Puerto Deseado – Patagonia in a single port

Distance saves it from mass tourism.
Bonnie Tucker / FST
Located at the mouth of an estuary that harbors legions of sea creatures, the Santa Cruz fishing port of Puerto Deseado is an ideal base for getting to know Argentina’s Patagonian coastal steppe. In addition to birds and dolphins – quickly and easily accessed by boat – it offers sheep ranches, history, lighthouses, dramatically desolate landscapes, a petrified forest, unique sea kayaking opportunities, and a bit of adventure to those who are willing to do a bit of traveling to get there.
….foto Lobos Kayaks BG.jpg … This city of 13,500 inhabitants is 2,000 km south of Buenos Aires by road, or 286 km if you fly from the nation’s capital to Comodoro Rivadavia in Chubut (2 ½ hrs) and rent a car or take a bus from there (3 ½ hrs). It is a full 128 km off the National Route 3 coastal trunk highway, has no direct bus or air link with BA, and can accommodate no more than 300 tourists.
… foto Mapa Puerto Deseado … In January and February the government airline LADE runs 30-passenger SAAB flights to Puerto Deseado twice a week from Comodoro and once a week from El Calafate (both in southern Patagonia), but they are not coordinated with commercial flights to and from Buenos Aires. All these time- and distance-related considerations will probably keep the town safe from mass tourism for some time to come. Until then, it will remain the haunt of a select group of people – most of them foreign tourists – who do not seek luxury, but rather birds, history, outdoor activities and a different lifestyle.
…foto Puerto Deseado aéreo BLOG.jpg … THE LAND. The landscape around Puerto Deseado is predominantly flat, with what look like flattened buttes in the distance. They are long-extinct volcanoes that formed when Africa and South America began to part ways 130 million years ago. As one drives in from Route 3 in the morning, they seem to come unstuck from the steppe and float just above the ground in the heat. The salt flats that shimmer in the sun here and there speak of repeated marine ingressions.
… foto Casa roca BLOG.jpg … In town, houses and other buildings have found accommodation amid and atop daunting volcanic outcrops of the Jurassic period, which also appear along the pebble beach north of town. The strangest natural landmark of all is the large slingshot-shaped rock on the bank of the estuary opposite the fishing port. British privateer Thomas Cavendish, who named the place Port Desire (after his flagship HMS Desire) in 1586, dubbed it Tower Rock, but it is known locally as Piedra Toba.
… foto Piedra Toba BLOG.jpg … Its location in flat terrain near the mouth of the estuary allows navigators to get their bearings; they know they have to keep it to their left whether entering the port from north or south.
The Deseado estuary is another freak of nature. It once harbored a broad rushing river that drained the water of a huge glacier-fed lake at the foot of the Andes into the Atlantic. The lake, shared by Argentina and Chile, is called Buenos Aires on this side of the Andes and General Carrera on the other. The Deseado River practically dried up as a result of an Andean cataclysm: the ice plug stopping up the Baker River broke in what is now Chile, and since then most of the lake’s water has been emptying into the Pacific. The Deseado River, left with the contributions of two small tributaries, was reduced to a trickle, and as the last ice age came to an end and sea levels rose, the Atlantic occupied its 40-km-long estuary. British naturalist Charles Darwin, who reconnoitered this area in 1833 during the round-the-world cruise of the HMS Beagle, immortalized the far reaches of the estuary in his diary. Today’s anemic river meanders down a broad clay valley bounded by red volcanic canyon walls that were eroded away by an impetuous watercourse that is no more. Like Darwin, today’s travelers have the feeling that nothing has changed in at least 10,000 years.
… foto Miradores Darwin 2 BLOG.jpg … THE CITY. The city’s most notable cultural attraction is the Mario Brozowski Regional Museum, which exhibits an interesting collection of artifacts from the HMS Swift, the British sloop of war that ran aground and sank in the harbor in 1770. The museum guide tells visitors that the vessel, based in the Malvinas (known as the Falklands in the Anglophone world) was on a reconnaissance cruise and took shelter from a storm inside the entrance to the estuary. There, the low tide left her stuck on an uncharted submerged rock. When the tide changed she managed to get free. But when she moved further down the estuary she ran aground on another rock, and sank a mere 50 meters from the shore at a point that is now just 50 meters from the present-day wharf.
… foto Museo BLOG.jpg … All the 93-man crew except the cook and two Marine privates reached the shore safely, and an officer and six sailors made an epic voyage back to the Malvinas in the Swift’s little shallop to bring help for their mates. The cook’s body was found and buried, but those of the two privates remained missing for more than two centuries. In 2005, underwater archaeologists who were exploring the interior of the sunken ship found a skeleton. The British Embassy took the remains to Buenos Aires and interred them in the British Cemetery.
The sector of the museum dedicated to the Swift aims to show what life was like on board a ship of this type in the 18th century. One of the indications of the enormous social differences that existed between officers and crew is the contrasting quality of the eating utensils they were assigned.
… foto Vagón Histórico BLOG.jpg … The city’s claim to national fame has to do with tragic events surrounding a VIP railway car that was built in 1898. It served as the headquarters of Army Lt. Col. Héctor Varela, who, as the commander of a regiment sent to put down a rebellion of ranch hands in Santa Cruz, ordered mass executions of 1,500 people here and elsewhere in the province between November 1921 and January 1922. Their deaths were avenged by a German anarchist who assassinated him in Buenos Aires in 1923. In 1980, following the closure of Puerto Deseado’s railway, Varela’s rolling headquarters were saved from the scrap yard by a popular uprising. For several years the railway car served as an information point of the city tourist office. If you want to see what it looks like inside, ask at the Tourist Office and a guide will accompany you.
… Vieja Estación BLOG.jpg … The large three-floor stone former railway station, built in 1909 by Yugoslav master stonemasons, was intended to be the terminal of the “National Patagonian Railway” that was supposed to have linked Puerto Deseado on the coast with Bariloche at the foot of the Andes. Construction of the railway progressed at a rate of one kilometer per day, but it ground to a halt in Las Heras 280 km inland. The terminal building is now a cultural center that commemorates the history of rail links in the region. Like other residents of Patagonia, for whom the “iron horse” was their only land link with the rest of the country for many decades, deseadenses (Puerto Deseado residents) still miss their railway.
--- foto Puerto Deseado centro Darwin BLOG.jpg … The city’s main oddity is its lighthouse church, whose tower has a fixed beacon that is attended by the Navy. In the surroundings there are two more conventional lighthouses: the abandoned one on Penguin Island 21 km out to sea, and the one on Cape Blanco 88 km from town, which is still functioning.
IT’S WORTH FIVE DAYS. There are enough things to see and do in and around Puerto Deseado to warrant a stay of five days. You should plan your schedule according to your priorities.
… foto Cormoranera BLOG.jpg ….… Spring, when birds brood and raise their chicks, is the windiest time of the year. If you are going specifically to see the birds and dolphins in the estuary, or make the trip to Penguin Island out in the ocean, plan that excursion for the first day. Why? Departure depends on the weather conditions, in particular on the wind. If the weather is fine on the first day you will be able to go straight out to sea and get your pictures. You can’t tell what the second day will be like. If it is bad on the first day, you can reshuffle your program if you have days to spare. There are three outfitters, and one of them will have room in the boat for you. It is easier to reschedule an excursion if you have booked your stay through a travel agency and can let them take care of the problem.
The season runs from mid-October to mid-April. The climate tends to be cold and windy, but in summer the temperature can surpass 30ºC. Pack a lightweight waterproof windbreaker, a fleece sweatshirt, a long plastic raincoat with a hood if you plan to do the sea excursion, summer clothes, comfortable hiking shoes, a cap, sunglasses and sunblock.

