producing a gigantic earth dam that interrupted the drainage of Lake Riñihue and six other lakes linked to it by rivers. If the swiftly rising water behind the earth dam broke through, the 100,000 people in the San Pedro valley and Valdivia downriver would be killed by a wall of mud and water greater than any tsunami. All the earth-moving equipment in Chile was rushed to Riñihue, and government, military and civilian workers and volunteers began drainage work against the clock. Dams were constructed on all lakes to reduce water flow and levees were built to protect bridges and roads as the level of the big earth dam was gradually lowered to release the water in a controlled way over a period of two months – the famous riñihuazo that saved the city. See http://nereaysaraciencias.blogspot.es/ for more details on this great feat achieved by hundreds of anonymous heroes.
All that happened nearly 50 years ago, but there are still many people in Chile who remember every detail, and the Great Valdivia Earthquake figures in every tour guide’s spiel.

Connections and options
Thanks to Chile’s narrow, Andes-dominated physiognomy, summer gives Valdivia quick access to lake resorts in picturesque volcanic landscapes, and winter puts it within easy reach of several ski resorts in those same settings.

The region’s ongoing volcanism has also endowed it with several hot springs establishments that are open all year round.
In summer the 250 km of navigable rivers that surround Valdivia are used for water sports, and the broad ocean beaches beyond Niebla beckon sunbathers.
Valdivia is 178 km from the Puyehue hot spring resort at the entrance to the Cardenal Samoré border pass to Argentina and 210 km from Puerto Montt, both of which are near ski centers. It is 141km from Pucón, the exclusive resort near the Villarrica volcano that is home to another ski center, and near 13 additional hot spring spas, including Huife and Termas Geométricas. And the new regional capital is also just 220 km from the Hua Hum pass to the Argentine city of San Martín de los Andes.Information: +56-63-278100 or http://www.valdiviachile.com/ and +56-63-342300 or http://www.sernatur.cl/.

PHOTO CREDITS: An 1907 tugboat on the Valdivia River, Bonnie Tucker. Plaza de la República main square, Valdivia, Bonnie Tucker. Valdivia's port market, Bonnie Tucker. Sea food in the port market, BonnieTucker. The Kunstmann brewery's events hall, Cervecería Kunstmann. Re-enactment of the Battle of Corral, Bonnie Tucker. Tourists posing with local actors after the re-enactment, Bonnie Tucker. An old home in Corral, Marcelo Imbellone. Skiers at the Osorno Volcano ski center, Volcán Osorno. Termas Geométricas hot springs, Bonnie Tucker.

Nature power

Iguazú Falls, the Guaraní “big water,” will bewitch you.

Bonnie Tucker / FST
Even today, with all the tourist hoopla attached to Iguazú Falls, it is not hard to imagine what Spanish explorer Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (1490-1560) felt when he stumbled upon the site in August 1541 while on his way from the Atlantic coast to assume the governorship of Asunción. His expedition through unmapped jungles and mountain ranges took five months. His guides were members of a Tupí Guaraní tribe who told him about the “big water” (uh-guasoo) they would encounter along the way. In his book Naufragios (Shipwrecks), in which he briefly outlined his incredible adventures in North and South America, he spoke of water that falls from heights “with great force,” kicking up impressive sheets of mist.
Nowadays, Iguazú Falls and the richly biodiverse jungle around it are protected by Argentine and Brazilian national parks that draw more than one million visitors per year. More than 70 percent of the ensemble of 275 cataracts on a horseshoe-shaped fault in the Iguazú River – and most of the experience of exploring them on walkways that pass over them or at their feet – are the domain of Argentina. The rest – one walkway and the panoramic views of the plunging, thundering waters – are on the Brazilian side of the river. The two parks, on either side of the river that marks the frontier between the countries, are run by concessionaires with lots of experience in catering to mass tourism.

