Tuesday, 13 July 2004

The Amazing Race 5, Episode 2

Punta Ballena (Uruguay) - Montevideo (Uruguay) - Colonia del Sacramento (Uruguay) - Buenos Aires (Argentina) - San Antonio de Areco (Argentina)

The Amazing Race has been plagued with bad timing, starting with the broadcast of the premiere episode (featuring scenes of racing through the streets of Manhattan) on 5 September 2001.

This season both the concept of the race (with Americans finally travelling the world again in larger numbers than before 11 September 2001, as I discussed in last Sunday's Los Angeles Times ) and the particular destinations are seeming more timely than ever before.

In a small sense, it was particularly apt that the broadcast of the race crossed the Río de la Plata or River Plate (actually an estuary over a hundred miles wide between Buenos Aires and Montevideo) at the exact same time, at least on the East Coast of the USA, as Argentina was playing Uruguay in a high-scoring "futbol" (soccer) match that the commentators on Univision kept calling a "classico de la Río de la Plata" in the Copa America .

Of course, that means few of the Argentines or Uruguayans in the USA would actually have been watching their countries' big opportunity for tourism promotion through reality TV (how could that compete for interest with soccer?), but it was timely in a larger sense as well: The setting of this week's episode of the race is one of the regions currently experiencing the largest growth in international tourist arrivals, including from the USA.

Deservedly so. I spent a month in Argentina and Uruguay last year, renting an apartment in Buenos Aires and taking excursions from there to some of the other places the race passed through this week. I'd recommend it to almost anyone. That's something I'd rarely do, given the diversity of travellers' tastes, but Argentina's tremendous geographic diversity gives it something for many types of visitors. It's not for everyone, but no place is.

I'm not alone in my opinion: as was reported at the start of this year in the Airtreks.com newsletter (where I work), Buenos Aires was "the clear winner" when we polled our staff of resident experts to find out where they most often recommend as the best place in the world to go right now:

Why? Diversity and beauty of the land. Wonderful people. (You could say that, truthfully, about almost anywhere, of course.) Music and dancing. Shopping. Excellent infrastructure. Great food ("steaks the size of shoes", "elaborate European-style cuisine with the best and freshest local ingredients -- for peanut prices"). Above all, "Great value for the money."

Wherever you're going, there are a couple of lessons here, especially about that, "value for the money":

  1. Don't let stories about the rise of the Euro confuse you about the cost of travel to the rest of the world. Yes, travel to Western Europe is more expensive for Americans than it was last year. But that's not a reason to stay home -- that's a reason to consider travelling further afield, to places where the U.S. dollar still goes much further than it does at home. Most air trekkers still find that their expenses on the road are substantially less than their living expenses were at home in the USA. [It's also timely, in this context, that "The Amazing Race" isn't going to Western Europe at all this season, except in transit.]

  2. Don't confuse bad news for locals with bad news for visitors. Reports about Argentina have focused on the fall of the peso, and the problems that has caused. As the local currency has collapsed against the dollar, local salaries and savings have lost two-thirds of their purchasing power. But that also means that the buying power of tourists' dollars tripled, and that they can travel just as well on a budget a third the size of what they used to need. [Both Wayne Bernhardson and my most loyal correspondent in Argentina point out that inflation has made up for a portion of that -- I was there a year ago, and this Airtreks.com newsletter was published in January 2004 -- so the ratio in dollars is no longer quite three to one. But the value remains.]

And the warmth and sincerity of the welcome! Argentines know they live in a beautiful country that just a few years ago was expensive for foreigners on a budget. If they were Americans, they'd be jumping at the chance to visit Argentina now, while it's such a bargain. Like people in other such spots around the world, they welcome visitors and their dollars, and congratulate them on their good taste in choosing their vacation destination so well.

Likewise Uruguay, and the racers saw that welcome clearly. The streetwalker Mirna and Charla try to ask for directions in Montevideo at 2 a.m. ("The prostitute will know where the disco is." "She's pissed because she's got business to do.") doesn't want to help them if it means getting her face on TV, but this is still a place where Buquebus will delay an oceangoing ferry with hundreds of passengers for someone who pleads that they have an "emergencia" (I'll leave the appropriateness of making such a plea, for the sake of a race, as an exercise for the reader in the ethics of television tourism), and passers-by in the city drop what they are doing to lead the racers and their packs of "perros" (dogs) through the streets from one clue to the next.

The best guide to all the places the race went this week, my friend and long-time Southern Cone guidebook writer and scholar Wayne Bernhardson's new Moon Handbooks Buenos Aires , describes the "pit stop" where this episode ends as follows:

San Antonio's most emblematic estancia , La Porteña has belonged to the Güiraldes family since the early 19th century. Of all the farms in the area, it has the finest grounds; French landscape architect Carlos Thays, who created major public parks like Palermo's Jardín Botánico [in Buenos Aires] and Mendoza's Parque General San Martín, designed the plan, including the stately avenue of elm-like hackberries that leads to the main house. The estancia has only a few guest rooms, so reservations are essential. Beef is the standard menu [surprise!], but the kitchen will happily accommodate vegetarians with pasta and other meatless dishes, served in a dining room filled with French and British antiques.

It's characteristic of the way "economic crisis" and "currrency collapse" mean "window of opportunity for foreign tourists" that the clientele of a "dude ranch" like La Porteña is shifting from Argentines, few of whom can still afford the now-astronomical US$100 per night, to more foreigners, few of whom used to be able to linger in expensive Argentina. That's why the estancia is busy building an English-language version of its Web site , even if it's still unfinished and has some entertaining examples of robo-translation like the sink of swimming .

Argentina is a big country (the eighth largest in the world), with many contradictions and ironies. And I can't leave Uruguay without acknowledging its most famous living citizen, and master of irony, the writer Eduardo Galeano. I'll get to that and more next week. In the meantime, have a glass of Torrontés wine (all but unobtainable outside Argentina) or perhaps of strong cider from the Mendoza region, and enjoy your trip, wherever you go!

The second episode of The Amazing Race 5 will once again be re-broadcast in the USA on CBS this Saturday night, 17 July 2004, from 8-9 p.m. EDT/PDT, 7-8 CDT/MDT. It's not yet clear if every episode this season will be re-broadcast the following Saturday, but The Amazing Race 6 will be on Saturday nights this fall, starting almost immediately after the finale of "The Amazing Race 5".

(For answers to some readers' questions, and more on The Amazing Race 6 and "The Amazing Race 7", see the followup to last week's column in this blog.)

Link | Posted by Edward on Tuesday, 13 July 2004, 23:16 (11:16 PM) | TrackBack (0)
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