Following are the main excursion options.
THE CLASSIC ESTUARY CRUISE. (Three hours) Not too far from the dock, you can photograph five species of cormorants close-up from the boat; disembark to view some of the 17,000 Magellanic penguins and hundreds of seagulls that nest on Bird Island, and observe sea lions and various species of migrant and local birds in their rookeries in the estuary.
You can also get to the rookeries by kayak. Pods of little black-and-white Commerson’s dolphins accompany boats at the mouth of the estuary.
…. Foto Toninas BLOG … PENGUIN ISLAND. (Six hours) If the weather permits, grab the chance. You will never forget it. This island is home to 30,000 Magellanic penguins, but the stars are the members of a 2,000-strong colony of rockhopper penguins, a species with red eyes and bristly golden eyebrows whose regional base is the Malvinas and South Atlantic islands.
… foto Pingüino penacho amarillo BLOG.jpg … This is the only nesting ground of rockhoppers near the continent. There are also colonies of sea lions and a few elephant seals.
… foto Isla Pingüino 2 BLOG.jpg … (fotógrafos con pingüinos) The 12- and 24-passenger semi-rigid rubber boats follow the sheltered curve of the coast south of town to a point facing the island and then make the 3-km crossing, passing a large sea lion colony on a big rock island on the way.
… foto Isla Pingüino 1 BLOG … (lancha) The abandoned lighthouse and seal processing facility are reminders of stable human presences on Penguin Island that terminated long ago. Passengers eat a picnic lunch on the beach, and take care not to get too close to the nests of the aggressive skua gulls (jaegers) when they walk about.

VAN NOORT HILL. (Six hours) This is a boat excursion to a spot halfway up the estuary from Puerto Deseado, and a hike up a hill. During the nautical part of the excursion, tourists may see small penguin and cormorant rookeries and be accompanied by some Commerson’s dolphins.
They disembark on the beach where the Hoorn, the smallest ship of a private Dutch survey expedition commanded by Willem Schouten accidentally caught fire while undergoing caulking and was abandoned in December 1615.
… foto Willem Schouten BLOG.jpg (a la derecha)