The Argentine park, with the most waterfalls and opportunities for getting close to the falling water, is where the action is at. There are three walkways with viewing platforms on which you really live the experience of the waterfalls: the Lower Circuit in the jungle on a hillside and the Upper Circuit over the top of the falls, both near the entrance to the park; and the Devil’s Throat, which must be approached along a 1-km walkway over the river to the rims with the most powerful flow volume. You can do it all in a day, but you will have to run.
The concessionaire uses little trains to move tourists from the park entrance to the first two circuits and to the entrance to the walkway to the Devil's Throat. Use of the trains is included in the admission fee. However, they constitute a bottleneck when there are a lot of people in the park. You can save time by walking the half kilometer to the entrances to the first two circuits on the Green Trail. You can also walk to the Garganta (Devil's Throat) terminal. But in this case it's best to wait for the train and take it in both directions; the 3-km path beside the rails can be muddy, it is hot, it may rain and the train won't pick you up if you regret your decision to walk.
Don't feed the coati-mundis! Ignore them in the interest of your safety and that of others. Tourists have spoiled them by giving them food. They will get into your knapsack looking for it, and if you pretend to give them something and then don't, they may attack you.
If you decide to do the very steep climb to the three lookout points atop of San Martín Island, you will have to allow yourself extra time, and be in good shape. A motorboat takes you there without charge from a lower walkway landing. Boat arrivals at, and departures from, the island are not synchronized to the two hours that the walk takes, so if you go in the afternoon, be sure to return in time to catch the last boat back to the landing.
When the moon is full, you can join one of the three nightly walks out to the brink of the Devil’s Throat and top the experience off with a caipirinha when the train leaves you back in the park entrance compound.
You will need a second day if you want to take one of the boat excursions to the foot of the falls and walk the 3.6-km Macuco Trail to spot monkeys. If you walk the trail in the afternoon, allow yourself enough time to return before dark. And don’t forget the visitors’ center with its superb nature interpretation and cultural history displays.
If you wish to visit the park on two consecutive days, you get a 50% discount on the second day if you get your ticket stamped at the end of the first day.

You will have to make that three or four days if you do a specialized birding excursion or guided nature walk on secluded trails inside the park with Rainforest, or visit the Güira-Oga wild animals rehabilitation center, the Aripuca memorial to giant jungle trees that no longer exist, or the Fortín Mbororé Guaraní village on the outskirts of Puerto Iguazú with Cuenca.

The Brazilian park can be seen in two hours, if you don’t spend too much time in the very interesting bird park and natural history museum, or indulge in abseiling or a boat ride on the river. Tourist buses with slide-back roofs leave the park entrance every five minutes, driving a fixed route with stops at which passengers can get on or off at will.

The places for taking pictures are the overlook near the hotel across the river from the Sheraton, the observation tower facing the waterfalls in the canyon leading to the Devil’s Throat, an observation esplanade just above the river, and a short walkway over a waterfall that affords a distant view of the Devil’s Throat. The last stop on the bus route is the big Espacio Puerto Canoas restaurant that mars the view of the Devil’s Throat from the Argentine side of the river, but is too far from the rim to give diners a good view of the falls themselves.
Many tourists think they will save money seeing the Brazilian side of the falls by taking a regular passenger bus over the border to Foz de Iguaçu, and a taxi to the park from there, or a remise (chauffeured limo) from Puerto Iguazú to the park entrance and pay the driver to wait for them for two or three hours. Of course, it’s less of a hassle to book a tour in Puerto Iguazú and let the agency worry about the logistics. But make sure the tour will give you enough time in the places you want to see there. And if it includes lunch at a good restaurant in Foz, all the better.