Schouten, a partner in the survey venture, continued south with the Eendracht, the remaining vessel of the expedition, and shortly thereafter discovered Cape Horn, the southernmost promontory of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago that marks the southernmost passage between the Atlantic and Pacific. It was a stormy day with poor visibility, and Schouten didn’t realize that the promontory was on an island; he thought it was the end of the continent.
… foto Cabo de Hornos BLOG.jpg … He named the cape after Hoorn, the Dutch port from which the expedition had set out, which was also his birthplace and the namesake of his burnt ship. English navigators later called the cape “Horn” and their Spanish colleagues phoneticized the name to “Hornos.”
Near the beach where the Hoorn burned is a hill that has been named after Olivier van Noort, a Dutch corsair who was the first navigator of his country to sail around the world.
… foto Olivier van Noort BLOG.jpg … (a la derecha) Van Noort reconnoitered the Deseado estuary in 1599 while on his way to the Pacific Ocean to plunder Spanish ports and trade with China, but he crossed from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the Strait of Magellan, which at the time was the only known passage between the two oceans. His four-year circumnavigation of the world led to the formation of the Dutch East India Company in 1602 and to the expedition of Schouten, which sought an inter-ocean passage that would allow other Dutch merchants to get around the Company’s monopoly of the maritime route through the Strait.
But there are also those who point out that in 1578 a storm blew the ship of English corsair Francis Drake south from the Strait on the Pacific Ocean side of the continent, thus allowing him to discover the waters of the southernmost passage that today bears his name: the Drake Passage. But it is doubtful that he got far enough east to sight Cape Horn. His discovery was kept quiet so that the rivals of the English Crown would not make use of it.
… foto Cerro Van Noort BLOG.jpg … After the long hard slog up the hill for a panoramic view of this part of the estuary, the excursionists descend to enjoy a picnic lunch on the beach while the guide tells them pirate stories.
… foto Miradores Darwin BLOG.jpg … DARWIN’S OVERLOOKS. (Full day) There are two overland routes to the different lookout points at the far end of the Deseado estuary, and the time actually spent getting there and back will depend on whether the group descends to the canyon floor to look at a cave with ancient rock art, because getting back up to the top is not that easy and takes time. Excursionists have plenty of time to contemplate the trickle of water in the broad, red canyon, and empathize with Darwin, who was struck by the timelessness of the desolate scene below and around him. The trip up the estuary to this cave can also be done by boat. However, it must be made at high tide, taking care to return on time to avoid being stranded when the tide goes out.

THE PETRIFIED FOREST. (Full day) There is a place in the heart of the steppe that was devastated long before the estuary canyon lost most of its water. Called the Petrified Forests Natural Monument by the National Parks Administration and the “Jaramillo petrified forest” by locals because it is near the town of the same name, it reminds us that 150 million years ago a volcanic cataclysm felled great forests of gigantic araucarias and other trees when the climate was temperate if not subtropical.
… foto Petrificados 1 BLOG … The volcanoes on the horizon and at the entrance to the reserve provide a suitably bleak and singed-looking setting for the petrified tree trunks, some of which are big enough to make humans feel like midgets.
Guanacos roam amid the fossilized remains and low scrub bushes, and grey foxes hang around the visitors’ center hoping that some tourist will forget that feeding the animals is forbidden.
This place is 250 km from Puerto Deseado, but it – and the landscapes and wildlife seen on the way there and back – are well worth the time and money spent to get there.

THE CAPE BLANCO LIGHTHOUSE. (Full day) The months of October and November – shearing time in this part of Santa Cruz – are a good time to go out to this lighthouse, because watching shearers at work can be an added attraction during a stop at one of the ranches along the way for a barbecue lunch that a travel agency can make a part of the program.
… foto Esquila BLOG … The Navy-run lighthouse is still operating, and the keepers will tell you about life in this solitary spot as their cat naps in a corner. The facility perches atop a tall windswept promontory of volcanic rock that separates a gulf marked by pounding surf from a sheltered cove.
… foto Cabo Blanco BLOG … You will need field glasses or a camera with a really big telephoto lens to spy on the fur seals and cormorants on the rocks off the cape.

BEACHCOMBING. People who are fascinated by what the sea leaves on beaches can indulge to their heart’s content on a pebble beach and amid a series of seaweed covered tidal pools at the Cueva Leones caverns a short walk from downtown Puerto Deseado.

HORSEBACK RIDING. Visitors who enjoy horseback riding and Patagonian ranch ambiances can sign up for a day in the countryside organized by the owners of the Cis Tours travel agency, who are also ranchers.

FISHING. Cis will also take you shark fishing.
… Tiburón BLOG.jpg … The only creatures that Puerto Deseado can’t offer are whales, although a few of them do stop by at the end of May on their way to their breeding ground in front of Puerto Madryn in the Golfo Nuevo (Chubut) 600 km further north. But that’s another story.

Puerto Deseado info

City Tourist Office
San Martín 1525; (0297) 487-0220

Cis Tours (travel agency)
San Martín 916, Of. 1; (0297) 487-2864

Darwin Expeditions (tour operator specialized in wildlife and kayaking)
(0297) 156-247-554 / 154-132-887

Los Vikingos (tour operator specialized in wildlife)
(0297) 487- 0020 / (0297) 156-245-141

Ría Extrema (tour operator specialized in diving)
(0297) 487-1065 / (0297) 156-258-180

PHOTO CREDITS: Kayakers inspect a sea lion rookery in the Deseado estuary, courtesy Darwin Expediciones. Map, city tourist office. Aerial view of Puerto Deseado, courtesy Darwin Expediciones. Las Nubes cabin court, Bonnie Tucker. Tower Rock. The end of the Deseado estuary, Bonnie Tucker. A wooden table retrieved from the wreck of the HMS Swift undergoes a desalination treatment in the museum laboratory, Bonnie Tucker. Varela’s railway car headquarters, Bonnie Tucker. The old railway terminal station, Bonnie Tucker. The lighthouse-church in downtown Puerto Deseado, courtesy Darwin Expediciones. Photographing nesting cormorants is easy in the estuary, Bonnie Tucker. Commerson’s dolphins follow tourist boats, Bonnie Tucker. Rockhopper penguin, courtesy Darwin Expediciones. Photographers entranced by rockhoppers on Penguin Island, Bonnie Tucker. A Darwin Expediciones semi-rigid heads toward Penguin Island, Bonnie Tucker. A period portrait of Willem Schouten. Cape Horn in better weather than Schouten had, Bonnie Tucker. Period portrait of Olivier van Noort. Hikers descend van Noort Hill, courtesy of Iggy. The Darwin overlook of the La Aurora ranch, Bonnie Tucker. Petrified Forests Natural Monument, Bonnie Tucker. Shearers at work on a ranch near the Cape Blanco lighthouse, Bonnie Tucker. The Cape Blanco lighthouse, Bonnie Tucker. No-nonsense shark fishing, courtesy of CIS Tours.

Pampa Linda, a world unto itself

Riders and hikers enjoy Andean dream spots.

Bonnie Tucker / FST
Pampa Linda is, as its name suggests to people in Argentina’s northern Patagonian region, a place with a pretty green meadow or pampa. However, the real beauty of this little Andean valley 77 km southwest of the city of Bariloche is its view: it lies at the foot of Mount Tronador (3,478 meters), the highest peak in Nahuel Huapi National Park. A world unto itself managed by a local pioneer family, it houses an inn and a hostel that serve as bases for many hikes and riding excursions, or starting points for mountain climbing expeditions and ice climbing courses.
… foto Pampa Linda hostería BLOpPampa Linda is a good place to forget about the outside world. It is an excellent sampler of the different types of native forest that surround Argentina’s most famous mountain resort but are unknown to the average tourist who just stays downtown for a couple of days.
… foto SALTO CHILCOS BLOG.jpg Most of the people who check in at Pampa Linda come to hike and ride horses for a few hours a day, a whole day, or days on end, because they know that there are enough trails and bridle paths in dream places to keep them entertained for at least a week. In a single day, one of the inn’s long horseback rides can take riders to waterfalls, glaciers, humid forests, and meadows in low areas that contrast with arid volcanic highlands that give riders a breathtaking look out over the top of the Andes.

The log hostel, which serves fast food, was built in 1947 by Ben Vereertbrugghen, the rancher son of Bariloche’s Belgian-born first physician. The inn was constructed in 1994 by Ben’s son Andy. Today the inn is managed by Linda, Andy’s daughter.
The inn accommodates as many as 36 guests in double rooms, triples and apartments, all with private bathrooms and intercom phones. Guests who come for just one or two days pay for excursions and the use of mountain bikes.

These services are included in the rate of those who come on three- to seven-night package plans. A three-night package gives two people a double room, meals and activities for US$246 a day.
oto A pleasant living room with a fireplace, a TV room, a library, a game room and a barbecue house make eventual rainy days pass quickly.

Trails for short, easy hikes that last from one to four hours lead to the Nalcas Fall, the “black” glacier, and the headwaters of the Manso River.
Hikes of moderate difficulty that take more than four hours round trip lead to the Castaño Overa hanging glacier and the Alerce glacier cascade.

The more difficult ones, in steeper terrain, go to a lookout point above the valley (four hours there and back), the Otto Meiling Refuge (nine hours) and the Ilón Lagoon (nearly eight hours round trip).

Horseback Rides
The easiest rides offer views of the Alerce glacier cascade, the “black” glacier and the Castaño Overa hanging glacier; each takes five hours.
… foto Cabalgata Otto Meiling BLOG.jpg … The more difficult rides, which pass through spectacular highland landscapes, take nine to 10 hours, including time taken out for a picnic lunch. One goes to the Ilón Lagoon and a lookout point above glacier-carved Lake Frey and the Tristeza branch of Lake Nahuel Huapi.
… foto Cabalgata Cerro Volcánico BLOG.jpg … The inn’s top ride to Mount Volcánico (a dormant volcano) offers an unforgettable view of Mount Tronador, Chile’s Osorno and Puntiagudo volcanoes, and all the peaks of the Andes as far as the eye can see. This ride is done on cloudless days only, so that riders will be able to enjoy the view seen below.
… foto Cerro Volcánico vista BLOG.jpg The inn is open from September 15 to April 15. However, the best months for doing all-day riding or hiking are January and February, when enough snow on the upper slopes has melted to allow passage of excursionists.