For citizens of Argentina, other Mercosur countries, and most other South American countries, a national ID document is sufficient to gain entry to Brazil. Getting a visa in Buenos Aires takes three days, and travelers who are not from those countries had better look to acquiring one before setting out. You have to show them a return ticket to where you came from and an extract from your bank account as well as a 4cm x 4cm photo and a passport valid at least for the next six months. The cost depends on what Brazilians get charged to enter one’s home country as tourists. Americans have to pay the most, and even those who are legal residents of a Mercosur country are obliged to obtain a visa to enter Brazil, albeit for a couple of hours. See the requisites at http://www.conbrasil.org.ar/.
The best solution is to go from Puerto Iguazú with a tour group; the travel agency will get you a visa quickly if you comply with all the requirements. But check when booking.
Brazil recommends that you get a yellow fever vaccination 10 days before traveling to this part of its territory. If you come from a country where the disease is prevalent, an international vaccination certificate is a must. In Buenos Aires, you can get vaccinated at Ing. Huergo 690; for details, call 4343-1190.
The Brazilian dams
Tourists who travel all the way to this spot at the northwestern tip of the Argentine province of Misiones should try to see both sides of the falls before leaving. But they should ask about the volume of water in Iguazú Falls before setting out.

When it has rained a lot and the five Brazilian hydroelectric dams upriver see fit to open their floodgates, water thunders down all the 275 cataracts as it did in pre-dam days 30 years ago. But when there’s a drought on in the region and the dams are withholding water to attend their energy-producing needs, only three of those 275 – the Devil’s Throat on the border between the two countries, and the San Martín (our cover photo) and the Bossetti, both in Argentina – have enough water to be of interest. Needless to say, a trip to Brazil to get a panoramic view of the falls under those conditions is not really worth it.
And believe it or not, Brazil is forging ahead with the construction of a sixth dam on the Iguazú River. It is due to go on stream a mere 500 meters from the eastern end of the Brazilian national park in 2011.

The best chances of seeing a normal volume of water in the falls come during the rainy season, which usually extends from November to March.
PHOTO CREDITS: San Martín waterfall, Marcelo Imbellone. Tourist teasing coati-mundis with bag of food to get a photo, Bonnie Tucker. Train in Argentine park, Iguazú Argentina. Looking at animal tracks in Argentine park, Rainforest. Observation tower in Brazilian park, Marcelo Imbellone. Walkway over a waterfall in Brazilian park, Marcelo Imbellone. Map, Iguazú Jungle Explorer (Argentina). Bossetti waterfall, Marcelo Imbellone.

Whale season

They’re in the gulf in front of Puerto Madryn from May to December.

Antonella Romano / FST
Another whale season is in progress in Puerto Madryn, with tourists eagerly boarding boats for encounters with the southern right whales that come to give birth and mate in the gulf in front of the southern Argentine port city every winter. Numerous “ooohs” and “aaahs” are the passengers’ gut reactions to the huge cetaceans’ tail lobbing, breaching, and orgies in which several males court a female that plays hard to get by turning over on her back just beneath the water surface.

In this part of the world, where they have been protected for more than 30 years, these animals are gentle and curious. While their tail lobbing probably obeys the physiological dictates of their species, one can’t help but suspect that they also do it to hear the human chorus that such activity invariably elicits.
When the skipper sights the distinctive V-shaped blow that indicates the presence of a whale of this species, he approaches to within a prudent distance, turns off the motor and waits to see if the animal accepts their presence. If it doesn’t, it swims off and they look for a more amiable individual. However, most whales do like visitors, to the point that they swim beneath the boat to observe it from both sides, giving passengers plenty of time to take pictures.

See Alexis Fioramonti's impressive video on their behavior at http://www.puertopiramides.gov.ar/turismo/media-documentalistas.htm, and watch the Vigilia de las Ballenas, 12 hours of filming daily from May 29 to June 1 on www.lupacorp.com/ballenas/index.php. Read more about them at http://www.icb.org.ar/.
This species owes its name to its range – the southern seas from Antarctica to the Indian Ocean – and to being what whalers consider to be the “right” one to hunt: it is big, offers a high yield of oil, is a slow swimmer that is easy to hunt, and floats when killed.
It is a baleen whale that feeds by swimming with its mouth half open, harvesting krill and other zooplankton on the sieve-like whalebone (or baleen) suspended from each side of its upper jaw.