What to pack
The weather is very changeable in Pampa Linda, which by the way is more humid than most other places in the region. Be prepared to shed or add clothing throughout the day. You need rainwear (a waterproof jacket and trousers); warm clothing (a ski jacket, a fleece shirt, a wool or fleece cap, and thick socks); a long-sleeved shirt to protect against the sun and/or insects, and other summer clothes for the frequent sunny days; comfortable hiking shoes (avoid new ones); a wide-brimmed hat or visor cap; a bandana, a small knapsack; insect repellant; swimwear, and a camera and/or video equipment with sufficient batteries and memory.
For further information, see http://www.hosteriapampalinda.com.ar/. Reservations in Buenos Aires: 5031-0070.

PHOTO CREDITS: Mount Tronador seen from the Pampa Linda inn. Fuchsias near a waterfall. Mountain biking. The living room of the inn. Hikers enjoy the view of Lake Frey and the Tristeza branch of Lake Nahuel Huapi. The Castaña Overa hanging glacier seen during a ride to the Otto Meiling refuge. The ride to Cerro Volcánico. The view from atop Cerro Volcánico. All images courtesy of Pampa Linda.

The National Fishermen’s Festival

Mar del Plata honors its men of the sea.

Bonnie Tucker / FST
During the last fortnight of January, Mar del Plata residents celebrate the National Fishermen’s Festival, dedicated to the men of the sea who have made their city Argentina’s most important fishing port. This year this popular festival is seeing its 28th edition.
… foto Flota Marplatense BLOG.jpg … Every day from 11am to 1am, the public can enjoy tasty seafood in the canteen of the traditional tent that is installed especially for the festival in the square of the fishermen’s wharf. In the tent there are also exhibitions of handicraft and other products, and musical and humor shows take place there as of 10pm every night. The Fishermen’s Queen will be chosen the next-to-the-last day of the festival, and on the last day (January 31 this year) some 20 fishing boats will take part in a nautical procession in the port, following a vessel that carries the image of St. Andrew the Apostle, patron saint and protector of fishermen, as well as the parish priest, who will bless the waters.
… foto Fiesta Pescadores BLOG.jpg … If they are lucky and arrive at the fishermen’s wharf early (around 2pm), some tourists might be able to join the procession on board one of the fishing boats, as long as they take into account that it is a religious event. The image of the saint is removed from the church at 3pm and carried to the port, from where the boats set out at around 3.30pm. The procession lasts about one hour.
PHOTO CREDITS: Part of the Mar del Plata fishing fleet, Bonnie Tucker. The nautical procession of the 25th National Fishermen’s Festival, held in 2007. www.patronespescadores.com.ar.

Three big Córdoba folk music festivals

Watch them on TV at home, if you can.

Bonnie Tucker / FST
Argentina’s three most important folk and popular music festivals take place in the summer in the province of Córdoba. All have had more than 40 editions. The two biggest and oldest shows are held in Jesús María and Cosquín during more or less the first and second fortnights of January, respectively, while the third takes place in Villa María the third week of February.
Each show lasts about four hours and draws many thousands of spectators from different parts of the country, so whoever wants to see one of them on the spot had best reserve lodging well in advance. Those who don’t find hotel accommodation in the festival venues may have to settle for a bed in one of the family homes that are available during the festival nights. Others will find a room it in the city of Córdoba, the provincial capital 710 km north of Buenos Aires which has more than 90 hotels of all types and is quite near the three festival cities.
With this in mind, millions of people prefer to watch the festivals on TV in the comfort and privacy of their homes; after all, the telly gives them close-ups of singers and pans over the audience that they can’t get in the front row. The problem is when the show is not televised on the national network.
Of the three, the National Folk Music Festival, which this year celebrates its 50th anniversary in Cosquín, is the one that traditionally discovers talented new folk singers. And after the night’s show, some singers and spectators do honor to another Cosquín tradition: they continue with the party in peñas until the wee hours. (A peña is a restaurant or bar where people get together to listen to music and play or sing it between servings or regional food.) This year’s 12-night festival, which calls its nights as “lunas” (moons) will take place from Jan. 20 to 31, and will be seen by nearly 10,000 spectators every night. Cosquín is 62 km from the provincial capital, and has 34 hotels of all kinds and eight campgrounds. Mariana Carrizo (photo), the Salta baladeer who shot to fame here in 2004, will sing on the last night (or “12th moon”) of the festival. See the program at http://www.aquicosquin.org.ar/
… foto Mariana Carrizo.jpg ….. Jesús María’s National Rodeo and Folk Music Festival has musical and horse-breaking components; professional horse breaking in the grassy stadium field alternates with entertainers on the stage. The 45th edition which began on Jan. 8 and will end Jan. 17, convokes as many as 35,000 spectators per night. It is 48 km from the capital and has only eight hotels and a handful of holiday ranches to offer festival goers. This year, for the first time in history, the festival was not televised in Buenos Aires, of which more will be said below. The program can be seen at http://www.festival.org.ar/.
The National Peñas Festival, about to celebrate its 43rd anniversary, will take place in Villa María from Feb. 13 to 20. Its theater can seat as many as 8,000 spectators a night. Guatemalan singer Ricardo Arjona will sing on the last night. This farming city is 175 km from the capital and has only five hotels and three campgrounds. Get the program at http://www.movidavillamaria.com.ar/.

Why was the Jesús María Festival not televised for BA?
This year, folk music fans in Buenos Aires were furious that Canal 7, the national air TV channel, did not televise the 45th edition of the Jesús María Rodeo and Folk Music Festival, thus breaking its long-standing tradition of giving nationwide coverage to this popular cultural event. But they should have directed their ire at the new festival commission in Jesús María. Online newspapers in Buenos Aires and the interior, and blog forums on the Internet, suggest that there may have been both economic and political motives for this omission. It seems that the organizers decided to triple the festival’s television rights for the 2010 edition of the festival. This put the Córdoba TV channel that works in tandem with Channel 7 out of the running. And the commission signed with a local TV channel that belongs to privately-owned Buenos Aires-based Channel 13, which belongs to an economic group that the present national government considers to be an enemy. Festival goers find this hard to understand, as the local channel can transmit only to Córdoba and some cities in the provinces of Catamarca and Santiago del Estero. People who see plots at every turn say that in Jesús María everyone (including some sponsors with farm industry connections) remembers the night of the 2009 edition of the festival when Channel 7 deliberately ignored the presence of Vice President Julio Cobos and Córdoba Governor Juan Schiaretti, both of whom are opponents of the national’s agricultural policy. Whatever the reason, the result is that this year the festival was not televised on air TV in Buenos Aires and the Greater Buenos Aires area, where one third of the country’s population lives.
It is rumored that the festival in Cosquín will be televised by Canal 7, as has been the case until now. But it seems that this time it will not be televised live, but rather as of midnight, when most people want to sleep.

Piedra Parada, a volcano story

A polychrome earth book on the Argentine steppe.

Bonnie Tucker / FST
The steppe in Argentina’s sector of the Patagonian region has more to offer curious travelers than the beautiful snow-capped mountains to the west and the dramatically desolate coastline to the east. At first glance, it seems just an arid no-man’s land of brushy plains, mesas and low hills with canyons and valleys that lies between the Andean and coastal ecosystems. However, it has much to tell because it is older. It is a story book about the earth’s history and the adaptability of wildlife to climatic adversity that is opened to the curious traveler during guided excursions that leave from the city of Esquel in the northern Patagonian province of Chubut.
… foto PIEDRA PARADA 1 BLOG.jpg … Volcanism is the main character in the chapter of this story that can be read in the polychrome surroundings of Piedra Parada, a 245-meter-high standing rock 140 km east of Esquel and 45 km from the Mapuche village of Gualjaina. Here, the Chubut Valley widens to accommodate the 25-km-wide caldera of a mega volcano that erupted for the first time 60 million years ago, before the Andes were created by successive upthrusts of geotectonic plates. Imagine this enormous volcano erupting time and again over a period of 10 million years that also saw numerous marine ingressions.

The yellow, green, grey, red and pink rocks that lie within a 30-km radius of the volcano testify to the intensity of its activity. During this period the caldera collapsed and filled with water. In the lagoon thus created, several small volcanoes formed islands that were covered with luxuriant vegetation between eruptions. The interaction of the water with acidic lavas produced thunder eggs (hollow rocks with crystals lining the inside wall).
The big volcano choked on its last eruption, and the lava that cooled in its chimney became the standing rock when the softer rocks around it eroded.
… foto PIEDRA PARADA 3 BLOG.jpg … The colors of the terrain and the presence of Piedra Parada itself, which is impressive from all angles, attracted the Indian tribes that roamed the area as far back as 5,000 years ago. More than 40 ancient rock art, camp and burial sites in this part of the Chubut Valley indicate that the standing rock in its setting fascinated them as much as it does today’s visitors.
… foto PIEDRA PARADA 4 BLOG.jpg … Buitrera Canyon has ancient petroglyphs and paintings in the overhangs of its 80-meter walls, fossils of a wide diversity of prehistoric flora and fauna on its floor, and impressive rock formations that have been produced by erosion. It is attractive to birders as well as rock climbers and rappellers.
Photographers and people who are interested in geology, paleontology and archaeology tend to book their excursions with Limits Adventure, the Esquel travel agency that specializes in science- and culture-based outings, as well as active tourism such as hikes to glaciers and ice tunnels in the Andes.
For more information, see http://www.limitsadventure.com.ar/.

PHOTO CREDITS: All images courtesy of Esquel Tourism Secretariat.

Walks in ice tunnels

A new option in Esquel, Chubut.

Bonnie Tucker / FST
The ice tunnels that form in dales between mountains in the Andes in southern Argentina come spring have launched a new, uncommon type of excursion in Esquel, Chubut. Hikers are taken as close as possible to the tunnel site in an overlanding vehicle, and cover the remaining distance on foot.

The prize, after several hours of walking, is to be able to stand in a great icy natural structure that by nature is ephemeral and will be seen by few people before its collapse beneath the onslaught of the temperature.
A tunnel forms when a thick mantle of snow that was compacted by its own weight in the winter is undercut by an icemelt stream in the spring.
The ice tunnel season in the area of the Los Alerces National Park can extend from November to March. It depends on how much snow accumulated during the winter. If it snowed a lot, the tunnels can reach a height of 7 or 8 meters and last for as long as 4 months.