Males may be up to 15.5 meters long and females 17.5 meters, with weights ranging from 45 to 60 tons. Calves can be 4 to 6 meters long and may weigh as much as 10 tons at birth.
Southern right whales were hunted for 300 years for the oil rendered from their fat, and their particularly soft whalebone, which was much in demand for the garments that were considered fashionable in the 19th century. Between 1835 and 1845 alone, 19,000 were killed. Today the total population is estimated at 7,000 to 12,000 animals.
Golfo Nuevo, the enormous blue gulf in front of Puerto Madryn, is a favorite nursery spot because its curved embrace confuses the sonar of the orcas that feed on helpless newborn calves. Many females give birth in deep water close to the shore in places like the Doradilla Beach a few kilometers from town.
Females get pregnant about every three years. Gestation takes 12 months, calf raising another year. During the four to six months that they are in the gulf, the mother nurses the calf and teaches it the feeding and diving techniques it will need to survive in the open sea. During this period, the calf puts on weight at a rate of 50 to 60 kilos a day.

The first whales arrive in the gulf from their sub-Antarctic feeding grounds in late May, the last leave in December. During the time they are there, they eat virtually nothing, living on accumulated fat. So if you want to see lots of whales full of vim and vigor, go in June, July or August. That’s also when it’s coldest in the gulf.

Additional wildlife

But if you go in October, you will see Magellanic penguins – which are present in the region from September to April – as well as the whales. The biggest colonies are at Punta Tombo 181 km south of Puerto Madryn, and the San Lorenzo ranch, 160 km to the north, on the Valdés Peninsula.

September-November is also elephant seal breeding season, when huge blubbery males with elephantine proboscises rear up and do battle over harems on the beaches.
Orcas are there from October to April to snatch elephant seal and sea lion pups from the surf on certain open sea beaches of the Valdés Peninsula. Tourists who are not professional photographers with a permit to take photos from behind special blinds above those beaches may be able to see the action from a greater distance through field glasses.
However, sea lions are around all year round, albeit in places that must also be viewed through field glasses. Only scuba divers outfitted and guided by one of the diving companies in Puerto Madryn may experience close encounters with these animals.

The best year-round bet of all are the little black-and-white Commerson’s dolphins that can be sighted from boats that operate out of the port of Rawson. The skipper doesn’t have to go looking for them; they come zooming in as fast as torpedoes, breaching at the bow, alongside, and in the wake of the boat.

Words to the wise

The odds. Signing up for a whale watching cruise is like buying a lottery ticket. The gulf is enormous and the animals may be anywhere in it. It is very likely that you will see one, but you should also accept the possibility that you may not, and there will be no refund.
Weather conditions. In addition, departures of boats from the official whale watching port of Puerto Pirámides on the Valdés Peninsula are contingent to weather conditions. If the wind is producing nasty swells, the boats will not go out, and if the weather changes for the worse in the middle of a cruise they will return to port early (and you will thank them for doing so). Those are the rules of the game for nature tourism in this part of the world.
Attire. Keep a windbreaker and waterproof jacket at hand in a knapsack, in case the outfitter doesn’t provide them, or has none left in your size when you get there. Sunblock and sunglasses are also musts, even when it's cloudy.
Competition for a place. Each whale watching cruise lasts about an hour and a half, and boats do not wait for latecomers. That means that all the passengers of a minibus that arrives late because some members of the group could not get up early enough to be ready at the departure time established for their hotel will have to kick their heels in Puerto Pirámides for an hour and a half until the next boat goes out.
Remember too that the closer your hotel is to the beginning of the travel agency’s pickup route, the better seat you will get for the trip out to Puerto Pirámides. Those who are last on the list will be able to sleep a bit longer, but they will also get the worst seats (at the back, or without leg room).
Gravel roads. The stretch of road between Puerto Madryn and Puerto Pirámides is paved, but beyond the turnoff to the whale watching port it’s all gravel. Those who have rented a car should continue past the turnoff only if they are experts at driving on gravel.
Lodging location. People who are interested mainly in whale watching and life in a small beach town should stay in one of the hotels or inns in Puerto Pirámides for a couple of days. That way, they can walk straight onto the first boat out in the morning. When they get their fill of whales, they can move elsewhere.