This was not the case during the past two years because snowfall was scarce; hikers had to bend over to look in, and the tunnels lasted little more than a month.Three active tourism outfitters in Esquel offer this full day excursion. The difficulty of each tunnel depends on the hours of hiking necessary to reach it. In general terms, the ones that are closer to the city are the least difficult. In two hours the group leaves Esquel, drives up Mount La Torta on a dirt road with a few ravines (photo), and reaches a scenic lookout point just inside the tree line

From there they begin a hike up to the ice tunnel that will take another 2 or 3 hours round trip, depending on the fitness of all participants.
The excursion treats the traveler to a fascinating series of ecosystems in one of the most beautiful places in the Andes.
For more information on this excursion and multi-adventure weeks in the area, visit www.quehumanque.com.ar.

PHOTO CREDITS: Entrance to and interior of an ice tunnel in autumn 2007, and a sport utility vehicle on a difficult road, courtesy of Quehumanque

The 12th Bariloche Classic promises big waves

Windsurfers and kitesurfers compete at the foot of the Andes.

Bonnie Tucker / FST
Every year, the wind that blows across Lake Nahuel Huapi in front of the Argentine city of Bariloche attracts dozens of windsurfers and kitesurfers to a five-day competition known as the Bariloche Classic. Wind-driven waves on the lake at the foot of the Andes can be as big as three meters, and in 2005 the Coast Guard had to rescue several windsurfers who were competing in the lake crossing race. But precedents like this just keep them coming back for more.

For water sport lovers, the Classic is a good excuse to be in Bariloche from January 13 to 17, when windsurfers and kiteboarders from Argentina and the rest of South America, as well as some European members of the Professional Windsurfers Association (PWA), will put their skills, sails and kites to the test on Argentina’s fourth largest lake during the 12th edition of the competition.

Wind and kite surfers in the Professional and Amateur categories will compete in slalom, long distance and freestyle races.

The Bariloche Classic was preceded last month by the Patagonian Windsurf and Kitesurf Championship, held in Bariloche Dec. 19-20.
Information: http://www.barilocheclassic.com.ar/.

PHOTO CREDITS: Competitors were not discouraged by bad weather last year. A windsurfer and a kitesurfer do jumps, Bariloche Classic.

It’s feather time, folks

Carnival is a fine art in Gualeguaychú.

Bonnie Tucker / FST
Every Saturday night for more than two months this summer – from January 2 to March 6 this year, to be exact – the members of three comparsa dance groups of social clubs in the Argentine city of Gualeguaychú will put aside their everyday garb and identities and show the flesh to a samba beat in what many say is the sexiest carnival south of Rio.

Gualeguaychú is a small farming city very near Buenos Aires (226 km) and as many as 35,000 spectators can fit into its corsódromo parade stadium, but you can’t get a hotel room for fewer than four nights and there are several other matters to be taken into account when planning a carnival visit (see Tips).
Considered one of the liveliest and most colorful pre-Lenten celebrations in the world, the carnival show put on by this city in the northeastern province of Entre Ríos excels for the creative design of its floats and costumes, its choreographies, and the skimpiness of the attire of many of the dancers, which could serve as inspirations for many a variety theater. Costumes may range from a few strings of pearls to a 250-kilo installation that must be moved about on concealed wheels. The pretty girls of the comparsas who dance samba look taller than they are to TV viewers because cameramen are given to shooting their backsides from the ground up; actually, the women in Gualeguaychú are not the vamps they are made out to be; most are local girls who work hard to keep spectators enthralled on both sides of the narrow runway without missing a beat. However, a few show biz stars also ask to be included every year.

Other cities in the province have carnivals as well, and so does Corrientes to the north, but it seems that none can compare to the show put on by this town of nearly 90,000 people whose cultural obsession outside the carnival months is the next Gualeguaychú Carnival. Comparsa people are always working on the next show. Dreaming up a new theme, composing the music and planning the choreography around it, designing and sewing new costumes, and rehearsals occupy every month of the year but April. That’s when club members talk about falling into the “April depression” of having “nothing to do.”

The Gualeguaychú Carnival calls itself “The Country’s (Argentina’s) Carnival” because it achieved fame 20 years after the one celebrated in the city of Corrientes, which boasts the “National Carnival Capital” title. Like the carnival in Corrientes, its origins go back to the 19th century, and it has Uruguayan and Brazilian influences that show up in choices of themes, music and costumes, but the final result bears an unmistakable local stamp. In the 1930s and 40s, bands of street musicians reminiscent of the Uruguayan murgas were the main feature of carnival activities. In 1959 townspeople began to organize yearly students’ parades that called for ever more sophisticated construction systems – an apprenticeship that contributed to the city’s present superiority in this field. In 1978 it was decided that future carnival organization and financing be turned over to the town’s social clubs. The clubs formed a Carnival Commission, which the following year invited famous comparsas from Corrientes and Brazil to perform with the local dance groups. This inspired a great improvement in performances on the local scene and the Gualeguaychú Carnival soon shot to fame nationwide. The city’s unique corsódromo (a permanent parade ground consisting of a narrow street between grandstands) was built in 1997 because the show had got too big for the city’s narrow, tree-lined streets. The catwalk is 500 meters long and 10 meters wide, so spectators get a close-up look at the dancers and floats.