Those who want an extraordinary experience in accommodation, gourmet food and a variety of contacts with nature should spend a few days at the El Pedral Lodge, a refurbished 1920s Normandy-style farmhouse on Punta Ninfas at the northern entrance to the Golfo Nuevo.

Commerson’s dolphins
Commerson’s dolphin excursions go from Puerto Madryn to the departure point in Rawson. But they also leave from the city of Trelew, which has an impressive paleontological museum and is
much closer to Rawson, the penguin rookery at Punta Tombo, and Gaiman, center of the Welsh side to the province of Chubut, where many of the first settlers moved after disembarkation in Puerto Madryn in the 19th century.

For more information on lodging and excursions in this area of Chubut, call the Puerto Madryn Tourist Office at (02965) 453-504 and the Trelew Tourist Office at (02965) 420-139, and see http://www.madryn.gov.ar/turismo and http://www.trelewpatagonia.gov.ar/ . In Buenos Aires, stop by the Casa del Chubut at Sarmiento 1172, or call 4383-7458.

PHOTO CREDITS: Passengers are fascinated by a tail lobbing show in the Golfo Nuevo, Bonnie Tucker. Illustration of southern right whale, www.puertopiramides.gov.ar. Whale orgy, Bonnie Tucker. Whale breaching sequence, www.puertopiramides.gov.ar. Penguins on the beach of the San Lorenzo ranch, Valdés Peninsula, Bonnie Tucker. Watching Commerson's dolphins near Rawson, Toninas Adventure. Secure atop the trailer, a whale watching boat is pulled on shore by a tractor in Puerto Pirámides, BonnieTucker. El Pedral lodge at Punta Ninfas, BonnieTucker. Map, FST staff.

Mendoza food cooked while you watch

On Thursday, May 21, the Casa de Mendoza (Av. Callao 445) in Buenos Aires will offer free tastings of typical Mendoza food at 1.30pm and 6.30pm. The dishes on the menu, including tomaticán, a tasty meat and tomato stew that is very popular in the province and in Chile, will be cooked while guests watch. There is no limit with regard to the number of guests, but the doors will be closed when the place fills up. These culinary events are part of the official “Snow and Wine” winter activities promotion campaign. On Friday, May 22 the program will include olive oil tastings at 1.30pm and 6 pm, and a raffle at 7.30.

Everything about La Boca

On Saturday, May 23, the Buenos Aires Tour Guides Association (AGUITBA) will conduct a walking tour of the Buenos Aires neighborhood of La Boca that will include the Vuelta de Rocha promenade, the Nicolás Avellaneda bridge, the studio-home of artist Benito Quinquela Martín, a house with Masonic decorations, the fire station, the Boca Juniors stadium, and a surprise. Claudio Díaz will conduct the tour in Spanish. Meeting point: the entrance to the Quinquela Martín Museum at Av. Pedro de Mendoza 1835, at 11am. Cost: 10 pesos for members, 15 pesos for non-members and students. Walks are called off if it rains. Information: 4322-2557, info@aguitba.org.ar, http://www.aguitba.org.ar/.

Vintage cars in the sun

From May 21 to 24, more than 40 classic and vintage cars will compete in the first edition of the Camino del Sol (Sun Road) Rally, which will be run on scenic roads in the northwestern provinces of La Rioja and San Juan.

The oldest car competing in the event is a 1923 Vauxhall Velox (photo). The rally, organized by the Argentine Classic Cars Club with the blessing of the tourism authorities of both provinces and the sponsorship of the National Tourism Secretariat, the Argentine Hotel and Restaurant Owners’ Federation (FEHGRA) and five private companies, will cover 915 km in three days, and the pilots will donate clothing, shoes and medicines to children in country schools in both provinces. On the first day, they will drive from

La Rioja City to the town of Villa Unión via the Cuesta de Mirando slope (280 km). On the second, they will drive around in La Rioja’s Talampaya National Park and San Juan’s Ischigualasto (“Moon Valley” Provincial Park (264 km) and on the third they will drive to San Juan City via the Cuesta de Huaco slope and Jáchal (373 km). The fourth day, which does not give rally points, will be dedicated to San Juan’s wine trail. Prizes will be awarded in the Graffigna Museum.

Pericón and pato in Mataderos

The fact that May 25 falls on a Monday this year will add a day to the weekly program of the Mataderos Fair, which during the winter months takes place every Sunday in the eponymous Buenos Aires neighborhood. The Fair has been bringing Argentine folk music and dancing, regional food and crafts, and gaucho skills to town for the benefit of city slickers and residents from the provinces for the past 20 years.

On May 24 “El Patio de Vitillo Ábalos”, the group of singer-musicians led by the last surviving member of the legendary Ábalos brothers quintet from Santiago del Estero, will head the fair’s music and dance list. Vitillo, 87, acts as master of ceremonies for the songs he sings with Raúl Canteros, Andrés Pilar, and Valentín Chocobar, and dances as well with Elvirita Agurrebarrena. On May 25, the list will be headed by famed charango player Jaime Torres.

Other activities, in addition to the gaucho ring races that are the fair’s other classic entertainment, will include a 19th-century pericón dance, and a demonstration of pato, Argentina’s native equestrian game. The fair is open at Av. Lisandro de la Torre and Av. De los Corrales from 11am to 8pm. Admission is free.

Tigre promos for the 25th

When a holiday rolls around, it’s a good idea to have a look at Tigre’s Internet page, http://www.vivitigre.gov.ar/ for tempting discounts on accommodation, meals and recreation. For instance, during the upcoming long weekend that includes the May 25 national holiday, people who stay two nights at one of the 21 hotels that are participating in the city hall’s promo package will get the third night free and late check-out on the fourth, in addition to “Tigre Invita” vouchers that allow discounts on activities and museum tickets.
On Saturday May 23 and Sunday May 24, admission to four museums in Tigre will be free from 6pm to midnight. This “Museums Nights” promo is being offered by the Tigre Art Museum (photo), the Mate Museum, the Museum of the Reconquest, and the Naval Museum. And as an additional perk, restaurants will give discounts on dinners to those who show tickets from two “Museums Nights” participants.

For the list of participants in this promo, see the aforesaid Internet page, or go to the city tourist offices in the port terminal, the TBA central station, and the Puerto de Frutos, or the mentioned museums.
This Buenos Aires Province city at the gateway to the Paraná Delta is an ideal place for a rest or water sports, and its many entertainment and recreational options are making it a very popular destination indeed. The tourist office says that more than 200,000 people spent all or part of their Easter break there. Hotel occupancy in this city, which is only 32 km from Buenos Aires, was 98 percent, with more than 2,000 people staying in inns, hotels, cabin courts and campgrounds in Tigre and the Delta. Scheduled passenger boats transported 20,000 people to inns and restaurants in the Delta, and tourist catamarans and boats took another 15,000 on short pleasure cruises. The Tigre Art Museum reported 400 visitors a day (or 1,600 in four days), but most people opted for more banal pursuits in the amusement park and casino, which received 60,000 during the same period.

Pioneros en Salta

Most people think that the province of Salta in northwestern Argentina is comprised entirely of colorful deserts, but it also has a cloud forest area that provides a surprising contrast to this stereotype. Pioneros is organizing a four-day (three-night) trail ride for May 23 to 26 in Salta that will show riders how people live in both eco-regions. Nights are spent in mountain huts. The 1,290-peso price also includes all meals and drinks. There will be additional departures during the rest of the months of 2009. Information: 4382-5886 en Buenos Aires.