Gualeguaychú has five comparsas representing as many clubs; every year three strut their stuff before the public and a panel of out-of-town judges. Only the 2010 winner will compete again in 2011. The ones that come second and third this year will relinquish their places on the catwalk to the two that lost in 2009, who will thus become competitors in 2011.
There are several reasons for this. It costs a club a lot of money to field a comparsa of as many as 300 dancers clad in sumptuous, imaginative costumes, as well as four mind-boggling floats of different sizes. Ticket sales will support only three competitors (it used to be four), and the clubs need to at least cover their costs – especially if rain ruins one or more parade nights. (The length of their Carnival season helps them reduce that economic risk.) Also, five and even four comparsas would make the show too long, as it takes each group more than an hour to do its thing before the grandstands. Even now, with just three comparsas, the show lasts four and a half hours.

This year, the comparsas on the runway are O’Bahia, with a theme that proposes a tribal approach to carnival; Ará Yeví, which laments human egoism that damages the environment; and Papelitos (last year’s winner), which explores the ways that the media divert attention from important issues.

Tickets and Seating
General admission to the corsódromo is 60 pesos; seating costs extra. Cement bleacher seats cost an additional 20 pesos. Seats at runway-side tables go for 40 to 10 pesos, depending on the row. A table with four chairs in the VIP sector halfway down the runway costs from 470 to 350 pesos, according to location.
Those who want go it alone can acquire the tickets through Ticketek, or at the stadium.
The show usually starts at 10pm. At 8pm the Carnival Board decides whether or not the show will go on: If it is no, the ticket office will refund what you paid for general admission. If it begins to rain during the event, there will be no refund.
In the corsódromo you can buy fast food, and beer as well; the breweries are advertisers. And the growing desire (or need) for profits also encourages use inside the corsódromo of those bothersome spray aerosols that can ruin your camera; you can’t come with your own because they are sold inside the stadium.

Go for the front row whatever the sector your choose, because there are always slobs in that location who get up when the first comparsa comes down the catwalk and remain standing during the entire parade, forcing those behind them to balance atop chairs or tables.
If you want to sit in the bleachers, ask for a numbered seat in Sector 7 or 8. If you are traveling alone, without a travel agent to attend to your interests, go early and occupy your seat in case you have to dislodge some sly character intent on achieving a seating upgrade without paying for it.
Choose a front row table, and preferably in the VIP sector; the price tends to discourage the most disagreeable drunks and the people with foam aerosols. As tables have four chairs, go with some friends.
Tables (especially in the VIP sector) are hard to get, and it is better to leave that job to a travel agent.
In fact, if you just want to go for a day and not have to drive back at 4am, a travel agency that offers bus or van transfers is definitely the best option.
In addition, an agency that offers a full day carnival tour (such as Tierra Termal in Buenos Aires, 4372-6402) can offer additional experiences during the long hours before the parade. The excursion leaves Buenos Aires at 8am, early enough to allow for a backstage visit to one of the comparsa headquarters, an afternoon spent at a hot spring resort, and a stroll and dinner on the Riverside drive before the show. It costs 220 pesos including transport and admission to the hot spring resort and general admission to the corsódromo, with meals apart.

Access and hotels
Thanks to Gualeguaychú’s nearness to Buenos Aires, you can drive there on Saturday afternoon and return in the wee hours of Sunday morning, if you don’t mind being tired at the wheel.
The trip from Buenos Aires to Gualeguaychú in a scheduled express bus takes three and a half hours. If you have not booked a room in a hotel for that night, returning from the stadium to the bus terminal at 3am and waiting for the first bus out might not be a pleasant experience.
If you booked a room in Gualeguaychú for the four required nights, you will have to find something to do all the extra days if you don’t go in for water sports or soaking in a thermal pool at hot spring resort.

In Gualeguaychú there are 29 hotels of all types, six inns, three apartment complexes, 38 cabin and bungalow courts, three hostels, 14 campgrounds, a hot spring resort with accommodation, and several family homes that lodge tourists. There are also a few tourist ranches and country inns in the surroundings.
In Concepción del Uruguay (70 km from Gualeguaychú) and Colón (100 km) the minimum stay is two nights.

If you want to stay for more than a day
Gualeguaychú is a nice little laid-back river city where everybody seems to enjoy fishing, water sports and the beach in summer. It is located on the Gualeguaychú River, a tributary of the Uruguay River, which marks the border between Argentina and Uruguay 8 km from the city center.

Visitors can enjoy a river cruise, go windsurfing at the Ñandubaysal beach resort, fish for pejerrey, or ride horses in the Unzué Park, among other activities. For more information, consult www.gualeguaychurturismo.com.

PHOTO CREDITS: A Gualeguaychú carnival dancer, www.gualeguaychuturismo.com . A float from a past carnival parade, Bonnie Tucker. Different types of costumes, Papelitos dance group. A dancer connects with spectators, Bonnie Tucker. Dancers in their float world, Papelitos dance group. Guaychu hot springs resort, www.termasdelguaychu.com.ar. Sailboarding on the Uruguay River, www.gualeguaychuturismo.com.